Ep.226: Dirty Conscience.

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray With Me”.

Hebrews 9 says that worshippers in ancient Israel’s religion needed to be cleansed with the blood of bulls and goats. The author continues: 
   How much more will the blood of Christ,
      who through the eternal Spirit offered himself . . . to God,
      cleanse our consciences from dead works,
          so that we may serve the living God (Heb 9:14). 

The Christian conscience needs to be cleansed? From dead works? Let’s look for a moment at this problem conscience, and at what kind of works it must be cleansed from. 

I was raised to believe that my conscience is God’s gift to help me tell right from wrong. If my conscience feels guilty, I have done wrong. If my conscience isn’t bothering me, I must be doing right. 

The New Testament presents a more nuanced view of the conscience. It talks of a seared conscience (1 Tim 4:2), a defiled conscience (Titus 1:15), a weak conscience (1 Cor 8:7), and in our passage today, a conscience attuned to dead works (Heb 9:14). Paul even suggests keeping your conscience in the dark sometimes. For example, if your food might have been offered to idols, don’t ask, because your conscience might make a fuss (1 Cor 10:27). Paul says of himself, “My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Cor 4:4). 

In short, the conscience is a useful but defective arbiter of good and evil. It needs to be trained (Heb 5:14, KJV) so it will help your spiritual life instead of hindering it. 

Hebrews goes on to say that our consciences must be cleansed from dead works. What are these dead works that dirty the conscience?

Modern ethical theories focus on the question, “What is ethical behaviour?” They pose problems like this: A train is hurtling down the tracks toward an accident. If you throw the switch to divert the train onto a siding, it will save 25 passengers. But it will kill the five workmen on the siding. Should you throw the switch? 

Scriptural ethics have a different focus. Rather than creating endless lists of right and wrong actions, or specifying all the works you need to do, scripture addresses the kind of people we should become. We are on a journey of the heart. Our attitudes and motives must be purified, our thinking must become wide and loving like God’s. On this journey, as we become like Christ, our consciences come free of scrupulous attempts to manage all the details of behaviour, and instead grow sensitive and flexible to relationships where love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8) –both our sin and others. 

Luther famously wrote, “Sin boldly, but believe even more boldly in Christ and rejoice.”  Sin boldly? Does that sound Christian? He wrote this in a letter to Melancthon, his fellow reformer, who was prone to scrupulosity and attacks of conscience (Fred Sanders at “Sin Boldly!” – The Scriptorium Daily). Luther was addressing ta similar problem Hebrews. That is, don’t permit a weak conscience to govern all your actions. The measure of our lives is not the volume of evil we manage to avoid, but the great love we learn to give. This requires us to step out in faith and do something useful in the world. Our attempts at love and service will often be impatient, wrong-headed, or self-serving. But we can trust God’s grace and forgiveness to see us through our failures.

Let’s pray

Our Lord, some of us have spent too much time trying to keep a clear conscience and to manage our behaviour. We have spent too little time learning to love you and our neighbors. Our feet and consciences are dirty from walking through this world of idols and materialism and moral relativity. Wash our feet, Lord, as you did the disciples’, cleanse us from useless works, so that we may serve the living God.


I’m Daniel, on the channel “Pray with Me”.