Our Conscience Is a Witness
The word conscience refers to moral awareness—it is the aspect of our intellect that reasons, makes decisions, and distinguishes right from wrong. A healthy conscience is a good thing. It directs us to the kind of walk that God wants us to have. We want to be attentive to God who has sent His Holy Spirit to check us, to speak to us, and to guide us through our consciences. We want to be sensitive and responsive to that leading.
On the other hand, an unhealthy conscience is dangerous and deceitful. An unhealthy conscience may excuse what it should accuse. Poor choices have changed it from being sensitive to being calloused and unresponsive. It no longer winces at actions or thoughts it once considered doubtful or even knew to be wrong.
As sinners, some of us experienced that decreasing sensitivity of conscience. Behaviors that once we thought we would never do, we began doing. The conscience that was healthy at one time became unhealthy, and we began living in ways we never dreamed we would live.
When I was growing up, I recall hearing more than once, “Let your conscience be your guide.” While that is a common saying, following its advice could be risky. It would be like depending upon a polygraph, the results of which may be unreliable. It is difficult to detect deception!
If we let our consciences be our guide, what we think and do may be inconsistent with the way of holiness that God demands.
The Apostle Paul identified why the conscience can be an unreliable guide in his epistles to Titus and Timothy. To Titus, he wrote of individuals whose consciences had been “defiled”—in other words, sullied, tainted, or morally contaminated. We read, “Unto the pure all things are pure: but unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure; but even their mind and conscience is defiled” (Titus 1:15). If we let our consciences be our guide, what we think and do may be inconsistent with the way of holiness that God demands. In fact, Paul went on to speak of those who profess to know God but in works deny Him. If they were walking according to their consciences, their works were susceptible to corruption.
To Timothy, Paul wrote of those whose consciences had been “seared”—made insensitive or cauterized as if with a hot iron. In 1 Timothy 4:1-2, the Apostle warned, “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.” As a finger is numb after being burned by a hot iron, a conscience can be numbed by the searing of sin.
Paul’s explanation to the Romans
In Romans 1, the Apostle Paul gives a description of those who ignored their consciences and resisted what they knew to be right. In verse 21 we read, “Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.” Sin begins in the heart—in the mind and imagination. The rest of Romans 1 describes the condition of those who engaged in behaviors that defile, and they all began with a corrupted conscience.
The Bible indicates that God has revealed Himself to each person through the conscience. In Romans 2:14-15, the Apostle noted that some of the Gentiles responded to their consciences, even though they were not knowledgeable about the law of God. “For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another.” A moral principle was at work in their hearts, because when they failed to adhere to their ethical code, their consciences caused them to feel guilt.
The Jews had a condescending view of the Gentiles because the oracles of God had been committed to them when God gave the Law to Moses at Mt. Sinai as a special revelation. However, the Jews failed to understand that God’s intention was that through them the entire world was to be converted. Instead of following Him in obedience, they rejected His commandments and turned away in rebellion.
Paul declared that the Jews and Gentiles were equally accountable to God, because He speaks to all through Creation. We do not need to have been at Mt. Sinai. Every time the sun comes up or sets, or we look to the stars or the mountains or the trees, or hear the birds, Creation speaks and God reveals himself.
Paul declared that the Jews and Gentiles were equally accountable to God, because He speaks to all through Creation. We do not need to have been at Mt. Sinai. Every time the sun comes up or sets, or we look to the stars or the mountains or the trees, or hear the birds, Creation speaks and God reveals himself. In Romans 1:20 we read, “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.” The whole world is without excuse. The Jews are not excused from judgment because Abraham was their father or because God gave the Law to Moses on the Mount, nor are the Gentiles excused because they are not descendants of Abraham and were not at the Mount.
God has given every individual a conscience, and that conscience is a witness. A witness testifies to what he sees and knows; in like manner, the conscience testifies whether the actions being contemplated are in accordance or opposition with what God demands.
We see a conscience in little ones. Children look over their shoulders to see if their moms or dads are watching when they have done something, or are about to do something, that they know is wrong. They have guilty consciences! As adults, we do not need to look over our shoulders to know that God is observing. Our consciences tell us whether or not we are making decisions consistent with God’s requirements.
The conscience accuses or excuses
When a conscience is healthy, it accuses, condemns, and pronounces guilty when actions are wrong. It affirms—it does not condemn—actions that are right and pleasing to God.
No one likes to be accused falsely. When I was a sophomore in high school, a friend of mine declared he could break a ruler with one hand, and proceeded to do so. A short time later, I was called to the Vice Principal’s office, where I was accused of breaking that ruler. Since I had not broken the ruler, the Vice Principal was accusing me falsely. I could do one of two things—insist that I had not broken the ruler and say who did, or just sit there and listen. I chose the latter. Even though I was being accused of something I had not done, I knew there was an environment created by my previous questionable behavior that did make me suspect. So to some extent, perhaps I deserved the accusation.
My dad occasionally testified that before he was saved, one of his sons told him he was a sinner. I remember telling him that. However, I was not accusing him; I was simply informing him of what the Word of God states. In Romans 3:23 we find the words, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” Our consciences convey that accusation to us. When we become aware of the fact that we need to be saved, a certain amount of shame accompanies the awareness. We know we are guilty! My dad finally did pray and receive salvation, and he served God until he passed away this past January. However, even if no one tells us that we are sinners, the Spirit of God is faithful to let us know.
We cannot be saved without guilt. We need guilt to come to God! That accusation by our consciences is what prompts us to look God’s way. Conviction is a gift of God that leads us to repentance.
Society today insists that individuals should not be burdened with guilt, no matter what they are or do. However, we cannot be saved without guilt. We need guilt to come to God! That accusation by our consciences is what prompts us to look God’s way. Conviction is a gift of God that leads us to repentance.
Adam and Eve
We see an example of the accusation of conscience in the account of Adam and Eve in the Garden. After they had eaten of the forbidden fruit, “the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons” (Genesis 3:7). They became aware of their condition, and felt shame. Continuing in verse 8, we read, “And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day; and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden.” Adam and Eve had never hidden from God before, but after they disobeyed, their consciences accused them. They felt guilt!
Their disobedience began when Eve stood beneath the tree and considered its fruit. The serpent came along and suggested that if she ate of it, she would be wise like God. She saw that the tree was “pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6). She knew what God had said; in fact, she actually declared what God had said! No doubt her conscience warned her. However, she took the fruit and ate of it, overruling her conscience. She made a decisive choice to go against the commandment of God.
Our consciences are active before we commit sin. We know what is right and wrong. In James 4:17 we read, “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.” We have to trample over the resistance of our consciences and the warning of the Spirit of God when we do wrong.
After you violate God’s instructions the first time, it becomes easier the next time. Why? It is like calluses on your hand. The skin becomes tough and is no longer as sensitive as it once was. Once you looked over your shoulder and thought you should not do a wrong action, but you did it anyway. Over time, your perspective changes to, “No problem; it does not bother me.” That very comment suggests that it does bother you! The conscience is still speaking; it is accusing.
The guilt of Joseph’s brothers
We see how long the conscience can trouble a person in the account of Joseph’s brothers. Standing before Joseph, although unaware of his identity, they acknowledged to each other that they were guilty. Their consciences were not troubled over actions in their recent past, but over what had occurred twenty years earlier when they sold their brother into slavery. We read, “And they said one to another, We are verily guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the anguish of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear; therefore is this distress come upon us. And Reuben answered them, saying, Spake I not unto you, saying, Do not sin against the child; and ye would not hear?” (Genesis 42:21-22). Two decades earlier, no doubt they had discussed who would push Joseph into the pit and who would take the money. Perhaps they even had said among themselves, “We should not do this.” However, they did it, and twenty years later their consciences were still plaguing them.
The accusers accused
The accusers of the woman taken in adultery were convicted by their consciences. They had brought the woman to Jesus, asking Him what should be done to her. In John 8:7 we read, “So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” Then He stooped down and wrote on the ground. I wonder what He wrote. Some have suggested that it was the Ten Commandments. Maybe it was just the one commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Whatever He wrote, the woman’s accusers realized they were guilty. One by one, their consciences began to bother them. They had been suggesting that the woman be stoned, but after hearing Jesus’ words, they slipped away, no doubt hoping they would not be noticed. When Jesus looked up, they were all gone. In verse 9 we read that they, “being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one.” Jesus had not accused them; their consciences had testified against them.
The experience of Saul of Tarsus
Before Saul of Tarsus met Christ on the road to Damascus, he was going against his conscience. However, a light shone from Heaven and Jesus spoke to Saul saying, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? . . . it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks” (Acts 9:4-5). That was a reference to a goad—a sharp iron stick used to direct the movements of an ox. When an animal resists and kicks against a goad, it inflicts pain. That is like resisting your conscience. It takes effort to resist, and it inflicts pain when you do. It is much better and certainly less painful to abide by what your conscience is telling you.
Paul knew what it was to resist his conscience. In Romans chapter 7, he declared himself to be carnal, sold under sin, having found that carnality overcomes the conscience. Paul described how, prior to his conversion, he had allowed the very things he objected to in his own life. He did not want to do those things, but he found himself powerless to resist. The things that he wanted to do, he lacked the power to do. That is why he cried out in verse 24, “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”
Carnality is like gravity. What gravity is to matter, carnality is to conduct. Gravity pulls down physically; carnality pulls down morally. Just as we have no ability in ourselves to overcome the law of gravity, we have no ability in ourselves to triumph over carnality. It takes the power of the Blood of Jesus to deliver us!
God forgave his sins and subsequently purged Paul’s carnal nature, and at last Paul had victory. He had a pure and healthy conscience and could live without sinning.
Paul experienced that. When we read on in Romans 8, we find Paul’s statement, “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.” Paul was declaring that he found the solution to carnality—the Blood of Jesus. He found that solution when he met Jesus on the road to Damascus, and then spent three days praying in a house on a street called Straight. He prayed through! God forgave his sins and subsequently purged Paul’s carnal nature, and at last Paul had victory. He had a pure and healthy conscience and could live without sinning.
A continual guide
The conscience continues to be active as the Spirit of God guides us through life. When one has a healthy conscience and is doing the will of God, the conscience excuses him because there is no immoral or ungodly behavior to condemn. There may be behavior that indicates a need to mature and grow spiritually, and the conscience is faithful to remind us of that. It prompts, “Don’t go that direction; go this way. Wait a minute; hold back there. That is not the right way.” That is a healthy conscience. We are excused as we comply with the will of God, rather than accused for refusing to obey.
What condition is your conscience in today? Hopefully, you have a healthy conscience—one that has excused you. God has pardoned you, and you have been saved and forgiven. There is no more condemnation, no more guilt or shame.
If you lack that assurance—if your conscience is accusing you—come to God and ask for the remedy. That remedy is the Blood of Jesus. In Hebrews 9:14 we read, “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?” The Blood of Jesus can be applied to your heart and your conscience will be purged. It will no longer condemn you, because you have been pardoned through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross of Calvary.
The conscience is a gift of God. Let’s value it as such, and pay careful attention to what it tells us!