THE NATURE OF THE HUMAN CONSCIENCE
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Friday, November 25, 2011 at 3:37pm
QUESTION: What is the conscience, and how does it work?
ANSWER: I have written on this in my commentary on Romans, as part of my comments on Romans 2:15, where Paul says that even pagans “show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them” (ESV). The following paragraphs are taken from this commentary (1996 ed., I:203-205).
The latter part of Romans 2:15 focuses on an innate aspect of human nature known as the conscience. The most important thing to know about the conscience is that it is not the same as “the work of the law written on the heart.” The conscience itself has no content; it is not in itself a source of knowledge about right and wrong. It is rather an ability, a function. Specifically, conscience is the function of comparing our deeds with an accepted standard of morality, and of prodding us with a sense of guilt when a deed does not conform to the standard. It “examines and passes judgment on a man’s conduct” (F. F. Bruce, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans, 1963:91). As Moses Lard says, “Conscience originates no truth. It merely approves conformity to truth, or to what is held as truth, and condemns violations of it” (Commentary on Paul’s Letter to Romans, pp. 48-9). See Douglas Moo, The Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary: Romans, I:148.
Whether the conscience functions properly or not depends on the accuracy of the standard with which it compares our deeds. To the degree to which the image of God remains intact within any individual, the conscience will work as intended by God. To the degree that the law-content written on the heart has been corrupted, the conscience will malfunction. It is similar to a spelling-check computer program. The function of the program is to compare the user’s word entries with a pre-established data base. Even if the program is functioning perfectly, it will not produce the right results if there are misspelled words in the data base. If the words in the original data base are correct, then the results can be trusted.
The only thing needed to make such a program more analogous to the conscience is the addition of a small handle the user can grip while the check is being made. If the word being checked is incorrect, the errant speller would receive a mild electrical shock. This would be equivalent to the “pangs” of conscience felt after doing wrong. This is how the conscience “bears witness” to the individual concerning the rightness of God’s moral law, in addition to the witness of the internally-written law itself.
It is extremely important to remember this: wherever the knowledge of God’s law has been corrupted, suppressed, exchanged, or in any way violated, the conscience will continue to function but will not produce trustworthy results. Until one has submitted to the saving work of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, and has allowed the truth of Biblical revelation to reinform his original moral data base, the conscience will at times, perhaps most of the time, yield false results. World morality will continue at depravity level as long as “cricketology” prevails: “Always let your conscience be your guide.” This is bad theology. Actually, the conscience itself needs a guide or standard, and the only sure guide for sinners is the objective Word of God, the Bible.
The last part of v. 15, in my opinion, is not different from the working of the conscience but is a clarification of how it works. The functioning conscience results in an inner dialogue, forcing the mind to verbalize thoughts such as “This must be OK,” or “You know that’s wrong, don’t you?” Our thoughts either accuse us or defend us in reference to our deeds. These are technical legal terms that suggest a courtroom trial where the individual is the defendant and his own conscience-driven thoughts are both the prosecuting attorney and the defense lawyer.
This inner witness or testimony occurs day by day, and not just at the final judgment. Also, the accusing or defending happens with reference to individual deeds, and not to anyone’s life as a whole. Thus Paul is not saying that on the day of judgment there may be some Gentile whose conscience will excuse him altogether so that he is saved. This is definitely not Paul’s point. He is saying only that sometimes in this life, when a Gentile does by nature what the law requires in a certain situation, his conscience will excuse him regarding that one decision. Paul hints that this is the exception rather than the rule, however, since he says their thoughts will accuse them or even defend them, as if the latter is unexpected.
When this inner moral consciousness (the inwardly-written law plus the conscience) is combined with the knowledge of God learned through the created universe (Romans 1:18-21), the result is that even the Gentiles know that this law is the law of the Creator-God and that they are guilty before God when they break it and are worthy of the wrath God has ordained for such lawbreakers (see 1:32).