We began, in our last letter, a discussion of the conscience and what Scripture teaches concerning the conscience. I consider this a most important subject, and I hope that you will, if you have any questions, respond to what I have to say about this matter.
The English word “conscience” comes from a Latin word, conscientia, which means, literally, “to know with,” in its verb form, and, “knowledge with,” in its noun form. The Greek word for “conscience” has exactly the same basic meaning. The main question which this etymology of the word brings up is this: If “conscience” is a knowing with, with whom does one have this knowledge of which the word conscience speaks? The answer to this question, according to Scripture, is, emphatically, God. In some sense of the word, the fact that we have a conscience means that we know something with God.
Now it is clear from Scripture that this does not refer to all knowledge. It is certainly true that all the knowledge which a man has he receives from God. This is implicit in the truth of revelation. Whatever knowledge we have, we receive through revelation. But the word “conscience” does not have this broad meaning and does not refer to all knowledge; it refers only to knowledge in a more restricted sense. And, to put the matter as briefly as possible, it refers, undoubtedly, toknowledge of right and wrong. This is, e.g., the clear teaching of Romans 2:14-15 (an important text which we shall have to discuss more in detail a bit later): “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.” The idea is, therefore, that God testifies in the consciousness of every man what is the difference between right and wrong. Now there are several things which we must say about this if we are to have a clear concept of this idea.
In the first place, this testimony of God in the conscience of every man is a testimony of absolute right and absolute wrong. I mean by that that God Himself, just because He is God, determines sovereignly for the creature what is right and what is wrong. He determines this according to His own eternal and perfect being. He is God. He is, in Himself, perfectly good and holy, perfectly just and right. He is, in His own being, the full reality of all that is just and right and good; and He is, because of His own essential goodness, opposed to all that is wrong, unjust, sinful, and bad. His testimony is, therefore, His own sovereign determination concerning this matter. It must be remembered that He is God and that we are only creatures. He has created us and He upholds us every single moment by the Word of His power. In Him we live and move and have our being. And because He is the Creator and we are but creatures, He has the sovereign and absolute right to determine for us, His creatures, what is, for us, right and what is, for us, wrong. He has this right for His rational and moral creatures just as He has this right for a tree or a star. He has the right to determine that a tree shall live only when it is planted in the soil, receives nourishment from that soil, and, because it receives the gift of sunshine, is able to manufacture food for itself and live. He sets the stars in their place in the heavens and moves them as it seems good to Him. This same right He has over us as rational and moral creatures.
However, He not only possesses the right to determine for us what is right and what is wrong; He must, as God, do this. He must maintain His own righteousness and goodness. He must maintain Himself as the sovereign God. And He does this by determining for us that we conform to His determination of rightness and wrongness; and by insisting that we conform our lives to this determination upon pain of death should we disobey. He would no longer be God if He simply let man determine all these things for himself.
Yet it is precisely man’s arrogance and pride which prompts man to say: “I will not pay attention to what God has to say on this matter. I will make all these determinations for myself.” Man has nothing which he has not received. The very breath that he breathes is given him as a gift. His every moment of life is given from his Creator. He is utterly and totally dependent. And yet, paying no attention to this, he determines that he will deny God the right to tell him what is right and what is wrong and he will determine all this for himself. When he does this, he pushes God out of his life, denies the most fundamental fact of his existence, and sets himself up as God. This was the lie of Satan in Paradise: “Ye shall be as God, knowing good and evil.” We listened to this lie, and we have been trying ever since to be as God. God would deny Himself if He let man get away with this. God cannot allow man to sin this kind of sin. And so God always solemnly tells man: if you do as you please and do not do what I tell you to do, you will surely die.
Man’s conscience is, therefore, the testimony of God concerning what is right and what is wrong. But, along with this, man’s conscience is also God’s testimony that the right brings with it God’s favor and the wrong always ends in God’s wrath and everlasting death. This too is part of the conscience.
Now it must be understood that this testimony of God in the consciousness of every man does not come as some kind of direct testimony through the agency of some kind of inner voice. There is no separate and distinct speech of God which is whispered in the inner recesses of a man’s consciousness and which is totally apart from God’s speech in creation and the Scriptures. This would be false and contrary to all God’s work. This testimony comes also through the objective speech of God, whether that be in creation or in the Scriptures. Every man has a conscience. This is the clear teaching of Romans 2:14-15. Paul is talking here about Gentiles which have not the law. That is, he is, in the historical context in which he wrote this, talking about the Gentiles of the world of Rome in which the Church of the Romans lived. These Gentiles were the ones who had never heard the Scriptures or the preaching of Christ. They did not, in other words, receive the law as it was given to Israel from Mount Sinai. Nevertheless, even they received this testimony of God in their consciousness concerning what is right and what is wrong through the speech of God; only this speech of God was given to them through the creation.
Paul speaks of this literally in Chapter 1 of this same epistle, vss. 18ff. One could perhaps say that the theme of this entire section is the statement of vs. 18: “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness. . . .” That Paul is talking here about the Gentile world, the pagan world which had never heard the gospel, is clear from the following verses. He tells us that the Gentiles are the objects of the wrath of God because they suppress the truth — they hold it under in unrighteousness. vs. 18. But the question is: where do they get the truth which they hold under? The answer, according to the apostle, is that they get this truth through the means of the things of the creation: “For the invisible things of him (i.e., of God) from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead.” vs. 20. According to this verse, therefore, God makes two things clear through the creation: that He alone is God and that, because He alone is God, He alone must be worshipped and praised. This, then, is the fundamental determination which God gives to all men concerning the difference between right and wrong.
It stands to reason that for this cause all men have also a conscience. Because of this Paul writes in chapter 2:14 and 15 that, although the Gentiles do not have the law, they nevertheless do by nature the things contained in the law and are a law unto themselves. The idea is not that they are able to keep the law. Paul himself tells us that this is not his point when he writes, in 3:9b: “for we have proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin.” The idea is rather that, although the Gentiles do not have the law in the sense that Israel had it from Sinai, they have the essence of the law through the things that are made. And, because they have this law of God, they are able to make laws which govern every part of their life and which are a reflection of the law of God. Adultery is considered wrong in the most uncivilized parts of the world. The same is true of stealing and murder. In this way the Gentiles also show the work of the law written in their hearts. The principle of the law is indelibly impressed upon them. They know with total assurance that God demands conformity with His will and that disobedience will surely be punished by the Judge of heaven and earth.
And that is why their consciences also bear witness of all the deeds which they do, and their thoughts accuse or else excuse one another.
All this does not mean that there is a certain common grace which operates among the pagans. This is far from the truth. After all, the theme of the whole passage in Romans 1:18ff is: The revelation of the wrath of God. Paul is explaining the wrath of God, not some general and universal grace. The whole point is simply that all men justly experience God’s wrath, whether they be Jews or Gentiles, because they are all “under sin.” And the Gentiles are under sin as well as the Jews because God makes Himself known through the creation in such a way that Gentiles too know that God is God and that He alone must be served and worshipped. And this testimony of their own conscience is, therefore, in connection with and never apart from the speech of God through the creation.
But it is also true that those who hear the preaching of the gospel and know the Scriptures have a much more definite and precise conscience than the pagan. After all, they have the law of God spelled out in all its details on the pages of Holy Writ. And they have that speech of God which speaks of the fact that God has fulfilled the whole law for His elect people through the perfect work of Jesus Christ. So, their consciences — consciences which also operate in connection with the Word of God — now through the Scriptures are more precise and definite, and such people have a much clearer understanding of what God’s will is. Hence also the wrath of God comes upon them with greater judgments when they sin. After all, it is more tolerable in the day of judgment for Sodom and Gomorrah and for Tyre and Sidon than for Chorazin and Bethsaida and Capemaum. Matthew 11:20-24. The closer one stands to the pure light of the gospel, the clearer is the speech of God, the more definite and precise is the voice of the conscience, and the greater the responsibility of those who are disobedient.
But we must continue this subject in another letter.
Fraternally in Christ,