Calvary Road Baptist Church

“A GOOD CONSCIENCE TOWARD GOD”

First Peter 3.21 

Let us begin by reading from First Peter 3.18: 

18  For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit:

19  By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison;

20  Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.

21  The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ:

22  Who is gone into heaven, and is on the right hand of God; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him. 

This is a rather difficult portion of Scripture to interpret. But within this passage is our text for today’s message from God’s Word, dealing with an important issue that is frequently neglected when preaching to lost people these days. 

Verse 18:

“For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit.” 

Four things to notice in this verse:

First, notice that the Lord Jesus Christ suffered for sins only one time. He offered Himself a sacrifice for sins only once. Hebrews 10.14 speaks to this same point: 

“For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.” 

There is no need for the Lord Jesus Christ’s sacrifice to be repeated, especially the unbloody sacrifice of the Roman Catholic Mass. Since there is no remission of sin without the shedding of blood, Hebrews 9.22, the shedding of blood is indispensable for sins to be cleansed away. But the Lord Jesus Christ’s blood was shed only once because once was and is sufficient.

Second, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross of Calvary was the Just for the unjust. That is, the Lord Jesus Christ’s was a substitutionary sacrifice. Being substitutionary, which means Christ did for the sinner what the sinner could not do for himself, the sinner, therefore, does not need to perform works of righteousness to pay for his salvation; Jesus already paid it all.

Third, “that he might bring us to God.” That is, the responsibility of delivering the sinner to God is Christ’s and Christ’s alone. Why is this an important point to emphasize? Because no man cometh unto the Father, according to the Lord Jesus Christ, “but by me,” John 14.6. Do you want your sins forgiven? Do you want to go to heaven? Do you want to come to God? Then you have to come to Jesus Christ.

Finally, “... being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit.” He really did die on the cross.[1] He really was buried.[2] And it was the Spirit of God who brought His dead body back to life on the third day.[3] 

Verse 19:

“By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison.” 

This is a verse that is most usually misunderstood by even some of the most careful Bible students:

The first mistake generally results from ignoring the words “by which.” If you mistake the meaning of the words “by which,” you end up thinking this verse refers to the Lord Jesus Christ’s Spirit going to Hell after His crucifixion so He could preach the Gospel to unsaved folks already in Hell. But the phrase “by which” means that the Lord Jesus Christ accomplished something using another. In context, the other was the same Spirit who is said to have quickened Him in verse 18.

The second mistake that is common to this verse is thinking that the preaching done to the spirits in prison was preaching that was done when the spirits were in prison. That position is not supported in Scripture. Here is what happened: The Lord Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit, preached to people whose spirits are now in prison. But when they were preached to, they were not at that time in prison. When they were preached to, they had not yet died and gone to Hell. 

Verse 20:

“Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.” 

Verse 20 clears things up considerably:

“Which were sometime disobedient” refers to those who before the Flood were unresponsive to the preaching of men like Enoch and Noah, both preachers of righteousness.[4]

“... when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.” 

For 120 years, God held back His wrath against the righteous judgment of the wicked while the ark was being prepared. And how is it that the Lord Jesus Christ “preached unto the spirits in prison”? He did so through the Holy Spirit of God who worked in the lives of preachers of righteousness until the time of judgment came. When that time of judgment came, after the ark’s preparation had been completed, “eight souls were saved by water” from the Flood.

In this context, the salvation that is referred to is physical deliverance from drowning. The ark was a type of Jesus Christ that, by the safety provided from the Flood, was a picture of the salvation Jesus Christ provides from the wrath of God. 

Verse 21:

“The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” 

The phrase “The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us” shows us that as the saving of the eight in the ark from the Flood pictures the salvation of Jesus Christ in olden days, so baptism pictures the salvation of Jesus Christ in these days. Did the ark save anyone from their sins? No. Did the ark provide for anyone a spiritual salvation, and so make anyone a Christian? No. Neither does baptism make anyone a Christian or save anyone from their sins. Baptism is a figure, an illustration, a picture of what Jesus Christ does. Baptism is correctly administered after someone is saved through faith in Christ, and every baptism recorded in the Bible is the baptism of someone who is already at least a professing Christian.

Next, notice the phrase in parenthesis: 

“(not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God.)” 

Please be careful to understand what Peter is telling us here, that baptism is “not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but” that baptism is “the answer of a good conscience toward God.” That is, baptism is not something that saves a person, but something that is the proper response of someone who now has a good conscience toward God.

Verse 21 concludes, “by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” The Lord Jesus Christ died, was buried, and rose from the dead. Peter mentions our Lord’s death in verse 18, the believer’s burial in baptism in verse 21, and the resurrection of Christ in verse 21. Christ’s ascension is mentioned in the next verse. 

Verse 22:

“Who is gone into heaven, and is on the right hand of God; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him.” 

One of twenty-eight passages (twenty-six in the New Testament) showing that the Lord Jesus Christ is not in any believer’s heart, but that He has ascended into heaven and is now on the right hand of God. Why is that so hard for some people to accept?[5] Those passages that superficially suggest Jesus is in one’s heart are shown in context to indicate that it is the Spirit of God, who perfectly represents the Savior, who actually and literally dwells in a believer’s heart. Again, Christ is enthroned in heaven.

Our passage focuses on the suffering of Jesus Christ, the death of Jesus Christ, and the resurrection and ascension of Christ. After stating that the Spirit of God accomplished the quickening of Christ’s body in the resurrection, Peter then veers onto the Spirit’s past ministry to those who are now dead and to a comparison of how Noah’s ark and a believer’s baptism illustrates salvation. As I mentioned earlier, it is challenging for the Bible student to figure out precisely what Peter was seeking to accomplish with what he wrote here, unless one is very careful.

My text for this morning, amidst the problematic verses we have looked at, is a single phrase that is not difficult to understand, which I want to focus your attention on. In verse 21, Peter describes baptism as “the answer of a good conscience toward God.” Baptism is the response of a good conscience toward God or the experience of someone who now has a good conscience toward God.

Think about this for a moment: Until you come to faith in Christ and thereby become a fit candidate for baptism, you have never before in your lifetime had a good conscience toward God.

Have you done wrong? Of course, you have. Do you have a guilty conscience? Maybe you do, and perhaps you do not. You could very well have done wrong, and yet you do not have a guilty conscience.

But there is a world of difference between not having a guilty feeling conscience and having a good conscience toward God. Our text tells us that baptism is the answer of a good conscience toward God.

Four questions about this faculty God gave you called conscience: 

First, WHAT IS YOUR CONSCIENCE? 

William Ames, a Puritan theologian who lived in the 17th century, and who was an expert on the subject of conscience, wrote that “The Confcience of man ... is a mans judgement of himfelfe, according to the judgement of God of him ... I call Confcience Iudgement ... to shew that it belongs to the Underftanding, not to the Will. The very name of Confcience sheweth it to bee fo.”[6]

Thus, your conscience is that faculty given to you by God that is capable of self judgment. That is, by means of your conscience you evaluate yourself. The word “conscience” translates the Greek word that means “co-knowledge.” A. T. Robertson wrote, “The word suneidêsis means co-knowledge by the side of the original consciousness of the act. This second knowledge is personified as confronting the first (Sanday and Headlam).”[7]

There are thirty verses in which the word “conscience” is found in the New Testament.[8] 

Next, HOW DOES YOUR CONSCIENCE MAKE YOU FEEL? 

Your conscience works employing what is called a syllogism. A syllogism is an argument whose conclusion is supported by two premises.[9] Thus, there are always three parts to the way your conscience works. But rather than try to define what a syllogism is using unfamiliar terms, allow me to illustrate how your conscience is supposed to work by constructing several syllogisms.

First, there is Ezekiel 18.20: “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” That is the major premise: The soul that sins shall die. The minor premise: I am a sinner. The conclusion: Therefore, I shall die.

Second, Revelation 21.8: “But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.” Again, the major premise: Those guilty of these named sins will go to the lake of fire. The minor premise: I am guilty of one of these sins (or more). The conclusion: Therefore, I shall go to the lake of fire.

Third, John 3.18: “... he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” The major premise: A person who believes not in Jesus is condemned already. The minor premise: I do not believe in Jesus. The conclusion: Therefore, I am condemned already.

So you see, when your conscience is operative and not seared, it functions like you watching you, and you telling you that you have done right or that you have done wrong, that you are guilty or that you are innocent. As Romans 2.15 indicates: 

“... their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another.” 

So, you have a conscience. If you die and go to Hell, it will be your conscience that will be the lead witness that testifies against you before the Great White Throne judgment. What does your conscience do? It judges you. Based upon your understanding of right and wrong, your conscience continually evaluates your behavior and passes judgment on what you do, either pronouncing you guilty of wrongdoing or innocent of wrongdoing, in trouble or not in trouble, guilty or not guilty.

How does your conscience work? Always employing a syllogism, which is the inevitable orderly logical progression of thought that I have described.

No matter what the application, your conscience always seeks to work in this fashion. But it does not stop there.

Next, what your conscience does with its verdict, either innocent or guilty, is press it upon you. Your conscience, therefore, will point the finger of accusation at you for wrongdoing or will pat you on the back if you judge yourself innocent. That is its purpose. That is its function. That is why God gave you a conscience.

John 8.9 records how the consciences of men who had accused a woman caught in the act of adultery worked when the Lord Jesus Christ spoke to them. Let us begin with the Lord speaking in John 8.7: 

“So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” 

The Lord then wrote on the ground in verse 8, and now we read verse 9: 

“And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.” 

Those men to whom Jesus spoke felt guilty because of their consciences and were prompted to leave the accused woman alone. 

Third, WHY DOES YOUR CONSCIENCE NOT FEEL GUILTY? 

Keep in mind that a person’s conscience is not a perfect indicator of guilt or innocence. It is not a perfect measure of good and evil. Since your conscience is a human faculty, it is capable of the same errors in judgment and fallibilities that any person is capable of.

But, most of the time, your conscience does not make you feel guilty, not because of an honest mistake, but because you have sinned against your own conscience by squelching it or by searing it. This is what Paul refers to in First Timothy 4.2: 

“Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron.” 

The hypocrite’s lies are assertions that what God says is wrong you deny is wrong, that what God says is a sin you say is not sin, and what God says is evil you seek to excuse as a mistake. Searing your conscience is a sinner’s way of avoiding the feelings of guilt associated with wrongdoing. You sear your conscience so you can live with yourself, so you can keep from going crazy with worry or guilt for the wrongs you have done, or for the wrongdoing you plan continuing to do.

There are a variety of ways by which the conscience can be seared, but I will give you one way to think about. Remember me using the word syllogism to describe how the conscience works? Major premise, minor premise, conclusion? Let me go back to the examples I cited earlier. 

Ezekiel 18.20: “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” The major premise is the verse itself: The soul that sins shall die. The minor premise comes when you apply the verse to yourself: I am a sinner. Then your mind draws a logical conclusion: Therefore, I shall die.

So, how is the conscience seared? Three ways are immediately apparent. You can dispute the truth of God’s Word; souls that sin do not die. You can reject the application of the truth to yourself; I am not a sinner. Or you can avoid drawing a logical conclusion; the other guy is in trouble, not me.

Revelation 21.8: “But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.” Again, the major premise is that those guilty of these named sins will go to the lake of fire. The minor premise: I am guilty of at least one of these sins. The conclusion: I will go to the lake of fire.

The conscience is seared by denying the existence of the lake of fire, by denying that those who commit the named sins actually go there, by denying that you are actually guilty of such sins, or by jumping your logical trolley off its tracks and refusing to believe the verse applies to you at all.

Finally, there is John 3.18: “... he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” The major premise: A person who believes not in Jesus is condemned already. The minor premise: I do not believe in Jesus. The conclusion: I am condemned already.

Searing of the conscience occurs by denying that unbelievers are condemned (“God is too good to condemn anyone.”), by insisting that you believe in Jesus when clearly you do not, or by refusing to believe that God’s Word authoritatively speaks to your situation.

May I add that you would be astonished to discover the number of times people will pull a Scarlet O’Hara, and do an “O, fiddly dee,” when it is pointed out to them that the way they claim to have become a Christian is at odds with what the Bible says about how a sinner becomes a Christian? 

Fourth, HOW CAN YOU ACQUIRE A GOOD CONSCIENCE? 

Many people who claim to have a clear conscience, in reality, have consciences that are seared. They feel good about themselves and wrongly conclude that their soul is safe from judgment and condemnation. But the Bible is very clear in showing that only the child of God can have a good conscience toward God, or what is called a pure conscience.

Everyone who is lost, who does not know Jesus Christ in a saving way, who is not genuinely converted the Bible way, has a defiled conscience. And if that person does not actually feel guilty from the accusations of his own conscience, then his conscience has been seared so that it no longer speaks in an accusing tone to its owner. 

Titus 1.15:  

“Unto the pure all things are pure: but unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure; but even their mind and conscience is defiled.” 

This is the truth about you, my lost friend. In your own way, your mind is defiled and your conscience is defiled. By all that is right and good your conscience should be screaming out that you are guilty, guilty, guilty. And perhaps it is. But if it is not, that does not mean that you are pure, but only that your conscience is seared, and cannot therefore trouble you with feelings and accusations of guilt.

The only way you will ever have a good conscience toward God is to have the impurities and the defilements cleaned away. And the only way that will ever happen is by the precious cleansing blood of Jesus Christ. Granted, this is unlikely to happen so long as your conscience is seared, but all is not lost. His conscience prevents no sinner from coming to Jesus Christ to be saved.

Your conscience was never given to you by God to be your ruler, but to be a servant to help you do right. Therefore, you are not doomed to be a slave of your conscience, mindlessly insisting that all is well just because your conscience is seared and incapable of making you feel guilty. What you need to do is insist that what God’s Word says is true, and what you feel about yourself is a poor guide. 

We know that the ministry of the Spirit of God is to persuade the lost of their lost condition, to convince that wrath awaits anyone who does not repent of sin and come to Christ for forgiveness and cleansing. John 16.8 and following is very clear about this.

But what happens when you are convinced in your mind that the soul that sins shall die, and you admit in your mind that you are a sinner, and you conclude in your thinking that you will die? Are you bound by your seared conscience to die in your sins just because you do not feel as bad as you think you ought to feel?

No. Conscience is a servant and not a master. And a seared conscience is not the unpardonable sin. I am convinced that once you turn your back on your fallible and error-prone conscience that misleads you into feeling good about yourself, when you are certain that you are lost and that you ought to feel guilty, you are only one step of faith away from genuinely trusting Christ.

Let God be true, but every man a liar. Understand that so long as you have no feelings of guilt about your sinfulness, about your guiltiness, about your violations of God’s holy laws, you remain unconvinced of your guilt. Oh, you may say, “I am so sinful.” But until you begin to recognize that your conscience is seared, and that you ought to feel guilty from your conscience working properly in its judgment of self, you are unlikely to feel like you are sinful and in need of Christ.

However, once you begin to cooperate with the persuading work of the Holy Spirit to convince you concerning your sin and guiltiness, your conscience can become the asset God intended it to be, prompting you to sincerely want the forgiveness and cleansing that results in a good conscience toward God.

Must you wait upon your conscience to act, or should you act upon the truth regardless of your conscience? Does the Savior want only those who feel badly about their sins, or does He want those sinners to comply with His directive? Can the Gospel only be obeyed by those who first cultivate proper feelings about themselves? No! The Gospel is obeyed whenever a sinner trusts Christ. Therefore, I urge you to trust Christ once you are convinced your conscience has misled you, once you are convinced your conscience is unreliable, once you are persuaded that only Christ is trustworthy.

Once you have trusted Christ and your sins are forgiven, then you will have a good conscience toward God. Trust the Savior now!

__________

[1] John 19.30-34

[2] John 19.40-42

[3] Romans 4.23-25

[4] 2 Peter 2.5; Jude 14

[5] Psalm 16.11; 110.1; Matthew 26.64; Mark 12.36; 14.62; 16.19; Luke 20.42; 22.69; John 3.13; 13.1; 14.2-4; Acts 1.9-11; 2.33, 34-35; 7.56; Romans 8.34; Ephesians 1.20; 6.9; Colossians 3.1; Second Thessalonians 1.7; Hebrews 1.3, 13; 8.1; 9.24; 10.12-13; 12.2; 1 Peter 3.22; Revelation 19.11

[6] William Ames, Conscience with the Power and Cases Thereof, (Zeland, Netherlands: 1639), page 1.

[7] A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures In The New Testament, Vol IV, (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1930), page 337.

[8] John 8.9; Acts 23.1; 24.16; Romans 2.15; 9.1; 13.5; 1 Corinthians 8.7, 10, 12; 10.25, 27, 28, 29; 2 Corinthians 1.12; 4.2; 5.11; 1 Timothy 1.5, 19; 3.9; 4.2; 2 Timothy 1.3; Titus 1.15; Hebrews 9.9, 14; 10.2, 22; 13.18; 1 Peter 2.19; 3.16, 21

[9] Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1996), page 1925.

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