When you shoot free throws in basketball, where do you aim? At the basket, of course. Nope. That’s too broad a target. The best shooters aim at the front of the rim. With proper ball rotation, even a short shot is more likely to go in. If you’re a parent, businessperson, artist, or really anyone – and happen to be a Christian – where do you aim? I think our targets – the human heart, culture, or character – are too broad. Why not aim at what David, the Apostle Paul, Martin Luther, the Puritans, and William Wilberforce did?
Their big basket or goal was the Cultural Mandate – to shape and rule the world (Gen. 1:26-28). But you have to step back from the basket to see clearly where we should be specifically aiming. Because God spoke in human language, humans are unique in that we know what we ought to be doing. Animals don’t. They merely play the game. We’re playing to win. Knowing what we ought to do means we have moral responsibility. It is conscience that connects our knowledge to our actions. It’s the front of the rim. When you aim at conscience, you improve the percentage of shots you make. And you get the rebound when you miss. Look at the hits and misses of David and the Apostle Paul.
David made some great shots, such as conquering Goliath and neighboring kingdoms. Yet he had some atrocious misses in snipping Saul’s robe, sleeping with Bathsheba, murdering her husband, and numbering the people. How in heavens name was he “a man after God’s own heart” (Acts 13:22)? Scripture cites his conscience. Remember when David secretly cut off part of Saul’s robe? This could have embarrassed Saul. “David’s conscience bothered him” and he quickly rebounded by confessing it right away (I Sam. 24:5). After David bedded down Bathsheba and had Uriah murdered, he was confronted, confessed, and prayed that God would create in him a clean heart (Ps. 51). Good rebound. After he disobediently numbered the people, “David’s conscience bothered him.” He rebounded by confessing his sin and making things right (II Sam. 24).
The Apostle Paul was a persecutor and murderer before he met Christ on the road to Damascus. Have you ever noticed how quickly he turned his life around? The rebound is accounted for by Paul’s conscience – he claimed to have “lived with a clear conscience before God all my life” (Acts 23:1). Paul strove “always to keep my conscience clear before God and man” (Acts 24:16). Toward the end of his life, he could say “I thank God whom I serve with clear conscience” (II Tim. 1:3) and that the testimony of his conscience was a life well lived (II Cor. 2:12). Paul’s big basket was the Cultural Mandate but he aimed for the front of the rim, “every man’s conscience” (II Cor. 4:2 & 5:11). The soul, heart, and character are too broad a target and big a basket.
From one end of the Bible to the other, conscience is the front of the rim. To love God requires “a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (Deut. 6:4-5 & I Tim.1:5). To be properly baptized means pledging to God that your conscience is clean. “
[A]nd this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you – not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God” (I Pet. 3:21). This probably accounts for why many in the early church were baptized without clothes. It was to symbolize their clear conscience. We also hang in there in the faith, Paul said, by keeping a good conscience (I Tim. 1:19). Conscience is even at the core of the Great Commission. Jesus commanded his followers to “teach them to observe everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:16-20). He was linking knowledge to action, a clear reference to the Cultural Mandate and conscience. This is why the Great Commission “involves much more than mere communication of information, regardless of how creative or entertaining instruction might be. It involves, among other things, a recognition of the role of one’s conscience in teaching and learning,” writes Lanier Burns.1
Over the centuries, leaders who focused on the front of the rim made more shots. Martin Luther rocked the world when he stood at the Diet of Worms and said his conscience was “held captive to the Word of God, I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.” The Puritans shaped our modern educational system and “were very deeply concerned about conscience, for they held that conscience was the mental organ in men through which God brought his word to bear on them. Nothing, therefore, in their estimation, was more important for any man than that his conscience should be enlightened, instructed, purged, and kept clean,” writes J. I. Packer.2 And this tribute greets the visitor to the room where William Wilberforce was born on August 24, 1759: “No Englishman has ever done more to evoke the conscience of the British people and to elevate and ennoble British life.” Wilberforce and his Clapham colleagues led the charge that abolished the English slave trade. They all aimed at conscience.
This isn’t just for parents, pastors, or politicians. “Capitalists with no conscience are a problem; capitalists with a bad conscience are a bigger problem,” Richard John Neuhaus said.3 It’s also the front rim for business. Obviously conscience is not the entire target, just as you don’t have to aim at the front of the rim to make a shot. The ball can go in the bucket a hundred different ways. It’s just that your percentage of made shots increases when you aim at the front of the rim. The all-time best free throw shooter in the NBA is Mark Price, who made 2,135 out of 2,362 free throws, or 90.4%. Price and every great shooter say they aim for the front of the rim. “The gospel is addressed to human beings, to their minds and hearts and consciences, and calls for their response,” Lesslie Newbigin said.4 When you step to the line, what are you aiming at?
1 Dr. Lanier Burns. “Teaching Them to Obey: The Conscience From the Biblical Text Through History to the Net.” Paper presented at the Evangelical Theological Society Conference: Orlando, FL, 1993.
2 J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1990), p. 107.
3 Michael Novak, Business as a Calling: Work and the Examined Life (New York, NY: Free Press, 1996), preface.
4 Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), p. 141.