Do you listen to the Law and the conscience?

INTRODUCTION: This post continues a series of articles that I have been writing lately about the workings of the Law and the conscience and how those two diagnose sin and restrain sin. RMB

GENTILE SINS AND JEWISH SINS

It is obvious from history and from reading Romans 1:18-3:9 that the sins of the Gentiles were more flagrant and more frequent that the sins of the Jews. Read Romans 1:18-32 and observe that the type of sin and the degree of sin among the Gentiles are quite different from the sins among the Jews in Romans 2:1-3:9. (An interesting exercise is to read the prophet Amos 1:3-2:8 and see a similar thing taking place in that passage. The LORD first judges the pagan nations for their sins (1:3-2:3), which are barbaric and heinous, but He then judges Judah and Israel for their sins, which are milder by comparison, but are more abominable before the LORD because these are people who are supposed to be obedient to the LORD and who have the Law and the covenants to guide them.) This difference in the nature of the sins of Gentiles compared to the sins of the Jewish people is explained in part by the fact that the Jews had their conscience plus God’s Law to restrain their sinful behavior, while the Gentiles had only their consciences.

THE PURPOSE OF THE LAW AND THE CONSCIENCE

There is more to say about this, but before we do that, we should remember that the function of both the Law and the conscience is to warn a person of their own sin. God has graciously given every person a conscience so that they can sense when they have violated God’s holy Law (Rom. 2:14-15) and can confess that sin and repent. The Lord also by His grace gave the Jews the privilege of possessing His holy Law (Rom. 3:1-2). But as gracious as both the conscience and the Law were, neither one had any real power to restrain sin. The Law and the conscience could help someone know about their sin, but they are powerless to prevent sin or to atone for sin. Unless and until a person is converted and becomes a new creation by faith in Christ Jesus (2 Cor. 5:17), they remain a slave of sin and are no match for the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil. So, the Law and the conscience are diagnostic instruments given to reveal a person’s sin so that the person can confess their sin and repent.

RESPONSES TO THE LAW AND THE CONSCIENCE

THE CONSCIENCE: We have stated that, while the conscience is given to bring awareness of sin, it has no power to restrain sin . . . directly. But by creating an awareness of sin, the conscience can restrain sin indirectly through the guilt and shame that comes from an awareness of sin. The conscience is that inner voice within a man or woman which acts like the Law of God and cries out “Sinner!” The one who has sinned has now been accused, and to relieve their feelings of guilt, they may cease from their sinful behavior. In this indirect way, the conscience can help restrain a person’s sin.

What is the problem with this theory? The problem is not with the operation of the conscience but is with the sinner’s ability to ignore and silence the conscience’s warnings. In the unconverted person, the desire of the flesh to sin coupled with the person’s love of sin and their slavery to sin all work together to drive their behavior toward sin. A person may start out in life with a conscience that is tender and sensitive, and which creates feelings of guilt when the person sins, but as they grow into childhood and adolescence and adulthood, their ability to sin and their love of sin continue to grow while the voice of the conscience remains at the same volume. The unconverted person learns to ignore the voice of their conscience and becomes skilled at smothering any feelings of guilt generated by the conscience. In this way, the conscience is soon rendered useless both as a warning mechanism and as a restraining influence in the life of the unbeliever. This means that the Gentile of Romans 1:18-32 and the modern-day American who has never been exposed to the moral teachings of the Bible only need to silence the small voice of the conscience in order to sin with impunity.

That describes the unbeliever’s response to the conscience. But what about those people who are like the Jews described in Romans 2:1-3:9 who, in addition to their conscience, also have the Law? Are they restrained by the Law of God, by the commandments that reveal the holiness of the God of Israel?

THE LAW: The teaching of the New Testament is that the Law of God is His primary diagnostic instrument. While all people possess a conscience, almost all people also learn to sear their consciences as with a branding iron (1 Timothy 4:2), but the Law is explicitly stated to be the revealer of sin. Romans 3:20 and Romans 7:7 declare that the Law brings the knowledge of sin, so we would expect that the Law would be a better restrainer of sin than the conscience. Also, the person who knew the Law would seem to have two restrainers of sin, the restraint that every person has from their conscience, but also the added restraint of the Law. Does this theory agree with what we see in life and in Scripture?

No, it does not. The Law is a better revealer of sin, but the Law is not a better restrainer of sin. The unconverted person who has their sin revealed by the Law feels more guilt, but instead of regretting that sin and repenting of that sin, the unbelieving sinner will typically reframe the sin so they can eliminate the feelings of guilt and shame. In 1 Samuel 15, Saul is caught in a direct violation of the LORD’s command, yet he shrugs it off as unimportant and something that the people made him do. In the Garden of Eden, instead of confessing and repenting, Eve blamed the serpent and Adam blamed Eve. This is the pattern for the unconverted. Although obviously guilty of sin based on the revealed will of God, he denies his culpability and maintains his innocence because “the Law doesn’t apply to him” or because “he didn’t really break the Law.”

HATING AND RESENTING THE LAW AND THE CONSCIENCE

What the Law and the conscience have in common is that both these gracious gifts from God that help the sinner see his sin are hated and resisted by the unconverted sinner. As soon in life as possible, the unbeliever learns to silence and smother the conscience, because he does not want anything restricting his freedom to enjoy his sin. Likewise, the unbeliever who has fallen into the unpleasant situation of being exposed to the Law, either in its true form as the commandments of Scripture or in its twisted form as commandments from a form of religion (e.g., Catholicism), detests and resents that Law. The Law is perceived as simply the means the powerful use to control those under their thumb.

The next post will be about how the believer views the Law and the conscience.

SDG                 rmb                 12/3/2021                   #463

God’s grace demonstrated in conscience (Romans 2:14-15)

INTRODUCTION: Yesterday we talked about the Law and about how this instrument that God gave us to diagnose the disease of our sin (see Romans 3:20 and Romans 7:7) was twisted into a ladder of performance whereby man could achieve his own righteousness by his own efforts. Today we are going to talk about another diagnostic tool that God has given to man to bring their sin up to the level of consciousness. Today we are going to talk about the conscience.

BACKGROUND

The main purpose of Romans 1:18-3:20 is to bring all readers to the unmistakable awareness that they are sinners under the wrath of God. Paul is acting as a prosecuting attorney to drive all people, Jew or Gentile, to the realization that they are under the Lord’s just condemnation for their sin. Paul’s main witness for the prosecution for establishing the sin of all people is the Law which God had given through Moses at Sinai. Even though the Law was given to the Jews and had remained unknown among the Gentiles (Romans 3:1-2), the Gentiles were still condemned by their own sin. Listen to Romans 2:12:

For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law. – Romans 2:12

This verse makes unambiguously clear that it is not the knowledge of your sin that condemns you, but it is the existence of your sin that brings you under God’s wrath. The Gentiles did not have the Law, and so the Law could not reveal to the Gentile his sin, but he would nevertheless perish in his unrepentant sin.

The issue is our sin. And the issue is always our sin. “The soul that sins will die” (Ezekiel 18:4). “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). We must repent of our sin and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, or we will perish forever in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:15) as punishment for our sin. But for us to repent of our sin, we must be aware of our sin. And so, God in His grace has given us several means for becoming aware of our sin. He has given the Law, as we have already seen, but he has also given the conscience.

THE CONSCIENCE IN ROMANS 2:14-15

Paul speaks of the conscience in Romans 2:14-15, which is the essential biblical teaching on the conscience.

14 For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, 15 in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them. – Romans 2:14-15

Paul starts by declaring that the Gentiles “do not have the Law.” This is what we have already been saying. The written Law was given to Israel and was unknown among the Gentiles. Does that mean that there was no way for the Law of God to be revealed to the Gentiles? No, because even though the Gentiles did not have access to the written Law, they all have a conscience that operates like the Law to reveal their sin to them. As the written Law was the diagnostic tool for showing the children of Israel their sin, so the conscience was the diagnostic tool for the Gentiles.

Let me explain what Paul is saying here in these two verses. Even though the Gentiles do not have access to the written Law and thus are not shown their sin by the written Law, God has graciously given to every Gentile a conscience which operates like a law within themselves (2:14). God has written His Law on every human heart (2:15), and when the Gentile sins, the conscience accuses him (2:15) that he has violated the Law, and when the Gentile accidentally or incidentally or intentionally obeys, the conscience defends him (2:15) as having done right. In this way, the conscience acts as a pseudo-Law to make the Gentile aware of their sin. Thus, the conscience is “a law within themselves” (2:14) for the Gentiles.

What we see, then, is that the conscience serves the same function as the Law in making the sinner aware of their sin, but the voice of the conscience is much softer than the voice of the Law and is also more easily muffled or silenced.

SUMMARY

We have seen that, as the written Law made sin known to the Jew, so the indwelling conscience, operating as a pseudo-Law, makes sin known to the Gentile. God has graciously given these means for revealing sin to every man so that no one needs to remain ignorant of his sin. Next time, we will continue this line of thought and see why the conscience also fails to restrain the Gentile from sin.

SDG                 rmb                 11/30/2021                 #462

The conscience, the Law, and sin – Part 1: The conscience

In the next several days I will be writing two articles, one on the conscience and sin, and one on the Law and sin. The connection is that the conscience and the Law are two of God’s means of grace which bring our sin to our attention so that we can repent. These articles will examine how the natural man responds to these God-given means of grace.

The conscience and sin

What do we know about the conscience from the Bible? We will look at a passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans that addresses the conscience and use that as our starting point. Then we will examine several other verses that further inform our understanding of our conscience and try to apply those ideas to our lives.

For when Gentiles, who do not have the Law, do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves in that they show the work of the Law written on their heart, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternatively accusing or else defending them on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus. – Romans 2:14-16

Paul writes that “Gentiles do not have the Law,” but they do have a conscience. From this we can conclude that all people are born with a conscience. This is, in fact, what the whole Bible makes plain. All people have a God-given sin-detector called a conscience. Whether Jew or Gentile, or believer or unbeliever. A conscience is part of the standard equipment for all people.

The function of the conscience

What is the function of the conscience? Since not everyone knows about the moral Law of God as written in the Bible, God in His grace has given everyone a conscience to reveal to us our sin so that we can be led to repentance (Romans 2:4). In fact, as we read the passage above more carefully, we see that the conscience does “the work of the Law.” The conscience functions as a copy of “the Law written on our heart,” and it either accuses us of sin or acquits us of not-sin as we go through our lives. Here is how this might work. As I am talking to someone, I tell them what I know to be a lie. My conscience immediately convicts me of that sin, and I know that I have lied, and thus I have the opportunity to repent. Or else I walk past a co-worker’s cubicle and see that he has left his wallet on his desk while he went out to lunch. I could steal the wallet, but I resist, and my conscience defends me because I did not steal. The conscience, then, is evidence of God’s grace, revealing to us our sin so that we can repent.

Before we leave this passage, we should also notice that there is a vitally important reason why we need to repent. You see, there is a judgment coming. There will be a day in the future when “God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.” On that day, all sin that has not been forgiven will receive the full wrath of God through Christ Jesus. The sins that you think are safely secret are all known to God, and you will be judged for them. The sins that are unknown to you are all known to God, and you will be condemned by them (Romans 2:12). So, the natural man needs to listen to his conscience and repent of his sin.

The limitations of the conscience

Since everyone has a conscience, we would expect that people would be aware of their sin and would often repent of it, but this is definitely not the case. Why is this not the case? It is because of the limitations of the conscience in the face of the fallenness of man.

First, while the conscience convicts of sin universally, it convicts of sin weakly. The pang of guilt from the conscience is never that sharp, so the natural man learns very quickly how to ignore and silence the conscience. The Bible says that the conscience can be seared (1 Timothy 4:2), and the conscience can be defiled (Titus 1:15). In both these cases, the convicting effects of the conscience are silenced, and the people can proceed in their sin with a feeling of impunity. The sin remains and condemns, but the conscience’s ability to convict is smothered. This is what all people learn to do as they go through life, to a greater or lesser degree.

But second and more importantly, unsaved man loves his sin. In the gospel of John, he says: “This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the Light and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed (John 3:19-20).” The Bible is clear that the natural man is a slave of sin and he loves his slavery. The unsaved have given themselves over to the desires of their flesh and hate anything that seeks to limit their sin. Thus, unsaved people hate the conscience because they hate to be told about their sin.

Finally, while the conscience can convict of sin, it can only convict of sin. That is, the conscience can make the sinner aware of their sin, but they cannot restrain the sinner from sinning. More than this, the conscience cannot remove from the sinner the guilt and condemnation which they have revealed to the sinner. The conscience tells the sinner, “You are guilty of that sin!” The sinner replies, “Oh. How can I be forgiven of that sin?” “I don’t know,” says the conscience. In some sense, the conscience is like a fire alarm in your house. The fire alarm is good at letting you know that there is a fire in your house. Its piercing shriek is designed to basically wake the dead so that you are aware of the danger. But if you are relying on the alarm to save you from the fire, you will be sadly disappointed. An alarm without a separate escape plan is a casualty. Just so, your conscience can do nothing about your sin except to point out your guilt. If you do not have a way of being forgiven of that sin, you will surely perish in the judgment.

The answer to revealed sin

If the conscience cannot remove my sin or forgive my sin, then what am I to do? There is only one way to be forgiven of any sin, whether known or unknown, whether revealed by the conscience or by some other means.

“In Him (Jesus) we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses (Ephesians 1:7).”

            It is only through repentance of your sin and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ that you can have forgiveness of sins. If your conscience is bothering you and you are convicted of your guilt before a holy God, confess your sins, and repent, and come to Jesus in faith. (1 John 1:9; Mark 1:15)

SDG                 rmb                 1/11/2021

The question of the conscience (Romans 2:15)

The issue in the book of Romans is righteousness, that is, a right standing before God. Paul’s theological masterpiece describes how God legally grants righteousness to those who are manifestly unrighteous and sinful, and who, because of their unrighteousness, deserve His wrath and condemnation. The means of obtaining this righteousness is the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, which is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Romans 1:16).” If a person hears and responds to the gospel, they will be saved (Romans 10:9-10), but if they do not, they remain condemned (John 3:18, 36).

AWARENESS OF SIN

One of the critical components of the gospel message is for a person to come to an awareness of their own sin. This is where the conscience fits in. God has created man as a moral creature, and that means that we are all accountable to God for every disobedience of His commandments. So that we can know when we have broken one of God’s commandments, God has given every human being a conscience. And what does the conscience do?

            Romans 2:15 puts it this way:

They (the Gentiles) show that the work of the Law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.

            Paul is saying that the conscience makes the sinner aware of their sin by functioning like a copy of the Law written on their heart. The same God who issued His holy Law at Sinai is the God who has, by the conscience, written a copy of His Law on every human heart. So, when you or I violate one of God’s commandments, our conscience is provoked and accuses us of sin, and we experience guilt, as we should. And this is true for every human being, regardless of any external factors. God has given everyone a conscience so that we would all be aware of our sin and would, perhaps, seek for the Savior.

            But is the conscience enough to bring about salvation? No, it is not. The conscience renders all people guilty of violating God’s Law but offers no relief from the guilt. My conscience merely leaves me without excuse, justly deposited on death row without an apparent hope of pardon. My conscience reveals to me my unrighteousness but tells me nothing about where righteousness lies. The necessary bridge between a guilty conscience and the joy of righteousness is the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is only by faith in the crucified and risen Lord that my guilt is washed away.

APPLICATION

            Because all people have a conscience, all people should be aware of their sin and guilt. In our evangelism, then, we can be confident that some will be sensitive to their own unrighteousness and will be open to hearing about a forgiving Savior.

SDG                 rmb                 10/27/2020