For our proud confidence is this: the testimony of our conscience, that in God-given simplicity and sincerity, not in fleshly wisdom but in the grace of God, we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially toward you. For we write nothing else to you than what you read and understand.
– 2 Corinthians 1:12-13 –
At the time he wrote 2 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul was facing false accusations against his character and ministry. False teachers, claiming to be Apostles of Christ, infiltrated the church of Corinth and, in order to weaken Paul’s influence for the sake of growing their own, launched a full-scale assault on Paul’s legitimacy as an Apostle. Much of 2 Corinthians is a defense of Paul’s integrity as a minister of the Gospel. And he begins that defense by declaring that his conscience is clear from the accusations being brought against him.
But he knows that it would have been too easy for hypocrites who have been seared in conscience to simply appeal to their conscience in order to get everyone off their backs. In 2 Corinthians 1:12–13, Paul explains that the testimony of his clear conscience is something more than a retreat to a private and inner sense of the state of his heart that no one can see or verify. His clear conscience is founded upon a real life of integrity. And that life of integrity is marked by a number of things.
First, Paul says he has conducted himself in simplicity. This is the Greek word haplotes. It means “singleness,” “undivided-ness.” It is simplicity as the opposite of duplicity. Paul used this term in Colossians 3:22 to exhort slaves to sincerely obey their earthly masters, and not just to make a good show of things: “Slaves, in all things obey those who are your masters on earth, not with external service, as those who merely please men, but with sincerity (or simplicity, same word) of heart, fearing the Lord.” In other words, don’t obey your masters in a merely external way; don’t labor in the duplicity of working heartily when your boss sees you, but then slack off when he’s not around. Obey with simplicity of heart—be the same person all the time, knowing that your aim is not merely to please men, but the Lord, before whose presence you always appear.
And so when Paul says he’s conducted himself in simplicity in his ministry to the Corinthians, it means that there were no complex parts to Paul’s character, as if he portrayed himself to be one person on the surface but underneath he was really someone else. There was no artificial exterior to Paul that you had to penetrate to get to the real him. There was no deviousness or underhanded scheming on his part to appear to be something that he wasn’t, so that he could take advantage of the Corinthians. With Paul, what you see is what you get.
Secondly, closely related to simplicity, Paul says he has conducted himself in sincerity. This is a fascinating Greek word: eilikrineia. It’s a compound word, from helios, “sun,” and krino, “to judge.” Literally: “judged by the sun.”
Now what sense does that make? Well, one of the largest industries Paul’s day was the pottery industry. And, just like anything else, the various kinds of pottery differed in quality. The lowest quality pottery was thick, solid, and easy to make. But the finest pottery was thinner and therefore more fragile. Often, when thin pottery was being fired, it would crack in the oven. Now, rather than discard those vessels that were cracked, dishonest merchants would fill the cracks with a hard, pearly wax that would blend in with the color of the pottery when it was painted. In ordinary light, no one could tell the difference. But when you held a piece of pottery up to the sunlight to test it, you would be able to see the imperfection, because the wax appeared darker than the rest of the vessel. Honest merchants would often stamp their products with the Latin term “sine cera,” which means “without wax.” And “sine cera,” is where we get our English word for “sincere.”
And so Paul says, “By God’s grace, my conduct is ‘sun-tested.’ You can hold up my life to the searching sunlight of God’s Word, and you’ll find no cracks in my character that I’ve tried to fill in with artificial wax. I’m not deceitfully scheming to appear one way before men while all the while being something different beneath the surface.” He even says in 2:17, “For we are not like many, peddling the word of God, but as from sincerity, but as from God, we speak in Christ in the sight of God.” The man or woman of integrity lives their entire life in the searching, blazing light of the presence of God Himself. And held up to brightness of His light they are stamped sine cera, without wax.
Not in Fleshly Wisdom
Next, Paul says that he has not conducted himself in fleshly wisdom. Fleshly wisdom is the kind of worldly shrewdness and cunning cleverness that marks those who are selfishly ambitious—those who desire to put themselves forward and seize power, influence, and recognition.
In James 3:13–18, James contrasts true, heavenly wisdom with fleshly wisdom:
“Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth. This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing.”
You see, the man of integrity doesn’t employ fleshly wisdom, pretending to be something he’s not so he can take advantage of people unto his own gain. He’s not motivated by jealousy, arrogance, and selfish ambition that seeks power and influence.
In the Grace of God
Instead, he conducts himself, fourthly, in the grace of God. Notice how sharply fleshly wisdom is contrasted to the grace of God here. They are mutually exclusive. If you are going to operate in fleshly wisdom, conniving and cunning in order to secure positions of influence, you are entirely outside of the grace of God. But if you are consciously submitting your life to the holy, energizing power of God’s grace, you’ll speak like Paul did in 2 Corinthians 4:2, where he says, “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.”
What You See is What You Get
And so Paul says, “I have conducted myself with integrity. My conduct has been marked by God-given simplicity and sincerity, not in fleshly wisdom but in the grace of God.” And then in the beginning of verse 13 he gives an example of that integrity. He says, “For we write nothing else to you than what you read and understand.”
The false apostles accused Paul of vacillating (cf. 2 Cor 1:17). They said that his yes was sometimes no and his no was sometimes yes; he wrote one thing but meant another; his letters were strong and impressive but he behaved very differently in person (cf. 2 Cor 10:10).
And Paul says, “Not at all!” He writes nothing else than what they can read and understand. There’s no need to read between the lines. There are no hidden meanings or secret agendas in his letters. There was no double entendre that the Corinthians had to decipher to get at his true intent. He wasn’t “trying to communicate” something by cloaking his meaning in deceptive platitudes. As John MacArthur has said, “Paul wrote what he meant, and meant what he wrote. His letters were clear, straightforward, consistent, genuine, transparent, and without ambiguity.”
How Do You Measure Up?
This is a profile of the life of integrity that is the recipe for a clear conscience. Now we need to ask ourselves: by this standard, are we men and women of integrity?
Do you conduct yourself in simplicity? Are you the same person on the inside that you present yourself to be on the outside? Or are you duplicitous? Do you only have a ‘Christian’ persona that you employ to impress your Christian friends and your pastors? Do you pretend to be something that you’re not, because you’re so infatuated with the praise of men that you’ve stopped laboring for the reward that God gives?
And do you conduct yourself in sincerity? If your life was held up to the sunlight of God’s Word, would you be stamped sine cera, without wax? Or would the blazing light of God’s own face reveal cracks in your character—cracks that show that you’re pretending to be something you’re not? Maybe you’re trying to artificially fill those cracks with the wax of outward Christian morality—Church attendance, Bible study, spiritual talk. But underneath you know you’re something else.
Do you repudiate fleshly wisdom? Do you renounce all disgraceful and underhanded ways? Or are you motivated by jealousy and selfish ambition that employs worldly cunning and carnal cleverness to take advantage of people to get what you want?
And when you communicate with people—whether in spoken word or in print—is your meaning always on the surface of your words? Can people get at your true intent and motivation just from hearing you speak? Or do you play people? Do you deceitfully couch your true intentions in double meanings in order to protect yourself or gain information? Do people have to read between the lines with you? Or is your speech marked “by the open statement of the truth” (2 Cor 4:2)?
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This is what the life of integrity looks like. This is where a clear conscience comes from. May God deal with us through His Word, so that He might get what He is worthy of in His people, through Jesus Christ, by the sanctifying power of Holy Spirit.