February 2, 2014

Confidence in a Clear Conscience

Preacher: Randy Smith Series: 2 Corinthians Scripture: 2 Corinthians 1:12–14


Confidence in a Clear Conscience

2 Corinthians 1:12-14
Sunday, February 2, 2014
Pastor Randy Smith


The great preacher, Charles Spurgeon once said, "The church is not perfect, but woe to the man who finds pleasure in pointing out her imperfections! Christ loved His church, and let us do the same. I have no doubt that the Lord can see more fault in His church than I can. I have equal confidence that He sees no fault at all, because He covers her faults with His own love-that love which covers a multitude of sins; and He removes all her defilement with that precious blood which washes away all the transgressions of His people."

I guess we can never be sure what drives these individuals, but some people are just plagued by critical attitudes. I mean for them, everything is negative. They are experts at simply deflating people, a moving vortex with various motives unsatisfied until they draw every last ounce of joy and hope from the people that enter their proximity.

The Bible warns against these folks. Jude speaks of false teachers who are identified as "grumblers, finding fault, following after their own lusts" (Ju. 1:16). We're familiar with Moses and the "grumblers" he had to deal with (Nu. 14:36; cf. Psm. 106:25; 1 Cor. 10:10). Some of these folks are so arrogant they have no problem complaining about the Lord, or worse, complaining directly to the Lord Himself (Dt. 1:27). God had to reprove Job, "Will the faultfinder contend with the Almighty?" (Job 40:2). Despite the clear command in Philippians 2:14 to "do all things without grumbling or disputing," these people who seem to know nothing about edification and encouragement, persist in their destructive behavior. Kent Hughes concluded, "[These] hostile, quick-to-see-the-worst, graceless [individuals] are as old as the church" (2 Corinthians, p. 38). Every church deals with them. Every leader deals with them.

As a pastor, I've long been depleted by these folks and I've tried to analyze this behavior. What motivates it? Is it some obsessive disposition that just feeds on the negative? Is it an over-inflated attraction toward perfectionism? Is it a cruel ego that is built up by knocking others down? Is it an insecure way to promote one's own self-worth and significance? Is it jealousy over the success of another? As we will see this morning, is it their way to gain a following? Now I am not against constructive criticism, and I want to see the Lord's church run at a standard of excellence probably more than most people, but how does a church leader shut these folks down before they shut the leader down and many within the church with him?

It's more complicated than it might appear in a Christian environment because oftentimes these individuals are very effective at hiding behind spiritual baggage. Tell them to stop and you are chastised for grieving the Spirit and not letting them exercise their gift of discernment. Refuse to respond to their e-mails and you are an unloving shepherd that cares not for their soul. Ignore their comments and you are accused of being unteachable. Dealing with critical people in the spiritual realm; it becomes quite a dilemma. Don't lose that thought!

In 2 Corinthians, Paul basically had three goals in mind when he composed this letter to the church at Corinth. First, he wanted to encourage those who repented and now sided with him. Second, he wanted to win back those still questioning his legitimacy. And third, he wanted to counter the destructive influences of the false teachers themselves who were the reason this Corinthian church was being divided and pulled away from Paul and the Lord.

And how do false teachers work? They seek first to discredit God's true messengers through fault-finding criticism so that they can then gain the audience for themselves to share their erroneous beliefs. And really the only things that stood in their way from fully hijacking this church in Corinth was the apostle Paul.

They waged an all-out assault on the apostle. We already learned that they accused Paul of not being an apostle because he suffered too much. We learned how Paul turned that argument on its head. In the weeks ahead we'll see many of the other tactics they employed, most of them vicious and unfounded attacks on his character.

So how would Paul deal with this criticism? This is a key question because Paul obviously needed to address the issue. However, the moment he does address the issue he is accused of being self-defensive, insensitive, insecure, unloving and unteachable. So how can Paul defend himself (which he needed to do) without coming off as sounding prideful (which he definitely wanted to avoid)? See the dilemma?

Here is the answer that we'll see this morning. The darts of criticism will always come, but the darts are unable to stick when we are Christians who live lives of integrity. There will be some good lessons in here for all of us before we break for the Lord's Table set before us.

So Paul is going to take on his opposition and what are the first words that flow from his mouth? Verse 12, "For our proud confidence is this." The NIV version puts it: "Now this is our boast." A strange way to answer your critics! I mean, won't this just add extra fuel to their fires? Isn't boasting a clear indication of Paul's pride and a contradiction to his words in 1 Corinthians when he said, "So then let no one boast in men" (1 Cor. 3:21). Paul even ups that because right here he is not just boasting in men - he's boasting in himself! Well, not so fast. We need to keep reading in verse 12. "For our proud confidence is this: the testimony of our conscience."

We'll see it when we get to chapters 11 and 12 that the false teachers boasted about their accomplishments. So what Paul does is he takes their tactics and does a little boasting of his own. And the classic difference that we will see is that their boasting was aimed at glorifying themselves, while Paul's boasting was aimed at glorifying the Lord. So boasting is not the issue. The issue is who's getting the glory as a result of the boasting. 2 Corinthians 10:17, "But he who boasts is to boast in the Lord" (cf. 1 Cor. 1:31).

So while Paul's opponents spoke of all the things that made them great, Paul answered his critics with that which made God great. And what made God great? Evidence that He was working and producing fruit in Paul's life. And what did Paul first appeal to? Answer, verse 12, the testimony of a clear conscience.

Our conscience is a God-given warning system owned by every human being (Rom. 2:15) that prompts us when behavior is occurring that is either helping or damaging to our soul. The conscience can be hardened (1 Ti. 4:2; Tit. 1:15). The conscience is not infallible, but when it works alongside the Holy Spirit the conscience becomes a valuable ally toward godliness (Rom. 9:1). Society tells us to silence our conscience (guilt is bad!). Scripture commands us to avoid violating our conscience. As he does here, Paul frequently in his letters speaks of "a good conscience" (1 Ti. 1:5; 1:19) and "a clear conscience" (1 Ti. 3:9; 2 Ti. 1:3; cf. Ac. 24:16). When his life was on the line before the Jewish authorities we read in Acts 23:1,"Paul, looking intently at the Council, said, 'Brethren, I have lived my life with a perfectly good conscience before God up to this day.'"

No person knew Paul better than Paul. And in his own court of appeal, Paul could conclude that he was pure.

Let's pause for a moment and ask ourselves - can we all say the same? You know, there are a lot of things we can do in today's world and often in the eyes of man go unnoticed: Cheating on our taxes, cheating on our homework, viewing pornography, stealing from the office, abusing drugs, loafing on the job, coveting another's possessions, shortchanging our church offering, telling lies, the list continues. But understand when we do these things, our conscience is pricked. That's basically how a lie detector test works. Lies violate our conscience and when our conscience is violated the body responds - our blood pressure and heart rate and sweat secretion all increase and the machine detects this. The emotional and physical pain of a disturbed conscience can become excruciating. You always hear the stories of people coming clean, even turning themselves into the authorities, because even a jail sentence would be less tormenting than a violated conscience.

Years back I heard of the man who wrote to the IRS and said, "A few years ago I cheated on my income taxes. My conscience has been troubling me, and I haven't been able to sleep. So I enclose a check for fifty dollars. If I still can't sleep, I'll send you the rest." Not the right attitude, but I think you get the point.

So the three options available: One, harden and sear your conscience by continually violating it. That is the making of a psychopath. Two, keep a soft heart, persist in unrepentant sin and live with the ongoing agony of a tormented conscience - the restlessness, anxiety, stress and psychosomatic disorders (ulcers, high blood pressure, heart palpitations, etc.). Or, three, simply obey God's Word which honors the Lord and enjoy a life of peace which far surpasses any worldly perks obtained sinfully that promise us greater satisfaction but violate our conscience.

Will you be able to put your head on your pillow tonight (despite the indigestion and heartburn from all the junk you'll consume during the Super Bowl) and say, like Paul, "Based on my moral choices, my conscience is clean?" If not, for the sake of the Lord's glory and your own peace, fix the situation immediately. Confess your sin to God, repent and make restitution to others if necessary. You think that is too difficult? It is more difficult to do nothing and live with a tormenting conscience!

So the attacks on Paul swirled through the corridors of the Corinthian church. "He tells lies, he lacks honesty, he manipulates, he's in it for himself." Many believed them. The rest in the church, as it always is, were suspicious. Later in the letter, Paul will show he's the real deal based on his love for the church and the intensity of his suffering, but for now he appealed to the highest human court in his defense. He simply said, "My conscience is clear."

Specifically how was his conscience clean? Still in verse 12, because he lived in "holiness and godly sincerity." Holiness - moral purity. Sincerity - a form of holiness that deals with our motives. As a matter of fact, the Greek word used for sincerity (eilikrineia) is a compound word that speaks of judging by sunlight. In antiquity, it was common to hide the cracks in a clay vessel with wax. Wise buyers who held the jar up to the sunlight were able to detect the phony cover-up. Paul is saying here that his life, even his motives, were pure, even under the closest scrutiny of his conscience. Let's go to another level. He was also pure under the close scrutiny of others. We are talking about being above reproach.

Being above reproach is the overarching quality for any man selected to be an elder or deacon (1 Tim. 1, Tit. 1), but it is also the goal that every Christian must aspire to. We are not talking about sinlessness. We are talking about a life of such high moral integrity that nobody can accuse you of unholiness. We like to say, are you a person of Teflon? Accusations from critics will come, but do any of them stick?

So is there anything about you whereby people can get a negative handle on your character? Can you like Paul appeal to your conscience and affirm that your life is one dedicated to Jesus Christ in utter holiness not only in what others see, but even down, as Paul said, to the sincerity of your heart's motives? Can you like Paul give no fuel to the many critics of Jesus Christ who will pour over your life with a magnifying glass and then walk away being unable to find anything that will discredit the faith? Can you like Paul say, as he did at the end of verse 12, that the evidence of his holiness was clear, based not only on his conscience but also the way he "conducted [himself] in the world, and especially toward [the Corinthian church]." And this fickle Corinthian church that listened to the critics should have known because Acts 18:11 says Paul stayed with them for "a year and six months!"

We can all recall professing Christians, both personal acquaintances and public figures, who based upon the character and integrity have either hurt and helped the cause of Christ.

Before we leave verse 12, there is still one more key component that needs to be noticed. In the middle of the verse, Paul makes it clear that his "holiness and godly sincerity" didn't come "in fleshly wisdom, but in the grace of God."

In other words, contrary to the false teachers, Paul's character was forged by the living God. The moment we die to self and receive Jesus Christ for salvation is the moment our Lord begins shaping us through the Holy Spirit. False teachers manufacture their own character (through what Paul calls "fleshly wisdom") that will best help them achieve their own purposes. True believers allow God to transform their hearts by God's grace that will best help them achieve God's purposes.

So again, do you see what Paul did? The critics called Paul's character into question. Yet Paul boasted in his character because his unquestionable holiness, free from any legitimate accusation, gave evidence of God's grace in his life. This not only qualified Paul for ministry, but also gave the greatest glory to the Lord who brought tremendous transformation to his life.

As we briefly look at verses 13 and 14 we see Paul in his appeal to his integrity provide a specific example. Prior to writing 2 Corinthians we know of at least three letters that Paul wrote to this church. Critics will look under every stone (ask any pastor or Christian politician), and with so much of what Paul said in writing there was ample material to muster false accusations.

Here is one. They claimed Paul came off as Mr. Tough Guy in his letters, but that was only a cover-up for the weak man he was when he appears in person. It's like the guy today that loves to argue boldly through a computer screen and fire off scathing e-mails, but is scared to death to meet with anybody personally face-to-face. Paul responded to this accusation in chapter 10: "For I do not wish to seem as if I would terrify you by my letters. For they say, 'His letters are weighty and strong, but his personal presence is unimpressive and his speech contemptible.' Let such a person consider this, that what we are in word by letters when absent, such persons we are also in deed when present" (2 Cor. 10:9-11).

Here in verse 13 we see more of the same. Based upon verse 13 it appears the accusation was that Paul had ulterior motives. In other words, he wrote one thing, but he meant another. He had a hidden agenda. To which Paul responded in verse 13, "For we write nothing else to you than what you read and understand, and I hope you will understand until the end."

Answering the earlier complaint - the man you see in my letters is the man you will see in person. Answering this complaint - what I write is what I mean and what I mean is what I write. Again, Paul appeals to his integrity, his transparency. He wasn't one way at church and then another way in his home. He wasn't one way at school and another way at Youth Group. The Paul you saw in public is the same Paul you'd see when no one was looking. There was no duplicity. Paul had a clear conscience and had a blameless testimony in the sight of God and others.

Verse 14, "Just as you also partially did understand us, that we are your reason to be proud as you also are ours, in the day of our Lord Jesus." Paul boasts in the Lord because of his testimony which gave evidence of God's grace, and now he hopes others will boast in the Lord in the day of the Lord when all Christians will stand before His throne in a final day of accounting where they will all be judged by Christ as to how they lived their life (2 Cor. 5:10). That's ironic! Paul says the very Corinthians in the church that doubted Paul will one day boast in the Lord for his integrity!

Do you see how much is on the line here? The moment you profess Christ is the moment you represent Christ. The enemies of God will seek to discredit your testimony in an effort to discredit Christ. The more God uses you, the more the attacks will intensify. But the greatest defense at our disposal is a godly character. And the means to a godly character is not our own fleshly devices, but the grace of God which is operable in the life of every true believer.

Attacks will never stick to a holy life. Therefore as we go through life, depending upon the Lord Jesus Christ for His grace, we live to God's honor and it is evident to our conscience and the observation of others. In doing so we can turn the criticism into a boast of God's work in our lives that others too will praise God all climaxing in the day of our Lord Jesus when all believers stand before His throne with their motives disclosed and lives on display.

Will you be there that day because you know the Lord, Jesus Christ? And if so, are you facing that day with confidence based upon the grace of God producing within you a life of holiness? Will your life result in praise and glory for our great King?


other sermons in this series

Mar 8


Optimistic Admonitions

Preacher: Randy Smith Scripture: 2 Corinthians 13:11–14 Series: 2 Corinthians

Mar 1


Severity In Weakness

Preacher: Randy Smith Scripture: 2 Corinthians 13:1–10 Series: 2 Corinthians

Feb 22


Signs, Sacrifice, and Sorrow

Preacher: Randy Smith Scripture: 2 Corinthians 12:11–21 Series: 2 Corinthians