The dispensation of conscience spanned an age of almost 1,700 years, from the end of Genesis 3 to the beginning of Genesis 7. It commenced following the tragic fall of man and his expulsion from the Garden of Eden and ended with the cataclysmic judgment of the worldwide flood. Physically, the world during this era was very different than ours today (2Pe 3:3-7), but morally it was marked by remarkably similar characteristics to our narcissistic twenty-first-century society (Mat 24:37-39). It was an age characterized by rapid moral decline and rank rebellion against God, and yet through its development we see God’s remarkable ability to preserve a faithful seed and further His redemptive purpose. There are, therefore, helpful lessons we can glean from this second “phase” of God’s dealings with man – the dispensation of conscience.
The word “conscience” literally means “together knowledge,” and describes man’s state following his disobedient eating of the fruit of the forbidden tree in the midst of the garden. God described the results of this act: “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:22). Man now had implanted in him a knowledge that he shared with God – the ability to discern between moral right and wrong.
This internal regulator, enabling man to know the difference between what is inherently good and pleasing to God and what is inherently evil and offensive to God, created a very distinct responsibility and accountability. Paul states in Romans 2:15 concerning the Gentiles that “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.” Speaking of himself, Paul states in Acts 24:16 that he “always take[s] pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man.”
The word of the Lord to Cain references the sense of “right and wrong” that should have governed man’s behaviour following the fall: “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door” (Gen 4:6-7). Man’s internal conscience, giving him the knowledge of good and evil, made him accountable to God to do what was good and to avoid doing what was evil. Isn’t it interesting that for us as believers today, millennia later, we have the exhortation to “abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good” (Rom 12:9)? We need to be very careful to maintain tender consciences, shaped and molded by the Scriptures and not seared or warped by the values of the godless society around us.
It is striking to notice in this second dispensation the rapid, rabid, relentless impact of sin on fallen humanity. It was not a gradual descent into disobedience or a gentle departure from divine standards. The very first man born into a fallen race (Cain) committed murder, focusing his anger, jealousy and rage not on a stranger, but on his own brother! He proceeded to move in direct defiance against God and became the head of a family tree that would be marked by disobedience, self-obsession, moral deviance and blatant sinfulness. Within six generations we read of a man called Lamech (Gen 4:18-24) who boasted in his murderous ways, bragged about his outdoing of Cain, flaunted his immoral bigamous relationships (the first mention in the Bible of a man having two wives), and personified the expansion of a world order that excluded God from His own creation. It is frightening to observe that Lamech could be a “poster boy” for the modern twenty-first-century humanistic lifestyle that grips and characterizes our western world.
Ultimately, the rebellion of man festered and multiplied to such a degree that God renders his assessment: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” What a sad commentary on the ravaging impacts of sin on God’s crowning creature.
It is important to note, however, that even in this bleak, spiritually barren landscape there was a faithful remnant that brought honour and glory to God. In the place of faithful Abel (the first man identified in the “line of faith” outlined in Hebrews 11), God would raise up Seth. Eve’s words upon the birth of her third son were these: “God has appointed for me another offspring instead of Abel, for Cain killed him” (Gen 4:25).
The end of Genesis 4 indicates that “at that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord” (v26). Moving through the dispensation, we see two remarkable men, both of whom shone as bright testimonies to God in stark contrast to the spiritual darkness of their surroundings. Of Enoch we read twice that he “walked with God” (Gen 5:22,24), and the NT expands this accolade by stating that he “pleased God” (Heb 11:5). Hebrews 11 also tells us that “by faith” he was “taken up so that he would not see death,” giving us a beautiful foreshadowing of the rapture of the Church, which the faithful of today’s dispensation await with anticipation.
The dispensation also featured Noah, similarly singled out in Hebrews 11 for his faith and obedience in following the instructions of the Lord. May these two remarkable men be an encouragement to us in our dark age. Spiritual conditions may be bleak, and our society may be characterized by moral decay and deepening darkness, but it is still possible – in fact, it’s our calling – to please God, remain faithful to Him, and be used to bring honour and glory to His name.
As in every dispensation, man’s rebellion inevitably brought about divine retribution, and the timeline of this second dispensation moved inexorably to a spectacular divine intervention. It is well beyond the scope of this article to deal with the devastating global impacts of the worldwide deluge described in Genesis 7, but it would be good for all of us to review the biblical record concerning this event. It is not a myth or a “flood legend.” The language is not allegorical or pictorial – it is real and devastatingly literal. The Lord states in Genesis 6:13 concerning mankind, “I will destroy them with the earth,” and Peter states starkly that “the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished” (2Pe 3:6). We noticed at the end of the first dispensation God’s righteous hatred of sin and the certainty, severity and inescapability of His judgment. This lesson is reinforced here again at the end of this second dispensation.
But as we will continue to see in each successive age, God’s redemptive purpose marches on! The second dispensation ends with global destruction; but riding through the waters of judgment is a divinely provided ark bearing eight precious souls. The race would continue. God’s purposes would not be thwarted. The line of faith would be preserved. And the promise of the “seed of the woman” would remain intact!
 All Scripture quotations in this article are from the ESV.