“It is not just in dying that we need a clean conscience, it is also in living.”
In his book, Discovering the Joy of a Clear Conscience, Christopher Ash presents his readers with a robust and accessible theology of the conscience. He defines the conscience as an indispensable inner moral voice, “our self-awareness, particularly about right and wrong [which] enables us to distinguish between them.” God made man in his own image, and the universal reality of the conscience is a remnant of that image of God in man. The apostle Paul writes that even the unbeliever’s conscience bears witness to the work of God’s law in their hearts (Romans 2:15).
However, our conscience can’t always be trusted as a guide. We should seek to live with a peaceful conscience, but “not every quiet conscience is a good conscience.” This God-given guide is not always correct. It is a real voice, but it’s also an unreliable voice: it may tell us we are innocent when we are guilty or it may tell us we are guilty when we are actually innocent. Conscience was designed to follow God’s law, but man has fallen, and so humanity needs a better revelation of God’s law - an inerrant one - that can calibrate it. That’s why we need the written, infallible and inerrant Word of God, the Holy Scriptures. When we submit to the Scriptures, “this recalibration takes time to get deep inside us,” but it can bring “the over-sensitive conscience into freedom in Christ” and sharpen “the under-sensitive conscience into godliness.” God does this not only through our individual learning of the Scriptures, but also through discipleship in godly communities.
For the Reformers, ‘conscience was the court in which God’s justifying sentence was spoken.’ (J. I. Packer)
People with guilty consciences are restless, burdened, fearful, angry, resentful and anxious. A guilty conscience “foreshadows the terrible and total absence of friendship in hell.” The guilty conscience is not merely a result of internalized values from our parents and culture. It is a sign of alienation from God. Ash develops our understanding of the conscience: it is not only a guide, but also a courtroom. He explains the elements of a courtroom that are contained in the conscience: it keeps records and acts as witness, prosecutor, judge and executioner. In all of those aspects it was designed to follow the moral law of God.
Therefore, when we face our conscience we are facing a choice. Will we dive into worldly sorrow or will we embrace the godly sorrow that responds with repentance? Worldly sorrow hardens the conscience and desensitizes our sense of morality, but godly sorrow leads to repentance and life. In the work of salvation, the Holy Spirit “starts by making our guilty conscience hurt more, abominably more, than it had ever done before.” This painful awareness of sin and guilt “is necessary if the disease of the heart is to be healed.” Ash shows us what a conscience awakened by the Holy Spirit looks like with a deep exposition of David’s repentance in Psalm 51. David knows the depth and the direction of his sin, and his conscience exposes his person, not just his actions.
“A guilty conscience is more terrified by imagined fears, than a pure conscience is by real ones. A guilty sinner carries a witness against himself in his own bosom.” (John Flavel)
“Real Christianity awakens the conscience” and true Christian experience requires a sense of need for both forgiveness and new birth. Conscience is proof of our need for the gospel, it is reality’s bridge into our inner world exposing who we really are. In the declaration of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, everyone who believes receives Christ’s forgiveness (justification) and a new nature (regeneration).
Christopher Ash reminds us that from the preaching of the apostles in Acts to the Reformers and the Puritans, to great modern preachers like Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “the great task of awakening people’s consciences is a mark of authentic Christian ministry.” Preaching students are taught about “the appeal to the conscience.” In order to do that, the one who preaches must have his own conscience awakened and cleansed by the Word of God before he appeals to the consciences of others.
Conscience is “a man’s judgment of himself, in line with God’s judgment of him.” (Thomas Aquinas)
Ash does an outstanding job in this book handling the biblical data that addresses conscience. Rather than just looking at every use of the word “conscience,” he shows us just how richly present the concept is in every part of Scripture. For example, the conscience plays a decisive role in the story of Joseph. Reuben and Judah’s consciences tell them that they should not murder their brother, the consciences of the ten brothers haunt them when trouble meets them in Egypt and then again when their father dies and they are reminded of their guilt before Joseph. From the shame felt by Adam in Genesis 3 to Judas Iscariot’s despair in the Gospels, the Scriptures regularly confront us with issues of conscience.
Christopher Ash has given the church a gift in writing this book. He uses the Bible well, but also brings in many quotes from sources like Thomas Aquinas and the Reformers, the Puritans, Shakespeare, Plutarch, Philo and the confessional documents of the church. At the same time, almost every other page in the book has a short contemporary story that applies or illustrates the content of that section. This book shows that the message of the Bible is always deeply needed and supremely relevant for sinners.
Other reviews: Dr. Charlie Wingard.
Photo by Saksham Gangwar on Unsplash
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