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Conscience: Condemning or Commending?

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Conscience has been called “the voice of God in the soul.” This is not quite accurate. It is rather the audience chamber where the voice of God is heard. But the voice of the devil can be heard there, too.

The Scriptures give us clear enough teaching on the nature and function of conscience so that there is no need to be in the dark. Many a Christian has gone through life handicapped by a morbid or weak conscience whose accusing voice has given little respite.

Wordsworth’s poetic definition of conscience—“God’s most intimate presence in the soul”—is beautiful. But it overlooks indications that conscience is an activity of the intellect and emotions that enables us to perceive moral distinctions. It is our most regal faculty, the most mysterious power of our complex moral beings. Conscience is not something we acquire but is part of our nature. As such, it is humanly fallible. As the nerve of the soul, it is acutely sensitive to moral pleasure or pain. . . .

We cannot live by our conscience, for it requires instruction. Just as a bullet will reach the bull’s eye only if the two sights are in correct alignment, so conscience gives a correct verdict only when it is correctly aligned to the standard of the Word of God. As a watch must be regulated and set by the standard time, so conscience must be regulated and set according to God’s infallible Word. Here surely is a strong argument for regular and comprehensive Bible study.

While conscience responds obediently to the standard of right which it knows, it can be limited by habit, which may come to sound like the voice of conscience in the soul. Custom once blinded people to the evils of slavery. The voice of conscience can also be imitated by blind prejudice. Paul thought he was doing God service in persecuting the church, and his conscience commended him for his zeal. When we think we are standing for principle, we are very often only falling for prejudice.

Conscience acts in one of two ways—condemning or commending. Scripture lists four states of condemning conscience. (1) Defiled (1 Cor. 8:7; Titus 1:15). If we persist in some action against which conscience has delivered its verdict, it becomes defiled and cannot function properly. The defiled conscience very easily degenerates into (2) an evil conscience (Heb. 10:22). If its possessor will practice evil, then his conscience will permit him to do so with less and less remonstrance. It begins to react to the false standards of its owner, regarding good as evil and evil as good. . . .

The descent from an evil to (3) a seared conscience (1 Tim. 4:2) is quick and easy. Habitual resistance to conviction of guilt cauterizes the conscience until it is reduced to insensibility and no longer protests. This is indeed a terrible state. Conscience has been done to death.

Note the downward progress—defiled, evil, seared. Unless its purity is restored by the renunciation of evil, conscience will permit its possessor to practice evil without protest. The common affirmation, “My conscience did not trouble me,” is much more likely to be evidence of an evil than of a good conscience.

Then there is (4) a weak conscience (1 Cor. 8:7–12). This can be a truly Christian conscience, but it is morbid and unhealthy. It is true according to its light but, like a compass with a weak magnetic current, it tends to vacillate. Its possessor is constantly tormented by the conflict as to whether an action is right or wrong or whether God requires this or that to be confessed. It is impossible to experience true rest of heart in this condition.

There are two reasons for this weakness—an imperfect knowledge of God’s Word with a consequent imperfect faith or an unsurrendered will, which vacillates between right and wrong. Where there is obedience to the known will of God, there is no need to be harassed by an over-scrupulous conscience. We should determine to have an attitude of acceptance for whatever is the will of God in the matter under review and refuse whatever is of the devil. Our taking this position makes it possible for the Holy Spirit to clarify the issue. Let us refuse to allow the devil to constantly turn our thoughts in upon ourselves. Many of God’s children spend too much time photographing themselves and developing the images.

How good it is to have a commending conscience! “Dear friends, if our hearts [conscience] do not condemn us, we have confidence before God” (1 John 3:21). Conscience is just as faithful in commending the good as in condemning the evil. A commending conscience may be (1) pure (1 Tim. 3:9; 2 Tim. 1:3), doing its duty faithfully. It is kept pure as we obey the light we receive from Scripture. The pure conscience bows to that standard without reservation and will accept nothing less. It is very sensitive to the approach of evil.

A commending conscience may be (2) good (1 Tim. 1:5, 19). This is the possession of the person who accepts the dictates of the pure conscience. Its reproof is acted upon by excising the wrong or adding what is deficient.

These two combine to produce (3) a conscience clear toward God and man (Acts 24:16). It brings serenity and rest. No accusing voice shatters peace with God. Forfeit this, and too high a price has been paid.

How can a defiled conscience be purged? Conscience has no cure for its own ills. It can condemn, but it has no power to remove that condemnation. There is, however, a divine panacea. . . .

We must purify ourselves (2 Cor. 7:1). There is a cleansing that God does not do for us. As the Spirit reveals the sins that have defiled the conscience, it is for us, by a definite act of the will, to separate ourselves “from everything that contaminates the body and spirit.” The Holy Spirit will give us strength to do this.

Conscience is cleansed by blood (Heb. 9:13–14). “The blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, . . . cleanse our consciences . . .” It is for us to avail ourselves of the all-powerful cleansing blood. Forgiveness of sin causes it to pass immediately from the conscience, never again needing to haunt us. Conscience then returns to its normal function of adjudication according to the standards of the Word and of warning against the fresh approach of sin.

The Holy Spirit, who applied the blood of Christ in response to our faith, delights to enable us to live with a conscience “clear before God and man.”

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