We must conclude, in this letter, our discussion of the conscience. We talked last time about the fact that one who does not walk according to his conscience (as enlightened by the Word of God) creates many problems in his life so that he suffers great mental and spiritual distress. I want to discuss with you what a pastor must do under these circumstances as he comes face to face ‘with this problem.
It is well to remind ourselves at this point that our problems in life are the result of sin. There is, according to the Word of God, only one solution to the problem of sin: the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. The healing power of the cross of Christ comes to the people of God through the preaching of the Word of the cross; more specifically, as the pastor brings that Word of God to the sheep entrusted to His care as he deals with them pastorally. This is a fundamental position and we must not be permitted to stray from it.
The pastor is a preacher of the Word of God. That is all he is called to do. He is not a psychologist or psychiatrist and ought not to presume to be one. He is not a director or counselor (if something different from preacher is meant by this) or consultant. He is not an expert in mental disorders or a narrowly trained professional in a particular branch of learning. He is a preacher. That is all. He must always only bring the Word of God.
There are many temptations to stray from this calling in the course of his work: The lofty claims of psychiatry and the promises which this branch of healing hold out to ministers often tempt him to enter this rather esoteric world. It appeals to a minister, who is not on his guard, to gain competence in this field because it gives him a sense of possessing something others do not have. Further, the temptation to engage in a bit of psychology is strong because some have the idea that psychological techniques give one who possesses them a certain “power” over his patients or over those who come to him for help. And there are those who like this sense of power. This is a very evil thing, rooted in pride, and must be resisted with might and main. Still others may be tempted to forsake the Word of God because sometimes God’s Word does not work as swiftly as we would like to see it work. God has His own purpose and time for all things. The power of the Word is God’s power through Jesus Christ. And God makes that Word effective in His own way. The minister who relies upon the Word relies upon God. He is deeply aware of the fact that he is ineffective and can do nothing other than work as a servant of the Word. But, not content with leaving the matter in God’s hands to be worked according to God’s purpose, he becomes impatient or dissatisfied with the Word and determines to set out upon his own way. The Word does not seem to be doing what it ought to do in his judgment. And so he resorts to be doing what it ought to do in his judgment. And so he resorts to other techniques and methods in the hopes of gaining his ends.
All of this must be strenuously resisted. I cannot warn you enough against the temptations which these things bring about. And it cannot be said often enough. that the minister of the gospel is a preacher. He had betterpreach. There is nothing else which he can do or ought to do.
But at the same time, that Word which he brings is the greatest power this world has ever seen. There is no power like it anywhere, simply because it is the power of God unto salvation. He is a servant of that one power which is able to heal broken hearts, bind up all the wounds that sin makes, bring comfort and peace to the troubled, and solve the problems which sin creates in this sorry life. If he is properly impressed with the great power of the Word, he will be content to limit himself to that Word in all his work.
Now, just because the Word is the Word of God which always accomplishes God’s purpose, it is well also that the minister be reminded of the fact, that the Word also carries with it a two-fold power: it is a savor of life unto life, but it is also a savor of death unto death. It is a two-edged sword which saves and hardens. It is the effective means in Gods hand to accomplish His purpose in the salvation of the elect and the damnation of the wicked. God is at work in the preaching of the Word. And God works to do what is His good pleasure to do.
This is important to remember because the preaching of the Word will not have always its desired effect—i.e., from our point of view. We would like it if the Word were always the means of healing and saving. But we know that God wills otherwise. And the preacher of the Word must reckon with this fact.
The point is that we are not only the victims of our sins when we suffer all the troubles and problems which sin brings, but we are so opposed by nature to all that is of God that we reject out of hand and with total disdain the Word of God which is the one power which can heal us and solve our problems. We all have this natural aversion to and hatred of the Word of God. This will not be changed until God in His grace is pleased to make our hearts receptive to that Word so that we receive it, bow before it, and submit ourselves in all our lives to its good instruction.
This will never happen to the wicked because God is not pleased to give to them this saving and sanctifying power. Upon them the Word will come as a hardening power. And this too is according to the purpose of God Who does all His good pleasure and acts always according to the counsel of His will.
But even in those who are the saved and redeemed, there is this natural aversion, to the Word. It is not necessary to point out to you in detail how we too prefer the ways of our sin to the ways of God’s commandments. We press our sins closely to us, are most reluctant to give them up—even when we know they are the source of all our grief and trouble, and steadfastly resist submitting to the Word of our God. Thus, oftentimes even in God’s people will that same resistance to the Word be found which is present in the wicked. But through the faithful ministration of the Word, God will, in His mercy, be pleased to make that Word effective—but always in God’s time and in His way.
When all of this is applied to the question of the conscience, the implications are readily apparent. The conscience is the voice of God in us passing judgment upon all that we do: But that voice of God speaks only in connection with His Word. And so it is that the Word will not only guide the conscience but also show us how we have tormented our consciences by refusing to walk in God’s way. It is the Word of God which will bring confession of sin and the healing power of forgiveness.
But it is this which presents a problem. The conscientious minister who takes seriously his calling to bring the Word of God knows too that the Word must be addressed to the particular needs of the people who come to him for help. To use an example, it is not, quite obviously, satisfactory to read to a couple having marital problems the history of Jonah in the whale’s belly. He may expound that history in all faithfulness according to the Scriptures, but those whose marriage is coming apart in their lives will wonder a bit what the history of Jonah has to do with all this. He is under some obligation to bring that particular Word of God which fits the need of those in trouble.
But the problem is, at least on many occasions, that the minister himself does not always know the deeper need which a person has. If a person is in deep trouble because of a troubled conscience, neither the person himself nor the minister may be clearly aware of the sin which lies at the root of the problem. And if he does not know what the deeper problem is, he finds it difficult, if not impossible, to find an appropriate Scripture passage.
Now this problem must not be over-exaggerated. There is a point here which needs to be very strongly stressed. Any minister who has any experience in this kind of work knows that God uses His own Word in very surprising ways, and uses unusual passages to accomplish His purpose. It is not strange that a sermon on the doctrine of creation, e.g., is able to bring a sinner to repentance—although the relation between the truth of creation and the sin of the sinner is not clear to us. Nor need we be always emphatically and deliberately subjective and personal in our bringing of the Word. I myself witnessed a minister speaking to a very old woman, who was very confused and troubled, of the objective truth of justification by faith alone as based on Romans 4, and who brought peace and joy to her heart. There was nothing subjective about his ministry at that point and there was no effort made to apply that particular Word to the needs of that person at that moment. But the Word of God did its work.
If, therefore, a minister does not know what the particular problem of an individual might be, rather than make wild guesses he might better choose to read and discuss a passage of Scripture which speaks of the power of sin and the cleansing power of the cross. Once again, the point is that his reliance must be on the power of the Word.
Nevertheless, a minister must know, insofar as that, is possible, what the need of the person who seeks him is. And if and when he comes to know that need, he must bring the Word of God which addresses itself specifically to that need. God’s Word speaks to all the circumstances of life without, exception. God’s Word is everlastingly relevant. There is no problem, no trouble, no temptation, no sin which lies outside the reach and power of that Word.
And, particularly in connection with the conscience, the minister must bring home in a very forcible fashion that there is only increased trouble and sorrow in the way of sin. God’s wrath and hot displeasure rest upon all those who forsake His law and walk in the way of transgression. But it must be also pointed out from God’s Word that there is peace and joy, blessedness and true spiritual serenity in the way of obedience to God. Confession of sin carries us to the cross. And the cross is the power of forgiveness for all our sins no matter how great they may be. The blood of Calvary cleanses from sin and gives us the power of a new obedience. Through that cross is life and joy, peace and happiness. There is no other way. In the cross we are able to walk in good conscience before God.
Fraternally in Christ,