2 Corinthians 1 Part 2: The Role of Conscience
A change of mind led Paul to change his plans. This caused others to say Paul had not kept his promises. Remember Proverbs 16: 9 says: “In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.” And Proverbs 19: 21 tells us: “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.”
Do you remember the night George Bailey’s father had a stroke in the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life”? George had just told Mary all the grand plans he had in his heart to travel the world, and build great buildings and projects and get out of Bedford Falls, his small hometown. But all his plans changed in a moment because circumstances changed. George Bailey had many plans in his heart, but the Lord’s purpose prevailed.
Now with this change of plans Paul’s enemies and critics are accusing Paul of deception; of breaking his promise because he changed his plans. Yet if we look back at Paul’s first letter in I Cor. 16, Paul said he would spend the winter in Corinth ‘if the Lord permits.’ Paul’s optional plan was to have two short visits going and coming, but even that plan had to be scrapped. He would only make one visit.
His critics, who question Paul’s authenticity as an apostle of Jesus Christ, accuse him of worldly wisdom in verse 12. After all if he was an apostle of Jesus Christ, surely he would know what the will of God was for him regarding his relationship with the church in Corinth.
A misunderstanding between God’s people can be difficult to untangle sometimes. In fact sometimes in trying to untangle it, it gets worse and more misunderstanding occurs and walls go up between believers and even loved ones. And Paul loves these Corinthians. The accuser is at work and loves to cause such quarreling among the believers. The enemy can cause division over the simplest things. As often is said, the enemy can cause the splitting of a church over the choosing the color of the carpet.
So these plans were tentatively made as we read in I Corinthians 16. Paul did not make these plans carelessly as he sought the leading of the Lord. I don’t know about you, but there are many times in my life as a Christian I have made decisions which later appeared to be the wrong decision, but seemed like the right ones at the time. Sometimes I waited on the Lord and sometimes I moved ahead believing what I was doing was in the will of God.
Here is what is important: your motive. Is your motive to please God and not men, or self? What can we learn from this letter of Paul’s to the church at Corinth and his altered plans? Let us look at Paul’s prayerful decision making process and also how he responds when one is misunderstood.
CAN OUR CONSCIENCE BE OUR GUIDE?
This is not the first time Paul has referred to conscience. Conscience is a God-given capacity we humans have by which we evaluate right from wrong and thus self-critique ourselves. Your conscience can be a reliable guide if it has a value system based on the Word of God and is enlightened by the Holy Spirit. The Word of God transforms our mind and we are told we can have the mind of Christ. Our conscience can be a witness which in concert with the Word of God and the Holy Spirit can testify to the evidence. Listen to what Paul says in Romans 9: 1: “I speak the truth in Christ- I am not lying; my conscience bears witness in the Holy Spirit.” My footnote in the NIV says conscience is a reliable witness and guide only when enlightened by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit brings to mind the truth of God’s Word and therefore can create that voice in our minds, which says this is wrong, don’t do it. Or when we choose to do it and the Spirit convicts us and creates guilt. Today’s culture is ‘hell-bound’ to conform our thinking and alter our moral value system. We refer to the world’s culture value system as one which has relative values rather than absolute. This sliding scale of right and wrong re-defines truth as relative and my truth is a good as your truth. We live in a society whose conscience has become seared and everyone does what is right in their own eyes.
Paul described our conscience as a witness. What does a witness do in court? They do not create evidence but testify to the evidence. Matthew Henry calls conscience- ‘a deputy to God’s command.’ His description reminded me of an episode of Andy Griffin, when Gomer sees Barney make an illegal u-turn and begins to yell, “citizen’s arrest!” Our conscience convicts us when we violate the moral value system which God’s Word makes clear to us. Our conscience’s internal voice cries out to us we have broken the law and should be punished.
Paul addressed the issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols in I Corinthians 8 by referring to a conscience of a believer which was weak. Paul said the believer with a weak conscience does not have adequate knowledge in regard to idols and the meat sacrificed to them. However, Paul tells those with the stronger conscience to be careful that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak. So those with the stronger conscience do not exercise their freedom, even though they know it is not a sin. Paul is giving us a principle here which is to seek the good of others rather than our own good, when it can cause others to stumble. The law of love seeks to build up not tear down; to set free, not imprison and above all else to glorify God.
We are going to see how Paul deals with this situation where he is falsely accused of wrong motives and duplicity, in other words not being sincere in his motives and truthful. Paul has obviously considered the situation and evaluated his motives, and his conscience bears witness to himself that his motives were pure and sincere and from God, which is to say they aligned with God’s Word.
I believe at the Bema, where works are are tested for rewards, the test will be for motive. Did I spend all that time preparing lessons, so others would think I was smart and gifted or to build others up.? John the Baptist had a short term, phenomenal ministry. Huge crowds were coming out to hear him and responding to his message of repentance. But John the Baptist knew he must decrease in order that Christ increase. The Holy Spirit always wants to magnify the Lord Jesus. Paul says what he had done, the decision he had made was not according to ‘worldly wisdom, but according to God’s grace.’
People misunderstood his motive and the enemy is quick to rush in and accuse God’s person of false motives, insincere, selfish actions. We are to be transparent. Paul wants them to understand, as much as possible, his motives are for their good and not his own. They are accusing Paul of manipulation of saying one thing and meaning another.
The first thing we must do is what Paul had obviously and prayerfully done, he has searched his heart to make sure his motives were pure. You have to ask yourself when there is a misunderstanding, ‘is there anything I did or said which was wrong according to God’s Word? Does my conscience bother me? Did I speak in anger? Did I hurt or damage relationships? Was I harsh or unkind? Now when we ask the Holy Spirit to search our heart in accordance with God’s will and ‘see if there is any offensive way in me and lead me in the way everlasting.’ Our hearts in Scripture are the center of the human spirit from which flow emotions, thoughts, motivation, courage and action.
Paul has obviously searched his heart and found his motivations to be ‘in holiness and sincerity and from God.’ He wants them to understand fully- so he has written plainly. (Writing a letter is a good way to approach someone, for you can carefully choose your words to best convey your motives.)
Paul says I was planning to visit you to benefit you. Now Paul wants to clear this misunderstanding up between him and the church at Corinth which he loves. In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us: “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift. Settle matters quickly. “
When we look at our society today, we see the two parties of our government locked in strife, arguing, divided, saying all manner of harmful and hateful things against one another and as a result our country is paralyzed in this constant bickering and accusations.
Paul’s enemies have seized upon his cancellation of his plans to visit as a worldly, selfish action saying he was never sincere in his plan to visit them and bringing up every charge they can from the fact he is a false teacher, not a real apostle of Jesus Christ, and even the suggestion of financial impropriety and embezzlement. All of this comes from a change in travel plans. It seems to us a trivial matter. Especially, in a time and place where travel and communication were difficult. Wherever there are those who oppose you and your beliefs they are always ready to accuse you of wrong motives in matters both trivial and major.
Paul said when I was planning this; I did not do so lightly, according to the flesh. Let’s see if we can figure out this Yes and No matter.
Paul is saying I planned with pure motives to visit you to benefit you. Now Paul, like us, sought the leading of the Lord, but sometimes he was not sure, just as we are not sure sometimes, what God wants us to do. He was sure he was to stay in Ephesus because he was seeing his work was effective. In Acts 16, Paul was trying to figure out where to go and after being stopped twice, he knew he needed to wait on the Lord. Do you see by his actions, Paul was motivated to please God not men or self? Jesus said you should not take oaths. You should just say yes I will or no I won’t. Let your word be your bond.
Paul is saying when I said yes, I intended to visit you; I did it with the purest of motives in my desire to please God and to benefit you. In other words, his motive was to build them up. By the same reasoning and motives, when Paul said no, it was for their sake also. Paul’s motive to please God and benefit the Corinthians did not change, his motive was pure. What changed was how he could accomplish pleasing God and benefitting the Corinthians changed. The method to achieve the motive changed. He came to believe his visit would harm them rather than benefit them.
Again let us conjure up an example of motive which can appear harmful, but actually is not what it appears to be. An 80 year old woman is knocked to the ground by a strong, young teenage boy. Her hands are skinned, her knees bruised and the breath knocked out of her. Was this the careless horseplay of a mindless, teenager? Or worse was it the willful action of a mugger? Either would be considered wrong and one punishable by law. However, what if the quick thinking of this young man kept this elderly lady from stepping out into traffic of an oncoming car? Motive makes all the difference, doesn’t it?
Paul is saying when I said yes I planned to come to benefit you, I was sincere. But the Holy Spirit convinced Paul to come would cause more harm than good as he is about to explain.
Now we need to understand this as best we can, for it is important. Paul says, ‘as surely as God is faithful, our message to you is not “yes and no”. Paul is saying we do not mean no when we say yes or yes when we say no. It is wrong to say yes, when we have no intention of doing what we say or to say no, when we do not mean to keep our word.
Paul the appeals to the believers by taking them back to the faithfulness of God who always keeps His word. God’s promises are always Yes in Christ to which we say Amen. This ‘amen’ means we agree and accept and take God at His Word. Whatever God promises they are positive promises. And when we come to Him in the name of Jesus these promises are ours.
Let’s look at God’s motives, His intentions, and His purpose. “For God sent His Son into the world, NOT to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” (John 3: 17) Notice God’s motive: was not condemnation, but salvation. There is going to be condemnation to those who do not accept God’s gift or believe His Word, but that was and is not His motive. His promises deal with salvation, restoration, forgiveness and delivery. Jesus said the enemy comes to steal and kill and destroy, but He came that we might have life and have it more abundantly. Even the Old Testament tells us: God’s motive is to give beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, and the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness. ‘(Isaiah 61)
Yet God gets accused of wrong, harmful motives and falsely accused, doesn’t He?
WHY PAUL CHANGED HIS PLANS
Paul explains God opened his eyes to see the situation from God’s perspective. Paul says ‘as God is my witness, I did not come (in order) to spare you. Not lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, because it is by faith you stand firm. (2 Cor. 1: 23) This is one of the reasons Paul did not come. Paul is saying I am not the LORD over your faith. I am not your Holy Spirit. I am a fellow worker who wants God’s best for you.
In chapter 2, we read the second reason Paul did not come. “So I made up my mind that I would not make another painful visit to you. For if I grieve you, who is left to make me glad but you whom I have grieved? I wrote as I did so that when I came I should not be distressed by those who ought to make me rejoice. I had confidence in all of you, that you would share my joy. For I wrote you out of great distress and anguish of heart with many tears, not to grieve you but to let you know the depth of my love for you.” (2 Cor. 2: 1-4) Paul says I have already caused you pain, a second visit will only increase the pain, you need a time of healing as you recover from the pain which the truth caused. I do not need to come at this time, for you need not be caused anymore pain at this time, but need time to mend. The surgeon does not need to cut you up anymore; one visit is usually all you get from the surgeon. After that the healing must take place.
Paul realized he had caused hurt by what he had written to them. He wanted them to know he wrote what he wrote out of love for them, not to cause them pain.
We should correct our brothers and sisters in the Lord Jesus because of our love for them, not out of frustration and anger. The purpose, motive and intent of discipline is always restoration and renewal, not retribution and rejection. Our correction has no value if it does not build up and move someone to obey God and repent of their sins and enjoy full fellowship with God and one another.
Interesting when you consider the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The Shepherd went after the lost sheep; the woman searched for the lost coin and used all means and methods until she found it. But the father did not go after the Prodigal Son, because the son had to come to his senses. And the Holy Spirit has to lead the carnal Christian or the unbeliever through the process of conviction and the actions which must be taken to correct the guilt He has stirred in their conscience.
One other truth we need to appropriate which Paul reminded the believers at Corinth to remember: “Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set His seal of ownership on us and put His Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.” (2 Cor. 1: 21, 22) Jesus is our role model. Remember He told us we would do what He is doing, and even greater things. In Luke 4 Jesus tells us what He will be doing as He starts His ministry. “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because He has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of the sight for the blind, to release the oppressed to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. “
This is the work we are anointed to do. The Spirit is not just on us- He is in us, sealing us and indwelling us and empowering us.
Paul said I am not lording my position over your faith that is the role of the Holy Spirit within you. I am just a fellow worker helping you.
To fulfill the role God has given us, God has given each of us His Spirit. Our motives must be pure and have only one desire: to glorify God by building others up and freeing them from their sin. Our consciences are being enlightened by the Spirit of God in accord with the Word of God and thus lead us with proper motives when we are to say yes and when we are to say no.