"Always let your conscience be your guide." So sang Jiminy Cricket to the newly "born" Pinocchio. When you don't know what to do, your conscience will always steer your right. Well, for my part, I'll need to have it on better authority than a cricket!
You may wonder why I began with this verse in Proverbs when I intend to write a few things about the conscience; but someone asked me what I thought about the verse, and I shared that I have always surmised that "the spirit of man" in this verse is referring to the conscience. (I was heartened to find out later that others, far more knowledgeable than I, agreed.) It may entail more than just the conscience, for instance, innate knowledge, and the powers of reasoning. But I do tend to think that since God can only be worshipped in "spirit and truth" (Jno.4:24), this is the part of our triune being (body, soul, spirit) that makes us conscious of an all-knowing, all-seeing God, which may, in turn, lead to full recognition and acceptance of Him, depending on what we choose to do with the light from the "candle."
Am I saying that all men have a "Divine spark?" No, indeed! I am not gullible enough to fall for the Gnostic/New Age philosophy that insists we all have God within us, and we have only to recognize this power in order to claim anything and everything we want. Scriptures such as Psalm 14:3; Jeremiah 17:9; and John 3:10-18, to name but a few, make it abundantly clear that there is nothing inside any of us that would enamor us to God. When the Holy Spirit takes up residence in a repentant sinner, it does not make him or her "Divine"; it merely makes that individual accepted —"accepted in the beloved," as a matter fact (Eph.1:6). There is only one Divine Being in this and any other universe, and that is Almighty God, who has manifested Himself as three-fold—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Case closed.
Having said this, I want us to look at this thing of conscience two ways: biblically and practically. We have to identify it, not as philosophers or psychologists do, but as God does, if we want to find out the truth about any subject. But, as a student of the Word (2 Tim. 2:15), I always want my knowledge to be a working knowledge, not just a knowing knowledge. If God has given me the gift of conscience, I want to know what to do with it. Don't you?
My Conscience and the Bible
First, I will tell you that the word "conscience" (Latin: "with knowing" or "co-knowing") is not found in the Old Testament and only once in the Gospels. We do find it thirty-one times in all, and to a great extent, in the writings of the Apostle Paul. To be sure, the idea of conscience is seen in such places as when Adam and Eve hid themselves from God, after they had disobeyed His orders, and when it was said of David on two occasions that his "heart smote him" (1 Sam. 24:5; 2 Sam. 24:10). But it is left to Paul, Peter, and the writer of Hebrews to supply us with essential truths about the conscience. The following are just a few that were especially helpful to me. Be sure to read the cited verses to get the full effect of the truth and to verify (or not) my assumptions:
1. Conscience lets us know we have offended God (Acts 24:16). Someone has said, "Conscience is not an 'inner light' that will ultimately lead us to God, but an 'inner guilt' that tells us we have offended someone to whom we shall have to answer.
2. Conscience is one reason why the heathen are lost (Rom. 2:14-15). It is that innate sense of right, wrong, justice, and injustice found in all classes and cultures, whether heeded or spurned.
3. A guilty conscience can be purged from remembrance of sin ("dead works") (Heb.9:14). Conscience is not deactivated at salvation, but rather, re-commissioned. Its main job now being to forewarn, not accuse.
4. Conscience can convict us of things we have failed to do as well as those we have done, for example, failure to follow the Lord in baptism or to practice good citizenship (1 Pet.3:21; Rom. 13:3-7).
5. Conscience is not infallible. It can be seared [and rendered unfeeling] (1 Tim. 4:2); weakened (1 Cor. 8:10); become defiled (Tit. 1:15); and even darkened (Lk. 11:35).
6. Conscience must be Biblically educated. God's Word always trumps conscience (Matt. 22:29; 1 Cor. 4:4). In this case, I agree with Martin Luther: "My conscience is bound in the Word of God."
My Conscience and Me
What am I to do then with this fragile, sensitive moral monitor that God has put within me? Carl Henry, in his book on Christian ethics, affirms that conscience can be both elevated and debased. I would say it this way: Conscience can be either nurtured or neutered. And in the case of children, the former should be done early and often. Long before Biblical truths can be affirmed, guilt for sin can be affixed. Our little ones need to know that the guilt they feel over misbehavior is a good thing. There is nothing wrong with guilt, if it is rightfully felt, especially since there is a remedy.
You and I, who claim the name of Christ, need to educate our consciences with the eternal oracles and principles of God; and nothing will sharpen a dull conscience like the Bible. The 19th Century, Scottish preacher, Alexander McClaren has given us a sobering word of warning: "Conscience is loudest when it is least needed, and most silent when most required." That should strike fear in some of us.
My Conscience and You
I am admonished by Paul in Romans fourteen and 1 Corinthians eight not to injure the weak conscience of another believer; yet, he asks in 1 Corinthians 10:29, "...why is my liberty judged of another man's conscience?" I must, as a believer, conscientiously do all I can to keep from offending my brother or sister in Christ. We're family, and families love and protect one another. But, at the same time, I cannot get my convictions from someone else's conscience. It is to my own Master that I will stand or fall (Rom.14:4).
I thank God for His gift of conscience. I have lived with mine for over six and a half decades. I'm as conscious of it today as I was when I scratched the names of my favorite radio programs on my parents' wooden upright radio with a sharp pin, all those many years ago. I knew I had done something I shouldn't have done then, and I usually know when I have sinned against God now. But now I know where to go to rid myself of both the penalty and guilt of sin. The Blood of Jesus Christ has, does, and will cleanse all my sin, and will purge my conscience of the remembrance of them. The devil may try to bring them up, but when I remind him that God has forgotten all about them, he throws in the towel (Heb. 10:17).
So, how are you treating your conscience? Are you nurturing it, or neutering it? Are you honing it on the anvil of God's Word, or are you dulling it with the philosophy of this world? It's a precious gift, and we should treat it as such.
"Conscience without God is like a court without a judge." ~ A. De Lamartine