It is vital for every Christian to keep the conscience clear. There are many things of which the world, flesh and devil may accuse us, which may be true or false. To serve well in the church, and shine light on the state, we must know we’ve done right to maintain a vibrant witness. As Paul says to Felix in his trial at Caesarea: “So I always take pains to have a clear conscience both towards God and man.”
Popularly, some call conscience ‘the Policeman of the Soul.’ Vine’s Expository Dictionary defines conscience as:
“…a co-knowledge with oneself, the witness borne to one’s conduct by conscience, that faculty by which we apprehend (learn or understand) the will of God, as that which is designed to govern our desires.”
Every person has a God-given conscience—it is seared by sin, cleansed by Christ’s blood, realigned by chastening, and retrained and honed by Scripture.
Paul is speaking in his own defense having been mobbed by the Jews, arrested in the Temple, accused of being a plague, acting as a ringleader, starting a riot and been persecuted by Ananias—at this point in legal proceedings he is responding to Tertullus, the High Priest’s prosecution attorney. Now Paul motions to begin his own defense: He sets out to his adjudicator his devotion to Judaism, before denying unprovable false-charges, and then alluding to his conversion. He proceeds to make this statement about clearing his own conscience.
There are many reasons to keep the conscience clear: guilt avoidance, service paralysis, haunted thoughts, vain regrets, spiritual dryness, power withdrawal, discipline escape; but if we ask why Paul strives to keep a clear conscience, it seems to be clearly related to his hope of the resurrection. This was the great expectation of the Old Testament saints and Second Temple Judaism—that God would raise the dead at the General Resurrection:
Having a hope in God, which these men themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust. Acts 24:15
We keep a clear conscience because we will soon stand before God—all men and women from every nation will rise in bodies from their graves and appear before the Judge on that Great and Final Day (unlike most misuses of this word, that Terrible Last Assize, before the throne of Christ, is something that is properly called AWESOME—in its truest, fullest, trembling-in-your-boots sense). As is frequently stated when taking solemn vows (like marriage or ordination), we must always seek to seek, think and act just “as you will answer on the Day of Judgment.” If this reality, which will soon and surely overtake both the living and the dead, does not humble us in the dust and drive us to our knees (to keep the conscience clear), then nothing else probably will. Use this awesome thought of Christ’s appearing as a healthy, daily means of grace in order to deal properly with guilt!
Paul places one word last in sequence in order to emphasize his point. I strive to keep a clear conscience ALWAYS—that’s what he really states. It is not an occasional but a regular, continual practice—the glorious day of Christ made such an impact on his heart that, as often as required, and particularly when accused, or if faced with a moral dilemma, the apostle, by God’s light, was determined to dig down deep—his goal, of course, was to uncover the moral and motive that had determined his course of action in order to do right and purge evil from his heart. It should suffice to say that we should imitate what he states and always keep the conscience clear.
A first-person verb is used ‘I keep my conscience clear.’ Paul does not say he is the ‘policeman’ of others’ hearts. His great concern in conduct is to guard and watch his own steps. He is not like Pharisees who were expert sawdust spotters. Every morning he took a long hard look at his own moral complexion in the sunlight and mirror of Scripture—was there a spot on his cheek or mote in his own eye that he’d neglected or not spotted? Of course, he is not saying we don’t need to be sensitive to the conscience of our brothers—he deals with that important point in another place (don’t tramp on fellow believers who cannot buy into your own hobbyhorse opinions that are not clearly founded on Scripture!). However, we do need to pay careful heed and attention to ourselves. Will you, dear souls, for your own moral, mental and spiritual health, take care for your account and remember to keep it short?
The ESV phraseology “take pains” is certainly colorful. It could mislead however if we imagine it is a struggling, athletic-arena metaphor. Perhaps ‘painstaking’ is clearer. My ‘A Greek Reader’s Bible’ footnote has “do my best, engage in, practice.” This spiritual activity certainly can’t be reduced to ‘had a try and failed’ accompanied by a sheepish, irresponsible shoulder shrug. It would be de-fanged and diminished to shrink this duty to ‘give it a whirl’ or ‘have a bash and see.’ Paul, in his defense, clearly implies a measure of success. It’s as if he wants to say:
“Most Excellent Felix, I am able to clear my name, because I always try to make sure, and do my level best, as far as I can, to search my heart and do what’s right.” It is on this basis, I assure you, that I didn’t cause this riot—God is my judge and I hope you see that I’m sincere.”
There needs to be a spiritual rigor in this devotional, moral task—we cannot answer for anyone else, we are not always able to sustain the peace, other parties and factors may be involved which are beyond our own control or as yet remain concealed: What we can do is, as far as we know, sincerely in our soul, be sure we have taken all necessary steps to make a vigorous, sincere, thorough effort to live at peace with all men, as far as it depends on us. If the outcome is adverse, make sure like Paul, that you have left no stone unturned in efforts to keep the peace. As the Maori paraphrastic closure of Psalm 19 puts it:
“See if there be some wicked way in me, cleanse me from every sin and set me free.”
How can we be rigorous?