The Alternating Conscience

conscienceWe get a glimpse of how the conscience works in Paul’s letter to the Romans, in chapter 2:14-15.

But Paul uses a progressive argument all the way through to chapter 8, so everything he says up to that point, has to be considered as “not the end of the story”. At the end of chapter 8, he concludes that section with the real point that he wants to make, and we might as well look at that now, just so we know where we’re going:

If God is for us, who is against us? (verse 31)
He did not even spare His own Son but offered Him up for us all; how will He not also with Him grant us everything?

Who can bring an accusation against God’s elect? (verse 33)
God is the One who justifies.

Who is the one who condemns? (verse 34)
Christ Jesus is the One who died, but even more, has been raised; He also is at the right hand of God and intercedes for us.

Who can separate us from the love of Christ? (verse 35)
Can affliction or anguish or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?

No, in all these things we are more than victorious through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that not even death or life, angels or rulers, things present or things to come, hostile powers, height or depth, or any other created thing will have the power to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord! (Romans 8:37–39)

So that’s the point of Romans, up to chapter 8. God does not condemn, he justifies. Jesus was the one who died and was raised – He took our own condemnation on himself. Now he intercedes for us, on our behalf.

Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ, no anguish, persecution, famine, nakedness (shame) or even those who want to kill us for our faith.
Jesus is our victory. It is through his love for us that we are victorious. It’s worth noting that there is a tie-in here also with Romans 7. The careful reader will see that when Paul says “Who is the one who condemns?” that he’s pointing back to his own struggle in doing what he doesn’t want to do.

I remember having a moment of epiphany several years ago – I realized I am not my own victory, Jesus is! Now I am free to have unbroken union with the Father.

But there’s this little problem – the conscience – and it’s important to see something here, to learn a little about how it works, so we can be wise to its ways inside our heads.

In explaining why both Jews and Gentiles are accountable to God, Paul shows that it is the contract of keeping commands for righteousness that is what brings everyone under condemnation. Trying to be right with God based on what we do! This was the promise the Israelites made to God in their part of the legal contract of Moses – “tell us what to do, we will do it all, and we will do it all diligently, and it (our doing) will be our righteousness” (my paraphrase of Deuteronomy 6:25 and Deuteronomy, chapter 28)

But what about the Gentiles? They were never given the law of Moses. Paul’s argument is that they show the same work of the law (condemnation) written in their hearts because their conscience alternately accuses or excuses them. Because Gentiles have a conscience, they’re in the same boat with those who have the law — condemned. All the world is accountable to God.

Here’s the section I’m talking about, in Romans 2:14-15

So, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, instinctively do what the law demands, 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. Their consciences confirm this. Their competing thoughts will either accuse or excuse them (Romans 2:14–15, HCSB)”

This idea of alternating accusing and excusing struck me as odd one day. I realized that’s what other people do, when I heard them in conversations. I’m a little dense sometimes, so it took a little while for me to make the connection that I do the same thing! Funny, everyone else does something, but I don’t always think of myself as “like those other people”. Excuse-making!

Watch this in other people, then once you see it, reflect on yourself too, and see what I mean. Here’s what to watch — listen to people, hear people talk, and watch what happens when you see an *accusation* come someone’s way, perhaps from their friend, co-worker or a relative. It’s an almost fail-safe guarantee that what you will see immediately after the accusation is some form of excuse. Sometimes it’s an automatic response. Sometimes you won’t hear the excuse until the accuser leaves the area. When you hear it, it might sound something like one of these phrases:

I can’t help it;

I was born that way;

I was raised that way;

Everybody else does it;

It’s no big deal;

Who are you to judge me?;

Those people are hypocrites;

I don’t care.

I say to watch others for the simple fact that it’s often easier to have a higher degree of objectivity with other people. We all tend to think of ourselves in our own guarded ways … subjectively. But when we see things in other people, if we’re honest, we’ll admit that if everyone else has this problem, then we must have it too. Then we’re able to have an honest conversation with ourselves.

After looking at others, ask yourself, “What do I do when I am accused by someone of something?” But go a little deeper and ask, “What do I do when I accuse myself of something?” What does my inner dialogue sound like when my conscience does the “work of the law” inside me. Do I make an excuse, or do I accept the charge?

Here’s the thing — we are all self-righteously programmed to do the same thing the Israelites did with Moses. Tell me what to do, I will do it, and it will be my righteousness. If we have a problem with the doing, we have two options;

1) resist the standard by lowering the bar of acceptability, or

2) make an excuse.

In reality, both options are a form of excuse-making, since the first option is really just making the excuse that there is no higher standard for us other than the one we can keep; We can be kind to Trump, but Hillary deserves all our scorn. Hillary is the blessed Virgin Mary, but Donald is evil incarnate. What about “treating everyone like we’d want to be treated” (even our enemies).

This is where the gospel comes in to meet our conscience head-on. This is the whole point of why some of our friends are Jesus-Freaks and we just don’t get it. The Good News is that we don’t have to lower the bar, the standard of righteousness, anymore. We are now free to be really, truly, for the first time, honest with ourselves! We can accept the charge from friends, foes, and our own conscience that there’s something wrong with us without making an excuse. Now, our conscience can bring a charge against us and we are 100% free to agree with it! Why? How? Because now our righteousness is no longer self-righteousness, it is Christ’s righteousness!

“…through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men” Romans 5:18b

“…through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.” Romans 5:19b

“The Law (or ‘conscience’ for the Gentile) came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more,” Romans 5:20

“so that, as sin reigned in death, even so __grace would reign through righteousness__ to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Romans 5:21

“He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” 2nd Corinthians 5:21

Now that Jesus’ righteousness is our righteousness, we are free from condemnation. We are free from the death of our own conscience. There’s no need to excuse ourselves any longer. And we are free from the accusations of others — because we accept the charges as legitimate. We can do this even when another person’s accusation isn’t legitimate, because who cares! They accuse, but God makes us righteous in Christ. Sometimes other people make accusations against us as part of their own excuse-making, but so what! We are free from the death of their accusation because we have died to self-righteousness. We are free to do so, because our righteousness is not our own! We don’t need others to think highly of us – God thinks highly of us!

The rest of Romans, up to chapter 8, deals with the faithfulness of Christ, how our faith connects us to his faithfulness, and how grace doesn’t cause us to live like the devil, because those who are united with Christ are united with him in both his death and his resurrection. But even so, there are real struggles. Our spirits are new and we have a new mindset, a new attitude, a new paradigm. We filter things differently. We think differently, but our bodies are old and not yet redeemed. In our new, holy attitude, we desire to do what is right, but don’t always find ourselves doing it. What’s the answer? Make another excuse? No, the answer is “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, i.e., those joined with him in his death, a death to the old way of thinking and doing, death to self-righteousness, ignorance of truth, hardhearted, callous selfishness. We learn with Paul that there is, for lack of a better word, an agent living in us, within our unredeemed bodies that opposes our will. But that’s the thing — we have a new will. Though we live in this old body and will still sin, we have a new mindset of the Spirit. We sin, but it is against the will of our mind. And it is this new mindset that proves we are children of God, not the ability to live sin-free.

And in this truth – we GROW. We don’t enter into the kingdom knowing everything with years of wisdom behind us. We enter as babes, and in the grand scheme of eternity, everyone of us is a babe – a newbie. God’s development of us takes time.

The experience of Israel is a lesson to us, when God said to them (about their enemies), “I will not drive them out ahead of you in a single year; otherwise, the land would become desolate, and wild animals would multiply against you. I will drive them out little by little ahead of you until you have become numerous and take possession of the land.” (Exodus 23:29–30). That’s a type for us. Israel didn’t just walk up to the Holy Land one day and walk right in. It took time. And Moses, the representative of the Law (and by extension, the conscience) couldn’t even go into the Promised Land. Why? Because he goofed up one time. The Jews didn’t go into the Promise until they stepped into the Jordan by faith with Moses’ successor, Joshua, whose Hebrew name happens to be same as our Savior’s – Jesus. It is Jesus who takes us into the Promise, and we follow with him in faith – dependent trust. The condemnation of the law, or the conscience, we leave behind us on the wilderness side of the Jordan.

Going Beyond Red Letter Christianity

There’s no such thing as a Red Letter Christian – the idea among some political activists who attempt to blend their brand of progressive, social justice with (some of) the words of Jesus. Never mind that Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world”, the term itself is an oxymoron, since the disciples of The Way weren’t called Christians until Acts 11, several years after the death and resurrection of our Lord, well into the black letters.

John 18:36 – Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.”

Apparently, the disciples didn’t get the memo that the gospel wasn’t about social activism. But we can’t be too hard on them, because at the time when Jesus was being handed over to Pilate, the disciples didn’t have full knowledge of exactly what the gospel was. They had been banking on this idea of political overthrow and were ready to fight for that kingdom (even ready to cut someone’s ear off to resist Jesus’ capture). But, they would have to wait for Jesus to die and rise again, to put an end to the Red Letters, then wait again for the black letters, where Jesus would send the Spirit of truth to guide them into all the truth.

John 16:12–14 (NASB95) – 12 “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. 14 “He will glorify Me, for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you.

The word ‘bear’ above means ‘to carry, to pick up’, and when applied to concepts, takes on the meaning of ‘to comprehend, to accept’.

31.55 βαστάζωf; φέρωk: to accept, but with the implication of the truth being difficult to comprehend or to respond to properly—‘to accept, to receive.’ – Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament based on Semantic Domains, Louw, Nida

Jesus was saying, about the things which the Spirit would reveal to them later, that the disciples couldn’t accept them now… couldn’t receive them… couldn’t comprehend them at that time.

The disciples in Jesus’ earthly ministry could not fully comprehend what Jesus had yet to say to them through the Spirit, who would come later, after the cross. In other words, there is no such thing as a “Red Letter Christian” because Jesus’ pre-cross message was incomplete — there was more to come! Anyone who restricts their base of doctrine to only the words spoken by Christ during his earthly ministry to the Jews, is getting only partial revelation because the Lord had much more to say, and he wouldn’t say it until after the red letters came to an end!

Acts 9:15 (NASB95) – 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel;

When our risen Lord called Paul and confirmed his calling through Ananias, the Lord explains to Ananias that Paul is a ‘chosen instrument of mine to __bear__ my name before the Gentiles’ — to bear — to pick up, to carry, to make my name comprehensible to the Gentiles.

Thus, that which was incomprehensible to the early, Jewish disciples would later be ‘carried’, ‘picked up, ‘made comprehensible’. Our risen Lord, chose Paul to make comprehensible to the Gentiles that which the other disciples could not receive before the Spirit. If we disregard the message that Christ has sent to us through his Apostle Paul, then we are willfully disregarding Christ’s own, complete message.

willful ignorance: The practice or act of intentional and blatant avoidance, disregard or disagreement with facts, empirical evidence and well-founded arguments because they oppose or contradict your own existing personal beliefs – The Urban Dictionary

But God first revealed to Peter this fact that Gentiles are saved by grace and continue to live by grace apart from works and without being circumcised in accordance with the law of Moses (Acts 10 & 11). Imagine the conundrum if Paul had appeared out of nowhere and said “Here I am… your former persecutor … here to take your message to the Gentiles!” They would have laughed him out of town! But Peter’s authority was well-respected, so it had to be revealed first to Peter. Even then, the Jewish Christians were ready to give Peter a verbal lashing, until Peter recounted what the Lord had showed him and said to him in a vision — beyond the red letters of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Everlasting Righteousness lasts forever

Everlasting righteousness is just that – it’s righteousness that lasts forever.

Our heavenly Father doesn’t give it only to take it away again. Righteousness, which is a state of being sin-free before God and being found blameless before God, is a gift from God to you – you don’t earn it. (Romans 4; Romans 5; Philippians 3)

Repeat: you don’t earn it.  If you could stop sinning in order to be found righteous, it wouldn’t be a gift.

Those who receive this gift in Christ don’t need to keep begging for it and acting like they might lose it. Brutha, sista – it ain’t dependent on you. It’s a GIFT.

Why is this important? Because God will judge every individual by their deeds . Those who persevere and do good go to eternal life and those who do the law will be justified (Romans 2:10, 13) – BUT,

… and this is a really big “but” that people often miss:

there is none righteous, not even one” (Rom 3:10)

Yet, judgment is coming.

So the short of it is this:
Perfectly good people could enter into a relationship with their Creator,
but you aint it,
and neither am I, and neither is your wife, your mom, your dad, your brother, your neighbor, your mayor, your president, your pastor… BUT,

and this is a really big “but” that people often miss:

Jesus is perfect – and it’s His righteousness that is exchanged for your sin (2 Cor 5:21)

You can’t be righteous to get righteous to have heaven here on earth and in the afterlife. You can only receive it, in humility, admitting to God that “you ain’t all that and then some”. You receive and God does that work. BUT,

and this is a really big “but”:

This message ain’t for everyone. If you’re on top of your game and if you’re too strong to be weak and too great to be humbled, this message is designed by God to go into one ear and straight out the other. He opposes the proud, yet gives grace to the humble. If you find yourself in need, an imperfect person at the end of your own ability to be “the good one”, then this is your message and your time to receive it. Today. Right now. “Lord make it real for me – I want Christ”s gift of righteousness”.

And …

This is a really big “and”:

And we never leave this gospel (Message of Good News). This gospel of the gift of Christ’s righteousness to you, and unearned by you, received in faith (trusting dependence) is what defines Christianity.

Anything less or different is just a crowd of people playing religion.

Everlasting Righteousness lasts forever.

How to Get Christians to do Good Works

Concerned that your congregation isn’t mindful enough to do things that help people?  Paul gave Titus The Formula for motivating Christians to good works: “Speak these things“.

What are these things?

First, here’s the formula in Titus 3:8 (NASB):

“This is a trustworthy statement; and concerning these things I want you to speak confidently, so that those who have believed God will be careful to engage in good deeds. These things are good and profitable for men.”

And the ESV is even more clear:

“The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people.”

So the answer is to insist on these things – but what are these things that are supposed to be so excellent and profitable for people? What are the things that leaders in the church should insist on, so that the congregation will be motivated to good works?

<Drum Roll>

In the preceding four verses, we find these things.

“But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”

For comparison, here is the New Living Translation:

But—“When God our Savior revealed his kindness and love, he saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He washed away our sins, giving us a new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit. He generously poured out the Spirit upon us through Jesus Christ our Savior. Because of his grace he declared us righteous and gave us confidence that we will inherit eternal life.”

So, in short, if we want the congregation to do good works, then let’s tell them what God has done for them – freely done for them in Christ.  Let’s get them to know that and to believe that and to depend on that.

But first, dear Christian teacher, do you notice the irony?  To get Christians motivated for good works, you need to teach them about how God saved them according to his mercy and not based on good works.

Let’s preach the Good News!  If it doesn’t sound “good“, it may not be the gospel!

His Tree or Your Tree?

Friends, what makes us acceptable before God, our conscience or the righteousness of Christ?

Let’s consider the types in the Old Testament.  There are many, and many of them point to Jesus. Here are two types – see if you can recognize which one is your conscience and which one is Christ:

When the first man ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the other Tree was hidden. The other Tree is the Tree of Life. Adam was forced out – away from the presence of the Tree of Life.

Many years later, when the Second Man hung on a tree, reconciling us to God and rising in power, he defeated the enemy, who enslaved us to the tree of knowledge of good and evil (our conscience).  So now the cross of Jesus Christ is our Tree of Life which takes away our slavery to the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  When we eat the fruit from this Tree, we are taken away from the presence of the other tree.

Jesus is our Tree of Life.

The old tree has more than one gnarly branch.  It is the knowing of both Good and Evil.  Some of us think highly of ourselves, and some of us think lowly of ourselves – either way, it’s “good and evil” knowledge. In both, we cover ourselves with our works, like Adam did when he and Eve covered themselves with the works of the garden – the fig leaves. Adam was placed in the garden to work the garden.  He used his works to cover his shame.  But God’s plan is not like our plan – He won’t accept our works as a covering for our shame. What is His way? – blood and new skin.

Approaching God with our good works is like wearing fig leaves.

Sometimes we think too highly of ourselves, and we can’t grasp the significance of grace and mercy – we are willfully ignorant of our shame. Our fig leaves seemingly work well for us.  Sometimes we think so lowly of ourselves that we refuse to grab hold of grace and mercy by faith. Both approaches to God or away from God are conscience-driven. Both are from the wrong tree.

So friends, what will you depend on today in your prayers and thoughts and reception of blessing before and from God?  How will you cover your shame? Will it be with your good behavior?

I don’t know about you, but …

My aim today is to claim Blood and to wear New Skin.

Confession Obsession

Beginning in the first chapter of 1st John, the apostle John addresses the heresy that was being taught by deceivers in some of the local churches – that Christ didn’t really come in the flesh. These false prophets had gone out from the apostles of the church into the local assemblies. John wrote, “They went out from us, but they were not of us”, 1st John 2:19.

Note: if you arrived here independently, you may want to read the previous article, “The Surprising Purpose of John’s Letters”.

Starting in verse six, John gives a series of contrasts so that the reader can make a distinction between the false prophets.  Later, he wrote “Make sure no one deceives you!” (1st John 3:7)

So John writes in a certain style, “If we… but if we”.  And it’s paramount to our spiritual health that we understand that John is writing in this manner: “If someone in the church does ______, but if someone in the church does _____”.  In other words, John is making distinctions between false Christians and true believers.

As he said in 1st John 3:7 – “Little children, let no one deceive you.”

And again, “… many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist.” 2nd John 7.

And in 1st John 2:19 – “They went out from us (the apostles), but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us”.

“I  wrote something to the church, but Diotrephes…” – 3rd John 9

So when we get to the ever-popular 1st John 1:9 – “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”, we should stop and put on our thinking caps for a moment.  Did John give us (true Christians) a prescription for getting new forgiveness for the sins we commit in our daily walk with Christ?  Or was he, perhaps, trying to say something else.

Take a look at both the previous and the following verses (verse 8 and 10).

“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” 1st John 1:8

“If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” 1st John 1:10

Notice something?  Or … notice a few things?  Here’s what I notice:

  1. Verses 8 and 10 contrast with verse 9.
  2. In verse 8, the people do not have the truth (the truth is not in them)
  3. In verse 10, the people do not have God’s word (his word is not in them).
  4. The people who John writes about in verses 8 and 10 do the opposite of what true Christians do.  They say they have no sin and they have not sinned.  But if that’s true, then they don’t need a Savior at all.
  5. The word “confess”, which has become a loaded word, is used in contrast to “If we say…” and that just happens to be the literal meaning of the word in the Greek.  The Greek word is “homologeo”.  The first part is homo, meaning “the same”. The second part is logeo and means “to say”.  So literally, “confess” means to say the same thing (that God says about our sins).

So, 1st John 1:9 isn’t a prescription for the true believer to get new forgiveness.  Rather, it’s a contrast to 1:8 and 1:10 about false prophets in the church who say they have no sin and have not sinned, which is a dangerous heresy – one which, if believed, would turn a person away from Christ for salvation.  After all, who would need a Savior (from God’s wrath against sin) if that person has no sin and has not sinned?

But, if we (true Christians) go around all day asking God to forgive us each time we sin a new sin, then we aren’t resting in the finished work of Christ.  All day long we bring death to God instead of life!  The apostle Paul wrote to us and said, “In the same way that Christ died once to sin (ie, once for all time) and now lives to God, we too are to consider ourselves dead to sin (once for all time) and alive to God (Romans 6:11, paraphrase).

And again in Colossians 3:13 – “… forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave (past tense) you, so also should you”.

And in Ephesians 1:7 – “In him we have (present tense – we have it now) redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses”.

Once more in Ephesians 4:32 – “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave (past tense) you”

Forgiveness is a finished work.

The writer of Hebrews wrote,

“where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin”.

Still not convinced that you don’t need to approach God in death all day, every day (or at least, whenever you sin)?  Then how about this in Hebrews 9:22,

“… without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins”.

Did you see that?  You can ask God to forgive you all day long, but you won’t get it unless Jesus bleeds for you.

But we know Christ isn’t going to come down from heaven and die again!  We know this because of Hebrews 10:12 –

“when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God”.

And then again, a few verses later in Hebrews 10:14, the writer says,

“by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified”.

Dear Christian, from God’s perspective, you are perfect right now.  Your perfection was accomplished 2000 years ago through the blood of Christ.  There is nothing left to be done in this regard!

But wait.  Let’s finish up where we started – in 1st John.

Just two verses later – after our famous 1:9 – we come to 2:1.  John changes his tone here.  Now he begins with “My little children”.  Instead of continuing with contrasts, John is now writing an encouragement (perhaps he’s doing so in case someone might misunderstand 1:9).

What does he say exactly in 1st John 2:1?

Pick one:

  1. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, he should just ask for forgiveness again and again.
  2. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, Christ will come back down from heaven and endure the cross all over again so that the sinner can get new forgiveness.
  3. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, he should go sit in a dark box and tell his sins to a funny-looking guy dressed in a funny-looking robe.
  4. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, he should verbally recount it as fast as possible in order to avoid “disfellowshipping” from God and the associated perils, such as lightning strikes, boils, pestilence, etc.
  5. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.

To the little children, John gave no formula.  He only reaffirmed a basic truth: “… we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous”.  No formulas. No walking around in death.  No trying to get yourself to be “the righteous one”.  Just a simple fact. If you sin, you have an Advocate in heaven.

While we can distinguish between false Christians and true Christians by observing who agrees with God that they have sin and commit sins (something to which true Christians admit), we no longer need to do anything for our sins except trust in the finished work of our Advocate in heaven.

The next time someone points you to 1st John 1:9 to deal with your sins, kindly point that person to 1st John 2:1.