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)

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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.

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