Interview with Andrew David Naselli and J.D. Crowley, co-authors of CONSCIENCE: WHAT IT IS, HOW TO TRAIN IT, AND LOVING THOSE WHO DIFFER

Published on April 26, 2016 by Joshua Centanni

Crossway, 2016 | 176 pages

Books At a Glance (Fred Zaspel):
Hi this is Fred Zaspel executive editor at Books At a Glance we’re glad to have with us today Andy Naselli and J.D. Crowley talking to them about their new book: Conscience: What It Is, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ, from Crossway. It’s a brand-new book out on conscience. Andy Naselli is Prof. of New Testament and Theology at Bethlehem College and Seminary in Minneapolis and J.D. Crowley is serving in mission work reaching to the unreached in Northeast Cambodia and he is talking to us from Cambodia.

Hey, you guys it’s good to have you with us. Thanks.

Naselli:
A pleasure.

Crowley:
Thanks, good to be here.

 

Zaspel:
Alright let’s start off. Tell us about your book just in broad strokes. What is the contribution you’re hoping to make?

Crowley:
Well, I’ll start off. I think our main goal is to put conscience back on the radar of the life of a Christian. It’s an extremely valuable gift from God and we think it ought to be in the thoughts and minds of Christians. Plus Andy and I think that a huge percentage of problems in churches, and also I have found in missions, can be traced back to not really understanding how your own conscience works. So we found that a study of the conscience can have benefits in a lot of different places.

 

Zaspel:
How did the book come about? Has this been a focused area of teaching for both of you or just a matter of personal concern for various reasons or what?

Naselli:
I think both J.D. and I independently were working on this topic and that I think we were both speaking at a conference in Northern Wisconsin and we spent some time talking and realized that we were both really interested in this and were collaborating for a bit and he just naturally came to a point where we decided to team up and do this together. My main contribution is New Testament exegesis and J.D. has so much experience cross culturally with this. So, teaming up I think was a good thing.

 

Zaspel:
How did your roles divvy up in writing the book? Especially with such distance between you?

Crowley:
It was a challenge. As Andy said, both of us had begun to speak and write on conscience independently of each other, but what was really encouraging to us is that when we met and started talking about it, it was like we were writing the same book. It was astonishing to me how two people tackling the same topic into very different locations would agree on so many points. So we agreed to write the book together. Of course we had to find a way to weave our ideas together without making the book sound like it was written by a committee and I hope we succeeded. Every chapter is a true collaboration. There may be chapters were one of us had more input than the other, but every chapter was written by both of us.

 

Zaspel:
What is the conscience? What makes it so significant?

Naselli:
There are several ways you can define it, but a very concise, memorable way is to say that the conscience is your awareness, your consciousness of what you believe is right and wrong. So it’s what you believe is right and wrong not what necessarily is right and wrong. So something could be sinful but your conscience is okay with it. That just means there is a problem with your conscience not with the standard there. So your conscience is going to register you know, warning, danger, fine what you’re doing. It’s going to judge you. It’s basing itself on that standard of what you believe is right and wrong. That’s what so significant because the way we live is according to her consciences and if the conscience is off, if it’s functioning improperly it’s going to affect everything about how we live.

 

Zaspel:
That brings us into the next question that I have for you then. What authority does conscience have?

Naselli:
Well it doesn’t have the authority of God, because it can be wrong. I think Mark Dever said at one point that your conscience can’t make a sinful thing right, can’t make a wrong thing right, but it can make a right thing wrong. Like if your conscience tells you that drinking root beer is sinful than it is sin for you to drink root beer, but of course drinking beer is not sinful. But if your conscience tells you it’s okay to have an abortion, that doesn’t make it okay. So I can make a right thing wrong but he can’t make a wrong thing right.

 

Zaspel:
You speak often in the book about calibrating your conscience. What does that mean?

Naselli:
I’m going to dominate, so jump in here wherever you want, J.D. Calibrating is a metaphor like if you step on a scale and you actually weigh 100 pounds and the scale says 103 pounds, the scale is off. You have to calibrate it so it functions according to the proper standard. If you look at your iPhone and it says 7:09 it’s really 7:10 it’s off, so calibrating is just making an instrument function properly. And our conscience if you think of it in that instrument metaphor can function improperly. It doesn’t function according to the standard of God, his will, his revealed will in Scripture. So to calibrate means to bring our conscience in line with Scripture.

Crowley:
I’d like to add to that. It’s been helpful to me to think about the apostle Paul the day he got saved. Mentioned how his conscience was packed not only with things that should have been there, the law of God, but also with all those extra rules that he as a practicing Pharisee had. And yet we know from later in life when he said things like: “I am free of all men, yet I make myself a slave to all,” that we know that he evidently during that period of time did the difficult job of basically sorting out his conscience, determining what goes, what stays, what needs to be added. And that’s what we mean by calibrating conscience. The end result for Paul was that he streamlined his conscience to match, as best he could, the will of God. Nobody’s conscience matches God’s will perfectly but he tried to streamline it and that allowed him to, as he says in that famous passage in I Corinthians 9, become all things to all men.

 

Zaspel:
Yes, he’s a fascinating example of it. Can you imagine Saul of Tarsus writing “circumcision is nothing”?

Alright throughout my ministry, I’m sure the most common question I have received from Christians with regard to conscience concerns a hurting conscience, feelings of guilt for past sins. That question can take a lot of dimensions of course individually, but just broadly considered, what counsel can you give for someone with a hurting conscience?

Naselli:
Well, I think the first question is whether it’s a Christian or non-Christian we’re dealing with? So I’m going to assume this is a professing Christian. Anecdotally there are a couple of passages in the writings of John Bunyan, one is in his autobiography, the other is in Pilgrim’s Progress, that are so moving in this regard. There’s a scene in Pilgrim’s Progress where Apollyon corners Christian and basically says, “You’re a lying, rotten scoundrel. You’re horrible and how dare you claim to be a follower of the king?” And Christians reply is so disarming. He says, “You know what, Apollyon, you’re right. It’s actually worse that you said, but my hope is not in my righteousness. My hope is in Christ’s righteousness.” That is everything right there. So when you’re wrestling with a conscience that is condemning you, I like to sing the second verse of Before the Throne of God Above by switching the word Satan to conscience:

When Satan tempts me to despair—“when conscience tempts me to despair,
and tells me of the guilt within,
upward I look and see him there,
who made and end of all my sin.
Because the sinless Savior died
my sinful soul is counted free
for God to just be satisfied
to look on him and pardon me.”

That’s where you go.

 

Zaspel:
Amen. You mention in your book that it’s a bit ironic but often the case that what we might describe as a mature Christian can find himself or herself having increasing trouble with conscience. Why is that?

Crowley:
Yes that’s a surprising thing sometimes. We hope that as the gospel cleanses our conscience, and it’s the only religion that claims to be able to solve our sin and guilt problem at such a deep level, but the assumption is that maybe I’m not going to have conscience problems after that actually in many ways supercharges your conscience, because instead of just having a form of God’s law written on your heart, you actually have the very law of God and the lawgiver himself living in you through the Holy Spirit. And he’s not called the Holy Spirit for nothing.

So a young Christian is often surprised about this but they should assume that their conscience is going to be bothering them much more after conversion than before because God is bringing us into holiness. So that’s why that surprising thing happens in a Christian’s life.

 

Zaspel:
Okay, one of the issues you want to address in the book is the problem of differences in conscience among believers. You sum up your counsel at one point with the acronym, MYOC. Tell us what you’re getting at.

Crowley:
Well, as I said earlier and as we say over and over in the book, no one has a conscience that exactly matches God’s will and we think that truth needs to just burn down into everybody’s heart because often we will assume that our own personal conscience standards should be everyone else’s conscience standards. But we have to remember that they have their own conscience and their conscience is for them in our conscience is for us and MYOC means mind your own conscience. We can’t try to impose our own conscience restrictions and our conscience freedoms on other people.

 

Zaspel:
Yeah, that was my next question. What, in this context, is Christian liberty and how should we understand that?

Crowley:
Well, in that regard, often Christian liberty comes to mean something like, “All right, I finally get to do all those things that my strict upbringing would let me do.” And that they post about it on Facebook. But there’s a lot of immaturity and that. Christian liberty is really a matter for a mature Christian. Paul, in that very famous passage that we alluded to earlier, I Corinthians 9:19 and following, said, “Though I am free and I belong to no one, I’ve made myself a slave to everyone to win as many as possible.” Andy and I have taken that apart to define Christian liberty in this way: Christian liberty to Paul was (1) the freedom to (2) discipline yourself to be (3) flexible (4) for the sake of the gospel. The freedom to discipline yourself to be flexible for the sake of the gospel. That’s what Christian liberty is.

Naselli:
J.D. and I dedicate the book to our children, I have three and he has like 20. I dedication is something like this: May God give you grace to maintain a good conscience and to calibrate it wisely for this purpose so that you can love other Christians when you differ by flexing for the sake of the gospel. So a huge part of what this book is the progression. It goes from understand what your conscience is,

Calibrate it well, love other Christians when you disagree, and the purpose of all this is so you can flex for the sake of the gospel. Christian liberty is going there. The point is that if your conscience says a neutral thing is always wrong and you can’t flex on that for the sake of the gospel. And what we’re trying to do is say, recognize what are the areas where you should be able to flex so that in situations where flexing would advance the gospel, you can actually flex and not be bound by your uncalibrated misinformed conscience.

 

Zaspel:
One more question, and this is for you, J.D. Why is understanding conscience important in mission work?

Crowley:
We said earlier that a large percentage of problems in churches comes from conscience clashes among members. And if that’s true, imagine how these kinds of conscience clashes and disagreements and misunderstandings just multiply when you have a cross-cultural and cross-language setting. I’ll give you an embarrassing example. It’s a story that, believe it or not, happened just a few years ago and I’ve been here now for 21 years, and it took me this long to figure this out.

I planted a mango tree in my yard over here in Cambodia and on the fourth year when fruit normally starts to appear on the tree, there they were– all three fruits on the tree. But I was so excited about those three pitiful little mangoes and I couldn’t wait to eat them. Well, that they never came because I was doing some concrete work and a local friend of mine was in my yard doing the work for me and when I was out he picked and ate the mangoes– all three of them. What really bothered me was that he seemed to be completely without remorse. I was sure it was a sign of a completely seared conscience, but there was actually much less sinister explanation. The reason he felt no pangs of conscience is that what he did wasn’t wrong in his conscience. In fact the real wrong in that situation was my own stinginess.

You probably traveled around, Fred, and you know that in most cultures around the world, including ancient Israel, it’s not considered theft to pick a handful of grain or fruit or two while you’re taking a shortcut through someone’s field, as long as you don’t do actual serious harvesting. But for most Western missionaries that would be two violations of our rules, of our conscience. It would be trespass and it would be theft. You’re on my property when you shouldn’t be, and you’ve taken some of my fruit. So both cultures both my home culture back in America and the Cambodian culture, they both have strong moral codes against theft but the differences in the details.

And as I said, the real scandal in that event was my own stinginess, because if there’s one thing about food in the majority world context, is that it is something that must be shared. So talk about calibrating, it was at that point that I realized that I had to make two calibrations to my inner moral compass. First had to add that category of, “Don’t be stingy with your food toward neighbors,” to my list of serious wrongs in this culture, but that’s hardly on the radar in the US, right, where people say, “God helps those who help themselves,” and all that but in most cultures it’s a real serious sin. We must share food with others. And then I had to adjust also my concept of private property while I’m here.

Now when I go back to the states I can’t go in somebody’s orchard and pick his fruit indiscriminately because I would get in trouble for that. So there are adjustments that have to be made, even according to location. So that’s an embarrassing story about how if the missionary doesn’t understand how his own conscience works and he doesn’t understand the conscience of the people he’s getting to know in that culture, he can have some pretty serious problems.

 

Zaspel:
Interesting. Well, there are not too many books on the subject of conscience. I don’t know why that is, but I’m glad you guys have done this. It’s a great service. We appreciate it. We’re talking to Andy Naselli and J.D. Crowley about their book, Conscience: What It Is, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ, from Crossway. A brand-new book that’s out, we encourage you to take a look at it. J.D. and Andy thanks a lot for being with us.

Buy the books

Conscience

Crossway, 2016 | 176 pages