All men have been given an inner monitor that is a guide to right and wrong. Sin, however, has so affected us in every part of our being that apart from the Holy Spirit and the Word of God, conscience by itself is not a totally reliable guide. Paul wrote, “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” (1 Tim 4:1-2). Shame for sin has almost disappeared from the world, and goodness is mocked. Paul described the present moral climate, “Who being past feeling (shame) have given themselves over unto lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness” (Eph 4:19).
1. Conscience and sin
In John 8, when the Pharisees and scribes brought the sinful woman to the Lord, demanding that she should be stoned, the Lord said, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one” (v 7, 8). They had “the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness” (Rom 2:15). However, even Gentiles, “when they knew God glorified him not as God” (Rom 1:19). “Knowing the judgment of God” (Rom 1:32), is in relation to His righteousness. The work of the Spirit is to awaken a sinner s conscience which has been stifled and dulled by sin.
2. Conscience and the faith
Paul twice links faith to the conscience. “Holding faith in a good conscience” (1 Tim 1:19) and “Holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience” (1 Tim 3:9). To continue steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine requires “Love out of a pure heart, a good conscience and faith unfeigned” (1 Tim 1:5). A defiled conscience weakens conviction and makes us an easy target for the “devices of Satan.” Does this explain why some have left assemblies for a path that is less restrictive?
3. Conscience and the Word of God
Paul wrote, “Herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward men” (Acts 24:16). Only when the Word of God is in control of our lives can we have a “conscience void of offence.” Conscience has been likened to a sundial. It is only a true guide when the sun shines upon it. Only when we allow the Word of God to shine upon us can we have “the testimony of our conscience, that in simplicity and godly sincerity, not with fleshly wisdom, but by the grace of God, we have had our conversation in the world” (2 Cor 1:12). So the NT speaks of a defiled, weak, convicted, good, a pure conscience and one that is “void of offence.” This latter expression means to have an unashamed, clear and blameless conscience toward God and man. We should ever seek to cultivate a conscience which is tender toward sin and which is sensitive to the Word of God and the leading of the Holy Spirit.
4. Conscience and believers
There are believers who have a weak conscience. Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 give strong warnings against stumbling them. Although an idol was nothing, some believers saved out of a pagan world still had “conscience of the idol” (1 Cor 8:7). Paul wrote, “their conscience being weak is defiled.” There were converted Jews who still held to the dietary laws of their past lives (Rom 14:3-4). Others were made weak by thinking they must still observe the holy days of the Levitical system (Rom 14:5).
The lesson to be learned from this is that “none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself” (v 7). All that we do and say affects others. It is so easy to needlessly stumble a weak believer. “So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God…let no man put a stumbling block or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way” (Rom 14:12-13).