Absolution for everyone!
Or maybe not…
People are outraged by Pope’s Francis’ assertions that atheists will be in Heaven. He wrote an open letter to the former editor of an Italian newspaper on Wednesday. The letter exceeded 2500 words, but it only took a few sentences for nearly everyone on the planet to take notice.
According to one article, a few of those sentences stated:
You ask me if the God of the Christians forgives those who don’t believe and who don’t seek the faith. I start by saying – and this is the fundamental thing – that God’s mercy has no limits if you go to him with a sincere and contrite heart. The issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience.
He went on to say that:
Sin, even for those who have no faith, exists when people disobey their conscience.
There are a number of biblical issues to be taken up with the pope’s statements. Certainly, the nature of sin, salvation, justice, mercy, grace, repentance, and faith are wonderful places to start. It’s downright offensive for anyone to say “this is a fundamental thing” while ignoring virtually every fundamental thing in the Bible. However, it is interesting to see Francis hang his heresies on a clothesline called the conscience. What is the conscience? Do the Scriptures have much to say about it? Of course they do.
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The Condemning Conscience
Simply put, the conscience is an individual’s ability to sense right from wrong. Everyone has a conscience, both Christians and unbelievers alike.
In his famous letter to the believers in Rome, Paul wrote:
For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. – Romans 2:14-16
Gentiles are those who are not Jewish, and therefore never received the Law of Moses with its crushing demands. Paul says that they do “by nature” what the law requires them to do because the work of the law has been written on their hearts. Their conscience bears witness to God’s law and their guilt. Those who have not placed their faith solely in the perfect work of Christ’s atoning sacrifice… possess a guilty conscience that testifies to their condemnation. In contrast, those whose faith has been solely established in the total power of the cross to satisfy the guilt of their sin… are left with a clean conscience before God and men.
Side Note: The conscience has a limited extent of usefulness in this passage. It bears witness, or testifies, to a present reality. It does not determine that reality. Deadening our conscience does not justify us, as much as sensitivity to our sin cannot condemn us.
The Confirming Conscience
Later in the letter, Paul states:
I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit—that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. – Romans 9:1-2
He displays the condition of his grief by appealing to the testimony he has in the Holy Spirit via his conscience. A Christian is a redeemed sinner who never stops sinning this side of death. But thanks to one of the many powerful, practical, and profitable works of the Holy Spirit, the Christian’s conscience becomes more reliable, albeit fallible while trapped in a body of sin and self-destruction. So how can we distinguish His sanctifying work from our desires? Thankfully, the same Holy Spirit who dwells within us is also the same divine author of all Scripture. Therefore, we can wholeheartedly rely on the illumination and instruction of His Word to renew our minds and calibrate our corruptible consciences into the image of Christ. By continually devouring the Word of God, our sense of right and wrong can grow in all truth.
There is so much more to be said about the conscience. I’m sure the subject has been wrestled to the ground by men far more intelligent and articulate than me. Its attendance in the New Testament is more prominent than a few verses, with appearances in Acts, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Hebrews, and 1 and 2 Peter. Paul personally petitions his readers to take action for the sake of their consciences (Romans 13:5), warns against wounding another believer’s conscience (1 Corinthians 8:12), and encourages others to maintain a clear conscience (1 Timothy 3:9)—to mention a few. But as well represented as the conscience is in Scripture, its role never usurps the power of the Gospel, nor does it ever provide an alternative means by which sinners can be saved.
Summary: The conscience bears testimony to a man’s condition. It has the capacity to both condemn and confirm. However, it does not have the power to save.
Sorry pope. Next time, do us a favor and squash the talking cricket with a Bible.