What is Conscience


CONSCIENCE is that faculty of the soul which pronounces on the character of our actions (Romans 2:15). This faculty is a constituent part of our nature, and is common to man everywhere and at all times. All men have a conscience; whether enlightened or unenlightened, active or torpid, there it is. It cannot be destroyed. Therefore Christianity cannot propose to dispense with it, as God in no case proposes to destroy, but to sanctify, human nature.

There has been much philosophizing as to the exact position of conscience in the soul--whether it be a separate faculty, as the will and understanding, or whether it be a universal spiritual sense pervading and taking cognizance of all the faculties, as feeling in the body. It matters little which of these theories we accept, seeing that the vocation of conscience remains the same in both.

The office which conscience sustains to the soul is to determine or pronounce upon the moral quality of our actions, to say whether this or that is good or bad. Conscience is an independent witness standing between God and man; it is in man, but for God, and it cannot be bribed or silenced. Someone has called it 'God's Spirit in man's soul.' Another, 'God's vicegerent in the soul of man,' and certainly it is the most wonderful part of man. All other of our faculties can be subdued by our will; but this cannot. It stands erect, taking sides against ourselves whenever we transgress its fiat; something in us bearing witness against us when we offend its integrity.

Now it is a question of vital importance to our spiritual life, whether the gospel is intended to deliver us from this reigning power of conscience and make us independent of its verdict, or whether it is intended to purify and enlighten conscience and to endow us with power to live in obedience to its voice.

Examine a few passages on this point. See first what is done with conscience in regeneration. Hebrews 9:14: 'How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?' See also Hebrews 10:22. Secondly, let us see the office which conscience sustains in regenerate men. 1 Timothy 1:19: 'Holding faith, and a good conscience; which some having put away concerning faith have made shipwreck.' Romans 9:1: 'I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost.' See 1 Timothy 3:9 and Acts 23:1. We have also set forth the consequences of allowing conscience to become defiled. 1 Timothy 4:2: 'Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron.' See also Titus 1:15.

The apostles clearly show that true Christianity no more dispenses with conscience than it does with the great moral law by which conscience is set, and to which it is amenable. Hence Paul tells us that he exercised himself always to have a conscience void of offence.

Having a conscience void of offence implies a 'purged' conscience, made clean. Conscience must be made clean, before it can be kept clean. The residuum of all sin settles on the conscience, and as all have sinned there can be no consciences clean by nature. The only way by which consciences can be purified is by purging from guilt and making them ready for new service. 'Purge your conscience from dead works' (Hebrews 9: 14)--from all pollution, uncleanness, sterility. Conscience is not only polluted by sin, but outraged, incensed, made angry; it needs to be pacified as well as purged, and this can only be done by the Blood of the atonement.

Every believer remembers the precious sense of purity and peace which spread over his soul when first he realized a saving interest in the Blood of Christ; how sweet it was to feel that all the stains left by the sins of a past life were washed out, to realize that the anger and vengeance of an aggrieved conscience were appeased, that God, having accepted the Lamb as a sufficient atonement, conscience accepted Him also and was pacified. The offence and condemnation of past sin is washed away, and now the conscience is void of offence--clean, and ready to serve the living God.

To keep a conscience void of offence requires unremitting effort and determination; a bringing up, so to speak, of all the other powers and faculties of the being. 'Herein do I exercise myself,' said Paul--the whole man, soul, mind, body.

Here is need for 'exercise' indeed. This signifies no child's play, no mere effervescing emotion, expending itself in sentimental songs or idle speculations. Here is 'the fight of faith,' the faith of the saints, which can dare and do and suffer anything rather than defile its garments.

It is no uncommon thing to meet with people in this condition. Conscience is defiled and incensed, and demands that the evil shall be put away and repented of, and the soul cast afresh on the Blood of atonement for pardon and healing. Instead of doing this, however, they cling on to what they call faith, and quibble and reason to try to make out that they are right.

I knew a young lady, a professing Christian, who was deeply convinced by the Spirit of God that the business in which she was engaged was inconsistent with her profession and with her becoming a real follower of Jesus. After much controversy she took three days to debate with conscience as to whether she should give it up or not. Minister, friends, everybody but conscience said, No. She yielded, and 'put away' a good conscience in order to keep a good business. Shortly afterward she married a young man with the same sort of religion as her own. 'They rushed into imprudent and extravagant expenditure. Soon he failed and she was plunged into seas of trouble and sorrow. Surely 'thine own wickedness shall correct thee, and thy backslidings shall reprove thee!'

To keep a conscience void of offence requires the subjection of the whole being to the will.

As conscience is the reigning power of the soul, the will is the executive, and in order to keep a pure conscience the will must act out its teaching. When inclination lures, when the flesh incites to that which conscience condemns, the will must say, No, and be firm as adamant. When Satan takes us up to 'an exceeding high mountain' and says that all these things will he give us if we will do this or that, the will must say, No, and repel the tempter. This is just the point where human nature has failed from the beginning. Our first parents fell here. Their consciences were on the right side, but their will yielded to the persuasions of the enemy. This is sin, committal of the will to unlawful self-gratification. Joseph's conscience thundered the right path, and his will acted it out. Pilate's conscience also thundered the right course, but his will failed to carry it out. In one we behold a hero, in the other a traitor.

Young man, when you have got the fiat of your conscience, act on it. At all costs carry it out. Better be counted a fool and die poor than be damned as a traitor to God and righteousness.

Young woman, what says your own conscience about accepting that unconverted lover? Never mind what friends say, what inclination says, what apparent interest says; they all lie if they contradict God. And miserable comforters will they all prove when His chastisements overtake you. Let your will be firm, though it slay you. Man of business, conscience intrudes ever on the arena of trade. You hear its voice about this and that practice, or such and such a scheme. Does your will carry out its dictates? Do you resolutely say I will not do this thing and sin against God? This is the test of faith. Real faith dares to trust God with consequences; a spurious faith must look after consequences itself. It must save its life whatever becomes of a good conscience. Judge how much it is worth.

To keep a pure conscience requires great vigilance, lest by surprise or inattention we defile it. It also requires patience.

Often it necessitates our walking in an isolated path, taking a course which men condemn. Men judge from outward appearance; they do not see the intricacies of individual experience. The very course which they condemn may be that which conscience insists on, and which must be done or suffered, or conscience and God will be grieved and offended.

Patience will wait till God, by time and providence, justifies our course. Paul said it was a small matter with him to be judged of man's judgment. Why? Because his conscience acquitted--justified--and God witnessed that he was right. Such a soul can go on with all the world up in arms against it. This is just what the martyrs did, nothing more, nothing less.

Last of all, a pure conscience is its own reward. No matter who condemns, if it approves there is peace and sunshine in the soul. And whatever our trials or persecutions we can draw near to God without wavering, for 'if our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence toward God. And whatsoever we ask, we receive of Him, because we keep His commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in His sight' (1 John 3:21, 22).

As a clean conscience is its own reward, so an offended conscience is its own punishment. Conscience frequently offended soon becomes 'seared'--mark, not destroyed; quick and raw enough underneath, ready to be probed and fretted by the worm that dieth not, and scorched by the fire that never goes out, but seared on the surface, of no use for present service; numbed, dark, useless.

People with their consciences in this state often tell us they do not feel condemned for dispositions and practices which are evidently forbidden by the word of God, nor for things which they once would have trembled to do. Poor things, they do not see that their consciences are seared.

A lady once told us that early in her religious experience she would have felt very much condemned if she had gone to a theatre, but now she could go there and feel that she was sitting with Christ in heavenly places at the same time! She had got such an increase of light, or rather darkness, that the godless entertainment, the worldly multitude, the flippant jokes and pot-house songs did not strike her as inconsistent with the teaching and profession of Him who said, 'They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.' Truly, it is an awful thing to have a seared conscience! There is but one step between that soul and everlasting death.

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