Conscience Under Attack
Conscience is not what it was. What our forebears found abhorrent is now accepted as legitimate behaviour, and not only do men practise the most flagrant sins, but they also “have fellow delight in those who do [them]” (Rom. 1: 32, my emphasis). The Church, sadly, has followed in the footsteps of the world. Thus what Scripture presents as an utter disgrace is now excused with a shrug of the shoulders, since ‘everyone is doing it’. Even Gospel preaching has changed. Years ago the purpose was to bring about self–loathing in the hearers as before a holy and sin–hating God; now the intention is to make the audience feel more comfortable about themselves. Standards have changed, and it is no surprise that conscience has adapted itself to the new standards.
The Witness Within
Conscience, as defined by Scripture, is a witness: “I say [the] truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience bearing witness with me … for our boasting is this, the testimony of our conscience …” (Rom. 9: 1; 2 Cor. 1: 12). This witness comes not from outside ourselves, but from within—for while we are “washed as to our body with pure water”, we are “sprinkled as to our hearts from a wicked conscience” (Heb. 10: 22, my emphasis). Conscience is certainly not the same as guilt, but it does bear witness to guilt. In so doing, it may work in one of two directions. On the one hand, conscience is an accuser: “who shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts accusing”. On the other hand, it may act as an evader of responsibility such that the guilty begin “excusing themselves between themselves” (Rom. 2: 15, my emphasis). Conscience may also bear witness to good, as in 2 Cor. 4: 2: “But we have rejected the hidden things of shame, not walking in deceit, nor falsifying the word of God, but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every conscience of men before God” (my emphasis). The meaning of conscience is very succinctly summed up by the Greek word the Spirit of God uses for it in the NT. Sunideesis comes from the preposition sun, meaning with, and the verb oida, meaning to know, describing an intuitive knowledge not immediately derived from what is external. When all this is put together, we have a conscious knowledge of oneself.
The first indication of conscience is in Genesis 3 after Adam and Eve sinned: “And they heard the voice of Jehovah Elohim, walking in the garden in the cool of the day. And Man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of Jehovah Elohim, in the midst of the trees of the garden. And Jehovah Elohim called to Man, and said to him, Where are thou? And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I feared, because I am naked; and I hid myself” (vs 8–10). Now nobody told Adam that he was naked—he came to the realisation himself. It was his own conscience that revealed to Adam his fallen state before a holy God. Of course man was naked before he transgressed but he was not ashamed (see Gen. 2: 25), for exposure in the presence of God is not a problem for the innocent. Man was now an offender. Before his fall man had only known good (see Gen. 1: 31 etc.), but now he had become acquainted with evil—an evil, moreover, in himself. On account of that evil he no longer enjoyed the presence of God but feared it.
Now it is important to be clear as to what we mean by The Fall (not a term, incidentally, that Scripture uses). Adam as innocent was not morally insensible like an animal, for God created man “upright” (Eccl. 7: 29). However, man lost his uprightness when he sinned, for now “there is none upright among men” (Mic. 7: 2). Nor did he blunder into sin, for “Adam was not deceived” (1 Tim. 2: 14)—he knew what he was doing, even if he did not appreciate the gravity of the effects of his disobedience. Again, the serpent’s promise regarding the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was made not just to Eve, but also to Adam for he said “in the day ye” (plural) “eat of it, your eyes will be opened, and ye will be as God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3: 5). Now only in that respect did man and his wife become as God (see Gen. 3: 22)—although, it should be noted, Scripture never says that man now knew good and evil in the same way that God does. What we read of God is that “the eyes of Jehovah are in every place, beholding the evil and the good” (Prov. 15: 3), but man need not look outside of himself for he is now forever troubled by conscience of sins (Heb. 10: 2). He might attempt to quieten conscience, and to argue with it, but he cannot escape it. Divine wisdom has ensured that every man and woman has a conscience, for, if nothing else, it serves as a brake on evil and a supporter of good.
No More Conscience of Sins
Judaism had very great advantages over the Gentile world. To the Jews “were entrusted the oracles of God”, and “the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the law–giving, and the service, and the promises” were gifted to them (Rom. 3: 2; 9: 4). Yet despite all this, the system was “unable to perfect as to conscience him that worshipped” (Heb. 9: 9, my emphasis). Blood of bulls and goats, although covering sins was incapable of taking away sins. Therefore the Israelite, knowing his sins were still there, was never entirely free of the guilt upon his conscience. Only with the death of Christ could his conscience be purged from dead (that is, useless) works, “to worship [the] living God” (Heb. 9: 14). Thus the writer of the Hebrew epistle urges those Jews who had confessed Jesus as the Christ to “approach with a true heart, in full assurance of faith, sprinkled” as to their “hearts from a wicked conscience” (Heb. 10: 22). As true believers they could be free of a wicked (or bad) conscience, because they no longer had “any conscience of sins” (v2). Sadly the mass of the nation missed this blessing and persisted in their observation of ineffective dead works. God, however, does not forget his promises (see Ps. 105: 8–10) and a day is coming when “all Israel shall be saved”, for He “shall have taken away their sins” (Rom. 11: 26, 27, my emphasis).
The Believer’s Conscience
Now the one freed from the guilt of sin, “should no longer serve sin” (Rom. 6: 6). Indeed, baptism itself, is “[the] demand as before God of a good conscience” (1 Pet. 3: 21). The believer is to reckon himself “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6: 11). Thus Paul was greatly exercised “to have in everything a conscience without offence towards God and men” (Acts 24: 16, my emphasis). Again, Peter speaks of “having a good conscience, that [as to that] in which they speak against you as evildoers, they may be ashamed who calumniate your good conversation in Christ” (1 Pet. 3: 16, my emphasis). Conversation here means way of life, and the lesson is simple: there is to be nothing in the believer’s life that those who oppose the faith can point to as suspect or doubtful. The conscience is to be clear, and he is to have a good testimony from those without (see 1 Tim. 3: 7).
A critical section of the parting charge that Paul gave to Timothy involved having a good conscience: “the end of what is enjoined is love out of a pure heart and a good conscience and unfeigned faith” (1 Tim. 1: 5, my emphasis; see also v19). Conscience, being a voice within, is necessarily a very individual thing, and it must be maintained in a healthy state at all costs. It is a very great evil when individuals who are uncertain or doubtful are told to ignore their consciences and to blindly follow their leaders. The false notion of an ‘assembly conscience’ (as taught by some) is really a fig–leaf to cover and enforce despotism. The seriousness of the matter is demonstrated by the fact that where conscience has been “put away”, the end–result is “shipwreck as to faith” (1 Tim. 1: 19). The person is not lost as regards heaven, but he is lost to all useful service and testimony on earth. Such examples, sadly, are not rare.
While it is essential to maintain a good conscience, it is also important to understand that the guidance of the conscience is not perfect. Hence while conscience may excuse sin (see Rom. 2: 15), God views the sinner as without excuse (see Rom. 1: 20). Again, conscience can be both overly tender (see 1 Cor. 8: 7), and absolutely heartless (see 1 Tim. 4: 2), and extremes of sensitivity are often exhibited in the same person at different times. Thus when David cut off Saul’s skirt we read that afterwards his “heart smote him” (1 Sam. 24: 5), and yet he lived seemingly untroubled for many months after committing adultery and murder (see 2 Sam. 11, 12).
Conscience is imperfect because it is only as good as the standard to which it operates. Paul could say that he served God from his forefathers “with pure conscience” (2 Tim. 1: 3; see also Acts 23: 1)—that is without defiling his conscience by doing what he knew to be wrong. He was true up to the light he had, even though his light was so inadequate that he was found zealously opposing Christ. Even when a Christian, he could say “I am conscious of nothing in myself; but I am not justified by this” (1 Cor. 4: 4, my emphasis). Again, the Jew had the advantage of a revelation in the Mosaic Law of what was right and wrong, but the Gentile only had “the work of the law written in their hearts” (Rom. 2: 15). Thus Peter, as a Jew, was troubled by the abolition of the dietary laws (see Acts 10: 14), while “the nations who know not God” were unperturbed by fornication and “passionate desire” (1 Thess. 4: 5; see 1 Cor. 5: 1). In Christianity, we not only have conscience and revelation, but we have the Holy Spirit. Thus while we should always have “a good conscience, in all things desirous to walk rightly” (Heb. 13: 18), that, on its own, is insufficient. Conscience may be untroubled but wrong. Thus, when writing to the Romans, Paul is careful to say that not only was his conscience supportive of what he testified, but that it was also a conscience informed by the Holy Spirit: “I say [the] truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience bearing witness with me in [the] Holy Spirit …” (Rom. 9: 1, my emphasis). It follows that a conscience informed by the Holy Spirit will always be in accord with the Scriptures that He has indited. Again, the ministers are to hold “the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience” (1 Tim. 3: 9). The reason for much of the low practice in the Church can be found in the fact that the consciences of Christians are no longer as informed by the divine revelation in the Scriptures as they once were. Sadly, believers today are often more influenced by the moral relativism so prevalent around them than the Bible. Indeed, consciences in the western world in general are now mostly governed by what ‘feels right’ rather than Judaeo–Christian moral standards, with the result that men today feel guilty about very different things to what their parents and grand–parents did (see Is. 5: 20). This sits very awkwardly with a God who declares “I Jehovah change not” (Mal. 3: 6), and to whom we shall all give account (see Rom. 14: 12).
A Weak Conscience
Now if conscience is only as good as it is enlightened by the Word of God, then this has serious ramifications for practical Christian fellowship. Him “that is weak in the faith” (Rom. 14: 1) we are to receive—not into fellowship—the passage is not dealing with new converts—but in the sense of being whole–hearted towards “thy brother” rather than “making little” of him (v10). He may indeed be overly sensitive about many things that he ought not to be, such as eating or not eating certain foods even though “meat does not commend us to God” (1 Cor. 8: 8). In such a case, the conscience is inadequately informed by the Word of God for “knowledge [is] not in all: but some, with conscience of the idol, until now eat as of a thing sacrificed to idols; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled” (v7). The way of Christ is “Let not him that eats make little of him that eats not; and let not him that eats not judge him that eats” (Rom. 14: 3). All things may be lawful, but not all edify. Therefore, “Let no one seek his own [advantage], but that of the other” (1 Cor. 10: 24; see v 23). The onus is particularly on those who have knowledge (see 1 Cor. 8: 10) to not despise those who lack freedom in their conscience for in “wounding their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ” (v12, my emphasis). Those with an enlightened conscience can boast about what they know, and smile at how ignorant others are, but this is doing things to the glory of self and not God (see 1 Cor. 10: 31). We are to give no occasion of stumbling to anyone, “whether to Jews, or Greeks, or the assembly of God” (v32, my emphasis).
A Dead Conscience
Very different from the conscience that is weak (that is, unhealthily active) is a conscience that is partly or fully dead. Thus: “But the Spirit speaks expressly, that in latter times some shall apostatise from the faith, giving their mind to deceiving spirits and teachings of demons speaking lies in hypocrisy, cauterised as to their own conscience, forbidding to marry, [bidding] to abstain from meats, which God has created for receiving with thanksgiving for them who are faithful and know the truth” (1 Tim. 4: 1–3, my emphasis). The word used here for cauterised is kauteriazo and its meaning is very solemn. It denotes what has been burned with a branding iron—that which will never recover its original function. The consciences of such may well be untroubled by the ruinous effects of their teachings, but this is because their consciences are no longer working.
This state of having a cauterised conscience is made all the more solemn when we consider that Scripture expressly connects it with those who were once enlightened as to the truth. A somewhat similar situation is described elsewhere: “They profess to know God, but in works deny [him], being abominable, and disobedient, and found worthless as to every good work” (Titus 1: 16, my emphasis). The writer precedes this by saying “All things [are] pure to the pure; but to the defiled and unbelieving nothing [is] pure; but both their mind and conscience are defiled” (v15). These are not pagan unbelievers, but individuals who profess faith in Christ. Despite claiming to walk in the light, these have lost their moral compass, and see evil in things that are morally neutral. We are not told the exact nature of the issue among the Cretans that Titus was addressing, though the reference to “those of [the] circumcision” (v10) suggests it may have been legal in nature. The Jewish dietary laws, for example, are not applicable to the Christian (see 1 Tim. 4: 4–5), but they would appeal to those whose minds were defiled and seemed to see evil everywhere. Such gave themselves an air of super–spirituality when in fact they were in bondage, their consciences in constant exercise to no profit. It does not take great imagination to realise that this is not entirely a first–century problem!
At the opposite extreme, the phrase “all things [are] pure to the pure” has itself has been perverted into a licence for excusing the most blatant immorality. The statement should be seen in the context of “disorderly vain speakers” (Tit. 1: 10) who were insisting on “commandments of men” (v14) that purported to distinguish between what was pure and not pure. “All things” does not include that which is intrinsically sinful. As the Lord said to His disciples, “all things are clean to you” (Luke 11: 41).
Much more of course could be said. That the conscience is an imperfect guide is abundantly evident, but the counterweight truth is that conscience must never be ignored. The Devil is tireless in working in that direction, not only in the world (as all readily admit), but also among Christians. None of us are exempt from his attention, and if we neglect conscience, neglect of the Word of God is sure to follow, and we are then on the highway to making shipwreck of our faith. Let us, therefore, seek to maintain a good conscience, informed by the Spirit of God through the Scriptures.