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Purifying the Conscience

Dale Johnson: This week on the podcast I have with me Dr. Stephen 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. Brother, it’s always fun to be with you; I enjoyed our conversation last week on “God’s Arbitrator.” We’re going to continue that, talking even practically about how to purify the conscience. Dr. Yuille, welcome again to the podcast.

Stephen Yuille: It’s good to be back with you. 

Dale Johnson: Now as we talk about this idea of purifying the conscience, we talked at length last week about the conscience itself trying to define and describe functionally how the conscience can be used. We talked even a little bit about how biblical counselors can implement this idea and utilize particular categories related to the conscience, which I think will help our discernment and to think according to Scriptures and know what our task is to truly help a person that’s sitting across the table from us. I want you to talk a little bit more specifically about purifying the conscience and how that process happens. One of the places that we learn about that is Hebrews 9, maybe I’ll just read it, Hebrews 9:13-14. The writer of Hebrews says, “For if the blood of bulls and goats and the sprinkling of defiled persons with ashes of a heifer sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ who through the eternal spirit offered himself without blemish to God purify our conscience from dead works to serve the Living God.”

I know you quoted that several times last week when we were together. We talked a little bit about this idea of cleansing of the conscience or purifying the conscience. What does the writer mean here? And how exactly does that happen? 

Stephen Yuille: Yeah. I mean, those are tricky verses when you first read them, heifers and bulls and goats and…

Dale Johnson: Well in Texas brother, people are quite acquainted with that, which is where you live. Where you came from now in Canada —I’m not so sure.

Stephen Yuille: Yeah, that’s it. You know, we need our Old Testament don’t we! As is true with much of the book of Hebrews it’s all set in the context of the Old Testament and the Pentateuch in particular. But I mean the author is basically making a comparison, right? You’ve got blood of goats, bulls and heifers, the sprinkling and cleansing of the defiled people in the Old Testament, legally and ceremonially unclean. And he’s making the point that look the blood of those animals could cleanse them and make them ceremonially clean. Well, if that’s true, then this is true, and this is even greater: the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, who has offered himself up as an atoning sacrifice to God upon Calvary’s cross. Well, He is able to purify our conscience from dead works to serve the Living God. Because pre-conversion, our works were dead. I mean, you go to Ephesians 2, for example, “We were dead in our trespasses and sins, and we walk according to the counsel of this world, right according to the spirit of the air,” etc. Now we’ve been made alive in Christ Jesus.

So, pre-conversion, our conscience was bad, our conscience was evil and any sense of guilt or conviction for sin would have made us run from God because we see God through the lens of terror and condemnation and judgment, but now in the Lord Jesus, because the Lord Jesus has offered himself up as an atoning sacrifice, our conscience has been cleansed from these dead works. I think it means firstly that the guilt of our sin has been removed. That’s the doctrine of justification. I think, incidentally, that’s why he talks about the blood of goats and bulls. That’s what it corresponds to: justification. God dealing with the guilt of our sin, the penalty of our sin by making us one with the Lord Jesus, the just has suffered for the unjust that we might become the righteousness of God in Christ.

But then we also know that by Christ’s atoning sacrifice, God has dealt with the defilement of our sin as sanctification that corresponds to the ashes of the heifer. So, there is that dual emphasis in the text which oftentimes we miss if we don’t go back and build the bridge with the Old Testament that the author is drawing out this dual emphasis of justification; Christ’s atonement deals with the guilt of sin and it’s removed and sanctification; Christ’s atonement as it deals with a defilement of sin. We are now cleansed in the sight of God. And so, in Christ, in Christ, in Christ —we cannot emphasize this enough; we now have peace with God and that is our position unchanging, unalterable, unwavering that we now enjoy peace with God, and we now approach God as our loving heavenly father in Christ Jesus. He is no longer a condemning God. He is now a welcoming God and our conscience in Christ is now good. Good in terms of what it is in the Lord Jesus. It is a conscience that has been cleansed from condemnation and ungodly fear and cleansed from guilt and feelings of foreboding, all those things that would make us run from God. It has now been cleansed whereby we come and say the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father who is in heaven…” So that’s the starting point. 

I think when it comes to purifying the conscience and cleansing the conscience, it is very much as getting back to the basics, the fundamentals which we never get over: the Gospel and what it means to be in Christ Jesus.

Dale Johnson: Now, this is critical, and I want to pause here just for a second and make a couple of comments and we think about purifying the conscience which we talked about even last week. And we’re going to talk a little bit more this week about how we do that in the counseling room. But the tendency for most people is to think practically and I think what Dr. Yuille has done here is very helpful for us, even in demonstration and example that when we get to the practicality of the counseling room, it can never be divorced from the genuine meaning or explanation of a text and this is why our theology matters so much in practicality, it is getting this part right. And then the way we think about passages of Scripture. He’s just explained very specifically Hebrews 9, some of these ideas of having a purified conscience which are so radically important in the counseling room. They’re not disconnected from the beauty of the gospel and the means by which we as human beings obtain a purified conscience, which if we’re thinking about this in the raw these are the types of issues that bring people into the counseling room. In a secular world and in our world, this is the type of things that bring people into the counseling room. Their conscience is burden in some way, shape or form and we can never get around to the beauty of the Gospel as the means by which this happens for a human being to have a genuinely undefiled, purified conscience.

So, I just want to establish that it’s important what he’s exemplifying for us here is that teaching the right truths, explaining it properly first and then moving out from that into the practicality of how we think about it in the counseling room or as you mentioned from the pulpit or daily living, all of that is true. So now the question, we read that, and man, I want a purified conscience! How do I obtain that? We have this truth that you just talked to us about. So how do we get a good conscience which is first and then how do we keep that or maintain a good conscience that the writer of Hebrews is describing here. 

Stephen Yuille: All right. Yeah, all of that is very, very good and very helpful. I’ve gleaned a fair bit in this regard from a man by the name of William Perkins who lived way back in the 1500s. William Perkins and many of his contemporaries wrote a lot about these subjects. William Perkins’s works have been published in 10 volumes. There’s one entire volume, Volume 8, just given to the conscience. That’s it —five major books in the one volume. Well, how could he say so much about this? It is a subject that really arrested, grabbed their attention and that they unpack in such detail. So, I gleaned a lot from him and in particular than this question of “How do you get it?” “How do you keep it?” So, five books in one huge volume. I’m going to break it down into five very pithy statements to really simplify it here. And again, hopefully whet people’s appetite and think of you know when you walk into your closet, there are hangers to hang your clothes on and keep things organized. Just give you five hangers mentally speaking to hang your thoughts on and start organizing your thinking maybe do a little studying and further deep dive into this. 

So, in terms of getting or obtaining a good conscience William Perkins would talk firstly about preparation people need to understand their condition before God. And make no apologies for it. Yes, at times it can be offensive. Yes, it may not be appreciated. We might incur people’s resentment or downright hostility at times. But look people are going nowhere until they are fully aware of their condition before God —exactly what it is. 

And then building on that Perkins would say, once that is in place, then we need to be ready to apply Christ and the application of Christ that goes right back to the text you read Dale, in Hebrews 9, and what it means then to have our conscience sprinkled by the blood of the Lord Jesus from dead works to serve the Living God and to know that we are now welcomed and received in Christ and that God looks upon us as He looks upon His beloved Son.

And then once that is in place, reformation is what William Perkins called it and I’m not sure that’s the best word again, that’s contextual to his age, the age in which he lived. What he simply meant by it was Romans 8:15-16. He had in mind where we read that the spirit of adoption and the Holy Spirit now witnesses or testifies with our spirit, our conscience that we are indeed the children of God. How important when we’re counseling with an unbeliever to bring them to that place by God’s spirit and that’s moving them from a bad conscience to a good conscience where the individual has walked through; “what is my standing before God?” “What is the significance of Christ’s atoning work?” and to know how I am received and welcomed in Christ, and the spirit of God, the spirit of adoption testified with my spirit, my conscience, that I am indeed a child of God. You know, that’s even important when it comes to believers, especially someone who’s in the grip of sin and has been languishing in that condition for some time. Their conscience is going to be completely skewed and out of whack and walking through those steps again with them I think is very pastoral and very helpful. 

Then building on of the next two steps William Perkins would speak firstly in terms of avoiding impediments and in a discipleship, discipling, counseling context really getting into the detail then in terms of what men and women must avoid and must flee from to preserve that conscience and Perkins will speak of ignorance. So again, going back to a misinformed conscience. We want to be informed and instructed by God’s Word. He would talk about inordinate affections, so lusts of the heart that are fixed on things, idolatry —fixed on things that they should not be fixed upon and then worldly allurements that entice us and draw away. 

And so, we need to give a lot of thought and attention to those things when it comes to keeping and maintaining a good conscience. Then he spoke fifthly about employing what he calls preservatives. So, the idea of again keeping, maintaining, and preserving a clear conscience and really, he speaks a lot of cultivating a daily desire, longing, endeavor to know God’s will and do it. So, what’s that going to look like today? What’s that going to look like in my 24/7? Today at work, as I face that relationship, as I deal with that unpleasant situation, as I struggle with that lust or that sin, whatever the case may be. What is it going to look like to know God’s will and to apply it in that context and then have as part of the target then what it is to preserve and maintain this clear conscience before God. So let me just repeat those five really quick. It would just you know, preparing, applying, reforming, avoiding impediments, and employing preservatives. I find them five useful coat hangers. Anyway, just to organize at times my scattered thoughts on.

Dale Johnson: I’m even thinking for my students who are early on in the process just now having categories that they could think through and how to really pursue something on purpose with someone sitting across the table from them in terms of development and in terms of pursuit. You mentioned habits in the past pursuing discipline and training in righteousness in these particular ways, which are both preventative care and even remedial in process as well. Let’s bring this into the counseling room as I’m thinking specifically about my students. I’m sure you’re thinking about some of yours and even our listeners. What does this look like? Particularly within the context of biblical counseling, which is a one-on-one personal ministry of the word, with discipleship formal or informal. What does this look like in the context of that relationship? 

Stephen Yuille: Yeah. I mean the manifold answers to that question. Perhaps the most effective and most beneficial is just to give a snapshot. So, you know, imagine we are sitting in the office with an individual dealing with this whole question of conscience and making sure the individual’s conscience is informed by God’s word, helping them to evaluate, you know, words, relationships, past whatever, current whatever in light of God’s word. So, here’s one way I would approach it, one way I would handle it, is I would make my text Ephesians 5. Paul talks about three walks. So, walk the way we are living, the way we’re functioning. In Ephesians 5 he talks firstly about walking in love. So, we are to walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering sacrifice to God. I think that is very helpful then when it comes to probing the conscience and examining the life, how has Christ loved us? How are we loving others? How are we loving that person with whom we have a running battle and conflict after conflict after conflict? How are we loving that individual who wronged us three years ago? How we are loving that individual who is I mean simply a prickly pear and that’s all there is to it. And so, evaluating the conscience in terms of the whole realm of relationships. I find that helpful.

Then moving on to the chapter he talks about walking in the light and the light is opposed to the darkness there. He’s bringing his into the realm of the moral. Our conduct and our behavior and what we do and how we think and how it lines up then with God’s will, God’s law and God who is light. What inconsistencies are there in my life between the way I am living, how I have been acting, and what I have been doing and God who is light and has revealed that light in His word.

Then the third walk later in verse 15 in chapter 5. He talks about walking carefully and walking wisely and that brings us into this whole question of prudence and how we use our time how we engage with this world and how we face different circumstances and conditions in life. And you know, those three categories you’ve pretty much got a snapshot of just about everything that comes up in the context of counseling; walking in love, walking in the light, walking wisely and carefully and it’s all there in Ephesians 5 and being able to walk through Ephesians 5 and the two columns in terms of this is what God’s word says and evaluating them: the individuals thoughts, feelings, words and actions by those three standards. And again, by God’s grace and by the work of the Spirit of God helping the individual to see and to know the inconsistencies speaking here primarily of believers and entrusting them that God’s arbitrator, the conscience, kicks in and being properly informed and having compiled the right information is now comparing what have I done with what is here and then conviction where necessary and then setting that whole trajectory in terms of a course of action. I mean, I’ve left tons unsaid obviously we could go on and on and on about this but at least I hope it’s a very practical snapshot of the way to just think of how to bring this whole question of the conscience into a counseling context, go to a very simple passage like an Ephesians 5 and employ it with that very real target in front of us. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, I love it. And I think these are very tangible things very connected to this thought of the conscience but very rooted in in the Scriptures. You mentioned in the practicality of how Paul tells us to walk — to live— our called to walk. One final thought. Dr. Yuille, we just talked specifically on how to implement some of this in the biblical counseling room and you know, the tendency of everyone is to ask sort of the extreme questions; “Well, what do I do in this particular case,” or “what do I do in that particular case?” I want to apply that even here now there are ways in the Scripture that we hear about a debased mind or the futility of one’s thinking Romans 1 and Galatians and even Paul uses that in Ephesians chapter 4. He uses also in 1 Timothy for the idea of a seared conscience. There is some ambiguity as we think about seared conscience. What does that mean? But I want you to talk about how do we recognize someone who’s sitting in front of us where they have a seared conscience? And then how do we address something like what Paul is describing there in 1 Timothy 4. 

Stephen Yuille: Oh, yeah. That’s a really, really good one and just speaking personally this has probably been when I look back on my years of pastoral ministry. This has probably posed the greatest challenge. How do you engage with someone whose conscience is seared, cauterized as maybe the word we’re more familiar with. I think of when I was in my late teens and early 20s, I was a roofer nailing shingles and carrying a hammer around in my right hand all day, and the calluses I had developed, not now, though! My hands couldn’t swing a hammer if my life depended on that now. But then they were absolutely calloused and insensitive. I could take a razor blade, excuse the mental picture, I could take a razor blade to those calluses and not feel anything. That’s what we’re talking about. We’re talking about somebody who just isn’t feeling it. And compounding that they say to you “it’s all good.” I mean they have blinders on and the scales are really hard. I mean we could use a hundred different expressions here to describe this spiritual condition, certainly the condition of many an unbeliever and at times although I don’t think God ever leaves them there. We can engage with unbelievers who because of carelessness and disobedience and prolonged sin, habitual sin, fall into a cauterized condition. They grow insensitive and you’re sitting across from a man or woman who you perceive is in that kind of a frame of mind and spiritual state, well then, what do you do? And again, a book should be written on this subject and I’m just going to make a couple of suggestions, really simple suggestions and let me frame them by way of questions. When you’re trying to diagnose and then speak truth into that situation and be used by God’s spirit to help people to see and understand and they’re seared, they don’t think there’s a problem and they’re not hearing it, “All’s good, yeah, I’m good with God.” Whatever, you know the expressions. We’ve heard it all!

The first is this: how do we commit sin? That’s an important question because we know we all sin, but we do not all sin in the same way. Is sin a sorrow or a delight? We need to get people to work through the answer to that question. Is sin a sorrow or a delight? When a sheep falls into the muck and the mire, what does a sheep do impulsively? Jumps out of the mud! When a pig falls into the muck and the mire what does it do? It wallows in it because it is home. I mean this is tough, and we need to proceed carefully and cautiously, but we need to do it. When someone you know is evidencing a seared conscience. How do they commit sin? Is there sorrow or delight? Are they repulsed by it? Or are they wallowing in it? That’s going to tell us a lot. 

The second question is this: how do people confess sin? Oh, yeah, yeah, I did that, well, what else is God’s grace for, right? and nothing to see here —move on! No. It’s 2 Corinthians 7, right, and the clear distinction Paul makes and 2 Corinthians 7 verses 10- 12 between worldly sorrow, worldly grief, or earthly grief, and Godly grief, and so when the individual says, “I am sorry.” Well, is this a seared conscience? Is this sincere? What’s really going on here? A helpful question is this: is the individual —are we, for that matter— seeking God’s forgiveness simply to appease an uncomfortable conscience, or are we seeking God’s forgiveness as a necessary step to mortify sin? That’s very telling. It will tell you what you’ve got and what you’re dealing with and can be very helpful then for holding up God’s word as a mirror to people to help them understand the true condition of their heart and what a precarious situation they might be in.

Then the third question is this: how do we combat sin? So, how do we commit it? How do we confess it? And how do we combat it or mortify it, fight against it and that takes us back again to 2 Corinthians 7 where Paul speaks about earnestness, the earnestness of Godly grief. This zeal and the indignation, the fear in the longing and everything else, the desire to do something to change, and there’s the reality if I can just put it so simply: those who have a seared conscience are those who love their sin ultimately and you know if they love it simply by the fact that they will refuse to actually fight against it. So, when it comes to evaluation and being discerning, yes, we want to avoid being judgmental, right? You know, the log in our own eye and the speck in your brother’s eye. We know Matthew 7, and we know the dangers of being hypercritical and overcritical in all of these things. But this is an area pastorally where we do need to exercise great wisdom, prudence, insight, and discernment because if we are engaging with a person whose conscience is truly seared, I think those are three ways in which it will become evident very quickly and their response, their reaction, their handling of that will then of necessity dictate where we go from there and what it is we’re dealing with—believer or unbeliever. It just becomes very illuminating and helpful to know how to proceed and then to know how to speak God’s word into that situation. So again, I know maybe all of that has raised more questions than its answered and there’s plenty more that could be said but at least those three questions, some guidance I hope maybe a couple of nuggets in there to help shape some of our listeners thinking and approach to this subject.

Dale Johnson: Very helpful brother, and I think that’s exactly what happened —biblical wisdom given, you know with critical categories that I think are helpful in expressing and discerning, which I think is you know, what we continually need to grow in as counselors if we’re really going to help people in a way that’s pleasing to the Lord and honoring to the Lord and also good for the individual. So, thank you so much for imparting some of the biblical wisdom. I know I appreciate it, and I’m sure our listeners do as well. So, thank you for your time, brother. It’s always good to be with you 

Stephen Yuille: As always great to be with you, take care of brother.

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