Sound Doctrine (4)
Now the purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience…1 Timothy 1.5
The seat of the will
Discerning, understanding, and using sound doctrine, so that we profit from all that God’s Word teaches about the many topics that interest us, is a matter of right understanding and proper affections. We must come to know the truth as Scripture teaches it; and we must have the right affections engaged with that truth. We’re really beginning to make the best use of sound doctrine when we understand it with our minds and have engaged it in our hearts, so that we feel and desire what we are coming to know of sound doctrine.
But, as Paul indicates in our text, getting love to flow from sound doctrine also involves the conscience. Mind, heart, and conscience – these three components of the soul: All must be shaped and brought into the effort of learning and living according to sound doctrine.
What is the conscience? In the soul, the conscience is that immaterial aspect that develops and stores our values, priorities, and default choices. Another way of thinking of the conscience is as the will. In the soul, a continuous dialog is underway between the mind – what we think – the heart – how we feel – and the conscience – our most basic convictions. The conscience functions as a kind of referee in the soul, bringing together the thoughts of our minds and the affections of our hearts in a harmonious and truthful way, so that love can issue from all our learning. Thus, it is very important that the conscience be in proper working order – what Paul describes as a “good” conscience, one that pleases God and serves men (Acts 24.16).
Sound doctrine – such as the doctrine of work – won’t do us much good if we only know the doctrine, or take joy in such knowledge. Unless we value what we know and massage it into the determinations of our will, it is not likely to issue in love for God and neighbors in our lives.
A good conscience
As we study the great doctrines of Scripture and the Christian faith, we may find our mind wondrously agitated and refreshed in thinking the thoughts of God after Him. Our study of sound doctrine may lead us to feel very excited, even exhilarated about what we’re coming to understand. But unless we will these thoughts and affections into action, they will remain just that – mere subjective experiences without benefit to men or glory to God.
The conscience is that component of the soul that forges thoughts and affections into strategies and decisions for action. Our conscience is in good shape when the actions flowing from our sound doctrine seek the wellbeing and edification of our neighbors and bring honor and glory to God. Sound doctrine that does not lead to a good conscience cannot issue in love, but will be only so many clanging cymbals of spiritual pride.
Toward a good conscience
So how do we get a good conscience?
The place to begin is with the Law of God, as Paul indicates in the larger context of our passage (1 Tim. 1.3-11). The Law of God was given to exercise a check on sinful inclinations, which are natural and persistent in every one of us. This is what Paul refers to as the law of sin (Rom. 7.21). The Law, being holy and righteous and good, illuminates any dark places in our soul, and fills any gaps in our will when it comes to living in obedience to the Lord. The Spirit of God will teach us the Law as we invest time reading and meditating in it (Rom. 7.12; Ezek. 36.26, 27; Ps. 1; Ps. 11.9-11). He convicts us of sin, righteousness, and judgment so that, in His power, and in the light of the Law, we can purify and reinforce our values and priorities, and bring our conscience into proper order before the Lord.
Once the conscience has been engaged to integrate our thoughts and affections, we will need to act on whatever we are learning to be the right priority or choice for our will (Jms. 1.22-25). The more we act on the values, priorities, and convictions we are learning, the more these become imprinted in our conscience and established as working components of our will. As our conscience grows stronger in the Lord, and in His good and perfect will, it will exercise a powerful hold on our thinking and feeling, so that we grow stronger in our soul and more inclined to let sound doctrine have its proper outlet through works of love.
Work at it!
But we’ll have to work at this. Sound doctrine is not just a matter of knowing truth in our mind – and not even of feeling really good, confident, or magnanimous as a result. Sound doctrine comes to expression in works of love, and for that to happen, we’ll have to keep working hard at maintaining a good conscience to go with our true thoughts and pure affections.
Christ can purify our conscience from dead works and wrong values (Heb. 9.14), but we must exercise continuous vigilance, lest by neglect, our conscience become seared to sound doctrine, and our faith become shipwrecked (1 Tim. 1.19).
1. What is the conscience, and how does it work in your soul?
2. How can you tell when your conscience is good?
3. What suggestions would you give a new believer to help him nurture and maintain a good conscience?
Next steps – Transformation: Meditate on Psalm 1. How can you begin to bring more of this “day and night” focus on God’s Law for strengthening your conscience?
T. M. Moore
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.