Is that faculty common to all free moral agents, Ro 2:13-15, in virtue of which we discern between right and wrong, and are prompted to choose the former and refuse the latter. Its appointed sphere is in the regulation, according to the will of God revealed in nature and the Bible, of all our being and actions so far as these have a moral character. The existence of this faculty proves the soul accountable at the bar of its Creator, and its voice is in an important sense the voice of God. We feel that when pure and fully informed, it is an unerring guide to duty, and that no possible array of inducements can justify us in disregarding it. In man, however, though this conviction that we must do what is right never fails, yet the value of conscience is greatly impaired by its inhering in a depraved soul, whose evil tendencies warp and pervert our judgment on all subjects. Thus Paul verily thought that he ought to persecute the followers of Christ, Ac 26:9. His sin was in his culpable neglect to enlighten his conscience by all the means in his power, and to purify it by divine grace. A terrible array of conscientious errors and persecutions, which have infested and afflicted the church in all ages, warns us of our individual need of perfect light and sanctifying grace. A "good" and "pure" conscience, 1Ti 1:5; 3:9, is sprinkled with Christ's blood, clearly discerns the will of God, and urges us to obey it from the gospel motives; in proportion as we thus obey it, it is "void of offence," Ac 24:16, and its approbation is one of the most essential elements of happiness. A "weak," or irresolute and blind conscience, 1Co 8:7; a "defiled" conscience, the slave of a corrupt heart, Tit 1:15; Heb 10:22; and a "seared" conscience, 1Ti 4:2, hardened against the law and the gospel alike, unless changed by grace, will at length become an avenging conscience, the instrument of a fearful and eternal remorse. No bodily tortures can equal the agony it inflicts; and though it may slumber here, it will hereafter be like the worm that never dies and the fire that never can be quenched.
(1) that faculty of the mind, or inborn sense of right and wrong, by which we judge of the moral character of human conduct. It is common to all men. Like all our other faculties, it has been perverted by the Fall (Joh 16:2; Ac 26:9; Ro 2:15). It is spoken of as "defiled" (Tit 1:15), and "seared" (1Ti 4:2). A "conscience void of offence" is to be sought and cultivated (Ac 24:16; Ro 9:1; 2Co 1:12; 1Ti 1:5,19; 1Pe 3:21).
The term occurs 30 times in the NT; it signifies joint knowledge. The two things known together may be two motives, two deeds, etc.; or the comparison instituted may be between a standard and a volition, etc. Self or others may be judged, and approval (Ac 23:1; 24:16; Ro 9:1; 2Co 1:12; 1Ti 1:5,19; 3:9; 2Ti 1:3; Heb 13:18; 1Pe 3:16,21) or disapproval (Joh 8:9; Heb 9:9; 10:2,22) may be the issue. The conviction that a certain course of conduct is right is accompanied by a sense of obligation, whether that course receives (Ro 13:5) or fails to secure (1Pe 2:19; Ac 4:19-20) legal confirmation. The belief on which the consciousness of duty depends is not necessarily wise (1Co 8:7,10,12; Ac 26:9), though the holders of the belief should receive careful consideration on the part of more enlightened men (Ro 15:1; 1Co 8; 10:25,29). Unfaithfulness to moral claims leads to fearful deterioration, resulting in confusion (Mt 6:22-23) and insensitiveness (1Ti 4:2; Tit 1:15).
The conscious knowledge of good and evil. This resulted from the fall of Adam. He could have had no knowledge of good and evil before any evil was there. It is remarkable that the word conscience does not occur in the O.T. In the N.T. the word is ??????????, lit. 'joint-knowledge.' This agrees with what God said of Adam after the fall, "Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil." Ge 3:22. The above word occurs once in the LXX in Ec 10:20: "Curse not the king, no not in thy conscience." This knowledge of good and evil is universal: some of the most benighted heathen, for instance, have owned that they knew such things as stealing were wrong. They are thus 'a law to themselves:' their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts accusing or excusing themselves between themselves. Ro 2:14-15. The law gave more light as to what was right and wrong: Paul said, "I had not had conscience also of lust unless the law had said, Thou shalt not lust." Ro 7:7. Christianity brings the conscience into the light of God, fully revealed by His word; the believer is thus exercised to have a conscience void of offence towards God and men. This may be called a 'tender conscience.' Ac 24:16.
Scripture speaks of
1. a 'good conscience,' enabling one when accused of evil, to know that the charge is untrue. 1Pe 3:16.
2. a 'pure conscience,' which is characterised by the separation from evil. 1Ti 3:9.
3. a 'weak conscience,' as on the subject of meats, days, etc. 1Co 8:7.
4. a 'purged conscience.' Through faith in the infinite efficacy of the blood of Christ the believer has no more conscience of sins. This does not mean no consciousness of ever sinning, but that as regards imputation of sins before God, the conscience is purged. Paul speaks of some who have a 'defiled mind and conscience,' Tit 1:15; and of others who in departing from the faith have their 'conscience seared with a hot iron,' 1Ti 4:2, that is, a hardened conscience, insensible to that which should touch them to the quick.
Conscience, with the Christian, should be exercised in the sight of God fully revealed in Christ, and be governed by the word, otherwise, on the plea of 'conscience,' many actions displeasing to God way be advocated. This is exemplified in the case of Paul before his conversion. He could say that he had lived in all good conscience before God, and yet he had been haling men and women to prison because they were Christians. Doubtless he did it with an unoffending conscience, according as the Lord stated: "The time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service." Joh 16:2. Paul's zeal for Judaism so blinded his eyes that he was unable to recognise in his conscience the God who gave the law, and had sent His Son also; nor to see that God could act outside of it: it was an unenlightened conscience, a zeal without knowledge, by which even the Christian may be led astray.
CONSCIENCE is that principle, power, or faculty within us, which decides on the merit or demerit of our own actions, feelings, or affections, with reference to the rule of God's law. It has been called the moral sense by Lord Shaftsbury and Dr. Hutcheson. This appellation has been objected to by some, but has been adopted and defended by Dr. Reid, who says, "The testimony of our moral faculty, like that of the external senses, is the testimony of nature, and we have the same reason to rely upon it." He therefore considers conscience as an original faculty of our nature, which decides clearly, authoritatively, and instantaneously, on every object that falls within its province. "As we rely," says he, "upon the clear and distinct testimony of our eyes, concerning the colours and figures of the bodies about us, we have the same reason to rely, with security, upon the clear and unbiassed testimony of our conscience, with regard to what we ought and ought not to do." But Dr. Reid is surely unfortunate in illustrating the power of conscience by the analogy of the external senses. With regard to the intimations received through the organs of sense, there can be no difference of opinion, and there can be no room for argument. They give us at once correct information, which reasoning can neither invalidate nor confirm. But it is surely impossible to say as much for the power of conscience, which sometimes gives the most opposite intimations with regard to the simplest moral facts, and which requires to be corrected by an accurate attention to the established order of nature, or to the known will of God, before we can rely with confidence on its decisions. It does not appear, that conscience can with propriety be considered as a principle distinct from that which enables us to pronounce on the general merit or demerit of moral actions. This principle, or faculty, is attended with peculiar feelings, when we ourselves are the agents; we are then too deeply interested to view the matter as a mere subject of reasoning; and pleasure or pain are excited, with a degree of intensity proportioned to the importance which we always assign to our own interests and feelings. In the case of others, our approbation or disapprobation is generally qualified, sometimes suspended, by our ignorance of the motives by which they have been influenced; but, in our own case, the motives and the actions are both before us, and when they do not correspond, we feel the same disgust with ourselves that we should feel toward another, whose motives we knew to be vicious, while his actions are specious and plausible. But in our own case, the uneasy feeling is heightened in a tenfold degree, because self- contempt and disgust are brought into competition with the warmest self- love, and the strongest desire of self-approbation. We have then something of the feelings of a parent, who knows the worthlessness of the child he loves, and contemplates with horror the shame and infamy which might arise from exposure to the world.
2. Conscience, then, cannot be considered as any thing else than the general principle of moral approbation or disapprobation applied to our own feelings or conduct, acting with increased energy from the knowledge which we have of our motives and actions, and from the deep interest which we take in whatever concerns ourselves; nor can we think that they have deserved well of morals or philosophy, who have attempted to deduce our notions of right and wrong from any one principle. Various powers both of the understanding and of the will are concerned in every moral conclusion; and conscience derives its chief and most salutary influence from the consideration of our being continually in the presence of God, and accountable to him for all our thoughts, words, and actions. A conscience well informed, and possessed of sensibility, is the best security for virtue, and the most awful avenger of wicked deeds; an ill-informed conscience is the most powerful instrument of mischief; a squeamish and ticklish conscience generally renders those who are under its influence ridiculous.
Hic murus aheneus esto, Nil conscire sibi, nulla pallescere culpa.
(Let a consciousness of innocence, and a fearlessness of any accusation, be thy brazen bulwark.)
3. The rule of conscience is the will of God, so far as it is made known to us, either by the light of nature, or by that of revelation. With respect to the knowledge of this rule, conscience is said to be rightly informed, or mistaken; firm, or wavering, or scrupulous, &c. With respect to the conformity of our actions to this rule when known, conscience is said to be good or evil. In a moral view, it is of the greatest importance that the understanding be well informed, in order to render the judgment or verdict of conscience a safe directory of conduct, and a proper source of satisfaction. Otherwise, the judgment of conscience may be pleaded, and it has actually been pleaded, as an apology for very unwarrantable conduct. Many atrocious acts of persecution have been perpetrated, and afterward justified, under the sanction of an erroneous conscience. It is also of no small importance, that the sensibility of conscience be duly maintained and cherished; for want of which men have often been betrayed into criminal conduct without self-reproach, and have deluded themselves with false notions of their character and state.
See MORAL OBLIGATION.