A Good Conscience

Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 28:05 mark.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

People today seem to have no sense of right and wrong. Well, that’s not quite true. Nearly everyone has a firm conviction about what is right and wrong; they just can’t agree on it. Some people say this is right and this is wrong; others say that is right and that is wrong. In the middle of this moral chaos, it’s no surprise, then, that many people just throw up their hands and say things like, “Just do whatever feels right to you.” If it feels right, do it. No one can tell you what’s right and wrong for you.

When we are trying to decide what’s right and wrong, the name we often give to that ability is “conscience.” It is our conscience by which we judge what is right and what is wrong. That word in English, which comes from Latin, and the word that St. Peter uses here in chapter 3, are both made up of two words: the second word is the word for knowing something, or becoming aware of something. The word “science” refers, at least originally, to knowledge. But the first word, “con,” means “with.” It is, actually, impossible to have any sense of right and wrong in and of ourselves, from within ourselves. To have a conscience implies, in the word itself, a relationship with someone else. So even if we disagree with what we are taught about right and wrong, we still didn’t get it from ourselves. Our sense of right and wrong comes from somewhere else.

Our conscience is, as the theologian John Kleinig describes it, like a compass. For a compass to work, which means that you can use it to go in the right direction, it has to have a magnetic north. But because sin has infected us and the whole world, our consciences become disconnected from their true north, which is God, and they spin freely. We still try to use them, but in us as we are, they no longer work the way they’re supposed to. If you’re lost in the woods, try using a compass where the arrow constantly shifts. See if you can find your way out. No, we’re lost. Following our hearts, as people encourage us to do, will make it worse, because our hearts are no longer tied to their magnetic north in God. We need to have our consciences set right.

Left to ourselves, our consciences are bad. When we see ourselves reflected in the mirrors of other people, in what they think of us, what they say about us, how they treat us, our consciences can turn against us. I think there are very few people, if any, who actually do not care what other people think of them. We experience guilt and shame, if we do not feel ourselves justified in the eyes of other people. So we do what we can to try and live up to what others say or think. How often do we fail, no matter what we do? And even if we think that the only opinion that matters is our own, how often do we fail even our own standards? Which is a strange phenomenon, isn’t it? We make our own standards of right and wrong, and we can’t even live up to those?

But it’s not only before others that we have a bad conscience. It is also before God. Paul describes it in Romans 2, when he says that the Law of God speaks to us, even written on our hearts, and our consciences now accuse us, and now excuse us. And then we experience the guilt or shame of how we have fallen short of God’s will, or how others have sinned against us. Our consciences are burdened, weighed down: I didn’t do well enough; I did that when I shouldn’t have; I didn’t do that other thing that I should have. I’m a bad father or mother; wife or husband; child, or student, or worker, or whatever. I’m a bad person. I have a bad conscience, accusing me.

But God doesn’t want you to have a bad conscience. That is not His goal. He wants to give you a good conscience before Himself and before other people, to free you from your sin and therefore from the accusation of your conscience. Twice here in these verses, Peter mentions a good conscience, first as we deal with other people, either in suffering or in bearing witness; then, how we get that good conscience. You can’t give yourself a good conscience. You can’t free yourself from the accusation simply by trying harder or doing better. It has to be given to you, and this is what Jesus does.

Hebrews says that it is the blood of Jesus that purifies your conscience from dead works—all the things you do to try and get out from under a bad conscience—and frees you to serve the living God (Hebrews 9:14). Jesus does this through baptism, as your hearts are sprinkled clean from an evil conscience (10:22). It is baptism that now saves you, because the word spoken in baptism, the Name put on you there, is an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus. This corresponds to the water of the flood. It is not the water by itself, of course. If Noah and his family had simply been in the water, they would have been swept away with everyone else. No, they were in the ark floating on top of that destructive water. So we are baptized by the word and Name of God, and saved through that word of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

This is why we pray at every baptism that the one being baptized would be kept safe and secure in the holy ark of the Christian Church. That the water that destroys our sin and death and the power of the devil would purify us and cleanse us from all sin, guilt, and shame. It does this because it gives you the risen Jesus, who is ascended and reigns forever. And if you have Jesus, you have everything. Now, for your conscience to be good, it only depends on what Jesus says about you. Whatever others think or say—whatever you think or say about yourself, for that matter—no longer defines your conscience. God does, and He doesn’t only do it once. He does it all the time, because our conscience still points out and accuses the sin that remains in us until we die. This is the daily work of God through His baptismal word: forgive, renew, cleanse, restore. Freeing you from guilt and shame. Giving you rest from your burdens.

Your conscience has been recalibrated like a faulty compass to point again to the true north, to God in Jesus Christ by His own word, which is the lamp for your feet and a light to your path. You have been freed from dead works to serve the living God. And now you stand before others with a good conscience, too. So whenever God brings someone to you, or puts you with someone, who has a bad conscience, or who wants to know the reason for your hope, you can give it to them freely, with joy. Your hope is tied forever to Jesus, who suffered, died, rose, and ascended. Nothing can change that. Now the compass of your conscience is set to the only true north. So you can speak with gentleness and respect. That word for gentleness means that you are not overly impressed with your own self-importance. You’re not the center of your story anymore. Jesus is. So you know that it is not all about you, on your own, justifying yourself. You can simply speak of Jesus crucified and risen to give every person a good conscience. Do you feel the guilt and shame? Are you burdened by what you’ve done and left undone? The blood of Jesus was shed for you. It purifies you from the dead works we pile up around us, as if they were good for anything but burning. Baptism, which brings you the resurrection of Jesus and sprinkles clean your heart from an evil conscience, is for you! Come into the ark with us! There were only eight in that ark, but this ark of the Church never runs out of room.

So here we are, to be cleansed again, renewed again, to be given again a good conscience. Your sins are forgiven. You stand before God holy and righteous in Christ. Here is His body and blood to assure you of your eternal life in Him. All of this, again and again, until the new compass of our new consciences, bound to Jesus, leads us home finally and forever.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.

– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 5/12/23

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