How Can I Have a Good Conscience?
Good Monday morning, and thank you for listening today. We begin the week with a really sharp and robust question from a listener named Arnaldo. Here it is: “Hello, Tony and Pastor John. Thank you for your labors on this podcast! My question is one that I have struggled with for over two decades now. It’s this: How can I live with a good conscience? The apostle Paul often talks about the conscience, and how specifically a ‘good conscience’ is something he always lived with, apparently even before he became a Christian (Acts 23:1; 24:16). We also see that a ‘good conscience’ is a qualification for Christian leaders (1 Timothy 3:9). And having a ‘good conscience’ is an important goal of the Christian life for all believers (1 Timothy 1:5, 19).
“When I read the way Paul uses the word conscience in these contexts, it seems like he’s saying it means to be ‘presently walking in obedience to everything God has revealed to him.’ He does not seem to mean that he’s trusting in Christ’s blood to cover over his indwelling sin. I believe in both the doctrine of indwelling sin and of progressive sanctification (according to texts like Proverbs 4:18 and Romans 7:21–23). God is always revealing to me new areas, and sometimes old areas, where I need to grow in holiness. These are very real sin issues that I can’t simply stop doing, like turning off a light switch. These are ones in which I am engaged in a long-term, ongoing struggle and fight. So I pray daily for forgiveness (according to 1 John 1:8–10 and Matthew 6:12).
“All this means that I literally never have a good conscience — I am always aware of important ways in which I presently need to repent and become more holy. So if a good conscience is a basic Christian issue, and Paul always had one, yet I will always know of sin areas in my life — and if I have to pray daily for forgiveness — how could I, or any Christian for that matter, ever attain to a good conscience?”
Well, Arnaldo has done his homework. He laid out texts in that question, as I hear it, that contain all the pieces. I’ve got a few to add that might take a little turn. Wow, he’s not winging it here in asking that question. If there’s a solution, and I do believe there is, it’s probably found inside those texts that he was just commenting on, but maybe drawing some inferences from them that were not necessarily accurate.
Sin That Dwells Within
I feel the force of the question. Experientially, walking in a good conscience is not easy for me since I share Arnaldo’s deep awareness of my ongoing, indwelling sin. That’s Paul’s term in Romans 7:17, 20, 23. We all have remaining corruption and indwelling sin. The more keenly you are aware of that, the more you will feel embattled at the level of needing a good conscience.
“The whole New Testament does assume that in this life, nobody attains sinless perfection.”
I get it. I mean, I think that’s a serious question. The whole New Testament does assume that in this life, nobody attains sinless perfection. We need to just settle that. That’s one of the premises. Nobody attains sinless perfection in this life.
Jesus said that we would pray, “Forgive us our debts” right after, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11–12). They go together. Every day, say both of those. Paul said, “Not that I have already attained [perfection], but I press on to make it my own” (Philippians 3:12). He referred to the sin that dwells in him and cried out in dismay, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). Jesus pointed to the publican who said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” over against the Pharisee who was thanking God that he had such a clear conscience — and he said that the one who cried out for mercy about his sin went down to his house justified (Luke 18:10–14). It was good for him to own his sinfulness, not to say, “Oh, it doesn’t exist. I’ve got a clear conscience. I don’t have any sin to repent of.” We feel the force.
Now, I think 1 John 1 is not only especially illuminating but gives us a category alongside good conscience that may provide the solution.
Walking in the Light
Here’s my reading of 1 John 1, starting with verses 6 and 7.
If we say we have fellowship with God while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.
Now, that is staggeringly amazing. “If we walk in the light . . . the blood of Jesus . . . cleanses us.” Wow. Here’s 1 John 1:8: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Now he’s reeling it back in and saying, “Don’t assume that when I say, ‘Walk in the light,’ I mean sinlessness.” First John 1:9–10 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”
Now, what’s amazing about this passage is that it says we must be walking in the light for the blood of Jesus to cleanse us from our sins. Then he says that this walking in the light doesn’t mean sinlessness. We are liars if we say it does. Then he explains that when we walk in the light, we see clearly enough — we have light — to know sin, to see sin as what it is and hate it and confess it. Then we enjoy ongoing cleansing and forgiveness.
“A good conscience is virtually the same as walking in the light.”
Here’s what I would draw from this if I use the category of conscience to explain this passage: a good conscience is virtually the same as walking in the light. Christians should be able to say, “I’m walking in the light,” and mean it, and mean by that, “I’m walking in a good conscience.” Which means I don’t think we should equate having a bad conscience with having indwelling sin. Now, that may be the most important thing I say, Tony. Let me say it again. I’m inferring, from what I’ve said from 1 John 1, that having a bad conscience is not the same as having indwelling sin. They’re not the same.
Our Clear Conscience
That’s my basic answer to Arnaldo’s question. He feels that as long as he is aware of the reality of indwelling sin, as in Romans 7, he cannot have a good conscience. Now, if that were true, I don’t think Paul could ever have a good conscience, but he clearly says he does have a good conscience.
“I thank God whom I serve, as did my ancestors, with a clear conscience” (2 Timothy 1:3). He expects the elders of the church to do the same: “They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience” (1 Timothy 3:9). That’s the goal for all Christians. According to 1 Timothy 1:5, “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” I don’t think we should equate a good conscience with sinless perfection in this life, nor equate a bad conscience with the presence of indwelling sin or remaining corruption. Rather, a clear or a good conscience is like walking in the light.
If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin [in other words, if we interpret “walking in the light” as “sinless perfection”], we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:7–9)
I think both Paul and John inherited this concept of ongoing, indwelling sin that nevertheless coexists with a good conscience from the Psalms in the Old Testament.
For example, in Psalm 25, David confesses three times that he’s a sinner. “[God] instructs sinners in the way” (verse 8); “Pardon my guilt, for it is great” (verse 11); “Forgive all my sins” (verse 18). The psalm comes to an end in verse 21 like this: “May integrity and uprightness preserve me, for I wait for you.”
In David’s mind — now, he’s writing under God’s inspiration, and this is not the only place in the Psalms; there are a lot of psalms that distinguish the righteous and the wicked. The righteous are really righteous: they’re walking in the light; they have a good conscience. In David’s mind, there is an integrity and an uprightness that is aware of indwelling corruption that breaks out at times in sins. It does. And that ongoing reality of indwelling sin does not nullify what David calls his integrity and his uprightness.
I think Paul and John saw that. They were immersed in the Old Testament and used language that way. John used the language of walking in the light though we are imperfect. Paul used the language of walking in a good conscience though we are imperfect. I think for all of them (David, Paul, John), the key that enabled them to think this way is that they all knew God had made a way for all their sins to be passed over — namely, the blood of the Lamb, Jesus Christ. David knew this was coming, and Paul and John knew it had come.
I do think Arnaldo is right to say that justification by faith is not the same as walking in a good conscience, or walking in the light, or having integrity. Those are real character traits, not imputed righteousness. Nevertheless, it’s the covering of all their sins by the blood of Jesus that enables them to look upon their conscience and walking and integrity with thankfulness and confidence that it really will be accepted by God as good, though imperfect.
People of Integrity
Here’s one last implication. People might think, “Well, how does this matter?” Here’s a concrete illustration of how it matters. Suppose a pastor is accused falsely of being unfaithful to his wife. The reason he’s accused is because someone in the congregation hates him and wants him to be dismissed. When he comes before the church or the elders to state the truth, with his children present and his wife looking on, that is not the time for him to say to the church, “Well, yes, I am a sinner like everybody else. I’m no better than adulterers. Everyone has indwelling sin that crops out from time to time. I shouldn’t be put on a pedestal. I’m no better than anyone else.”
No, no, no. That is not the time to say that with your kids listening, and your wife listening, and the whole church wondering. What you need to say at that moment is this: “My conscience is clear. I am a man of integrity. I have walked in the light. I have never touched that woman or any woman sexually besides my wife. This accusation is not true.”
I think that is one of the implications of what Paul is saying when he says to the elders and to the rest of us that we should walk in a good conscience — or as John would say, walk in the light.