When Paul stood before Governor Felix (Acts 24), it is evident that he had Felix fairly well summed up already, as he lays emphasis upon conscience, and argues with Felix concerning righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come (v. 25). Such topics were probably entirely new to Felix, and it is clear that Paul's well aimed shafts went home, because Felix became frightened.
The statements of a thoroughly humble believer such as Paul can always be relied upon. When he tells us anything about himself there is never any braggadocio. Paul's forceful frankness and fearlessness must have struck Felix a somewhat infelicitous blow, totally unexpected.
For once Felix found himself facing the eyes of a man into which he could not look without fear and trembling. Felix took fright because he knew that what Paul was saying was true, and inevitable.
Was Paul justified in claiming that he had a conscience, and a conscience of which he was not ashamed? Can any of us make the same claim? Is our life governed by a strong sense of duty, not only to our fellow believers, but to all human beings with whom we come into touch? Paul told Felix that he made a point of having a conscience which was in offensive toward God and toward human beings, continually. "I myself also go on exerting (studying, training myself) to have' a conscience inoffensive toward God and men, continually." The verb is only found here in the N.T. (askO, used now in Greece of taking exercise, undergoing practice or military training).
In ch. 23:1. Paul had told the Hebrew Sanhedrin the same sober truth, that in all good conscience he had behaved publicly with relation to God, hitherto.
Conscience, then, is a quality which requires to be exerted, put into practice, trained deliberately. That is why I sternly oppose the teaching that we ought to wait for "grace" to come upon us before performing any service. That would be a reversal of the true order. Do your clear duty first, and the grace will inevitably follow at once.
If, some day, God seems to be distant, do not wait for "grace" to teach you better. "Draw near to God, and He will be drawing near to you" (James 4:8). The foregoing verse is just as true. Do not wait for "grace" to remove the Devil if he seems to be too close. Get up and withstand him, and he will soon flee.
Conscience should not depend upon moods or physical states. There is always some satisfaction in performing one's duty. For some years I worked in the same office as an. elderly clerk who had been in the old British Volunteers army about fifty years ago, as an officer. So strong was his sense of duty and conscience, when he discovered that he had perpetrated some trivial offence, that he had himself court-martialed, and fined himself as a punishment. On another occasion, while walking a considerable distance with a younger companion, the latter observed he was limping. But so strong was his sense of discipline, that he replied that he had borne in his shoe a scrupulous or tiny stone for two miles and was determined to walk five miles in all before he ejected it. And walk the five miles he did.
Alas, however, the number of human beings with any degree of conscience, or who will subject themselves to severe discipline, is very, very small. Where such persons exist, they are generally reckoned as troublesome. Indeed, the existence in this world of a truly conscientious human being is not at all an easy one.
Try, for example, to maintain the laws of your country, or the bye-laws of your city, laws specially enacted for the mutual well-being of the populace as a whole. It will soon be found that most citizens are not at all interested in the laws, and will decline to give positive support to those laws which are good, unless they are personally affected.
For a truly conscientious person to live with, or cooperate with one in whom conscience is not well developed, can be an agony. Because the conscientious one ever feels he is not doing his duty fully. Conscience keeps on telling him that he might have done better. Whereas, the person with little conscience generally thinks he or she is a paragon.
Conscience is a faculty which may be built up and strengthened; or it may be allowed to weaken. Whether it is born in some children might be hard to prove, or to deny. I am inclined to think it is occasionally' born in children, and later developed within them. One notes cases at times when children of dissolute or indifferent parents exhibit at an early age clear signs of a vigorous conscience, or at least a strong sense of duty. More frequently, the children of conscientious parents tend to revert into indifference.
All antichristian religions and the Roman Catholic religion do away with the need for a strong conscience, because they tolerate, or fail effectively to condemn, those evils which will bring mankind into judgment.
The word Conscience is a Latin term, signifying together knowledge, that is, a consciousness of all the facts taken together; an honest and full view of all the features concerned. The Old English word Inwyt means much the same, inner witness, and has nothing to do with the modern meaning of the word wit as referring to what is jocular.
Conscience is defined as the knowledge of our own acts and feelings as right or wrong; sense of duty; scrupulousness; the faculty or principle by which We distinguish right from wrong.
The Greek term found over thirty times in the New Testament (suneidEsis) expresses the same idea of all-round awareness or consciousness. The ancient Gothic version of sixteen hundred years ago (old English-German) expresses the same ideas, all-round reflection and consideration, careful and serious thought.
Dr. Bullinger gave a very fine definition of the Greek term in his Concordance: "a knowing with one's self, consciousness; the being one's own witness; the testimony to one's own conduct borne by consciousness, esp. the consciousness man has of himself in his relation to God, manifesting itself in the form of a self-testimony. Consequently it is the effect and result of faith, for a man's conscience will never condemn that which he believes to be right, and vice versa; hence the only conscience worth having is that which springs from 'a faith unfeigned,' see 1. Tim. 1:5."
Webster & Wilkinson say that the conscience is a spiritual instinct, which operates without any active energy of the. intellectual faculty, while "a good conscience" is one which governs itself by sound reason, and adopts for its own regulation the rule of God's will, especially as revealed in His word.
Paul could commend the sensitiveness of Timothy, who was genuinely concerned about the affairs of the Philippians (Phil. 2:20). Timothy's interest in them was very conscientious and unselfish. Paul knew of no one equally sensitive.
But as for the rest, all of them were seeking their own interests, not the interests of Christ Jesus (v. 20). Paul put the facts very bluntly. And to-day he could have said the same things about the Body of Christ as a whole.
When the Lord washed the feet of His disciples we may be sure this was done naturally and spontaneously, humbly and without affectation. He did not do this to make Himself seem very pious, or to create a fine reputation for Himself. Immanuel—with us GOD—could do such things, but we cannot stoop so low, because our humility is not genuine enough; it is too artificial and too sophisticated.
Dr. John A. Mackay, in "God's Order," warns believers to be carefullest they should confuse the cause of Truth with the attempt to consolidate their own position and insure their own prestige. He mentions the difficulty which leaders have in losing themselves in a cause.
How can we be sure that any leader is acting honestly and conscientiously? We can prove this if he is obeying the precept found in Phil. 2:4—humbly deeming others to be superior to himself, and not taking cognizance only of his own affairs, but those of people who are different from him. It cannot be wrong to take a kindly and conscientious interest in our spiritual relatives and fellow-members. Paul, in fact, forbids self-seeking in 1. Cor. 10:24, and in ch. 12:22-26 advocates the divine principle that if the humbler members of the Body are accorded proper honour, the Body will be so blended that it will shew no schism.
Let us, in our meetings and gatherings, in our correspondence with others, in our prayers for all the saints of God, make a positive and deliberate effort to render special honour and respect to those plain and unpretentious members of the Body of Christ who are apt to be neglected or forgotten.
Schisms arise largely through the adherents in a movement showering too much laud and glory upon their leader. Where the leader fails to lose himself completely in the cause for which he is fighting, and permits himself to be lionized, he permits a new sect to come into being, and is therefore guilty.
It is quite wrong for anyone to condemn sectarianism if he cannot point to a definite remedy. Paul has stated the proper remedy, but we do not see it being observed among us. It is not enough to say the true course is to obey Paul's charge that we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace, unless and until we also obey other precepts, such as shewing proper honour to the humbler members of Christ's Body. None of us can keep the unity of th~ spirit simply by thinking or assuming that we are so doing. Conscience cannot thus be satisfied.
Just picture to yourself what would happen were the high dignitaries in the State Churches to discard their grand vestments and insignia, and descend to the level of the plain deacon (that is, anyone who helps in Christian work). What a real revival in Christian effort this would create! Nothing would fill the Churches more quickly. But alas, these dignitaries are too conscious of money and position and reputation; what they lack is conscience—not only conscience towards their fellow men, but towards the God they claim to worship.
But are matters any better in the many sects which have sprung up outside the Churches within the past two hundred years? Not one bit.
Far too often men or women are quite ready to "reign as kings" or queens (1. Cor. 4:8) over their subjects, who become obligated to stand by all their actions and opinions, even when they know these are wrong.
There is none of us who lives to himself or herself (Rom. 14:7). We have a conscientious duty towards every human being with whom we come in contact, especially those who belong to God. Let us not become like neighbours and gossips who are satisfied with only one side of the story. How seldom do we hear of someone insisting on getting the other side of the story. An active conscience will take into account a sufficient modicum of the salient facts and features and aspects. Our "inner witness" must review all the pros and cons. If necessary, we must be prepared to swear to our own hurt: it is not a very difficult operation. Until we learn how to do that, we shall never ascend the Holy Hill of Jehovah (Pss. 15 and 25).
In the Old Testament, if there is no word rendered conscience, there are some words (tham, thom, thummah) which probably mean something very close to conscience. These words occur over forty times and are translated by "integrity," "perfect," "upright," "simplicity," etc. Jacob is called a "plain" man (Gen. 25:27). The R.S. Version makes him a "quiet" man, while the New World Version says he was a "harmless" man (or, sound, innocent). Alford also puts "harmless (literally, perfect, blameless)," as designating Jacob's gentleness and innocence. Some have suggested that the true meaning is sincere, artless, or aimless. But aimlessness has no congruity with integrity. "Flawless" has been suggested, but this goes too far and says too much. Jacob was not quite flawless. Can anyone possess integrity and be upright who does not act conscientiously? A thoroughly sincere person would be conscientious, but Job was more than sincere: I think his claim was that he was conscientious. That is why he became a special target for Satan's malignance.
The word integrity speaks of wholeness, completeness; an unimpaired state. The integer is literally something left "un-touched" or unbroken. Conscience implies a wholeness of judgment or outlook. May this wholeness be our great aim in life as we study God's revelation, and in all our relationships with one another. Conscience in the world is very weak and ineffective, but within the Body of Christ it ought to dominate all our actions.
Certainly not by the preaching of grace alone, or by telling people that "God is conciliated." Sinners must first of all be made to realize what they are doing. Long ago I read somewhere that the evangelist ought not to denounce individual sins, but sin in general. Such a policy, however, has become far too common, all over the world. The result is. that Christianity is failing to make much impression upon the conscience of sinners. "Grace" has to a great extent been made to lose its proper meaning, and is now taken as a sort of benevolence on God's part.
Until sinners are told plainly what their own sins are, in the clearest terms, it is not likely they will have a genuine fear of God, without which they can hardly come to see that they are lost.
The Rev. Andrew Glendinning, M.A., a Scottish minister, published in 1940 a very outspoken book, "The Faith of God," in which he wrote many very healthy truths. One brief statement was, "In Europe and America there is not a man who can preach." Can it be that is true? What he meant, is, I think, that no preacher has the courage to tell human beings what they are. He shews how the character of Christianity has been completely changed since Paul's time. For example, Rev. 7:10, literally, "The salvation (be) to our God" has been altered by Moffatt to "saved by our God." This "introduces the anthropocentric note of modern theology which spoils the sublime symphony by transferring the attention of the worshippers to themselves, a truly fatal error in a perfect act of devotion." Our theology ought to be theocentric.
The sinner's attention must be drawn to himself in respect of his own sins. Paul was wearing no kid gloves when he boldly argued with Felix about righteousness, self-control, and judgment to come, so that Felix took fright (Acts 24:25).
Until evangelists can disturb the conscience, they will make little progress. We need the boldness to call a spade (or spaed, eunuch) a spade. We must not hurt the feelings of sinners with any disagreeable statements, even if they are very true. So we are always told.
The Free Church of Scotland has recently stated that the spiritual losses in recent evangelistic campaigns in Britain may in the long run outweigh the gains, as these efforts have blurred the demarcation between sound doctrine and false, resulting in a devaluation of doctrine in general. "A new crop of evangelists has sprung up in the wake of Billy Graham, who pay homage to his technique, but are quite indifferent to his message. For this his own policy of appeasement must bear a share of the responsibility."
What we now need so urgently and tragically is evangelists who can fulminate fearlessly against the sins of sinners, and prick the conscience. Only when that stage has been reached should sinners be urged to change their minds or repent. It is useless to talk of God's "grace" to those who have no perception of God and no conscience.
Finally, to any evangelists who may read this article, I would say, do not be afraid to thunder against the individual sins of the times, or to expose them. Only thus will sinners be arrested. Only thus can a real Revival come.
A.T. Last updated 14.1.2006