All posts by Josh Vajda

This is Your Conscience (part 3)

Last time I talked about the role of the conscience in condemning and confirming your actions. Your conscience is a gift from the Creator to help you know how to live. It’s not perfect (which we’ll come back to later) but it’s right enough that in the absence of other witnesses, to go against conscience is sufficient to condemn you before God.

So it should come as no surprise that being a good Christian means listening to that internal compass God gave you for direction. We looked at a few passages where Paul talked about striving for a “good” or “clean” conscience.

But before I move on to other factors about the conscience itself, I want to pause for a moment and focus on application. If you’re supposed to be keeping a clean conscience and you’ve failed, what should you do?

I don’t mean simply “do better next time.” I mean as you feel the heat of condemnation on your face, how do you respond in that moment?

How you answer this question is one of the most important decisions you will make in your Christian walk.

Sometimes the shame and guilt that we feel over sin causes us to withdraw from family, friends, and the church. Having felt the pain of self condemnation we want to protect ourselves from their condemnation as well.

If we’re not careful, we can form a habit of running away from community, and even running away from the condemnation of the conscience itself. This can be incredibly dangerous because sin thrives in darkness. The more we withdraw, the more space we give sin to take hold. The more we give in to sin, the more we dull the ability of the conscience to guide us.

Dealing with the consequences of sin is far better than dealing with the consequences of hiding your sin.

A few weeks ago I was listening to an early Bregman Leadership Podcast episode on authenticity (I think maybe #22, but I can’t remember). One of their insights really struck me, even though on one level it seems so common sense. They said when you hide who you really are in order to be accepted, you’re disappointed to find that it’s not really you that’s been accepted—just a pretend version of you.

My point here is not that you should embrace your sin as the “real you,” but rather to acknowledge your struggles. Be the honest you. Then you won’t have to walk in fear of being found out, or worry about whether people really care about you—the real, imperfect you.

Now, just because you shouldn’t hide doesn’t mean you should go shouting it from the rooftops instead. One of my seminary professors, Lanier Burns, hit the nail on the head when he said that my generation is especially bad about oversharing. Being honest and transparent doesn’t have to mean being naked in public. In fact, if you try to make important confessions at the wrong place and time, you will likely be disappointed at the response you get.

What you need to do when your conscience condemns you is find someone trustworthy. Find someone who won’t pretend your sin is ok, but who also cares enough to help you overcome it.

If either of those ingredients are missing, keep looking.

Growing up I almost never heard confession in a church context. There were times when a youth leader might invite eye contact during prayer as a way of fessing up, but I’m not sure that counts if there’s no follow up. More often than not, confession was reserved for the most scandalous sins and delivered in a very public and painful way.

I’ve also been in churches where sharing our struggles was discouraged so that we didn’t feed gossip or become a temptation to others. Better to keep the circle as small as possible. But then who knows to pray for me in my weakness? Who can rejoice with me in my victories? How can God use my mistakes to help others?

Far better are the few churches I’ve experienced where people are encouraged to be honest with their struggles, where struggle is normalized. We all struggle, and we all need help, and so why not break the silence? Why not open the curtains and let the light in?

Part of finding trustworthy people is to learn to be a trustworthy person. If someone comes to you with a struggle, it’s important to respond with mercy and compassion even as you make it clear that giving in is not ok. Practice listening. Respond with humility—knowing that you, too, are a sinner.

Commit to helping someone not just feel better but live better.

While only Jesus can forgive sins, it is absolutely appropriate to remind one another of the forgiveness that we have in Christ if we have put our faith in Him. For more on this, Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes this point beautifully in Life Together.

So what do you need to do to pursue a clear conscience? Take the plunge. Find a trustworthy person to confess to. Humble yourself. Give others an opportunity to help you.

And don’t wait.

The conscience is God’s gift to you. The condemnation you feel from your conscience is not meant to drive you into hiding, but into the light. You have a responsibility to keep a clear conscience and to help others do the same, and that comes by confession and loving accountability.

This Is Your Conscience (part 2)

Last time I began talking about the conscience. You may have noticed that while I said I was going to give a biblical talk and that the Bible has a lot to say, I didn’t actually reference the Bible at all. The reason is this: the Bible doesn’t actually define the conscience.

That’s not at all strange; the Bible uses many words that it never defines because its original readers were expected to know them. This is one reason why it’s important to study the original languages, or at least to have trustworthy people you can rely on to do this for you. (Not everyone should take up the languages. You may be off the hook!)

So to define the conscience, I took the scholarly dictionary definitions of the Greek term and briefly fleshed out the distinctions with a biblical theology of morality and human nature.

Now we turn to the conscience in action in Scripture, specifically looking at two things the conscience does: condemning and confirming. It’s that inaudible voice in your heart that tells you sometimes “you’ve fallen short of the mark,” and others “you’ve done as you should.”

No one has to tell you about these feelings. We all know them! The confirming bit is nice, but the condemning not so much. And if we believe both these senses are from God, you might wonder why would God give you a feeling of condemnation? Is it to punish you?

Look at what Paul says in Romans 2:12–16:

For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. (Rom 2:12-16 ESV)

Here Paul says that we are all in the same boat: we are going to be judged and perish if we fall short. Some people have the law (that is, the commandments of the Old Testament), and some don’t. But access is not what God is judging here; it’s actions.

Those who have the law are expected to use it as a help to do what is right. But those who do not have the law are not therefore helpless. They still have the conscience. They still have help! It’s there to guide us, to give us help to know how to act.

The purpose of the conscience is to change your behavior.

Paul’s greater point here is that we all stand condemned, either by the law or by our conscience. And what that implies is this: the conscience—even a fallen, sinful conscience—is accurate enough to give you trustworthy guidance. When we fail to listen to it, it testifies against us.

In the absence of a word from God, the word from your soul will hold you accountable.

And so as a Christian, one of the things we see is that we are by no means freed from this accountability. Even though we have the Bible and the Holy Spirit, the conscience hasn’t been replaced! This is why over and over again we see that part of the Christian walk is keeping a good conscience.

In Acts 24, Paul writes:

So I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man. (Act 24:16 ESV)

Remember the Greatest Commandment? Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And the second greatest, the Golden Rule? Love your neighbor as yourself. What’s one clue that you’re keeping these commandments?

You guessed it. Your conscience.

A clear conscience means of course one that does not condemn you. (And not because you’ve turned it off. More on that in a future post.) Another way of talking about the same concept is a good conscience. For example, consider what Paul says to Timothy:

The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. (1Ti 1:5 ESV)

In context, he contrasts this example with people who would rather pursue vain discussions, teaching without actually living out their faith. I’m reminded of Romans 13:10, where Paul says that love does no harm to its neighbor, therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

If this is the love Paul has in mind, then he tells us right here where that comes from: a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith. If you want to fulfill what John Wesley called “the royal law of love,” (cf. James 2:8), a good conscience is crucial. You need to live in a way that doesn’t cause your conscience to condemn you.

One last example, which I think helps sum things up. This time it’s from Hebrews:

Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things. (Heb 13:18 ESV)

What does it mean to pursue a clear conscience? To try and act honorably in all things.

Let me be clear: being a Christian means far more than just listening to your conscience—but it doesn’t mean less. If you call yourself a follower of Christ, you must do whatever you can to obey your conscience, because if you can do that it will help you love others as you should.

Next time I want to take a moment and address how we should respond to the condemnation we sometimes feel in our hearts. After you feel that pang of guilt, what do you do?

This is Your Conscience (part 1)

NPR reported this week that the Trump administration would be protecting health care workers in conflicts arising from matters of conscience or religious objection. I was relieved to hear this, but not everyone has been so excited. Since some find this move alarming, I thought it would be a good time to revisit my teaching notes from a Sunday School series on the conscience.

“To go against conscience is neither right nor safe.” – Martin Luther

Historically, the conscience has been a fair-weather friend of the Christian faith. Conscience has been a powerful tool at times for showing people that Jesus provides a better way than how they have been living. But the conscience has also been used to judge Christianity and condemn it by modern or postmodern norms.

The conscience even played a pivotal role in the Protestant Reformation, where it is said that Luther cited conscience as a reason for dissent. Depending on how you feel about Reformation history, you may have mixed feelings about that one.

But what is the conscience? And how should we approach it? Is it always right? Can it be changed? Is obedience optional? Mandatory?

While I hope to dig into some of the secular literature during this study, I’m going to focus on what the Bible says. I believe the Bible is God’s word, and what it says bears His authority because He said it. And surprisingly He actually has a lot of things to say about the conscience.

But for today: definitions.

First of all, the conscience is a part of you. It’s your moral sense. Just like most people have a sense of sight to receive and process visual data or a sense of touch to receive and process tactile sensations, so you have this moral sense to receive and process moral data. And just like the other senses of the body, it may be missing or defective.

There are two basic stories about the conscience that I want to consider, and both have kind of a good news/bad news quality.

The first is what I’m going to call the Christian view, the traditional view stated through the framework of Creation-Fall-Redemption.

  1. Mankind was created in the image of God, and because God is a good (moral) God, that includes a moral sense. It is one of the many facets of our humanity, and it was good and beautiful (and I have to imagine never wrong).
  2. But in the Fall, every facet of our humanity was corrupted by sin. Our reason is prone to error, our desires misguided, and our conscience knocked out of alignment. It often fails to warn us when we’re wrong, and we often fail to listen when it’s right.
  3. In becoming one of us, dying on the cross, and rising again, Jesus paid for the sins of our broken consciences. Those who are saved have a redeemed conscience, but one that is continually being sanctified by the Holy Spirit.

And this raises an important point: the conscience is a part of you and not the Holy Spirit. We know this because the Holy Spirit is God and you are not. God is never wrong, but your conscience is.

As a result of this fallen-but-saved, already-but-in-process situation, our conscience requires maintenance. One of the goals of the Christian life, as you will see, is to live by a good conscience. We need to work hard to make sure it’s aligned with the truth, and work hard to follow its dictates as we live day to day.

So that’s the theological snapshot of the conscience from a Christian perspective.

The second story is the modern psychological story of the conscience. It’s still your moral sense, but that doesn’t mean much when you consider prevailing views about morality.

You see, for centuries it was thought that morality was objective, that moral facts and judgments were mind independent. The truth of morality was out there where you sensed it or not. But we live in an age of skepticism about moral facts, in part because we are skeptical about anything we cannot measure. So we play it safe and focus on what we can measure, the subjective experience of morality. These are the mind dependent processes of recognizing moral issues, passing moral judgments, and making moral decisions.

In short, the fact that you have a moral sense on this account doesn’t mean much more than being able to see in a pitch-black cave.

So where do moral judgments come from if they are not related to external moral facts? Essentially they are a function of your emotions and your socialization. In other words, they are sometimes reduced to a sense of obligation based on emotional attachments.

For example, Freud related a sense of guilt to the belief that you had not lived up to your parents’ expectations. Because this guilt can cause anxiety and other kinds of harm, Freud counseled that you should let go of this guilt and live free. You owe it to yourself not to be caged by these felt obligations based on emotional attachments.

The conclusion on this view is that the conscience is at best a useful social habit, but at worst a crippling delusion.

Contrast this with the Christian view which sees morality as something external to our minds, something rooted in the very nature of God. On this view, morality is not socially constructed, and freedom comes not from casting off guilt but addressing it.

So to talk about the conscience today, you need to keep your frame of reference in mind. Are you talking about a completely internal, socially-constructed emotion? Or a part of you that orients your soul to the moral facts of the world, the real goodness that is sourced in God?

For this discussion, of course, I will be presenting the latter. I don’t understand how any Christian could claim that morality is purely subjective, even if they are skeptical about our ability to discern what is good in a given situation. To be Christian is to believe in God as Christ has revealed Him—a morally perfect being. “No one is good but God.”

But as we take this Christian view of conscience out into the world, we must understand why we are so often misunderstood. To speak of a moral sense, we need to overcome the bias against moral realism. To speak of obligations, we need to overcome the belief that they are arbitrary and socially constructed. To speak of guilt, we need to overcome the belief that it is only and always negative.

Now that we’ve taken an all-too-brief look at what the conscience is, next time we’ll look at why it matters.

I hope you feel obligated to return.

Why We Need Theology

When you grow up in certain denominations, you aren’t always trained in theology. Some denominations are explicit about their doctrines and about the statements and creeds and confessions that help define who they are, why they are here, and how they should live. For others, the theology is still present, but implicit and unstated. The trouble with this is that an implicit theology is more difficult to defend and keep with any consistency. Doctrines that are implicitly held may be in greater need of upkeep without anyone realizing it.

Of course, denominations that emphasize doctrine have their own troubles, such as the difficulty of modifying it when it, too, needs some polishing. But the greatest sin of all—or so I often hear—is that the Bible could lose its place of honor and authority, replaced by man-made summaries and credos.

After all, the Bible is a complex book—a collection of books, in fact. It was written by many different authors spanning centuries of time. And even the letters that seem to be the clearest and whose authors seem the closest to one another, even they seem to contradict each other at times. When we come down one way on a question that the Bible leaves muddy, so the argument goes, we elevate human reason over God’s Word.

I am proud to be a theologian. And while I’m sensitive to some of these critiques, I think we sometimes miss the importance of theology. In fact, I would say that no Christian who takes the Bible seriously can afford to shrug at theology.

If you care about the Bible, theology isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity.

Here’s why: if you believe that God has truly spoken, then your worship demands that you take His words seriously.

There are at least three ways that we try to do this: by meditating them, by understanding them, and by obeying them. But in order to obey them, you first have to understand them. And if you spend time meditating on Scripture that you have not sought to understand, you have only the feelings that impress upon your soul and the hope that these are coming from outside and not from within.

No, I agree with one of my professors, who said, “The Bible is not a magic book.” It isn’t a collection of spells and incantations with mystical words that alter reality when spoken. Their power is in their meaning. If we want to know the mind of God, the heart of God, the commands of God, the plans of God—He has told us!

“He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

Understanding is crucial for worship, crucial for obedience. The Bible has many a warning and lament for those who fail to understand what it says. Jesus sometimes taught with parables to obscure meaning from those who did not believe, but at the same time He made sure to explain their true meaning to the disciples. Jesus doesn’t just want you to hear, He wants you to understand!

So far so good. We should take the Bible seriously and understand what it says. But where does theology come in?

Well, at one level theology just is that understanding that develops when we take the Bible seriously in our reading. When you explain something in the Bible, you are articulating theology. But when the scope of our understanding expands to include not just a verse or a paragraph or a chapter, we’re forced to go deeper. We meet situations and sayings that make us scratch our heads. Once we expand to try and understand two different human authors, we have to work much harder.

You might wonder: isn’t this what the Holy Spirit is for? Well, yes and no. The Holy Spirit, Jesus promised, will lead us into all truth, absolutely. But Jesus never said we wouldn’t have to work for it. Just as the fruit of the Spirit is love, and yet I still find myself straining to love at times, so the Spirit gives wisdom and yet not necessarily without struggle or sacrifice.

If the Bible is the Word of God, then we must take it seriously. Taking it seriously means seeking to understand it so that we can obey it and meditate on it profitably. Or worship depends on it!

So I think failing to understand, articulate, wrestle with, and relate Scripture is one danger in theology. Those who want to stop at a superficial reading aren’t being humble. They are being lazy. (And perhaps self-protective. Who wants to come away from God’s Word frustrated rather than inspired?)

Another way this problem manifests is when we pit one biblical author against another. I understand the Red Letter Christians movement has done some great things in the name of Christ, but if they pit the Gospels against the rest of the New Testament, they have failed to take God’s Word seriously. People who discount Paul because of something in James or John or Hebrews think they are honoring God by not putting Paul on a pedestal. But if God has authored it all, you don’t get to choose. (And of course that means you can’t be “of Paul” and not also of Peter and the rest.)

But to be fair, there is another danger in theology, and it’s the danger many people are reacting against. When you get an advanced theological system in place that has been worked on rigorously by numerous scholars—a system like Calvinism, for example—the nuances sometimes get overshadowed by the conclusions. An advanced system in the hands of everyday people can quickly become oversimplified. Or worse, the authors may oversimplify things for the sake of advancing their system.

I think this, too, is a failure to take Scripture seriously. If you really want to take the Bible seriously, that means embracing all its complexity, too. We must strive to understand, but an understanding that irons out wrinkles that God left in place suffers the same problem of dishonoring God’s words.

True faithfulness to Scripture requires working to understand without oversimplifying. True faithfulness to Scripture requires a theology that takes a stand on what the Bible is saying without trampling on the awkward. To do less than understand it is to say the Bible doesn’t really matter; to exalt one Scripture at the expense of another for the sake of your system is to say essentially the same thing.

What we need is not less theology. We need better theology. We need a theology that doesn’t forget its humble roots while at the same time daring to stretch to the heavens. We need better theology. We need a theology that admits its limitations even while it maintains a death grip on its essentials. We need a theology that points people back to Scripture—back to God as He has revealed Himself and not as we would have made Him. What we need is not less theology. We need better theology.

Dear friends, don’t look down on the theologians for writing flawed books that sit alongside of Scripture. Thank God that people devote their lives to struggling with God’s Word in the hopes that you and I might have a head start in our worship. If you must look down, look down on those who don’t care enough to understand, who don’t care enough to wrestle, who don’t care enough to preserve nuance. But don’t look down in pride; these are brothers and sisters in need of a helping hand. Look down only to draw them up.

If you really love the Bible, then you need theology. There is no other way around it. The question is how hard you are willing to work to make it better.

Destroyer of Worldviews

In Christian circles, we often talk as though the truthfulness of Scripture was the most crucial doctrine to uphold. Once you lose the Bible, you lose everything.

There’s a great degree of truth to that. But one of my seminary professors pointed out that there are some doctrines that strengthen or weaken this one, and in particular the doctrine of total depravity. He said something like “Man will not deny his need for Scripture until he has denied his need for a Savior.”

There is much wisdom here as well. When we fail to take our sins seriously and instead puff ourselves up, we are likely to see the Bible as irrelevant.

But as I’m listening to The American Mind, I’m reminded of another ancient explanation for why a people walk away from the faith: the experience of depravity. That is, denying depravity will cause you to doubt you need God, but drowning in depravity will cause you to doubt God could help to begin with.

Historically the problem of evil is the one that has driven people away from the faith. How could a God who is all-powerful, all-good, and all-knowing allow the evils we find in the world?

Guelzo makes this point specifically with the Civil War. According to Guelzo, the Civil War permanently changed the relationship between America and Christianity. Before, the church was taken for granted, and America’s intellectuals were often clergy. But afterward you find the accelerated growth of secular America.

And when you think about the millions dead, of all the destruction, all the brutality, of the great resources wasted, should we be surprised?

It reminded me that many historians trace the end of modernity to World War II. Enlightenment rationalism filled the void that Christianity left behind, first on a small scale, and then across the West. But after World War II, people lost confidence that reason could bring about a better world. Reason gave us the atomic bomb.

And when I think back to how Descartes began his exercise in methodological doubt, it seems the pattern continues. Rather than beginning with received wisdom as Christian thinkers in past generations did, he began by doubting everything he could to try and find something certain, something we could all agree on. Why? Because in his day, Europe was ravaged by perpetual religious war.

So it seems to me that while the problem of evil may cause a person to doubt, there is a deeper problem—the problem of war. War seems to be the worldview crusher. It doesn’t simply cause you to doubt your relationship with God, it causes you to doubt the world’s relationship to God. Or reason. Or whatever else you have put your trust in.

It seems to me that long ago war didn’t have this effect. For example, Israel’s military victories over the Canaanites in the Bible sometimes cause people today to doubt God. But at the time, those same victories caused the nations to fear Israel’s God and even to believe in Him. Or in later centuries, Augustine and Aquinas spoke of just war, war undertaken for the right reasons and in the right ways.

So what changed? How could war in one era have the opposite effect of war in another?

I don’t know much about war. I’ve never served, and the wars fought during my lifetime have been waged on other continents. But I can easily understand why it is devastating. The horrors of modern war are in the magnitude of their destruction, but the horrors of classical war are in their intimacy. Either way, war is horrible.

But if I had to wager a guess, I would say war causes us to doubt only because our frame of reference for evil is so much smaller in peacetime. In peace, we turn to God for help in our sickness, in our injury, in our lack, in our personal conflicts, in our everyday temptations. When war comes, I suspect we think the kind of God who handles all this relatively small peacetime strife isn’t up for the challenge of modern warfare. It’s easier to trust God with a skinned knee than a severed knee.

Even so, maybe my professor is still right. Maybe war is so devastating to our worldviews simply because we’ve underestimated our need for God to begin with. We were too hopeful about who we are, and even more than our trust in God, our faith in humanity ends up shattered.

I like to quote Tim Keller when he says, “The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”

War is the most extreme reminder of that first reality, of the sins and flaws of the human race. We must learn that God is bigger even than this, that the grace, mercy, forgiveness, kindness, and love He offers is that much greater than we dared to hope. And if people see that hope in us, maybe they will be able to find it for themselves when the world has turned upside down.