“So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man” Acts 24:16

I recently had the very great privilege of reading Christopher Ash’s excellent book “Pure Joy”. The book’s subtitle is Rediscover your conscience and that is exactly what the book is designed to do – to help the reader think through what the Bible has to say about the conscience and its importance in our daily walk with the Lord. I can certainly recommend it as a challenging and deeply encouraging book.

The above text, taken from Paul’s address before Felix, is picked up by Christopher in the final chapter of the book under the heading ‘The Clear Conscience’ and served to remind me that Paul, the great preacher of grace and justification by faith, knew the importance of keeping short accounts with both God and people as far as his conscience was concerned. And this was certainly a challenge to me in my own walk with God and my dealing with others. For the truth of the matter is that even the wisest and most Christ-like believer, even the person who could write words like “for me to live is Christ, to die is gain” (Phil 1:21), knew that we all fail in many ways, both in word and deed, failing to do the things we want to do and doing the things that we do not want to do (Romans 7:14-23). He knew the wretchedness of living with a sinful nature, even though a believer in Christ! And he knew the wonderful truth that in Christ, even the worst of sinners, could stand free from condemnation, not because of his efforts, but because of what Christ has done for us (Romans 7:24-8:1).

In terms of the great truth of the gospel, Paul knew that in Jesus, God has chosen us to be ‘holy and blameless in His sight’ (Ephesians 1:4) and that this status of being right with God is ours from the moment we trust in Christ (Romans 5:1,2). So what could he possibly mean by the words “I strive to keep a clear conscience before both God and man”? Christopher Ash’s answer (and I am sure he is correct in this) is that Paul is saying that as a sinner, he regularly acts to apply the gospel truth about what Jesus has done for him, to his own conscience, not by pretending that sin is not sin or that it is not serious, but by coming to God on the basis of the death of Christ each and every time he is aware of sin in his own mind, heart or life. This is surely precisely what the apostle John was referring to when he wrote “If we claim to be without sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8,9). These words are addressed by John to believers in the context of teaching about fellowship with God and assurance of our relationship with God. To speak to God regularly and openly about our sins is thus not to doubt His love for us or to deny the reality of what Christ has done for us, but rather to come to Him precisely on the basis of Christ’s atoning sacrifice and thus to “keep a clear conscience before God”.

This realization of full and free forgiveness through Christ also enables us to be honest with others in our relationships with them, not denying the fact that we may have wronged them in some way, but rather being quick to confess our sins to one another and where necessary to offer and receive forgiveness so that we can know the healing and peace that open and honest relationships with other people bring. This may well be what James is talking about in that hard to understand passage “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (James 5:15). There is surely nothing more toxic to our personal well-being than bitter, unresolved relationships especially with those who are our brothers and sisters in Christ.

So back to Paul and his striking comment. In its context it was part of his defence against the false accusations levelled against him by the Jewish leaders. But in speaking these words Paul reminds each of us that we should strive at all times to keep short accounts with God and with others, and wherever we fail to be quick to confess and repent, not to keep on the right side of God but precisely because in Christ we are holy and blameless in His sight. Despite the words of Jiminy Cricket in Disney’s Pinocchio, it is God’s word not conscience which should be our guide. But conscience, when informed by the gospel, is our friend, and we should treat it with the respect and care it deserves, not ignoring it, but striving daily to keep it clear, both in the sight of God and people.


Written by Mervyn Eloff. Original article can be found here.