1 Corinthians 4:3-4
As an old schoolteacher I can tell you that one of the strongest motivations in
young people's lives is the desire to be accepted by their peers. Usually, young
folks will do just about anything to accommodate their friends! They will wear
the same brand of shirt or shoe to fit in with their buddies and win their
approval. No one enjoys the feeling of rejection. When your classmates like you,
and you like yourself, all seems right with the world.
Our feelings do not change very much as we age. We still want to feel good about ourselves and have others feel good about us as well. These are very natural emotions and usually there is no harm as long as we remember that human approval is not the standard by which God judges us! The danger comes when we begin to imagine that man's acceptance guarantees our Creator's approval. Now we are talking about some-thing that is far more important than which brand of clothing we choose to wear.
The apostle Paul writes of this point in I Corinthians 4:3-4: "But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man's judgment: yea, I judge not mine own self. For I know nothing by myself; yet am I not hereby justified: but he that judgeth me is the Lord" (KJV). Simply put, Paul says it is a relatively insignificant thing to be judged by other men or by oneself. The fact that others think he is right or wrong, or that his own conscience is clear, matters little. Humans do not establish the standard of eternal judgment; the Lord does.
"Therefore let no man glory in men," Paul writes in 3:21, and that would include glorying in man's acceptance or approval.
There are three points that naturally follow from Paul's admonition.
First, man's acceptance or rejection of me should not dominate my thinking. Remember Paul's words in v. 3: "But to me it is a very small thing that I should be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself" (NASB). At first one might be tempted to ask, "Doesn't Paul contradict himself, because, in 2 Cor. 13:5, he writes, "Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves"? (KJV). The point is, Paul is unwilling to be judged by any human standard, whether it is his human standard, or someone else's. Yes, we must evaluate ourselves by the gospel to see if we are being obedient to the faith. That is, we must examine ourselves in light of the Word. We dare not, however, substitute human approval in place of that Word!
Human acceptance, apart from Scripture, is useless from a spiritual standpoint. As humans, outward appearances or demonstrations of earthly wisdom easily influence us. We accept the fellow who wears the nicest suits, or we enjoy the lady with the most pleasing social grace. We approve of the preacher who tells the funniest stories or who makes us feel the most comfortable. Often, we accept the fellow who tells us we're just fine the way we are or who massages our egos the most.
Paul reminds us that Christians should not be motivated by an overwhelming desire to be popular with men. Our hearts should be set on living our lives acceptably before God.
Second, a clear conscience does not justify or excuse sin! Remember what the apostle wrote at the beginning of v. 4? "I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted. . . ." (NASB). Often we imagine that a clear conscience and a sincere heart are all that is necessary to please God. According to Paul's inspired words, such is not the case. He says that he was unaware of anything in his present conduct by which he stood condemned, but he also recognized that his clear conscience was not the judge.
In fact, we remember that before Paul's conversion he had lived with a clear conscience, even as he led Christians to their deaths! In Acts 23:1, before the Sanhedrin, he said, "I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day." In Acts 26:9-10, in his defense before Agrippa, he says, "I verily thought with myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. Which thing I also did in Jerusalem: and many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them." Was Paul doing what he thought was right at the time when he guarded the clothing of those who stoned Stephen? Certainly he was! Was he following the dictates of his conscience when he persecuted Christians? Absolutely! Does that mean that God accepted his actions? Absolutely NOT!
We understand this point when we think about the laws of civil government. I might drive down the highway, unaware of the inspection sticker on my windshield, which is six months past due, and still receive a fine for it. I might fill out my income tax statement on time; unaware of the mistakes I've made, and still have to pay a penalty. I might not recognize that I'm speeding through a school zone, and still receive a traffic ticket.
The point is, ignorance does not excuse sin. Only the blood of Christ is able to wash away sins, and we contact the cleansing power of that blood when we respond to the gospel and are baptized in water. Paul certainly learned that point because, in his own conversion, he was told, "And now why tarriest thou? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord" (Acts 22:16).
Christians still sin from time-to-time, but we do not need to be re-baptized. Instead, we need to do just what Simon the Sorcerer, a baptized believer, was told to do in Acts 8:22: "Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee." By repenting of our sins and confessing them before God, the blood of Christ cleanses the Christian of those transgressions (I John 1:8-9).
We should never succumb to the thinking, which suggests that sin is okay as long as our hearts are right or we just don't know about it. Ignorance does not change an unlawful activity into a lawful one. Of course, whatever God decides to do at judgment will be just (Gen. 18:25), but we dare not imagine that ignorance is bliss when it comes to violating Scripture.
Finally, Paul reminds us that there will be a final judgment by the Lord. What matters, therefore, is God's reckoning, not man's. The apostle is not worried about being a man-pleaser because man is not the one who will determine his final destiny. In fact, in Gal. 1:10 Paul writes, "For do I now persuade men, or God? Or do I seek to please men? For if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ." These words are in the context of remaining faithful to the true gospel and in not allowing oneself to be influenced by false teachers.
Not that Paul is advocating a callous, cavalier attitude toward people. He certainly is not saying that we should disregard our brother's feelings and ignore his thoughts. Paul often reminded Christians that we should be mindful of others. For example, in Rom. 15:1-2 he writes, "We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let every one of us please his neighbour for his good to edification." Christians, by definition, are ready to sacrifice on behalf of others and are sensitive to others' feelings.
But, we do not compromise the truth in an effort to gain man's approval, realizing that God will judge us in the end. And, we remember that there is an absolute standard, the gospel, by which we will be judged. Rom. 2:16 reminds us that there will be a final day " . . . when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel." One final day, one Judge, one standard of judgment.
So, are we willing to serve our fellow man? Yes, in an effort to imitate Christ and to win souls through the gospel. Are we conscious of others? Yes, because we see them as precious souls. Are we willing to use all the grace and liberty that God has granted us to labor in the best interest of those we meet? Most assuredly, since eternity awaits.
I Cor. 4:4-5 reminds the Christian that the Lord, not man, judges us. It also warns us that a clear conscience or ignorance is no justification for sin. Finally, we remember that one can be popular on earth and still miss heaven.
By John N. Evans
From Expository Files 6.1; January 1999