For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?Hebrews 9:13,14
The practical effect of Christ's ministry to us is given in these words,
to cleanse your conscience from dead works. The problem that is faced in this passage, therefore, is how to handle a nagging conscience.
We each have a conscience. We may not be able to analyze it, and we certainly cannot control it, but we know we all possess one. Conscience has been defined as
that still, small voice that makes you feel smaller still, or, as one little boy put it,
It is that which feels bad when everything else feels good. Conscience is that internal voice that sits in judgment over our will. There is a very common myth abroad that says that conscience is the means by which we tell what is right and what is wrong. But conscience is never that. It is training that tells us what is right or wrong. But when we know what is right or wrong, it is our conscience that insists that we do what we think is right and avoid what we think is wrong.
Conscience can be very mistaken; it is not a safe guide by itself. It accuses us when we violate whatever moral standard we may have, but that moral standard may be quite wrong when viewed in light of God's revelation. But conscience also gives approval whenever we fulfill whatever standard we have, whether that standard is right or wrong. And conscience, we have all discovered, acts both before and after the fact — it can either prod or punish.
In the case of these Hebrews the problem is not a conscience troubled over evil deeds, but
dead works. We must remember that the readers of this letter are Christians who already know how to handle the problem of sins. When they become aware that they have deliberately disobeyed what they knew to be right, they know the only way they can quiet an avenging conscience is to confess the sin before God, and deal with the problem immediately. That aspect of a troubled conscience can easily be taken care of by Christians as they accept the forgiving grace of God. But the problem here may be a conscience plagued with guilt over good left undone — not sins of commission, but sins of omission.
They tried to put their conscience to rest by religious activity; they are goaded by an uneasy conscience into a high gear program to please God. Here are people who are intent on doing what is right, and thus pleasing God, and they have therefore launched upon an intensive program of religious activity. What perceptible difference in motive is there between a poor, blinded pagan who, in his misconception of truth, crawls endlessly down a road to placate God, and an American Christian who busies himself in a continual round of activity to try to win a sense of acceptance before God? None!
A woman said to me,
I don't know what is the matter with me. I do all I can to serve the Lord but I still feel guilty, and then I feel guilty about feeling guilty! Precisely! It is rather discouraging, is it not, to see that all this laudable effort on our part is dismissed here as
dead works. It is disconcerting to see that such effort is not acceptably serving God. God is not impressed by our feverish effort.
Thank you, Father, that I can have a clear conscience before you, not because of anything I have done, but because of what you have done for me through your Son.
Do our guilty feelings launch us into religious fervor? Why is it never enough to clear our accusing conscience? Are we learning to live and serve out of gratitude for the amazing grace of God's forgiveness?