By R.L. Wyser
TEXT: ROMANS 2:15
- CONSCIENCE DEFINED
Someone has said that one definition of a friend is one who never gets in your way until you are on your way down. In other words a friend is one who approves when we do right and accuses when we do wrong, God has placed a friend in our hearts.
Something within the heart of every person approves when we do right and accuses when we do wrong, and that something is conscience.
The word “conscience” is found 32 times in the New Testament (King James Version) and was used 21 times by the Apostle Paul. If we are going to be successful in our Christian lives, we must understand what conscience is and how it functions.
I want to discuss two topics related to conscience. First, the definition: What is conscience? Second, the description: How is conscience pictured in the Word of God? If we understand what conscience is and how it functions, it can change our lives.
You cannot escape conscience. You have to live with your conscience. You can argue with your conscience. You can defile your conscience. You can harden your conscience. But you will never get rid of your conscience. It may malfunction because you force it to malfunction, but it will always he there. Sad is the life where conscience does not work the way God wants it to work!
All knowledge begins with definition.
What is conscience? The word “conscience” in our English language comes from two Latin words. Com means “with” or “together,” and scio means “I know.” From the Latin, our English word “conscience” means “to know with” or “to know together.” To know with what? To know with ourselves and to know within ourselves. Conscience is that inner knowledge that helps me to know myself.
The Greek word used in the New Testament, suneidesis, means exactly the same thing. It comes from two Greek words, sun and oida, that mean “to know with.”
In New Testament days the word “conscience” was not a strange word. It was used by the Greek people in their everyday conversation. It meant “the pain that you feel when you do wrong.” That’s a good definition, isn’t it?
An American Indian who was a Christian said, “In my heart there is an arrowhead with three points to it. If I do wrong, the arrowhead turns, and it cuts me. If I do wrong too much, I wear out the points and it doesn’t hurt me quite so much.” But when the pain is gone, watch out!
In his column on Better Living, Malcoln Nygren said, “To feel no pain would be very dangerous. You could cut off a finger or char your flesh without noticing it. It is just as dangerous to feel no pain in your conscience. That kind of pain is a warning, too. A tender conscience is as vital as a fire alarm, and you need it a lot more often.”
How imperiled is the individual who has sinned so long against his conscience that it no longer disturbs him. And how wise are those who so live as “to have always a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward men” (Acts 24:16).
An Oriental story of a ring that a great magician presented to his prince set forth beautifully the manner in which conscience works. The gift was of inestimable value, not only for the diamonds and rubies and pearls that gemmed it, but for a rare and mystic property in the metal. It sat easily enough on the finger in ordinary circumstances; but as soon as its wearer formed a bad thought, designed or committed a bad action, the ring became a monitor. Suddenly contracting, it pressed painfully on his finger, warning him of sin.
Such a ring, thank God, is not the peculiar property of kings. The poorest of us, those that wear none other, may possess and wear this inestimable jewel; for the ring of the fable is just that conscience which is the voice of God within us, that is, His law, engravers by the finger of God, not on Sinai’s graven table, but on the fleshly tablets o f the heart, which enthroned as a sovereign in our bosom, commends us when we do right, and condemns us when we do wrong. Therefore, exhorted the psalmist, “harden not your heart, as in the provocation, and as in the day of temptation in the wilderness,” but rather allow Christ to enter today.
The conscience is like a sharp square peg in our hearts. If we arc confronted by a questionable situation, that square begins to turn, and its corners cut into our hearts, warning us with an inward sensation. against doing whatever confronts us. If the conscience is ignored time after time, the corners of the square are gradually worn down, and it virtually becomes a circle. When that circle turns within our hearts, there is no inner sensation of warning, and we are left without a conscience.
Conscience is that inner faculty that indicates to us whether our actions are right or wrong, according to the standards within our hearts. Oswald Chambers gave a good definition of conscience: “The conscience is that innate faculty in a man’s spirit that attaches itself to the highest that the man knows.” Conscience is not the law; conscience bears witness to the law. Conscience is not the standard; conscience bears witness to the standard. In different parts of the world there are different standards.
Let me illustrate this. When the British took over India as part of their empire, they found some practices that simply had to be abolished. One of these practices was to burn the widow of a deceased man on the funeral pyre. The British issued a law abolishing this practice.
One of the religious leaders among the Indian people came to a British leader and said, “Our conscience tells us that the widow must be burned.” And he responded, “And our conscience tells us that if you do it, we’ll hang you!” That gives the difference, doesn’t it?
Conscience can guide us aright if we have the right standard. Everyone has experienced this. If you cheat on an examination, tell a lie or do something you simply should not do, your conscience bothers you. Something down inside keeps reminding you that you should not have done that. That’s conscience. Of course, some people have so abused their conscience that it doesn’t bother them anymore; for these people we can only feel pity.
When Adam and Eve sinned against God, they hid. Do you know why? Their consciences were bothering them. They were afraid.
When David cut off part of Saul’s skirt while Saul was asleep, David’s heart smote him (see I Sam. 24:1-6). That’s conscience. He knew that he should not have done this to the king of Israel. Even though Saul was not a godly man, he was the king. David could not respect the man, but he had to respect the office. His conscience bothered him when he treated the king that way.
Proverbs 28:1 says, “The wicked flee when no man pursueth.” That’s conscience. We read that Herod, when he heard about the miracles Jesus was doing, thought that John the Baptist had come back to life again. His conscience was bothering him. “John, whom I have beheaded; he is raised from the dead” (Mark 6:16). That’s conscience.
Two Descriptions of Conscience
Let’s look at two beautiful descriptions of conscience in the Bible. The Apostle Paul gave us one of them in Romans 2:14,15, and the Lord Jesus have us another in Matthew 6:22,23. Paul compared conscience to an inner witness, an inner judge.
“For when the Gentiles, who have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves; who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the meanwhile accusing or else excusing one another” (Rom. 2:14,15).
The Gentiles were never given the Law. The Law was given to the Jews. But the Gentiles have the work of the Law written in their hearts. Notice that Paul did not say they have the Law written in their hearts. That doesn’t happen until you’re saved. When you’re saved, then the Holy Spirit begins to write God’s law in your heart and you know right from wrong. But even unsaved people can know right from wrong because their conscience bears witness.
In the inner man is a courtroom. A judge sits at the bench, and that judge is also the witness and the jury! That whole “group” in the courtroom is known as conscience. The judge does not make the law, he applies the law. When you and I do something right, then our conscience says, “That’s good! That’s good!” It does not accuse, it approves. When we do something wrong, that inner judge, that inner witness, says to us, “You are wrong! You are wrong!” And it hurts.
Conscience, you see, is judicial. Conscience does not pass the law. Conscience does not make the law. Conscience bears witness to the law.
Richard Sibbes pictured the conscience as a court in the council of the human heart. In Sibbes’s imagery, the conscience itself assumes every role in the courtroom drama. It is a register to record what we have done in exact detail (Jer. 17:1). It is the accuser that lodges a complaint against us when we are guilty, and a defender to side with us in our innocence (Rom. 2:15). It acts as a witness, giving testimony for or against us (2 Cor. 1:12). It is the judge, condemning or vindicating us (1 John 3:2021). And it is the executioner, smiting us with grief when our guilt is discovered (1 Sam. 24:5). Sibbes compared the chastisement of a violated conscience to “a flash of hell.”‘
The conscience is privy to all our secret thoughts and motives. It is therefore a more accurate and more formidable witness in the soul’s courtroom than any external observer. Those who gloss over an accusing conscience in favor of a human counselor’s reassurances are playing a deadly game. Ill thoughts and motives may escape the eye of a human counselor, but they will not escape the eye of conscience. Nor will they escape the eye of an all-knowing God. When such people are summoned to final judgment, their own conscience will be full informed of every violation and will step forward as an eternal tormenting witness against them.
That, Sibbes wrote, ought to discourage us from secret sins: We should not sin in
- THE OFFICE OF CONSCIENCE.
- Condemns evil and vindicates the right.
“Herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offense towards
God and towards man,” said Paul.
“I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day.”
- Moral victors are the world’s greatest heroes.
- The greatest battles are unseen, the mightiest conquests are not bloody. They are fought in the souls of men.
Dr. James Burrell told this story to illustrate conscience: An Indian had bought a package of supplies at a trading post and on opening it found a silver coin inside. Something troubled him. He came back to the trading post and handed the coin to the trader. The trader laughed at his scruples, but he Indian insisted, saying: I got a good man and a bad man in my heart. The good man say, “it is not yours; the bad man say, nobody will know; the good man say take it back; the bad man say, never mind;” so I think I go asleep, but the good man and the bad man talk all night and trouble me. The distressed Indian had developed a conscience. Someone had taught him the ideal of honesty, and his conscience sensitized his ideal so that he was compelled to return the coin in order to have peace of mind. This is what conscience accomplishes; it brings peace of mind.
- An accusing conscience is an inward trumpeter. It is a sign of life. A tender conscience can be pricked. Oh how we need to keep a tender conscience.
Samuel Johnson noted that shame arises from the fear of men but conscience from the fear of God. So live where you can hear its voice. The closer you live to God the more sensitive will be your conscience, the more feeling of it you will experience.
Here is a Chinese proverb on maintaining a sensitive conscience: “He who sacrifices his conscience to ambition, burns a picture to obtain the ashes.”
Ogden Nash said, “There is only one way to achieve happiness on the terrestrial ball. And that is to have either a clear conscience or none at all.”
Only a consecrated conscience is a guide. Of course the matter of prime importance is to do what is right. But how is one to determine what is right? Conscience is not a sufficient guide. Conscience is to a man what a compass is to a mariner; it gives him a sense of moral direction. Yet men cannot navigate the waters of life steering by conscience alone any more than any mariner can navigate the Atlantic equipped only with a compass. Seamen must have a chart on which are marked some soundings, some routes of travel, some harbors to be made. We need a chart in life also. We need to do what is right according to God and the Bible. Conscience can only say something is wrong. God and His word will tell you what it is and how to remedy it.
The conscience is the sentinel which guards the soul; the granite column which supports the fabric of self and society; the chamber of justice; God’s voice in the soul; God’ monitor which approves right and condemns wrong.
Scientists have long known that the body’s immune system relies on the intimately choreographed work of B and T cells. B cells from the bone marrow and T cells produced in the thymus gland work together to destroy viral and bacterial enemies within our bodies. The T cells, like cops of patrol, monitor the blood and trigger an alarm when they spot something suspicious. The B cell burst into action, dividing into a host of cells that attack the invader. Science cannot explain what sensitivity enables the T cells to recognize danger or how proliferation of receptors in the B cells allows them to respond to the multitude of germs that assault the body.
God gave our bodies the capability to protect us from the common cold, a tiny scratch, or a deadly disease. He has structured that some protection inside our minds, building an inner sentinel to warn us when we are heeding false, immoral, and dangerous ideas. To sin, to use self unwisely and destructively, we have to ignore the sentinel’s warning. It can save us if we listen to it and obey. But the sentinel—call it conscience—cannot overcome our will. All it can do is warn us away from the path we have taken, the idea we are embracing, or the behavior we are practicing. Unlike the immune system, which works even without our awareness of its complexity, the inner sentinel will work only in subjection to our will.
A person; conscience, like a warning line on the highway, tells him what he shouldn’t do—but it does not keep him from doing it.
The conscience can be likened to a sundial that is made for the sun, even as the conscience, rightly directed, reflects God’s will. Suppose a sundial is consulted by moonlight—the dial may read ten o’clock, but it may be only two. By a candle or some other light, the dial may be made to tell any hour, at the whim of the one who holds the light.
Conscience can be a safe guide only if it is turned toward God for His illumination. Once a man turns away his conscience from God and lets some other light shine upon it, his conscience is no longer reliable.
- You yourself can sear it “as with a hot iron.” You can get past feeling.
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.
Your conscience can become seared. These words from Paul to Timothy: “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” (I Timothy 4:1-2).
- If you will not heed its voice, you will become hardened. I saw a man with the biggest alarm clock I had ever seen. He said that he had been through several. You can become hardened to conscience like a person can become used to an alarm clock.
- Satan chloroforms and puts it to sleep.
- Stifling conviction, staying away from church, will put conscience to sleep.
- It may be awakened from slumber by the word.
III. THE WITNESS OF CONSCIENCE.
- Paul’s testimony to this point—”The joy and rejoicing of my heart is testimony of my conscience.”
- What kind of witness is conscience?
- An inward witness. ‘If our heart condemn us, God is greater…”
- A knowing witness. It keeps a minute record of every thought, word and act of your life, and the motive back of all this.
- A true witness. It will tell the truth whether we like it or not.
In focus on the Family, Rolf Zettersten writes: A good friend in North Carolina bought a new car with a voice warning system…At first Edwin was amused by the soft female voice gently reminding him that his seat belt wasn’t fastened…Edwin affectionately called this voice the “little woman.”
He soon discovered his little woman was programmed to warn him about gasoline. “Your fuel level is low,” she said one time in her sweet voice. Edwin nodded his head and thanked her. He figured he still had enough to go another fifty miles, so he kept driving. But a few minutes later, her voice interrupted again with the same warning. And so it went over and over. Although he knew it was the same recording, Edwin thought her voice sounded harsher each time.
Finally, he stopped the car and crawled under the dash board. After a quick search, he found the appropriate wires and gave them a good yank. So much for the little woman.
He was still smiling to himself a few miles later when his car began to sputter and cough. He ran out of gas. Somewhere inside the dashboard Edwin was sure he could hear the little woman laughing.
People like Edwin learn before long that the little voice inside, although ignored or even disconnected, often tells them exactly what they need to know.
- A faithful witness.
It will not be bribed. It is no respecter of persons. Is as true to the king as the beggar. It thunders in the soul of the rich as well as the poor.
- A loud witness.
The deaf can hear its voice. Its voice is terrible. It made Felix tremble. It made Joseph’s brothers quake. When Cain fled from Abel’s grave, conscience cried louder than his brother’s blood from the ground. Cain said—”My punishment is greater than I can bear.” It made Judas Iscariot throw down the thirty pieces of silver, then hang himself. It has made many a person confess.
- In conscience the worst savage carries God with him. There are many that try to drown the voice of conscience in drink, drugs, business, and even suicide, but there is no refuting its testimony, or setting aside its verdict.
- Conscience is an eternal witness.
Other witnesses may die, conscience never will. “Their worm dieth not…” Its voice after death rings down through the corridors of hell—”Son Remember…” You may stab, wound, smother, try to close your ears to, and endeavor to run away from its awful voice, but it will ever follow you, haunt you, and like a pack of blood hounds bark and howl after you with these terrible words—I will meet you at the judgment.
The only remedy is the blood of Jesus. It will purge your conscience.
There is the other description I mentioned.
This leads us to what our Lord Jesus said in Matthew 6:22-23: “The lamp of the body is the eye; if, there fore, thine eye be healthy, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If, therefore, the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!”
Paul compared conscience to a witness; Jesus compares conscience to a window. The window does not manufacture the light—the window lets the light in. You and I have this inner window through which God wants to shine His light. If that window gets dirty, less light can come in. Imagine the judge sitting in the courtroom at his desk. On the desk is the Law of God. Through the window comes the light, and that light shines upon the Law. Now as that window gets dirtier, less light shines upon that Law, and that Law is less visible. If the window gets completely covered with dirt, it’s impossible to see the Law. This is how conscience functions. That is why we say conscience witnesses to the highest standard we have. The highest standard, of course, is the Word of God.
Jesus said conscience is like your eye. The eye does not manufacture light—the eye lets light in. When the light comes into our lives, it gives us guidance. But suppose that every time we do something wrong, the window gets dirtier until finally we have sinned so much that the window is completely covered with dirt. The light cannot come through, and so we are left in the darkness.
It is a terrible thing when light turns into darkness. Our Lord did not day that the light disappears but that the light turns into darkness! What should lead us in the right path leads us in the wrong path. The Bible calls this an evil conscience.
Some people, if they do good, are bothered by it; but if they do evil, they are happy. That is an evil conscience. There are those who call evil good and good evil. That is an evil conscience. Your conscience is like a window, and the window lets in the light. Don’t let the light become darkness!
Your conscience is a marvelous servant. It was designed to work for you and with you. It was designed to be help in godly living. Treat it right. Take it to church. Read the Bible to it and it will serve you well.
The above article, “The Witness of Conscience” was written by R L. Wyser. The article was excerpted from Bible Preaching Resource.
The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”