We’ve been talking about the conscience, and last time we focused on the idea that your conscience is like an instrument that can be tuned. It’s supposed to tell us right from wrong, but it’s not perfect. We can pursue actions that bring it into alignment with reality, or we can pursue actions that draw it further out of tune.
Besides the “seared” conscience that we mentioned last time, there is another category of conscience referenced in Scripture. It’s called the “defiled” conscience.
And it’s probably not what you think.
The seared conscience has become dead to sin, insensitive to evil. But the defiled conscience actually has the other problem: it’s over-sensitive.
You might wonder why it could be possible to have too much of a good thing. After all, a conscience that is hypersensitive will be just that much more effective at keeping you from sin, right?
Well, no. It turns out that just because you’re sensitive in some areas, that doesn’t protect you in all the others.
And even if it did, that’s not good enough. The victory is not that the conscience keeps you from sinning, but that it accurately reports the way the world is to you. It’s evil to call something that is evil “good.” But it’s also evil to call something that is good “evil.”
Recall what the voice said to Peter in his vision: “what God has made clean, do not call common.” (Acts 10:15)
To see what’s going on under the hood, so to speak, check out Paul’s instruction to Tutus:
“To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled.” (Tit. 1:15)
In this passage, Paul is warning Titus about false teachers, who teach that there are certain things that defile you. According to them, God will not accept you until you have first made yourself pure.
While it’s true that purification was an important part of the Mosaic Law, the Good News of the Gospel is that Jesus has taken away our sins. We who could not make ourselves pure have been made pure by God. And while doing good is still necessary, it’s not what determines your relationship with God. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Eph 2:8-9 ESV)
But the truth about these false teachers is this: it’s not the things of this world that defile you—it’s their teachings that defile you! (cf. Mark 7:15)
To the pure, all things are pure. Let that sink in for a moment.
All things are pure.
Do you believe that? It may be difficult. We are surrounded by sin and opportunities to sin, but according to Paul, it’s not the things themselves that are bad. It’s how you use them.
So the pure person imagines and intends actions and uses that are pure. The thing itself is neutral. It’s the use that determines whether it will defile you or not.
Purity is not about things, but about actions and motives.
By contrast, to the person with a defiled conscience, nothing is pure. Why? Because he only imagines and intends actions that are defiled. I call this the hypersensitive conscience because it’s a conscience that has been wrongly tuned to call good things evil. The truth of the matter is not that the things themselves are evil, but that your own intentions for them are evil.
Along these lines, Paul instructs Timothy:
For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. (1Ti 4:4-5 ESV)
Sometimes it still grips me, catches me off guard. This is a fallen world Paul is describing! Even in a world corrupted with sin and death and decay everything is still essentially good because of its relationship to the Creator. Think of it!
God made everything, therefore everything is good.
And in case you’re still skeptical, Paul says nothing is to be rejected! Of course, you can still use anything for evil, and so people do. But Paul says that if you can purify your intentions, if you can approach things with a pure conscience, all things are yours!
The wrong question to ask is “is it good?” But according to Paul, there is a question you can ask to tell whether you should reject something or not. It’s “can I be grateful to God for this?”
Of course, you have to tread lightly here because a seared conscience can be grateful to God while abusing something good. But if your conscience is in the right place, it will help you discern whether being grateful to God is a sham or not. If you struggle to say thank you, that’s a red flag.
The author of Hebrews tells us a bit more about what it takes to have a pure conscience so we can enjoy all of God’s good creation with thanksgiving:
“For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” (Heb. 9:13-14)
It seems to me that what the author of Hebrews was saying is that the conscience is purified when the burden of sin is lifted. The sacrificial system, even though it was a gift from God, couldn’t actually do this. Only Christ could.
So rather than making yourself pure by rejecting all things so that you can be pleasing to God, the Christian is called to begin with the purification that comes from Christ and seek to live by a clear conscience so that she can accept all things.
The defiled conscience is born of unbelief. Its desire for sin has tainted all things so that it cannot accurately guide you. It calls good things evil because it is out of alignment.
Next time we’ll talk about another form of hypersensitive conscience that’s very similar and yet different in a crucial way: the weak conscience.