Chapter 2: The Health of Conscience
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.