The most valuable technological invention for travelers in recent years has been the Global Positioning System (GPS). It is a magnificent travelers’ aid but it is absolutely useless if it is not properly set. The beginning and the end of this article shall be that the conscience is the component of humankind that makes us God’s special creation. Our conscience separates us from the animal world but unless it is properly trained, it is of no value. This article will not deal with pathological disorders that damage the function of the conscience.
There is no Old Testament word which can clearly be translated “conscience.” The only word that is used is leb, which is generally translated “heart.” The functions of the conscience in the New Testament probably are equivalent to the Old Testament. Though the Greek word syneidesis, translated “conscience,” is used 31 times in the New Testament, it is never clearly defined. It functions as a self-evaluation in relation to a standard – Romans 2:14-15; the conscience assures one of consistent, integrative, non-wavering Christian living; its inner stirrings motivates one to act constructively without the threat of punishment – Romans 13:5; Acts 24:16; inhibits us from misleading others – 1 Corinthians 8:4-9; produces guilt and self-condemnation – 1 John 3:19-20.
It is obvious from Romans 2:14-15 that Paul understood the world to be divided into two groups of people. The Jews had the Law and if they died under the Law, they would be judged by the Law. Gentiles were endowed with a God-given moral compass which gave them a natural sense of right and wrong. Neither of these groups could claim exemption from the Judgment of God. One had knowledge; the other only had an innate conscience. This being said, there must be a part of the conscience that is moral and ethical by nature and a part that can be educated. To get right to the point, one cannot know the scheme of redemption by osmosis or nature. He or she must be taught (Romans 10:17). One cannot be taught wrong and behave (obey) right. It is only when one is taught right that he or she can trust his or her conscience. His or her GPS must be set right.
Assuming that the Hebrews were right to equate the conscience with the heart, we must examine the spiritual heart. The spiritual heart has at least four components. First, the intellect which allows one to think, reason and understand. This allows the hearer to contemplate and deliberate on the facts, both pro and con. Having comprehended the message correctly, it then becomes the theology by which the hearer lives which is his or her guiding principle (GPS) called the conscience. If one misunderstands the message, like Eve did, then the end result is error, and, of course, one operates on a false premise and his or her destination is in peril. The value of the conscience is limited to what truth it knows.
The third component of the spiritual heart is the will. That is where decisions are made. At this point the doctrine of the free will of man enters the picture. An honest seeker of truth, one of spiritual integrity, is given the freedom to choose or refuse to do right or to stray from the straight and narrow path.
The fourth component of the spiritual heart is the emotions. This is so powerful and can override the use of reasonable decision making if not kept in balance by the intellect. Satan uses the power of emotions to confuse the truth and hold one in a path of destruction because of tradition or the fear of the reprisal of men (John 12:42).
In the integrative workings of the spiritual heart, the conscience depends on correct information from the intellect; the will depends on an informed conscience and the emotions which send a vote of approval or disapproval based on what one likes or dislikes. It allows love to pour into the heart to make the decision to serve God.
Perhaps the most noted example of one’s conscience being set wrong is the Apostle Paul. He was a full-blooded Jew, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin (Romans 11:1), educated at the feet of Gamaliel, who was a renowned Doctor of the Law (Acts 5:34; 22:31). Paul was so committed to defending the faith of his fathers that he killed Christians (Acts 22:3-4). As a matter of fact, he was on his way to Damascus with letters (warrants) in hand to arrest the Christians there when he was stricken down and chosen to be an Apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 9:3-5). When Paul stood before the august Jewish Council, the first words out of his mouth were, “I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day” (Acts 23:1). Apparently the High Priest didn’t think much of Paul’s statement and ordered the men standing nearby to smite him in the mouth.
When the GPS realizes the traveler has made a wrong turn, it immediately begins to urge the driver to make a “legal U-turn.” This is the equivalent to the Christian’s conscience warning or forewarning us that we are leaving the straight and narrow path and we must make a “U-turn” and return to the true path of righteousness. This is spiritual repentance.
Sometime ago, after our daughter gave us a large-screen GPS, we set it to travel from our home in Barnwell to the small town of Estill which is about 30 miles away. Having traveled to Estill several times previously, I automatically assumed the GPS would send us down Highway 3 which is the way I always went. Does that not remind us of the majority of the religious world who operates on assumptions and self-will (Proverbs 3:5)? I had the GPS so frustrated. I laughed and told my wife I was running it crazy. It said to turn left at every crossroads, which would have taken us back toward the satellite’s best route. On one occasion, when it was obvious we had taken a different route than the satellite had planned, the GPS simply conceded and said, “Recalculating.”
When our way differs from God’s way, the only one who must recalculate is us. God’s planned path of righteousness will not change; therefore we must change.
When we arrived in Estill we decided to follow the instructions of the GPS back home and were surprised that there was a much better way than i had traveled in the past. Now those who know me know that I have made a major religious recalculation and found a much better way. Like Paul, I did what I did for years with a good conscience but I was mistaught, and as Paul told Timothy, “I did it out of ignorance” (1 Timothy 1:13). Under the Christian Dispensation one cannot plead ignorance (Acts 17:30).
If the conscience is the theology by which we live, it becomes what Peter calls the hidden man of the heart (1 Peter 3:4). The heart is the core or central innermost part of anything. It’s the part of us that God sees (Matthew 15:8). I often tell people God is not a lip reader; He’s a heart reader. It was the part of the prodigal son who cried out, “Father, I have sinned against Heaven and in thy sight…” (Luke 15:21).
One cannot study the conscience without studying guilt. It’s what made the prodigal son come to himself (Luke 15:17a). Without a good case of guilt, we might never repent. True repentance is changing because we want to be reconciled to God. A hypocritical repentance is saying we’re sorry to escape punishment.
There are certain religions that control their constituents by making them feel guilty and ashamed. This is called Ecclesiogenic guilt or depression fostered by the church. There’s no forgiveness; no grace. All problems, sickness, financial are a result of one’s lack of faithfulness to the Church. It is based on “if you had done this or that,” these things would not have happened to you.
When our conscience hurts, we still may have peace with God because we are His (1 John 1:7-9). I loved my father so much, when I did something wrong I ran to him because I trusted him to do right by me. I see that as how God helps our conscience when we feel guilty. Guilt causes us to make things right and trust God.
Brother Gus Nichols told this story. One night he could not go to sleep which was uncharacteristic of him. He tossed and turned and finally Sister Nichols said, “Gus, what is wrong with you?” He said, “I think I offended brother Jones and I can’t get it off my mind.” She said, “Get up and go over there (to his house) and get it straightened out,” which he did. He came back home and fell asleep like a baby. That’s objective guilt – that’s what keeps us straight. That’s the purpose of the Christian conscience. To kick against one’s conscience is to kick against the pricks like God told Paul in Acts 9.
Then there is doubt! Where does doubt come into play? The story is told of the boy who approached his mother and asked her if the shirt he had in his hand was too dirty to wear to the event he planned to attend that evening. She did not bother to look at the shirt and immediately said, “Yes, it’s too dirty.” The boy said, as most teenager would, “But Mom, you didn’t even look at the shirt!” She said, “I didn’t have to look – if you had enough doubt about the shirt’s cleanliness to ask, then it is too dirty!” Perhaps this is the real meaning of Romans 14:23.
Paul says what we think is permissible might bring ruin to a weaker brother. He went on to address the subject of ambivalence or doubt. If there is even a glimmer of doubt about a thing, don’t do it. When a man defies his conscience he has sinned already. So, if a man’s core is his faith, and his conscience is a part of his core, then to some extent his faith and his conscience play a similar part in directing his path. Aquila and Priscilla had to reset Apollos’ GPS.
He, like Paul, was zealous in what he was doing but he had to recalculate. The admonition Paul gave to the Corinthians might well fit this context too. He that thinks his GPS is set right had better take heed lest he end up at the wrong destination.
When the theology is right, the conscience is right and we can trust it to be our guide. The time has come, however, that men’s consciences have been seared with a hot iron (the sensitivity dulled) and they fell no shame or guilt at egregious sin or when they stray from the paths of righteousness.