‘Oh, yes,’ said the little Indian boy, ‘I know what my conscience is. It is a little three-cornered thing in here’ – he laid his hand on his heart – ‘that stands still when I am good; but when I am bad it turns around, and the corner hurt very much. But if I keep on doing wrong, by and by the corners wear off and it doesn’t hurt any more.’
1. WHAT IS CONSCIENCE?
The nearest to a definition is Rom 2:14-15 This teaches that even when people do not know God’s law, they still have a very good idea about how they ought to behave, and this standard of behaviour is reinforced by the voice of conscience in their hearts. ‘Conscience is that candle of the Lord which was not quite put out’ (M. Henry). Conscience, then, is that faculty with which we judge our own thoughts, words and actions, either condemning them, or approving them. ‘Cowardice asks, “Is it safe?” Expediency asks, “Is it politic?” Vanity asks, “Is it popular?” Conscience asks, “Is it right?”‘ (William Morley Punshon)
Think of conscience as a set of traffic lights, telling you when to stop, and when to go ahead with a certain course of action.
Or think of conscience as a kind of resident policeman, its job being to keep law and order it our lives. As such, it is our friend. But if we do wrong, it gets on its bike and pursues us, whispering and sometimes bellowing accusations in our ear. ‘Conscience is God’s sergeant. He employs it to arrest the sinner’ (Gurnall).
(a) There is such a thing as an ACCUSING CONSCIENCE. Whenever we transgress the law of God, it is the function of conscience to rise up and give us no rest until the offence has been admitted and steps have been taken to rectify the matter. See this at work in the life of David: he, in his lust for another man’s wife, committed adultery and then murder. At first, his conscience seems not have been troubled. But the Lord sent Nathan, the prophet to him. And David’s conscience was awakened, and he saw his sin, and repented (2Sam 12). How we need some Nathan’s today! When faced with a person with a guilty conscience, modern counsellors seem to have as their main aim to send the awakened conscience back to sleep again, to remove all sense of guilt from the troubled individual. But it is no act of kindness to put a sticking plaster on a festering sore. ‘No torment in the world is comparable to an accusing conscience’ (Gurnall). ‘An evil conscience is like a raging sea, which can only be calmed by the sign of the cross of Christ. It is a gnawing worm in the bones, for the removal of which nothing less is required than the blood of the Son of God’ (Krummacher). ‘A guilty conscience is a hell on earth, and points to one beyond.’
So important is this convicting work of the conscience, that it is backed up by the work of the Holy Spirit himself, Jn 16:8.
(b) There is such a thing as a PURIFIED CONSCIENCE. If we are by nature sinners, then our conscience ought to give us not peace until our sin has been thoroughly dealt with. God’s verdict is that we can by no means quieten an accusing conscience by anything we do, try as we may. But he has provided for our forgiveness and cleansing by the merits of the One whose life was perfectly true and good, Heb 9:14. ‘Nothing can give perfect peace of conscience with God but what can make atonement for sin. And whoever attempt it in any other way but by virtue of that atonement will never attain it, in this world or hereafter.’ (Owen) ‘Cleanse your conscience and your faith will be out of danger’ (William Jenkyn).
(c) There is such a thing as a CLEAR CONSCIENCE. It must be the sincere aim of every Christian believer to please God in all things, both great and small. And, if we do wrong, we are to confess it and seek to make some amends. This is the way to get and to keep a clear conscience, Acts 24:16; 1 Pet 3:16; cf 2 Tim 1:3. If you have a clear conscience you can have peace in the midst of war and sleep in the midst of thunder. No pillow so soft as a good conscience. A clear conscience is also a powerful thing: William Penn said, ‘My prison shall be may grave before I will budge a jot, for I owe my conscience to no mortal man. Right is right, even if everyone is against it; and wrong is wrong, even if everyone is for it.’ ‘A good conscience is the best treasure even held, the best pleasure ever tasted, and the best honour ever conferred’ (W.S. Plumer)
2. WHAT ARE ITS LIMITATIONS?
Conscience is not an infallible guide. It is a common mistake to suppose that if only we act according to the leading of conscience all will be well. People talk about ‘acting according to the dictates of their conscience’; but conscience was never meant to be a dictator. Like the rest of our faculties, it suffers from the effects of the Fall. ‘Many of us follow our conscience as we follow a wheelbarrow. We push it in front of us in the direction we want it to go.’
(a) There is such a thing as a WEAK CONSCIENCE. We read of those who had scruples about keeping special holy days, about eating meat which had been consecrated to idols, and some, about eating meat at all, 1 Cor 8; Rom 14. A person like this has a tender or delicate conscience: he worries about things which are not in themselves important. Such a person is to be treated gently: the Apostle teaches that we who are perhaps stronger should take care not to offend the person who has a tender conscience.
(b) There is such a thing as an ERRING CONSCIENCE, Prov 14:12. This proverb has in mind, not man at his worst, but man at his best. A man may do what he thinks is right; he may act according to his conscience, but the outcome is disaster. Listen to the words of an emancipated career-woman: “The night before the abortion I apologised to whatever it was I was carrying and said I had no choice. I suppose I had, but I believed I was doing the right thing.”
The fact is that conscience can only work with reference to a standard, and that standard can be set by the world, or by the word of God. It is only when conscience is regulated by Scripture that it becomes the reliable and powerful tool God meant it to be. Luther: ‘My conscience is captive to the word of God.’
(c) There is such a thing as a SEARED CONSCIENCE, 1 Tim 4:2 (LB: ‘…teachers who tell lies with straight faces and do it so often that their conscience won’t even bother them.’) ‘A seared conscience is one whose warning voice has been suppressed and perverted habitually, so that eventually instead of serving as a guide, it only confirms the person in his premeditatedly evil course.’ (Robert Little). A seared conscience is like Jonah, who was sound asleep below decks while the storm raged. It is possible to sin for so long and so often that the conscience becomes hardened, and ceases to accuse and rebuke.