Law and Gospel in Joyful Clarity
Everyone has a conscience, and this conscience tells us, “Things are not like they are supposed to be.” “Something’s wrong here!” That’s the voice of your conscience. It is a voice that accuses or excuses (Romans 2:15), that lets us know that this world is broken.
I think our conscience recognizes four types of wrong in the world: (1) something is wrong with the way I treat others, (2) something is wrong with the way others treat me, (3) something is wrong with the way other people treat other people, and (4) something is wrong with the world. Each of these conscience insights brings it own temptation, a false and sinful response to the voice of our conscience.
An Imprecise Instrument
The conscience is like our stomach, a very imprecise instrument. Our stomach tells us that we need to eat something so we stop hurting, but it does not tell us what to eat, when to eat, how to go to school to learn to read and write so that we can get a job and earn a living to buy food. Our stomach simply says, “Make the pain stop.” Many people have been led astray by their stomach, eating something deadly, drinking salt-water, etc.
So our conscience: it tells us that something is wrong, but does not give us directions to stop the pain. This, dear friends, is why there are so many religions, and so many worldviews. Every false religion is a man-made attempt to end the pain of our conscience. They all follow the same logic: My conscience is bad because I do bad things, so it will be good if I do good things. My conscience is bad because other people do bad things to me, so it will be good if other people treat me right. My conscience is bad because there are things wrong in the world, so it will be good if things in this world are fixed. Every religion (and worldview) combats a bad conscience with good works, but this never works. No matter how hard we try there is still sin, and death, and destruction, and things wrong around us.
Something is Wrong with Me
The first thing our conscience tells us is that there is something wrong with the things I do. Like a home plate umpire, our conscience makes the judgment of “good” or “bad” for all the things we do, say and think. Like every umpire, though, our conscience sometimes makes the wrong call. This is a point not to me missed: a conscience can be wrong. Some consciences are better than others and making the right judgement, and the ability of our conscience to make a correct judgment changes over time. Repetitive sin and addictions harden the conscience. Not hearing the Lord’s word sends a conscience get off track. The longer we live in this sin-filled world, the more temptation and sin our conscience endures, the more likely it is that our conscience would get things wrong. In fact, most people, when asked if they are good or bad, respond, “I’m a good person.” This is a sure sign their conscience is not functioning properly; it has become blinded to its own sin.
With our conscience’s judgment of our own works, the devil tempts us to pride (“I’m doing pretty good”) or despair (“I’m a wretch; there’s no hope for me”). We cover the pain in our conscience with pride, with our own invented good works, or with self-pity, and in this way we never get to the real trouble: we are guilty, we are sinners. And if we never get to the real trouble, we never make it to the Lord’s solution: the blood of Jesus, the Gospel.
Something is Wrong With the Way Others Treat Me
Even when a conscience fails to see your sin against others, it certainly sees when other people sin against you. I might not notice saying something rude, but I’ll never miss it when someone says something rude to me! Our consciences are much more sensitive to incoming sins than they are to outgoing ones.
When our conscience judges our sin the result is guilt. When our conscience tells us that we are sinned against the result is shame. The devil has a special temptation for shame: anger. Anger towards the person who sinned against us covers the pain in our conscience, and never lets us get to the real trouble, or the real solution. Rather bitterness and thoughts of revenge stand between us and a good conscience. The devil here tempts us to think that doing evil will be good for us, that it will make everything right. This is a lie. Even when we are sinned against, it is the blood of Jesus that makes us clean, His righteousness that cover us, His love that makes us whole and frees us from shame.
Something is Wrong With the Way Other People Treat Other People
Our conscience also has the ability to recognize something wrong is happening to our neighbors, that one person is hurting or harming someone else. This, though, is very difficult. We are able to distance ourselves from the sin of other people, especially when the sin doesn’t touch us.
For decades people have identified the desensitizing effect of television and video games. We are surrounded by such violence and lust that our conscience is unable to register it. This struck me a few weeks ago when I was teaching the catechism students about the 5th commandment, “You shall not murder.” As I taught about the evils of our day, how thousands of children are murdered in their mother’s womb, and how history will look back on our era as one of the darkest times in human history, when “They killed their babies before they were born,” I realized that this should hurt, that it should be a pain in my conscience, but that I manage to forget this sin going on around us. My conscience is turned off to the sin of my neighbor against my neighbor. This is the devil’s work.
With the sin of neighbor against neighbor, the devil tempts us to indifference, to apathy, to a lack of concern and love for our neighbor’s well being. Our neighbor ought to be the object of our love and compassion, and our conscience, working properly, sends us in that direction.
Something is Wrong with Everything
There is a fourth type of wrong that our conscience knows: this universe is broken. When we see natural disasters or individual tragedies we know in our conscience “something’s not right here. Things shouldn’t be this way.”
This compels some people to activism, a “save the world” kind of work and worship that attempts to soothe the conscience. The devil tempts others to be angry with God for the tragedies and disasters in this world, or to deny God’s existence all together. Both activism and unbelief cover up the real trouble, that the sin of Adam and Eve runs through the fabric of this creation. When we know this, our hope is directed to God, to the sure promise of the resurrection, and the gift of restoration that Jesus will bring with Him when He returns.
Something, At Last, Is Right
Of all the things that are wrong and broken in this world, there is one thing both broken and beautiful: Jesus. He is perfect, but He took our sins and the sin of all the world to the cross, and suffered there for it. We might think there is no greater tragedy than the cross, but it is on the cross that something, at last, is right. In fact, Jesus on the cross is making everything right, everything good, even you.
It is His suffering, His blood, His death that brings you a good conscience: the certainty that your sins are forgiven, the certainty that your shame is covered, the certainty that your neighbor is God’s gift to you to be the object of your love, and the sure hope of the resurrection, when this entire universe will be made new. God be praised for this certainty, and the goodness it brings to our conscience. Amen.