Part 1 - What is conscience?
To start with, we shall have to spend a little time on the nature of conscience.
The Bible says that man is made in the image of God and when we are explaining what that means we stress that man like God is a moral being. He is able to reason, assess and respond at a moral level. He has a conscience which enables him to distinguish between right and wrong: to know the difference between good and bad.
No other created thing has this capacity and therefore it places man at the summit of God’s creation. It is this that makes man akin to God as no other creature is akin to Him. It is often said that a dog is man’s best friend. Personally I would want to challenge that, but accepting for the moment this idea, the very best dog has no conscience and quite definitely the very worst man has.
Mankind and Animals
That is one of the essential differences between mankind and the animals – the fact of conscience. Man is a moral creature, and is therefore responsible for his actions. Man is a spiritual creature, able to worship and respond to the love of God. Part of that process is the operation of conscience.
Conscience was placed in man when God said to the angels: Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth (Genesis 1:26).
Man was given control over the animals because man had a conscience. Conscience is a capacity of the human spirit which reveals good as goodness and bad as badness. God-given Mechanism Conscience is the capacity to recognise the rightness and the wrongness of something. It is a God-given mechanism implanted in us which gives a warning against the bad and an urging toward the good. It does not itself determine what is good and bad, but it always prompts a person toward what is conceived as good and warns against what is conceived as bad.
It may well happen that what a person conceives as right may in fact not be right, but the conscience will urge him to obey that conception, because he thinks it is right. A good example of what I mean is the case of the apostle Paul when he was Saul the Pharisee. At that time he persecuted the church and the disciples of Christ. His conscience told him that it was right to do that and therefore he did it with zeal. Much later he said of himself: I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man; but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief (1 Timothy 1:13).
When his mind was changed and he understood the real position, his conscience told him to stop the persecution and help the very people he had harmed.
Another example is the case of those people in New Testament times who would not eat meat offered to idols, because their conscience told them that to do so was wrong. Paul said that really it was a mistaken view, but because it was a view that was conscientiously held it must be respected. He insisted that it was wrong to make people do something that violated their conscience even though it was mistaken.
That does show what an important force conscience is. In the end it has to be the final court of appeal. It is the final arbiter upon our actions and our life. If for some reason we do things that oppose our conscience then there is no peace of mind possible. That is why Paul would not compel the vegetarians to eat meat offered to idols and why he would not interfere with those who wanted to observe certain days as holy. One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind (Romans 14:5).
Suppose somebody really believes it is wrong – a sin – to take alcohol in any form, then you must never try to make them do it against their conscience. You may discuss with them the issue and seek to change their mind if you like. But whilst their view remains you must not ask them to violate it. Conscience is sacred. Conscience is sacrosanct.
Conscience: Weak or Strong?
Writing about the problem of meat that had been offered to idols – something that was a common practice in New Testament times in certain countries – the apostle Paul describes some consciences as ‘weak: Therefore concerning the eating of things offered to idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as there are many gods and many lords), yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live. However, there is not in everyone that knowledge; for some, with consciousness of the idol, until now eat it as a thing offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. But food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse (1 Corinthians 8:4–8).
Actually those people who are so described have a conscience which is strong and active, but it was weak insofar as it was badly informed – it did not have the right knowledge. It was that absence of understanding which made it weak. Paul so respected the ‘weak’ conscience of his brothers and sisters that he said he would himself become vegetarian for the rest of his life if necessary.
Absolutely or Relatively?
This both shows how important conscience is and reveals an important principle, namely that there are some things which are absolutely right and other things which are absolutely wrong. And there are some other things which are relatively right and relatively wrong. That is to say that they are right because that is how they appear to you and they are wrong because that is how they appear to you.
Because the conscience is involved this has to be respected. The relative law of conscience in the end will determine what you do. Listen to the apostle Paul again: Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are pure, but it is evil for the man who eats with offense. It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak. Do you have faith? Have it to yourself before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves. But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin (Romans 14:19–23).
That is a description of the operation of conscience. Remember conscience does not of itself tell us what is right and what is wrong. Conscience is not a revelation: it is a moral measurement based upon the revelation already received and believed.
-- Dennis Gillett
To be continued