“Conscience” is a problematic word. That might seem like a strange thing to say, but it’s true. It’s not the word’s fault, mind you—what the word is supposed to mean is plenty clear. In the New Testament, “conscience” means the awareness God has placed within us of his character and will, and thus of right and wrong; 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. We might even call it a sixth sense of sorts, as it gives us the ability to perceive reality in its moral aspect.
The problem, rather, is in us. Our sinful nature resists this—this isn’t what we want the word “conscience” to mean. We don’t want our conscience to be something that pokes at us and makes us face the fact when we’re doing something wrong; we tend to want to do what we want to do, and we want to believe that if we can convince ourselves we feel good about doing what we want to do, then it must be OK. And so what a lot of folks in this world end up doing is essentially turning their conscience off—refusing to pay attention to its promptings, finding ways to dismiss it, teaching themselves to feel good (at least on the surface) about doing what they want to do, and then calling that good feeling their conscience. That way, they can tell themselves (and whoever else might happen to come around) that their conscience is clear about their actions.
That, I suspect, is what Hymenaeus and Alexander had done. If you’d asked them, I’m sure they would have said their consciences were clear, but Paul says no; they are, he says later on, “liars whose consciences are seared with a hot iron”—so damaged by the lies they’ve told and believed that just like a badly-burned hand, the nerves no longer work and they’re no longer capable of feeling. Their consciences aren’t clear, they’re dead. Determined to do what they want to do and believe what they want to believe, they have closed themselves off to the voice of the Spirit of God speaking within them to tell them they’re doing wrong; they’ve rejected conscience in favor of their own counterfeit, and therefore have shipwrecked themselves, and Paul is writing this letter to help Timothy stop them before they do the same to the whole congregation.
Unfortunately, we see this sort of thing a lot; and it can be hard to distinguish from true acts of conscience. Martin Luther launched the Reformation, in part, with an appeal to conscience, refusing to bow to the power of the Roman church because “to go against conscience is neither right nor safe”; these days, there are a lot of folks running around who want to be little Luthers, condemning the church for its teachings and declaring, “Here I stand.” Some are very convincing. What too many people lack, though, is the central point of Luther’s statement: “My conscience is captive to the word of God”; this is the foundation for everything else. If your conscience is captive to the word of God, if your focus is on obeying God even when it’s the last thing you want to do, if you’ve been training and strengthening your conscience in faithful study of the Scriptures and in prayer—as Luther had—then yes, to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. If not, then you may very well be going against conscience and not even know it.
The issue here is 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 because we don’t 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 the mercy of God, 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. Paul pours out gratitude for the great mercy God showed him, giving thanks that “the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus”—and too often, we look at that and we want no part of it. 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. We don’t need to repent, we just need treatment.
The Bible tells us we’re sinners, that we do bad things just because we like to do bad things, that the purpose of our conscience is to convict us of our sin, not to justify our behavior—and we don’t want to hear that. We don’t want to hear the good news Paul preached, 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; we don’t want to hear that because we just don’t want to believe that anything’s all that seriously wrong with us. That kind of thinking is for losers, and we all want to think we’re winners; 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, and he didn’t. The truth is, Christianity is for losers—and that means us. Even the best of us.
The apostle Paul understood this, because he understood far more clearly than we do the depth and significance of his own sin. This was a man who, by worldly standards, was a clear winner, a powerful and accomplished person; he was a highly-trained and successful intellectual—in our day, he’d be a tenured full professor at a major university or graduate school, with a list of publications as long as your arm—who’d had an amazing record as a church planter, starting more churches in his career than most denominations can manage in a year, or three, or even five. He was an unrelenting and indomitable voice for truth whose authority was felt across the Roman world. No one in the church today has anything even close to the sort of wide and deep influence Paul had. And yet, when he looked at himself, what did he see? Anything God should be impressed with? No, 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.” Now, was Paul really the worst sinner who had ever lived to that point? Not likely, no; but his sense of his own sinfulness and his need for God’s mercy was so great that it drove him to make that statement—as it would for any of us who saw ourselves as clearly as Paul did.
This is important, because this last statement is not just Paul’s personal testimony: it’s the point where he broke with the false teachers who were plaguing the church in Ephesus, and where he called the church to do the same. We don’t know the details, but it’s clear that the likes of Hymenaeus and Alexander were preaching a religion of “you can be good enough”; if you just obeyed their particular version of the law of God, if you believed the myths they spun out of the Old Testament and lived according to the rules they laid down, then you didn’t need this “mercy” stuff—you could be good enough to please God on your own. You could earn your salvation.
The proper term for this, of course, is legalism; and though a lot of folks would be surprised to hear it, legalism is just as much a problem now as it was then. The difference is, most of our legalists take sin far less seriously, and so they tend to offer a lot of warmed-over self-help principles combined with a counterfeit version of grace—one that doesn’t actually require things like repentance, and mercy, and being agonized by our own sin. Instead of understanding that the grace of God to us is his free gift of salvation despite our unworthiness, they see God’s grace as saying to us, “No, no, it’s really not that bad—if it makes you happy, you go right ahead.” They fail to understand that God’s grace isn’t about what we deserve—that’s justice. God’s grace is all about what he gives us that we have not earned and could never even begin to hope to earn. Confusing the two is a major theological error, a fundamental misunderstanding of who God is and who we are (and pretty much everything in between).
And yet this idea that we deserve grace, that we deserve to be forgiven, pops up all over the place. We seem to think that if we don’t think something’s all that big a deal, God shouldn’t either; that if we have an excuse or some kind of justification for our actions, he should be happy to accept it; and that if it happens that there is something that needs to be forgiven, that God should just say, “That’s OK, no big deal,” and let it go, no cost to us or anybody else. It’s the idea that God just wants us to be happy and fulfilled on our own terms, and that he’s good with anything we think will get us there. It’s an idea which is appealing, and widespread—and straight from the pit of Hell.
There are all too many people who want to believe, as the great Christian thinker H. Richard Niebuhr put it, that “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through a Christ without a cross”; but that isn’t the truth. Our sin is real, whether we want to believe it or not, and so is God’s inability to tolerate it; and Christ didn’t come to tell us all we’re OK, he came to save us from the fact that we’re not. The good news of the gospel isn’t “I’m OK, you’re OK”; it isn’t that if you really want to do something, and you feel good about doing it, God will tell you to go ahead; it isn’t that we’re good enough for God, or that we can make ourselves good enough for God, or even that God’s too good to let such wonderful people as us go. 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. The good news of the gospel has nothing to do with lessening our sin and our guilt; 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.