The Priority of a Clear Conscience

“And herein do I exercise myself to have always a conscience void of offense toward God, and toward men” Acts 24:16

The conscience is God’s watchman in the soul. Its function is to monitor and register behavior. Like Mr. Recorder in Bunyan’s Holy War, whose voice shook the whole town of Mansoul with words like thunder-claps, the conscience passes judgment from within the heart of man according to what it believes to be right and true. In a vivid reference to the conscience, Solomon said, “The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord, searching all the inward parts of the belly” (Pro. 20:27).

Conscience is a God-given, internal control by which a man is distinguished from an animal as a creature made in God’s image. The root of the word, science, speaks of “knowledge”. The prefix con means “with.” Conscience, then, is knowledge with oneself, or knowledge from within. Man is created, in other words, with an innate knowledge, a capacity from within to scrutinize and pass judgment on himself. The Puritan John Trapp expressed the function of conscience when he said, “Conscience is God’s spy and man’s overseer.”

As the resident “judge” within the heart, conscience either “accuses or excuses” (Rom. 2:14). When it “excuses” or vindicates, the individual experiences joy: “For our rejoicing is this, the testimony of our conscience, that in simplicity and godly sincerity…we have had our conversation in the world, and more abundantly to you-ward” (2 Cor. 1:12). When it “accuses” or convicts (Jno. 8:9), the individual experiences bitter agony of heart: “And Peter remembered the words of Jesus…’Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice.’ And he went out, and wept bitterly” (Mt. 26:75).

Because the pain of a guilty conscience is so intense, Paul made it his ambition to conduct himself in such a way that his conscience would be clear. A clear conscience, “toward God and toward man,” is inexpressibly sweet. It makes the step nimble and the burden light. An offended conscience, however, is unspeakably bitter. It makes one’s going “staid and slow” and complicates the ordinary cares of life by a preoccupation with guilt and regret. Everyone who has ever lived with a defiled conscience knows the reality of Solomon’s words: “Heaviness in the heart of man maketh it stoop.”

No wonder Paul “exercised” (lit. trained, disciplined) himself to maintain a pure conscience. A conscienc in which there is no cause for offense liberates for energetic labor and unimpaired usefulness in Christ’s service: “Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence toward God. And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight” (I Jno. 3:21-22). Nothing is more essential than that the believer live in such a way that he will have no cause for regret.

– Michael L. Gowens