The Power of a Clean Conscience
. . . that by them you fight the good fight, keeping faith and a good conscience (1 Timothy 1:18, 19).
Asahel Nettleton was born on April 21, 1783, in North Killingworth, Connecticut, the second born of six children and the eldest son. Nettleton’s parents were professors of true religion and attended the local Congregational Church, having their children baptized under the halfway covenant.1 Asahel was taught the doctrines of the church from an early age. One fall morning in 1800 – when the second Great Awakening was beginning to be experienced throughout New England and the west, especially in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Indiana – seventeen-year-old Nettleton was fondly remembering a Thanksgiving party of the night before when he then came under heavy conviction of sin. He had a guilty conscience.
Asahel began to wonder how his actions that night would stand under the scrutiny of a holy God on judgment day. He continued for some time in deep conviction, guilt, and shame, reading the sermons of Jonathan Edwards and his grandson, Timothy Dwight, then the President of Yale. His fear and concern for his soul continued for nearly a year when finally he was overwhelmed with a sense of God’s grace and love for him. A year later his father died and, since he was the oldest son, care for the family farm fell on his shoulders. Nettleton later recalled long days of ploughing in the fields, wondering how in a million years the usefulness of his life would be viewed by God. At that point he prayed, asking God for the privilege to preach his glorious gospel to the heathen. Nettleton had read David Brainerd’s Journal2 and been deeply affected by the piety and zeal of Brainerd for the American Indians.
Without money and with very little prospect of admission, Nettleton pursued an education at Yale, arriving in the fall of 1803, himself being the only professing Christian in his class at the time. Those who knew him then said that he was a young man of unusual zeal, solemnity, honesty, and biblical holiness. He was not, however, a very good student, and some have suggested two reasons for this. First, he was a shy, withdrawn young man and obviously felt very uncomfortable in making the public recitations that were so much a part of the educational methodology of the day. Second, he was very sickly and often missed classes due to illness. During his junior year at Yale he was given permission to return home until he healed of his latest illness.
That same year, through the preaching of Dr Timothy Dwight, the Holy Spirit began to fall with great power on the students. During that year some seventy-five of the two hundred and thirty students professed faith in Christ, giving evidence of sound conversion and joining local New Haven churches. Over the next twenty years, hundreds of men, upon graduation from Yale, entered the gospel ministry and were used powerfully of God during the second Great Awakening.3 Asahel Nettleton became a powerful, effective, and bold revival and evangelistic preacher. How did he overcome his natural fear of public speaking? Nettleton gained a clear conscience, first of all, by the redeeming work of Christ’s blood shed for the expiation (washing away sins, taking them as far as the east is from the west) and propitiation (God’s divine wrath was poured out on Jesus for his people) of his sins. After his conversion, Nettleton also learned the daily, practical power of a clean conscience. The devil is the accuser of the brethren and he wreaks havoc on the consciences of Christians who are living in unconfessed sin. Nettleton had power because he had the Holy Spirit who convicted him of sin and drove him back to Jesus for gospel holiness.4
The apostles have a lot to say about the necessity of a clean conscience. Paul told the Corinthians that he had renounced the things which are hidden because of shame, not walking in craftiness or adulterating the Word of God, but through the manifestation of truth, commending himself to every man’s conscience in the sight of God (2 Cor. 4:2). He said later that knowing the fear of the Lord he seeks to persuade men, having been made manifest to God, and hopefully manifested to their consciences (2 Cor. 5:11). He urged Timothy to fight the good fight (as he later claimed that he was able to do by God’s grace, 2 Tim. 4:7), and the way to do so is to walk in faith and possess a clean conscience (2 Cor. 5:11). He says that a Deacon, among other things, ought to hold to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience (1 Tim. 3:9). And the writer to the Hebrews declares that the blood of goats and bulls, before Christ’s atonement, sanctified for the cleansing of the flesh; but now the blood of Jesus cleanses the guilty conscience of believers from dead works to serve the living God (Heb. 9:13-14).
Here’s the deal – no one can live long with a guilty conscience. Since all people have the law of God written on their hearts, because they know right from wrong; guilt, shame, and condemnation must be eradicated. Some become atheists or agnostics. After all, if there is no God, then there is no law; and if there is no law, then there is no sin; and if there is no sin then there is no judgment; and if there is no judgment then there is no hell; and if there is no hell, then there is no need for a Saviour. Whenever I hear a college age, professing Christian tell me that he is not sure he can trust the reliability of the Bible, I then ask, ‘Are you fornicating with your girl friend?’ Often the answer is yes. These students are guilty and the pain and shame of that guilt are too much. It is much easier to deny God and hopefully mitigate shame.
But a Christian can be paralyzed with guilt and shame in multitudinous ways, leading to a guilty conscience. A believer with a guilty conscience is fearful, and he lacks power in his life. Think of it this way – the conscience, a remarkable gift from God which every person possesses, is like a large window in your living room, designed to let in the sunshine. As long as the window is clean, then the light shines brightly into the room, giving light and warmth to everyone. The more and more filthy the window becomes, then less and less light comes into the room. A believer with a guilty conscience is timid, reticent, unwilling to risk failure. He plays it safe. He has trouble taking God at his word. He convinces himself that usefulness to Christ and his kingdom is unattainable. Does this describe you? Are there sin issues in your life which are paralyzing you, allowing the devil to overwhelm you with fear and coldness of heart, keeping you from praying and believing God for specific answers to prayer?
What’s the solution? You need to ask the Holy Spirit specifically to show you your sin. You then must confess it specifically to God, with a genuine sense of contrition. As you do so, God promises to forgive you of your sin and to cleanse you from all your unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). If your sin directly hurt someone else, then you must confess your sin to that person, again very specifically (Matt. 5:23, 24), asking him/her for forgiveness. Immediately, as you do so, your sins and guilt are under the blood of Jesus. You are filled with the Spirit and you can move forward rejoicing. God will grow within you a tender conscience which will allow you more and more quickly to confess in contrition and to claim forgiveness and the filling of the Spirit. You will then find yourself living in more and more freedom, not to do whatever you wish, but to do the things God is calling you to do. You will sense more and more of the Father’s love and smile upon your life. You really can please him with your life (Heb. 11:6, 1 John 3:22, John 8:29, Heb. 13:21).
What a gospel! What a Saviour! Are there any other gods which can do what our great God can do? I know of none!
- This practice began in New England Congregational churches in the 1660s. The vast majority of religious professors in those days had not made a public profession of faith and therefore were not allowed to take Communion. They were allowed, however, to have their children baptized as long as they agreed with the covenant of the church.
- See J. Edwin Orr’s Campus Aflame: Evangelical Awakenings in Collegiate Communities, pages 26ff.
- For more on the life of Nettleton, see Bennet Tyler & Andrew Bonar, Asahel Nettleton: Life and Labours (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1975 repr.).
Rev. Allen M Baker is an evangelist with Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship, and Director of the Alabama Church Planting Network. His weekly devotional, ‘Forget None of His Benefits’, can be found here.
If you would like to respond to Pastor Baker, please contact him directly at email@example.com.
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