Chapter 4 Maintaining a Good Conscience

1 Timothy 1:18-20

This charge I commit unto thee, son Timothy, according to the prophecies which went before on thee, that thou by them mightest war a good warfare; holding faith, and a good conscience; which some having put away concerning faith have made shipwreck: of whom is Hymenaeus and Alexander; whom I have delivered unto Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme, (vv. 18-20)

We come now to consider the very solemn charge which the apostle Paul gave to his son in the faith. We have already seen that Timothy had been left to help the church at Ephesus. There were special responsibilities resting upon him there, and it was important that he should be careful as to his own walk and testimony in order that he might be an example to others. So Paul says, “This charge I commit unto thee, son Timothy, according to the prophecies which went before on thee, that thou by them mightest war a good warfare.”

The Christian life is a conflict, particularly the life of a Christian minister. God desires all His servants to be good soldiers of the Lord Jesus Christ. Timothy was therefore called to war a good warfare. It is very evident that at the time he was recommended to the work of the Lord by the brethren at Lystra and Iconium that a prayer meeting was held, and as the elder brethren laid hands upon him and commended him to the work of the gospel, in some special way the Lord gave him a gift which before he did not have. We get some intimation of that from Paul’s words, “According to the prophecies which went before on thee, that thou by them mightest war a good warfare,” and from 4:14 of this letter, “Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery.”

Paul stresses or seeks to impress upon this younger preacher the importance of “holding faith and a good conscience.” Notice how these two things go together. It is impossible to hold the faith if one is not careful to maintain a good conscience before God. Here I understand faith to mean not merely confidence in God but also the truth of God, the faith once for all delivered unto the saints. Every little while we hear of someone who, in days gone by, was apparently a preacher of the Word giving up the faith that he once proclaimed. Men, who in early days preached the Deity of the Lord Jesus Christ, His atoning, sacrificial death and physical resurrection, no longer proclaim salvation through His blood or the need of the new birth. They have turned from the truth and accepted what some call the “new liberal theological attitude.” They have become reprobate concerning the faith.

And people wonder why it is that such men have apostatized from the truth of God which at one time they professed to love. If we were able to look into the lives of these men, we would find that somewhere along the line they failed to respond to the call of God and they put away a good conscience. Thus they lost the ability to properly appraise doctrinal principles, and eventually they found it a relief to give up the truth they once proclaimed. Men do not fall suddenly into grave error. Such failure is the result of permitting the conscience to become denied so that it no longer registers as it once did.

We may spend a little time profitably in looking at a number of Scripture verses in connection with conscience. What is conscience? The word thus translated is really a compound and literally means “co-perception.” It is that within us which enables us to distinguish between right and wrong. You remember the little girl who was asked, “Do you know what conscience is?” She replied, “Oh, yes, it is something in me that always tells me when my little brother is doing wrong.” That is the way a lot of people look at conscience—something indefinable within them by which they judge other people. Conscience is that which should tell us when we are right and wrong. It is “knowing with oneself.” Conscience was acquired by the fall in Eden. There was no need of a monitor to warn unfallen Adam about evil, or to tell him the difference between right and wrong, between sin and righteousness, for he knew only that which was good until he partook of the forbidden fruit. Then he knew good and evil.

Conscience needs to be instructed. When the apostle Paul was making his defense in Jerusalem, he said, “Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day” (Acts 23:1). When he said that, he was reviewing his whole life before he was converted as well as afterward. Even before he knew Christ he sought to keep a good conscience. In other words, when he persecuted the Christians, he did it with a good conscience; when he tried to destroy the infant church, he acted conscientiously. But his conscience was not properly instructed. He thought it was the right thing to do because he believed that Christianity was an evil system. He believed that Christians were enemies of God and that he was acting in accordance with Scripture which commanded that false prophets be destroyed. He told Agrippa in Acts 26:9-10, “I verily thought with myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. Which thing I also did in Jerusalem: and many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them.” So it is not enough for one to say he lives according to his conscience.

On the other hand, we should not go against conscience, for when we do that the conscience becomes defiled. Conscience needs to be instructed by the Word of God. In Romans 2:14-15 we find that thought carried out. We have seen that conscience is that which bears witness to what is believed to be right and wrong: “For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: which show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another.” “Their conscience also bearing witness”—that is true of even the most wicked people, for their own consciences warn them when they are about to do something which they know to be wrong, and conscience accuses or excuses them, according to the measure of light they have.

In Titus 1:15-16 we read of a defiled conscience: “Unto the pure all things are pure: but unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure; but even their mind and conscience is defiled. They profess that they know God; but in works they deny him, being abominable, and disobedient, and unto every good work reprobate.” These verses tell us of the condition of unconverted people who have turned away from that which they knew to be right morally. They knew how they ought to live, but they did the opposite. Consequently, the conscience became defiled, and a defiled conscience is no longer a safe guide.

In Hebrews 10:22 we read, “Let us [the apostle is speaking to Christians] draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water.” An evil conscience is the result of persistence in sin. If men continue to defile themselves, the time will come when the conscience becomes thoroughly evil, and sin is no longer dreaded. When we come to Christ our hearts are sprinkled from an evil conscience. If men do not come to Him but insist on sinning against the light, refusing to heed the invitation which God has extended to all men to turn to Him in repentance and be saved, then eventually the conscience ceases to be active. It becomes seared. “Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their consciences seared with a hot iron” (1 Tim. 4:1-2).

This is most solemn. Sin hardens. The conscience becomes like flesh that has been seared with a hot iron. It no longer responds. It can no longer be depended upon. In this state men may commit the most wicked and abominable things, and apparently there is not the least exercise of conscience. It is because they have gone so far in disobeying that which they knew to be right that they no longer have any concern whatsoever. They are given up to a seared conscience and a reprobate mind, and with that comes utter hardness of heart. But if men are willing to turn to God, if they realize they have an evil conscience and long for a pure and a cleansed conscience, they may obtain it through the work of the cross.

In Hebrews 9:9-10 the apostle is speaking of the various ordinances of the Levitical economy, “Which was a figure for the time then present, in which were offered both gifts and sacrifices, that could not make him that did the service perfect, as pertaining to the conscience; which stood only in meats and drinks, and divers washings, and carnal ordinances, imposed on them until the time of reformation.” That is, the sacrifices offered on Jewish altars could not give a man a perfect conscience. They could not cleanse his defiled conscience, nor free him of an evil conscience. But the Lord Jesus Christ has offered Himself as an all-sufficient sacrifice for sin.

We read in verses 13-14 of the same chapter of Hebrews, “For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanc-tifieth to the purifying of the flesh: how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” Knowing that the sin question has been settled to God’s satisfaction the troubled soul can afford to rest in the knowledge of what Christ has done, and so the conscience no longer accuses but is purified by faith, because the blood of Christ, God’s Son, cleanses from every sin all those who come out from the darkness of nature into the light of God’s presence, in which they walk ever afterward. Now as believers we are responsible to walk before God with a good conscience.

Let us turn back to 1 Timothy, and notice a verse which we have considered already in these addresses: “Now the end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned” (1:5). Then in this same chapter, the verse which we read at the beginning of our present study: “This charge I commit unto thee, son Timothy, according to the prophecies which went before on thee, that thou by them mightest war a good warfare; holding faith, and a good conscience; which some having put away concerning faith have made shipwreck.” Both the apostles Paul and Peter stress the importance of maintaining a good and pure conscience. In 1 Peter 3:16 we read, “Having a good conscience; that, whereas they speak evil of you, as of evildoers, they may be ashamed that falsely accuse your good conversation in Christ.”

Let me just add this word while on the subject of conscience. You and I are responsible to be careful not to offend needlessly the conscience of a weaker brother. Some people are very legal. They are exercised about matters with which stronger Christians are not concerned. And so those who perhaps fancy they are stronger are warned to be careful in this matter of conscience. I am my brother’s keeper. I am not to allow myself to indulge in anything that will offend or stumble one who is weak. This is very important, as we may bring grievous injury upon the soul of another if we insist on our liberty in that which to him may seem a very grave offense.

“Holding faith, and a good conscience; which some having put away concerning faith have made shipwreck.” There were those who had turned from the great fundamental principles of Christianity and were living in ways displeasing to God. They had put away a good conscience. They knew what God’s Word required of them but went against their own consciences, and little by little they got to the place where they were no longer very much exercised. The conscience is like a rubber band. You pull it, and it snaps back. You pull it again, and it snaps back. But if you keep on pulling it, by-and-by it loses its elasticity and, finally, does not snap back at all. It is very dangerous to trifle with conscience, for if we act contrary to this inward monitor, we find the reaction becomes less and less, until eventually there is no reaction at all. Then we are likely to make shipwreck of the faith.

It is easy to lose the truth of God if we do not live in obedience to the Word. We do not hold the truth simply in the mind. We learn it through the heart and the conscience, and we hold it by keeping a conscience that is void of offense.

Paul here mentions two men who had turned from the truth and were propagating blasphemous error. They had put away a good conscience and so had turned from the truth of God. Paul says that he delivered them unto Satan that they might learn not to blaspheme. They were excommunicated from Christian fellowship and put back into the world that they might learn not to play fast-and-loose with that which God had revealed. John tells us that we—that is, Christians—are of God, and the whole world lies in the wicked one. We are warned, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world” (1 John 2:15). When we profess Christ we step out from the world and come into Christian fellowship. We are separated to the Lord, and we should maintain that separation constantly. These two men had professed to know and love Christ, but they had departed from the truth. The apostle commanded that they be put outside the fellowship of the church of God. In other words, thrown back into the world which at one time they professed to have forsaken. They were delivered unto Satan “that they may learn not to blaspheme.” Discipline should always be with a view to restoration. In 1 Corinthians 5:5 we read, “To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.”

So the important lesson for us all is the necessity of maintaining a good conscience before God. We should not become careless as to our behavior in regard to that which pleases the blessed One who loved us enough to shed His precious blood to redeem us from the bondage of our sins.