Self-Government, Conscience & True Liberty:
The Law of Conscience
by Gerald R. Thompson
What Is The Conscience?
What is the connection between conscience and the law of nature? Philosophers and legal writers have argued over what the conscience is, and how it is to be ruled.
Whereof one doctor saith, that conscience is the law of our understanding. Another, that conscience is an habit of the mind discerning between good and evil. Another, that conscience is the judgment of reason judging on the particular acts of man.3
Conscience is properly no more than reason itself, considered as instructed in regard to the rule we ought to follow, or to the law of nature; and judging of the morality of our own actions, and of the obligations we are under in this respect, by comparing them to this rule.4
Frankly, I don’t know why commentators have had such a difficult time defining the conscience, because the scripture plainly tells us what it is.
For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They 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 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. (Rom. 2:14-16).
Thus, the human conscience consists of the laws of God written on our hearts. Since people are a part of God’s creation, He has seen fit to write the knowledge of His creation law on the heart (i.e., the innermost part of the thoughts) of every person. This is one more way in which people are made in the image of God. Thus, there is a sense in which some (but not all) of God’s law of right and wrong behavior is a priori. This innate knowledge is the conscience.
Though Rom. 2:14-16 refers only to Gentiles (or, non-Jews), it must be equally true of all people, because all people are equally God’s creation. There is no time when God would have written His law on the hearts of the Gentiles without doing so for everyone.
So the first function of the conscience is to instruct each individual about what behaviors are right and wrong in the sight of God, irrespective of the extent to which any person has actually observed the external creation (that is, external to one’s self). Even if it were possible that a person could know absolutely nothing about the physical universe apart from their own thoughts, they would still carry within them a limited knowledge of right and wrong.
Thus, the human conscience is itself a part of the natural creation. People are created by God, the universe was created by God, and He is the author of both. It is no surprise, then, that the conscience (in its nascent form) and the creation should fully agree with each other.
For this reason, some people conceive of the conscience as the voice of God speaking to us. I don’t mean an audible voice here – but when we encounter various situations, feelings or thoughts of right or wrong (or guilt) will rise up within our minds, because God put them there. For this reason – because God is the author of the conscience – the conscience is sacred. It is to be listened to and respected, not ignored or suppressed. The conscience is also – because it reflects the image of God in every person – something that we must respect in others as fellow human beings who also carry God’s image in them.
The second function of the conscience is to guide how we perceive the created universe around us, and to use that information to strengthen and confirm our knowledge of right and wrong consistent with the laws of nature. This is commonly referred to as the application or exercise of reason, to discover what may be known of God and His laws. Except, of course, our reason is corrupt and far from perfect as a result of the fall of mankind.
Yet undoubtedly the revealed law [of the scriptures] is of infinitely more authenticity than that moral system, which is framed by ethical writers, and denominated the natural law. Because one is the law of nature, expressly declared so to be by God himself; the other is only what, by the assistance of human reason [and the conscience], we imagine to be that law. If we could be as certain of the latter as we are of the former, both would have an equal authority; but, till then, they can never be put in any competition together.5
The conscience is the God-given mechanism to help us submit our individual will to the law of God written on our hearts. The conscience, in its native condition, is sufficient for us to be able to “read” nature. And though our reason will always be imperfect and corrupted, each person has the ability to come to a knowledge of at least some truth of God. How much truth we come to know, depends on how hard we look and inquire into matters, how much we respect and pay attention to our conscience, and whether our conscience has been hardened due to continual neglect.
The third function of the conscience is to be the primary mechanism of self-restraint. Conscience is the sole and exclusive means of internal self-restraint. All other means of restraint are external. This is why, when we talk about self-government, we have to include a consideration of the conscience. Self-government is self-restraint, and self-restraint originates in the conscience. Without a conscience, self-government simply would not be possible.
The opposite of conscience is that rule which says, “Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.” In other words, when the individual will submits to no other voice than itself (i.e., a lack of self-restraint). This rule indeed, besides having a historical connection to Satanism (via Alistair Crowley), is the very spirit of the Antichrist, who the scripture calls the man of lawlessness, and the son of destruction. (2 Th. 2:3). The Antichrist is the supreme example of a person who is a law unto himself, and refuses to submit to the law of God.
For we should be grossly mistaken, if, under a notion that conscience is the immediate rule of our actions, we were to believe, that every man may lawfully do whatever he imagines the law commands or permits.6
Responsibility For The Conscience
So then, God gives each person a conscience, which contains only a part (not the entirety) of God’s laws, and every person also has a corrupted reasoning ability with which to discern the laws of God from the creation. Clearly, we are all at a significant disadvantage in knowing God’s thoughts after Him. But that does not mean we are completely unable to perceive God’s laws, nor does it excuse us. What should we then do?
At this point, some of you may want to jump immediately to, “without faith it is impossible to please God.” (Heb. 11:6). However, I ask that you avoid this temptation. We are here not inquiring as to how one pleases God, or the manner of obtaining forgiveness. We are rather asking how we may train up our senses to better discern the laws of God for the purpose of obedience. True, having faith can assist in this process, but it is not necessary for obedience. Also, if you want to argue that every person with faith is a better judge of right and wrong than the faithless, save your breath. If only that were so.
The more sure path to consistent obedience is marked by self-reflection and practice. The scriptural admonition is pretty clear: train up your conscience in the way it should go. If you aren’t actively making the effort, it won’t happen automatically. (And sadly, many believers – perhaps most – never make the effort.) The danger, of course, is that unless we take care to seek the things of God, our conscience may actually become damaged (or hardened) over time.
The discriminating power of conscience may be injured by neglecting to reflect upon the moral character of our actions, both before and after we have performed them. … If we yield to the impulses of passion, and turn a deaf ear to the monitions of conscience, the dividing line between right and wrong seems gradually to become obliterated. We pass from the confines of the one into those of the other, with less and less sensation, and at last neglect the distinction altogether.7
Conversely, we can each train our own conscience to be better at discerning good from evil, through self-reflection and practice.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom. 12:2, emphasis added).
But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. (Heb. 5:14, emphasis added).
To the wicked and the intentionally faithless, a conscience is the ultimate inconvenient truth. It checks us in our actions, shames us when we do wrong, and floods us with guilt and remorse when we hurt others. If you are hell bent in doing wrong, or denying God, the last thing you want is a conscience that is more attuned to God’s laws. Rather, you want it to be less attuned, so you numb your conscience, and eventually over much time and with great effort, try to deaden it completely.
If that is your goal, it is certainly achievable. But beware: the God of nature and all of creation won’t take it lightly. The Lord knows exactly what to do with such people:
Bold and willful, they do not tremble as they blaspheme the glorious ones, whereas angels, though greater in might and power, do not pronounce a blasphemous judgment against them before the Lord. But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed, blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant, will also be destroyed in their destruction, suffering wrong as the wage for their wrongdoing. … For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved. (2 Pet. 2:10-13, 17, emphasis added).
And so each of us needs to understand, as part of our own self-government, that we will all give an account for the condition of our conscience in the final judgment, and whether we have heeded it or not. No one else is responsible for your conscience, nor are you responsible for anyone else’s.
But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. (Rom. 2:5).
I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve. (Rev. 2:23).
It has been truly said, that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” Likewise, eternal vigilance is the price of a clear conscience. There will never be a point in your life when you can just forget about your conscience. Neither will there be a time when you have trained your conscience enough, and need not train it any more. The only time you can stop being vigilant is when you are dead.
The Liberty of Conscience
Now let’s take these basic principles or laws of conscience to their logical conclusion. First, because the conscience is sacred (God-given), it is inviolable. Which is to say, since the conscience represents the voice of God within us, to go against that voice of God (i.e., to violate one’s own conscience) is a sin. If the conscience is a knowledge of God’s laws, then to violate conscience is to violate God’s laws. A violation of God’s laws is the very definition of sin (i.e., a moral wrong).
Therefore, there is never a right way to violate your conscience. Violating your conscience is always wrong. There are no exceptions.
Second, we have already seen how God knows our innermost thoughts, and will hold us accountable for them in the final judgment. This is a fairly common theme in scripture. For example, “no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” (Heb 4:12-13).
What we must also acknowledge is that this jurisdiction or authority is exclusive to God. Men are neither authorized, nor capable, of knowing or judging the thoughts of any other person. “
For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man, which is in him?” (1 Cor. 2:11).
Since God has exclusive jurisdiction over the heart and mind, the conscience is not subject to the jurisdiction of men, which is to say the conscience is free. This is what is meant by the liberty of conscience. And this freedom is absolute. It is absolute in the sense that our conscience is nobody’s business but our own. Period. We don’t owe any man a duty to think a certain way, we are not accountable to any man for the way we think, and no man is actually capable of knowing what we think in any event.
Third, the liberty of conscience is an inalienable right. It is inalienable because the conscience is God-given, and also because a duty towards God is a right towards men. This view of the liberty of conscience is supported both by scripture and by its acceptance as a chief tenet of religious freedom in America. The link between liberty of conscience and religious liberty is no accident. Since the conscience pertains to our manner of thinking, it is inextricably linked with freedom of the mind – the basis of religious freedom.
Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishment, or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion, who, being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do.8
Here, Jefferson makes the argument that not even God, who is all-knowing and all-powerful, ever forces anyone to change his or her mind contrary to their conscience – so how can mere men ever pretend to do so? Certainly, God can read our thoughts and will judge our consciences in the final judgment, yet He never forces anyone to think a certain way. The individual conscience is inviolable, and the freedom of conscience is absolute. James Madison wholeheartedly agreed.
The religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right. It is unalienable; because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds, cannot follow the dictates of other men: It is unalienable also; because what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator.9
We should not be surprised, therefore, that scripture speaks of the liberty of conscience in a similar manner, affirming both the sanctity of the conscience and its inherent liberty.
Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof. If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. … For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks? (1 Cor. 10:25-27, 29b-30, emphasis added).
This law of the conscience, then, rests on these fundamental principles:
1. The conscience consists of the laws of God written on our hearts (or the voice of God speaking to our minds).
2. Each person is responsible for his own conscience (no one else for you, and you for no one else).
3. The conscience is sacred and inviolable (for anyone to violate their conscience is sin).
4. Everyone’s conscience is absolutely free as a God-given right.
5. Following one’s conscience is the primary means of exercising self-government.
With this foundation now laid concerning the nature and freedom of the conscience, I want to examine some difficult scriptures. I refer mainly to Romans 14, but I also include 1 Cor. 10:24 & 28, as well as 1 Cor. 8:4-13, which speak to similar concerns. Unfortunately, these are often interpreted in a way which severely undercuts the rights of conscience and self-government.
It is one thing to say the conscience is free from external coercion, part of God’s reserved jurisdiction over the heart and mind, and not any part of the power of civil government. It is quite another thing to say, as many would have us believe, that as part of our religious duty to God and love for our neighbor we ought to give up the sole, exclusive and absolute right of conscience for the benefit of others. However, this is a gross misinterpretation of the scriptures.
The Law of Conscience Confirmed
Remember, it is God who set up the law of conscience, made the conscience sacred, inviolable and free. Plus, it is He who made the conscience free from any outside constraint. So as a starting principle, God will never countermand His own laws, or undermine the liberty which He has given us. If I am correct in describing the law of conscience, then a violation of the conscience is never justified. God never expects us to violate His laws (or His voice) as a means of fulfilling His will.
A common saying accepted by believers since the early 1600’s is this: “In essentials, unity; In non-essentials, liberty; In all things, charity.” I suggest the purpose of Romans 14 is to instruct us how to relate to each other regarding non-essential matters. The bottom line of Romans 14 may be fairly summarized as supporting liberty, but there are some bumps in this textual road, and it requires careful analysis.
As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. (Rom. 14:1-4).
One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. … Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. … So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. (Rom. 14:5, 10, 12).
The chapter opens with a discussion of two behaviors we may characterize as non-essential, namely, whether to eat meat, or to observe special days. Apart from the laws of ancient Israel (which neither Gentiles nor the Church are required to observe), whether to eat certain foods or observe special days are non-essentials as far as the laws of nature and nature’s God are concerned. For the most part, they are matters about which God has neither required nor prohibited specific conduct, and people are free to do as they please in the course of their own self-government.[There are two possible exceptions. The first being the prohibition of eating or drinking blood (Gen. 9:4), which I assume is not really at issue here. The second is the Sabbath (Gen. 2:3), which even though it is a universal principle for all people, its observation is left to individual discretion under lonang. There are no other dietary restrictions or special days that either Gentiles or the Church are commanded to observe – the observance of the Lord’s Day being a custom, not a command.]
In other words, these are matters of individual discretion, and where there is discretion we have liberty. This is the clear assumption of the text as a starting point. It is twice confirmed later on in the chapter (in vv. 14 & 20) that these are matters in which nothing is unclean, therefore any decision regarding them can be honoring to God. We are also repeatedly told (vv. 4, 10 & 13) that regardless of our own decisions about such matters, we are not to judge others in the decisions they make about the same things. Thus, the context of Rom. 14 must be limited to matters which are indifferent (or morally neutral).
Given this backdrop, how are we to then govern ourselves? The rule of conduct (v. 5) is that “each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” This rule is implicit in vv. 12 and 22 as well: we will each give an account to God for our convictions. Thus, in areas of liberty (i.e., non-essentials), the rule is one of personal conscience. As long as each person follows his own conscience, our conduct will bring honor to God (v. 6). Rom. 14:22 says, “Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves,” which is essentially a rule of conscience.
The text thus far is a straight up admonition to biblical individual self-government: 1) each person is governed by their own conscience; 2) no one should think less of another’s decision to act in a different manner than he has chosen (i.e., no one should judge another’s conscience); and 3) this is honorable in the sight of God. So far so good. Now for the wrinkle.
Stumbling Blocks Notwithstanding
Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. (Rom. 14:13-16).
Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. (Rom. 14:20-23).
With verse 13 the concept of a stumbling block is introduced. We must take care not to force an interpretation which puts anyone in the position of violating either their own conscience, or the conscience of another. If the conscience is truly sacred, then the last thing God would ever call anyone to do is to violate anyone’s conscience, including their own. Further, we must interpret the second half of the chapter to be consistent with the first half, for God is not the author of confusion.
First, it helps to know what a stumbling block is. It is not, as many suggest, merely a personal offense. The text, in fact, never uses the word offense, so there is no need to assume that’s what it means. If we take our cue from similar usages in scripture, the meaning of a stumbling block is linked to the stone of stumbling (Rom. 9:33; 1 Pet. 2:8), which is a crisis of faith, not a personal offense. In other words, a stumbling block is something that causes another to lose faith, or doubt their faith, or deter them from having faith.
Second, I think the stumbling block situation is a very limited case, a type of exception to the general rule of do whatever you think is best when it comes to indifferent things. It is limited to cases involving another believer (i.e., a brother), and the context suggests it is also limited to cases where you already know that your actions will provoke a crisis of faith in someone else. How often do cases like that come up, really?
What distinguishes the strong person from the weak person is knowledge. This is clearly seen from v. 14: “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.” In other words, eating meat or observing days (or whatever), is indifferent under God’s laws. The weak person, however, does not know this, and their conscience – which is not yet mature or fully trained up to recognize when things are truly indifferent – tells them something is wrong, even though it really isn’t.
While it is the job of the Church (broadly speaking) to educate believers about the true nature of things, when you and someone else have a difference of opinion in the course of daily life, it is not usually an optimal educational opportunity. They don’t want to be lectured to, and you shouldn’t try to shove anything down their throat (as it were), so often you simply have to acknowledge your differences and show mutual respect (i.e., don’t pass judgment). And that works both ways.
Yet, when you know the subject of your disagreement is in reality an indifferent thing, it will not violate your conscience to voluntarily restrain your liberty, or momentarily waive your right to do as you please, because it frankly doesn’t matter (morally) how you do something which is morally neutral. And so long as you do not bend the other person to your will, they do not violate their conscience either. Everyone’s conscience is preserved, and this is what honors God.
No, it doesn’t mean you always have to defer to others as to indifferent things. God gave you liberty, and you are entitled to use it. Christ did not set us free, only to be enslaved by the preferences of others. As I said, the stumbling block scenario is very limited – it is the exception, not the rule.
Even when this exception applies, deferring to another person’s preference must be completely voluntary (i.e., there can be no moral duty to defer) and is subject only to personal discretion. For one thing, no one can ever be under a moral duty to do something which is morally neutral. For another, there is no ought in discretion, and no duty in being voluntary.
Strictly speaking, while we are called to love, there is no duty to love, and the manner in which we discharge our duty to God (and by which we love our neighbor) is entirely discretionary. It can neither be coerced, nor can it be guilt-tripped (i.e., manipulated). Therefore, no one has the right to demand others to defer to their own preference. Being weak in the sense used in Rom. 14 (being a person who lacks knowledge) vests no rights in the weak person. Ignorance is not power over others. If someone you know really objects to you (or anyone) having a “pagan Christmas tree” in your home, just don’t invite them over to see yours.
So the next time you are in a restaurant, your menu choices are not going to be dictated by what other people think you should eat, or what they choose to eat themselves. The way you celebrate holidays (or not) doesn’t depend on what your neighbors or fellow churchgoers decide to do. The rule remains the same, that in areas of liberty (i.e., non-essentials), we are guided by personal conscience.
In any event – and this is the bottom line for me – God never puts us in a situation where He expects us to violate our conscience, either for the sake of obeying Him, or for the sake of loving our neighbor. The conscience is inviolable.
3. Christopher St. Germain, The Doctor and Student (1518), DIALOGUE 1, Ch 15.
4. Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui, The Principles of Natural and Politic Law (1748), Bk 1, Pt 2, Ch 9.
5. Wm. Blackstone, 1 Commentaries on the Laws of England, Introduction, §2 (1765).
6. Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui, The Principles of Natural Law, ch. 9 (1748).
7. Francis Wayland, The Elements of Moral Science, ch. 2, §4 (1856 ed.).
8. Thomas Jefferson, Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom (1779). Adopted by the General Assembly of Virginia on January 16, 1786, now part of Code of Virginia, §57-1.
9. James Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments (1785).