Preaching and The Conscience
I am preaching a series of messages through the life of Peter at the moment and it has been a blessing to me to dig into the early stages of his interaction with our Lord. In the second message, I preached about the Lord changing the name of Peter and spent some time preaching about the necessity of the conscience being struck with the Word of God. A quote that I wove into the message was from a book that Tony Mansinho sent to me a few weeks ago. It is the biography of Master Robert Bruce—Minister in the Kirk of Edinburgh by D. C. Macnicol. Bruce was one of the Scottish Puritans and despite some of their flaws, I have been incredibly blessed for close to thirty years by digging into their writings. Some time was spent by Macnicol exploring the matter of the conscience of Bruce being smitten by God and the Holy Scriptures. Here is the quote that I used:
I was so fearfully and extremely tormented that I would have been content to have been cast into a cauldron of hot melted lead, to have had my soul relieved of that insupportable weight. Always, so far as he spoke true, I confessed, restored to God to His glory, and craved God’s mercy for the merits of Christ: yea, appealed sore to his mercy, purchased to me by the blood, death, and passion of Christ. . . the Court of Justice. . . was turned of the bottomless mercy of God into a Court of Mercy to me: for that same night, ere the day dawned or ever the sun rose, He restrained these furies, and these outcries of my justly accusing conscience. . .
As I was reading his biography, it was almost shocking to read of the way that this man’s conscience had been struck by the matter of the waiting judgment for sinners. I questioned myself if this kind of thought even visits people anymore when they are presented with the message of the gospel and the command to be born again. Can we see the weight, the pain, and the terror of Calvary? Do we even think of subjects like justice, retribution, and the wrath of God that awaits sinners? Does this line of thinking even cross the mind of the modern church attendee that there is a seriousness about public and private worship? But what caught my attention the most in that quote was “these outcries of my justly accusing conscience.” That was what planted the seed for this blog you are reading.
The conscience is at work in the work of a preacher in two ways. First, his own conscience is much at stake as he goes about ministry. The condition of my conscience affects my private prayer life, my private preparation in the study, and the public proclamation of the Word of God. Secondly, the conscience of those who hear us must be affected by the work of the preacher as well. That can certainly be one of the most disconcerting things about preaching that we struggle with as ministers. That very thing was at play the last time that I preached. While I am certainly thankful that the great majority of those who listened to the Word were engaged, there was still that few piddling with their phones, others present in body but absent in mind, those with hearts like the wayside, the thorny ground, and the stony ground, and a few wandering about in the hallways. While a preaching pastor has little control over some of that, he does have control over his own conscience as he approaches this matter of preaching God’s Word.
The enemy would love nothing more than to soil my conscience so that spiritual strength and power literally come to nothing as I live, serve, and preach. A little over thirty years ago, I worked in a SICU that was a primary trauma unit for the tri-state region that I live in. My memory fails to recall all of the head injuries that I dealt with over those years. There would be patients that would come in with terrible insults to their brains. I have seen a few of these cases where not a single scratch or injury was anywhere else on their body but because of the traumatic brain injury, their lives were basically confined to a bed in an extended care facility for the rest of their lives. Their deaths probably came at some point due to some complication related to their inability to move about normally. If a pastor were to look at his conscience as his “brain” and how crucial that it is to his ministry, he would begin to take great care of it. Your brain has been working unconsciously as you have been reading this blog post. Not a single time have you had to think to cause your heart to beat, your lungs to inhale and exhale, for your stomach to digest food, nor have you had to tell your bone marrow to work on producing more red blood cells. All of these functions are automatic because your autonomic nervous system in your brain is guiding and directing every one of these processes. BUT if there is a blow to the brain or brain stem that causes these functions to stop, then life will cease altogether or will limp forward with greatly impaired function.
Far too often this is one of the matters that falls by the wayside when we think about sermon preparation and even ministry at large. The condition of the conscience is one of the most powerful matters in the life of every preacher. A clean conscience is like a sharp scalpel while a dirty conscience is like a rusted paring knife. You can imagine what would happen if a rusted paring knife were to be used in a delicate operation instead of a sharp scalpel. Damage would be done to the tissues, the surgeon would have great difficulty cutting along clear margins, and the amount of infection that would be introduced to the surgical wound would be dangerous. But a skilled surgeon that uses a sharp, sterile scalpel will have clear wound margins, no impediments to his skills as he cuts, and no germs introduced to the wound. The bigger matter is that preachers who have a violated conscience will do eternal harm to those who are hearing him. Paul wrote throughout his epistles about the need for a pure and good conscience as we move through life and ministry.
The conscience of a preacher can be affected by a number of things that we need to be on-guard about. Some of these attacks are subtle and seducing and others are immediately recognized as outright demonic. However, in the rationalizations of a carnal mind, the weakness of the flesh, and the onslaught of attack in spiritual warfare, every one of us who are in the ministry can fall prey to failure. The minute that we stop believing that we cannot fall is the moment that our conscience loses its ability to be on high alert. I will mention just a few things that I need to be on the alert for.
Dishonesty can move my conscience off center. I can be dishonest about the results of ministry particularly in the area of numbers. Numbers can be skewed and give us a much better picture than what they really are. When we continue to stretch things more than what they are, dishonesty dulls the conscience. Dishonesty can also be experienced when we pass off the spirituality of someone else as that of our own. Since very few have the boldness to question spiritual leaders, dishonesty can prevail in the area of what some would see as spiritual exploits. But we do ourselves great harm when we allow the work of the ministry to overcome the motive of ministry.
Doctrinal compromise is another matter that knocks the conscience off of its true course. Some of the doctrinal deviations we are seeing in our day is due to biblical illiteracy. Equivocation on the inerrancy of the Scriptures and choosing to substitute words like infallible and inspired to describe the Bible will lead to a crisis of conscience. If the Scriptures cannot be depended on to be accurate, true, and without error, where will that place me as a minister? My interaction with the Word on a daily basis has a soul-building effect that brings authority and boldness to my conscience like nothing else can. This is even more bolstered by an active prayer life.
Materialism can wilt my conscience as well. When I was in high school, we had to read the story of Silas Marner by George Eliot. It is a complex story that has a lot of angles to it that are rich in human drama and it ultimately has a good outcome. But one of the scenes in the book that has been in my head since 1983 is Silas sitting in his darkened basement where he has hoarded his gold and he is alone counting his money. He had allowed his life to become consumed with his money because of some misfortunes that had come his way. Materialism is a huge challenge for 21st century America and it can wreck the conscience and the ministry of a preacher. The concern for acquiring widgets, or as Solomon chased after apes and peacocks, it can be the ruin of right motives and powerful moves of the Spirit. Be on guard that your do not allow the accrual of wealth to be the main thing. We can often couch it with that catchy phrase, “I am so blessed by God.” Psalm 106:15 troubles me when it says that God gave Israel the desires of their heart but sent leanness to their soul.
More than a few men in ministry have allowed politics to disarm their conscience and shut off its voice. Peer pressure can shut off your voice because political maneuvering will at some point cost your convictions. I have watched from afar another denomination and some of their recent challenges. Through all of it several very prominent ministers have severed ties with men that they have had close fellowship with for decades. It has cost them criticism and misunderstanding but they have spoken publicly that instead of conceding their position for the sake of church politics and what would have been the easy path of compromise and comfort they are going another way. I remember Brother Kelsey Griffin’s words ringing in my ears now to stay out of politics during my days at Texas Bible College (1989-92). I have witnessed many who have compromised their beliefs over the years, and it does not turn out well when we do this.
One of the biggest hits to the conscience is sexual immorality. When the conscience is trying to juggle an immoral relationship and keep a semblance of a game face in ministry venues, the rottenness in the state of Denmark escalates. The conscience is generally seared once a man embraces the Machiavellian blackness that is required to live in two worlds to conduct ministry. But given the easy access and proliferation of pornography on the internet, sexual immorality is a fight that we all have to be vigilant about. I try to constantly keep at the forefront of my mind that there is coming a day that I will stand at the judgment seat of Christ and I do not want anything to compromise the integrity of my conscience.
Whatever efforts that are available to you, I am imploring and pleading with you to keep your conscience in a place that it is sharp and effective as you fulfill your calling!
I give a hearty note of thanks to Tony Mansinho who has sent me more than 400 books in the last couple of years. These books came to me during one of the most taxing, frustrating, and perplexing seasons of ministry that I have had to endure in a two-year season. As the months pass this year, I will be doing book reviews of some of the ones he sent to me. They were of great quality and not just shelf-fillers. I am so very thankful for the gifts he has sent my way!
Finally, I am always very thankful that you have stopped along to read my ramblings. I hope that in some small way, they encourage your life and ministry to reach a little higher to what God has called you to do. . . we are not far from seeing Him!