Most of us do have a sense that we have an inner conscience to guide us. Most of us would have a difficult time describing exactly what our conscience is. God-fearing people believe it has been given to us by God. Sometimes we seem to be quite aware of its presence and other times we have had no awareness of it at all, and in those times we probably weren't terribly concerned about its absence.
Scripture seems to describe our conscience in various ways, and it does appear to be God-given. The word “conscience” doesn't appear in the Old Testament, in the original Hebrew. Its functions are ascribed to the “heart”. We are told in I Samuel 24:1-5 that King Saul pursued David into the wilderness. Saul entered a dark cave where David and his men were hiding. In the dark, David carefully cut off the hem of Saul’s garment. In verse 5, we read that David’s conscience bothered him, because he did that. The literal Hebrew reads, “the heart of David smote him”.
The absence of the concept of an inner conscience in the OT is probably because to the Hebrew his moral code was external—the Mosaic code. Moral behavior was also frequently seen as a group thing rather than individual. The clan, or the people of Israel, sinned against God (see Joshua 7:1).
In the New Testament, Paul spoke of the conscience, although Jesus never used the word. However, Jesus did address this issue, that men needed to work toward moral wholeness: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisees, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also.” He probably addressed the issue this way because a large part of his audience were Hebrews.
Paul wrote that even the lost have a God-given conscience, “For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness, and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them” (Romans 2:14,15). Paul also wrote that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse” (Romans 1:18-20).
What God has put within us is the ability to discern right from wrong, according to God’s standard. When our conscience is working correctly, our circumstances seem “right” or “wrong” morally. We seem to “just know”, from inside. Our conscience needs to be informed so that we can apply our sense of right and wrong to life. It becomes informed and educated as we get older. So, our conscience is guided by what we know and believe to be true, as we learn from the world around us. A man who believes we are not to eat meat that has been offered to idols will have pangs of conscience if he eats that meat, even though Paul has told us that it is fine to each such meat (I Cor 8:8).
In the same manner, though our God-given conscience tells us that we are not to engage in premarital sex, our world tells us that it is not only permissible, but that it is the thing to do. Therefore, our conscience can be misinformed, and therefore disabled, at least in that area of life.
Our conscience needs to be fed the Word of God in an atmosphere that supports living a godly life in all of its aspects. It can be trained to be very useful to us. We must guard it against being defiled (Titus 1:15), or seared (I Tim 4:2). The atoning work of Jesus on the cross has opened the door to any of us who wants to turn from the error that we have fed our consciences. He stands ready to wash our hearts and consciences clean (Heb 10:22). We will need to have the courage to ask Him so show us the error that our consciences have believed, so that we can then ask Him to remove it and put in its place the truth from God.
The discussion above deals with our conscience, without regard to the part the Holy Spirit plays in our lives. He is interested and eager to be involved every minute of every day in our lives, so that we can set aside most of our fears about our conscience failing us. If we purpose to enter into an active personal relationship with the Holy Spirit, and engage Him in dialogue regarding all of our life (in whatever form of dialogue that works for us), then He will guide us in the way of God**. It is when we move away from our intimate fellowship with the Holy Spirit and get headstrong, and decide to go forward in our own wisdom and strength, that we find ourselves “in the flesh” and violating our conscience, and/or the will of God.
A personal example: As a retired pastor in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, I am required to go, each year, to one of the three presbytery meetings that are held each year. Recently, I was thinking about which of the meetings I would attend in 2004. I had decided to attend the one held in Wilmington, NC, because I had served that church as Interim Senior Pastor a couple of years back, and wanted to see some of my friends there.
Then, just a few days ago, I felt the Holy Spirit nudging me to take this subject up with Him, instead of just doing what I wanted. I said, “OK, Lord.” As I prayed and asked Him to show me what He had on His mind, He showed me that I was getting ready to violate my conscience. He reminded me that I had held a strong opinion that when a pastor leaves a church, he should NEVER re-enter the scene and meddle with what is going on. I believe that God agrees with this. He also revealed to me that my REAL reason for wanting to go the meeting in Wilmington was because I wanted to get to know the new pastor (“just being friendly, don’t you know?”), and then sort of “advise” him a little bit about the ministry. After all, I had worked with those people for a year, and he hardly knew them. I was getting ready to “meddle.”
So, you see, my flesh had brought in a fleshy argument that was mis-informing my conscience (which would normally NEVER allow me to do such a thing), and was getting ready to override the normal way my conscience works, and plunge me into a serious problem. But, because I have invited the Holy Spirit to speak to me any time He wants, I have the blessing of His help with my conscience, often at very important times. When we really take as our “Life Verse” the words of Proverbs 3:5, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding”, and we ask Him to reveal to us all that this word to us is meant to bring us, we will see our desperate need to walk very intimately with the Holy Spirit.
God gave a conscience to every person, as a very useful tool intended to help us live our lives in a way that is pleasing to God. However, since we are all born with a sinful, fallen nature (Ps 51:5), and have naturally sinful hearts (Jer 17:9), we begin to corrupt our own consciences early on in our lives, as we seek to be the god of our own lives and strive to have things “our way.”
The world has had such a profound influence on the conscience of humans on this planet that, apart from the strong work of the Holy Spirit, we can’t trust our conscience entirely and we must test the leadings of our conscience, to see if what it is saying to us is really true, as God sees it. Here, we need Proverbs 3:5 again, “Trust in the Lord (the Holy Spirit and God’s Word) with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding (which includes our conscience). If we have come from a home of origin where shaming and “guilting” were done as a means of controlling our behavior, this wounded us; and out of our woundedness, we will often have a sense of guilt from our flesh about something we are planning or have done. Our misinformed consciences and the enemy will cause us to feel guilt.
In addition to the influence of this false guilt, our conscience is tainted by our fear of man (what will they think of me?), our need to be right, our need to be perfect (in order to avoid criticism), and numerous other works of the enemy and our flesh. In the case of someone who is relatively free of these deceptive influences, and who has an active relationship with the Holy Spirit, when he begins to head in a wrong direction, the Holy Spirit will “check” him, in a gentle Fatherly way, working through his conscience and directly into his spirit, showing him that this path is not the will of God.
Because of the aforementioned contamination of our conscience, we are best advised to walk intimately with the Holy Spirit. He will show us if we are off track. He convicts us of sin (John 16:8), but without condemnation (Rom 8:1,2). When we walk intimately with the Holy Spirit, we are best able to be led by the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:14,15). We should let Him be the governor of our conscience.
**The paper, “Baptized with the Holy Spirit”, is available on the page entitled Holy Spirit.