A Study By
Gary Ray Branscome
An important, yet often neglected, aspect of our walk with Christ is the need to train our conscience (2 Corinthians 10:5). We need to learn the difference between right and wrong, and stop excusing sin, so that our heart can be soft and tender before God. Moreover, while this training is never easy, individual differences make it hard for one person to help another. Some people are so afflicted in conscience that they feel guilty about things that are not wrong, while others are so hardened that they cannot see any need for Godís mercy and forgiveness. Nevertheless, most of us fall somewhere in between those two extremes. Without training, it is common for us to be blind to some sins while feeling bothered by others, to feel guilt over some actions that are not condemned by Godís Word, while feeling no guilt over sins that are clearly condemned by Godís Word. Furthermore, the deceitfulness of our own sinful heart amplifies this confusion, and hinders us as we work to bring our conscience into accord with the Word of God. [Jeremiah 17:9, John 1:47, Matthew 7:5 and 23:25, Luke 18:11, 2 Corinthians 10:5]
The most important step in training our conscience has to do with seeing our need for Godís mercy and forgiveness. In fact, we will never be able to straighten out our conscience until we recognize that need. For it is only as we acknowledge our need for Godís mercy, and look to Christ for forgiveness, that the Holy Spirit comes into our heart to help us (Acts 2:38). However, those who acknowledge their need for Godís mercy often fail to recognize the full extent of that need. All too often, they will admit that they are sinners, while inwardly telling themselves that they are pretty good sinners (as if such a thing could actually exist, James 2:10). Such people make little progress in training their conscience, because they are not willing to be honest with themselves (John 1:47). Therefore, we need to come to the point where we can say with the Apostle Paul, "I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing" (Romans 7:18). And the only way we will ever get to that point is by being so critical of our own behavior that we can see that even our righteous acts are sinfully corrupt (Isaiah 64:6). I realize that it is not easy to be honest about our sins. We would much rather excuse our sins while passing off many transgressions as unimportant (Jeremiah 17:9). Nevertheless, we need to see those sins, and to recognize every fault as damnable (James 2:10).
Another important step in training the conscience has to do with recognizing the fact that it is the blood of Christ, not what we do, that makes us righteous in the sight of God (1 John 1:7, Romans 3:21-28, Ephesians 1:8). I have met too many Christians who profess to accept this truth, and claim to be justified by faith, yet deny it by continually trying to please God with their works. They fail to understand that when we trust in Godís promise of forgiveness in Christ, our faith is counted as sinlessness (1 John 5:18, Galatians 3:6, Romans 5:16-18). And if God sees no sin in us, then God is pleased with us. That does not mean that we can sin willfully, as David did with the wife of Uriah, and escape condemnation. But it does mean that as long as we have a clean conscience we are righteous in the sight of God, even though we would not be under the law (Genesis 20:3-5, 1 Kings 15:5, Hebrews 10:26, Romans 14:23).
When this is explained to some people, they immediately start trying to figure out what they can get away with. They think that if they can rationalize sin so that they no longer feel guilt, that they will be able to escape punishment. However, that is not the way it works. The very thing such people trust in, namely the excuses they use to justify sin, will condemn them on the day of judgement. For if they were doing right, they would not have to make up excuses to justify what they were doing. God is no fool, and He is not about to be deceived by false repentance. For that reason, it is important not to confuse conscience with guilt. Our conscience tells us that something is wrong before we do it, therefore, it has to do with the knowledge that something is wrong. Guilt is the condemnation that we may, or may not, feel if we transgress that knowledge.
A shoplifter may rationalize his sin by claiming that the store will never miss what he took. An adulterer may rationalize his sin by claiming to be in love. And, sometimes they rationalize so effectively that they feel no guilt at all. However, that does not mean that they have a clean conscience, for if they really had a clean conscience they would not need to rationalize their sin to begin with. What they have actually done is harden their heart. As a consequence, when they hear Godís call to repentance, it falls on deaf ears.
Once a personís conscience becomes so hardened that they no longer see a particular sin as wrong, they will find it difficult, if not impossible, to keep from committing that sin. In fact, because they no longer have any mental reservations about committing that sin, Satan can make them sin at will. That is one reason why it is so dangerous for parents to teach their children to rationalize sin. While a parent may excuse sin, but still have mental reservations about doing it, a child who believes his parents rationalizations may have no reservations about committing the same sin, and thus see no need for Godís mercy (Hosea 4:14, Romans 1:28).
Once a person ceases to see a particular sin as wrong, retraining their conscience will involve more that merely getting them to admit that it is wrong. They will have to reprogram their mind to remove all of the excuses (now rooted in the subconscious) that keep them from feeling that it is really bad, and make it hard for them to resist the desire to do it. A woman may fuss, nag and turn her home into a little hell, yet feel no guilt because she tells herself that everyone argues, or that nothing would ever get done if she did not nag (Proverbs 14:1 and 9:13). A man may fuss and fume and make his entire family miserable while excusing his sin by saying that he is just blowing off steam (Galatians 6:19, Proverbs 14:16). These are serious problems that destroy homes and warp children. However, the only person who can straighten out the wrong thinking is the person who is guilty of it. They need to recognize their excuses as self-deception, and convince themselves over and over that their excuses are wrong, until it finally sinks in. I once talked with a man who wanted to control his immoral behavior, but had no strength to resist temptation because his heart had been trained to excuse the sin (Romans 1:28, Proverbs 23:7, Ezekiel 36:26-27). God will help such people if they diligently seek His help, while looking to Him for deliverance, but they may have to struggle.
While it is not hard to see how the conscience is defiled by excusing sin, many people fail to recognize the fact that the conscience is also defiled when we seek to make ourselves righteous. However, a person who seeks to make himself righteous tends to excuse his faults, rather than trying to discover them, and excusing fault is what defiles the conscience. Instead of excusing sin we need to recognize our sins, and retrain our conscience so that we feel shame, remorse, and a desire for Godís mercy if we do wrong (2 Corinthians 10:5, Romans 12:2, Jeremiah 31:33).
Whenever we try to convince ourselves that we are righteous, we only succeed in hardening our hearts (Luke 18:11-12). Whenever we begin to trust in what we do to please God, or imagine that we are righteous because we attend church, tithe, do not drink or smoke, dress a certain way, or keep a set of rules we fail to trust in Christ and blind ourselves to the truth of our own sinfulness. Following a set of rules or suppressing evil desires can never make us righteous, for if we were truly righteous we would not need those rules and we would not have those desires. Therefore, in order to properly train our conscience it is not enough to simply say we are sinners while blinding ourselves to our sin. Instead we need find our sins, root out the thinking that produced those sins, and trust in Christís finished work, rather than our own works, to make us righteous. In short we need to see ourselves as God sees us. [Romans 9:31 to 10:4, Matthew 21:31, Isaiah 64:6, Romans 12:9, Proverbs 15:32, Proverbs 24:9, Psalm 119:104, Philippians 3:21]
THE UGLINESS OF SIN
Because sin, by its very nature, is shameful and ugly, it is only the corruption of our nature and the deceitfulness of our heart that makes some sin seem cute or laughable (Jeremiah 17:9). God is so pure and holy that even the smallest sin deserves to be punished by an eternity in hell (James 2:10). For that reason, training our conscience involves learning to think of sin as ugly, repulsive, cruel, and unkind. We must learn to see sin as something that we are sorry for and ashamed to be guilty of, yet we must never deny our guilt (2 Corinthians 10:5, Romans 12:1-2, Ephesians 4:17, Psalm 119:11).
Some people try to rationalize sin by convincing themselves that a particular sin might be the loving thing to do in a certain situation. However, they are only deceiving themselves, for Godís commandments are in perfect accord with love, and can be summarized as love for both God and man. Godís law forbids all sexual activity outside of marriage because all such sexual activity outside of marriage is selfish self-gratification that is rooted in contempt for both God and the other person. Our sinful heart would like to convince us otherwise, but that is the word of Satan and Satan is a liar, and those who excuse and encourage sin are enemies of God and apostles of hate. [Jeremiah 17:9, Matthew 5:48, Romans 3:23, Matthew 22:35-40, 1 John 4:8 and 5:2, Proverbs 31:26]
THE LAW OF KINDNESS
Any man who commits adultery hates the woman he uses for self-gratification so much that he would send her soul to hell just to gain a few minutes of "pleasure." In fact, the truth of what I am saying becomes obvious when the man beats or even kills the woman he uses. Far from loving her, he has only an idolatrous love for himself that exalts his will above the will if God. Furthermore, he has only hatred for her husband, and could care less if that manís life is filled with sorrow and all his hopes and dreams destroyed. Likewise, he has only hatred for the children whose world will be torn apart when the adultery is exposed. He could care less if they develop emotional problems, or have a hard time making their own marriage work. He cares nothing for those people, and thinks only of himself (Romans 8:7). Therefore, training the conscience involves learning to see sin as the embodiment of hate, while convincing our mind that evil thoughts are just as damnable as evil acts (James 2:10). [1 John 5:17, Jeremiah 17:9, Romans 12:9, Proverbs 8:13, Matthew 5:27-28, Romans 1:27-28, Proverbs 24:9, Psalm 119:11&104)
Most people see murder as wrong, if for no other reason than because they do not want to be murdered. However, our sin-corrupted nature is so perverse that even murder is common, and over forty million babies have been legally butchered in the United States alone. Yet instead of confessing their sin, the people who condone and promote such murders call themselves "liberal" (Isaiah 32:5). In order to rationalize that sin they convince themselves that some circumstance or the other justifies such murder. However, they care nothing for the child. They feel no compassion for the poor helpless infant that they propose to kill. They are not only willing to butcher the baby for their own profit or convenience, but are pushing for laws that would allow them to murder the elderly and the handicapped as well. Therefore, training the conscience also involves learning to recognize such sin as detestable, while learning to see through the shallow rationalizations used to justify it. At the same time we need to realize that just as murder is sinful, the thought pattern that produces murder is also sinful. Those who would like to blow somebody away, or beat the tar out of them, are committing murder in their heart (1 John 3:15, Ephesians 4:26, Matthew 5:22). [NOTE: The Bible allows for capital punishment, self-defense, and the defense of oneís country. Genesis 9:6, Luke 22:36]
While most people realize that it is wrong to rob banks, or even their neighbors, many people will find excuses to take small items from the job or from stores. Often they see nothing wrong with it, yet they are just as much a thief as the person who robs a bank. Furthermore, such theft hurts everyone. Not only are companies forced to charge more in order to cover their losses, but some people will wind up being laid off either because profits are down or because the company they work for goes out of business. If unemployment results in a home breaking up or a suicide, more people have been harmed. Therefore, we need to train our conscience to recognize all theft as evil (James 2:10). We should never justify cheating on taxes, goofing off on the job, or being less than honest in our dealings with others. Those who excuse sin defile their conscience. [Romans 13:5-6, Colossians 3:5, Ephesians 4:28, Matthew 23:14, Exodus 20:15, Jeremiah 23:30, Ephesians 6:5-8]
Whenever we sin we dishonor our parents, either by going contrary to what they have taught, or by bringing shame to the family. Whenever someone teaches false doctrine they not only dishonor God, by contradicting His Word and lying in His name, but risk destroying souls, for false doctrine obscures the gospel and never saves anyone. Whenever someone joins a cult they risk bringing damnation upon themselves and upon their descendants for generations to come. Whenever someone fails to bring his children up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, he (like Judas) has betrayed Christ, and his children will probably wind up in hell (compare Mark 17:21 with Luke 17:1-2). Whenever someone uses Godís name in vain, he shows contempt for God while, by his example, teaching others to do likewise. [NOTE: Such words as "Gosh", "Golly", and "Gee-whiz" are euphemisms for God and Jesus.]
THE FREEDOM OF THE GOSPEL
Training the conscience involves making a serious effort to recognize and condemn your own sins, without trying to deceive yourself with works righteousness. This involves applying Godís law to your life so diligently that you can see that even your righteousness is "as filthy rags" (Isaiah 64:6). You should be able to find fault in everything that you do, including the good things that you do (Ecclesiastes 7:20). For example: There can even be mental reservations or selfish motives in the act of giving someone a gift, and you need to recognize such flaws as sin, for they fall short of the Glory of God (Romans 3:23, Matthew 5:48).
Once you come to the point where sin has lost its appeal, where it seems loathsome and disgusting, and you can say with Paul, "in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing," it should be obvious that the law can never make you righteous, for it condemns your righteousness (Romans 7:18, Isaiah 64:6). Furthermore, since it condemns everything you do, you should also be able to see that freedom from the law means righteousness, for to be free from the law is to be free from condemnation and guilt. Therefore, while the law cannot make you righteous, Christ can! For by taking your sin upon Himself, and dying in your place, He obtained forgiveness for you. And that forgiveness makes us righteous in the sight of God! As it is written, "Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone that believes // For by one offering He has perfected" us "forever" (Romans 10:4, Hebrews 10:14)
The forgiveness that is ours in Christ makes us so pure, perfect, and sinless in the sight of God that our own puny efforts at keeping the law cannot improve on it in the slightest. Moreover, that forgiveness is ours as a free gift (Romans 6:23). We are not worthy of it, yet it is given to us freely through faith in Christ (Romans 3:28 and 5:2). Our own efforts contribute nothing. In fact, every effort that we put forth to make ourselves righteous is a denial of the righteousness that is already ours in Christ (2 Timothy 2:25, 1 John 3:21).
Training the conscience helps us to understand the gospel while avoiding the snares of Satan. Once I began to walk by faith, trusting in Christ (rather than works) for righteousness, I experienced Godís hand of blessing on my life as never before. Yet my behavior is better, not worse, for the struggle to keep the law tended to make me judgmental and rude, but when I began to trust Christ for righteousness the struggle ceased. Now I simply walk by faith allowing the love of Christ to shine through me.