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TEXT: Hebrews 9:11-15
SUBJECT: A Clean Conscience
When I was a boy, the thing I most wanted to be was tall. Looking at me now, this seems like an impossible dream, but, up until the fifth or sixth grade, I was often the tallest kid in class. Of course, about this time, the other boys had a growth spurt, I didn't, and I ended up at five feet-ten inches tall, which is not exactly 'short', but nowhere near the 6'6-8" I wanted to be.
By the time I graduated from high school, I knew I wouldn't be tall, and so I hoped to be other things: handsome, cool, wealthy, powerful, and of course, a lady's man. Needless to say, these later goals were no more achieved than the earlier one!
Now, as I approach my fifty-fifth birthday, the thing I most want to be is...clean. I wince at the many sinful and foolish things I've done in the past I think of my arrogance, my lust, my meanness, all the hurtful things I've said to my friends and all the evils my wife has suffered at my hands. As the clouds of mortality gather on the horizon, these things hurt me.
Even more than the bad things I've done, though, I regret the countless good things I could and should have done, but didn't. Either because I was too lazy or too proud, too scared, or too 'into myself'. Some of these good things can be made up for, to some degree, but others can't. Now that my boys are grown up, I can't be the father I should have been; now that my parents are with the Lord, I can't be the son I could have been; now that people have died or moved away or otherwise left the church, I can't be there for them, as a good pastor would have been.
These things are on my record and they cannot be justified, excused or explained away. I like to think of myself as a better man than my record indicates, but as the football coach Bill Parcells once said--'You are what your record is'. I had desires to be a better, but I didn't act on them most of the time, and when I did, my actions were often half-hearted.
My past is unclean. Some people might take me for a decent man, 'a nice guy', and I suppose in a civil way that's true. But I know better. And so does the One who--
Does not judge by appearance,
but righteous judgment.
If all of my sins were in the past, I'll feel a little easier than I do. Not quite 'clean', perhaps, but at least 'cleanable' (if that's a word!). Maybe from now on, I'll be the person I should have been in the past. I don't expect to be perfect or sinless, but maybe I can live whole-heartedly in faith, hope, and charity.
This is how I would like to live, but something inside of me has a good laugh at my intentions! I've resolved to do this many times before, and once-in-a-while, I made some headway in them--but then I fell back into my old and evil ways. A voice at the back of my head tells me I'll do it again, that I might feel clean for an hour or two, or maybe a day, but it won't be long until I'm as stained as ever.
I want to be clean--I really do. But I'm not, and everything in my history makes me fear that I never will be, not in this life, I won't.
This is my story, and if it were mine only, I might take it to my psychiatrist, but I wouldn't bring it to the pulpit. Of course, it isn't my story alone, is it? I suspect a great many of you feel the same way that I do. You're being pulled in two directions: God is pulling you up and sin is pulling you down; your future offers hope, but in the past there is only failure.
Like Isaiah, you and I stand before the Lord, unclean. We are spiritual lepers, not fit for God's Presence or the company of His people. But here we are at church: where God has promised to meet us, and with saints in front of me and sitting to your right and left. Why are we here? Maybe we're here out of habit. I like football as well as the next man, but I can't imagine staying home from church to watch the early game. Maybe we're here because of hypocrisy, wanting to look better than we are. Maybe we're here to sooth our consciences, to make up for all the low down things we've done during the week.
Or maybe we're here to become clean, to find the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit.
If you've come for this reason, I cannot cleanse you myself--how could I? I'm as dirty as you are! But I can point you in the right direction. As the prophet said, there is--
A fountain opened...for cleansing.
And even though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow. Not after you've achieved a level of spiritual fitness--haven't you seen the futility of that? Aren't you as sick and tired as I am of trying to make yourself good enough for God?'
Today you can be clean, clean enough for God! Unlike our own showers and baths and Israel's ceremonial washings, this cleansing starts on the inside and works its way out. In other words, we don't become clean on the inside after we've cleaned up the outside, but the other way around: God cleanses us on the inside, and clean in there, our outer become clean.
Today and next week, DV, we're going to look at spiritual cleansing, starting with what Hebrews 9:14 calls--
The purging of conscience.
WHAT IS THE CONSCIENCE?
The writer of Hebrews uses the word, conscience, but he doesn't define it, except that's it is the opposite of the flesh (v.13). The sacrifices of Israel could cleanse the flesh--he says--but they cannot purge the conscience. Thus, whatever 'conscience' it is not part of your body, and so, it's uncleanness cannot be seen by the naked eye and it's disease cannot be spotted by an X-ray, a CT scan, or an MRI.
Conscience is part of you, to be sure, but not a physical part. It is a spiritual organ, you might say, and like physical organs, it does something for you. Paul tells us what it does in Romans 1,2.
In Romans 1, he tells us the conscience does two things for us: It assures us that there is a God and that we are accountable to Him. In Romans 2, he puts a finer point on it. Conscience, he says, either--
Accuses or excuses us.
When you help a little old lady across the street your conscience says, 'Good'; when you push her in front of a speeding bus, it says, 'bad'. In other words, conscience creates a sense of right and wrong; it produces feelings of guilt and innocence. This, it seems to me, is the powerful witness to the existence of God. If there is no God, who are we accountable to? The law, of course, our families, and so on, but why do we feel guilty when we do bad things in secret, things we cannot be arrested for; things our wives and kids don't know about and never will?
If you've read Dostoyevsky's great novel, Crime and Punishment, you've seen how the world is. Raskalnikov commits 'the perfect crime'; he kills a pawn broker and her mentally retarded niece. To his way of thinking the victims are parasites on the community, and nobody will miss them. Since he had no motive for his crime, and since he was a 'gentleman', there's no chance the killer will be caught. He got away with it!
Except he didn't. He felt terrible guilt for what he did and started hinting at his crime to the Inspector, who arrested him and saw that he was duly punished for his crime.
Crime and Punishment is fiction, of course, but I once talked to a real policeman who said the main reason criminals are caught is because they give themselves away. They talk too much.
Why? Because they have a conscience and conscience pushes them to confess.
Conscience, therefore, is an internal monitor, it tells you if you're doing right or wrong and, when you do wrong, it gives you no peace until you come clean.
Is anyone's conscience infallible? No. Is everyone's conscience as well informed and sensitive as it should be? No. But everyone has a conscience, and in the Presence of God's holiness, everyone's conscience cries--
IS A CLEAN CONSCIENCE POSSIBLE?
If we all have consciences and every one of them bears witness to our guilt and pollution, we have to ask ourselves: is a clean conscience possible? Or is exhorting us to get and keep a clean conscience sort of like urging us to grow wings and fly to the moon?
Looking into ourselves, we despair of having a clean conscience. Even in the relative innocence of childhood, we remember the mean and selfish things we did. But, if we're not innocent and cannot make ourselves innocent, is a clean conscience possible?
The Bible says it is. In a couple of places, Paul said he strove to keep his conscience free of offense toward God and man, and, evidently, his striving was successful. He knew he was a sinner, but he wasn't weighed down with the guilt and spiritual paralysis that goes with it.
Thus, his conscience was clean, and so was David's, a man notorious for his hateful and public sins. If you know his story, you know he was a man of God in his youth and later years, but somewhere in between, some time in his fifties, it seems, he committed a serious of appalling crimes--not just 'sins'--but crimes, capital crimes I might add.
e took another man's wife, and to make things worse, the man was a personal friend and one of his most decorated solidiers. But one afternoon, seeing the man's beautiful wife, he took her to bed. To cover up what he did, he had her husband murdered. And then, for months, he covered up his sins and acted as though everyone was 'fine, just fine' between him and God.
Of course, it wasn't 'just fine', and before long, his conscience began to bite him with a vengeance. He tells us story in Psalms 32 and 51, where he is tortured by guilt, guilt so serious that it could not be atoned for by the sacrifices of Israel.
But the Psalms that say how dirty his conscience was, also say it was cleansed. David the sinner called himself, blessed because his sin was forgiven, and because he was made clean in the inward parts.
It is possible, therefore, for sinners to have a good conscience.
HOW IS IT (NOT) GOTTEN?
How? The most common answer is also the most wrong-headed. If my conscience becomes dirty because of my sin, all I've got to do is quit sinning and it will become clean. That's right! All I've got to do is quit sinning.
But how do you quit sinning? And, more to the point, how do you quit sinning when you're conscience is bad. Bad consciences make us guiltier than we are not more innocent!
Another false way is to suppose that God's love is so great that He doesn't care about your sins. The problem is: He does care about your sin! Time and again, the Bible forbids sin and warns of the consequences if we don't.
Some people think the God of the Old Testament was angry and the God of the New Testament isn't. The fact is, the New Testament says far more about eternal damnation than the Old Testament does. Indeed, if we didn't have the New Testament, we'd have to wonder if there is a Hell at all. But there is, and the God of the New Testament sends people there for their sins.
A third false way to get a good conscience is to blame other people for your own faults. If your wife had been more loving, you wouldn't have strayed. If your father hadn't beaten you, you wouldn't have beaten your own son. If the system wasn't rigged against your class, your race, or whatever, you'd be a model citizen.
There is some truth in all this. The sins of other people provoke us to sin. Jesus says they do. But for all my parents' faults, my wife's, and the system's, I myself have also sinned, and there's no getting away from it. My parents were guilty, but so am I.
Proverbs 20:9 asks a rhetorical question--
Who can say,
'I have made my heart clean,
I am pure from my sin'.
No one can. The whole world is guilty before God and every conscience is deeply stained with sin.
HOW CAN IT BE GOTTEN?
For all this, a clean conscience can be had, but it can only be had in one place and one way.
The place is the Cross, where Jesus Christ, the Son of God, offered Himself to His Father's justice, and died in the place of sinners. The language of our text is that of Jewish sacrifice. Just as goats, bulls, and so on, were offered on an altar in the Presence of God, and their deaths cleansed the Jewish body (that is made him acceptable at the Temple)so Jesus, in the Presence of the same God, offered Himself for our salvation, and made us acceptable to God and fit for Heaven.
Many years before this occurred, the Psalmist wondered how any sinner could stand in God's Presence--
Lord, who may abide in your tabernacle
and who may dwell in your Holy Hill?
He went on to describe such a man, and how I wish I were he! But I'm not. Everything the Psalm describes, I am not! But Jesus is--and He is my Savior. He is acceptable to God, worthy to stand in His Presence without shame or fear...
And united to Him by faith, so are we. This is what our passage teaches, that the death of Christ purges our consciences and makes us acceptable to God.
It is possible for unclean consciences to be clean. By only through faith in Christ.
EVANGELISM AND EDIFICATION
Every Christian knows this, and when he witnesses to the lost, he says so. But when it comes to himself, he forgets his Gospel and falls back into a system of works, making himself clean by stopping this, starting that, and doing other things better. It doesn't work for him any better than it works for the unsaved man.
If the conscience is made clean by faith in Christ in the first place, it is also kept clean by faith in Christ! There is no salvation--and no benefit salvation apart from the Gospel, which is and remains the one and only--
Power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes.
You need to tell yourself this the next time you're feeling guilty, dirty, ashamed of yourself. Should you confess your sins? Yes. Should you resolve to do better? Yes. Should you make restitution for the wrongs you've done? If you can, you ought to. But a good conscience doesn't come from feeling sorry for what you've done, admitting all you've done, or promising to be better from now on.
It comes from faith in Christ, a Christ who hates your sins infinitely more than you do, but also make reconciliation for you. In a word--
These things I write to you that you do not sin. But if anyone sins, he has an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Holy One, and He is Propitation for our sins, and not for ours only, but for the sins of the world.
You don't have to be dirty any more. You can be clean. Starting now. Praise the Lord. Amen.
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