In other places I have written about whether or not a Christian should have a guilty conscience. This post specifically addresses the guilt nonbelievers feel and how they may respond. It’s my assumption, though, that even believers will notice echoes of their own tendencies to ease instead of deal with a guilty conscience in the ways mentioned below.
You Can’t Escape It
Paul mentions there is a law that accuses and convicts both Jew and Gentile. The Jews, being under the law, are judged by the law. And the Gentiles, who do not have the law, still reveal by their nature that they have a law written on their heart (Rom. 2:12–16). So, when a Jew sins, the law points it out. And when a Gentile sins, their conscience points it out. Simply put, no one escapes the guilt of sin. And this puts man in an uncomfortable place when he considers the reality of a holy God. Some people may flatter themselves, convincing themselves that they aren’t that bad or that they won’t be found out (Ps. 36:2–3), but everyone’s conscience will bear witness against them on the day God judges the secrets of the heart (Rom. 2:15–16).
This is man’s big problem. It’s not a comfortable thing to think about. It makes death and Christ’s Return something to dread. Even those who deny the truths of Scripture still face the question of “What if?”
It creates a feeling of uneasiness. And we don’t like to feel uneasy. So, what do we do? We try to ease our conscience. It can happen in many different ways, but here are three big categories to consider how we naturally try to ease our conscience.
One way is to double down and try to work off our wrongs, comforting ourselves with the thought that we’ll be able to meet God’s standard. Think of a Jew or Muslim who has devoted themselves to a strict religious lifestyle. There is a sense of security in that. But even those who claim to be following God’s path to salvation can’t make it there without Him. The traditions, the recitations, the externals—they have a way of inflating our view of ourselves, minimizing the reality that we have, like everyone else, fallen short of God.
If you follow Paul’s train of thought, he really captures how someone relying on law keeping most likely overestimates how well they actually keep the law.
“But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth–you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” For circumcision is indeed of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision” (Rom. 2:7–25).
What Paul is saying is that you may have viewed yourself as a master of the law, but if you have broken it—and you have—then you dishonor God and your rule keeping is of no value. The righteousness to boast about it comes apart from the law (Rom. 3:21, 28). To attempt to fulfill the law (ascend to heaven) is essentially to belittle Christ’s work, to bring Him down (Rom. 10:6).
This isn’t so much doubling down as it is changing the rules of the game. “So, what if I’ve done wrong? I’m still a pretty good person.” It’s a classic answer in many places around the world. It’s a simple way to ease a guilty conscience—just believe the good you’ve done outweighs or overshadows the bad.
You could say legalism overestimates how much righteousness we can achieve while moralism more underestimates how much righteousness is required. A legalist thinks they can reach God’s standard of righteousness through the law, and a moralist thinks they’ll be all right just as long as they are characterized as an overall good person. No need to dwell on the wrong you’ve done; just make sure to do more good.
It avoids the issue. Not only does our sinfulness outweigh our goodness, but one ounce of sin is all it takes for man to be separated from a holy God. Death is due, and good works can’t blot out the wrong.
What else can you do to ease a guilty conscience? Ignore it; think about other things! This is perhaps becoming more and more one of the chief influences of the world—trying to keep people distracted so that they never deal with the problem of their guilty conscience. Feeling down? Go watch a movie or scroll social media—anything to numb that uncomfortable feeling.
Chapter one of 1 John sheds some light on the conversation by pointing out what it’s like to avoid the reality of our sinfulness. It involves both lying to ourselves and hiding in the dark. It’s like an ostrich that sticks its head in the sand and pretends everything is fine. We’re scared of the truth about ourselves, so we hide from it and ignore it, especially anything that would expose us. We’re ashamed, which is why someone who is hiding behind a shell either burrows themselves farther inside or attacks when others try to reveal what’s behind the curtain. It’s an act of desperation to avoiding dealing with who we really are.
If you’re hiding in the dark, Christ invites you to come walk in the light. You can find forgiveness and blessing in the light. God says, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Eph. 5:14). Don’t deny the reality of sin and continue to hide in the dark. Confess your sin and walk into the light of God’s presence.
Christ doesn’t just ease our conscience; He cleanses it.
This is not just about easing our conscience, though; it’s about cleansing it. A Christian’s conscience is eased because they have a perfect High Priest interceding on behalf of every sin (1 John 2:1–2). But Hebrews mentions how the blood of Christ will not only cover our guilt, but also purify our conscience.
“How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Heb. 9:14).
This means the blood of Christ not only deals with the guilt of our sin, but actually deals with the sin itself. He doesn’t just make us less guilty; He makes us less sinful.
There’s a difference between living for God and being a legalist, though. The legalist relies on living for God to achieve a good relationship with Him. The blood-washed believer lives for God because of their already-established and secured relationship with Him through Christ.
Put no confidence in the flesh.
Once again, try to follow Paul’s train of thought.
“If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ” (Phil. 3:3–7).
Consider that last phrase: “whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.” This can appropriately be applied to the good physical things we have in this life, but the connection seems a lot more clearly tied to the good we attribute to our spiritual account. Those are the gains—the things he can accomplish with his flesh—that he counts as loss for the sake of Christ. All those accomplishments are rubbish when it comes to gaining Christ.
“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil. 3:8–11).
He’s saying we have to put our accomplishments aside in order to have the righteousness that comes through faith in Christ. If you rely on your law keeping or your good works, you won’t rely on Christ and put your faith in His finished work on your behalf. It’s all worth throwing in the trash if you can just gain Christ. Those works we are holding onto to ease our conscience have to be let go. We want to have something to bring to the table to prove our worthiness, but you have to let it all go to gain Christ.
How can we work in a way that honors Christ’s work on our behalf?
Remember, Christ doesn’t just deal with our guilt; He changes our life. The legalist relies on living for God to achieve a good relationship with Him, but the blood-washed believer lives for God because of their already established and secured relationship with Him through Christ. This is exactly what we see in Hebrews 10. Because of Christ’s work on our behalf, we can “draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Heb. 10:22). This confidence in Christ’s work enables us to hold fast to our confession and live for God as we see the Day drawing near because “he who promised is faithful” (Heb. 10:23–25). It’s not legalistic; it’s faith and hope in the promises of God based on the blood of Jesus (Heb. 10:19).
Our work for God is a result of God’s redemptive work in us—not a prerequisite.
“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Phil. 3:12).
None of us are perfect, and none of us can attain this salvation on our own—it’s only through faith in Christ. This means our work as a Christian isn’t aimed at earning but obtaining what Christ has already made ours.
This was first posted on seminary.bju.edu.