By G. Lee Southard, PhD
Conscience, defined as knowing right from wrong or good from evil, is not man-made. It is a gift from God. It is the voice of God. “That still small voice” was spoken by God to Elijah in 1Kings 19:12. Arguably, the conscience is an image of God available only to man among all living things. Inherent in the conscience is the voice of God, silently speaking to us to protect us from evil.
In Genesis 3:22, God summarizes the consequence of man’s sin with the following words, “Behold the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil….” Man’s sin was disobedience against God for eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil after being told by God not to do so. As for Adam and Eve, until that moment, they had known only good in the garden as they lived in a relationship with God, who is good. Before Adam and outside the garden, humans did not know the difference between good and evil because they did not know God. He had never told them the difference between good and evil. Look upon this as an activation of man’s conscience toward God.
“Like God” implies in the image of God. Because God used the term “like one of us” in addressing Adam and Eve’s disobedience, knowing the difference between good and evil is a characteristic of God and arguably an image of God. Satan recognized this in Genesis 3:5 in his successful effort to deceive Eve when he said, “For God knows that when you eat of it (the tree), your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil”.
The conscience has another role other than in the commission of sin. It plays a proactive role in reminding us to proclaim the Gospel as commanded and be able to defend and contend for it in any setting. The conscience compels us to stand for God even though it might cause us to suffer consequences. We are not to be ashamed of the Gospel (Luke 9:26, 1 Peter 4:16, and 2 Timothy 2:15. The conscience is from God and for God. It responds to the Holy Spirit working within us.
Conscience depends on a person’s moral philosophy or value system. Christians have been under attack for some time because of their moral philosophy. The Apostle Paul faced a similar situation in Ephesus regarding false teachers in the church. He directed Timothy to command false doctrines not be taught. The goal of the command is to have a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith which many had fallen from (1 Timothy 1;3-6). The point here is that a good conscience accompanies a pure heart and a sincere faith.
There are extreme cases where people have no conscience because they have no moral philosophy or value system. Extreme cases are called psychopaths like Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Pol Pot, who killed millions and did not value human life.
The emotional response to a failure of conscience is feeling ashamed. Being ashamed because of failure of conscience was described in the Bible. Examples include Adam and Eve’s sin (Genesis 3:10), Cain’s murder of Able (Genesis 4: 13-14), David’s response to his sin with Bathsheba (Psalm 51), Peter’s denial of Jesus (Luke 23: 62), Judas’ betrayal of Jesus (Mathew 27: 3-5). We have all experienced shame in our actions. Being ashamed of our actions can be compensated for through repentance which helps soothe our conscience.
Conscience is not the Holy Spirit, although the Holy Spirit influences the conscience. The conscience depends on genetics, life experiences, and influence. The conscience can change and even deceive if not founded in the teachings of Christ. The Holy Spirit is unchanging, not dependent on anything human but indwells in a person due to accepting Jesus as Savior. The Holy Spirit supports the conscience to make right decisions versus wrong decisions. We have to allow the Holy Spirit to influence us.
The conscience speaks to us today as a reminder of when our contemplated actions or actions undertaken are counter to God’s desire for us. These actions are the result of the choices we make. Our choices can tarnish the image God has given us, but thanks to Christ, the image can be polished to appear as pure silver.