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