The Christian And His Conscience
Lecture by Rev. John A. Heys, March 6, 1958, in South Holland, Illinois
Read Romans 2
They only who are willingly blind can fail to see that the world wherein we live is rapidly developing in sin. The columns in the newspaper every day are filled with records of crime, bloodshed, violence, war and strife, immorality of every sort, fraud, deceit and intrigue. The stage of development to which we have come may easily be seen from all the juvenile delinquency and teenage crime wherein mere children perform the most atrocious crimes, and when apprehended are sorry, not for the sins, but for the fact that they no longer have the liberty to continue in their wickedness. It is not strange at all; therefore, that even the world today frequently asks the question, “Has man lost his conscience?” It is to be expected that even in the world the question is raised, “Have we brought into this world a generation that is born without a conscience?” Even when we come a little closer to the sphere of the church, we come in contact with those who at least have knowledge of the terminology of Scripture, and you are not surprised to hear them ask whether the generation that has appeared in the world in our day has not come into this world with a conscience that is seared with a hot iron, meaning thereby with a conscience that is warped and distorted and no longer gives a true testimony, but rather calls darkness light and excuses all manner of wickedness.
That brings up a very interesting question. In fact, very many interesting questions. “Is that after all the meaning of Scripture when it speaks of consciences that are seared with a hot iron?” “Is it true that a man can be born in this world without a conscience?” “Is it possible for a man to lose his conscience?” Because of all these questions, I was very happy to be asked to speak on the subject, “THE CHRISTIAN AND HIS CONSCIENCE”, and although my subject deals with “The Christian ….and His Conscience,” nevertheless, many of these questions are related to that matter. As I said, there are many interesting questions related to the subject that will be presented for answer tonight. You have first of all the basic question, “What does Scripture mean by our conscience?” and in close connection therewith, “What is that conscience?” “Is it a function of one or more of our faculties, or is that conscience a faculty itself?” Then too, you have the interesting question: “Why do our fathers call our consciences the “books that shall be opened” (in the last article of the Netherlands Confession, in speaking of the judgment day when God shall open the books)? Again, “What does Scripture mean when Scripture speaks of a good conscience, of an evil conscience, of a weak conscience, and of a strong conscience?”
Let me begin and call your attention to the matter upon which I was asked to speak, namely, “The Christian and His Conscience.” I would like to call your attention to three things: 1.) The Christian and the nature of his conscience, for as we will see there certainly is a distinctive quality to the conscience of the child of God, 2.) The Christian and the testimony of his conscience, and 3.) The Christian and the strengthening of his conscience.
I might begin by giving you a definition of a conscience according to the truth as we find it in Scripture; then I would say that a man’s conscience is that activity or faculty of his heart and of his mind according to which he has a certain knowledge, assurance, or consciousness of, and whereby he agrees with, God’s judgment of his works according to their ethical and moral value. Let me explain. The very word “conscience” itself ought to make plain to all of us that the conscience has to do with knowledge. If you drop the prefix “con” from “conscience” you find you have the word “science” left and if you will consult Webster, he will tell you that science is knowledge, especially a systematic knowledge. Or if you will refer to the Dutch word for conscience, “geweten” and you drop the prefix “gel’ once again, you have “weten” and the Dutch for science is “wetenschap”, you understand that we deal with knowledge. Even our English word “conscience” corresponds very closely to Scripture’s word which, like our word “conscience” is composed of the prefix “with” or “con” and a form of the verb “to know”. So literally conscience is “to know with” or “to have knowledge with.” If you refer to Scripture you find that we must not talk in the way of philosophy and we must not say as the philosophers do that the conscience is that faculty whereby we know with ourselves. No – that “with” in the word “conscience” refers to the fact that we have knowledge with God.
The very first instance in Scripture where there is evidence of conscience is in Paradise. Adam and Eve knew that they were naked. They knew that with God. Therefore they made their fig leaf aprons. Therefore they hid under the trees in the garden. But if you want to know more particularly from the Word of God, then the passage that was read a moment ago, (Romans 2) certainly makes it plain to us that our conscience is an activity of heart and mind according to which we have knowledge with God of our acts as to their ethical, moral value. More particularly we find that in verse 15. Paul is speaking here of the heathen. He writes, “Which show the works of the law written in their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness and their thoughts the meanwhile accusing or else excusing one another.” I want to say at this point that I am deeply indebted to Rev. H. Hoeksema for his exegesis of this passage and of other passages wherein the word “conscience” may be found; and therefore, for the doctrinal and exegetical background of my speech tonight. You may note then that Paul, speaking here of the heathen, says that they have the work of the law written in their hearts, and because they have the works of the law written in their hearts, their consciences accuse or excuse one another. Very plainly then, when God is law and the works of God’s law are written in man’s heart, man has knowledge with God, Who has made that law, and according to which He has created man. Man has knowledge with God of all his deeds as to their ethical, moral value.
We may say too that the conscience of man always acts after the deed has been performed, never before. Sometimes we hear the expression, “Let your conscience be your guide.” That is all right but let us remember that the fact and the desire must arise in the heart and in the mind before our conscience can work with respect to that particular act. That our conscience always works after the deed does not necessarily mean that the external or outward deed must first be performed. But the thought arises in our minds and immediately our conscience passes judgment with God as to whether it is right or wrong, so that man has knowledge of God’s judgment of his work, and according to that conscience he also agrees with God as to the ethical, moral value of his work. Let us put it this way: in our consciences or with our consciences we in this life already have a faint preview of the judgment. Think it over, each time our conscience speaks with regard to anything you and I have done, we have a faint… I say, a faint preview of what God is going to say regarding that work in the day of days. That is I believe why our Netherlands Confession speaks of our consciences as being a book that will be opened. In that day, as we read from Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians, “that we all shall appear before the judgment seat of Christ.” (II Corinthians 5:10). The same thing is mentioned in Romans 2immediately after verse 15, wherein we have the statement of the consciences of the heathen accusing or excusing, Paul says, “In the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel.” We shall be exposed. That’s what Paul really says in II Corinthians 5:10.
We shall be exposed before the judgment seat of Christ. All our works – thinking and willing as well as external deeds – shall be exposed; they shall be revealed in that day as to God’s opinion of them from an ethical, moral viewpoint. We have that in this life already, when our consciences accuse or excuse!
It is possible for us to have a conscience and to have that knowledge with God, and for us to agree with God exactly, because there is the testimony of the Holy Spirit in every man through the eternal Logos, the Word of God. John makes mention of that in his Gospel narrative, the first chapter. John begins by saying, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” John goes on stating, “all things were made by him (that Word),” and in verse 9, “That was the true light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” The Holy Spirit witnesses in the heart of every man, woman and child that enters into this world, lights them, gives them that natural light of which we read also in the Canons of Dordt. We are well acquainted with Article 4 (Third & Fourth Head) where we read of the glimmerings of the natural light that are left in man after the fall. That same idea is here. It is by those glimmerings of natural light that God gives witness of Himself to every man, woman and child that enters into this world, so that there is not a man, woman or child who can stand with an excuse in the day of days. The Word of God, the eternal Logos, lights every man that cometh in this world. That is why we can have a conscience (God speaking). This is evidenced in the passages quoted above, includingRomans 2:15, “which show the work of the law written in their hearts.” The works of the law are written in the hearts of the heathen. This is true. Therefore, even the heathen, no matter where he may be in heathendom, no matter how far he may have been born away from the pale of the church away from the testimony of God in Holy Writ, has written in his heart by the Holy Spirit through the eternal Logos the works of the law. Therefore, in answer to those questions I asked at the beginning, it certainly is impossible that a generation would be born that has no conscience. The same is true as to the question of whether a man can lose his conscience. He cannot. You cannot lose your conscience. That is quite impossible. You cannot stifle it. You cannot stop it. Can you stop the Holy Spirit from His work? Can you stop the Almighty God from giving testimony from moment to moment in the hearts and the minds of all men that He is? Of course not: That testimony is there and what is more, when we make the final step, we may say that the conscience of every single man, woman and child, elect or reprobate, regenerated or not regenerated, heathen or civilized, that conscience, is always infallible. It never speaks anything different from what the Spirit speaks as He has written in their hearts the works of the law.
Oh, I know that raises again many interesting questions. There are those …Jesus tells us of them…. who in the day of days will say, “Lord, did not we cast out devils in Thy Name and did not we do this and did we not do that in thy Name?” They had a conscience apparently of having done things which were good and apparently that conscience did not accuse them, but rather excused them and even commended them. That is not so, It is not true at all. The Spirit, as He speaks to every man, woman and child through the eternal Logos even apart from the written word of God, always speaks the truth, and man must and does always agree with it and declares that he knows that he has sinned against the living God. We must not forget that besides having a conscience, we have a wicked heart. We have an evil nature and with that evil nature and with that wicked heart we like to oppose our conscience. We refuse to listen to it. Man becomes so hardened in his crime and wickedness that he does not feel the sting of that conscience as he formerly did; nevertheless, you may be sure that every heretic in the depth of his being in the innermost recesses of his soul knows that he is a heretic. You may be sure that every man, no matter how piously he may speak, no matter how vehemently he may maintain that he knows that he is walking in God’s way, in the bottom of his heart, he knows that he is wrong. As I say, he may have walked in it so long and he may have consistently refused to listen to that conscience so that he deceives himself, but the fact remains that all through life till the moment of his death his conscience continues to speak and God continues to give witness of Himself as God, as the works of the law are written continually and indelibly in his soul.
But let me come a little closer to my subject, “The Christian and His Conscience.” The conscience of the Christian, as I said, has its own distinct quality. All that I said about the conscience, you understand, applies to the Christian. He has the same kind of conscience, he too. Every man is lightened by that eternal Logos through the Holy Spirit. But there is something extra for the conscience of the child of God; that is this: not only is the Christian instructed and guided by that eternal Logos – that eternal Word of God – but he is also instructed and guided by the Scriptures as they are applied, not simply by the Holy Spirit as the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, but by the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit as He is given to the exalted, glorified Christ to pour out on the Church and to lead that Church into all the truth. That is not a different Logos. That is not a different Word of God. The revelation of God in creation is not contradicted by the Word of God in Scripture.
When the works of the law are written in the hearts of all men, God does not give a witness of Himself that is denied or that is opposed by the witness of God, as He reveals Himself in the Word of God ? the Scriptures. How could that be? The Holy Spirit, Who writes the words of the law in the hearts of all men, is the same one of whom we read in Paul’s Epistle to Timothy that, “All Scripture is given by inspiration…”, by the same Spirit of God. The Spirit of truth never lies, no. But wet know that the Word of God, as He reveals Himself in Holy Writ, is a richer, a clearer manifestation of the same truth that is written in the hearts of all men by the Spirit through the eternal Logos. That is why the Psalmist inPsalm 119 says in verse 99, “I have more understanding than all my teachers for thy testimonies are my meditation.” That is why the Psalmist says in Psalm 111:10,”The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” That is why it is so very wrong for those who claim to walk in the way of God’s precepts, who claim to be disciples of Christ, then to try to harmonize Scripture with science, so-called. Rather let science so-called be harmonized with Scripture. There is no contradiction. The same God Who created the world, the same God who upholds them all by the Word of His power, wrote His Word, speaks His Word, had it recorded and preserved and there is no contradiction. There is nothing in the Word of God that denies anything that He reveals of Himself in creation.
But this we must understand: the Word of God which was in the beginning, by Whom all things were made and was the true light that lighteth every man that cometh in the world, is the same Word as stated in John 1:14, “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld His glory, the glory of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” In His grace the Triune God sent that eternal Word, the second Person of the Holy Trinity, into our flesh, sent Him to suffer and die that all our guilt and our evil works might be atoned, and that He might appear before the face of God in the glories of heaven, there to receive the Spirit and to recreate us, as we read in Ephesians 2:10, “We are… created in Christ Jesus unto good works”, works of which our consciences can say, “They are good because they come from God.”
We Christians, who are partakers of Christ’s anointing, have a conscience that is instructed by the word of God, a conscience that is controlled and guided as by that Word of God. This is done, I say, by the application of the Spirit of Christ as He is poured out in the Church. The natural light, the glimmerings of natural light that remained in man after the fall, that is not peculiar to some. That is general. That is to be found in all men. But the child of God in whom the Spirit of Christ dwells has the added testimony of the Word of God in the Scriptures, and he has it applied to his heart by the Spirit of Christ. Therefore, we may say that the conscience of the Christian is that activity of his heart and of his mind according to which he receives the knowledge, the assurance, the consciousness of, and whereby he agrees with, all that the living God declares to His people in the Scriptures.
That brings me to my second point. What then does the conscience of the Christian testify to him? I say there are two things. In the first place the conscience of the Christian continually testifies to him as long as he is in this life, that as far as he is by nature, he is a damnable sinner, hopelessly guilty before the living, God, I say, all through this life. You cannot get away from it. The Scripture is full of instances that reveal that fact to us.
I already referred to the fact that Adam and Eve knew that they were naked, knew their guilt before God, knew that they were the objects of His wrath as far as they were by nature. You know about Adam and Eve, you might argue. You might say that was not all through their lives but was at the very beginning. They had just fallen; were they really regenerated before that? Were they really at that time Christians? But let that go for the moment. I am reminded for example of Isaac. You remember when Isaac tried to bless Esau, when through deceit Jacob came in covered with animal skin and the clothing of Esau, and had been blessed by his father Isaac and had gone his way. Then Esau came in and Isaac said, “Who is here?” and Esau said, “I am, father. You told me to get the venison. I did and here I am. I am seeking a blessing”. Then we read, “Isaac trembled.” His conscience bothered him. He understood how close he had come to disobeying the living God, whereas: he had wanted to bless Esau and God had made it very plain that Jacob should receive the blessing. He was conscience of his guilt, and his guilt made him tremble.
Or again if you will, remember David? His conscience told him very plainly that he had sinned with Bathsheba and that he had committed murder in slaying Uriah. When the spoken word of God came to him applied personally by the prophet Nathan, who said, “Thou art the man:”, David broke down in the consciousness of guilt. The result of it is that we have the beautiful 51st Psalm.
Remember Peter, that same Peter who had said, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God”? Jesus had said to him, “Blessed art thou Peter.” He was a blessed child of God, and when he denied Jesus and Christ caught his eye, he went out and he wept bitterly.
What of the three thousand on the day of Pentecost where we read that they “were pricked in their hearts”, when Peter explained to them how that they had taken the Son of God and with wicked hands had slain Him? Their consciences bothered them and they were also very, very conscious of their guilt.
Do we not sing in Psalter No. 170, “Our sins rise up against us, prevailing day by day.”? I always marvel whenever I read in Scripture how every time an angel of God appeared, the people of God were frightened and each time the angel had to say, “Fear not.” But the fact is that conscience makes us know the guilt is there. How could it be otherwise? Regeneration, beloved, does not blot out or drown out the voice of the Spirit as He witnesses through the Logos in the hearts of every man. The very opposite is true. The child of God, the Christian who has been regenerated and in whom the Spirit of Christ dwells, can understand that law of God more perfectly, more clearly, more deeply than the heathen, the unregenerated. He understands and he is given to see that which the living God requires. Oh, heathen men of which Paul speaks in Romans 2 certainly also knew that they were sinning against the living God, although they did not know God as the God of their salvation. Nevertheless, he who is given the Spirit of Christ hears the Word of God more clearly because here God has revealed Himself and His will and His law more clearly than when He writes the words of the law in the heart.
So we can expect that in this life the conscience of the Christian will continually testify to him of himself as he is by nature, a sinner worthy of eternal condemnation, hopelessly ignorant of God. It must be that way too, for do not forget that if you and I did not have the conscience of Him, we would never confess our sins. There would be no godly sorrow. There would be no confession. There would be no fleeing to Calvary for the assurance and the confidence of forgiveness in the blood of Christ. So you see, in the first place, that the conscience in the Christian performs a very wonderful work.
As we read in the Heidelberg Catechism, to have our only comfort in life and death, we have to have the knowledge of our misery. It is in and through man’s conscience that the Word of God testifies to him through the clear revelation of the Scriptures, and says to him, “You do nothing but break God’s law. You are continually walking in the way of wickedness and you can not do anything else.” Let the conscience serve the child of God to give him the knowledge of what a hopelessly miserable creature he is, totally depraved and inclined to all evil.
In the second place in that very same way, God from a psychological viewpoint prepares His people for the knowledge of their deliverance. You cannot have the knowledge your deliverance without first knowing of your guilt and that is why we have those principles in our Heidelberg Catechism. They belong together. You do not go to school for a long time to learn your misery, then after you have learned about that pretty well, you can graduate and learn about your deliverance. No, they belong together. They are two sides of the one whole. So, the conscience of the child of God that causes him to understand and know his sin is used by the living God also to point him to Christ and to the full and free salvation that he has in Him. That is why the conscience of the Christian is so distinctive from the conscience of the ungodly. The conscience of the Christian testifies to him, he has knowledge with God and he agrees with God that in Christ he is perfectly righteous – absolutely righteous.
Scripture speaks of that by stating that the child of God has a good conscience. Paul speaks of that repeatedly. Let me read a few verses. Paul writes for example in I Timothy 1:5, “Now the end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience,” and verse 19, Holding faith, and a good conscience; which some having put away concerning faith have made shipwreck.” Then too you all know of Enoch, as we read in Hebrews 11:5, “before his translation, he had this testimony that he pleased God,” – a good conscience. A good conscience, I may say is not a conscience that is in good order. As I said a moment ago, every conscience is infallible in this respect that it always speaks what God speaks, even though man may oppose it and may not listen to it. The conscience of every man is always in good order in the sense that it always speaks the truth. But a good conscience according to Scripture is a conscience that gives a good testimony; that testifies to the subject that he is good in God’s sight, as we read here of Enoch. “Before his translation he had this testimony that he pleased God.” In Hebrews 10:22, where the author says, “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience.” Here you have the other side, that an evil conscience is a conscience that testifies to the individual that his works are evil in God’s sight. The author says, “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience.” The idea is that the sprinkling of the blood of Christ on the altar, on the mercy seat, on the ark behind the veil in the holy of holies, was symbolic of the fact that the blood of Christ was shed and blots out all our iniquities and makes us righteous before God. So by taking hold by faith of the full assurance of faith, taking hold of that blood of Christ which was shed for us, we receive a good conscience. We receive the testimony in our souls that in God’s sight we are pleasing and that we are typically righteous.
That can never be the case with any but the children of God. The world always has an evil conscience, it can not be otherwise. To say that a conscience is seared with a hot iron does not mean, as most people think, that that conscience is warped, that it is out of shape, that it no longer gives a testimony. A conscience that is seared with a hot iron is still infallible in its testimony. It still agrees with God and says what God says in regard to sin. It is very plain what the figure “seared with a hot iron” is – branding, even as animals are branded with the insignia of a particular ranch or owner in order that they may be kept apart and may be recognized.
When Paul speaks in I Timothy 4:2, “Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron,” it means God puts a brand mark on the consciences of these men and that brand mark is evil. God brands their work as evil and they know it in their consciences. But that conscience still works, and because it works, it exactly says to the possessor of it, “You are evil in the sight of the living God.” I know that there is somewhat of a problem when in Romans 2:15 you read of their consciences that their minds are excusing as well as accusing each other. Remember those are the heathen. That does not mean that the heathen apart from the regenerating grace of Christ are able to do works that are pleasing in God’s sight. That certainly is not the case at all. It is impossible without faith to please God, as we read in Hebrews 11:6 (in regard to Enoch), “But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.”
Remember in the first place the heathen in relationship to each other, man to man and as far as the external deed is concerned, can certainly say one of the other, you did not steal, you did not commit murder. But that conscience in which the works of the law are written will never say to the heathen, “You love God, though.” It simply will say in the external sense of the word, “You have not murdered, you have not committed adultery, you have not lied, you have not stolen, you have not done this or that to harm your neighbor.”
Do not forget too, that the Canons in Article 4 (Third & Fourth Head), states that even with those glimmerings of natural light, the natural man is incapable of doing anything good, and is wholly polluted. Let me read that to you: “There remain, however, in man since the fall, the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the differences between good and evil, and discovers some regard for virtue, good order in society, and for maintaining an orderly external deportment.” Nothing is said about loving God. But notice, “…So far is this light of nature from being sufficient to bring him to a saving knowledge of God, and to true conversion, that he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil.” Now, where can there be any civic righteousness in the unregenerated? Our Confessions certainly deny it. “Nay further, this light, such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted, and holds it in unrighteousness by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God,” so that even though between themselves the one excuses the other, they are not inexcusable before God. The ungodly can never have a good conscience. They always have an evil conscience.
We are reminded of the time when the miserable Pharisees tried to act as if they were walking according to their consciences and as if they were pretty good people. Their consciences did not seem to bother them. Remember the time when they brought a women taken in adultery to Jesus. Jesus paid no attention to them and wrote on the ground, but they insist, and then Jesus said, “If anyone of you is without sin, let him cast the first stone.” Then we read this, “and when they heard it, being convicted of their own conscience, they went out one by one” – they had an evil conscience, you understand, an evil conscience. There is nothing in the Word of God, not any promise, not any hope, for the reprobate. They can never have the testimony of God that they are good; therefore, their conscience always testifies with God, what He says always gives them the knowledge of the fact that they are evil.
But the child of God has a good conscience. He has the knowledge, and he agrees with that knowledge that God gives him, that he is good. That is true in a two-fold sense. In the first place, of course, the child of God is absolutely righteous in Christ; all the guilt of which his conscience speaks is taken away, although he is still aware of it all through this life, his conscience always testifies, and that always has the victory over the sin that rises up against him prevailing day by day before God. In the second place, his own works are good. No, not in the sense of his own works performed in his own power, but as I said a moment ago, quoting from Ephesians 2:10, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” Or again, as Paul speaks in II Corinthians 1:13, “For our rejoicing is this, the testimony of our conscience, that in simplicity and godly sincerity, not with fleshly wisdom, but by the grace of God, we have had our conversation in the world.” Notice, ‘in simplicity and godly sincerity.‘ That means in simplicity and sincerity which we receive from God. The child of God receives good works which have been before ordained for him. He receives them as a gift from God; therefore, he has the testimony in his heart also when he walks in them that he is pleasing in God’s sight, and presently in the day of days the words of Jesus will be heard (and how God’s people will rejoice), “Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.”
Let me say, beloved, the Christian in his conscience also has a preview of that judgment day. With his conscience he takes hold of the Word of God and knows and agrees with it, and says, “Yea Lord, I am righteous. I have no fear of that judgment day because I know that all my guilt is blotted out in the blood of Christ.”
The Christian has comfort. Let us take hold of that. The Christian has comfort and peace in all his persecutions and in all the tribulations that may come upon him, and in all the misery that he suffers at the hand of the ungodly, whether that be the world or whether that be the false church. The conscience of the child of God serves him a wonderful purpose. He has peace. Peter states the same thing – that although the ungodly may persecute us, the child of God has peace because he knows that God is pleased with him – “For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully” (I Peter 2:19). Oh, beloved, take hold of what I said. The heretic knows in his heart that he is a heretic. In spite of all his pious talk, no matter how he may go through the formalities, even praying against us, he knows in the depths of his being that he has departed from the Word of God. But let the Christian, the child of God, find peace in his soul. ‘God is pleased with me no matter what insult or what misery or grief the ungodly will heap upon me.’
There is one more element. Our conscience, our good conscience which only the child of God has, may be weak or it may be strong. Scripture speaks of that and that is why finally I want to call your attention to the strengthening of the conscience. When I say that a conscience may be weak or may be strong, I do not mean weak or strong in its power to testify. Sometimes we hear people talk that way. They say, “Well my conscience hardly speaks. I can hardly hear. It is hardly more than a faint whisper.” But that is not what Scripture means when it speaks of a weak conscience. In fact there is only one instance in Scripture where we read of a weak conscience and that weak conscience speaks powerfully in I Corinthians 8:7, “Howbeit there is not in every man that knowledge, for some with conscience of the idol unto this hour eat it as a thing offered unto an idol, and their conscience being weak is defiled.” These people had a weak conscience; their conscience spoke so powerfully, bothered them so strongly, that they could not possibly eat the meat that was offered unto idols. So a weak conscience is not weak because it does not talk very loud, and we have to strain to hear it. No, but when Scripture speaks of a weak conscience or of a strong conscience it refers rather to the hold that that conscience has on the Word of God. Let me explain. In this particular instance some of the people in Corinth could not eat meat when it was told them that it had been sacrificed to an idol. Their consciences were in error. That may probably cause you to say, “Well, how can that be if a conscience is infallible… how can it be in error?”
First of all, when I say that a conscience is always infallible, I mean that it will never say that what God condemns as evil is good. But there is a certain area wherein the conscience may be in error, because it is not fully instructed. That is the area of what we call the “adiaphora“, things which are neither good nor evil but can be used in a proper sense or can be used in a sinful way. Paul writes to Timothy, “Every creature is good and to be received with thanksgiving.” Take wine for example. To drink wine is not sinful, yet there are people whose conscience is bothered to drink it, even as these people here in Corinth whose consciences were bothered when they heard that their meat had been sacrificed to idols. Paul says they do not have understanding. Their consciences are not fully enough trained, educated and instructed in the Word of God. After all, an idol is nothing. An idol is not God. If a thing is sacrificed to nothing, it is not sacrificed. So Paul says, he who has a strong conscience instructed in the Word of God knows that an idol is nothing; therefore, that meat was not sacrificed to anything. Therefore, it may be eaten and a man with a strong conscience is not bothered. It does not hurt him.
A strong conscience is a conscience that takes hold of the Word of God and with a strong grip on it understands that Word of God and holds tightly to the truth (“I am righteous in Christ”), holds on to the truth of the liberty which he has in Christ that all creatures are ours for Christ’s sake, that we may use them all with thanksgiving before the living God. However, there is another point that is brought out by this passage. There are some in our circles that often use the expression, “We have to live with our consciences,” That is true. You have to live with your conscience. Paul says here that those who think they cannot possibly eat that meat because it is sacrificed to an idol because they think it is sin…. if they do it nevertheless, it is sin. A man who goes contrary to his conscience is certainly sinning. That is the testimony of Paul. He tells you and me not to offend the brother with a weak conscience (I Corinthians 10). If you are stronger and see no sin in it, then by all means take the brother and instruct him. Do not offend him and do not make him go against his conscience. On the other hand, beloved, let us remember this: Let us always subject our own consciences to the Word of God.
The conscience of the child of God can be either weak or strong but it can be strengthened. So live close to the Word of God. Frequent the house of God on the Sabbath to hear His Word, to be instructed in it. Attend your church societies that you may be instructed further in the things of the Word of God, and by all means, for conscience sake, go ahead with your Christian school movement. In the first place for your own conscience. Remember, before God we all said and demanded that it be said, “to the utmost of our power to help or cause them (our children) to be instructed in the doctrine taught here in this Christian Church.” You gave that promise! Now before God, that you may have a good conscience, to the utmost of your power, and when the way is being prepared, I say, go ahead – but also for the conscience sake of your children. Arminianism cannot possibly give you a strong or good conscience. If there is any condition that you or I or our children have to fulfill; or if there is any offer of salvation that you and I have to accept and the power has to come from us, your conscience and my conscience are going to continually say, “Well, I am guilty before God. I cannot do it.” The lie can never give you a good conscience. Only the conscience that is instructed in the truth of the Word of God will know with God and agree with God that the moment your children are taught Arminianism, they can never come to the joy of a conscience that says, “Freely and fully by the grace of God, I am righteous in Christ.”! On the other hand, neither can the world and life view that calls light darkness and finds place for light and darkness to meet and have fellowship, possibly result in a strong conscience. You cannot have a child taught one way on the Sabbath and taught another way during the week and expect that child’s conscience to be strong and have a firm grip upon the Word of God and believe the things that God declares of Himself. So I say, may God bless you in your efforts.
As far as the strengthening of the conscience is concerned, it will be perfected finally in the New Jerusalem. Oh yes, we’ll have a conscience there and it will be strong and it will be good. We will certainly want a conscience in the New Jerusalem. We will have it, because there, as Paul says, “We shall know as we are known.” God knows you and me today, beloved. He knows us as absolutely and perfectly righteous in Christ. In that New Jerusalem when all the mist is taken away, and we no longer look as in a glass darkly, but always before us is Christ as the Lamb slain from before the foundation of the world, we shall know ourselves in that perfect righteousness wherein God now knows us. Then our consciences will give us continual joy. We will see the holy angels of God and we will not fear, because we see Christ and we know that in Him we too are without spot or blemish.