We were discussing together the subject of the conscience and its importance for the mental and spiritual well-being of the child of God. We talked especially about two or three points: all men in the world have a conscience which is the voice of God in their consciousness by which they know the difference between right and wrong; this voice of God always comes in connection with God’s objective speech whether in creation or in the Scriptures; and the closer one stands to the bright light of revelation, the sharper and more definite is also his conscience, but the greater his punishment when he does not do the will of God.
There are other aspects of this question which we must still discuss.
The first is that the conscience is not the abstract voice of God in the consciousness of man. The conscience is not, so to speak, a kind of communication of the moral law of God. We have the moral law of God revealed to us. The wicked, through the things which are made, know that God is God and that, because He is God, He alone must be served. But that moral law of God also comes revealed to us in the Scriptures. There it is spelled out in all its details in clear and unmistakable language. Any one who knows the Scriptures knows also how God determines right and wrong in the whole of man’s ethical conduct.
The conscience is not some additional law or some further definition or explication of the law. It is not a body of codes which somehow stand next to the law of God revealed in His Word. The conscience always speaks in connection with man’s own conduct. This is an important, point and it is difficult to emphasize this sharply enough. Man walks his pathway here in the world. Every part of his life has ethical implications. He is always called to love the Lord his God with all his heart and mind and soul and strength. Every thought, every desire, every inclination of his heart, as well as all his external conduct in word and deed must be in conformity to the law of God. No part of man’s life escapes from the demands of God to love Him Who is God alone. But because every single part of man’s life has ethical implications and a moral dimension, so also God passes judgment upon every single deed which man does, whether that be hidden inside him or apparent to those with whom he comes into contact. Nothing is hidden from God. All is naked and open before the eyes of Him with Whom we have to do. Now, the conscience is exactly God’s judgment which comes every moment of a man’s life concerning the rightness or wrongness of what he has done. Every step of the way, with every deed which man performs, God comes in judgment upon him. God says, every moment, this deed is right and good in my sight; or, this deed is wrong and sinful before Me.
It has been said that conscience is the voice of God which always comes after the act. That is, the voice of God comes only after a man does something. From the moral law of God man knows what he ought to do and what he ought not to do. The conscience does not speak until after the deed is performed. Then, the deed having been done, God passes sentence upon it and either approves or disapproves of it. In a certain sense this is true. It is implied in all that I have said above. But we must remember that the deed can begin and surely always does begin with the thought and the desire. And already upon that thought and that desire the Lord passes His judgment. If the thought, e.g., to steal some money enters our minds, the Lord does not wait with passing His judgment upon us until we actually reach out our hand and take money that does not belong to us. The Lord passes His sentence upon the thought, the desire, the covetousness which lies behind the actual deed. And even if the deed itself is never performed, God’s judgment is there in our consciousness.
So, the conscience is the voice of God which comes to us in every moment of our lives speaking of God’s sentence upon what we have done. And because God’s voice is not just a bare sentence of whether a particular deed is right or wrong, God’s judgment is always accompanied by His approval or His disapproval. If we do right, then God’s approval and blessing rest upon us. We have the testimony of our conscience that God is well-pleased with us and that His favor and love rest upon us. If we do wrong, we have the testimony of our conscience that God condemns our actions and that He is angry with us and that His wrath is upon us.
This is the reason why Solomon could write, in Proverbs 3:33: “The curse of the Lord is in the house of the wicked: but he blesseth the habitation of the just.” Notice: the curse of the Lord is not only upon the wicked; it is in their house. The curse of the Lord is wherever the wicked go — even in the secret chambers of their house where no man may ever come. The wicked eat that curse and drink that curse. It dogs their footsteps and follows them so that they can never escape from it. It is there continuously as the abiding and unrelenting testimony of God that they are doing wickedly. But, in an analogous way, the blessing of the Lord is upon the habitation of the just. That blessing is upon them always for they have the testimony of God, no matter what their pathway in life may be, that God loves them and cares for them; that the approval of God rests upon them and that God works all things for their good.
The conclusion of this point is, therefore, that every man knows whether what he does is good or bad. There are no exceptions to this. No man sins in ignorance or unaware of the fact that what he does is wrong. Always every man knows whether what he does meets with God’s approval or disapproval. And, because he knows this, every man knows too either God’s wrath or God’s love. There is no neutral ground where a man hangs suspended between the two or without the consciousness of either. A man may denythat and he may protest that, even though he sins, he has no consciousness of God’s wrath; but this is impossible. After all, God is God and He maintains His righteousness — even in the consciousness of the sinner or the saint. The judgment day is not, after all, the first time the wicked hear what the sentence of God is. They know that every step of the way. When they die and open their eyes in hell, they are not surprised to be there because they always thought they would probably go to heaven. God will never let this happen. God will not approve of the sinner or leave him in suspense all the days of his life and then tell him finally at death or at the judgment what shall be his final destination. Always God is a judging God. And always man knows what God’s verdict is upon what he has done.
But now there is another aspect to this question. The apostle Paul in his letter to Timothy speaks of consciences which are seared with a hot iron. The passage reads: “Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that 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.” I Timothy 4:1-2. What does the apostle mean by that expression?
It is possible for man to still the voice of his conscience so that his conscience no longer speaks to him. That, apparently, is the idea here. A man reaches a certain point in his life when the voice of his conscience is stilled and the testimony of the wrong he has done is gone. Apparently, this .is exactly what is happening in our modem world. Some time ago Time magazine had a rather lengthy article about crime in our big cities. I do not remember the details of the article any more, but I do recall that Time made a considerable point of it that many criminals, some very young, in their early teens in fact, were apprehended after performing senseless and incredibly brutal crimes of violence against helpless people. When these very young criminals were caught by the police and brought before the courts, police, judges, and criminologists were surprised by the fact that these people showed not the slightest remorse, not the faintest detectable emotion over their crime, not the least bit of regret. In fact, so Time said, they did not even seem to have any sense of right or wrong left. They did not appear to be aware of the fact that they had done something wrong. They were utterly unmoved by it all and showed no conscience whatsoever.
The authorities may have been surprised by this, but the fact remains that this is exactly what happens. A person, after committing a particular sin often enough, can succeed in stilling the voice of his conscience so that it no longer condemns him at all. He is in a certain sense of the word, amoral. He does not respond any more, not even with regret or remorse, over what he has done.
I am not sure what is happening in our modern cities which can bring about a state of mind like this in a very young person of fourteen or fifteen. I am not sure if we can even imagine a situation where a very young person is unmoved by the feeble cries of an old man who has been beaten senseless (by chains and belts) for 15c. But it is a terrible thing nonetheless. And this very thing is becoming increasingly wisespread in our civilization. The government itself is to blame for a large measure of this. It stands to reason that when government itself approves or and even encourages abortion, e.g., that those who seek such abortions will not have the struggle with their conscience that they would have if their deed were illegal according to the laws of the land. But however that may be, the fact remains that our present culture is bringing up a generation which has no conscience left any more with respect to terrible sins. It is frightening to contemplate what will happen when these conscienceless people are in positions of authority and rule this country. That will indeed be a bad time for the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ. Of that we may be sure.
But the fact remains that this searing of the conscience also can, and often does, take place within the Church. I am told by our teachers that they have instances of this all the time. A certain child is brought into the office of the principal or before the teacher because he has lied or cheated in a test. The evidence against him is unassailable and there simply is no question that he is guilty of this. Nevertheless, when confronted with his sin, he will openly lie, deny he ever did it, and in the process of lying, show not the faintest evidence of regret or remorse — much less sorrow for his sin. I have seen this in my own children. They will not only lie, but persist in the lie, and all appeals to Scripture, to God’s all-seeing eye and to the punishment which will come upon them from God, leaves them utterly unmoved. This is a terrifying thing.
A seared conscience is the most terrible thing that can happen to a man. We must discuss this a bit more and especially ask the question: How does this happen? But we shall have to wait with this till our next letter.
Fraternally in Christ,