Ask Pastor Dave: What is the Conscience?

q-aThe conscience is that Jiminy-Cricket-esq voice inside our heads speaking to us about what is right and what is wrong. It’s an innate sense of morality hard-wired into humanity. The Bible does not give us a full picture of the conscience. In fact the Old Testament never uses the word once. The New Testament uses it roughly 30 times but in none of those cases do we get a full theology of the conscience. So while we may speak with some certainty of this thing called the conscience, we are going to have to do our best to develop that concept from the limited details of the text of Scripture. We may say, at the outset, that the conscience is the innate moral compass given by God to direct us towards Him, but which has been hampered by the Fall.

Romans 2:14-15 is a good starting place to consider the role of the conscience. Here Paul is making his case for the sinfulness of all men, both those under the law (Jews) and those apart from the law (Gentiles). He points out that even apart from having the law the Gentiles know what is right. He says:

14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them

Paul says that the law is written on their hearts, not in the same sense that Ezekiel or Jeremiah might have used that concept, but rather he is referring to the imprint of the Divine Creator on His creation. His conscience too, Paul says, bears witness. All men know, at some level, right from wrong. This conscience either accuses them of sin or assures them of innocence, he adds. C.S. Lewis spoke of this same innate sense of morality in his famous work Mere Christianity. His words there may help us to understand this idea of the conscience.

Lewis speaks of what he calls the “law of human nature,” by which he meant a common boundary of morality, or right and wrong. A man may choose not to obey this law, but it exists and applies to him just the same as any other man. He makes his case in a couple of ways. First, by pointing to the existence of “quarreling.” He writes:

Quarrelling means trying to show that the other man is wrong. And there would be no sense in trying to do that unless you and he had some sort of agreement as to what Right and Wrong are (4).

He also points out that men throughout history have believed that the whole human race understood this law, they knew it. “They did not mean, of course, that you might not find an odd individual here and there who did not know it, just as you find a few people who are colour-blind or have no ear for a tune. But taking the race as a whole, they thought that the human idea of decent behavior was obvious to every one. (5)” He also points to the sense of personal justice that all men have. He writes:

Whenever you find a man who says he does not believe in a real Right and Wrong, you will find that same man going back on this a moment later. He may break his promise to you, but if you try breaking one to him he will be complaining ‘It’s not fair’ before you can say Jack Robinson. (6)

In short, Lewis’ says, “human beings, all over the earth have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it” (8). There is, built into all of us, a sense of morality and we might speak then of that sense as our conscience.

The conscience, then, may accuse us of sin. Convict us of wrong doing and drive us to confession and repentance. It may also, assuage our worries and convince us that we have in fact done nothing wrong, that we should be confident. It may, when a situation presents itself to us, urge us to go in the direction of righteousness and make the right decision. It may steer us away from immorality and injustice. The problem, however, is that the conscience which was designed to draw men in obedience to God, has been damaged by the Fall. Sin has impacted the totality of our being and therefore the conscience is not always reliable.

The Bible speaks plainly about two ways in which our conscience may fail us. One, it may convince us that something is wrong when in fact it is not. So, Paul writes to both the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 8:7) and to the Romans (Romans 14:1-9), that while eating food sacrificed to idols is not a sin some have a “weak conscience” and believe it to be immoral. They do not really sin in eating such meat, for idols are “nothing,” but they perceive it to be a sin and so they must abstain until each is “convinced in his own mind.” Second, the Bible speaks about the conscience being “seared” (1 Tim. 4:2). There are those who no longer feel the conviction for their sin. They have lost touch with that sense of morality, they have “hardened their hearts” against the truth. Paul talks about this in Romans 1 as “suppressing” the obvious truth and indulging in sinful lifestyles. The conscience, then, can misdirect us or become completely broken, and this explains why Peter says we need to “appeal to God for a good conscience” (1 Peter 3:21).

The conscience is a God-given and useful tool for directing us in righteousness. Yet, we should not rely on our conscience alone. My conscience, and yours, is not the authority in our lives and it cannot always be trusted. God’s Word is the ultimate authority, and His Spirit working through that very Word can revitalize and strengthen our conscience, but we submit to the Word first and work to conform our conscience to its truth.

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