One of the key issues in our relationship with God is learning how to apply the
Gospel of grace to our consciences. Martin Luther once wrote that “there is no
greater pain than the gnawing pangs of conscience.” This explains why we
make such strenuous efforts to justify ourselves. The key to this process lies in
applying the grace of God to the functioning of conscience in much the same
way that we apply it to the Law of God. Just as the grace of God frees us as children of God from rigid adherence to the external regulations of the Law and from fears of condemnation by God, it can also free us from pressured attempts to live up to the impossible inner demands and from the fear of condemnation by our own consciences. In what follows, I want to develop the comparison between the impact of the grace of God upon these outer and inner legalistic lifestyles and sitenstrate how the Gospel of justification provides the paradigm for the resolution of the conflicts of conscience.
Hebrews 9:9-10 and 10:1-3 tell us that there is something about the conscience that could never be fully pacified by the Old Testament sacrificial system. Proper eating, drinking, washing and fleshly ordinances could not satisfy the conscience. Even though the Old Testament sacrificial system pointed to and found its meaning in the Person and work of Christ, it could not perfect the conscience. Neither could it eradicate the split in man between what he is and what he ought to or wants to be, nor could it solve the tendency for self atonement. Even though the old covenant communicated forgiveness, the very fact that repeated sacrifices had to be offered showed that there was an ongoing awareness of sin. By contrast, Christ accomplished what the Law never could. “When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, He went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but He entered the Most Holy Place once for all by His own blood, having obtained eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!” (Hebrews 9:11-14)
Christ purges our consciences from dead works. Dead works are efforts we rely on to merit grace and forgiveness. They are ways we attempt to pacify our consciences by works or self atonement. Christ’s blood, in addition to freeing us from the need to satisfy the demands of a righteous God, also frees us from meeting the demands of our consciences. It can purge us from repeated efforts to satisfy our own demands and complete or perfect our consciences.
Maybe now a definition of conscience is in order. Conscience in the broad sense that includes our moral standards, our processes of moral evaluation, our accusing and excusing thoughts and an imperative to live in accordance with our standards can never be satisfied or fully quieted by our good works, by our defenses or denials of our sinfulness or by our own payments. Since the Fall the conscience has functioned as an internal law with its own courtroom, its own prosecuting attorneys and defense attorneys, its own judge and its own sentences. As autonomous individuals (especially Christian individuals) we select our standards, evaluate ourselves, bring ourselves to trial, judge ourselves and pass sentence on ourselves. This process of self-administered justice can never fully quiet the conscience because it is based on our own efforts. Self justification by works righteousness never assuages our consciences.
But what we cannot do through self effort, God has done through Christ’s substitutionary life and death. Since Christ has paid the penalty for our sins and has given us His record of obedience to the Law we are once and for all righteous in the sight of God. We live under His favor. We can now allow the Word of God and the Spirit of God and the people of God to convict us and show us our sin. When Satan utilizes the processes of conscience to accuse us, we say with Paul, “Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies.” And when we are prone to punish and condemn ourselves for our failures, we must remember that we have no right or reason to do so, “For it is Christ…who died, yes, rather, was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who intercedes for us.” In this way, the functions of our consciences undergo a radical transformation. They move from self atonement to His atonement, and in doing so they open us up to a love-oriented motivation of grace rather than the fear, guilt and pride motivation of the Law.
Just as we undergo a radical change that acknowledges our total inability to earn God’s favor and acceptance through our works, so our search for inner acceptance through the work of conscience must be abandoned. We can regain our inner integrity lost in Adam’s fall through Christ and Christ alone. It is only through His redemption that the entire enterprise of self judgment and punishment can be given up and our integrity be reestablished. We no longer have to try to be what we cannot be. Christ has made us acceptable to God. It is finished. Calvin wrote, “Now if we ask in what way the conscience can be made quiet before God, we shall find the only way to be that unmerited righteousness be conferred upon us as a gift of God. Let us ever bear in mind Solomon’s question: ‘Who will say, I have made my heart clean; I am pure from my sin?’ (Proverbs 20:9)…Let even the most perfect man descend into his conscience and call his deeds to account, what then will be the outcome for him? Will he sweetly rest as if all things were well composed between him and God and not, rather, be torn by dire torments, since if he be judged by works, he will feel grounds for condemnation within himself? The con-science, if it looks to God must either have sure peace with His judgment or be besieged by the terrors of hell.”
And Helmut Thielicke suggests that the conscience needs to die to its old way of functioning. He says, “Unrest of conscience cannot simply be done away by the offer of forgiveness. If it is to be pacified, conscience must learn to understand itself in a whole new way; it must “die,” as it were. Like the natural man himself, the unmortified conscience can only stand uncomprehending before the proffered forgiveness. Indeed, it senses in this very offer a threat which runs counter to its own instinct for self preservation. Therefore, if conscience is to subject itself to the miracle of the remission of sins, it can do so only by declaring the dialogue between the accusing and excusing ‘thoughts’ (Romans 2:15) to be unessential, indeed invalid. It can do so only by leaving, closing and locking this whole courtroom, by forsaking its own fatherland, its own true home, and by going out into a foreign country—in short, by letting go altogether of what it once was.”
To resolve the problems of guilt and conscience, we must acknowledge that the entire process of passing judgment on ourselves in order to make atonement through self-inflicted feelings of guilt or excuse ourselves by various self efforts or defenses must come to an end. This system is a consequence of the Fall and has no place in the life of the believer. This effort to achieve peace in our own way is rebellion against God’s way of sanctification. All these attempts at self justification are expressions of fallen humanity’s hostility to God. It is Christ who has paid, and the Christians only hope for peace of conscience is to give up or die to the strategies of self justification through self atonement.
The parallel between Law and conscience is significant. Just as the Law brought condemnation, so does the conscience not yet free through Christ. Just as Christ is the end of the Law as a means of establishing a relation with God, so faith in Christ leads to the end of conscience as a means of relating to myself. Just as the Law is fulfilled by faith so the conscience is quieted by faith so that it needs to make no more self-punishing sacrifices. Just as the sins of the believer freed from the Law are no longer counted for condemnation so the believer whose conscience is healed by faith no longer condemns himself. And just as grace makes the Law clear to us and stimulates us to fulfill it in love, so grace satisfies our consciences through Christ’s blood and creates a desire to be fruitful through love.
In conclusion, there are many relational implications for the conscience that has been liberated through free justification. We are lo longer separated from God but united with Him as adopted children. No longer do we need to be separated from one another because our sins and their sins are paid for. We can accept one another without blame, judgment and condemnation. We can also accept ourselves because we are free to acknowledge our own inability to close the gap between who we are and who we should be and allow Christ to accomplish that. By accepting the fact that Christ has made us acceptable, His work becomes our center and allows us to give up our unrealistic goals, our efforts at self atonement through guilt feelings, in short we give up our omnipotent, godlike strivings and let God be God. If we truly allow the reality of imputed righteousness to soak into our lives we can give up the whole process of self accusation, self justification and self atonement. When we recognize Christ is our righteousness, we experience a great sense of relief because we can give up our struggles to do well and make ourselves acceptable. This brings a radical shift in our attitude toward God, self and others. By living in the awareness that we are forgiven and righteous we can move away from a works-oriented lifestyle, the repressions and denials prompted by guilt, and the self condemnations prompted by conscience. We can move from guilt to godly sorrow and move out of ourselves in love to our neighbor. The Gospel truly liberates us from the tyranny of our consciences.