What is the Conscience?

When we think about our conscience, the first thought that comes to mind is that “inner voice” which tell us what is right or wrong. The world knows of this concept and if you refer to any dictionary, you will find a definition similar to it: “a person’s moral sense of right and wrong, viewed as acting as a guide to one’s behaviour.” Although this definition is partly correct, it does not do justice to what this word really means. To truly understand this word, we must turn to the only dictionary that we trust – the Bible.

Before we look at some passages, it is helpful to know that the English word “conscience” comes from the Latin word “conscientia”, which means “to know with”. With whom do we have this knowledge? The answer to this question can only be God. The fact that we have a conscience means that we know something with God. So for this article, we will refer to this knowledge with God as man’s conscience.

Why was man created with a conscience? There are many reasons, but the most important reason is for the glory of God. First, we must understand that God is truth, and His definition of what is right or wrong is the standard for everyone. When He made man with a conscience, He gave us a testimony of what is right and wrong. Our depraved nature rebels against His definition of what is right or wrong. We do not want to acknowledge God’s sovereignty and we want to decide for ourselves what is right or wrong. But God will have His glory, He alone will be worshipped and praised, He did not create man for the purpose that they glory in themselves. So no matter how much man tries to hide or run away from the truth, it is ultimately futile – our conscience tell us so.

A Reprobate’s Conscience

One question we might have is whether reprobates are able to tell what is right or wrong in the sight of God? The Bible’s answer is that God did give them a conscience as evidenced in:

Rom. 2:14-15 – “For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;)”

In the above passage, the Gentiles never had the law; they never had the chance to read the scriptures. But God wrote His law in their hearts, giving them a conscience that tells them what is right and what is wrong.

God also revealed His law to them through the creation:

Rom. 1:20 – “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:”

Thus we see that no matter whether one is elect or reprobate, God gave us all a conscience. The difference is that the conscience God gives to the reprobate is never for their own good, it is not a common grace which God gives them. It is given to them so that they are left without excuse in the Day of Judgement.

Conscience Weakened

As we look around us, we might also wonder why some people are able to sin without remorse. They lie with impunity and cheat without a second thought. Scripture has this to say:

1 Tim. 4:1-2 – “Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron”.

The conscience of the reprobate is described as having been seared with a hot iron. It is possible for a man to still the voice of his conscience so that he is no longer able to hear his conscience speaking to him. Ultimately, we should still note that it is impossible to remove a man’s conscience completely. But by constantly committing the same sin over and over again, he no longer hears God’s condemning voice as he commits that particular sin. It reaches a point where he is so hardened in sin that it no longer bothers him and he no longer senses the sin that he is embroiled in.

Before we breathe a sigh of relief exclaiming that such condemnation only happens to the reprobate, we must humbly realise that this can very much happen to the elect as well. Those who persist in such sins thread on dangerous ground and there is no forgiveness for those who remain unrepentant.

Heb. 10:26-27 – “For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries.”

The problem is that in our pride, we refuse to confess our sins, and stubbornly desire the pleasures of this world. Thus we justify our sins in order to ease our conscience. But the danger is that the more we commit the sin, the less our conscience pricks us. Every time we commit the sin, it sears our conscience so that it no longer functions as it ought. Sin hinders our walk with God and there is no way to escape from the searing of our conscience then by confessing our sins before God and man. This is God’s work through the Spirit of Christ in the heart of the sinner and the result is a good conscience before God.

1 Tim. 1:19 – “Holding faith, and a good conscience; which some having put away concerning faith have made shipwreck”.

Conscience Strengthened

How then can we prevent our conscience from being dulled? First, as noted earlier, we need to confess all our sins and guilt at the cross and by faith appropriate the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Additionally, we must pay faithful attention to the preaching of the Word of God, keeping our conscience sharp and alive. The Word of God is our only guide and that same Word serves to convict us of our sins through our conscience.

Conscience’s Disapproval

The conscience of a child of God plays an important role. It serves to convict us of our sin, and the Holy Spirit works in our hearts and in our conscience to convince us of the severity of our sin. An example in the Bible would be that of David when he committed the sin of numbering the people.

2 Sam. 24:10 – “And David’s heart smote him after that he had numbered the people. And David said unto the LORD, I have sinned greatly in that I have done: and now, I beseech thee, O LORD, take away the iniquity of thy servant; for I have done very foolishly.”

And also in Psalms when David committed the sin of adultery with Bathsheba, his conscience gave him no rest.

Ps. 32:3-4 – “When I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long. For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: my moisture is turned into the drought of summer. Selah.”

Only by confessing our sins can we find peace as David wrote in the following verse:

Ps. 32:5 – “I acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the LORD; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin. Selah.”

Consciences Approval

On the other hand, when our conscience is right before God, we must be properly guided by it and not act in contrary to it. Martin Luther, when faced with severe persecution to recant his teachings, gave this beautiful testimony: “Since your majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, God help me. Amen.”

Whether in prosperity, poverty, sickness or health, a good conscience before God is the only assurance we need to have peace and joy in this life. A good conscience allows us to come boldly before God’s throne of grace, declaring before God that we are righteous. We see that when Hezekiah made this prayer to God, beseeching God not to end his life:

2 Kg. 20:3 – “I beseech thee, O LORD, remember now how I have walked before thee in truth and with a perfect heart, and have done that which is good in thy sight. And Hezekiah wept sore.”

It was an amazing prayer and testimony that Hezekiah gave, to be able to say that his walk of life before God was one of truth and in a perfect heart. We might even hesitate to give that same confession today. Hezekiah knew he was a sinner and that he was not perfect, and it is impossible for anyone except Jesus Christ to be perfect. But the other amazing thing was that God accepted Hezekiah’s prayer:

2 Kg. 20:5 – “Turn again, and tell Hezekiah the captain of my people, Thus saith the LORD, the God of David thy father, I have heard thy prayer, I have seen thy tears: behold, I will heal thee: on the third day thou shalt go up unto the house of the LORD.”

We must arrive at that point in our lives when we can make the same prayer that Hezekiah made. If we cannot then something is very wrong in our life. Will our conscience allow us to? Only through the cross of Jesus Christ.

Written by: Cornelius Boon | Issue 40