Rev. denHartog is pastor of the Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Redlands, California.
In our last article we considered the idea of conscience. Conscience is an inner sense, a function of the mind and heart that God has created in every man. According to his conscience every man has a certain knowledge of the ethical value of his actions. He knows what is good and what is evil in the absolute sense of the word. The conscience of man is the voice within that condemns man when he does evil and justifies him when he does that which is good. The function of man’s conscience is based on the works of the law that God has written in the heart of man. Because of this testimony of the law the natural man stands condemned in his conscience before God who is the judge of all men. He is left without excuse. The condemnation of the conscience of the evil man is predictive of the final judgment of God to come in the great day of judgment.
There is a great difference between the conscience of the Christian and the conscience of the natural man. That great difference was made first of all when God justified the Christian by imputing to him the perfect righteousness of Christ Jesus. God has declared in the gospel the blessed truth of justification by grace and through faith alone. The Christian is one who has heard and received this gospel in his heart. Through the work of the Holy Spirit in our heart we are assured of our own personal righteousness in Christ before God. This is the basis of the Christian conscience. The conscience of the Christian witnesses within him that he is without condemnation before God. By the operation of the Holy Spirit within us our conscience testifies that we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the blessed and wonderful reality of justification by faith as it is consciously experienced by the child of God.
Though the Christian is, according to the gospel, righteous in Christ he still also has within him the voice of the conscience of the natural man. This conscience daily accuses him because of his remaining sinful nature, and whenever he through weakness falls again into sin. However, through faith in Christ and in the way of true repentance the Christian also daily apprehends the righteousness that is his in Christ. This blessed apprehension triumphs over the accusing voice of the natural conscience of the Christian. It silences this voice, it destroys it altogether, it says to the voice of our accusing conscience that there is no basis whatsoever on which we can be condemned because we are perfectly righteous in Christ in spite of our sin and guilt before God. One of the nicest statements of this reality in the Christian is the one found in Lords Day 23 of the Heidelberg Catechism.
How art thou righteous before God? Only through faith in Jesus Christ; so that, though my conscience accuse me, that I have grossly transgressed all of the commandments of God, and kept none of them, and am still inclined to all evil; notwithstanding God, without any merit of mine, but only of mere grace, grants and imputes to me, the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ; even so, as if I never had had, nor committed any sin: yea, as if I had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for me; inasmuch as I embrace such benefit with a believing heart.
Notice among other things the reference to our conscience in this beautiful statement of our confession.
The conscience of the Christian performs a very important function. It serves a good function when it convinces us of our sin, for when the Christian is convinced in his heart of the awfulness of his sin he is led by the Holy Spirit to Christ. We have a classic example of this in the life of David after he had committed the grievous sin of numbering the people of Israel. We read in this connection in II Samuel 24:10, “And David’s heart smote him after he had numbered the people. And David said unto the Lord, I have sinned greatly in that I have done: and now, I beseech thee, O Lord, take away the iniquity of thy servant; for 1 have done very foolishly.” Though this verse does not expressly speak of the conscience, it nevertheless speaks of the function of David’s conscience. David’s conscience convinced him of the greatness of his sin before God. This was good and necessary. This brought David to his senses. The conscience of the Christian in conjunction with the work of the Holy Spirit in him does the same for him. The Christian’s conscience is able to do this in a better way than the conscience of the natural man. The regenerated child of God has the Holy Spirit in his heart Who makes the law of God plain to him in all of its perfect demands and implications. By the working of the Holy Spirit the Christian has a more profound understanding of the awfulness of his sin. When he sins against the law of God his “heart smites him.” He is tormented by the condemnation of his conscience. He becomes conscious of the heavy hand of the Lord upon him. David describes this experience in Psalm 32, a Psalm that he wrote soon after confessing his great sin with Bathsheba. Through the work of the Holy Spirit within him the Christian with smitten conscience is led to God and to Christ to plead for mercy and forgiveness.
The law of God must be strictly preached in the church that our conscience may function properly to convince us of our sin before God and drive us to Christ. In the midst of this ungodly world it is possible for the conscience of the Christian to become dull. We can easily grow accustomed to the sin and wickedness of the world. We can easily go along with the “everyone is doing it so it must not be so bad” philosophy of the world. Furthermore there is in this ungodly world much evil teaching, both within and without the church, that minimizes the seriousness of sin. What was once considered to be shameful wickedness even by the world is today condoned in many churches. This is going to get worse and worse as the end of this age approaches and the world becomes ripe for judgment. All of this can easily have an effect on the true Christian so that his conscience too becomes dulled. We must keep our conscience sharp by sitting under the faithful preaching of the Word and the strict preaching of the law and by constantly maintaining the seriousness of separation from the world.
We must be guided by our conscience and not act contrary to it. The judgment of our conscience, however, can be our guide only if it is constantly compared with the objective testimony of the Word of God found in the scriptures. Again, the best way to keep a good conscience before God is through faithful attention to the preaching of the Word of God. I am reminded in this connection of the famous words of the great reformer Martin Luther when he was asked by the Diet of Worms to recant his teachings and he answered: “Since then your serene majesty and your lordships seek a simple answer, I will give it in this manner, neither horned nor toothed: Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the scriptures I have quoted and MY CONSCIENCE IS CAPTIVE TO THE WORD OF GOD. I CANNOT AND I WILL NOT RETRACT ANYTHING, SINCE IT IS NEITHER SAFE NOR RIGHT TO GO AGAINST THE CONSCIENCE’ (emphasis added AdH). Our conscience must be bound by the Word of God both in our confession of the truth of the Word of God over against all the apostasy of our day, and also in our life of good works and holiness before God.
The Christian must hold faith and a good conscience before God as Paul also exhorts Timothy in I Timothy 1:19. A good conscience is a conscience that testifies of the approval and blessing of God upon a life of sanctification. Our conscience is defiled through the corruption of sin. Then our conscience will again condemn us. We must live out of a free and good conscience before God. This is important for our whole walk before the Lord and our testimony in the world. If we walk in ungodliness and practice the same evil things that the world does while at the same time professing ourselves to be Christians, then our conscience will accuse us that we are hypocrites. God will condemn us in our hearts. The world will be able to accuse us and justly to find fault with us. The world will have occasion also to blaspheme the name of the God that we claim to worship and serve. If on the other hand we, by the grace and Holy Spirit of God, strive to live in obedience to God’s law in true holiness and love for God, then our conscience will testify of God’s approval and we will be assured of the blessing and favor of God. The testimony of our conscience in connection with the Word of God will give us peace with God even though the whole world accuses us. The testimony of a good conscience will enable us to give a faithful witness before the world that will ultimately put to silence the accusations of evil men, and bring glory to God. A good conscience before God will give us strength to endure the false accusations and persecutions of the world. If God be for us, who shall be against us.
The good conscience of the Christian apprehends the righteousness that is his in Christ and assures him of the hope of glory that God has set before him in His blessed Word.