Standing in front of the Jewish religious “high court” in Acts 23, Paul says this:
Acts 23:1 And looking intently at the council, Paul said, “Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day.”
The High Priest’s reaction follows in v. 2.
Acts 23:2 And the high priest Ananias commanded those who stood by him to strike him on the mouth.
Given the fact that the Jews wanted to put Paul to death, the reaction isn’t totally surprising. Still, a strike on the mouth is a strike on the mouth. It raises the question: Why does Paul’s invocation of a good conscience raise such anger?
Are we Christians, set free by the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins, afraid to have a good conscience? Do we think that faithfulness consists on endless doses of “Lutheran (or insert your confession of choice here) Guilt?” Are we annoyed or offended when we see others living with a good conscience, either because we do not live the same way or because we think they should not have such a conscience? After all, in a court of law you wouldn’t let the accused’s “good conscience” stand? That and 50 cents might buy you a cup of coffee somewhere, (not Starbucks), but it won’t acquit you.
There’s something shocking about the freedom of the Gospel. Forgiveness provides freedom. As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us (Psalm 103:12). The freedom of the Good News is rooted in God’s removing of sins from us, not merely Himself. He does remove sins from Himself, His mind, but when they are removed from Him they are, by default, removed from us.
In other words, what are we free from? Lutherans are quick to say “salvation by works of the Law, condemnation, death itself,” and these are all correct. But perhaps the most profound aspect of the freedom of the Gospel is the freedom we have from ourselves. When the Gospel is truly apprehended by faith, (which is entirely God’s doing, not ours), it creates a good conscience. It seems to me that true good works flow from this freedom, this freedom of a good conscience.
The High Priest ordered for Paul to be struck in the mouth. In his court of law, Paul’s invocation of a good conscience sounded very arrogant. Not only was Paul preaching in the name of Jesus, (his “crime”) if you will, but just the invocation of a good conscience must have sounded as if he was innocent, as if he had done nothing wrong, as if his actions were right.
Do you have a good conscience? Do you have the kind of conscience that Paul has? Conscience, the hard-wired knowledge of right and wrong which God has written on the human heart, truly is a gift of God. Nevertheless, is conscience only something to be understood and felt negatively? Like when we have failed to do what we ought to have done? Is it then–and only then–that conscience really matters?
Perhaps that’s the impression we have been giving. Indeed, God’s Law hits the human conscience hard, showing us our sin and our incessant desire to depose God from the throne of our hearts every day and in many ways. This is the primary function of the Law, to prick the conscience, to cut to the heart (Acts 2:37).
But what a miserable message Christianity would be if that was all it offered! Indeed, the problem with all the other false religions out there is precisely the fact that they exploit a bad conscience by demanding more and more from people.
Paul’s ability to stand before the High Priest and invoke a good conscience comes courtesy of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ for him. It comes courtesy of the forgiveness of even his sins. It comes from being set free from himself to live for the glory of God.
1 Tim. 1:15-17 The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
Paul’s good conscience underlies this brief autobiographical section of 1 Timothy. Paul knows, indeed confesses, that he is “chief of sinners.” TWICE! But Christ has saved Paul from that and it is Christ who now works through Paul. Who gets the glory? V. 17 is a wonderful word of Doxology. Christ gets the glory. What Paul accomplishes in a day goes to the glory of Christ. What he fails to accomplish in a day gets commended over to the grace of God. It’s a win-win. Paul can finish the day and sleep soundly the sleep of a good conscience.
Indeed, a thought for Christians to ponder: What am I really saying if I cannot apprehend God’s grace and have this good conscience? I am saying that God has not really saved me, that I am not forgiven, that I must satisfy Him. And in such an equation, God receives no glory. We, in our determined effort not to have a good conscience, make our God out to be no better than the other false gods.
He is not like all the others. He looks on men in love and saves them. He desires for all men to repent and come to a knowledge of the truth. He desires a good conscience for us, because a good conscience will demonstrate itself in good works. A bad conscience, on the other hand…
What would it take for you to have a good conscience? My task as a pastor is to help you learn this truth and, if you read this article and are convicted by it, I would hope you take my loving offer to work with you to receive a good conscience for your benefit and to God’s glory.