An excerpt from “Discovering the Joy of a Clear Conscience" by Christopher Ash
I want us to understand one thing, that conscience is an unreliable guide. There’s a surprising and revealing little section in Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, at the start of chapter 4.
In this passage Paul is defending his apostleship to the church, where his genuineness has been called into question. He says he has been entrusted with the gospel, and so the key thing is that he be faithful or trustworthy (verses 1–2). But is he faithful? Is he an authentic minister of Christ, or is he an imposter, a charlatan? And who is to judge? That is the issue at stake.
Paul begins his answer by saying, ‘I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court’ (1 Corinthians 4:3). It is easy to see the logic of this. You have no window into my soul, he says. You cannot therefore judge the motives and intentions of my heart. You have no infallible means of knowing whether or not I am genuine in what I say. So in the last analysis I do not care what you think! This is not very polite, but it is logical and intelligible.
But what he says next is very surprising: ‘Indeed, I do not even judge myself ’ (1 Corinthians 4:3). ‘But why on earth not?’ is the question we want to ask him. I can see that I cannot judge your heart, because it is your heart and not my heart. But surely you can judge your own heart. You do not need a window into your own soul, for it is your soul and you live there. If anyone knows what is going on inside you, your hopes, your fears, your motives, your real intentions, it is you, isn’t it?
‘No,’ says Paul, ‘ultimately it is not.’ So he goes on, ‘My con- science is clear [lit. I am not conscious of anything against myself ], but that does not make me innocent’ (1 Corinthians 4:4).
Here is a very striking claim. ‘do you mean, Paul, that even when your conscience tells you that you have done nothing wrong, you can’t be sure you haven’t?’ ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘that is exactly what I am saying.’
Although it is a right and natural thing, when I have a clear conscience, to say so,2 it does not prove everything. It shows I think I am in the clear, but it does not prove whether I really am. For there is only one person who has a true and undistorted window into my soul, and it is not me: ‘It is the Lord [that is, Jesus] who judges me’ (1 Corinthians 4:4).
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2. Paul himself does this in 2 Timothy 1:3 and 2 Corinthians 1:12, and the writer to the Hebrews does it in Hebrews 13:18.