Hebrews 9:9-14 - How do you purify your conscience?
9 [This is] symbolic for the present age. According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshipper. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, 14 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?Hebrews 9:9-14
Your conscience is the inner voice that accuses or acquits you. It is also the inner voice that wants to stop you from doing something that is wrong. In a cartoon or a comic book you sometimes see a little devil placed on one shoulder and a little angel on the other. The little angel says, “Don’t do it,” while the little devil says, “Just go ahead!”
Various expressions show how important conscience is in our lives. If you have done something that is not right and you suffer from it, we tend to say, “Your conscience is speaking.” When it does not bother you, you are “a unscrupulous scoundrel” who, according to those around you, definitely has something “on your conscience.” A certain situation could pose a “question of conscience.” Or perhaps your boss asks something from you that you cannot justify to yourself; in that case, you are troubled by your conscience. It is also possible that your conscience does not accuse you, but acquits you. Then we say: you have a “clear conscience.” While someone else might accuse you, you know that you have acted “in good faith.” Isn’t that what you want most dearly: a clear conscience?
How do you purify your conscience before God? Hebrews 9 says: the Old Testament sacrificial service was unable to perfect the conscience (v. 9), but the sacrifice of our heavenly high priest Jesus Christ purifies the conscience perfectly (vv. 13-14). But didn’t the Israelites also receive true forgiveness? And if you sincerely pray for forgiveness and your conscience is cleansed, isn’t that often only temporary? Soon you have to admit to having done something wrong again. What is the difference between verses 9 and 14, the difference between the Old and New Testaments? What is the profoundly purifying power of the blood of Jesus?
Jesus’ blood clears your conscience: it rightly accuses you and it rightly acquits you. That is what the sacrifice of Jesus means to you (recall the promise of Jer. 31: “I will put my law within them (in their minds), and I will write it on their hearts,” quoted in Heb. 8:10). The difference between the old and the new covenant is that your conscience begins to function properly again. It is not about the content of your conscience, but about its functioning: your conscience is calibrated once again to the reality of God.
Sin has affected the functioning of your conscience in various ways. If you sincerely ask for forgiveness and you continue to feel guilty before God, your conscience is wrongly accusing you. That is the effect of sin. But when you are tempted to sin and you think: “Ah, it is not so bad and I will ask for forgiveness later,” then you wrongly acquit yourself. That also reveals a poorly functioning conscience and shows the effect of sin. You can wrongly accuse yourself and you can wrongly acquit yourself.
But the fact that Jesus’ sacrifice was necessary — the death of God’s Son and not just animal sacrifices—explains the profound gravity of your sins. You can never ignore or minimize it again. At the same time, the fact that Jesus has made atonement for you on heaven’s altar through his blood on the cross of Golgotha, explains the scope of your justification. Thus, your conscience is restored through the sacrificial service of Christ. This is a lifelong process: you become more aware of your sin and you learn to appreciate the radical nature of God’s justifying grace more and more. This is the way of misery, deliverance, and gratitude. A clear conscience accuses you when you do things wrong (it does not allow matters to slip through), while at the same time a clear conscience experiences the complete gracious acquittal that is proclaimed to you.
What can you do with a cleansed conscience? First of all, it is nice to have a clear conscience. A pure conscience is perhaps something else, because a conscience that does not let sins slip through can be very difficult. On the other hand, a conscience that shows you the way of forgiveness and restoration really brings you to terms with God such that you truly experience acquittal. Two other effects are described in verse 14, namely, that the blood of Christ:
- purifies our conscience from acts that lead to death, and
- sanctifies our conscience for the service of the living God.
Christ’s blood purifies our conscience from acts that lead to death
The fact that your conscience is cleansed from deeds that lead to death means that such a well-functioning conscience prevents you from sinning and doing things that lead to death. Things like idolatry, lying, slander, greed, and jealousy, all lead your life to the abyss. A purified conscience rightly identifies such things as evil.
Christ’s blood sanctifies our conscience for the service of the living God
But our conscience is also sanctified for service of the living God. In this regard, consider the purpose of the great Day of Atonement (Lev. 16). The purification of the body in the time of the old covenant was intended so that you could once again participate in the sacrificial service; if you were unclean, you had to stay away. In the time of the new covenant our conscience is cleansed so that we can serve God. The purification of your conscience enables you to boldly worship the living God. Your restored conscience has again a pure knowledge of good and evil so that you can serve God. Because of our desire to know about good and evil, things had gone wrong at the fall in paradise. Man wanted the knowledge of good and evil, but he could not handle it. Because of the broken relationship with God, man uses his knowledge of evil to benefit himself. And if his knowledge of what is good does not appeal to him, he ignores it. If I understand the gospel correctly, we discover the following here in Hebrews 9:
a) through the sacrifice of Jesus our knowledge of good and evil is purified: what is evil, we call evil, and what is good, we call good again; and
b) we fully intend to use that knowledge of good and evil in order to serve God. This is expressed in characteristics such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control (see Gal. 5:22-23). In this way God restores his relationship with man and overcomes the evil of his fall into sin.
Now the question is: do you have a clear conscience in the sense that it truly identifies your evil as evil? Do you have a clear conscience in the sense that it moves you to your heavenly high priest for forgiveness and reconciliation? Do you have a clear conscience in the sense that you know your conscience is clear before God through Jesus? It is not that I think of myself that I have done nothing wrong (on the contrary, I know very well that I do things wrong and that there is sin in my life), but through Jesus’ daily sacrificial service in heaven I know that God considers that I have done nothing wrong. And do I now have a clear conscience in sense that I use my knowledge of evil to avoid sin and that I use my knowledge of good to serve God?
Your conscience is purified through the sacrifice of your high priest Jesus Christ. So that is what you need to focus on and to contemplate. The blood of God’s Son on Good Friday shows you the depth of evil. The resurrection and ascension of Jesus, his service at God’s throne with this blood, clearly shows the completeness of your acquittal. Interacting with your heavenly high priest Jesus restores your conscience. Do not cling to your own conscience, your self-judgment — whether you easily acquit yourself or continue to accuse yourself despite your sincere prayer for forgiveness. Let the blood of Good Friday testify against you, let the atoning ministry of Jesus in heaven exonerate you. In this way you will have a purified, well-functioning conscience before God. Through Jesus we have been “cleaned from an evil conscience,” says Hebrews 10:22. Now also continue to keep your conscience clear (1 Peter 3:16). This is how you can participate in your service to the living God. Through the cleansing of his body an Israelite was able to participate in the temple service once again; you can participate in the heavenly worship through the cleansing of your conscience — now in the midst of the congregation, and later before the throne of God.
Questions for discussion
- What are you prone to: accusing yourself wrongly or acquitting yourself wrongly? How do you deal with this and what kind of conscience would you like to have?
- How would you align your conscience more with Jesus?