Chapter 1: The God-Given Judge
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.