In our last few letters we were discussing the idea of the conscience as that term is often described in Scripture. Especially in our last letter we were talking about the statement in Paul’s first letter to Timothy (4:2) where Paul speaks of a conscience which is seared as with a hot iron. And we talked about the fact that a man who continually commits the same sin can succeed in stilling the voice of his conscience so that it no longer condemns him. We have to talk about this a bit more because of the seriousness of this — also for the child of God. How does it happen that a man can still the voice of his conscience?
It might be well, first of all, to remind ourselves that, in an ultimate sense, this is really impossible. It is possible that a man so quiets the voice of his conscience that he no longer hears the condemning voice of God when he commits a particular sin. He can, so to speak, commit that sin without having any immediate consciousness of the wrongness of it. He is so hardened to the idea of that sin that he does not even consider it a sin at all any more. He reaches a point when he is able to go blithely on his way continuing in the same sin and having no pangs of conscience about it whatsoever. But there is still, deep down and beneath the consciousness, that sense of wrongness. If, for example, a man has become so hardened to blaspheming that he curses and takes God’s name in vain without any thought of wrong, that sense of wrong can still be aroused in him by someone calling his attention to the sin and reprimanding him for it. Once again he is reminded of the sin and of the terrible judgment of God upon him for it, and, momentarily, his conscience once again speaks. Although he may drive the thought from his mind as quickly as possible, nevertheless, for the moment, it is there. In a very general sense of the word, this is the reason why the wicked world cannot tolerate the presence of the Church of Christ in her midst. The question often arises, you know, why the world should really pay any attention to the Church of Christ. After all, the Church is very small and insignificant. It has no power. In no sense of the word does it stand in the way of the world in the pursuit of the wicked goals upon which the world sets its collective heart. Would it not be the part of wisdom for the world just simply to forget about the Church and let it go? But the world can never do this. No matter how small the Church actually is, the Church is the constant and living testimony of the truth of God in the midst of the world. And the Church serves, therefore, to remind the world constantly of her evil and sin and of the just judgment of God upon her. But it is precisely this which the world cannot stand, because that testimony of the Church is confirmed in the conscience of wicked men and arouses that conscience once again. So the Church must be silenced in order for the world to go her own evil way undisturbed. That is why, according to the first verses of Revelation 11, the testimony of the two witnesses must be silenced. And that is why, when the dead bodies of these witnesses lie in the streets of Jerusalem which has become Sodom and Egypt, the wicked rejoice and send presents to one another.
Nevertheless, it is possible for a man to silence the voice of his conscience. And the question remains: how is this done?
To answer this question, I want to tell you about a lecture which, years ago, Rev. Ophoff gave to us when I was still in Seminary. I do not recall the exact circumstances of the lecture any more, but I think Rev. Ophoff was lecturing on the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. And he was explaining to us what it means that the heart is hardened. You must remember that Rev. Ophoff, for all his forgetfulness and seeming abstract air, had a profound understanding of human nature. He could make observations about human nature which had a way of sticking with a man and which, as the years went by, proved to be more filled with profound insights than one first suspected. I cannot, of course, reproduce his lecture word for word, but I remember vividly the gist of it; and it went something like this.
If one looks at the matter of hardening from the human side, then this is what happens to a man when he hardens his heart. He is a man who does something wrong, something evil and displeasing in the sight of God, something contrary to God’s will. Whatever may be the immediate motives for doing this wrong, he knows, at the time he did it, that what he did was wrong in the sight of God. He knows that beyond contradiction, for God impresses the wrong upon his conscience. But, said Rev. Ophoff, he does not want to confess that what he did was wrong. Again, he may have a thousand different reasons for refusing to confess the wrong, among which is surely his own sinful pride; but whatever the reasons may be, that is not important. The important thing is that he refuses, for one reason or another, to make confession.
Now, in the light of this refusal to make confession, what must he do? Well, the thing to do, of course — really, the only thing to do — is to justify what he has done. He must explain why he refuses to confess. And the only way he can explain his refusal to confess is to justify what he has done. And so he begins to do this — first of all, in his own consciousness. He has to convince himself first of all. If he has not convinced himself he can never succeed in convincing others. In order to convince himself he begins to marshal all kinds of evidence of one sort or another to prove to himself that what he did was not, in fact, wrong. If this evidence he summons to his assistance is to work, he must also, quite clearly, commit some form of intellectual dishonesty. I recall distinctly that Rev. Ophoff himself used this very term: “intellectual dishonesty.” He meant by that that, when one commits a sin of any sort, there is no real sound evidence which can excuse that sin. A sin is always a sin. It is a transgression of the will of God. So there is no evidence which is valid which can justify the sin. In the summoning of such evidence, then, he must be intellectually dishonest. But this does not disturb him too much. His goal is to prove to himself that what he did was perfectly all right. Now, man is very adept at collecting this type of evidence and he comes with mountains of it. He has all his reasons carefully laid out why it was right, in this instance, to do what he did.
The trouble is, said Rev. Ophoff, that, once having collected all this evidence, he can actually succeed in persuading himself that the evidence is valid and that what he did was therefore, in his case, no sin. And when he has convinced himself, then also he is hardened; He has convinced himself that sin is not sin, that wrong is right, that a violation of God’s law is perfectly justified, that there are extenuating circumstances which make it entirely proper for him to do what he did. And, having persuaded himself, he becomes convinced of his own arguments, marvels at the skill with which he assembled the evidence, and uses this evidence in his defense of the proposition that he need not confess to any wrong.
Now there are, of course, degrees of hardening. It is a certain process which the sinner carries on. It does not happen overnight. It takes, sometimes, a long time. But the fact remains that, once having set himself upon this path, it becomes increasingly difficult to turn back. Scripture speaks of the fact that there is a kind of ultimate hardening which makes repentance impossible: “For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, And have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, If they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame” (Hebrews 6:4-6). And just because this is a certain process, the voice of the conscience must be increasingly stilled and will be stilled as a man continues to justify his conduct. He can at last reach the point where he becomes completely cold and indifferent to the truth of the Word of God and hateful of it.
If one, on the other hand, looks at this matter from God’s point of view — and one must do this becauseGod hardens the heart — then one must remember especially two things. One is that this increasing hardness of heart is the judgment of God Himself upon the sinner who sets himself against, God’s law. God punishes sin with sin. God judges so inexorably that the sinner increases in sin and hatred against God. God punishes the sin which a man does by hardening him in his sin as the expression of His own righteous wrath until the sinner is literally “beyond” repentance — until it is “impossible . . . to renew them again unto repentance.” This is also the teaching of Romans 1. God reveals His wrath from heaven. Idolatry becomes homosexuality because God, in His wrath, “gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts. . . ,” and because God “gave them over to a reprobate mind.” God sovereignly carries out His own eternal purpose in this way. Secondly, God always does this through His own Word. It is His Word which pricks the conscience of the sinner and arouses in him that voice of condemnation. At last he cannot stand that Word any more because it reminds him of the folly of his own attempts to justify himself and speaks its condemnation of his wickedness. And so he becomes more and more hateful of that Word until he, in fury, refuses to hear anything of it any more. This is why the preaching (whether from the pulpit or in pastoral work or in Christian discipline) is a1ways a two-edged sword. It is a savor of death unto death too. And this must never be forgotten. This is why elders who do the work of discipline must continue to bring the Word to those who err until either the sinner is brought to repentance or until the sinner will not listen to them any more. God does His work. And His work hardens or softens — always. And this is why that Word must always be brought in all its truth. If the Word of God is not brought, it will never have any of the proper and ordained effects. If man softens that Word or tones it down or adds his own word, it will never either bring to repentance or harden because it will not reach the conscience of the man to whom it is spoken. And so, as God does His work in hardening, the sinner becomes more and more insensitive to sin. He throws that Word from him and will hear it no more.
And so his conscience no longer speaks at all. He is hardened and repentance becomes impossible.
But now we must speak of the other side of the picture. That is, we must speak of how that same “vicious cycle” in which the sinner is caught is broken by the wonder of confession of sin. But this shall have to wait.
Fraternally in Christ,