I’m preaching a series on 1 Timothy (yesterday was 1:12-20), and it’s started me thinking about the whole concept of conscience, and how so many in the American church abuse it. Literally the word means “to know together with,” and it refers to the things we know together with God about the way the world is supposed to be and the way we’re supposed to live; it’s the awareness God has placed within us of his character and will. We might almost call it a sixth sense, as it gives us the ability to perceive reality in its moral aspect. The problem is, it’s only valuable as far as it accurately reports reality—in this case, moral reality, what is right and wrong in the eyes of God—but that’s not how we want to use the idea of conscience; rather than recognizing it as something objective relating to real right and wrong and actual guilt, we want to take conscience as subjective, reflecting how we feel about something, whether we feel we’ve done right or not. We strive to unhook our conscience from God’s character and will, so that far from challenging our own preferred standards of right and wrong, our sense of conscience merely reflects them.
As I was thinking last week about why this is, and reflecting on Paul’s paean to the mercy of God, it hit me that at some level, we don’t want the conscience God gave us because we really don’t want what God is offering—we don’t want his solution, and we don’t even want to believe what he’s telling us about the problem. The word of God tells us we are sinners, rotten at the core, who need to accept his mercy, to be saved by his grace, through none of our own doing and none of our own merit, and we just don’t want to hear that. We want to believe we’re basically OK—and if we run up against something we can’t get around, that everyone agrees is bad behavior, we want to redefine it as a disease; that way, we’re not bad, we’re just sick.
When the Bible tells us that we do bad things just because we like to do bad things, and that the purpose of our conscience is to convict us of our sin, not to justify our behavior, we resist. As much as we call the gospel good news, it often doesn’t come to us as good news. We don’t consider it good news that we’re sinners saved—despite the fact that we do not and will not ever deserve it—solely by the loving grace of God through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. That kind of thinking is for losers, and we all want to think we’re winners, if there’s any way we possibly can; we want to believe that God saved us because we’re such all-fired wonderful people that we just had it coming. And the truth is, we aren’t, and we didn’t. The truth is, Christianity is for losers—and that means us. Even the best of us.
That’s one reason 1 Timothy is so important for us. Paul was far more of a winner than most of us could ever hope to be, a man who would tower over the church of our day just as much as he did in his own time, and yet he gave all the credit for all his success to the power of God; for himself, he said this: “It is a true statement and worthy of acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.” He understood what folks like the Covenant Network don’t, or at least don’t seem to (any more than bad drivers in Dallas), that the good news of the gospel has nothing to do with lessening our sin and our guilt. Instead, it has everything to do with the marvelous, infinite, matchless grace of God, this spectacular gift we have been given, which overwhelms our sin and guilt, washing it all away through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and the power of his Holy Spirit. The good news of the gospel is that yes, we are sinners, yes, there really is a problem with us, and that God has fixed that problem, because Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.