Conscience, Obedience, and Truth (Stott)

Near the beginning of his first letter to Timothy, the Apostle Paul mentioned some false teachers in the church who rejected a good conscience which caused a shipwreck of their faith. Here’s how the NET Bible translates Paul’s words: “…You [Timothy] must hold firmly to faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and so have suffered shipwreck in regard to the faith” (1 Tim. 1:19). In his 1996 commentary on 1 Timothy & Titus, John Stott wrote some excellent reflections on this verse. I really like how Stott connected belief and behavior in his reflections:

The word used for their rejection of conscience (apōtheō) means to push something or someone away, to repudiate. It implies ‘a violent and deliberate rejection’. Having done this to their conscience, they have shipwrecked their faith. Conversely, it is precisely by preserving a good conscience that Timothy will be able to keep the faith. Thus belief and behaviour, conviction and conscience, the intellectual and the moral, are closely linked. This is because God’s truth contains ethical demands. As Jesus said, ‘if anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out [or “know”] whether my teaching comes from God …’ In other words, doing is the key to discovering, obedience the key to assurance. By contrast, it is when people are determined to live in unrighteousness that they suppress the truth. So if we disregard the voice of conscience, allowing sin to remain unconfessed and unforsaken, our faith will not long survive. Anybody whose conscience has been so manipulated as to be rendered insensitive is in a very dangerous condition, wide open to the deceptions of the devil (4:1–2). ‘A bad conscience is the mother of all heresies,’ Calvin wrote. This may not be an invariable rule, but it is often true. I have myself known Christian leaders who once were faithful teachers, but who, as a result of some stubborn disobedience in their lives, turned aside from the truth and so ruined their ministry.

Stott, John R. W. Guard the Truth: The Message of 1 Timothy & Titus. The Bible Speaks Today. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015