Our sense that we’ve done something wrong (or indeed something virtuous) is the voice of conscience. An uneasy conscience is a very troubling thing. Whatever else is going well for us, when our conscience niggles and prickles, we cannot be at peace. The epistle to the Hebrews tackles the problem that we have an ‘evil conscience’ (Hebrews 10:22) and that our conscience needs to be ‘purged’ (Hebrews 9:14). The gospel has a solution to a defiled and accusing conscience. Peace of conscience is one of the key benefits that Jesus Christ can give us. However, in a sermon on these two verses in Hebrews, James Durham takes the time to identify four ways that people can temporarily buy themselves some suppression of the voice of conscience. He shows in the following updated extract that a conscience that goes quiet – but not because it’s been purged by the atoning blood of Christ – is a very dangerous thing.
In Hebrews 9 and 10, the apostle’s purpose is to commend the transcendent worth and matchless excellency of Jesus Christ, and the incomparable efficacy of his most precious blood. He does this on the basis of this noble, notable, and unique effect of it, i.e., that when nothing else can allay the storm of an evil conscience, nor purge it from defilement, this blood can do it effectually, when applied by faith.
There is nothing that Christians should more aim at, and endeavour more to practice, than to follow the way by which they may get their consciences purged. All the more so for those who have had their consciences defiled all over again, after they were previously purged.
Observe from Hebrews 10:22 that a conscience which is not purged by the blood of Christ is a very evil thing.
The unpurged conscience is either awakened or asleep, and this is bad both ways. If it is awakened, and the terrors of God are freshly felt by it, who can express the terribleness of this? A wrath-wounded spirit, or a bad conscience roused by the terrors of the Almighty God, who can bear? But if an unpurged conscience is silent and asleep, it is in some respect worse, for it has this dreadful awakening ahead of it. The longer it sleeps, all the more terrible will be the awakening. No one can fully represent to you the exceeding terribleness of the terror of an evil conscience, when awakened by the wrath of God pursuing a quarrel with the soul. Do not allow yourselves to be so deluded as to think that a silent and stupid conscience is a good conscience, in no danger!
Observe too that though all are by nature have an unpurged conscience, yet in the covenant of grace, God has laid down a way how sinners may get their consciences purged.
The apostle’s argument here is that when the blood of Jesus is applied to the conscience, it successfully gives the conscience a real purging from sin, just as really and successfully as those who were ceremonially unclean were given access to ceremonial church-privileges by the ceremonial sacrifices and washings. Legally, as to the removing of the guilt of sin (and as to having peace with God and in your own conscience), the conscience is purged in such a way that sin cannot stand in the way of you expecting God’s favour. Though you are a debtor, yet there is a way laid down in the Gospel covenant to declare you free from the debt. If it is said, “How can you, how dare you come to God with such confidence, when you have an evil conscience through so much sin?” The apostle answers, “Let us come, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience.” As to a confident approaching to God, and application of Christ’s righteousness, those who have made application of the blood of sprinkling may come to God with as much holy and humble boldness as if their conscience had never been defiled and polluted.
Observe thirdly that the only way to have a defiled conscience cleansed is by the blood of Christ. There is no other way.
It is not the blood of bulls, or of calves, or any one, or all of those ceremonial sacrifices or washings that can do the business. God appointed many means of ceremonial purgation, yet they could never have cleansed the conscience. It’s only the blood of Jesus that has this effect. Nothing but the blood of Christ can satisfy God’s justice, and remove the quarrel betwixt Him and the guilty sinner. Till God is satisfied, the conscience cannot be quiet; seeing then that nothing can satisfy God’s justice but Christ’s blood, nothing can purge and satisfy the conscience but Christ’s blood. If it is said, “Who will lay anything to the charge of God’s elect?” the conscience will answer, “I have many things to lay to their charge!” until that sweet word is spoken, “It is Christ who shed his blood.” Never till then will conscience be quiet.
There are four ways that people take, for cleansing and purging the conscience, which are all (if there be no more) ineffectual for achieving the real purging and solid satisfaction of the conscience, which you should be aware of.
Some endeavour to divert their conscience, and to seek a suspension of its pursuing the quarrel against them, claiming some other absorbing business. When Felix found himself beginning to tremble at the apostle’s searching and powerful discourse, he sought a suspension from it for a time, saying to the apostle (and to his conscience), “Go thy way for this time, and I will call for thee when I have a convenient season” (Acts 24).
Similarly, when some have some fit of conscience, they go to some light-hearted friend, or to some game to drive it away, or possibly they drink it down. Their friend helps them to laugh it off, and banish that depressive fit, and so to bring the person to get rid of this trouble of his conscience as a silly fancy, and as if it were for their good to do so. Very frequently, when people cannot endure to converse with their disquieted conscience, they labour to quash and quench any exercise that begins in it.
Another way is also too common, and that is by seeking quieten conscience by something other than the blood of Christ. Some under terrible convictions will promise and vow that, if they drank excessively before, they will do so no more, and they will not go to this tavern or spend time in that company for such and such long time. Some will vow not to eat meat on a certain day of the week throughout their whole life; they will, it may be, vow to be more religious. But all along, they are still the same old carnal people they always were, because they did not aim single-mindedly at peace with God through Christ’s blood, but only for the time being to pacify their conscience.
Some seek to compensate the conscience. They will do some penance. Or they will pray, and try to weep tears in prayer. They will force themselves to mourn, they will give something regular donations to the poor, they will set themselves to amend things for the future. Yet the defilement of conscience lies there still unremoved, because they never betook themselves to the right fountain to wash. I do not condemn you or dissuade you from doing these duties, which are good in themselves, because commanded by God, but you must not rest on them. You must put a difference between founding your peace on them, and founding your peace on the blood of Christ applied to the conscience by faith. Please do not seek to bribe your conscience like this!
Some people go and discuss their situation with exercised Christians, describing their situation to them to get some ease in their conscience. Now, this is good and commendable in itself, and when it is done rightly. Discussing things with godly believers may through God’s blessing do good, if it helps us to go to the fountain of Christ’s blood and wash there. But we are at fault when we try to get our consciences quieted by what people say, while we are not making recourse to the blood of Christ by faith. We must not use Christian discussion as the way to peace when we are doing nothing about how the justice of God can be satisfied. If we have a sense of sin and guilt in our conscience, our first work should be to take ourselves to Christ and the blood of sprinkling. Unless we are actually fleeing to Christ and to His blood, then words of comfort and advice spoken to us, either in public or private, are null and void as far as bringing us any advantage.
So we see that when nothing can pacify an evil and defiled conscience, nor purge it from dead works, yet the application of the blood of Christ by faith can and will purge that conscience, and give it such peace and quietness with holy and humble confidence and boldness in coming and drawing near to God, as if in some respect it had never been defiled by these dead works of sin.
The apostle insists on these two things.
The sufficiency of Christ’s blood as the price that satisfies God’s justice and quiets the conscience. When the conscience gets this blood applied to it by faith, it has no ground to seek any further satisfaction, as if something was left owing. Christ’s blood, as a full and condign price, satisfies for all the debt. “The blood of Christ shall purge your conscience from dead works.”
And the resulting confidence a believer has for going to God. Someone who has fled to Jesus Christ after committing sin, and has actually applied His blood to their conscience, may have quietness of conscience and may go to God with boldness and confidence. This is one of the rarest pearls and richest jewels of the gospel – one of the most excellent privileges of a believer – and one of the noblest and most notable epxressions and evidences of the grace of God – and indeed the great proof of the reality and efficacy of the satisfaction of our blessed Lord Jesus. When the conscience of the poor believer is confounded, and put on the rack with so many accusations about their sin, they may apply Christ’s blood, and on that basis have sweet peace and tranquillity of soul.
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