In South Africa, we are used to sirens. We hear police and ambulance sirens often enough. Many of us have security alarms in our homes, with sirens that go off when the alarm is tripped. Sirens are there to alert us of something that is wrong. God has placed something similar inside each of us. It is what the Bible calls conscience. What you do with that alarm system of your soul will have very important effects on your relationship with God, and even your relationship to other people. I would like us to study from the Scripture what the conscience is and what it does; how it is shaped, why it is so important, and how it is cleared.
I. What the Conscience Is
What is the conscience? The conscience is that part of the soul God has given you which does two things. First it watches all your actions at all times and in all places. It witnesses not only what you do (and fail to do); it witnesses what you think, what you desire, what you wish. It watches and witnesses. The second thing it does, depending on the action or thought, is afflict you. It punishes you. It disturbs you.
Romans 2:15 “…who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them.”
Conscience is like an alarm system connected to motion sensors. Those motion sensors send out beams of light, and if you cross them, it triggers the alarm. Conscience is like that, except it is not located in just one place. It goes with you everywhere. And it watches every word, thought and deed, and when you do wrong, at least in the eyes of your conscience, it sounds the alarm.
What does that alarm feel like? It is an inward pain. It is the sense of shame, of guilt, of wrongdoing. It is as if someone is pointing a finger at us from within. Someone has blown the whistle on us. There is a siren going off inside saying, “Guilty, guilty, guilty”. You see examples of this in the Bible again and again. The very first sin – Adam and Eve hid from God. Why did they hide? They hid because their conscience convicted them.
Psalm 32:3-4 “When I kept silent, my bones grew old Through my groaning all the day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; My vitality was turned into the drought of summer. Selah”
You might remember the incident where some men brought an adulteress to Jesus, and He said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw the first stone.” The Bible goes on to say in John 8:9 – “Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last.”
Now, not only believers have a conscience. Unbelievers have a conscience too. The passage in Romans shows us that even the man in the jungle, having never seen a Bible, never heard the name of Jesus, never heard the Gospel, has a conscience. He has a moral judge in his own soul. From when children can understand very little language, they show evidence of a conscience. It is really a gift from God, to live Himself a witness in the soul of every human, so that even when exposure to His Word is limited, there is enough moral light in the human soul to know some right from wrong.
Proverbs 20:27 – “The spirit of a man is the lamp of the LORD, Searching all the inner depths of his heart.”
The conscience is a watcher and an afflicter.
II. The Adjustment of the Conscience
Now here is where we need to understand something very important about the conscience. The conscience is not perfect. By itself, conscience is not enough. The conscience can make mistakes. The conscience is in fact only as good as the knowledge to which it has been exposed. You see, conscience is literally ‘with-knowledge’. It is the knowledge of good and evil you gain from various sources that exist together with you, and which you carry around.
So how reliable is your conscience? As reliable as the knowledge of good and evil you have received. You learn about good and evil from many sources – from your parents and family, from childhood friends, from school and schoolteachers, from the culture around you and its various media, from the religion you grew up with, even from your own habits. Those have combined to shape the thinking of that little judge who sits in your heart. And if the information they gave you is not in accord with God’s Word, your conscience is going to be off.
I once had a compass that would point to magnetic north. Making the necessary adjustments for where we are on the earth, I could find where true north was. One day, I took a magnet, and made the compass needle do circles. I had my fun for a few minutes, but after that, the compass no longer pointed to magnetic north. It was useless as a compass. That is why conscience is not an infallible guide. It depends on what knowledge has informed your conscience.
One person grows up with cannibals, and feels little conscience over murder. Another person grows up with his parents never having married and feels no conscience over fornication. Another person might still feel guilty over eating meat on Friday. Another person, because of another person’s sin against them, feels guilty, even in marriage, about the marriage bed. See, conscience is a sensitive and powerful thing. And if the light with which it is shaped is not God’s Word rightly applied, it will be either an alarm that doesn’t go off when it should, or an alarm that goes off when it shouldn’t. It can be a dog that barks when no one is there; it can be a dog that sleeps when burglars are breaking in. To be effective it must be informed with light from God’s Word. It is like a sundial – if the truth of God’s Word shines on it – it will point the right way.
Not only is the conscience shaped by the knowledge we have, it is also shaped by our actions. In fact, the conscience can even be reset the more we sin. Like those motion sensors, they can be raised so as not to pick up pets. So, if you keep ignoring or violating your conscience, it will become less sensitive. It becomes like a judge whose judgements keep getting ignored, so he either stops making them, or announces them so softly that no one can hear.
1 Timothy 4:2 – “Speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron.“
2 Titus 1:15 – “To the pure all things are pure, but to those who are defiled and unbelieving nothing is pure; but even their mind and conscience are defiled.”
Ephesians 4:19 – “…who, being past feeling, have given themselves over to lewdness, to work all uncleanness with greediness.”
A seared conscience is like skin which is so scarred that it no longer has any sensation in it. The man who steals something feels guilty the first and second time. But by the twentieth time, his conscience is no longer alarmed. The immoral person feels guilty about their first violation of their own purity. But after a while, it becomes like just scratching an itch. But if you keep obeying the Word that you hear, you will sensitise and strengthen the conscience to respond to the right things at the right time.
Hebrews 5:13-14 – “For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.”
– David De Bruyn, Professor of Church History, Shepherds’ Seminary Africa