Rev. Kuiper is pastor of Southeast Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
The word conscience is found twenty-nine times in holy Scripture, all occurrences in the New Testament, once in the plural, and mostly by the apostle Paul. Even as the English word is a compound, so is the Greek; it’s made up of two smaller words, one meaning jointly, together, with others, or in fellowship, and the other meaning to know, to understand, to perceive. Hence the word has the meaning of joint knowledge, to know together. The question is: Who are they that are involved in this knowing of something together? And: What is the content of this joint knowledge?
Although some lexicons reduce the conscience to knowing something with one’s self (the two involved then are the mind and the heart), we find this explanation unsatisfactory when we study the biblical usage. The conscience of a man is the shared knowledge that he has with God. God has revealed Himself to all men, in all places and in all ages. There is the revelation of God in creation, and there is the fuller revelation of God in the Scriptures. God has not left Himself without witness in regard to anyone. And the witness of God is especially a moral witness; it’s the witness to the Truth. God reveals Himself to man as to His will, and as to what is right and wrong, good or evil. And that testimony is always sufficiently clear, so that man is left without excuse. So we would define the conscience as the speech of God in every rational creature telling him clearly what is right and what is wrong in the eyes of God.
One of the grounds for God’s condemnation of many who never heard a gospel sermon is this matter of the conscience. Romans 1:18-23 makes this absolutely clear. “…that which may be known of God is manifest in them: for God hath shewed it unto them” (Rom. 1:19). This is spelled out even more clearly in the following chapter, where Paul says in Romans 2:14, 15 that the Gentiles, who did not have the law in any formal sense, did by nature the things contained in the law. This shows the work of the law written in their hearts, not savingly and believingly, but as a matter of conscience. “Their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the meanwhile accusing or else excusing them” (Rom. 2:15). Unbelieving, unregenerate, even reprobate men, have a conscience. At least they start out in life with an accurate, valuable, reliable witness from God within them.
With some, however, that conscience is so often violated, the testimony of the conscience so often gone against, the speech of God regarding right and wrong so long contradicted, that the conscience becomes useless, unreliable, andquieted. Confession of sin in regard to heresy or corrupt living would break that vicious circle of sin, but if no repentance is made, after a time the conscience is “seared with a hot iron” (I Tim. 4:2). By definition, the conscience is something that is tender and sensitive, especially in the early years of a person’s life. If the conscience comes into contact with a white-hot branding iron, then it is going to become seared, insensitive, and useless. Literally, the Greek word is cauterize. And God holds the branding iron and applies it.
At what point does God sear the consciences of the very wicked? God is always fair; He always gives time for repentance. But if a person steadfastly refuses to repent of his sin, steadfastly continues to call sin good and right, and that which is upright and pure worthless and vain, then God knows how to give them over to that kind of thinking and that kind of living. God says finally, with amazing patience, “You insist that my Law is all wrong for man, and you insist that what I condemn, even in your consciences, is lovely and worthwhile? Is that the way it is? All right! I give you up to that. I give you over to that kind of life forever and ever.” That is described in Romans 1:24, 26, 28, in connection with the vile sin of homosexuality! No hope for such a person, once he is seared by God’s hot iron.
But let’s consider the conscience of believing adults and their children. What a precious gift God has given us! For conscience sake we gladly perform our callings. We are subject to the higher powers that God has ordained, not simply because we fear their wrath, but also for conscience sake (Rom. 13:5). We suffer wrongfully in this life, especially as Christian workers, enduring much grief, for conscience towards God, believing that God wills that we follow the example of Jesus Christ (I Pet. 2:19-23). We know that there are weaker brethren in the church, that they have a conscience also, and therefore we gladly abstain from certain things lest we would lead them into what their conscience forbids them (I Cor. 10:28, 29). So our sanctified consciences lead us in a life of gratitude and good works.
But there is more. When Paul writes in Romans 8:16 that the Holy Spirit beareth witness with our spirits that we are the children of God, this is really the witness of the Spirit with the conscience! Paul explained to the Sanhedrin that he lived “in all good conscience before God” (Acts 23:1); he was careful to exercise himself in such a way that he would always have a conscience void of offence toward God and man (Acts 24:16); he understood that one of the goals of the commandments is having a good conscience (I Tim. 1:5). And this is possible only because our hearts have been sprinkled from an evil conscience (Heb. 10:22), because Christ’s sacrifice made our consciences perfect (Heb. 9:9), and because washing in His blood gives us the answer of a good conscience towards God (I Pet. 3:21).
Let us continue to hold the mysteries of faith in a pure conscience (I Tim. 3:9), being willing to be spoken of as evil doers, and having a good conscience in regard to them which falsely accuse us (I Pet. 3:16).