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ACTS 10:9-13 - A Calibrated Conscience

A Matter of Conscience 2021  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  39:11
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Your conscience should be calibrated only under direct supervision of God

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Introduction
(READ Acts 10:9-16)
If you want to hear a good, exciting story sometime, ask Lizzie Null about that one time Levi saved her life! It all happened a couple of years ago when Jodee was driving our kids and the Null kids back from CCHS in Clarion. The van had been giving us trouble for a while, but it was still driveable. We had been driving it a couple times a week back and forth to Clarion and Brookville for school. Well on the way home one afternoon, the engine light came on and the van stalled—just as they were getting onto I-80. Jodee called and told me, and from what I could figure it sounded like it was losing power because the alternator was going bad. So I said, “Just keep driving, when it stalls, see if you can get it started again and get home and we’ll have it looked at.”
And so, (with a degree of trust in my ability to diagnose car troubles that I am sure she will never have again), Jodee kept starting the van again every time it stalled, all the way from Clarion through Brookville. But then, as she climbed 322 just past Mike’s Comet Market, the van quit for the last time as [this] piece of one of the pistons punched through the bottom of the engine and through the oil pan, igniting what was left of the oil and leading to one of the most exciting Monday afternoons in living memory for the kids (including Levi picking up Lizzie and taking her out of the van as the smoke from the burning oil poured out from underneath!)
As it turns out, the issue was that there had been an internal oil leak that had drained the crankcase dry—and as the engine overheated the van’s computer kept shutting it down to avoid the catastrophic failure that we actually caused by ignoring the warnings! Moral of the story—when your car’s emergency systems kick in to prevent major damage, don’t ignore them!
You can already see where we’re going with this illustration, can’t you? One of the things that we’ve been emphasizing through this series is that—in the words of Martin Luther— “To go against conscience is neither right nor safe”. You will answer to God someday for the way you obeyed your conscience: If your conscience told you something was a sin and you went and did it anyway, then you sinned—even if what you did wasn’t even inherently sinful.
This is what the Apostle Paul is saying in Romans 14, where he is teaching about people who have a conscience that tells them it is sinful to eat meat considered “unclean” by the Law of Moses, so they will only eat vegetables. He says in verses 22-23,
Romans 14:22–23 (ESV)
22 ...Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. 23 But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.
In other words, if you go ahead and eat non-kosher meat even though your conscience causes you to doubt whether it is right or not, you are sinning.
This is why Martin Luther was prepared to go to prison—or even die—rather than violate his conscience. It is a very serious thing to do something your conscience tells you is wrong (and we need to understand that when we approach the issue of dealing with each other’s consciences later on in this series.)
But here is the question for us today is, how can we be sure that our conscience is accurate in what it tells us is sinful? If this faculty given to us by God really is that powerful a voice in our lives, and if it really is a massively serious thing to violate it, what do we do if our conscience needs to change? How can we even know if our conscience needs to change?
This isn’t an academic question—there are people right now—in North America—who are losing their jobs because they cannot in good conscience use feminine pronouns to refer to a man, or businesses who face fines and penalties for not paying for employees to murder their babies in the womb. What will this church do when a sodomite couple asks to use the church for their “wedding”, or if the government threatens to take away our tax exempt status unless we change our bylaws to endorse such abominations? Are we ready—are you ready—to lose your job, your income, your liberties rather than do violence to your conscience?
And I hope you can see why it is so vital that you be sure—rock solid sure—that your conscience is accurate, that it is, for want of a better metaphor, calibrated accurately. It would be a real tragedy to lose your job or your freedom needlessly because of a misinformed conscience, a conscience that was out of step or misaligned with God. As one author puts it:
“Your conscience is not identical to the voice of God. That voice in your head is not necessarily what God would say. So how do you cultivate a conscience that aligns with God’s voice?” (Naselli, A. D., Crowley, J. D., & Carson, D. A. (2016). Conscience: What it is, how to train it, and loving those who differ (Illustrated ed.) [E-book]. Page 60.)
As it happens, we have an example in the Scriptures of a time when someone had to “recalibrate” his conscience in order to line it up with God’s voice. I want us to look at this account from Peter’s life in Acts 10 as we consider this question of how we can be sure our conscience is “calibrated” accurately—and what I believe these verses are showing us is that
Your conscience should be CALIBRATED only under the DIRECT SUPERVISION of God
This is because calibrating your conscience means you have to work against your conscience in some way—in other words, calibrating your conscience runs perilously close to violating your conscience. And so you must be sure that God is the One who is calling you to adjust your conscience.
I believe this passage gives us at least three ways to discern whether you are following God’s leading to calibrate your conscience or following your own desires to violate your conscience. You should only attempt to calibrate your conscience under God’s direct supervision—the first indication is

I. When God LEADS you by His SPIRIT (Acts 10:9-12)

Look at verse 9 again:
Acts 10:9 (ESV)
9 The next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray.
We have observed earlier that the closer your walk with God, the clearer your conscience can be—and here we see Peter demonstrating that truth. You can be confident that you are calibrating and not violating your conscience when
You have a HEALTHY WALK with God (v. 9)
We see that it was the “sixth hour” of the day—twelve noon. And even though Peter was hungry (v. 10), he didn’t say to himself, “Well, I think I’ll go get some lunch before I spend time praying—don’t like praying on an empty stomach!” (In fact, you might say that Peter didn’t like eating on an empty spirit!) In one of those exquisite little echoes of Jesus’ life that we see in the apostles, notice that Peter was praying “at the sixth hour”—which was the same time of day when Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well—telling His disciples when they returned with lunch that “I have food to eat that you don’t know about!” (John 4:33). Peter’s desire was for God more than for physical food. Peter was not looking for an excuse not to obey God, he was prioritizing his time with God in prayer.
So I think we can see from this that when it comes to your conscience, you know you are calibrating it when it is in the context of a healthy walk with God, and you are violating your conscience if you are pushing against it while you are distant from God, or chafing against His presence in your life.
When God leads you by His spirit you have a healthy walk with Him, and when you have a healthy walk with Him,
God can GET your ATTENTION (vv. 10-12)
Look at verses 10-12:
Acts 10:10–12 (ESV)
10 And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance 11 and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. 12 In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air.
Peter went up on the roof to pray there in Joppa for a couple of reasons—first, it is a place where he was likely to have some privacy where he could speak undisturbed with God. (Again—see the parallels: the Gospels tell us Jesus would go up on a mountain to be alone to pray to His Father, and here is Peter going up on a rooftop to be alone to pray to His Father!)
Not only did he have privacy there, but Peter also was able to so something that was more common with First Century Christians than it is for us today—while we pray by closing our eyes and bowing our heads, First Century Christians (especially from Jewish backgrounds like Peter’s) would usually stand up and lift up their eyes to the sky while they prayed. They would literally turn their eyes away from “the things of earth” to “the things of Heaven”.
And verse 10 tells us that while Peter was standing this way—focused on his relationship with God, lifting his eyes toward heavenly things—he “fell into a trance”. Now, the English word “trance” has some frankly very unhelpful connotations associated with drug use or the occult. But that’s not at all what is being described here. The Greek word that the ESV translates “trance” is actually the word ekstasis, meaning literally to “stand outside oneself” (ek - “out of” and stasis - “stand”). So whatever Peter’s state of consciousness was at this time, the emphasis was that he was “taken out of himself”—that is to say, Peter was able to see beyond his own limited, earthly perspective, and see things from God’s perspective.
I daresay if you’re a Christian, you’ve had that kind of experience with God? Not some weird “altered state of consciousness” kind of event, but have you ever suddenly had your eyes opened to understand your situation from outside your own experience? All of a sudden, as you are reading God’s Word or speaking to Him in prayer, you are suddenly filled with an understanding of your situation from God’s point of view, and things become clearer, and you have understanding that you didn’t have before.
You can know that you are calibrating your conscience and not violating it when you are being led by the Spirit of God—when you have a healthy relationship with Him—not distant, not pushing Him away because you want to embrace your sin. And when you are walking closely with Him He can enable you to see yourself and your circumstances from outside yourself; from His perspective. Think of it this way: We are calibrating our conscience when we are looking to God for direction, we are violating our conscience when we are looking to the world for direction.
You must only calibrate your conscience under direct supervision from God—and you can be confident that He is calling you to adjust your conscience when He leads you by His Spirit, and

II. When God DIRECTS you into TRUTH (Acts 10:13-16)

Look at verses 13-16:
Acts 10:13–16 (ESV)
13 And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” 15 And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” 16 This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.
Peter was standing there on the rooftop, watching this vision of a great sheet full of animals coming down from Heaven—and judging from Peter’s reaction, they were not animals that were considered clean under the Mosaic Law. In Leviticus 11, God’s Old Covenant people are given very specific instructions on what kinds of animals were “clean” and “unclean” for food. Peter had grown up his whole life believing that it was a “sin” and “detestable” to eat lizards or other reptiles, or scavenger birds like vultures or ravens, or other animals like pigs or rabbits or camels.
Peter had believed all his life that it was detestable, sinful, immoral to eat “unclean” animals (v. 14). But here on this rooftop in Joppa, Peter was
CONFRONTED by God’s WORD (vv. 13-16; cp. Mark 7:14-19)
regarding his conscience. Notice again that Peter did not come up to this rooftop really wishing he could go down to the street vendor and get a fried lizard on a stick for lunch! He wasn’t secretly chafing against what his conscience was telling him to be right when it came to his diet, he wasn’t looking for a way to silence his conscience so he could go out and sin against what he understood to be God’s will.
You can be confident that you are calibrating and not violating your conscience when you are confronted by God’s Word about an issue—Peter heard the audible voice of God here, but you and I “have the prophetic word made more sure” (2 Peter 2:19), because we have God’s written and authoritative and infallible Word to guide us as we evaluate our conscience.
Nor was this the only time Peter had heard this command from God. In Mark 7, Jesus was teaching that it was what came out of a man’s heart that defiled him (evil thoughts, immorality, theft, murder), not what went into his stomach (pulled pork, shrimp cocktail, lizard fritters). Mark 7:19 ends with the statement, “Thus He declared all foods clean”. And so here in Acts 10, God was not announcing something new to Peter, He was reminding him that He had already declared all foods clean. And so Peter had to calibrate his conscience according to what confronted him in God’s Word.
And it’s worth noting here that this vision occured three times—we don’t know from the text whether it was because Peter refused three times (but if you look back at Jesus’ meeting Peter on the seashore in John 21 you see that this wasn’t the first time God had to repeat Himself three times to get His point across to Peter!)
But I think that this detail is a very important one in our consideration of how to calibrate our conscience—it doesn’t happen all at once. The process of calibrating your conscience under the direct supervision of God is not a quick, once-time adjustment. It happened very quickly here in Peter’s case, but years later he was still struggling with his conscience over eating kosher (he and Paul butted heads over it in Galatians 2:11-13, in fact.) It takes a lot of study, a lot of prayer, a lot of humility before God to change your convictions of conscience when you are confronted by God’s Word over a particular matter. Take your time. Don’t rush. Get it right. Alvin York sat down with his company commander and his battalion commander (who was a Christian) and they explored the Scriptures together regarding killing in warfare. York eventually calibrated his conscience according to God’s Word, and went on to serve with valor in the Argonne (Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alvin_York#World_War_I)
And it’s also worth noting that when we are confronted with God’s Word over an issue of our conscience, we very often find that what He is showing us is
CONFIRMED by God’s WORLD (Romans 1:19-20)
God’s Word is the primary authority for us to calibrate our conscience, but we also have directions from the world God created—the world that demonstrates His power and His divine nature (Romans 1:19-20). This is what Martin Luther was referring to when he said at the Diet of Worms that he could not change his conscience “unless I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture or by clear reason”. There are times when we have applied Biblical principles to a situation, but we are misinformed in other ways. And we need to be informed by “clear reason”—we need to understand the truth about the world around us—in order to calibrate our conscience accurately.
For example, a Christian couple may have a clear conscience about contraception in family planning—they are not trying to deny God’s command to be fruitful and multiply, they are wanting to be wise about when they start or how far apart the kids should be in age, and so on. Their desires are godly, and they have a clear conscience guided by God’s Word that says children are a blessing, and they want to be blessed.
But then they discover (not from Scripture but from outside) that certain forms of birth control result in the destruction of a fertilized egg—in other words, certain forms of birth control result in abortions. Now they are confronted by other parts of God’s Word that declare that abortion is murder, and it becomes necessary to recalibrate their conscience according to what they have learned.
When we are digging in to God’s Word and we are carefully reasoning through what we know about God’s world, we are able to carefully, prayerfully and patiently calibrate our conscience in order to come into closer alignment with God’s truth. We want to always be led by God’s Spirit, we want to be led into God’s truth, and we can be confident that we are calibrating and not violating our conscience

III. When God’s GLORY will be MAGNIFIED (Acts 10:28-35)

As we read further along the story here in Acts 10, we find the reason that God called Peter to calibrate his conscience over “clean” and “unclean”. God was bringing a Roman centurion, Cornelius, to Peter to hear the Gospel so that he might be saved—and Peter would be violating his conscience to share the Gospel with an “unclean” Gentile! When Cornelius finally met Peter, though, God had done the work of calibrating Peter’s conscience:
Acts 10:28 (ESV)
28 And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.
And so this is the third indication that you are “calibrating” and not “violating” your conscience—when you are doing it because God’s glory is at stake in some way. Peter was not changing his convictions of conscience because he found them too restricting and wanted to deny or argue with God’s standards; he was changing because he had been confronted with God’s Word—and now he was seeing in God’s world the demonstration of God’s truth—Gentiles need the Gospel just as much as Jews!
There are two ways that we can be called to calibrate our conscience, and I think it will be profitable for us to think through both of them briefly this morning. First, you can do it
By DISARMING your conscience
This is what Peter had to do here, isn’t it? He previously had all kinds of alarm bells go off in his head over the distinction between “clean” and “unclean” foods, but he had to subtract that category from his conscience. He had to silence that alarm. (You can see why this is such a weighty thing to do, to tell your conscience to be quiet in some matter!)
Let’s bring the idea of “disarming” your conscience over into something that may be more familiar to us. Let’s suppose that you grew up your whole life believing that it was a sin to walk into a bar. You felt like even stepping inside the door to get out of the rain was a line you couldn’t cross with a clear conscience. As you understood it, stepping into a bar was a sin, and so it was a sin for you to do it.
But then you made a friend at work who was desperately thirsty for hearing the Gospel—he found out you were a Christian, and he was terribly racked with guilt and shame and wanted to know how to be made right with God. And due to circumstances beyond your control, the only time either of you had to meet was while he was moonlighting as a bartender. Confronted by God’s Word that commands you to go into all the world and declare the Gospel (even into the bars!) and your love for your friend, you prayerfully and carefully ask for God’s supervision to so work in your heart that you can walk into that bar with a clear conscience in order share the Gospel for the sake of your friend’s eternal soul and God’s eternal glory.
There are times when you are called to obey God by disarming your conscience over a particular matter, and there are times when you obey Him
By SHARPENING your conscience
There may be times when you have to add to your consciousness of what is right and wrong—you may have to begin developing new sensitivities in your conscience where you never had to before. For example, consider what we read in Colossians 3:5-8:
Colossians 3:5–8 (ESV)
5 Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. 6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming. 7 In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. 8 But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.
Before you were a Christian, you had no problem with using whatever words you wanted to express whatever emotion you wanted—you were full of anger, wrath, slander and malice, and all of that sin came out in the foul, obscene, hateful, filthy language that came out of your mouth. Maybe you were like Ralphie’s dad in A Christmas Story: “He worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay; it was his true medium; a master...”
But one day, after you became a believer, and as you are coming to walk more and more closely with Him, you are confronted by God’s Word: “put all of this away; anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.” And under God’s direct supervision, through His Spirit guiding you and His Word confronting you, you begin the process of sharpening your conscience so that it convicts you over that foul and obscene language and leads you to greater holiness in your speech.
Peter’s experience on that rooftop in Joppa that afternoon so many centuries ago is one that God is able to do for you today. Your conscience is a precious gift from God, and it you ignore it or silence it or violate it at your peril. In the coming months and years, beloved, you and I are going to have to be absolutely, completely and utterly immoveable in regards to matters of conscience, and that means we must seek God’s direct supervision to be as sure as we can be that our conscience is calibrated according to God’s truth in this world.
The matters of conscience before us today are not minor; they are not inconsequential. Are you prepared to have a clear conscience as you violate a government mandate ordering churches to stop gathering for worship? Are you prepared to evaluate your conscience in light of God’s Word when you find out that every COVID vaccine on the market has been either created with or tested with genetic material of babies murdered in the womb? Will you be able to consider obtaining a counterfeit “vaccine passport” with a clear conscience? When the PA Department of Revenue notifies us that we must either add a statement of gender identity/LGBT non-discrimination to our constitution or have our tax exempt status revoked retroactively to 1886, will you be able to say, “unless I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture or plain reason, I cannot go against my conscience”? And—most vital of all—are you prepared to allow other Christians to follow consciences that differ from yours?
Seek to be led by God’s Spirit—Jonathan Edwards said that “the way to keep the conscience tender is to the utmost to resist sin”. So walk closely with God, listen to His Spirit, lift your eyes away from the world’s standards to His. And let yourself be confronted by His Word—attend to His Word as it is read in worship, come and sit under the teaching of the Word in the sermon, jealously guard your own personal time to read His Word every day—allow His Word to confront you, mold you, break you if it has to. And whatever you do—whether you eat or drink, whether you abstain or indulge, whether your conscience steers you one way or another, do everything that you do in such a way as to magnify the glory of God as you live captive to a conscience that has been washed and renewed and guided by the blood of your Savior, Jesus Christ!
BENEDICTION
Hebrews 13:20–21 (ESV)
20 Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, 21 equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION

Read Acts 10:14 again. What does Peter’s reaction show you about how powerful one’s conscience can be? Have you ever been confronted by God’s Word that goes against something your conscience is telling you?
Why is it so important to be sure that we are being led by God’s Spirit when we consider matters of conscience? How is “calibrating” our conscience perilously similar to “violating” our conscience? How does a close and healthy walk with Christ enable us to avoid sinning against our conscience?
There are many issues of conscience that confront us as Christians in the United States. Write in the space below some of the areas where you foresee you may be called to stand against the world on the basis of your conscience. Pray through these issues this week, asking for God’s wisdom and guidance:
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