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The Court of Conscience

Tom Pennington Romans 2:14-15


This morning in preparation of our celebration of the Lord's Table together, as well as, to sort of lay a foundation for something that we'll begin to study for a brief time next week, we're going to step away from our study of Ephesians for just a few weeks. And I want to look at the place of the conscience in the life of the Christian; how to decide about doubtful things from Romans 14. But in preparation for communion today, I want to step back and take a broader look at the issue of conscience.

You see, the Scriptures teach that God has made Himself known to us. And He has made Himself known to us, theologians would tell us, in two different ways. And this is consonant with what the Scripture teaches. He has made known Himself. He has disclosed Himself through special revelation. That is, through His Son and through His Word. God has specially spoken in those two great voices, through His Son, Hebrews 1 says, and through His Word.

But God has also disclosed Himself, He has also made Himself known, through what theologians call general revelation. God has disclosed Himself through His creation. Paul describes this reality for us in Romans 1. And I invite you to turn there with me. Romans 1 and in verse 18, Paul puts it very clearly. He says,

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.

Paul says, God had revealed Himself in creation. What exactly has God revealed about Himself in creation? Well, according to verse 20, He has revealed His invisible attributes; specifically, two of them. His eternal power and His divine nature. The expression "eternal power" speaks of God's absolute supreme control over everything, and "divine nature" simply speaks of His deity. So, we could paraphrase Paul like this. We could say that in creation, God has revealed Himself as the all-powerful supreme being who rules over all things. That's clear in what God has made. In creation, there is sufficient evidence of a supreme being.

So, when men refuse to acknowledge God, to worship Him, understand this, It is not from a lack of evidence. It is, as one author says, from their irrational and resolute determination not to know Him. You say, but do people really understand? Do they really have the capacity to get the message that God has written across His creation? Well, look at verse 19. There, we learned that God has made it evident to them. In other words, every person has been given the capacity for receiving the revelation of God, the self-disclosure of God, in creation. So, in creation, understand this, what Paul is saying here is that in creation God has made Himself known as the powerful supreme being of the universe. But that's not all that God has made known about Himself.

Down in the end of this chapter, Paul makes a surprising, really shocking, statement about what men know. He begins in verse 28 to detail this list of vices, this list of horrific sins, that men indulge themselves in. And when he comes to the end of it, notice this shocking statement he makes in verse 32. "… although they [that is, all of humanity] know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them." Did you notice what Paul says here? He says that all men know the ordinance of God against these sins.

Now, that should surprise you, because the question should immediately be, how? How do they know? How did the law of God speak to the countless people who died before the flood, or in the flood, before Moses? And what about the billions of people since Moses who have never read a Bible, who have never heard it taught, who have never had any exposure to the Word of God at all? What about the people alive today in some remote tribal setting, or in some stuffed urban setting who will never be exposed to the gospel? What about those people? According to Romans 1:32, they know the ordinance of God. The question is, how? And Paul masterfully answers that question in Romans 2, where I want you to turn with me this morning.

In preparation for communion today, I want us to consider how God has woven into the moral universe the knowledge of His perfect standard, so that, all men stand completely and helplessly guilty before God, wherever they live, whenever they lived, and whatever they've been exposed to. Look at Romans 2:14.

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, 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, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.

That is an amazing text, with far-reaching implications. Before we look at it, let me just make sure you understand the context. Paul is going to lay out the gospel to his friends in the church in Rome. He's going to begin to do that in 3:21 and following. But before he gets there, he first gives us the bad news. In chapter 1 Paul presents his case against the immoral pagans. And he shows that they are guilty before God. In chapter 2 Paul presents his case against the religious moralists, be he Jew or Gentile, the person who fancies himself moral, upstanding, deserving of God's notice. And as he goes through this chapter in chapter 2, he wants us to understand that whether you are a Jew and have the law of God written; or whether you're a Gentile and don't, regardless, you will be judged by the law, and you'll be judged impartially. It will be God's law, whether written in the Bible or written in the hearts, that is the standard against which men are judged. Here, Paul explains how it is that all men and women know the ordinance of God. It is through what Paul calls "conscience," conscience. God has placed within every person that shouts about the nature and character of God.

The Greek word that's translated "conscience" here literally means "to know together with," to know together with. To know with yourself what is right and wrong. Richard Sibbes, the great Puritan of the 17th century wrote that conscience is the soul reflecting upon itself. The Greek word for "conscience" doesn't occur in the Old Testament, that is in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, but, although the word doesn't occur, the concept does. In fact, you find it as early as the very dawn of civilization. You go back to Genesis 3. What happens after Adam and Eve sinned? In Genesis 3:8 we read, "They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. Why? Because of the sting of conscience. They understood their guilt, and they hid from God.

If you want to read more about how conscience works, read those great penitential Psalms where David pours out his heart before God, seeking God's forgiveness, Psalm 32, Psalm 51. In Psalm 32, he talks about when he, when he didn't confess, when conscience was at work it was as if his vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer, he says. Now, while the word doesn't occur in the Old Testament, the Greek word for "conscience" occurs some thirty times in the New Testament. What exactly is conscience? Let me give you some definitions. Webster defines conscience like this. "It is the sense or consciousness of right and wrong". That's not a bad definition, but let me give you a fuller one from the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. They describe it like this, "It is that faculty of the human soul by which one distinguishes between the morally right and wrong; which urges one to do that which he recognizes to be right, and restrains him from doing that which he recognizes to be wrong; which passes judgment on his actions and executes judgment within the soul." Now, as you hear that definition read, and it's a good definition, do you notice how many legal terms there are in that definition? It's not surprising that Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher, said that conscience was the courtroom within the human soul, where our decisions are forever on trial. That's really what the conscience is.

And this important concept Paul introduces here in Romans 2. As we consider what Paul has written here about the conscience, I want you to notice how he describes it. In these two short verses, Paul identifies four characteristics of the conscience, so that we can better understand it. Four characteristics. Let's look at them together.

First, he tells us the confident, or excuse me, the conscience is universal. It's universal. Notice verse 14. For when Gentiles who do not have the Law. He makes this sort of sweeping statement, and he lumps all of humanity apart from the Jews into one category. The Gentiles who do not have the Law. Now, Paul has just explained that all of those who do have the Law of God, in the Word of God, will be judged by what the Bible says. Notice verse 12, the middle of verse 12, all who have sinned under the Law. That means they have the Bible. They have the written Law of God. And they sinned even though they have it. Notice, they will be judged by that Law. For it's not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified. So, he's already said that Jews are going to face God's judgment based on the standard of the Law.

So, the Gentiles who don't have the Law might be tempted to think, well, we don't have the written Word of God. We didn't have it all the time we were growing up. So, we must have a valid excuse. But Paul doesn't let them off the hook. Notice what he says at the beginning of verse 12. All who have sinned without having the Law, that's everybody but the Jews, will also perish without the Law. So, he now lumps all of humanity together, the Jews who have the written law and the rest of humanity in a sort of universal sweep, Paul says everybody is described in this way. They will all perish, even though they didn't have the written law. Why? How could God be fair and condemn those who didn't have His written Law?

Here is the answer, folks, to that age-old question that comes up all the time, of what is going to happen with that person stuck away in some remote place who has never heard the Law of God, or the gospel of God. Here's the answer. They will perish. Why? Everyone has a conscience, and that conscience understands something of God's requirements and everyone who has a conscience and understands God's requirements has sinned against that knowledge, and therefore, is guilty. No one is excluded. Conscience is this universal sweeping reality.

If you go back in human history, you see that almost every culture has identified the reality of conscience. You go back to the ancient Egyptians. They didn't have a word for conscience, but if you read their Book of the Dead you'll discover there, they understood conscience very well. They understood the pain that could be inflicted by the human heart by making decisions contrary to that written law that was within.

The Greeks and the Romans actually personified conscience. They had two goddesses, or I should say several goddesses actually. The Greeks called them Erinyes and the Romans Furies. And these were relentless beings who tortured those who crossed the standard, and oftentimes they drove their victims insane with the feeling of guilt.

Conscience, wherever you look, whatever culture you look in, is a universal reality. If you're human, you have been given by your Creator, a conscience. J. I. Packer writes,

human beings cannot entirely suppress their sense of God and His present and future judgment. God Himself will not let them do that. Some sense of right and wrong, as well of being, as well as of being accountable to a holy divine judge always remains. In our fallen world, all whose minds are not in some way impaired have a conscience, that at some points directs them and condemns them, telling them that they ought to suffer for wrongs they have done. And when conscience speaks in these terms, it is in truth the voice of God.

Conscience, it's universal.

There's a second characteristic of conscience that Paul identifies here. It's natural, it's natural. Verse 14, "… when [or better whenever] Gentiles … do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves…." You see, Paul's point is this. From time to time, people who don't have the written word of God, who don't have the written Law, do what the Law requires. They actually do some of the things that God demands of us. They don't do it for the right motive. They don't do it in a full-hearted way that is acceptable to God, but they still do specific things that the Law commands. For example, you know unbelievers who honor their parents. You know unbelievers who speak the truth. They may remain loyal to their spouses throughout their married life. They may refuse to steal what doesn't belong to them. They may be scrupulously honest in their business dealings. And most unbelievers, while they may violate the command against murder by hating in their heart, as our Lord taught, most unbelievers never actually commit the act of murder.

Now why is it that they don't do these things? Paul says here, it's not because they're basically good people. It's not because they've read the Law of God. Instead, they do it, notice the word, instinctively. Literally, the Greek text says, "by nature." They do it by nature. There is this innate inner compulsion, rather than an external force. And when they do that, notice the end of the verse, these, not having the Law are a law to themselves. They show that while they don't actually have the written Law of God, they understand something about God's requirements. Why? Because it's in their nature. Conscience is a part of every person's nature. It doesn't come, as some sociologists would have us believe, from education, from environment, from habit, from training; although certainly, all of those can influence conscience. It comes from God. It is part of the essence of human nature to have a conscience.

The third characteristic of conscience that Paul identifies here is that it's legal. It's legal. That is, having to do with the law. Notice verse 15. When they do all of this, they show the work of the Law written in their hearts. When those who have never seen the Law of God do some of the things that are written in the Law, they show, or they exhibit, or they give proof of something. And they give proof of this, that the work of the Law is written in their hearts. Now, that's an unusual expression. In fact, the "work of the Law" is only used here in the New Testament. It means the substance of the Law, the basic requirements of the Law. Not the fullness of the law of God that's contained in our Bibles, but the basic requirements of the law of God are written on the heart of men. The occasional practice, by some unbelievers, of what the Law requires is proof that they have this basic knowledge of the law of God written on their hearts, on the heart of every man.

By the way, if you want to read about this sort of universal awareness of this standard that transcends all human standards, read C. S. Lewis's book Mere Christianity. He makes the argument for God on this very basis. Every person is born with the substance or basic requirements of the Law indelibly imprinted on his heart, and his conscience uses that basic knowledge to accuse him in some cases, or in a few cases, to defend him. So, the conscience then, think of it like this, comes pre-loaded with the basic requirements of God.

Back in June I had the joy, and at the same time the great frustration, of getting a new laptop. Those of you who change computers from time to time, you understand this. It's exciting. At the same time, you realize there is a great deal of work to get it suited again to your use. And when I got that computer in June, it came pre-manufactured with certain hardware, and also it came pre-loaded with certain software. What Paul is saying here is the same thing is true of every human being. Paul is saying that every person is born with the hardware of a conscience. And that that conscience, that piece of hardware that's a part of our human nature, comes pre-loaded with the software of the basic understanding of God's law, a basic knowledge of what is right and wrong. Now, with your computer, you can mess up the software that came installed. I understand this. This happens to me from time to time, and I have to get somebody to fix it for me. You can mess it up. You can install other software that interferes with that original software and changes it in some way. In the same way, you and I came pre-loaded with the hardware of a conscience and the software of a basic knowledge of God's law, and we can monkey with that and mess it up. It's not infallible, our consciences aren't. They're not always right. They can be seared. They can be confused. They can be perverted. But we are born with a basic awareness of the requirements of God's law. The conscience, you understand, is all about the law. It's legal.

The fourth characteristic of conscience that Paul gives us here is that it is judicial. It is judicial. Paul's point is, that not only is the conscience legal, that is, having to do with law. But the conscience is, itself, this adjudicating force. There is a judicial procedure that goes on in the conscience. Kant was right. Immanuel Kant was right. It is a courtroom. It is a courtroom inside the human heart. The conscience acts like a courtroom inside. It's judicial. It does that right now in your heart and in mine.

Look at verse 15. He says, they have this work of the Law written on their hearts, and as a result of that "their conscience is bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them." This goes on every day. This courtroom scene occurs in the human heart. The conscience observes and bears witness to whether or not we believe what we have done, the choices we have made, are right or wrong. And it causes our thoughts then, to pronounce a verdict against us immediately. And there are only two possible verdicts. Either, based on the witness of conscience, we are accused as guilty, or on occasion, our conscience defends us as innocent. All of this takes place in the heart. And you know what I mean. You experience this all the time. This inner courtroom drama, where our conscience is sitting in judgment on the moral decisions and choices we make.

Richard Sibbes, back to that famous seventeenth century Puritan. He agreed that the conscience is like a courtroom inside the soul, and he went a step further. He said,

The conscience is not only like a courtroom, but your conscience plays every role in the courtroom drama. Your conscience is like the court reporter who is recording every detail of every crime. It's like the prosecuting, or excuse me, it's like the accuser, the one who's bringing the charge. The one who brings the accusation that we are guilty. Conscience is the defense attorney who defends us when we're innocent. It's the witness who gives testimony either for us or against us. It's the judge who comes to the decision and declares us guilty before the law or who vindicates us as not guilty. And conscience is even the executor who carries out the sentence. Who, if found guilty, what does the conscience do? It brings guilt and shame and remorse. [Sibbes went on to compare the guilt of a violated conscience to just the tiniest glimpse of hell. So, right now, today, our consciences pass judgment on our moral choices.]

Reader's Digest recorded the story of an incident that actually occurred down in San Diego. In the San Diego Superior Court, two men were being tried for armed robbery. As they report the story, the prosecutor got up, and he called an eye witness to the stand, an eyewitness who had seen the end results of this armed robbery. And you know how it works. If you've not been in a courtroom, you've certainly seen one played out in some sort of drama. And the prosecuting attorney comes up to this eyewitness who's on the stand, and begins to ask a series of questions which, of course, are intended to bring an indictment against those who are accused.

And so, in this particular case, the prosecutor moved along carefully. He said, let me ask you, sir, he said, were you at the scene when the robbery took place, to which the eyewitness said, yes, I was. And you saw the vehicle leave at a high rate of speed. Yes, I did. And did you observe the occupants of that vehicle, to which the eyewitness said, yes, I did. There were two men. And with a certain amount of drama, the prosecutor turned toward the crowd sitting there in the courtroom and he said, are those two men present in court today? At which point the two defendants raised their hands and sealed their fate. They obviously weren't the brightest of defendants. But that is a great picture of what the conscience does. It forces us, it compels us, against our will almost, to raise our hands and say yes, we did that. I am the man. And conscience does that every day, every moment as we make these moral choices. It functions judicially right now. It's a courtroom in the soul.

But Paul goes on to say that conscience will function judicially in the future as well, at the judgment. Look at verse 16. "on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus." You see, the verdict that conscience pronounces against us now is like a preview of what it will be like at the judgment. Notice Paul says, "on the day when God will judge." Obviously, a reference to judgment day. Notice the certainty of judgment is part of the message of the gospel. He says, this is going to happen according to my gospel. If there's no judgment, if we're not going to stand before God, then there's no bad news, there's no need for good news. So, the message of the judgment was part of the gospel Paul preached. And notice that that judgment will be, verse 16 says, through Christ Jesus. Maybe you've never thought about this, but this is what the Bible teaches. Jesus Christ Himself will be the judge. In John 5:22, Jesus said the Father doesn't judge anyone, but He's given all judgment to the Son.

In Acts 10 Peter says to Cornelius, He ordered us to preach to the people, God did, and solemnly to testify that this is the One, Jesus Christ, who has been appointed by God as judge of the living and the dead. Paul to those philosophers on Mars Hill in Acts 17 says He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead. Think about this. The judge of all men will be the One who created them according to John 1:1, and the One who died to make the genuine offer of salvation possible and available to all men as well. But He'll no longer be on a cross. In that day He'll be on a throne, the throne of judgment. In Revelation 20, John describes Jesus in terms that are very unfamiliar to us. Listen to what he says. He is the One from whose presence earth and heaven fled away. Do you hear what John is saying? All of creation will run and hide from Jesus Christ. In that day, there will be something so terrible, so awesome, so awe inspiring about Jesus Christ that the entire creation shrinks away in terror. In that day, for those who have rejected His sacrifice, He will no longer be the lamb, but He'll be the lion who strikes terror into the hearts.

Notice the key expression in Romans 2:16 that I skipped over on purpose. God will judge what? The secrets of men. This phrase ties us back to the context. What's Paul been talking about? The conscience. And he's saying right now our conscience judges us, but there's coming a day, the judgment day, when our conscience will make known its secrets. Here's Paul's point. For those who have not found refuge in the lamb, they will stand before the lion, and at that judgment, the secrets of their consciences will be revealed. Those sins that no-one else knows come out. God has placed inside of us a relentless eye-witness, seeing every moral choice you and I ever make. And in the judgment it will shout against us. You can ignore it in this life, but it cannot be silenced forever. You cannot erase its records of personal guilt. All of those decisions of "guilty," "guilty," "guilty," are recorded, and someday they will come out.

Think of it like this. Experts tell us that it's almost impossible to erase the data from your computer hard drive. You can throw the files in your computer's trash can, and you can empty the trash can, but there, still on that drive somewhere are the remnants of those files, and experts can easily resurrect them. Law enforcement does this all the time. You can even purchase programs designed to eradicate all of that data. It's still there. Often, even those programs don't really get rid of all of the information. And the right person with the right skills can bring most of it back.

That's how it is with our consciences. They collect and store the data. It collects information. You can ignore it. You can try to erase it from your mind and memory, and you might even think you're successful. But it's still there. And all the guilt has been carefully recorded by the conscience, and when you stand before Jesus Christ, part of the evidence that will cry out against you will be the detailed records of your own internal courtroom and its decisions. You will not be able to say, "I didn't know." Conscience will say, "he knew, and he decided anyway." Apart from divine grace, that's how it would be for all of us.

But there's hope. You see, this has always been a problem. Turn over to Hebrews 9. It was a problem in the Old Testament under the old covenant. You offered those animal sacrifices, but they just weren't enough. Hebrews 9:9, the middle of the verse says, "Accordingly those gifts and sacrifices which were offered cannot make the worshiper perfect in conscience…." They can't deal with your real guilt because it's just an animal. But God has acted, and notice what He has done through His Son. Verse 11, "when Christ appeared as a high priest…. He entered … the greater and more perfect tabernacle" He offered Himself. Notice verse 12. And notice the comparison in verse 13.

[If] "… if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh," [stop there. He's saying, if those animal sacrifices could cleanse you ceremonially, if they could render you physically clean before God, then verse 14,] "how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?"

Here's the wonderful good news of the gospel. That indelible record in the courtroom of our consciences is erased before God by the work of Jesus Christ. And you and I who are in Christ will never stand before Him and hear the cry of conscience say "guilty" because He has cleansed our consciences from dead works to serve the living and true God. The writer of Hebrews continues in 10:19. He says,

Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way [by His own sacrifice, through His own body as it were. He's now the veil into God's presence.] Verse 22, "let us draw near [to God] with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, [knowing that] our hearts are sprinkled clean from an evil conscience…."

It's gone. Oh, sure, we still remember those things. The record is still in our minds, but let me assure you of this. If you're in Christ, that record will never be brought up to accuse you before God. Our consciences have been cleansed. That's the beauty of the gospel of Jesus Christ. That's the message of hope.

As we take communion today, we celebrate the wonderful reality that as far as final judgment is concerned, our consciences have been cleansed. The record of our guilt has been removed. Oh, conscience still serves an important purpose for us as believers, and we'll look at that next week, but the date collected by our consciences will never be used against us to convict us in the day of judgment. Instead, we have been cleansed to serve the living God.

Let's pray together.

Our Father, we are overwhelmed by Your grace. Lord, we know about our consciences. They cry out guilty all the time.

But we thank you that in Christ, because of His death for us, You have cleansed our consciences from dead works to serve You, the living and true God. Oh, God, how can we ever adequately thank You? How can we ever live in such a way as to express our love to You?

Teach us, Oh God, what it means to give ourselves away because of Him who gave Himself for us.

For it's in His name we pray. Amen.