Should Preachers Target the Conscience?

Before he died, a friend asked a local pastor to preach his funeral. Many unbelievers would be present, so he asked him to preach an evangelistic sermon. The pastor read John 3:16, “God so loved the world,” and described God’s love for the lost. Eventually, he asked the non-Christians to ask Jesus into their hearts.

Nevertheless, long before he asked for a decision, the crowd was yawning and looking around. The problem was not the preacher’s ability. He was an excellent speaker. The problem was not the length of the sermon, or the text used. The problem was the preacher’s goal. He did not aim for his listener’s conscience.

He was not imitating Paul or Jesus. Paul targeted his listener’s conscience. In the middle of 2 Corinthians 2:12-7:4, Paul’s great dissertation on the nature of New Testament ministry, he wrote these crucial words.

“But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth, we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2).


What did Paul mean by “commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience?” He meant that his preaching had a particular target. It was the listener’s conscience. To hit this bullseye, he had to present accurate theological content in a logical sequence. But he was never satisfied with just giving people accurate, easy-to-understand information. He wanted to glorify God with life-changing conversions, which depended upon awakening the conscience.

Preaching to the conscience means something concrete. It means explaining the listener’s obligation to God, their failure to meet those obligations, their impotence to make up for that failure, the eternal consequences of that failure, and God’s astounding grace offered to all who will humble themselves, believe the Good News and repent. In other words, preaching to the conscience is provocative. It seeks to disturb the comfortable. Then it seeks to comfort the disturbed.

Three Assumptions

Every preacher that pursues this goal will do so because they assume three crucial truths. First, God made every human in his image and likeness, which means God has written His law on every heart (Romans 2:14-16), and that, therefore, they have a conscience.

They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them (Romans 2:15).

The listener’s conscience may be seared. It may be almost dead. It may be hyperactive. But the preacher assumes that whether seared, beat down, or comatose, he can revive his listener’s conscience by Spirit-empowered and conscience-focused preaching.

Second, he assumes that the Holy Spirit will empower his attempt to hit this target.

Third, he assumes that he should not provoke his listener’s conscience without bathing it in hope. This is the problem with hell-fire and damnation preaching. It lacks the appropriate hope that comes through the knowledge of God’s grace and the gospel solution.

Apostolic Examples

Scripture contains numerous examples of preaching to the conscience. Think of John the Baptist or Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount.

Romans is another example. Shortly after making this statement about preaching to the conscience in 2 Corinthians four, Paul wrote the church at Rome. The first three chapters model what Paul meant by preaching to the conscience. After announcing the Good News in Romans 1:16-17, Paul targets his reader’s conscience from 1:18-3:20. In the last half of chapter one, he describes the divine wrath that the unrighteousness deserves. Chapter two describes the wrath and fury that will greet those without God’s righteousness on the Day of Final Judgment. Then he pivots to discuss the Jews. They are no better than the Gentiles. Finally, chapter three concludes, “None are righteous. No, not one.”

Only after thoroughly exposing his readers’ great need (stimulating their conscience) does he return to the gospel in Romans 3:21-26. Through faith in Jesus Christ, one can be justified through a gift of divine righteousness.

Remarkably, in these three chapters, the ESV Bible records only about 180 words explaining the Good News, but there are just under 1300 words aimed at resurrecting the reader’s conscience.

Think back on how Paul targeted the consciences of his listeners in Corinth.

“When I came to you, brothers, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom, for I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:1–2).

By “Jesus Christ and him crucified,” Paul meant the message contained in the first three chapters of Romans.

Paul preached to the consciences of those in the Areopagus at Athens. He did not start with God’s love. He aimed his argument at his listener’s conscience.

“The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30–31).

First, he explained their duty. “God commands all men to repent.” Then he aimed for their conscience. There will be an accounting. God “has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness.”

Paul also preached to the conscience of Governor Felix.

“And as he reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment, Felix was alarmed and said, “Go away for the present. When I get an opportunity I will summon you” (Acts 24:25).

He began with Felix’s duty—”righteousness and self-control.” Then he pivoted to the accounting that would come at the “coming judgment.” Felix responded appropriately. He “was alarmed.”

This was not Paul’s only target, but it appears to be his norm, especially when preaching to the unconverted.

It’s important to distinguish between conviction and condemnation. The Holy Spirit always convicts. Conviction is a deep sense of my personal bankruptcy coupled with a profound hope that God will forgive me, save me, and fortify me with the power to persevere to the end. By contrast, the Devil condemns. Condemnation is conviction without hope. Condemnation is guilt coupled with despair. This is not what we mean by preaching to the conscience.

Fear of Man

There are three great obstacles to this kind of preaching. The first is ignorance. Today, few preachers aim for the conscience because they just don’t know they should.

A second and more powerful obstacle is the fear of man. Notice how our text contrasts “disgraceful, underhand ways” and “tampering with God’s Word” with “commending ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.”

Those who skillfully preach to the conscience provoke a reaction. The humble repent, rejoice and enter God’s kingdom. The proud become angry. “Who are you to tell me I am a sinner?” Or “this is not the God I learned about in Sunday School.”

Paul’s courage should astound us, reflecting on Paul’s preaching as he entered Corinth, the first three chapters of Romans, his message to the Areopagus, and Governor Felix. The Areopagus was a first-century version of a modern Ivy League faculty, yet Paul preached directly to their conscience. Governor Felix was analogous to the governor of a major state, say Texas or New York, yet Paul went right after his conscience. It took tremendous courage to preach this way to men like this?

Men dominated by the fear of man will not preach to the conscience. Instead, they will “tamper with God’s word, or engage in “disgraceful and underhanded ways.” Tragically, few will be converted when the fear of man controls the preacher. (This was part of the reason for the impotence of the funeral sermon that opened this essay). Here is how Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones addresses this issue:

“If I am concerned as I preach this gospel as to what people think of my preaching, well that is all that I will get out of it, and nothing from God. It is an absolute. If you are seeking a reward from men you will get it, but that is all you will get.[1]

The last obstacle is the failure to love those to whom we preach. People sense whether a preacher stands over them in judgment or under them as a fellow sinner equally in need of God’s amazing grace. He imparts the same grace and hopes that he has personally received even while he skillfully motivates repentance flowing from a tender conscience. This preacher becomes a conduit of God’s love.


The church needs men who fear God, love sinners and understand the need to preach to the conscience. The fruitfulness of the church and the glory of God depends upon it. However, it will only happen to the degree that God’s Spirit liberates God’s leaders from the fear of man even as he humbles them with a personal sense of their own sin and needs.

Ironically, this kind of humility is the meekness that will someday inherit the earth. It is bold! Who was meeker than the apostle, Paul? “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15). But on the other hand, who was bolder? Very few. Meekness produces boldness.

May God give us this kind of amazing humility coupled with a bold passion for preaching to our listener’s conscience for the glory of God. Let us share Paul’s motives and goals.

But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God (2 Corinthians 4:2).

[1] Beatitudes, MLJ, pg 296

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