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God’s Arbitrator

Truth in Love 468

What does the Bible say about our conscience?

Jun 3, 2024

Dale Johnson: This week on the podcast I have with me Dr. Steven Yuille, he serves as professor of Church History and Spiritual Formation at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. He’s also the preaching pastor at Fairview Covenant Church in Granbury, Texas, which is a church revitalization. He has written numerous books in Puritan studies and Biblical studies and his most recent writing project was editing and introducing the complete works of John Cotton which are due to be published later in 2024. I am so grateful for this brother and my former pastor; I love Dr. Yuille and any time we get to spend together. Brother, thank you for being with me today on the podcast. 

Stephen Yuille: Well, it’s great to be with you. 

Dale Johnson: Now, most people are hearing the introduction, the title: God’s Arbitrator. What in the world are we up to? What are we surmising about today? Give a little explanation as to this idea of “God’s Arbitrator.” 

Stephen Yuille: Yeah, fancy language. A couple of words I picked out of an old book from the 1500s, simply an author’s description of the conscience, what we would call the conscience. What is the conscience? It is God’s arbitrator, or God’s judge if you like, that helps us discern right from wrong, truth from error, and good from bad. So yeah, God’s arbitrator has a bit of a ring to it. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it kind of captures the essence of this idea of the conscience. 

Dale Johnson: I love it and I think that discussing this idea of the conscience is very helpful when we think about counseling because we’re talking about the burden of people’s conscience, how people are trying to scratch the itch of the conscience, and what’s happening. So, let’s jump into this. What exactly is the conscience, “God’s arbitrator,” and why should we care about it? 

Stephen Yuille: Yeah, good question. Maybe the place to begin is with the second part. Why should we care about it? The Bible has a lot to say on the subject. “Wage the good warfare,” Paul says to Timothy, “holding faith and a good conscience.” What’s he talking about? He makes use of that word a lot in his Epistles and evidently the conscience is important, a good conscience is important. We talk a lot about the faith, and we understand what we mean by that in terms of the content of what we believe. But what is this conscience of which Paul in particular speaks a great deal? So, it’s important, that’s why we should be giving it some attention. But what is it exactly? I sometimes think it’s easier to describe what it does, as opposed to what it is, to help get our minds around it. 

And you know, if I think in terms of just trying to break it down as simply as I can I like to think of the conscience in three ways just really using three words, or three concepts.

The first is that the conscience compiles or it gathers information. That’s what our conscience is doing. What is right? What is wrong? What is true? What is false? What is good? What is bad? What is acceptable? What is unacceptable? That’s the first thing the conscience does; compiling information—facts, for lack of a better expression. 

The second thing it does is it compares.  And so, it takes what it is compiled —good, bad, true, and false— and then compares it with our words, our thoughts, our feelings, our actions. So, think of two columns if you like, On the left-hand side of the column, you have what we have compiled in terms of what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. And then our conscience will actually compare our words, our thoughts, our feelings, our actions of the past day, the past week, our past entirety of our lives. To see to what degree our words, feelings and actions, have been either consistent with or inconsistent with what we know to be true, false, good, bad, acceptable, and unacceptable. So, it compiles and compares. 

The third “C” is it convicts. And so, it passes sentence, is what the conscience does. So, it finds discrepancies. It finds inconsistencies. It finds where our actions or our words do not measure up to what we know to be God-honoring, biblically true, good versus bad and when that happens it passes sentence, and it produces what we call a sense of conviction. So rather than try to define it in a sentence, I usually think more in terms of its function along those three lines again: compiling, comparing, and convicting. 

Dale Johnson: You know, it’s very helpful to put it categorically in that way and I think you’re right to some degree in how we think about the conscience. Defining it is quite difficult when you think about the function of it. Well, that seems to make a little bit more sense to us, but there is ambiguity when we think about the conscience and maybe we don’t talk about this enough in Biblical Counseling. I would argue that maybe this is an area that we’ve not addressed quite well enough when the conscious is so involved when you think about issues of counseling. And listen, we have a wide range of options in our current society. But how to think of the conscience, you mentioned Paul’s view of living with a good conscience, all the way down to Jiminy Cricket who’s helping us think that “our conscience is our guide.” So, there’s a lot of ambiguity around this topic today. Why do you think that is? That there is so much ambiguity about the issue of conscience? 

Stephen Yuille: Yeah, that’s a really good question and we could go on at length trying to unravel this one. You know, simply put, I tend to think it’s related to the fact that we simply don’t have the categories for it in terms of our thinking the way we’re predisposed in terms of our thinking, I liken it to that. 

Remember that children’s toy? I mean your kids are all grown up now, but I’m sure you had it kicking around your house at one time. Remember that blue and red ball and it had the different shapes openings in it. And then the yellow pieces you would fit in the triangle, on the cross, and the Asterix, and the circle, and all these things and then watching a two-year-old trying to fit the triangle in the round opening or the rectangle in the star. It’s not going to fit; you have to match the piece to the right opening. I find this relates not just to the subject of the conscience but to a number of different issues and subjects in our day that there just seems to be a mismatch because of some of our presuppositions and some of the things we tend to take for granted.

Just breaking it down as simply as quickly as I can. I mean, why is there so much ambiguity? I think a big part of it has to do with the fact that what the Bible has to say about the conscience is incompatible with the skeptical age in which we live. I mean we live in an age inundated with radical skepticism. So, we live in a day and age in which you hear this ad nauseam, but it’s true. We need to be reminding ourselves of it constantly, there is to a great extent the prevailing mindset of the day; “there is no objective truth,” or “there is no objective morality.” Morality, right and wrong is not determined by what God says. It’s not determined by divine revelation. It is determined by a personal choice and preference and so that means for a lot of people today that the conscience is simply the product of our particular social context. So, you start talking about a conscience. It’s meaningless. The word has just fallen by the wayside because it just doesn’t fit into the philosophy of the day. You can build on that. Neither does it fit into the psychology of the day, I mean it is incompatible with Freudians, right? I mean Freud spoke disparagingly of a guilty conscience. He dismissed any concept of a conscience, guilty conscience, conviction basically as that terrible childhood experience of internalizing feelings of disapproval and feelings that would come from our parents’ feelings, teachers’ feelings, religious church leaders, pastors, and these feelings didn’t arise from objective moral standards violation of objective moral standards. No, these feelings are the result of the fact that societal expectations are being forced on us and we were programmed to feel pride when we met those expectations and shame when we didn’t meet those expectations. 

But the conscience really isn’t a reality then is not rooted in absolute moral objectivity, biblical truth is simply being manufactured by experiences and is actually a bad thing. So, you think of the world of philosophy, you think of the world of psychology, the conscience has no place in those frames of reference, those frames of thinking. We might point our finger as biblical counselors and say right on, Amen, I hear ya. But even closer to home, I think there’s something else going on. And again, I don’t want to belabor this too much, but I think a very significant third factor in our day as evangelicals is simply this: the conscience is incompatible with a therapeutic gospel. Which is by and large what we are hearing in great segments of evangelicalism today. A therapeutic gospel the idea and being the chief aim in many churches today is simply to make people feel good about themselves. That’s why they exist, that’s why they’re there, that’s how they orchestrate their worship services, that is how God’s word is communicated or not communicated. The goal is to make people feel confident about God’s presence without costing them anything, and as a result Theology is going out the window, it has been replaced with therapy as David Wells put it years ago, “The pursuit of righteousness has been replaced by the search of happiness, the authority of truth has been replaced by the supremacy of feelings, obedience has been replaced with the ideal of feeling good.” There’s no room for the conscience in any of that. The conscience is then viewed through a very negative lens. And so, there is a lot going on in answer to that question, and I think I’ve probably just in a 30,000-foot fly over gave at least some idea if our listeners think in terms of mental categories —the framework through which people perceive things, understand things, the prevailing mindset today. It’s a mismatch, you’re trying to get the yellow triangle in the square hole in that red and blue ball. It just doesn’t fit. There’s no place for it. 

Dale Johnson: And if you’re appealing to objective truth in some way that becomes in our society as being oppressive which is antithetical to exactly what you mentioned in terms of humanistic psychology in self-fulfillment, self-actualization. Now that becomes a hindrance to that process of what we’re describing culturally as being healthy and to your point where imbibing that in the church and so listen anytime that you have Freud that’s wanting to destroy, or Carl Rogers and Maslow wanting to destroy certain aspects of how we understand from a Christian disposition the healthy perspective of the conscience. It should at least send some red flags up for us to start being curious, asking some questions, which I think is the point that you’re raising, and I think if our listeners would pause and pay attention to some of the cultural red flags that we’re seeing come up.

Now, this is interesting because I think, as I mentioned, biblical counseling could stand to do a lot of work here in this area of the conscience. As I think about it doesn’t mean just because the culture says or wants to dismiss the conscience that it’s not real and it doesn’t work or that it’s not in process of working. So, it’s still there, people are burdened in conscience, “they’re vexed in soul” is a way that the Scriptures describe it. This was not something that was dismissed in church history, and I would say maybe we need to recover some of that idea of the way we thought about the conscience in our Christian past.

So, I want to ask you a question: being a professor of church history, I think this would be helpful in that spiritual formation. Why did the church in the past give so much attention? Because I see this as quite out of balance, even what you described to the attention that we give it today. We don’t give as much attention to it. So why did the church give that much attention to the conscience in the past? 

Stephen Yuille: That is a very insightful question, you know from the outset, the church is a valuable resource as we look back, as we go back a few centuries, as it relates to this subject. They did indeed give a lot of attention to it typically. Part of the answer to that is the fact that they are pre-modern thinkers. Yes, they predate the philosophy and the psychology of the day. They are on the other side of Freud and everyone else. We’re going back pre 18th, 19th century and therefore their insights are extremely valuable because they’re coming at these subjects from a completely different angle. Then partly, they’re valuable in terms of what they have to contribute to our understanding, and they gave a lot of attention to it because they saw that Scripture gives attention to it, and they were convinced, and this goes back to the title we’ve given to this session. They were convinced that the conscience is God’s arbitrator. They were convinced that the conscience is a gift that God works through the conscience in the individual. They believe that was true for the unbeliever. And so, they would go to Romans 2, they show speaking there specifically of the Gentiles that they show the work of the law is written on their hearts while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them. He is speaking of unbelievers and how important that is. Therefore, when it comes to evangelism and engaging with the unbeliever that when it comes to God’s law and God’s will we’re actually not informing people of something they don’t already know. We are simply reminding them of what they have willfully suppressed and what they already have on their hearts and knowledge of God’s law right and wrong and that gives us a target when it comes to evangelism, apologetics, speaking to our unsaved family members, friends and neighbors. We are targeting that conscience —God’s arbitrator— to be used by the Spirit of God to show and demonstrate the inconsistency between the way one is living and what God’s word calls them to.

So, they believed it was important when it came to evangelism, and they believed it was extremely important and when it came to pastoral ministry. What we are trying to do in discipleship in catechizing as they would call it biblical counseling, they saw the conscience as one of the chief targets. Paul will say to Timothy in 1 Timothy chapter 1, “the aim of our charge.” So, here’s the aim of our ministry, what we’re called to is love that is from what? a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.

And so again, they recognize that the conscience —God’s Gift. Yes, pre-conversion, darkened— at times, seared, certainly skewed, but as we come to life in Christ Jesus and the mind is illumined, and the affections are now inclined heavenward. So, too, the conscience is renewed, and the conscience is restored. It is now to be informed and regulated and governed by God’s word and that really as biblical counselors that’s an invaluable lesson we can learn from the past because as we read some of these figures going back into the 1500s and 1600s, especially their pastoral writings. That’s how they’re coming at it from that angle. “How does God’s truth inform the conscience?” “How should we respond in terms of conviction or comfort?” “How should we respond in terms of guilt or peace as we examine ourselves and evaluate ourselves?” especially in the light of God’s revealed will for us. So again, that’s I think in a nutshell, t’s a bit of a simplification I admit it. But in a nutshell, they’re pre-modern thinkers, so they don’t have the baggage we do, and they just have this acute awareness of the function of the conscience as God’s arbitrator. And I think that explains in large part why it does loom larger figures prominently in so many of the writing.

Dale Johnson:  Yet critical I think, you know post-reformation where we’re seeing a renewal of the love and deep commitment to the Scripture but also pretty modern psychology. I think it changes the side of the prism that they’re looking through and how they think about the Word and how I think about the conscience.

I wanted to ask you about the function in biblical counseling. So, we’re dealing with this issue of the conscience. One of the things I think about not talk to my students about is in the counseling room you’re trying to discern this person’s conscience. What are they appealing to? How is their conscience been informed? Often, it’s been informed by cultural norms and cultural realities, and that’s a misappropriation. And so just exactly what you talked about, how do we inform this person’s conscience as part of the discipleship process, inform their conscience relative to the Word of God to wear that measuring stick of the Word now becomes how they’re measuring, understanding, interpreting, and discerning their life and that’s critical. So, I want you to talk a little bit about fleshing out that idea that you sort of ended the last segment on: how is this functionally helpful in the counseling room? And how can we use this idea of the conscience? 

Stephen Yuille: Yeah, I think is extremely important. We read in Acts 24 verse 16, Paul says: “I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man.” I always take pains; I make every effort, right? I’m diligent to have a clear conscience, a good conscience toward both God and man. I would deduce from that that there’s a pretty good target then when it comes to biblical counseling and discipleship, every time we’re engaging with someone. In many ways that is the goal, that we might cultivate a clear conscience. A conscience that is good, healthy, clear, beyond accusation toward both God and man. And so I think that just, you know becomes very informative then in the counseling context that we do need to give time to evaluate the conscience and the Bible speaks of a defiled conscience.

Titus 1. Someone whose conscience is perhaps tarnished by a willful, deliberate sin. It speaks of a seared or cauterized conscience, 1 Timothy 4.  Someone again who perhaps has fallen into habitual sin and become again insensitive to its seriousness and to its gravity. And then in 1 Corinthians 8, and Romans 13, Paul talks about a weak conscience. So someone who thinks they’re sinning by the aren’t really sinning or they think they’re sinning because they have cultural reasons, familial reasons, whatever developed a host of rules that are not biblical they violated them and therefore they’re struggling the weak conscience. So, we need to give some thought to these things in these categories and be asking the right questions and making sure then when it comes to the conscience it must be informed by God’s worker.

And so yes one-on-one counseling getting people into God’s Word, the reading of God’s Word, the study of God’s Word. But you know, I think beneficial for us, although I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir here, but beneficial always for us to remind ourselves as counselors is always, always, always in the context of the local church and in the corporate means of Grace that’s where this really happens. It really happens. This is why the local church is of fundamental importance. And what we are doing is simply supplemental. We must never forget that. We need men and women under the regular, common, corporate means of Grace in the context of the local church where they are being renewed, challenged, instructed, informed and guided by God’s Word through his exposition and through his preaching and through its applications. Singing it, praying it, reading it and discussing it with other believers. That’s how the conscience is informed and able then to put away some of the other factors that may lead to a weak conscience or an ill-informed or misinformed conscience.

So, we need to have that kind of convictional attitude, I think, and then, yes, inform it by means of God’s Word. We need to be prepared. Obviously, this rests with the work of God’s spirit, but to disturb the conscience that’s what self-examination is all about. That’s why the Psalmist says, “Search me O God and know my heart, try me and know my anxious thoughts…” —those thoughts that the conscience perhaps is bringing to our attention— “…see if there be any grievous way in me and lead me in the way everlasting.” I think that becomes informing the conscience, disturbing the conscience, always comforting the conscience by means of the Gospel that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus” and knowing that Christ has cleansed us from our dead works, and we now have free unfettered access to God and making sure that then yes, a disturbed conscience, but always in the context of the cleansing power of the gospel.

Then I think of fourth essential component in a counseling context is helping people to develop healthy habits when it comes to guarding the conscience and preserving it and what it means to discipline ourselves therefore for the purpose of godliness that we might maintain that good clear conscience, which is the target. So, I find those four categories helpful. I’ve left a lot unsaid when it comes to some of the particulars but hopefully four helpful categories for our listeners to start, you know, formulating some ideas as to what that might look like in a one-on-one situation and in counseling context.

Dale Johnson: God’s Arbitrator. I’m not sure if folks at the very beginning thought this is what we were getting but I’m glad we dove into this and brother as always it is so encouraging every time that we’re together.

Listen for all of you paying attention here you might want to pause this and go back to the start and listen to the things. Dr. Yuille has helped us to think through. I think this is a big piece of us growing in our skill in biblical counseling and understanding what the Bible describes in terms of the conscience, how it works, how God intended it to work and what we’re called to do as we inform the conscience from a biblical perspective, and I love the way you describe that in terms of how we approach issues of sin when it’s burdening the conscience or issues of comfort necessary in process as well. Brother thank you; I am always encouraged every time we get to hang out together and it’s very good again today. So, I appreciate your time. 

Stephen Yuille: Oh, you’re very welcome. Great to be with you

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