The Gift of the Conscience

14 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,
15 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,
16 on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.
(Romans 2:14-16, NASB).

7 but if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.
8 If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.
(1 John 1:7-10, NASB).

In his book Mind and Cosmos, the philosopher Thomas Nagel makes the point that even if you can explain the entire fine-tuned universe and the existence of biological life as the result of random chance events, you cannot explain the existence of the mind. It is, by definition, not random, but rational, and we have no bridge explanation for the appearance of the rational arising from the non-rational. According to Nagel, and I would strongly agree with him, this is the defining problem facing science and modern thought.

The problem is actually much worse than he admits. Every person has a magical ability, which they can’t turn off even if they desperately want to, to perfectly judge their own actions. This magical ability is called our conscience. Even when the indication of a person’s conscience is that they are guilty, the conscience remains active and tells you relentlessly that you are in the wrong. If a person seems to lack a conscience, not only is this highly debatable (it is probably just repressed), but even its apparent absence represents a severe aberrance. It is going to be very difficult to explain the existence of the conscience in terms of gradual adaptive biological physical change. I see no evolutionary advantage in having to consider the moral justice of all of my actions; so the existence of the conscience is a huge and mysterious message to us that there is something more than random chance going on around here.

It would seem that the only purpose of the conscience is to torture us, since all have sinned. We really have nowhere to go with our guilt, because we have no power to change the past. If God is good, what could possibly have been His purpose in giving something to us which He knew would only torture us?

I don’t know the answer to this really, but I can speculate. I have speculated in my soon-to-be released book, The Romance of Grace, that the genesis of the conscience was in the garden when our notion of the good was split into the moral good and the aesthetic good. Suddenly, we want things that something in us is telling us we shouldn’t want, and that voice telling us we shouldn’t want it is the conscience. We suddenly have this knowledge in us, the knowledge of good and evil.

However, our conscience works together for good. If we are not Christians, it leads us surely and powerfully to our need for release from guilt – to the propitiatory blood of Christ. In Christ, it tells us that our present and existential apprehension of guilt has somewhere to go: confession. Our conscience gives us a very specific revelation and a certain and timely agenda to go to God and lay open our souls. We need not ask what we need to confess, our conscience is giving a constant and dependable stream of revelation about what things in our present moment the blood of Jesus is sufficient for.

We spend most of our lives cowering in fear away from our conscience, hating its revelation and pressure and covering its clarion call with all kinds of prosthetic noise and pleasure. We train ourselves to ignore its voice until things have gotten out of hand and it is fairly well screaming at us. Thinking there is nothing we can do with its pinpoint perfection of condemning justice, we learn to ignore it in any way possible.

Yet it is given as a beautiful gift. It leads us to liberty, to the true and deep confession of our errors, but it has no place for release in us except for the cross of Christ. It is the cross which washes our conscience clean:

19 Since therefore, brethren, we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus,
20 by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh,
21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God,
22 let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
(Hebrews 10:19-22, NASB).

In the cross the vengeance our conscience demands for our own sins is carried out in full. The cross fulfills the justice our conscience requires. By using the spiritual tool of confession, we apply the blood of Jesus, which cries out for mercy and not for justice, to our guilty and injured souls. Being thus cleansed, and satisfied with justice and the assurance of mercy, our conscience is satisfied like a babe at her mother’s breast. We knew in theory that all of our sin is avenged and forgiven in Christ, but through confession our conscience tells us that this present sin is forgiven, and that we can again go forward with a freedom and joy in this moment, right now. The blood of Jesus comes to have present and specific meaning to us, and we can pray and walk and work and speak and act as those favored and blessed and no longer under any curse or regret.

So the conscience is our guide to the good confession, which agrees wholeheartedly with the beautiful wrath of God against our sin, and brings it to the throne of grace to be washed in the blood of Christ. Because we know that our conscience can now find succor and quietude in Christ, we can go deep. We can explore its intricacies and subtleties and really see our deep inner motivation washed clean when we know that we can heed the voice of our conscience without the fear of condemnation. In Christ, our conscience is not the sound of horror, but the sound of healing. We can follow its revelations with humility and joy, knowing that it is leading us more truly than anything else to the foot of our savior. In this life, this is how we walk, again and again and again.

1 See how great a love the Father has bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God; and such we are. For this reason the world does not know us, because it did not know Him.
2 Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we shall be. We know that, when He appears, we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him just as He is.
3 And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.
(1 John 3:1-3, NASB).

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