To Every Man's Conscience in
the Sight of God
2 Corinthians 4:1-6
Jeong Woo (James) Lee
Even in this fourth chapter, underneath the current of Paul's words flows a criticism of his opponents in the church at Corinth. Paul does not engage in a direct confrontation with his opponents at the church of Corinth. This was not because he was a coward. Paul was writing to a church which, in general, showed a sign of repentance as well as allegiance and loyalty to Paul. Not to his opponents, but to his beloved church was he addressing his letter. Nevertheless Paul was aware of the continuing presence of his opponents in the church. Therefore it was necessary for Paul to warn the church of the danger they posed to the peace and purity of the church.
For the peace and purity of the churchthat was the reason for Paul's contention with his opponents. Paul was not squabbling with them about petty, personal matters. The church was not a place for petty, personal bickering, for the church belonged to the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul said in Ephesians 5:25-27: ". . . Christ . . . loved the church and gave Himself up for her; that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she should be holy and blameless." Those who belonged to this church of Jesus Christ are those who "have been crucified with Christ" (Gal. 2:20); those who "have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so [they] too might walk in newness of life" (Rom. 6:4). Having died to themselves and to the world, the members of the church of Jesus Christ "should no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf" (2 Cor. 5:15).
The church of Jesus Christ is a community of saints who owe eternal debt and gratitude to the One who lived, died and was raised from the dead on their behalf. Having tasted the goodness of the Lord, the saints confess: "Because Thy lovingkindness is better than life, my lips will praise Thee" (Ps. 63:3); ". . . [a] day in Thy courts is better than a thousand outside. I would rather stand at the threshold of the house of my God, than dwell in the tents of wickedness [as king]" (Ps. 84:10). Awed by the reality of God's overwhelming grace, they confess as their deepest desire, "Christ shall even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain" (Phil. 1:20-21).
Do you see? A saint can no longer hold his own pride and ego dear to his heart. His heart finds no joy in self-indulgence, but is wearied by it. The matters regarding his personal welfare no longer consume him but seem a rather frivolous preoccupation that is only tiring and burdensome. For he has experienced the overwhelming freedom of losing himself in the vast ocean of God's love. The fear of losing his reputation and the anxiety of protecting his own interest no longer afflict his soul. There is joyful and willing abandonment of self-interest and self-importance. More than that, he counts all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord, for whom he suffers the loss of all things, and counts them but rubbish in order that he may gain Christ (Phil. 3:8). His greatest desire is to see the smiling face of his Master, to bring delight to his Lord, to hear from his lips, "Well done, my good and faithful servant!" He has no fear of being abused by his Master, for his Master loved him to the point of laying down his life for him. As a matter of fact, if he loves his Master so much, it is only because his Master first loved him.
To engage, therefore, in petty squabbles over wounded pride and hurt feelings, is not worthy of the members of the church of Jesus Christ. The church of Jesus Christ must not be poisoned with the toxin of bitterness and resentment, brewed in the dark recesses of one's heart. Neither should we allow the hysterical biting and scratching of enraged egos and wounded pride to tear up the church of Jesus Christ. This is all the more urgent because the church and its members are not yet perfectand never will be until the day of glorification. Though conquered, the remnant of our sin remains in our body of flesh. Though set free from the dominion of sin, we are not completely free of all sins. The wind of temptation blows through the pipe of our sinful body. As it does, it produces enticing tunes that still charm the remnant of our old self to raise its hideous, cobra-like head and hiss with complaints and grumbling. However, our standard of holiness cannot be compromised because greater is the power of him who squashes the head of the serpent under his feet and frees us from the bewitching spell of sin and self-righteousness.
We dare not stiffen our neck, raise our head of egotism and disturb the serene peace of the church of Jesus Christ. How utterly contemptible is our sin of egotistical pride and self-importance in the eyes of the exalted, sovereign Lord of heaven and earth! How utterly loathsome is our loud demand for our rights before the One who, though he was rich, yet for our sake became poor, that we through his poverty might become rich! We were saved because he who was God did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but humbled himself to the point of death in order that he might save us who deserved nothing but eternal condemnation. How can we bicker with one another and raise our voice in the church of Jesus Christ?
Paul, more than anyone, understood these things. We must then appreciate the fact that Paul's trouble with his opponents at Corinth was not personal in nature. Their criticism of Paul displayed serious theological errors, which undermined not only Paul's reputation but also the truth of the gospel itself, of which Paul was a minister. What was at stake was the truth of the gospel and the purity of the church. Paul could not simply let things be for the sake of some superficial peace in the church. As a pastor, he was entrusted with the responsibility not only to preach the truth of the gospel, but also to protect the church from erroneous teachings and heretical views. To let such things fester in the church would have been a gross disservice to his Master as well as to those he served. The pain of pruning had to be inflicted for the well-being of the church. The lump of dough had to be unleavened in order to maintain the purity and holiness of the church. For such things, the church must not remain idle and silent. For such things, the church should not avoid conflicts.
In the previous chapter, Paul dealt with the grave theological error that his opponents taught at the church of Corinth. Those false teachers, most likely from the Jewish sector, continued to uphold Moses (and his law) as the highest standard for the Christian ethics and life. Of course, they called themselves Christian and acknowledged Jesus as God's anointed one. They might have seen in the death of Jesus Christ an atoning sacrifice for their sins. They might have rejoiced in and even preached the resurrection of Jesus Christ as an evidence of God's victory over death. However, their greatest appreciation of Jesus Christ lay in seeing him as the greatest affirmation of the Law of Moses. Didn't Jesus himself say that he came to fulfill the law? And what law did they have except the Law of Moses? When Jesus died for the sins of his people, did he not do so according to the principle of atonement in the Law of Moses? When Jesus taught the people, was he not the greatest rabbi to expound the Law of Moses? The Law of Moses was the law of God and as such absolute, eternal and unchangeable. No onenot even Jesus, the Son of Goddared to usurp the authority of Moses the Lawgiver.
Such a conviction happened to serve the false teachers, rather conveniently, to validate and emphasize their special position in the Christian community as people of the Jewish pedigree. After all, Moses was a Jew and the law was given to the Jewish nationnot to mention the fact that Jesus too was a Jew as they were. Therefore, they had a special claim on Moses in a way that the Gentiles never could. But they were willing, for a reasonable fee, to teach the sublime, exalted Law of Moses. And the Gentiles had better learn from their teaching and example. For the way to be truly Christian was by being Jewish.
In doing so, they could not help but point out certain fatal errors in Paul's theologyhis obvious neglect of the Law of Moses. One would expect Paul, as a Jew and a former Pharisee, to have a greater appreciation for the law of their forefathers. He should know more than anyone the benefits of the law. People are too sinful to be left alone without the constant vigil of the law. Especially the Gentiles, whose lives had been immersed in lawless savagerythey must be reined in by rules and regulationsrules and regulations that are comprehensive in scope, specific in application and weighty in punishment. People need to be told, clearly and specifically, what to doalong with a good dose of warning against breaking the law and its terrible consequences. If not, they would only be lazy and lost. People need to be driven into obedience and the law was the most effective whip. The Law of Moses was the best medicine for sanctification. That was why Paul, in their view, was such a dangerous man. In his preaching of justification by faith alone, they detected too much of an antinomian tendency, wanting to do away with the law altogether.
Paul met their objection head on. In his counterattack against his opponents, Paul went directly to the one to whom they appealed as the source of their authorityMoses. Throughout 2 Corinthians 3, Paul showed the relative value of Moses and his ministry of the law compared to the absolute value of Jesus Christ and Paul's ministry as a minister of the new covenant. In doing so, Paul did not intend to criticize or disparage Moses. Moses faithfully served the Lord according to the role which God assigned to him. It was just that his role was not as absolute as that for which Paul's opponents wanted to give him credit. The ministry of Moses was a ministry of death, not of life. Did they have to be reminded of the gloomy fact that the very first incidents following the giving of the law were tragicthe shattering of the tablets of the Ten Commandments and the killing of the three thousand as the punishment for their golden-calf worship? Did they have to be reminded that Moses, the lawgiver, was not allowed to enter the Promised Land, but died outside of it?
And Paul demonstrated the relative role of Moses also by pointing out the temporary, fading radiance of Moses' face. Something absolute cannot fade in its glory. The veiling of Moses' face was not to hide the brilliance of its glory, but to hide its fading. And such was precisely the role and the end assigned to Moses and his ministry of delivering the law at Mount Sinai. Moses and his law were not meant to stand forever, but to fade away into what is truly eternal and absolute. The glory of Moses shone with a borrowed rayand that only through the dark nightuntil the Sun of incomparable glory appeared. The glory of Moses was but a cocoon, existing only to give birth to something that far transcended its humble glory. The Law of Moses was no different. The law that dictated the life in the temporary, earthly kingdom of Israel had to give way to the law that dictated the life in the eternal, heavenly kingdom of the Son of God. The Law of Moses, too, was a cocoon, whose true fulfillment was found in the birth of the law of the Spirit of life in Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:2).
To hold on to the glory of Moses and his law, therefore, was utterly foolish. More than that, to continue to hold on to the glory of Moses and his law was to deny the glory of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus fulfilled the law, not by affirming the eternal validity of the Law of Moses, but by bringing it into the arena of the kingdom of heaven. To hold on to the Law of Moses is to hold on to the vision of an earthly paradise and reject the vision of the eternal, heavenly kingdom of God. Such a vision is nothing less than Satanic. Those who reject Christ but hold on to the Mosaic religion are called "a synagogue of Satan" by Jesus (Rev. 2:9; 3:9). But God has called us as heavenly citizens in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul's ministry was unto this kingdom of God in Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ, Paul's vision was turned away from the small plot of land called Canaan. His new vision was directed toward the kingdom of God in heaven. Now that he was given this vision, not even the whole world could fill up his new vision. In Jesus Christ, he was brought out of this world into the marvelous kingdom of God's Son. He now lived, though he walked on this earth, in the kingdom of God that had come in Jesus Christ. As it was a heavenly kingdom, it had no earthly boundaries and treasures to physically assure our membership in it. It manifested itself in its spiritual power of regeneration and transformation.
It is in this context that we must view Paul's words in 2 Corinthians 4:2: "[B]ut we have renounced the things hidden because of shame, not walking in craftiness or adulterating the word of God, but by the manifestation of truth commending ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God." In his description of his ministry, he appeals to "every man's conscience in the sight of God" (v. 2) as his "court of appeal." The true significance of these words must be determined in the context of the contrast between Paul's ministry and the ministry of his opponents.
As you can see, Paul's description of his ministry is presented both in negative and positive terms. He renounced the things hidden because of shame. He does not walk in craftiness. He does not adulterate the word of God. On the other hand, his ministry is characterized by the positive traits of manifesting the truth, commending himself to every man's conscience in the sight of God. Later on, Paul goes on to say that, in his ministry, he does not preach himself but Christ Jesus as Lord (v. 5).
The negative descriptions of his ministry are intended to set him apart from his opponents and their ministry. The characteristics from which Paul is distancing himself are the very ones that he attributes to his opponents. They do not let go of the things hidden because of shame; they walk in craftiness; they adulterate the word of God; they preach themselves rather than Christ. These negative characteristics are drawn from the episodes surrounding the fall of Adam. And as sons of the fallen Adam, they have become the sons of the greater Tempter. So, these false teachers refuse to let go of shameful things so long as they could hide them (as Adam hid himself among the trees); they walk in craftiness, as the serpentine Satan crawled in the garden; they adulterate the word of God as their evil Father tempted the innocent Pair by contradicting the word of God.
What is more, these characteristics are reinforced by their tenacious commitment to Moses and the old covenant. The phrase "things hidden because of shame" (which they refused to let go), is strongly reminiscent of the veiling of the fading glory of Moses mentioned in the preceding section. Paul seems to associate the Mosaic Covenant with shame (as with death). To hold on to Moses and his covenant is to refuse to let go of the hidden things of shame. What is more, to hold on to the Old Testament as the absolute truth in and of itself apart from its fulfillment in Jesus Christ is nothing less than adulterating the word of God. Being faithful to any text of the Old Testament is more than a careful grammatico-historical analysis of that particular text alone. One cannot be faithful to the text of the Old Testament apart from seeing its fulfillment in Jesus Christ.
This applies to the law as well. The law, though good and holy, was weak because of the sinfulness of man and only resulted in producing more and greater sin in man (Rom. 7:8). Sinful man, when confronted with God's holy law, did not respond in humble obedience. Rather, man responded to sin with his ingenuity to find ways of breaking the law without getting caughtto observe the letter of the law and still break the spirit of the lawto hold on to sinful inclinations in his heart while observing the law externally. But such was precisely the limitation of the theocratic arrangement: the Law of Moses was the ultimate court of appeal for one's guilt or righteousness, but the law could only see one's outside.
Paul's court of appeal, on the other hand, is no longer the Law of Moses, as it is for his opponents at Corinth. He speaks "in Christ in the sight of God" (2:17). He commends himself "to every man's conscience in the sight of God" (4:2). He appeals to "the testimony of [his] conscience" for the genuineness of his ministry to the Corinthians. Indeed, throughout the whole Pauline corpus, Paul never appeals to the law for the defense of his actions. Again and again, he appeals to his conscience in the sight of God (Acts 24:16; Rom. 9:1; 2 Cor. 1:12; 4:2; 2 Tim. 1:3). And he exhorts believers to maintain a clear conscience, cleansed and set free by the blood of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 8:7ff.; 10:25ff.; 1 Tim. 1:5).
This is not a reckless, antinomian abandonment of the law and a radical subjectivization of ethics. Paul is not an antinomian. Rather, he is subject to a greater law than the Law of Moses. For he now belongs to a kingdom greater than the theocratic nation of Israelto the kingdom of God in heaven. He does not stand before the law that cannot see his heart; he now stands in the sight of God, who sees all things, even into the deepest recesses of his heart. He does not live by the Law of Moses, but by "the law of the Spirit of life in Jesus Christ." This reality is expressed in his conducting himself in the sight of God and commending himself to every man's conscience. Yes, Paul now lives in a different environmentan environment radically different from the nation of Israel. The kingdom of God has come in Jesus Christ!
That is why the arena of Paul's ministry is no longer people's external behavior, but their conscience. Conscience, of course, is not the ultimate standard of righteousness. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 4:4: "For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord." Also, there is a weak conscience as well as a conscience dictated by true knowledge. The ultimate standard of righteousness is the law of the Spirit of life in Jesus Christ. Therein the fullness of God's righteousness is revealed.
Nevertheless, Paul's appeal to conscience is significant. It signals a redemptive historical transition in the administration of the law of Godfrom the externality of the Mosaic Law to the internality of the law of the kingdom of heaven. The nature and extent of Christ's saving work indicate the nature and extent of the believer's ethical arena. Listen to Hebrews 9:9-10: "Accordingly both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make the worshiper perfect in conscience, since they relate only to food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until a time of reformation." In Jesus Christ, the time of external, ceremonial cleansing is superseded by the time of internal, efficacious cleansing of one's conscience. No one can hide behind a mere appearance of righteousness. The law of the kingdom of heaven probes deep into one's mind, heart and conscience.
Yet we need not fear that we are fully exposed in the sight of God. For Jesus Christ bore our judgment in his suffering and death. Jesus accomplished for us the perfect righteousness through his perfect, righteous life. Though we stand before the all-seeing, most-exacting sight of God, we have no reason to fear. For our sins have been washed clean by the blood of Jesus Christ. For we are covered with the robe of righteousness. As Horatio G. Spafford sang: "My sinO the bliss of this glorious thought!My sin, not in part, but the whole, is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more; praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul. . . . The trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend, 'Even so'it is well with my soul."
Now we serve the Lord in the security that the efficacy of Christ's blood and the perfection of Christ's righteousness afford. For those who are in Christ Jesus, to be in the sight of God is to be in the presence of God's love. Therefore we serve not with fear but with joy inexpressible. Like a little boy running all over the soccer field, encouraged and strengthened by the proud gaze of his father following his every move, so we desire to move, live and have our being in the sight of our God. Therefore brothers and sisters, let us no longer subject ourselves under the accusing, hateful sight of the evil One. Let us no longer run into the dark corner of guilt, regret and shame. Let us bask in the loving gaze of our heavenly Father. Let us walk in the sight of God. Let us enjoy a clean and perfect conscience and never part with it.
New Life Mission Church of La Jolla (PCA)
La Jolla, California