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Conscience:  Clear or Cleansed?

The conscience serves a vital and awesome function in healthy human beings. It can blast us or bless us, depending upon whether or not it is clear or cloudy. Using courtroom language, the apostle Paul suggests in Romans 2:15 that the conscience can bear witness in the court of our own mind and soul and either accuses us or acquits us of having done wrong. John Ellis Large said the most painful wound in the world is the stab of conscience. Samuel Sewell found it to be so. In January, 1697, on a fast day called to remember the Salem witch trials, Sewell slipped a note to his preacher, Samuel Willard, at Boston's Old South Meeting House. Sewell, one of seven judges who sentenced 20 people to death in Salem five years earlier, stood silent as Willard read the note out loud: "Samuel Sewell, sensible of the reiterating strokes of God upon himself and his family....desires to take the blame and shame of it, asking pardon of men, and especially desiring prayers that God, who has an unlimited authority, would pardon that sin and his other sins ...." Sewell believed that eleven (Allis fourteen children had died as divine punishment for his involvement in the witch trials. Whether or not God was punishing Sewell through the deaths of his children may be debatable. What is not debatable is the power of a guilty conscience over our minds and souls. Years after the deed or act that caused the guilt, the conscience continues to stand and accuse and convict us of the failure again and again. A guilty conscience becomes a judge and court from which we desperately desire and need acquittal but find acquittal difficult or impossible to obtain.

Here is where a study of the conscience gets a little complex. The New Testament speaks of a "good conscience" six times. And a good conscience is a good thing, if it is good in the right way (see 1 Timothy 1:5, 19; Hebrews 13:18; 1 Peter 3:16). The problem is a conscience can also be "seared . . . .defiled.... evil (1 Timothy 4:2; Titus 1:15; Hebrews 10:22). Psychopaths, for instance, are individuals who commit horribly immoral and antisocial acts but feel zero remorse, psychological pain, or guilt (Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, serial killers, etc. are extreme examples). The apostle Paul declared in Acts 23:1 that in spite of his violent actions in persecuting Christians before coming to Christ, he lived in all good conscience before God until this day," reminding us a person can have a good conscience even while doing what God judges to be very bad things. The upshot of all this is that a conscience can be clear but not cleansed. That is, we must not only be cleared and acquitted of guilt in the court of our own minds, but in God's court and mind. That's why Hebrews 9:22 is such wonderfully good news! The blood of Christ does what Old Testament animal sacrifices never could -  "purge (that is cleanse) your conscience from dead works to serve the living God." We reach that cleansing blood when we are baptized into Christ's death (Romans 6:3-4). According to 1 Peter 3:21 (New American Standard Bible), it is in baptism that we "appeal to God for a clear conscience." Is your conscience both clear and cleansed, washed in the blood of the Lamb?

Dan Gulley
Smithville church of Christ