“I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day” (Acts 23:1).
And yet, Saul of Tarsus held the coats for those who stoned Stephen. He shamefully treated and devastated the church. He hunted down Christians, delivered them to prison, and voted in favor of putting them to death. In his own words, his fury raged against them so that he persecuted them to foreign cities.
How could someone who did those things claim that he lived in all good conscience? He sounds more like a monster than someone guided by a good conscience. How is it possible? Very simply, he didn’t know any better. Again, let the apostle Paul state it in his own words: “formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief” (1 Timothy 1:13-14).
Please understand that he was in no way excusing himself for what he did. Instead, he shines the light on his former sinfulness, describing himself as “a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent.” He enlightens further when he says “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15). When he did all of those things, he honestly thought that he was doing the right thing. His conscience was clear – it was his understanding that was cloudy.
Sincerity cannot stand on its own – it must be supported by truth. A good conscience and a sincere heart are wonderful to have. More than that, it is essential for our motives to be sincere in our service to God. But unless we are guided by truth, our zeal is worthless – or worse, as in Saul’s case, sinful. But once he learned the truth, that misdirected zeal was turned toward God’s service. The one who had violently persecuted God’s people was willing to suffer persecution for the cause of Christ.
Only when sincerity and truth are joined together can we be considered right before God. You see both in Paul’s charge to Timothy to “wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience” (1 Timothy 1:18-19). May the psalmist’s prayer be ours: “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Psalm 139:23-24).