In our last letter we discussed the wonderful power of confession which God works in the hearts and lives of His people, by which power God’s people escape from the vicious cycle of sin which, apart from confession, drags them deeper and deeper into sin’s bondage. Confession is exactly the great power whereby the shackles of sin are broken by which we are held captive. It is the God-given means whereby escape is effected from sin’s slavery. It is the way in which we gain dominion over sin rather than sin having dominion over us.
We were discussing this in connection with the conscience. We talked about the fact that when the sinner continues in the way of sin, his conscience becomes more and more hardened to sin and his spiritual sensitivity to sin is more and more lost. A good conscience comes about, therefore, through confession. It is this truth which we must investigate in our present letter. What does it mean to have a good conscience before the Lord? This is the crucial question. It is so crucial because it is only when we have a good conscience before God that we can have the joy of salvation, the peace that passes understanding in our hearts and lives, the assurance of God’s favor and love upon us, and the spiritual and mental well-being which we so greatly crave. It is only when we have a good conscience before God that we can have serenity and quietness of spirit in the midst of this life no matter what the circumstances of our life may be. Whether we have prosperity or poverty, sickness or health, an easy road to walk or a life filled with trouble and distress, if we have a good conscience before God, we have the assurance that all is well and we have peace and joy in all our life.
The best way to understand what is a good conscience before God is to consider an example of this in Scripture. Such an example is found in II Kings 20:3. If you consult the history which forms the occasion for this text, then you will discover that Hezekiah was king over Judah. He had instituted a great reform in the southern kingdom after the terrible apostasy of Ahaz. He had brought Judah back again to the service of God and had banished idolatry from the land. But, in chapter 20, we read that Hezekiah was sick unto death and that Isaiah the prophet was sent to him to tell him to set his house, in order because he would die and not live. Now Hezekiah did not want to die. We are not told specifically the reason for this, but it is possible that the reason was that he had, as yet, no son to sit on the throne of David after he died. That this is possible is suggested by the fact that his life was prolonged fifteen years and that his son, Manasseh, was twelve years old when he began to reign. This would seem to suggest not only that Manasseh was born after Hezekiah was told he would die, but that Manasseh was the only son Hezekiah had who could reign over Judah. However that may be, Hezekiah did not want to die; and so he prayed. His prayer is given to us in verse 3: “I beseech thee, O Lord, remember now how I have walked before thee in truth and with a perfect heart, and have done that which is good in thy sight.”
If you stop to think about it, this is a remarkable prayer. I can recall that when I was a child I wondered how it was possible for Hezekiah to pray a prayer such as this. He speaks in the prayer of his life which he had lived and describes that life as a walk before God with a perfect heart and in truth. He mentions that he did that which was good in God’s sight. There is no mention made of sin at all. And he uses this as a basis for his request that his life be spared. One would almost get the impression that Hezekiah is making in his prayer the loud boast of the Pharisee in the temple who thanked God that he was not as other men were. But this cannot be, for God heard this prayer of Hezekiah and sent Isaiah back to him with the words: “Thus saith the Lord, the God of David thy father, I have heard thy prayer, I have seen thy tears: behold, I will heal thee: on the third day thou shalt go up unto the house of the Lord.”
Nor can it be that Hezekiah was simply not aware of the many sins which he had, as a matter of fact, committed in his life. This is impossible for any child of God, whether he lived in the Old or in the New Testament. He certainly knew, as we all know, that he was a very great sinner. And yet he prays: “Remember now how I have walked before thee in truth and with a perfect heart, and have done that which is good in thy sight.”
Nor is this prayer of Hezekiah an isolated case in Scripture. It is a theme which is repeated often, in the Psalms for example. To quote but one example, the Psalmist of Psalm 119 sings: “So shall I keep thy law continually for ever and ever. And I will walk at liberty: for I seek thy precepts. I will speak of thy testimonies also before kings, and will not be ashamed. And I will delight myself in thy commandments, which I have loved. My hands also will I lift up unto thy commandments, which I have loved; and I will meditate in thy statutes” (vss. 44-48).
That this appears as a recurring theme in Scripture is certainly due to the fact that this ought to be and can be the prayer of every child of God. In fact, it is not too strong a statement to say that we are commanded by God to live in such a way that we can also pray, in good conscience before God: “I have walked before thee in truth and with a perfect heart, and have done that which is good in thy sight.” It is well that we ask ourselves very seriously the question whether we can indeed make this prayer our own. If we cannot, then there is something radically wrong. We must arrive at that point in our lives when we can truly make this prayer our own. Then we have a good conscience before God.
But the question is: how is this possible in the light of the fact that we sin continuously and that, to use the words of our Heidelberg Catechism, even our best works are corrupted and polluted by sin?
The answer to this question is to be found in the cross of Jesus Christ. This is, e.g., stated literally in Hebrews 10: “Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; and having an high priest over the house of God; let us 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” (VSS.19-22).
So true is this that in the Old Testament there was only a limited reality of a good conscience before God. We read of this also in Hebrews 10:1-2. “For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered because that the worshippers once purged should have had no more conscience of sins.” The idea here is very clearly that, because the blood of the animal sacrifices could not take away sin, those who brought such sacrifices never ceased to have a conscience of sins. No doubt, when they brought their sacrifices by faith and saw in those sacrifices the perfect sacrifice of Christ Who was to come, they also experienced forgiveness. This is clearly taught throughout Scripture. But the fact remains that these animals could not make a perfect sacrifice and the offerings had to be repeated. The result was that the “conscience of sins” constantly returned. We have the perfect sacrifice of Christ once offered on the cross; and by His sacrifice, “our hearts are sprinkled from an evil conscience.”
Now this means two things. It means, in the first place that the child of God has a good conscience before God when he brings all his sins and guilt to the cross of Calvary and, by faith, appropriates the perfect sacrifice of Christ as his own so that he stands before God in the righteousness of Christ. When he lays hold, by faith, on Christ’s perfect work and relies upon the one, finished sacrifice of Christ then, he knows in the depths of his heart that before God he has no sins. Then he can say: “I have walked before thee in truth and with a perfect heart, and have done that which is good in thy sight.”
But it is immediately obvious that this cannot be all. Hezekiah in his prayer says more than this. He does not only speak of the fact that, even though he is a sinner, he stands forgiven in the blood of the promised Seed; he also speaks very emphatically of his walk as being in truth and with a perfect heart; and he claims that he has done that which is good in the sight of God.
This also refers to the cross of Christ, but from a slightly different point of view. When our Savior made His perfect sacrifice for sin on the cross He not only died for our sins and for our guilt, but He also earned for us full and complete salvation. He earned for us not only justification but also sanctification. He earned for us deliverance from sin but also a new life of holiness and uprightness of heart. One who walks in good conscience before God is also one who so lives out of the power of the cross of Christ that he appropriates for himself the life of Christ earned for him on the cross. And living out of the perfect sacrifice of Christ, he lives in the holiness of life which Christ earned for him.
This lies in the nature of the case. When the child of God goes to the cross with the burden of his sins which trouble him so greatly, he confesses his sins, cries out for forgiveness and mercy, and pleads to be delivered from his sins through the power of Christ’s cross. He repents of his sins! He turns away from them! He forsakes them! He leaves them all behind! This is implied in confession itself.
But he knows that he cannot leave his sins behind and “walk in a new and holy life” in his own strength. And so he walks every moment in conscious dependence upon the power of the cross. And, walking in conscious dependence upon the power of Christ Who lives in him, he walks in the ways of his God.
Then he also walking in the way of sanctification, sanctification, walks in good conscience before God. His sins he confesses; his guilt he leaves at Calvary; his life he lives in the shadow and by the power of the cross.
Then it is true what our Belgic Confession so beautifully expresses, though in a negative way: “In the meantime, we do not deny that God rewards our good works, but it is through his grace that he crowns his gifts. Moreover, though we do good works, we do not found our salvation upon them; for we do no work but what is polluted by our flesh, and also punishable; and although we could, perform such works, still the remembrance of one sin is sufficient to make God reject them. Thus then we would always be in doubt, tossed to and fro without any certainty, and our poor consciences continually vexed, if they relied not on the merits of the suffering and death of our Savior” (Article XXIV).
Next time we shall have to see how this is important for our spiritual and mental well-being.
Fraternally in Christ,