Articles Archive -- Topical Index -- Textual Index

by Al Maxey

Issue #735 ------- November 7, 2017
He who has God and conscience on his side,
has a majority against the universe. Though he
does not represent the present state, he represents
the future state. If he does not represent what
we are, he represents what we ought to be.

Frederick Douglass [1818-1895]

Guilt-Ridden and Conscience-Stricken
Cheering Confirmation of Creator over Conscience
Analysis of and Affirmation from 1 John 3:19-20

It has been oft suggested that one's conscience is one's moral and spiritual compass in his/her journey through this earthly existence. From our earliest conscious explorations of our immediate surroundings, to our ever-expanding examination of the world around us, including things which entice us to destructive detours, as well as countless calls to ennobling endeavors, we have a God-given navigation tool designed to guide us: our conscience. This is often poetically called, both in sacred Scripture as well as secular writings, our heart. "Let your heart be your guide." "Let your conscience be your guide." We have heard these maxims repeatedly throughout our lives, and there is much truth to be found in them. There is also a potential for some significant misunderstanding and misdirection inherent within these sayings that must not be overlooked or downplayed (more about that later). Nevertheless, throughout the history of mankind, our great leaders and thinkers have long been aware of the worth of a man's (and a people's or a nation's) conscience: both to affirm our positive attitudes and actions which tend toward the common good, as well as to condemn our negative or hurtful ones which tend toward less beneficial, and even destructive, outcomes; even motivating us on occasion, both individually and corporately, to avert the latter altogether, adopting a new course in our life-journeys.

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), as he considered the many benefits of following one's moral compass, declared, "A good conscience is a continual Christmas." Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), one of the greatest Russian authors of all time, felt similarly: "Happiness is a clear conscience." Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), Queen of England and Ireland, often called "The Virgin Queen," saw the possibility of great personal gain associated with such purity of heart and mind: "A clear and innocent conscience fears nothing." One could certainly argue that fearlessness can indeed be a virtue for those entrusted with leadership. The spiritually-minded would add that a clear conscience is connected intimately, and of necessity, to divine wisdom. The German theologian and reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) phrased this conviction this way: "My conscience is captive to the Word of God." Some would go even farther, suggesting a personal indwelling of a divine presence. For example, Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), the Swedish philosopher, theologian, and founder of Swedenborgianism, boldly declared, "Conscience is God's presence in man!" Others would simply suggest it is "the voice of God" that whispers to our hearts and minds as we face the challenges of life and seek to choose our attitudes and actions wisely.

The secularists would try and divert our focus away from God when considering the conscience, yet they still realize it is a powerful inner force of mankind. Charles Darwin (1809-1882) wrote, "Ultimately our moral sense or conscience becomes a highly complex sentiment -- originating in the social instinct, largely guided by the approbation of our fellow men, ruled by reason, self-interest, and in later times by deep religious feelings, and confirmed by instruction and habit." Although he concedes the influence of "religious feelings" on the conscience, it is only later in our evolution, he suggests, that such "feelings" arise to explain a more "natural" element of our evolutionary development. The existentialist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), with whom I became quite familiar in my studies in the field of psychology as I worked on my undergrad and graduate degrees, characterized the conscience as "an illness." Mark Twain (1835-1910) called it a "nuisance," saying it was little more than "a spoiled child" always demanding its own way. And then, of course, there are those who have sought, and in some cases rather successfully, to suppress their own conscience altogether. The Nazi leader Hermann Goering (1893-1946), for example, stated, "I have no conscience. My conscience is Adolf Hitler." And we all know how that turned out!

One of my personal favorite statements of understanding about the human conscience, though, comes from The Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican (held from 1962-1965), which is better known to us as "Vatican II" (announced by Pope John XXIII, although he died before the Council concluded). In one of the documents from Vatican II is found this insightful statement: "In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience can when necessary speak to his heart more specifically: 'do this, shun that.' For man has in his heart a law written by God. To obey it is the very dignity of man. According to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths. In a wonderful manner, conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor." As alluded to by Vatican II, and I certainly agree, the conscience is that innermost connection of man to the Ideal of his Creator: to actively and visibly live a life of love. It is indeed our "moral compass" - that inner voice prompted by the indwelling Spirit of God - that urges us, sometimes gently, sometimes forcefully, to walk in a manner worthy of our calling.

The Bible, and the New Covenant writings especially, are certainly not silent with regard to this inner, spiritual moral compass. It is brought to our attention on numerous occasions, especially in the epistles of the apostle Paul, who mentions it most often. The Greek word most commonly used is "suneidesis" (from the verbal form "sunoida"). It conveys, in the original, the idea of "being privy to; sharing in the knowledge of" something. This intimate shared knowledge, to which we are privy, is that insight into the eternal realm, and glimpse into the very nature of God, that He has placed within us - sharing this with us! This is implied rather strongly in Ecclesiastes 3:11 where we are told that God has placed within our hearts an awareness of that greater realm and reality. The Greek word that is mentioned above, in its various forms, appears just over 30 times in the NT documents, and is "the inward faculty of moral judgment, a consciousness of a moral reality, a persisting notion of one's actions and principles" in relation to that greater reality [The Analytical Greek Lexicon, p. 391]. It is this we call the "conscience."

Some of the more familiar NT texts in which this term appears are: "And Paul, looking intently at the Council, said, 'Brethren, I have lived my life with a perfectly good conscience before God up to this day'" (Acts 23:1). "I do my best to maintain always a blameless conscience before God and before men" (Acts 24:16). "They show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness, and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them" (Romans 2:15). "Eat anything that is sold in the meat market, without asking questions for conscience' sake. ... eat anything that is set before you, without asking questions for conscience' sake. ... why is my freedom judged by another's conscience?" (1 Corinthians 10:25-29). "The goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith" (1 Timothy 1:5). "Fight the good fight, keeping faith and a good conscience" (1 Timothy 1:18-19). "Hold to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience" (1 Timothy 3:9). "I serve God with a clear conscience the way my forefathers did" (2 Timothy 1:3). "To the pure, all things are pure; but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure, but both their mind and their conscience are defiled" (Titus 1:15). "We are sure that we have a good conscience, desiring to conduct ourselves honorably in all things" (Hebrews 13:18). "Keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame" (1 Peter 3:16). "For this is commendable: if because of conscience toward God one endures grief, suffering wrongfully" (1 Peter 2:19). As you can readily see, faith and deeds, as well as attitudes and behaviors, are intimately connected to one's conscience. It is truly a "moral compass" for one's life-journey, and happy/blessed are those who do not disregard its "whispered wisdom" to our inner man!

Yes, as Tolstoy stated, "Happiness is a clear conscience." I think we can all relate to that on some level. But, what about those times, and we can all relate to them as well, when we have a guilty conscience because of something we have said, done, felt, or not done? What about those times when our conscience condemns us? How happy and carefree are we then?! The apostle John addresses this very matter in his first epistle, offering some spiritual insight and encouragement much needed for each of us who at times find ourselves struggling with ourselves as we watch ourselves all too frequently falling short of perfect compliance with our moral compass (as per Paul's self-perception - "wretched man" - Romans 7:15ff). John writes, "Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God" (1 John 3:21). I like the way the New Living Translation phrases this: "Dear friends, if we don't feel guilty, we can come to God with bold confidence." It's hard to be happy and content when feeling guilty; when one's heart/conscience is pronouncing a verdict of "guilty before God!" There are times when you and I need to hear this voice; when we need to be confronted by this inner moral compass. This is one of the major purposes of our conscience: to confront us when we stray from the paths of righteousness, as well as commend and confirm us when we walk in a manner worthy of His calling. Thus, John writes, "We shall know by this that we are of the truth, and shall assure our heart before Him, in whatever our heart condemns us" (1 John 3:19-20a).

As we all know only too well, our "heart" not only assures and affirms us at times in our Christian walk, but it also confronts and condemns us! These latter times can prove quite troubling for those genuinely seeking to have fellowship with Him and to "walk in the light as He Himself is in the light" (1 John 1:7). John uses the word "heart," not "conscience," yet he is speaking of the same inner moral compass. "The Greek term 'kardia' refers to the 'heart' as the seat of physical life, and then by extension to the 'conscience' as the center of man's responsible being. In Hebrew thought 'heart' and 'conscience' were not distinguished, and there was no special word for the latter phenomenon" [Dr. Stephen S. Smalley, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 51, p. 202]. "Our heart means our conscience, not the affections" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 22: 1 John, p. 75]. Matthew Henry (1662-1714), the Nonconformist Presbyterian theologian, author and pastor from Wales, made this observation: "Our 'heart' here is our self-reflecting judicial power, that noble excellent ability whereby we can take cognizance of ourselves, of our spirits, our dispositions, and actions, and accordingly pass a judgment upon our state towards God; and so it is the same as conscience, or the power of moral self-consciousness. This power can act as witness, judge, and executioner of judgment; it either accuses or excuses, condemns or justifies; it is set and placed in this office by God Himself" [Commentary on the Whole Bible, e-Sword].

As already noted, there are times when we truly need to be rebuked by our heart/conscience, for we may well be straying from where, what and who our God would have us to be. However, what about those times when the conscience heaps feelings of guilt and inadequacy and worthlessness upon us? It is a short step for most of us from conscience-stricken to guilt-ridden! These times can be extremely discouraging, and these feelings can very quickly turn into a debilitating despair, which can all too soon end in personal defeat and even self-destruction. What good news does the apostle John have for us with regard to this dilemma? The answer is found tucked neatly into a powerful, and very practical, passage in which John gets to the very heart of our Christian walk: living by the law of love (1 John 3:13-24). It is no secret that the world hates us (vs. 13): that is simply the reality we face by being in the world but not of the world. It hates - we love! And for this, it hates us all the more. Yet our love of God and others, and especially our love of the brethren, is a powerful testimony that "we have passed out of death into life" (vs. 14). Haters have no part in eternal life (vs. 15), nor do those who close their hearts to those in genuine need, "for how does the love of God abide in" such people? (vs. 17). Some say they have love, but unless they are willing to show it, their profession of love is empty. Thus, John urges: "Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth" (vs. 18).

Before we go any further, let's take note of that charge in verse 18, for it is central to what John is about to say with regard to the conscience. The aged apostle was not saying that we are forbidden to express our love verbally or with the use of words (which may also include written expressions of love). "The meaning is, 'Let us not love in word only, neither with the tongue alone, but let us also love in deed and truth.' It is an admonition to exhibit our love in such fashion as to demonstrate its reality. ... John forbids the mere babble of brotherly love, when neither the word nor the tongue is attended by the fruits of brotherly love!" [Guy N. Woods, A Commentary on the NT Epistles of Peter, John, and Jude, p. 283]. In other words, genuine God-pleasing love is "not in empty air but amid tangible realities" [Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 5, p. 187]. It is the very real and visible "contrast between lip-service and action in the life of the believer" [Dr. Stephen S. Smalley, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 51, p. 199], "for love is to be active, and not theoretical ... in action and with genuineness" [ibid, p. 198]. When John says love must be in "deed and truth," what he is declaring is that love must be both actively evidenced (deeds) and genuinely motivated (truth). In the latter term, John is echoing the thoughts of Peter, who declared our love of one another must be unfeigned, sincere (1 Peter 1:22), and of Paul, who similarly commanded, "Let love be without hypocrisy" (Romans 12:9). The Greek word used by John in 1 John 3:18 ("aletheia") can indeed be translated "truth," but it also means "veracity, sincerity; to act truly or sincerely" or genuinely [The Analytical Greek Lexicon, p. 15]. In other words, our love must be visible, and our love must be real!! It must not be a mere empty profession, nor a pretense for some personal gain. John is speaking of our actions and attitudes as vital to our walk in LOVE.

With this understanding in mind, we are now prepared to read with greater clarity John's statement in 1 John 3:19-20, where he addresses our concern over those times when our heart/conscience may accuse and condemn us before God. John writes: "We shall know BY THIS" -- by what?: by that which he has just stated about loving actively and genuinely -- "We shall know by this that we are of the truth, and shall assure our heart before Him in whatever our heart condemns us; for God is greater than our heart, and knows all things." The noted Greek scholar Dr. B. F. Westcott states that what John means by the phrase "in/by this" is the true believer's "consciousness of active and sincere love of the brethren, resting upon and molded by the love of Christ" [The Epistles of St. John: The Greek Text with Notes, p. 116]. We all have fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23); "There is none righteous, not even one" (Romans 3:10). Our conscience will quite often bring this fact to our attention with our every failing. This has the potential of shaking our faith and shattering our confidence. But John informs us that God is much greater than our heart/conscience, and is well-aware of both our strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, as long as we are actively and sincerely living lives of LOVE, He overrules our conscience and assures our heart that we are loved and accepted by Him!! "The fruit of love is confidence. Such confidence stills the condemnation which the heart pronounces against the believer" [Dr. Westcott, p. 115], which God does in love "for the calming of human doubts" [ibid, p. 118]. "This sense falls in completely with the context and flows naturally from the Greek" [ibid, p. 117].

Our acceptance by the Father, our salvation, does not depend on perfect law-keeping or following precisely all the rules and regulations of some legal code or legalistic pattern. In fact, the harder we might try, the more our conscience will accuse us of failing miserably. But God is greater, and His grace is greater, than our accusing conscience. He knows us better than we know ourselves, and He knows that none could ever be saved by their own effort. Thus, in love and by grace He saves those who seek Him by faith and serve Him in love! And absolutely nothing else really matters!! Your conscience may accuse you, your critics may condemn you, but your Creator comforts you, confronting your doubts and fears IN LOVE ... and He declares you SAVED! "Here the reality and sincerity of the brotherly love which he has been urging reminds him of one happy consequence of it: that it convinces us of the truth of our profession and of the deep security of our relation to God. If we love as God loves, then our hearts need not fear" [Dr. Charles Ellicott, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 8, p. 486]. "John's chief purpose at this point is to reassure his readers that when believers are most aware of their shortcomings, in respect of God's standards, the love and mercy of the Father are present to heal their troubled consciences. ... It is always true that God's love is greater than our sin!" [Dr. Smalley, p. 203]. "We may, indeed, often be condemned by our own hearts for constantly falling short of our ideal; still, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things, and can estimate the desire even when the execution is defective" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 22: 1 John, p. 84].

John concludes the section by telling us we may approach God with confidence, for God's acceptance is greater than our heart's condemnation; indeed, He overrules the condemnation of the conscience, rendering it null and void. We thus have the right to come into His presence with our prayerful petitions in full assurance of faith. On what basis? "Because we keep His commandments and do the things that are pleasing in His sight" (1 John 3:22). And what exactly does that entail? John tells us in verse 23 -- "And this is His commandment: that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He commanded us." Nothing about religious rules and rituals; nothing about a "worship service;" nothing about who may pass a Communion tray, or lead a prayer, or instruments, or kitchens, or ... etc. BELIEVE and LOVE!! He who does this "abides in Him, and He in him" (1 John 3:24), and He confirms that to our hearts "by the Spirit whom He has given us" (vs. 24). Now this, my friends, is Good News!!

Let me conclude with just a few more quotes which I believe summarize this passage by the aged Apostle John quite well. "Love requires more than idle talk or exalted theology. It demands simple acts, which anyone can see, that meet the needs of brothers and sisters in distress. Any expression of love that fails here is not only empty but blasphemous" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 12, p. 336-337]. Yet, we all "know how easily the conscience can render us ineffective. Doubt, guilt, and failure are never far from any of us" [ibid, p. 337]. However, "John has shifted the ground of our assurance away from ourselves and has established it upon God's faithfulness. That assurance, according to John, is not dependent upon our own perception of ourselves and of our worthiness before God. There is an objective ground that stands beneath our subjective perception, and that ground is God's decision" [Dr. Earl F. Palmer, The Communicator's Commentary: 1,2,3 John & Revelation, p. 57-58]. In our own perception, by the accusations of our conscience, we are fatally flawed, but in the estimation of our Father, we are cherished nevertheless as beloved children! GRACE!! "To be sure, he knows all our failures ... all that our heart finds against us; but He knows vastly more, namely all about our real spiritual state, that the measure of love we do have shows that we have stepped over from death into life; that although we are as yet imperfect in love, and our own hearts penitently acknowledge it, we have been born from Him and are His children" [R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Epistles of St. Peter, St. John and St. Jude, p. 476]. This passage in John's first epistle "contains comfort of a singular kind, since it reassures the believer against himself. The love shown to the brethren is in itself an evidence, a proof, of the new spiritual life in the heart of the believer. As the Christian, however, grows in sanctification, he will often find that his heart is dissatisfied with the progress made, and therefore proceeds to accuse him of lack of love. It is true, of course, ... that we are far from perfection. And yet we can reassure ourselves before the tribunal, in spite of the condemnation of our heart. For God is a greater, a more reliable Judge than our heart, and He has given us the definite assurance in His Word that all our shortcomings in the matter of perfect righteousness will be made up through the perfect righteousness of our Savior, as it was imputed to us by faith. He who knows all things also knows that, in spite of our faults and weaknesses, we are His children by faith in Christ Jesus" [Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible: The NT, vol. 2, p. 570].

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Al, your four books in either of the two digital formats (and I have received both: MS Word and Adobe) are wonderful. Needless to say, the content is so far above average! It is excellent. You have such a gift to say what needs to be said, and to help us all find inroads to truths we have missed in our own studies. Making your books available to us at this time at such a great price is truly helpful to so many! Also, allowing us to now order using PayPal opens up so many new inroads to us who really like your materials and want to acquire them. Thanks for being such a forward thinker!

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Dear Brother Al, With a big "Thank You" I am happy to tell you that your new book I ordered from you recently (From Ruin To Resurrection) has safely arrived here in Sweden. I'm sending you some extra funds (via your PayPal account) to cover the high cost of shipping this book internationally. Thank you for sending this to me! Have a great day and may God bless you richly.

From a Professor in Zimbabwe, Africa:

Thank you very much, Brother Al, for your study of the "Five Daring Daughters of Zelophehad: God's Gracious Response to a Courageous Challenge" (Reflections #734). The presentation is so powerful and inspiring!

From a Minister in New Zealand:

Brother Al, have you got any thoughts on who the "daughters of men" are in Genesis 6:1-4? Another brother and I have been conducting a mid-week class for new Christians, and we have been going through the first few chapters of Genesis. This has led me to notice and observe some things I have never considered before. Also, regarding your new Reflections titled "Five Daring Daughters of Zelophehad," it was a great article! It reminds me again of the consequences of sin in the Garden of Eden, and the ongoing struggle to realize what it really means to be in Christ, particularly in this case regarding gender equality. You have examined this case well, and the uphill battle and courage it takes to expose, reveal and present what really needs to be said is greatly appreciated. Thank you, and God bless you and your great ministry!

From a Reader in Seoul, South Korea:

Al, thanks so much for the article on the "Five Daring Daughters of Zelophehad." I'm sitting here wondering why I had never heard of these women, and why I have never sat through a single Bible study or sermon on them over the past 50 years!! Keep up the amazing work with your writing ministry!

From an Author in Arizona:

My brother, I have been out of town for a few days and only just now got around to reading your Reflections about the "Five Daring Daughters of Zelophehad." You must spend a lot of time preparing these biblical bits of history, and you do a splendid job at it!! Your research is conspicuous throughout, and I enjoy following your thoughts along the way. God bless you, Al.

From a Reader in Georgia:

Al, your study "Five Daring Daughters of Zelophehad" is AWESOME! It was for sure a two-cupper (took me two cups of coffee this morning to get through it)!! I have some lawyer friends that I'm going to pass this along to. Does it seem to you that God has often allowed us to struggle through some of the social issues for ourselves? It does to me. Women's rights, slavery, etc. It seems the "process" of working through many of these issues ourselves is somehow important to God, rather than Him just handing down some commandment. Thinking for ourselves is apparently of some value!! Until, of course, one learns the appropriate "book, chapter and verse" - then one can just regurgitate the proof-texts one has been indoctrinated with! (LOL)

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