THE FUNCTION OF CONSCIENCE
I have lived in all good conscience.—Acts 23:1
Ignorance of the function of conscience and of the Divine provision for its healthy exercise can lead to serious spiritual disorders. Many sensitive Christians have limped through life because of a morbid and weak conscience whose condemning voice allowed them no respite. Their very sincerity and desire to do the will of God only accentuated the problem and caused them to live in a state of perpetual self-accusation. Deliverance from this unhappy state is possible through the apprehension and appropriation of the teaching of Scripture on the subject. Truth is always potent to set us free.
Is conscience a separate faculty of man’s moral nature? Is it a fallible human mechanism or an infallible Divine endowment? From a consideration of the relevant Scriptures it would appear to be a special activity of the intellect and feelings which enables man to judge between good and evil, to perceive moral distinctions. It has been denned as the testimony and judgment of the soul which gives approbation or disapprobation to the acts of the will. Not possessing this capacity, animals are incapable of sin. Without it, man too could not be held responsible for sin which he was incapable of discerning. It is the activity of conscience which renders man’s sin culpable. The word signifies a knowledge held in conjunction with another—in this instance with God—and carries the idea of man being a co-witness with God for or against himself according to his own estimate of his actions. Kant the philosopher refers to it as “the categorical imperative.” Conscience is the nerve center of the soul, sensitive to moral pleasure and pain, whose function it is to adjudicate as to the moral quality of an action, and how we should act in view of it.
Conscience is not something which we gradually acquire but is part of our essential nature. It is neither supernatural nor Divine, but a purely human equipment, often described as the voice of God in the soul. But if this were true, it could never lead to sinful action. Indeed, conscience may actually be the voice of the Devil. It is not the voice of God but rather the power to hear the voice of God in the soul. Conscience originates nothing. It is like a thermometer, which though detecting and indicating the temperature, never modifies or creates its own temperature. It is the highest and most mysterious faculty in the moral nature of man and speaks with most convincing authority when habitually obeyed. “When we obey it, we live in the beatitudes. When we disobey it, like John the Baptist it cries, ‘It is not lawful!’ “
Paul assures us that the heathen possess conscience. They have a law within themselves which urges them to take a certain course of action or to desist from it (Rom. 2:15). An Indian in Northwest Canada picturesquely described the activity of his conscience. “It is a little three-cornered thing inside of me. When I do wrong it turns round and hurts me very much. But if I keep on doing wrong it will turn so much that the corners become worn off and it does not hurt any more.”
With characteristic spiritual insight, John Bunyan in his Holy War represents the human family under the figure of a city, Mansoul. One of its citizens he calls Mr. Conscience. When Diabolus captured the city, he sought to destroy all trace of its former ownership by Emmanuel. Since he could not kill Mr. Conscience he sought to imprison him in a deep dungeon where his voice would be effectively silenced. But when Emmanuel undertook the recapture of Mansoul, as soon as veteran Captain Conviction led the assault upon Ear Gate, old Mr. Conscience was so aroused that he began to shout in his dungeon until the whole city was stirred at his voice, loudly recalling their allegiance to Emmanuel and condemning the rebellion against his authority.
It must be noted that conscience is not an executive faculty. It has no power to make a man do right or cease doing wrong. It delivers its judgment, produces the appropriate emotion, but leaves it to the will of man to act in the light of its verdict. It has no further power or responsibility.
limitations of conscience
“I live by my conscience” is a statement sometimes made with complacency, as though that automatically rendered the resulting action right. But is conscience an infallible guide? By no means. “For I know nothing against myself,” wrote Paul, “yet I am not hereby justified” (I Cor. 4:4, A.S.V.). Wordsworth erred in describing it as “God’s most intimate presence in the soul and His most perfect image in the world.” Paul’s assertion that he had to exercise his conscience to keep it functioning correctly bears this out (Acts 24:16). It cannot therefore be infallible, but is a fluctuating factor which reacts faithfully to the standard of moral conduct to which it witnesses. That standard may be imperfect or flagrantly wrong, but such as it is, conscience will adjudicate according to it. In former times the conscience of a Hindu would protest loudly against the killing of a cow but would remain quiescent while he sacrificed his child. A Hindu once said to a British administrator: “Our conscience tells us it is right to burn our widows on the pyre of their husbands.”
“Yes,” replied the officer, “and our conscience tells us it is right to hang you if you do.” It is all a matter of the moral standard to which conscience bears witness. If the standard accepted is a wrong one, conscience will allow without protest even such abuses as the horrors of the Inquisition in the name of Christ.
The fact is that every conscience needs instruction. Its delicate mechanism has been thrown off balance by the Fall. Just as a bullet will reach the bullseye only if the two sights are in correct alignment, so correct moral judgments are delivered only when conscience is correctly aligned with the Scriptures. And herein lies a powerful argument for the reverent and diligent study of the whole Word of God. As a watch must be set and regulated by standard time, so conscience must be set and regulated by God’s infallible standard as revealed in His Word. And of course the only norm of character is our Lord Jesus Christ. If we walk with Him our standards will be ever rising.
While conscience obediently responds to the standard of right which it knows, it is limited by custom, habit, and prejudice. These can speak so loudly that they seem to be the very voice of conscience. Custom so blunted the conscience of the southerners to the evils of slavery that only after a long and bitter education were the captives liberated. So blinded by prejudice and bigotry was Paul that he thought he was obeying the voice of God in persecuting the church. How bitterly he repented when he saw the true nature of the actions to which his conscience had assented! Often when we think we are standing for principle we are only falling for prejudice.
So then conscience when regulated by the Word of God is the monitor in the soul of man which insists on right doing, condemns wrongdoing, produces remorse when flouted, and imparts peace when heeded.
A condemning conscience
Conscience either condemns or commends any purposed action, and Scripture lists four progressive states in each category. First let us consider the possible states of the condemning conscience which make cowards of us all.
A weak conscience is one which is not healthy but morbid, overscrupulous and oversensitive (I Cor. 8:7-12). It reacts faithfully according to its light, but like a compass with a weak magnetic current it is easily influenced and tends to vacillate. Its possessor is constantly tormented by doubt as to whether an action is right or wrong and constantly digs up in unbelief what has been sown in faith. It is very possible to become a martyr to conscience, as John Wesley discovered when he one day vowed that he would not speak to a soul unless the Spirit definitely prompted him. On arriving at Kings-wood at the end of the day he found he had not spoken to a soul. He then made the resolution that when there were souls needing speaking to, it would be well for him to do the speaking and trust the Holy Spirit to use the opportunity as he had followed it up.
A conscience may be weak for two reasons—an imperfect knowledge of God’s Word and will, with a consequent imperfect faith, or an unsurrendered will which gives a vacillating choice. When there is obedience to the known will of God or a willingness to do that will, there is no need to be harassed by an overscrupulous conscience, and we should refuse to constantly review an action committed in good faith. Too many are given to the unsatisfying occupation of photographing themselves and developing the plates. The corrective is to clearly face the issues involved in a situation in the light of Scripture and, seeking the guidance of the Spirit, come to a decision according to one’s best judgment. Thereafter resolutely refuse to reopen the matter.
A weak conscience may easily degenerate into one which is defiled. Its very purity makes it the more susceptible to defilement. “Some, being used now to the idol, eat as of a thing sacrificed to an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled” (I Cor. 8:7, A.S.V.). If we persist in some action against which conscience has witnessed, we thereby defile it I and thus prevent its faithful functioning. When a watch stops, it is not the fault of the watch but of the dust which has clogged its delicate mechanism. So with conscience, especially in the realm of purity. “To the pure all things are pure: but to them that are defiled and unbelieving nothing is pure; but both their mind and their conscience are defiled” (Titus 1:15, A.S.V.). Failure to heed the voice of conscience is fraught with serious consequences: “Holding . . . a good conscience; which some having thrust from them made shipwreck concerning the faith,” warned Paul (I Tim. 1:19, A.S.V.).
Through constant defilement which is not cleansed away, a conscience may become habitually evil (Heb. 10:22). If its possessor will practice evil, then it will permit him to do it with less and less remonstrance. It begins to react to his lowering standards until it comes to regard evil as good and good as evil. A burglar who has been guilty of every crime on the calendar had never been troubled by his conscience over any of his crimes, but he was filled with remorse because he had spent $10.00 entrusted to him by another burglar!
Habitual defiance of the verdict of conscience cauterizes it until it is reduced to insensibility and no longer protests. When it reaches this condition, Paul describes it as seared, cauterized, utterly insensitive, petrified. “Speaking lies . . . their conscience seared” (I Tim. 4:2). This is a terrible condition—no appeal will succeed, for it has practically been done to death.
Vice is a monster of such frightful mien That to be hated, needs but to be seen;
But seen too oft, familiar with her face, We first endure, then pity, then embrace. —alexander pope
Note the downward progress. A pure conscience becomes weak and denied, but it will not remain long at this stage unless its purity is restored by renunciation of the evil and cleansing. It deteriorates further and becomes evil, permitting its possessor increasingly to practice wrong without remonstrance. The claim, “My conscience did not trouble me,” is more likely to betoken an evil than a pure conscience. Then comes the final tragic state—seared.
A commending conscience
This is a prize to be coveted above all else. “Beloved, if our heart [conscience] condemn us not, then have we confidence toward God” (I John 3:21). It is just as faithful in commending the right as in condemning the wrong. A pure conscience (I Tim. 3:9; II Tim. 1:3) is one which doing its duty faithfully is very sensitive to the approach of evil. A proprietor of livery stables once purchased a load of straw from a menagerie. His horses became restless and uneasy. Although they had never seen a lion, they sensed that their natural enemy had been in contact with the straw. Conscience is kept pure and sensitive as we faithfully obey the light shed on our conduct by the Word of God. It reacts to that standard and will accept nothing short of it.
A good conscience is the happy possession of a person who in all things accepts the dictates of his pure conscience (I Tim. 1:5, 19). Its reproof is welcomed and acted upon by eliminating what is wrong or adding what is deficient. A pure and good conscience is one which is “void of offense toward God, and toward men” (Acts 24:16), a state which brings serenity and heart rest. No accusing voice shatters peace with God or mars relations with men. To forfeit this is to pay too high a price for whatever may appear to be gained. But the attaining of a conscience void of offense was Eor Paul a matter of constant exercise. He had a gymnasium for his soul. The height of attainment is gained when conscience is perfected (Heb. 9:9) through the cleansing of the blood of Christ.
A cleansed conscience
But what is the panacea for a denied and condemning conscience? Scripture indicates that twofold cleansing is necessary and possible.
“Cleanse ourselves [yourselves] from all filthiness of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” is the Divine injunction (II Cor. 7:1). Charles Darwin wrote of animals which never see because they have lost the capacity for seeing through living in a cave. He found some which had lived not too far within the cave, and while their sight was partially gone, it gradually returned as they were slowly accustomed to the light. Even though conscience may have lost much of its sensitiveness to sin, it is not too late for it to be restored. The first step is one which we ourselves must take by cleansing—separating—ourselves from all we know to be sinful and contrary to the will of God. If we are unwilling to do this, we automatically disqualify ourselves from experiencing the cleansing of the blood of Christ. But if we resolutely set ourselves to deal with all known sin, we may count on the aid of the Holy Spirit to confirm us in our purpose and enable its achievement.
But our cleansing of ourselves is only a necessary preparation for conscience being cleansed by the blood of Christ. Conscience has no cure for its own ills. Hebrews 9:13, 14 (A.S.V.) gives the infallible prescription for its complete cleansing and renewal. “If the blood of goats and bulls, and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling them that have been defiled, sanctify unto the cleanness of the flesh: how much more shall the blood of Christ . . . cleanse your conscience from dead works?” The characteristic of the sacrifice of the red heifer alluded to in this passage was that it was always available and easily accessible. So with the cleansing of the blood of Christ. But as with the conscience-stricken Israelite, so with us: the available sacrifice must be personally appropriated.
Precious, precious blood of Jesus
Ever flowing free; I believe it, I receive it,
‘TIS FOR ME.
The forgiveness of the worst sin causes it to pass immediately and completely from the conscience. Never again need it haunt us. Conscience like a released spring returns to its normal action of warning against the fresh approach of sin and adjudicating on the character of moral action. With the removal of the dead weight of past sin, the soul soars like a released lark with a song into its native element. The Holy Spirit, who applies the powerful solvent of the blood of Christ to the defiled conscience in response to our faith, delights to make it possible for us henceforth to live with a conscience “void of offense toward God, and toward men.”
From Chapter 6 of J. Oswald Samders book Spiritual Clinic