I think it was Mark Twain who quipped, “I wrestled with my conscience and won.” We smile as Twain takes an element of truth and turns it with a wry reversal. The truth is that we all live with a sense of right and wrong—our conscience.
And it’s also true that while we sometimes override rightness in favor of wrongness, our sense of self-approval comes in knowing that we most often lean to the rightness side. And that, for many, is the basis for faith: “God knows that I try to do what’s right!” So our faith is based on a vision of God—to the degree that God is even considered—as one who is fair enough to treat our self-approval as sound and sufficient.
There are, of course, some problems with this approach. For one, we may not have a clear picture of God. So it may be that our sense of what is fair and right is not shared by our neighbors, friends, or even by our family, let alone by God as he truly exists. And then there is Twain’s point that we are all able to wrestle with the complaints of our conscience long enough and hard enough to win the fight. Call it the infinite capacity of rationalization. All we need is plenty of determination to be right. Our best clue to the vitality of this skill is the exasperated challenge of a sibling, spouse, or friend: “You’re always right, aren’t you!”
Thankfully we have a solution at hand for the fog of self-justification, namely God himself. When he comes on the scene—the true God, that is, and not a manmade caricature—we have the sunshine needed to burn away that fog. The bright beauty of God is that he comes to us with an open heart: he invites us into his arms of compassion and care. He knows that we’ve messed up. He has a handle on all our false motives and self-protective instincts. He knows that our self-justifications are rooted, ultimately, in our insecurity and fear: a failed attempt to “be like God.” And he still offers us his love.
Which leads us to the object of true faith: his Son. The Son is Jesus of Nazareth who before his birth in Bethlehem shared in eternal communion and mutual glory with the Father. He came to earth as both a man and as God’s Word for life and meaning. Apart from him there is no life other than the brief and ephemeral phase of physical life.
So we need to look to the Son. But first let us turn to yet another problem that keeps us from true faith, namely the tradition of Morality. Morality, or Moralism—often linked to Legalism—is an informal belief that human conduct defines a given person’s moral standing: one who does good is a good person, and vice versa. So the focus is on the person’s behaviors, not unlike the Jewish leaders in the New Testament who were outwardly righteous but inwardly alienated from God.
This challenge to Moralism and its support tool, the conscience, may surprise us. So read this with care: the Bible revises what our natural response to our conscience calls for. That is, while our conscience addresses what we’ve done—properly warning us against giving approval to a wrong activity—salvation is the fruit of who it is that loves us. Another way to say this is that our conscience can alert us to a problem but it lacks any power to transform us. Only Jesus, by his Spirit, can do that.
Let me say more about this. When our conscience raises an alarm—assuming it has a good basis in fact—we instinctively try to solve the problem by doing some good as a counterweight to our wrong conduct. Picture a husband who has a case of conscience after he demeans his wife in a public setting. His solution: buy some roses or take her out to dinner. My best guess (I’m a bachelor, mind you) is that unless the flowers or dinner come with a sincere apology, the effort is wasted. A selfish action needs to be addressed by a changed heart—by returning to an unselfish relational commitment to the wife. Truly “good” behaviors are always heart-based.
So the benefit of a conscience is that it offers us a warning system: it tells us that we’ve lost our focus on Christ and others. The biblical sequence is always and only from the inside-out. It is through a heart change that our behaviors are changed in a fundamental way. Without real love our moral actions are simply fig leafs meant to cover up our shameful self-absorption.
God, then, searches our hearts. What he looks at is our response to the one he loves: the Son. In this biblical reality our standing with him is heart-based. Our behaviors—our morality—only signal the focus of our hearts. So the real function of the conscience is to cry out for our return to the source of life: to a love of Christ. And from that love comes the fountain of love, joy, peace, patience, and more—i.e. the spontaneous and growing behaviors of authentic faith.
Jesus addressed this relational basis for faith—our belief in him—more than once. The great prayer of Jesus in John 17 is one of these: “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Even Psalm 2, as it confronts the nations that rage against God, offers the same bottom line: “kiss the Son.”
It doesn’t get much clearer than this: faith is our heartfelt devotion to God, focused on the Son, as accomplished by the Spirit working in us. It is not a faith in ourselves as it would be if we trusted in a teeter-totter moral exchange of good actions to match our bad deeds, but the question of what we have as the gaze of our hearts. So let’s let our conscience be our guides, not as a way to be “better people” but as our early warning system that we have started to look away from Christ.
Faith is then an active response to the God who first loved us, who sent his Son, and who delights in our delight in him. When that love is active in us our consciences fade to silence and our faith proves be true and reliable, hard at work through love (Galatians 5:6).