This study was originally given as a series of sermons by the author, at Spring Road Evangelical Church, Sholing, Southampton. It subsequently appeared in the Evangelical Times as a series of monthly articles. Its present form closely follows that in which it appeared in the Evangelical Times, and is published in order to satisfy the need of the wider Christian public.
It was published as a small 32-page book in 1973 by Henry E. Walter (Worthing, England).
Every human being has a conscience, but the way in which it operates varies immensely. There are several opinions as to what precisely conscience is. It is fashionable to regard conscience as nothing more than mans natural response to the ethical standards which surround him as he grows up. Christians believe, on the other hand, that conscience is a divine gift by which God speaks to the soul.
However we need to ask ourselves the question How reliable is conscience? Is it infallible? What about differences among Christians, where their consciences react in opposite directions on the same issue? This subject is very important in these days, not only because the very idea of conscience is under assault, but because Christians themselves have a responsibility to use this precious gift for their spiritual advantage.
In some measure the low standard of spiritual life among us is the result of a failure to appreciate the role played by our consciences. We shall deal first of all with conscience in the natural man.
As some sociologists want to account for everything relating to man in a naturalistic way, the supernatural aspect of conscience is explained away. Those who reject the fact that there are absolute standards of right and wrong, debase conscience in this way. According to them it does not operate in relation to fixed moral laws. They think it merely reflects the standards which society has set. Society decides (according to this view) the kind of behaviour which is desirable, and the individual accepts these standards. So, a persons views and convictions are interpreted entirely in terms of their background and upbringing. Christian morality is viewed by many as an invention of the Victorians which modern society has now almost shaken off because of its narrow-minded influences.
Others do not go quite so far and are prepared to say that the Victorian era had a value and made a contribution to society. But then they go on to say, We have outgrown such a way of thinking.
This approach to morality and conscience is nothing more than the application of evolutionary thinking. In the struggle for survival pleasure and pain determine what is moral. Right and wrong does not enter in. The subjective standard of pleasant or unpleasant is determined by the majority of the community. The peril of such a view is obvious an we are seeing the results today.
The Christian has Gods revelation to guide him on the subject, and much is said in Scripture to help him. The word translated conscience (which means joint knowledge held in common with anotherthe other being God) in the New Testament occurs 30 times. In the Old Testament the equivalent word is sometimes translated heart. In 1 John 3:20 the word heart refers to conscience.
Paul develops the subject a little in Romans 2:14,15, which provides a helpful starting point. What, then is conscience? It is a moral faculty. We have been given many facultiesmind, senses, emotions, will, etc., but the faculty of conscience particularly distinguishes us from the animal world. They act instinctively and make no moral choice. Our cat may be aware of whether we think it has done right or wrong, but it cannot judge moral values independently, for itself.
In Romans 2:15 Paul describes the function of conscience in the ungodly. It passes sentence or excuses on the basis of the knowledge of God which exists even in the man who is without Gods written revelation. The Jews had the Law but the Gentiles had a law written in their hearts, God had revealed Himself through His creation and it could b e said of the Gentiles that they knew God (Romans 1:21).
This knowledge was made use of by conscience either to accuse or excuse them. Conscience therefore applied the law and pronounced sentence. It is scriptural to liken conscience to a judge in a court of law. Conscience, under ideal circumstances, is a good judge, provided it is handled properly and not subjected to coercion and violence.
A judge must have evidence before he can pronounce accurately. He does not supply this himself but makes a judgment on the basis of what he hears. Even a good judge may give a faulty sentence if he is supplied with false evidence. Conscience, in the same way, is a moral faculty. It operates through the normal faculties of thinking, feeling, perception, etc., but is entirely dependent upon information presented to it. It is not, itself, Gods voice to man, since Gods voice is infallible and only Scripture can be regarded in this way. Nevertheless God has placed this faculty within man through which He makes him aware of His attitude towards him. The function of conscience is to tell a man what God thinks of him and his actions. Its work is to apply the truth of God to his case in particular. It is God-given faculty, but like other faculties can be neglected, abused and perverted, or it can be nurtured, refined and developed.
When man fell he was completely separated from God, became dead in sin, and needed to be born again. Yet his body did not become utterly corrupted. The image of God was not entirely obliterated and his faculties were capable of being used to the glory of God when he was given new life. Mans nature became evil, but his body itself was not affected in this way.
His body was weakened through the Fall but the normal, healthy activities of the body were not sinful. The abuse of the body, however, has produced unnatural desires and perverted appetites. We can see how the ungodly may use or misuse his various faculties. This is the case also with conscience. When it is supplied with correct information and listened to and obeyed, it functions as it was intended to. When it is supplied with false information, neglected or resisted, it is abused.
The Lord Jesus tells us that men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil (John 3:19). As soon as a man hears the Gospel his natural reaction is to deprive his conscience of the truth of God because conscience applied it to himself, and tells him that his deeds are evil. When the Lord Jesus Christ dealt with the accusers of the woman taken in adultery they each slunk away, being convicted by their own consciences (John 8:9). The light was unpleasant to them.
Thus the ungodly turns down the volume, so to speak. He keeps away from churches where the Gospel is preached. He will not keep company with those who might witness to him. He may find himself, however, in a situation where he is confronted by the truth, and there is no escape. Left to himself, though cut to the heart by the truth of God, he will resist the gracious influences of the Spirit. This was the case with those who heard Stephens powerful message (Acts 7:54).
People who are deeply convicted by their consciences often recognize that it is not enough to turn down the volume. They can still hear consciences voice. They decide that the best way to deal with conscience is to do a deal with it in order to placate it. they are like Herod who, being convicted of sin as a result of Johns ministry, when he heard him did many things, and heard him gladly (Mark 6:20). They may go to many lengths, and be subject to much conflict, as was the case with Pilate who sought earnestly Christs acquittal.
However, mans corrupt nature is too strong for conscience. When he finds that he cannot make an offering, that is acceptable to conscience he falls out with his conscience and subjects it to pressure. Pilate did this when he washed his hands. He may go further and supply conscience with information that will actually pervert its judgment. He gets himself into a thoroughly dangerous condition. Conscience is supplied with error; it becomes defiled and disorientated. It excuses him in areas that are clearly condemned and condemns him in things clearly permitted (1 Tim. 4:2 & 3; Titus 1:15).
He may try to get rid of his consciencebut he cannot and it may terrify him (Proverbs 28:1; Genesis 4:14).
It may amaze us to see how callous some people can be, and so hardened to the Gospel, but as we understand the functioning of conscience it should not surprise us, but rather expose to us the damage that they have done to themselves.
It is essential for us to understand the functioning of conscience in the ungodly in order to witness. We need to determine the spiritual condition of a man to know where to begin. Some people are like the Apostle Paul before he was converted. He was sincerely wrong. He acted ignorantly (Acts 26:9). He was not deliberately misusing his conscience, though he did resist it prior to his conversion.
Conscience in the case of such a person is in a far healthier state than in the case of the man whose conscience has been seared. We may have long and profitable discussions with such a person. They are truly dead in trespasses and sins, as every man is before he is converted, but conscience has not been so perverted and this is a great advantage. We shall have great difficulties, however, with the person who has abused his conscience seriously.
Some may have gone so far as even virtually to destroy it and thus the possibility of hearing God speaking to them. No ready-made technique of evangelism takes these vital matters into consideration in the precious question of dealing with souls. Peoples consciences are in varying stages of depravity. Since it is the very faculty God has given to man whereby He speaks, we must seek to rouse it into activity. This is why Paul spoke of commending ourselves to every mans conscience in the sight of God by the manifestation of the truth (2 Cor. 4:2). Mens consciences are in varying conditions: we must apply information suitable to their condition.
Our ambition must be to make use of this precious faculty to enable it to operate on its own. A mans conscience must condemn himself. It s not for him simply to yield to our pressure. In some cases we can quote Scripture because conscience will accept this. In other cases we will have to use the kind of material that Paul used at Athens. Here Paul was not indulging in apologetics but making use of the law of God written in mens hearts. We can use the light of creation to convict those who will not accept the light of the Scriptures. All but a very few indeed have some knowledge which their conscience tells them is valid, which we must use to arouse their conscience to convict them.
It is essential in our evangelism, therefore, not to overload a persons conscience and to expect too much too quickly. Above all, peoples consciences generally expect Christians to live consistent lives. Their conscience judges us. Does it sometimes condemn us rightly, when we excuse ourselves wrongly?
Finally, the only safe guide is a conscience enlightened by Scripture. It needs the Gospel truth to come up with the right answer concerning our salvation. If, upon the basis of Gods Word when faithfully applied to our case, it acquits us, then we are happy indeed. The preaching of the cross of Christ is essential to bring men to real peace with God. The Spirit convicts men of their sin but points them through the Word to the blood of Christ who offered Himself without spot to God which purges their conscience from dead works to serve the living God (Hebrews 9:14). Conscience, on the basis of Gods Word, gives the ungodly when born again and reconciled, a peace which passes all understanding through the promises of God.
In this second chapter we consider a defective conscience. Since it is dependent on information presented to it, it is liable to error if wrongly handled. Conscience is a precious gift which, when properly used, can be the greatest of all blessings apart from salvation itself in Christ, since God speaks to man through conscience.
It is not enough, however, for a man, even if he is a Christian, to be sincere and convinced that he is right. Many a Christian makes the mistake of thinking that if he is persuaded in his conscience of a certain course of action, it must be right, though he may never have seriously exposed his behaviour or his views to the light of the Word of God.
He may not have acted like the Bereans in Acts 17:11,12, and searched the Scriptures to be quite sure his judgment is right. The Scriptures reveal that a Christian may have a defective conscience. Indeed, every one of us, though we may be children of God, has some defect in the operation of his conscience. We need, therefore, to constantly examine its function in the light of the Word of God. We shall consider three conditionsa weak conscience, an evil conscience and an insensitive conscience.
In Romans and 1 Corinthians 8, we have the case of those whose consciences are defective because they are immature. They are growing up and, just as an adolescent goes through the awkward stage, so the young Christian frequently passes through such experiences. Furthermore, as some young people are more awkward than others, so it is with young Christians. Most Christians at some time have a weak, immature conscience over some things.
This weakness is not necessarily an unhealthy sign. It is an over-sensitivity which may be evidence of a real desire to honour God, but it is a stage that we should pass through and leave behind. In the early church, problems arose when animals that had been sacrificed and offered to heathen gods were sold in the market place. Some Christians felt it was wrong to eat this meat because it had been offered to idols. Others felt there was no need to be so fussy.
The advice given by Paul in Romans and Corinthians on this and similar problems is to respect the over-sensitive conscience and to put oneself under its yoke lest we should encourage the weaker brethren to violate their consciences and thus to sin against God for whatever is not of faith is sin. We may instruct and educate the consciences of other brethren, as Paul did, but not ridicule them and trample on their consciences when they are sincerely endeavouring to serve God, and are fully persuaded in their own minds.
Examples of this kind of thing are many. They may relate to the use of money in the Lords work, worship and the Lords Day, matters of worldliness, and ones attitude to the State. It is essential that we recognize that God accepts the man who has a weak conscience if he is fully persuaded in his own mind, and sincerely desires to honour God. He may be a more spiritual man than the person who is more enlightened. However, he must learn to make Scripture the absolute rule, and this takes time.
The person with an evil conscience is described in Hebrews 9:9 & 14; 10:2 & 22. He has a conscience that accuses and oppresses him with a sense of guilt when he should be persuaded, on the basis of Christ redemption, that he has been forgiven through the shedding of His precious blood. This is not the doubting conscience of the immature, weak Christian, but the accusing conscience of one who lack assurance.
There were Hebrew Christians who felt some need of the ritual of the Law in order to give them peace with God. They are told that they should not carry on performing ceremonies in order to relieve their consciences. These were dead works (Heb. 9:24) and accomplished nothing in and of themselves. They were in danger of bondage to the ritual, and were becoming legalistic.
The Galatian Christians were in a similar position, though perhaps one stage worse. They wanted to go back to forms and ceremonies instead of relying on Christ (Gal. 4:9 & 10). They had been troubled by those who had brought them into this state (Romans 5:12, 13), and it appealed to the flesh because it had an appearance of outward zeal. It was very dangerous, however, because it threatened to undermine the Gospel itself, since it added to the finished work of Christ on the cross.
Pauls attitude here is very different from that in Romans and 1 Corinthians. Such people were not to be tolerated but resisted in their views. Here is a person who refuses to grow up w ants to stay an adolescent, but since he cannot, he becomes stunted. The trouble here is that he wants everyone else to be like him. His conscience is not to be respected. His views are to be resistedhe must be warned. He becomes involved in all manner of matters that are useless ad unproductive and debates them at great length. There is no freedom. Like the Pharisee, he misuses the Word of God.
The Pharisee saw the Law as an end in and of itself and burdened men with their ritual. Characteristic of such people is their stress on activities and observances which have no value in and of themselves except to satisfy an accusing conscience and provide a fair show in the flesh. These are dead works. They do no one any good and frequently relate to purely external matters.
Such a person places great emphasis on things he cannot prove from Scripture. He asserts his interpretation, but cannot prove it. Scripture is not his guide ultimately; but he is not going through an awkward stage, he is not awkward about his viewshe asserts them and tyrannizes others. He wants to make his own conscience a guide for other people.
He will not have it that he is simply asserting his own opinion: others must yield to him. In the end, he denies the Scriptures in practice, just as the Pharisees did. We must all be careful of legalism and ask ourselves the question, Why do I believe what I do? Have we studied the matter from the Word of God? Are we being led by someone elses conscience? Do our principles free us or bind us?
We can be guilty of a harshness and a censoriousness which is not the result of a clear grasp of the Word of God in its application to the life, but evidence that our conscience is not in a healthy condition. An evil conscience must be resisted. It can ruin a church and undermine the Gospel itself. This was the danger in Galatia. It must always be watched.
In 1 Timothy 1:5, we read of those who fail to realise the purpose of the truth of God. It is intended to lead to love out of a pure heart and faith unfeigned. Such people were zealous over trivialities, but in so doing they missed the things that really mattered. They swerved, turning aside into vain janglings. The person who has an evil conscience invariably has an insensitive conscience at the same time. Like the scribes and Pharisees, they fasten on matters that are trivial, like tithing mint and cummin, but neglect mercy and judgment, the weightier matters of the law.
Here we have the same person viewed from a different angle. He is very zealous in certain directions, but there is little love and faith. His conscience does not trouble him in this direction! He has not considered the Scriptures that tell him that he should be zealous of good works. He can be selfish, proud, indifferent to the needs of others, justifying himself whenever condemned, and yet be untroubled by his conscienceit is insensitive.
He has persuaded it that it has no need to operate in the sphere of ethics. He has limited its activities to a small area of external observances and petty taboos. He imagines that he has a very sensitive conscience because many of his taboos are ignored by other Christians. However, he has given his conscience very little work to do. He forgets that God sees everything and that his very thoughts and intents are scrutinised by the Almighty. He is not used to applying the Word of God in this way.
They are taken up with the impression they make on others; and are anxious to justify themselves. The flesh is zealous, and as a result there is a strictness that is observed and commended, but at the same time a laxity in matters that are stressed in Scripture. Speaking generally, it is alarming how little stress there is in these days on the fruit of the Spirit. How little guidance there is to Christians on applying the principles laid down on Scripture to every aspect of life! One would think that all that is required of the Christian from the Word of God is a very limited area of external observances, beginning with the signing of a decision card, or the coming to the front at the end of an evangelistic meeting.
Finally, the one outstanding characteristic of a defective conscience is that it is superficial. The young Christian is bound to be like this, though he does not realise it. He is like some adolescents who find it hard to appreciate their lack of experience, and may be censorious; but we tolerate the young Christian, and help him through his awkwardness. However, some do not grow up, they do not progress, and they become a danger to themselves and to others. The history of the Church is a sad commentary on this subject. How honest we must be with ourselves! Is the Scripture really our guide? Are we being guided prejudice, whether it be our own or another mans? Does our conscience have work to do on weightier matters of the law? Our conscience is not infallible, but the Word of God is. Let us be careful to apply it every day to ourselves.
Just as we can handle our physical faculties so as to bring them into a good, healthy state, so we can by the grace of God influence our consciences for their good. The Apostle Paul makes frequent reference to the subject of conscience. In Acts 23:1 in his defence he says that he had lived in all good conscience before God until this day. This provoked a sharp reaction because it was a most remarkable and penetrating statement.
Even more striking is his statement in the following chapter, Acts 24:16, when again he tells his accusers, Herein do I exercise myself to have always a conscience void of offence toward God and toward men. His conscience was constantly exercised and in a healthy condition. Do we not know some whose judgment means very little to us because of the way in which their conscience operates, and others for whose judgment we have great respect, for we know how careful they are to please God? How then can we have a healthy conscience?
A good conscience is one that is obeyed and consequently does not condemn us. It is the opposite to an evil conscience, which accuses us. In Acts 26:9 Paul said to Agrippa, I verily thought with myself that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. He was sincere, his conscience did not condemn him, but he was nevertheless seriously mistaken. His conscience had been wrongly instructed, so that it told him to persecute Christians. It is easy to see why he believed this, when we remember his background and the influences brought to bear upon him. We must be honest with ourselves. Our consciences may not condemn us, when perhaps they should! We may have good consciences and feel as a result that we are on the right path and serving God acceptably in every respect. But we should stand back from ourselves, and consider carefully the influences brought to bear upon us, our background, state of body and mind, and spiritual upbringing. Furthermore we should also consider carefully the kind of spiritual instruction we receive.
We may smile as we look back at periods of church history when Christians held some very quaint views! We may also smile inwardly as we think of fellow believers who have sensitivities which we can see are due to obvious factors. It is not enough for us to have a good conscience. Christians differ enormously on a whole range of matters, very largely because of influences brought to bear upon them. We may notice the hold tradition has on others but have never realised how subject we are to this ourselves! We need a healthy conscience that has been enlightened by constant application of the Word of God.
Paul not only testified to having a good conscience but to exercising it always. Just as exercise is essential to a healthy body so it is to the conscience. For lack of exercise our consciences will most certainly be out of condition, and liable to pick up some virus. One of the symptoms of the spiritual malaise in these days among Evangelicals is the lack of stress upon practical godliness and ethics. We hear much about the gifts of the Spirit, but little about the fruit of the Spirit.
It can be safely said that the majority of Evangelical consciences are lazy. It requires effort to exercise the conscience, and this is unpleasant to the flesh. There are many who will cheerfully go ahead with activities on the basis that they see nothing wrong in them, and that their conscience does not condemn them, as though this were adequate reasoning. It would hardly suit the case of a driver of a car involved in an accident to say he did not see anything coming. The question could be asked, how carefully did you look? The person who sees nothing wrong in conduct which is condemned in Scripture is simply informing us that he is in a very bad spiritual condition, though he may choose to justify his conduct on the basis of his insensitivity.
We are surrounded to so called common-sense Christians who have reacted away from the idea of exercising the conscience. Such people may think of themselves as being very spiritual, indeed, very balanced, and very careful to avoid extremes. But they are simply applying human reasoning to situations which are cases for conscience. They have never tried to work out anything or battle through principles. they have simply followed other men who seem to be spiritually-minded, but have saved themselves the trouble of working out for themselves what God requires of them. They appear on the surface to be sound enough in their views but they lack convictions on almost everything.
They have arrived at similar conclusions as truly spiritual men, but by a different route. Because of this they are liable to jettison their standards when under pressure.
We must ask ourselves, therefore, why we believe what we do and act as we do. Have we worked things out for ourselves? Have we faced up to the issues? Or have we just accepted a ready-made Christian morality? The Church of Rome eliminates the tediousness of the exercise of conscience, and the Evangelical preacher can do the very same thing! He can assert on his own authority, that Christians should or should not do this ad that without demonstrating from the Scriptures what God requires, and opening up Biblical principles for the people of God to apply for themselves.
The common-sense Christian is not greatly concerned to please God but rather to avoid on the one hand an accusing conscience, and on the other a way of life that makes him appear peculiar and awkward.
Paul gave his conscience work to do. He constantly exercised it. He was not content with ignoring it until it shouted at him, but aware that it needed information, guidance and light. So he instructed it. We are exhorted to do this ourselves. In Hebrews 10:22 we are told to draw near with a true heart, in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience. Conscience, for example must be told plainly that the blood of Christ has satisfied the justice of God, and that we have every right to come in full assurance to God. In Johns first epistle we are given many outward proofs of the evidences of saving grace, and we are told to reason with ourselves on the basis of these (1 John 3:19), Hereby we know that we are of the truth and shall assure our hearts before Him (The word assure means persuade).
In this case we instruct our consciences on the basis of the objective tests of the epistle that we are Christians or otherwise. We should not regard assurance as something over which we have no control, and with regard to which we have no responsibility. We should use the Word of God either to strengthen our assurance or to remove it.
As regards our conduct, we must examine it carefully in order to have a joyful certainty that we are doing Gods will. This comes out in Romans 14:22, Happy is he that condemneth not himself in the thing which he alloweth. We should not allow doubts to linger and rob us of our joy. When we exercise our conscience and satisfy it we can have the happiness Paul speaks of.
In 11 Tim. 1:3 Paul speaks of a pure conscience. He had not only obeyed his conscience so that it did not condemn him, but had refined it and purified it. It was well instructed and exercised, and therefore in a healthy condition. In Romans 9:1 Paul refers to the Holy Spirit operating through his conscience, giving testimony to the truth of his statement. This added great weight to his remarks. The influence of a man who has a pure conscience is tremendous.
Just as a healthy man can do more than one who is unfit, so the usefulness of a Christian whose conscience is in good condition is all the greater. Furthermore, Paul insisted in 1 Tim. 3:9 that a deacon must not only believe the truth, but apply it to his own life, holding the mystery of faith in a pure conscience. The an who has an intellectual knowledge alone may hold the mystery of the faith, but does not do it in a pure conscience.
Paul urges Timothy (1 Tim. 1:19) to hold faith and a good conscience; both are essential. The child of God must have the doctrine, and he must apply it to himself. Our fathers in the faith in the 17th and 18th Centuries and later have been condemned for giving their consciences too much work to do in terms of self-examination. Whether this is true or not it can certainly be said that we have not given our consciences enough to do! We are used to having everything done for us in these days. The hard work has been taken out of life and, for many, out of the Christian life also.
It is essential that we realise the absolute dependence of our consciences on the Holy Scripture as our infallible guide. This brings home to us the need for the careful interpretation of the Word and the application to the hearers. One of the great weaknesses of our day is that preachers have failed to interpret the Word of God carefully. Instead of the apostolic method of reasoning from the Word in order to convince the hearers that the doctrine was Scriptural, preachers have bee content to assert the truths on their own authority. As a result the hearer accepts what he is told because of his confidence in the preacher rather than his belief in the Scriptures.
Conscience, therefore has not been taught by the Scriptures. This is so widespread that few are awake to its deadly influence. It is hard work for the preacher to prove to his hearers that what he is saying is Biblical, but he must do this if his hearers are to take seriously the fact that the Scriptures alone are their infallible guide.
There is also a widespread failure to apply doctrine and work our Scriptural principles for practical godliness. It is easy to take things for granted. We may think so highly of the preacher that we do not question whether what he is saying is Scriptural. The preacher takes it for granted that his hearers know precisely how the message is to be applied.
The Apostle Paul took nothing for granted. Writing to Timothy (1 Tim. 1:5), he points out that, the end of the commandment is love out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience and faith unfeigned. The Word of God is the instrument God has given us to lead us not only to a grasp of the truth, but to an obedience and fruitfulness that is evident. Our consciences should testify that we are obeying the truth because the fruit of the Spirit is present.
A healthy Christian is one who not only has a clear grasp of the truth, but whose conscience applies it constantly to himself. None of us likes to think that we frequently sin against God, though we all know that the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. When did your conscience last point out to you sin in particular? When did you last give it a chance?
When did you last apply the Scriptures that you read or heard to your own case, and challenge yourself in its application? Do you wait for your conscience to shout at you, or for others to condemn you? Or do you see it as a precious faculty that, rightly used, can deliver you from being ashamed at His coming?
Since conscience is a moral faculty, given by God, through which He speaks to us, our attitude towards it is of the utmost importance. We must handle it with the greatest possible respect because we are absolutely dependent upon it for knowing what God has to say to us personally with respect to our relationship with Him.
The Lord Jesus Christ warned His hearers Take heed, how ye hear. This text relates to the voice of conscience, for while it is not infallible (for it must be instructed and enlightened by the Word of God) the Holy Spirit speaks to us through this faculty.
Christ warned His hearers that if they did not respond to the Word they would lose the very light that they had (Luke 8:18). Similarly, if we do not respect the word He speaks to us through conscience, our minds will be darkened and we shall become confused and ignorant about Gods will for us. The matter is terribly solemn.
Once we have grasped the fact that without this faculty we cannot hear the voice of God we can understand the fearful condition of those who have gone on resisting the Holy Spirit. We read in Scripture of those who have reached a condition beyond which there is no hope. This relates to their attitude towards the Holy Spirit, as a number of Scriptures indicate. But it also relates to the conscience, through which the Spirit speaks. Hence we read of those who have their conscience seared with a hot iron (1 Tim. 4:2). They have rendered it incapable of feeling. They have destroyed the very faculty by which God speaks. They are utterly hardened, and have wrecked the means of communication whereby they might appreciate the news of salvation.
We recognise readily that there are men in such a dire condition, but because our hearts are deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked, we can mishandle this means of communication also, and fail to hear Gods Word clearly spoken. We must, therefore, pay very great attention to precisely what conscience says to us. It is the best friend that we can have. It tells us the most important things we should know.
When we read that the Word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart (Hebrews 4:12), this speaks of the Scriptures applied by the conscience to our own hearts. We must have the Word of God applied by conscience before we can hear truly what God has to say. Either one is not sufficient on its own. The puritans described conscience as a mirror to catch the light of Gods Word and apply it to our own case.
Conscience illuminates the pages of Scripture and applies them to the reader; conscience tells a man in the pew that God is speaking to him personally when he hears the message; conscience may be telling you as you read these very words that you must be careful to examine yourself as to whether you are being neglectful in this vital matter.
Furthermore, the strength and power of Gods voice depends on the condition of conscience. You may indeed hear God speaking to you, but only faintly, because you have neglected conscience. We may pay great attention to the health of our bodies or minds because we know the great difference it makes to our enjoyment of life, and our ability to carry on our work and pleasure. How much more important it is to recognise that if we are anxious to know precisely what God has to say to us, we must respect our consciences and handle them with the utmost care.
King Jehoiakim did not like the message delivered to him by Jeremiah, so he cut it put and threw it into the fire. It made no difference, of course, since God had indeed spoken, but the King was shutting his ears. However, what he did is typical of human nature. Conviction of sin is like a painit is un-human nature. Conviction of sin is like a painit is unpleasant, and we naturally protect any sore place so that the amount of hurt we feel is minimal. However, pain is a precious indicator that something is wrong.
Nevertheless the natural heart is unwilling to accept the verdict of conscience. Sometimes though, the persistency of the conviction may stir a man to do something. When conscience says all is not well, and pronounces a man guilty, he may determine to do something to pacify it, conscience speaks again and urges him into action, so he improves his life outwardly. Conscience still condemns him and h e may even make a profession of faith. But then, if there is no genuine response, but he has only been driven by a guilty conscience, he will soon lose that precious conviction. His actions have been intended, though he did not realise it, to silence conscience. They may have led to an amendment of life, but the real intention was to pacify conscience.
Eventually, conscience does not trouble him; he goes back to his old life, but he is worse because his conscience has been severely damaged. He is no longer troubled as he was formerly. Though he might sometimes be concerned, it is not as it once was, and does not lead to any serious response. John Bunyan describes conscience under the name of Mr. Recorder of the town of Mansoul, and how He was much degenerated but would now and then link upon shaddai (the Lord) and have dread of His law upon him. Conscience may still alarm the ungodly to his dying day, but because of his disinclination to hear what it has to say its strength to speak is seriously weakened.
Christians have the same deceitful and desperately wicked hearts, which try all the tricks imaginable to protect themselves from the arrows that convict. We can imagine that our greatest need is for instruction and comfort, rather than reproof and correction. We can believe our greatest problems are other people and our outward circumstances. We can find fault with others in the church and apply the very messages which are suited to our case to others.
When conscience speaks to us we may subtly reason with it and try to confuse simple issues, or else we may promise ourselves that at some time we will act. We become sluggish and weak spiritually. We only listen when conscience shouts at us, and have to hear the same thing said again and again. We may be like a child in bed, whose mother has great difficulty in arousing itshe has to keep shouting at it to get up. It is very reluctant, and will only do so when the persistent voice becomes so unbearable that it wants to silence it by getting up.
Our wicked hearts can violate our consciences by depriving ourselves of the books we need; we refuse the medicine that will do us good. We may leave a church because the ministry convicts us and disturbs us, though we argue with ourselves that it is the minister that we do not like. We change our friends because we find their conversation convicting and their lives condemning.
We are, in fact, violating our consciences because we are depriving them of the help they need to speak to us accurately, but we achieve our end. The conscience doesnt trouble us as it used to. The preaching is more to our taste; the books make us feel more spiritual; the friends make us feel we are making good progress in the Christian life. But because we are the Lords people something happenswe are chastened, and then with horror we realise how far we have slipped.
God speaks to us loudly and clearly by giving our conscience some tremendous factor to humble us, whether it is personal sin or some shattering event. We had been violating conscience for a long time but we did not realise it.
The opposite danger is to damage conscience by assuming that it is speaking loudly and clearly on a very inadequate basis. We may want to do something very badly and so we announce to people that God has told us that we are to do certain things and that it is His will that we should behave in such a way. We may argue on the basis of certain verses that occur in our Scripture reading. We are persuading conscience to give us the support for certain things we really want to do.
We dont want to debate with conscience, we simply want conscience to give us the O.K., but sooner or later it is evident that we have been mistaken. However, we fail to retrace our steps and consider where we went wrong, but do precisely the same thing again. Thus we violate the conscience and wander in a confused path. Pride will not allow us to admit that we have made a mistake; it is too humiliating. We would rather damage the conscience than to admit we have taken a wrong turning and go back to the crossroads.
Conscience is such a precious faculty, and it needs to be handled so carefully that Paul speaks very strongly about the danger of damaging another persons conscience. In Romans 14 he insists that those whose consciences are strong must submit to those who are weak in faith and abstain from things that would offend the weak conscience, because to offend conscience is to sin, for whatsoever is not of faith is sin. How careful we must be not to offend our own consciences because if we act without their consent, we sin. Conscience must never be violated.
It is not enough simply to obey conscience in order to give ourselves peace of mind. Paul said to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 11:31), If we would judge ourselves we should not be judged. It is through conscience that we can judge ourselves. If we positively use this faculty to this end we shall save ourselves the judgments that will surely come to us if we are slack. David, in Psalm 139, considered the wonderful knowledge that God possessed because He was everywhere. At the end of the Psalm he applied the message to himself and asked God to search his heart and know his thoughts. He knew that his gaze upon his own heart was not enough, but that God could see things hidden from his eyes.
He was so anxious to please God that he wanted the Omniscient One to show him things he could not see. This attitude could not be more positive. We are not to conclude, as some would, that he did not search himself and left it to God, but rather that he was not satisfied with his own ability to search out iniquity, but wanted God, who could see everything, to perform this great task.
We may find many examples in the world of methods whereby people who are determined to achieve an objective, discipline themselves, but we may also read in the biographies of great saints of former ages about their determined efforts to keep short accounts with God, and keep their consciences in a healthy state. The use of resolutions, covenants and diaries were found to be of great assistance to the greatest saints. In our busy lives these appear to have no usewe are more spiritual than they, apparently! However, we know that the Word of God is the chief means of exercising our conscience. We must, therefore, be positive in our reading of Scripture.
We must ask God to apply the message to ourselves. We must listen to the preacher with a readiness to hear something that applies to ourselves. This is not to condone the morbid attitude of one who is always ready to inflict punishment upon himself. If we are careful in our handling of conscience we will know when we are simply allowing needless fears to alarm us, or where the Word of God clearly applies to our case. Conscience will not simply frighten us, but will instruct us and point our sin on the basis of specific texts of Scripture and deductions from Scripture.
Some have made the mistake of thinking the Christian can attain to some form of perfectionism, but others have reacted from this to the opposite extreme and represent a healthy Christian life as a condition in which one is constantly overwhelmed with a sense of innumerable sins! It is clear from Scripture that the Christian can and should be happy and joyful in the knowledge that he is living a life pleasing to God; is abiding in Christ, walking with his Lord and led of the Spirit. This is not perfection, but rather following the appointed path, being taught, and growing in grace. God, through conscience, applies lessons one by one. He tells a man as much as he can bear and no more. He takes us on the pathway step by step.
While we will never be perfect in this life, we may live a life of obedience and grow in godliness. This close walk with Christ gives more happiness than anything this earth can afford, but at the same time gives life and meaning to everyday events. Just as a healthy man can take pleasure in physical activity; can bear strain, fight off germs, so a man with a healthy conscience can enjoy the good things that God gives him. He can endure hardness and bear trials joyfully. An unhealthy conscience spoils everything; it makes a Christian gloomy. But a good conscience that is well-instructed enables a man to rejoice at all times. It enables a man to sleep in peace. The who has respected his conscience all through his life will find it the best friend in death.
As we conclude this booklet the final word must be simply this: consider the Scriptures that have been used and see for yourself whether or not they have been handled in a Biblical way. Do not accept the writers word; Scripture alone is our guide. Then apply these words to the understanding of your own conscience. Give conscience work to do in telling you about itself and your attitude towards it.
Give conscience the material to work on that you might know its nature and function, then listen very carefully to whether it condemns you in your attitude towards it, and respond to whatever recommendation it may make, that you may be more careful in future to give it the respect it deserves. We shall one day stand before the Lord Jesus Christ, whose eyes are as a flame of fire. He is the Judge of all, and we shall see ourselves ten in the clear light of His holiness and justice, and He has given us a judge which will prepare us for that day. Let us praise Him for this precious gift, and use it fully for His glory.