The prophet doesn’t have much if he doesn’t have his conscience.
The Christian church in the United States, like the church in every other time and place, is called to announce to the principalities and powers that Christ is risen. We are called to summon the nations, including our nation, to faith and repentance, holding out hope that sinners can be forgiven and dead men can come back alive. We are called to herald the present and coming reign of the still-promised Messiah, including his now and coming judgment. And in the meantime, we are called to name darkness and light — to call them what they really are, both through the way we live and the gospel we preach.
But the Christian church, like the prophets of old, won’t have much if we don’t have our conscience. And what we say won’t mean much if we don’t have our conscience.
In recent months, weeks, and days, evangelical voices have been marshaling all their forces of logic to convince us that our consciences are malformed or malnourished or maladjusted if we can’t bring ourselves to lay down core convictions before the throne at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. We must give ourselves to grasp the powers that are here for the grasping, and if we don’t give all that we might give and do all that we might do, then our blood is upon us and upon our children.
We’re told America might never be the same. We’re told we’ll probably lose everything. We’re told that nothing good will come if Rome is allowed to keep acting like Rome, or Babylon like Babylon. We’re told that our consciences are overscrupulous, that we don’t understand the way the world works, and perhaps worst of all, that we’ve fallen prey to that greatest of churchly anathemas — being holier than thou.
But in all these appeals — some of them good and reasonable, from voices I love and respect, but others power-laden and fear-driven — there’s often an eery silence. We’re told lots of things, but what’s left unsaid is even more telling. We’re not told what to do with our consciences. Or worse, we’re told exactly what to do with them — to pave them over with relentless politicized logic and Armageddonish reasoning about the end of the world being upon our shoulders.
I’m no prophet or the son of a prophet, and neither are these voices, so none of us know exactly what will happen. But at the same time, every Christian is a prophet — not predicting future events but calling out “Thus saith the Lord,” heralding the unchanging truth of his written Word.
If that’s true, and if that job is going to get ever more serious in the days to come, then there’s another word that must be heard, and another essential good that must be protected. It’s a word about the power and vitality of the Christian conscience. Because in the days to come, just like the days of old, our collective Christian conscience will be under immense pressure. The intellectual pressures on our faith will surround us, pressing in like the unending miles of Antarctic ice floes pressing in on Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance. In the days to come, robust Christian conviction will likely come with a price not often paid by our Bible-belt forefathers. We will need many things, to be sure, but of all the things we will need, we will most definitely need this: a Lutherian conscience kept captive to the Word of God and sensitized by the burning presence of the Spirit of Christ.
This ongoing gift of a clear and convictional conscience, at all times and places, is not just for the sake of our own inner harmony. There’s another far more significant issue at stake, and it’s this: In the days to come, just like in the days of old, robust Christian conviction will have a chance to be heard, if only for the sheer mysteriousness of the story we’re telling. We’ll have a chance to be heard as a sage pointing the way back to the ancient paths, as a trumpet blast announcing God’s coming judgment, and as a voice crying out in the wilderness — but not if we leave our conscience in the city.
The future church in the United States, just like the present church in so many more difficult places, will need its conscience saturated with Scripture and tethered to all the values God has revealed to us. We will need our affections and our inclinations drawn toward biblical thinking by the gravitational pull of theological instincts held together by a webbed Christian worldview which itself is centered by the cross of Christ and him crucified. We’ll need our consciences more than we think we will.
So don’t let anyone tell you to shelve your conscience. Inform it, yes. Shape it, yes. Fill it, yes. Soak it with Christian Scripture and expository preaching and church fellowship and sacred ordinances and moral norms and sexual ethics and marital faithfulness and sanctifying discussion and virtuous reading. If it can be convinced to change by Scripture and sanctified reason, then let it be convinced. But don’t let it be diluted by anything or anyone.
Because a covenant conscience, hemmed in by the law and prophets and writings, shackled and stirred by the teachings of Jesus and the apostles, and held captive by those captivating apocalyptic visions, will be at a premium in the days to come.
At the end of the day, exiles don’t have much. But every Christian exile is a prophet in the name of Christ, bearing witness to the gospel of the kingdom and the sanctity of all that God calls good and right. And if we’re going to show the world the way home by flying straight in these storms, we’re going to need an integrated panel of instruments that are calibrated just right.
If you’re going to dare to be a Daniel, in Babylon or anywhere else, the main thing you’re going to need is not the right tyrant or emperor on your side. The main thing you’re going to need is a conscience.