“The Conscience: What It Is and How to Help It”
May 8, 2016
In 2007, a 44-year-old Frenchman — happily married with two children and a white-collar job — went to a hospital in Marseille complaining of some mild weakness in his left leg. The ailment in his leg was remedied fairly quickly. But he also left the hospital having discovered that he was missing most of his brain. The doctors discovered that as a six-month-old the man had developed hydrocephalus — there was too much cerebrospinal fluid in his brain — so they installed a shunt to drain the fluid off his brain. Then when he was 14, they removed the shunt. And apparently over the next 30 years the fluid began re-accumulating in his head, ever-so-slowly. And that fluid slowly either consumed the brain matter or pushed it outward until the only remaining brain matter remained at the very outer recesses of where the brain should have been. He was a (virtually) brainless man.
The doctors were perplexed: how could a man with very little brain be so high functioning? The theory was that most of what was consumed was the white matter of his brain and that what remained on the lining of the skull was the gray matter that controls most of body’s functioning and reasoning. So, while his IQ was somewhat lower than normal, he could still function normally, even though he was missing most of his three-pound brain.
How can you live without a brain? A remarkable situation and a unique question. There is a similar question I have as I look at the world. When you look at the world and see all the perversity, it is tempting to wonder, “how can there be so much evil and wickedness?” But when you consider the sinfulness of man and the wickedness of the human heart, a better question to ask is, “how can any unregenerate man do anything good?” Like the man without a brain, if they do not have the Holy Spirit, how can they function and do anything worthwhile and good?
Part of the answer was given to us in Romans 2, which addresses the question, “Is God fair in judging men for their sin (even/especially when they have not heard the gospel)?” And Paul tells us (in part), “Yes, God is fair in His judgment because all men have a conscience.” We didn’t take time to pursue the idea of the conscience in much length then, but this topic is important to understanding not only how the world works, but also how the believer grows in his salvation.
So this morning I will lead us through a series of passages that will give us a more complete understanding of the nature of the conscience and how it functions. The theme of the message is —
The conscience is God’s gift to all men to guide them to moral living.
As we begin, it would be helpful to have a definition of conscience. A couple of weeks ago I defined it this way (leaning heavily on what Paul said in Rom. 2:14-15): conscience is the evaluation or judgment whether or not we have met the standard of morality that our hearts and minds know. I noted then that conscience refers primarily to our inner awareness of the moral quality of our actions. The conscience is what evaluates whether or not we have lived up to the moral norm. It is what internally says, “you are guilty” or “you are innocent.”
Yet that’s not the full extent of the conscience — because it evaluates our actions, the conscience then also directs us to do what is right. The conscience is predisposed to naturally direct man to morally right actions. So Naselli and Crowley in their excellent book, Conscience: What It Is, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ point out that the conscience functions as both a guide to morality and evaluator of the moral quality of our actions.
“Conscience functions as a guide, monitor, witness, and judge. Your conscience guides you to help you conform to moral standards, monitors how you conform to them, testifies to how you conform to them, and judges how you conform to them, thus making your feel guilt and pain.…The conscience is your consciousness of what you believe is right and wrong. It’s basically your…moral awareness turned back on yourself.” We see an example of this in Paul’s life in Acts 23:1. As Paul testified to the Sanhedrin, he could say that his conscience had examined his life — not only according to its own standard of morality, but also according to God’s standard of righteousness (before God) and his conclusion was that he had lived his life with a perfectly good conscience. In fact, he says his conscience is literally “all good.” There was nothing in which he was convicted of failure. So there we see the conscience not only evaluating his life, but also propelling him to conduct himself in a way that is pleasing to the Lord.
The good news about the conscience is that all men have it. Yet, the Scripture does point to a different functioning of the conscience in believers and unbelievers, so let’s look at the conscience in those categories.
- The Conscience and the Unbeliever
- The conscience evaluates the moral quality of actions (Rom. 2:15)
- The conscience can be defiled (Titus 1:15)
- The conscience can be killed (1 Tim. 4:2)
- The Conscience and the Believer
- Enjoy the blamelessness of your conscience (Heb. 9:13-14; 10:22)
- Clear your conscience (Ps. 32:1-5)
- Remember your conscience is not perfect (1 Cor. 8:10-12)
- Use your conscience to serve others (1 Cor. 8:13)
- Never violate (or ignore) your conscience (Rom. 14:22-23)
- Train your conscience by the Word of God (Acts 10:9-16; 1 Tim. 1:19)
Download the rest of this sermon on the conscience.
The audio will be posted on the GBC website later today.