Many of us are familiar with Martin Luther’s heroic statement at the Diet of Worms when called upon to recant his teaching. “Unless I am convinced by sacred Scripture, or by evident reason, I cannot recant, for my conscience is held captive by the word of God, and to act against conscience is neither right nor safe.”
Today, we rarely hear any reference to the conscience. Yet throughout church history, the best Christian thinkers spoke about the conscience regularly. Thomas Aquinas said the conscience is the God-given inner voice that either accuses or excuses us in terms of what we do. John Calvin spoke of the “divine sense” that God puts into every person, and part of that divine sense is the conscience. And when we turn to Scripture, we find that our consciences are a significant aspect of God’s revelation to us.
Where Does Conscience Come From?
When we talk about God’s revelation, we make a distinction between general revelation and special revelation. Special revelation refers to that information given to us in the Scriptures. Not everyone in the world possesses this information. Those who have heard it have had the benefit of hearing specific information about God and his plan of redemption.
General revelation refers to the revelation that God gives to every human being on earth. It’s general in the sense that it’s not limited to any specific group of people. It’s global, and it extends to every human being. The audience is general, and the information given is general as well. It doesn’t have the same level of detail that sacred Scripture does.
However, to understand the conscience, we must go further than dividing special and general revelation. Within general revelation, we must distinguish between mediate general revelation and immediate general revelation. Mediate general revelation refers to the revelation that God gives through an external medium — in other words, the revelation is given through a mediator: creation, in which God reveals his invisible attributes (Romans 1:20). General revelation mediated through creation is clear enough that every single person knows God exists and, therefore, is without excuse (Romans 1:20).
Immediate general revelation is revelation that is transmitted to every human being without an external medium. It’s internal, not external. It’s the revelation God plants in the soul of every person. God reveals his law in the mind of every human being by planting a conscience within each of us.
Happy Hooker and the Christian Conscience
However, we face a problem: the conscience is fluid. It’s not fixed. Almost all people adjust their consciences between childhood and adulthood, and the adjustment is almost always downward. That is, we learn how to turn the volume of our conscience down so that our ethics align with how we want to live and not how God tells us we should live.
Almost fifty years ago, Xaviera Hollander wrote a bestselling book with a strange title: The Happy Hooker. Hollander, a prostitute herself, sought to silence the people who believe that no prostitute in America could find joy in what she was doing. In her book, Hollander celebrates the joy that she experienced in her profession, saying that she never felt guilty about what she was doing. To be sure, Hollander said, the first time she involved herself in prostitution, she felt pangs of guilt. But over time, she got to the point where her feelings of guilt dissipated.
However, there was one important exception to this. When Hollander heard the ringing of church bells, her conscience would flare up. She was reminded that what she was doing was under the condemnation of Almighty God. Even this hardened professional prostitute could not totally destroy the conscience that God had placed within her.
Feeling Ebbs as Guilt Swells
Here is the supreme irony and tragedy of sin: the more we repeat our sins, the greater the guilt we incur, but the less sensitive we become to the pangs of guilt in our consciences. Paul says that people store up wrath for themselves on the day of wrath (Romans 2:5). That’s objective guilt — they are guilty because they have broken God’s law. But some people have so destroyed their consciences that they believe it really doesn’t matter what they do as long as it is consensual and they can see no harm. Their subjective guilt — their feeling or sense of guilt that accompanies wrongdoing — diminishes.
We find new ways to accept sinful behavior, both as individuals and as a culture. As of 2017, we have killed almost sixty million babies, tearing them limb from limb. People use social media to boast of this reality, saying how proud they are that they have maintained the freedom of a woman to abort her child. We now boast about marriage between a man and a man, and a woman and a woman, without shame. There is not much of a collective conscience left in this country.
The worst part of Paul’s indictment in Romans 1 is not simply that we practice things deserving death, despite knowing the righteous judgment of God — it is that we approve of others who practice them as well (Romans 1:32). When people destroy their own consciences, they do everything in their power to destroy the consciences of their neighbors.
To quiet their consciences, people will seek allies and make proclamations like, “We’re only crusading for liberty here, for the freedom of choice.” What a strategy. “I’m not pro-murder; I’m pro-choice.” That’s what the Godfather would say. “I’m pro-choice. I choose to murder my enemies.”
We Who Judge Have No Excuse
However, our purpose in discussing these things is not to lament how bad “the world out there” is, but rather how bad we are in that we Christians do the same thing. We, too, adjust our consciences to fit the culture. As humans, we all try everything in our power to excuse our sin.
This is why it is so important to keep our hearts tender to the testimony of God’s word in our conscience. At the Diet of Worms, Luther did not say, “My conscience is held captive by my contemporary culture, by the latest Gallup poll, and by the latest survey that describes what everybody else is doing.” Nor did he say, “My conscience is influenced by the word of God.”
In essence, he said, “I am in captivity to the Scriptures. That is why I cannot recant.” Had his conscience not been captive to God’s word, he would have recanted immediately. So, he said, “To act against conscience is neither right nor safe.”
Learn the Mind of Christ
We don’t want to hear the judgment of conscience; we want to destroy the judgment of conscience. That’s our nature. The only antidote is knowing the mind of Christ. We need men and women whose consciences have been captured by the word of God. Thank God for his word. It exposes the lies we tell ourselves to make us feel better.
We aren’t going to be judged on the last day on whether we feel guilty, but on whether we are guilty. But a taste of that judgment now in part, through our consciences, is a gift from the God who wishes all would come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). The feeling of guilt is the signal that there’s probably something wrong. The Holy Spirit convicts us of sin, and with that conviction comes a certain tender mercy that leads us to repentance and forgiveness so that we might walk in his presence.