“The Limits of Sincerity”

Categories: Bulletin Articles, M. W. Bassford

We live in a society that celebrates the individual conscience as the highest guide to morality.  Everybody has the right to “speak their truth”, and anyone who presumes to comment on someone else’s righteousness gets slapped down with Matthew 7:1.  The theory goes that as long as we think we’re doing right, we really are doing right, and God is going to be pleased with us.

There is some truth to this.  As Paul observes in Romans 14:23, whatever is not from faith is sin.  If we feel like engaging in some innocent activity is wrong, for us to practice it truly is wrong (unless, of course, God has commanded us to practice it).  Keeping a clear conscience before God matters a great deal.

However, there are other things that matter more, as Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians 4:3-5 reveals.  Here, Paul is examining whose judgment does and does not matter.  The first entry in the latter group is the judgment of other people.  Paul makes clear his disdain for the verdicts of any human court and even of the church in Corinth.  Who cares what anybody else thinks about us?  They have power neither to justify nor to condemn.

Paul goes on, though, to observe that self-judgment also is inadequate.  His conscience is clear, but a clear conscience isn’t enough to acquit him.  Paul knew better than anyone how deceptive a conscience could be.  His statement in Acts 23:1 that he had lived his life in good conscience before God encompassed not only the time he had spent as an apostle but also the time he spent as a bloody-handed persecutor of the church.  Saul of Tarsus was sure he was doing the right thing, but he was surely wrong.  Paul knew that he could be every bit as self-deceived right then, and the same holds true for all of us.

Instead, the only relevant judge is the Lord.  His judgment is perfect because of His perfect knowledge.  We may be able to hide our sins from others, but even the most secret sin is plain before Jesus.  So too, we can (and often do) conceal our motivations from ourselves, but Christ always knows the truth.  When the Lord returns, everyone will end up where they should go.  He will make no mistakes.

From this, Paul urges us to beware of judging prematurely.  This applies first of all to others, as some of the Corinthians were eager to judge Paul.  Because we lack perfect knowledge and have eyes that often are clouded by fear and desire, we always should entertain some doubt about our judgments of others, no matter how strongly we feel we are right.

Additionally, this applies to our judgment of ourselves.  If we can err in our judgments of others, how much more can we err in self-judgment!  Rather than living in the certainty that we are right, we must compare ourselves constantly to the standard of the word.  Above all, we must constantly seek forgiveness from God, not only for the sins we commit knowingly, but also for the sins we commit in ignorance.  As much as we enjoy vindicating ourselves, our true hope lies in God’s mercy, and it never can be anywhere else.