Short Summary: Discovering the Joy of a Clear Conscience is about “the joy of a clear conscience in every day of living and in the day of death.” Christopher Ash helps the reader understand what a clear conscience is by defining conscience, examining the conscience from multiple angles, and guiding the reader to living with a clear conscience before God and man through the power of the gospel.
This book is written for all Christians. The conscience is a topic that has not been explored and written on much in contemporary Christian literature making this book a pretty unique offering. Ash writes with great clarity and will surely guide the reader to a better, biblical understanding of the conscience.
In Discovering the Joy of a Clear Conscience Christopher Ash begins by working through a definition of conscience. He states that “conscience makes me aware in my mind that this is right and that is wrong. Conscience takes the universal principles of right and wrong that I know and applies them to my particular circumstances…..[conscience makes] me feel that my knowledge of right and wrong is shared. In particular, I feel that it is shared with God: I know this particular thing would be wrong, and God knows that I know it would be wrong. This gives to my conscience a particular force. The Bible uses it in this sense, as something God has placed within human beings to give them a sense of right and wrong.” Working off of this definition Ash spends the majority of the remainder of the book examining different consciences that we may have. They are the guilty conscience, the awakened conscience, the hardened conscience, the cleansed conscience, the calibrated conscience, and the clear conscience.
Many of us are probably familiar with these words from Martin Luther: “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason, my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience would be neither right nor safe.” While much has been written about Luther over the last 500 years, and rightly so, there hasn’t been a whole lot of treatment on the conscience, outside of the Puritans, and certainly not a lot of contemporary writings on the subject. Ash states a very simple goal for the book, that is that the reader would know “about the joy of a clear conscience in every day of living and in the day of death.” These two reasons: limited contemporary writings on the subject of conscience, and a desire for believers to know the joy of a clear conscience prove to be worthy reasons for why this book is an important work.
As mentioned above Ash begins by working through a definition of conscience. His definition is worth repeating as it frames the rest of the book. He states that “conscience makes me aware in my mind that this is right and that is wrong. Conscience takes the universal principles of right and wrong that I know and applies them to my particular circumstances…..[conscience makes] me feel that my knowledge of right and wrong is shared. In particular, I feel that it is shared with God: I know this particular thing would be wrong, and God knows that I know it would be wrong. This gives to my conscience a particular force. The Bible uses it in this sense, as something God has placed within human beings to give them a sense of right and wrong.” This definition is pretty straightforward, even if we don’t fully understand how our conscience works, our conscience takes universal standards of right and wrong and tries to move us towards the right and away from the wrong. This often creates an inner war where it feels as if we are battling against ourselves. This is why Ash calls the conscience “a disloyal part of my own army, ready to fight against me when it disagrees with me and to make my life miserable when I disagree with it.”
The above definition of conscience is helpful until we get to chapter two, where Ash tells us that our consciences can often be unreliable. Our consciences can, and often do, err in one of two ways: Either we think that we are innocent when we are actually guilty, or we think that we are guilty when we are actually innocent. Here is where Luther’s quote brings clarity: my conscience is held captive to the Word of God. We must constantly come back to Scripture and have God’s Word shape our thinking so that we are working with an informed conscience. Ash uses the picture of recalibrating our conscience like an instrument that needs adjustment back to God’s line from one of two directions: “Sometimes my conscience is on one side of God’s line, so that it makes me feel things are OK when they are sinful; at other times it may be on the other side of God’s line, telling me to keep away from things I could legitimately enjoy or do.” Ash will later spend an entire chapter on the calibrated conscience.
Ash devotes the majority of the book to examining the conscience in six ways. First is the guilty conscience. Here Ash is helpful as he works through what a guilty conscience does: It never forgets, It makes me want to hide, It isolates me, It makes me fearful and anxious, It is a heavy and painful burden, It makes me angry and resentful, It makes me restless, It makes me look for religious solutions, and It can lead to despair. I am certain that as we read through the above list that some of those are very familiar feelings. Ash also paints the picture of the guilty conscience as God’s courtroom in our heart: it keeps records, it is a witness, a prosecuting counsel, a judge, and executioner. No doubt we have all felt the weight of a guilty conscience and the condemnation of the above-mentioned courtroom. The weight of a guilty conscience is something we are all too familiar with and why we desperately need to move towards the joy of a clear conscience.
Next Ash examines the awakened conscience. Here Ash works through the Holy Spirit awakening our conscience to the reality and weight of sin. Picture David in Psalm 51. The awakened conscience moves us away from our self-justifying standard, or the world’s ever-changing standard to God’s fixed standard. Next is the hardened conscience. In this section, Ash gives reasons why we reject conscience and become hardened. This doesn’t typically happen all at once, but gradually. As Ash states, “What the Bible calls ‘hardness of heart’ is the same as a persistent rejection of conscience: knowing in my heart that something is true, but deliberately not following that truth, at least not now. In some ways, the most deceitful thing about hardness of heart is its gradual nature. It usually consists of a series of little rejections masquerading as postponements. And yet, as with all forms of addictive behaviour, each rejection makes it harder to turn back.” A hardened conscience is most definitely something that we need to be always aware of. We can so easily become enslaved to sin and find fighting the sin to feel like an impossible task because we have given ourselves over to it so many times. Ash then describes eight ways that we try to make our conscience hurt less. I don’t have the space to work through all of them, but they all in some way rely on self rather than repentance, faith, and grace from God.
Fourth is the cleansed conscience. This is the pathway that the awakened conscience should follow. Here Ash differentiates between the objective truth: that Jesus’ death cleanses us and the subjective benefit: applying this truth to our hearts daily and recognizing that though we are cleansed through Christ the process of change is ongoing in our lives. There key here is that the joy of a clear conscience isn’t a “one-off process, but something that needs to happen again and again.” While Jesus’ sacrifice was once for all the process of change in our lives is ongoing. Next Ash examines the calibrated conscience. The calibrated conscience is all about training our consciences to submit to Scripture. This training is done by the Holy Spirit. Ash states that he “progressively calibrates [the conscience] as he shines his light on the pages of Scripture and into our darkened hearts.” The key to the calibrated conscience is to examine what we believe to be right and wrong and have the Holy Spirit test our thinking according to the Word of God. The Holy Spirit is the One that applies the Word of God to our lives. This is key. We do not calibrate our conscience to some external standard that is man-made, but to Scripture. Also, we do not do this in our own strength, but only through the Holy Spirit. Here Ash draws on principles found in 1 Corinthians 8-10 and Romans 14 (He also works through these sections of Scripture while discussing how the conscience is unreliable).
Finally, Ash arrives at a clear conscience. While Ash expands on this thought, the way to a clear conscience is pretty straightforward: regular repentance is necessary for having a clear conscience. Don’t hide sin away, don’t neglect repentance (those are how we get a hardened conscience) rather be quick to repent and seek God’s grace.
Ash closes each chapter with questions that could be used for personal reflection or in a group book study. He has also included an Appendix titled Four Snapshots From History that gives a brief overview of thoughts on the conscience from the middle ages, from Luther to the Puritans, Immanuel Kant/Gilbert Ryle, and Sigmund Freud.
I personally thought that Finding the Joy of a Clear Conscience was a very beneficial book to read. It helped to define the conscience and how the conscience works. I thought that it progressed nicely from its opening definition to a clear conscience. It is a book that I have recommended to others and will continue to as I think that it will prove to be a blessing to anyone who reads it.
Finding the Joy of a Clear Conscience is a book that is highly accessible for the entire church. Ash’s writing style is very readable and yet isn’t simplistic or shallow. He digs into what the conscience is, how it operates, and how we can have a clear conscience. As he examines the conscience in six different ways the book still feels cohesive and not disjointed. He is always moving toward the clear conscience which is the aim of the book.
There wasn’t much that I thought was lacking from Ash’s work, but possibly one addition could have made the book even better. 1 Corinthians 8-10 and Romans 14 are two passages of Scripture that Ash references multiple times in this book. Through the references, the reader could piece together a rough exposition of portions of these passages, but it could have been helpful if Ash would have provided an Appendix that pulled all of his thoughts together and provided a place for him to add more that would not have fit in the chapters of the book.
Discovering the Joy of a Clear Conscience is a helpful book in understanding the conscience and finding our hope in the gospel as we seek to live with a clear conscience before God and man. It is a worthwhile read and proves to be a much needed contemporary treatment on the conscience.
Content originally published March 27, 2019 on Joey Parker’s blog “So Many Books, So Little Time”.