The Voice of Conscience

The Voice of Conscience

Studies In Paul’s Letter to the Romans
by Bob Burridge ©2011

Lesson 10: Romans 2:11-16

When people do wrong they feel guilty.

Guilt is not a pleasant feeling. It’s not supposed to be. It lets us know that we are accountable to a standard of right and wrong. It weighs on us when we do wrong, and reminds us of how much we owe to the grace of God.

For the person who has not experienced the renewed spiritual life God gives in Christ, this guilt is a terror to them. Guilt itself becomes the enemy. The world wants to live freely in its sin and not be troubled by feelings of guilt. So it should not surprise us that the world tries to do away with the idea of guilt feelings. They say our conscience is just a learned set of feelings that we need to overcome. They blame parents, teachers, and specially the church for creating guilt feelings in society.

The surprising thing is how many who call themselves Christians buy into this heathen idea. Awhile ago I read a review of the book by some well known “Christian” counselors. In it they say that believers should try to rid themselves of guilt feelings. They imply that guilt is a harmful thing, and when we sin we ought not to feel guilty about it. They use good sounding biblical language to justify their very unbiblical teaching. They say that since we are in Christ we should be living guilt free lives. They argue that guilt feelings come from bad upbringing instead of from God.

Of course this is what people want to hear. However, it is tragically wrong. It is directly opposed to what the Bible teaches about guilt and conscience. The feeling of terror and conviction is not just a result of bad parental or institutional training.

God made us in such a way that wrong thoughts and deeds are supposed to trouble us. For example, When Adam and Eve first sinned in Eden they felt guilty. They sensed that something was wrong. They became afraid and hid from God. Obviously they had not been taught to feel guilty by bad parents or by an overly conservative upbringing. They showed a very real part of fallen man that responds to sin by triggering guilt feelings.

Guilt has a good purpose. God put it into us, and it is a good thing to have. The conscience provides an inner testimony of moral rightness and wrongness. This does not mean that those redeemed should fear that their guilt is not fully paid for by Christ. It should remind them of how undeserving they are of God’s blessings, and of how much our Savior endured to restore us to fellowship with God. It also helps us grow in holiness so that we recognize behaviors and attitudes that are sinful and need to be not only forgiven, but also overcome.

In our previous studies we saw that the non-Jews who did not have God’s word are held accountable for not recognizing and honoring what God shows of himself in nature. We saw the pitiful hypocrisy of the Jews who criticized the Gentiles, but did the same things. The main principle is given in Romans 2:11, “For there is no partiality with God.”

The Apostle Paul brings the two groups together under one judgment. Everyone stands equally condemned before God. There are no favorites or exemptions.

Then Paul explains further how
one moral standard judges us all equally.

Romans 2:12-13, “For as many as have sinned without law will also perish without law, and as many as have sinned in the law will be judged by the law (for not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified;”

First: the non-Jews did not have God’s specially revealed law.
The words of the prophets and the written record of Scripture were basically unknown to them. The Gentile scholars were familiar with the Hebrew Bible in a general sense, but the people of the nations were unaware of what God’s word actually said. However, they are not considered innocent before God. Verse 12 says that they have sinned, and will perish because of it, even though they did not have the written law of God. They are held accountable for obeying the law even though they never heard it spoken. They are without excuse.

Second: those who sin having become aware of God’s law, are judged by the law. The Jews had received the warnings and teachings of the prophets. If the Gentiles, who had only received a general revelation from nature are held guilty, then so much more are the Jews held guilty who possessed God’s spoken word. Therefore, both groups, all humans, are inexcusable for their attitudes and behavior.

It is not those who hear the law who are justified before God. It is the doers of the law, those who actually obey and honor it. The Israelites may have had a knowledge of the word, but that was never enough. They had received the law, attended on its services, and were under the covenant, but some of the most well educated in the law are its worst violators. Law is not for mere curiosity, or for philosophy. It is for obeying.

Since the law demands full obedience, no one is innocent under its judgment. It is not just a guideline for better living. It is the absolute moral standard for God’s universe. The violation of one small part of the law condemns a person fully.

In Galatians 3:10 Paul quotes from Moses in Deuteronomy 27:26. Paul said, “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.’ ”

This does not mean that there is a possibility of salvation if someone keeps the law. This means that salvation by human merit is impossible. No one has kept God’s law perfectly.

Can someone be held accountable who is unaware of the rules?

Romans 2:14-16, “for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them) in the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel.

Ignorance of God’s written law is no excuse from moral responsibility. God has given us a conscience. Those who do not have the written law still see the need to do the things that are revealed in the law. Even heathen societies show that there is a moral standard created in the heart of man. The most ungodly of nations still have laws against murder, stealing, adultery, lawlessness, and other such things. Even though they pervert them or exempt some from them, they instinctively know they are wrong.

The fact that there are moral principles is inescapable. People may disobey them, confuse them, and reveal their sinfulness. Yet the idea of moral law emerges everywhere.

Humanism is the presumed religion of our modern society. Man is considered to be nothing more than an advanced evolving animal. They presume there can be no God, and therefore no moral laws.

In the Humanist Manifesto II , in the third section about Ethics, it says, “Ethics stems from human need and interest” — “Ethics is autonomous and situational.” It explains that the concepts of right and wrong do not involve god. Yet the document goes on to declare immoral any laws that restrict abortion, euthanasia, suicide, etc. It deplores the existence of separate nations, and provides a very long paragraph condemning any limitations upon sex as being morally “wrong.”

Even the extreme humanist believes that there is right and wrong. Even in their rebellion, they show that God made all humans with a moral sense. Of course, since they deny God’s word they have the moral principles all backwards.

We often hear unbelievers complain that you can’t “legislate morality”. It is true that law cannot make people obey. But the whole idea of morality presumes that some things are good, and some things are bad. The awareness of this principle persists even when it is perverted by fallen humanity with its inevitable errors about God and man’s depravity.

The reason that all men have laws is that the work of the law is written in their hearts. God implanted instincts and a moral sense into man from the beginning. The Bible calls it our “conscience”. That is the part of the inner man that responds to sin. It brings guilt feelings and misery when we do wrong.

The unbeliever struggles to silence and redefine it. Their own thoughts are busy testifying against them. They are constantly either accusing others to put the blame on them, or they are excusing immoral behavior. Without a redeemed heart, they appeal to a wrong standard. They blame their guilt feelings on the church, on parents, on society, on teachers.

Rather than admit to sin and submit to the true God, they are engaged in a life-long war with their own conscience. The battle takes its toll upon their own peace and sanity. They are always struggling to prove what is not, and to deny what is.

In contrast, the believer is brought humbly again and again to repentance by his conscience.

There is a moral awareness in all men. It makes them feel guilty. The truth of the situation will be made known in the Judgment Day. Men may hide evidences of their crimes from other men, but God does not need evidence. He knows the crime itself. Men must judge by evidence. God sees all the way to the heart. To him there are no secrets. There is no escape from the condemnations of God in the final judgment.

The conscience of man is part of creation. God made it to testify to moral truth. As Paul showed back in chapter 1:21, “because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”

When the conscience testifies about moral guilt, our fallen nature suppresses it. It begins looking for excuses. It tires to shift the blame, or to redefine right and wrong. But the crushing weight of truth presses down destructively upon man’s inner being. He cannot escape the truth for long. He runs to his psychologist for help. He buys books that tell him that he is really “OK.” He seeks out churches that preach against the reality of guilt and promise false hope. He goes to rallies, and loves the charismatic experiences that sugar coat the truth with euphoric feelings that make him believe his is special. However, deep in his heart are the seeds of frustration and madness. He is struggling against the way things really are.

The whole gospel deals with the problem, not it’s symptoms. It accurately diagnoses the disease and offers a radical cure rather than just killing the pain. It tells us that all of us are without excuse before God.

Creation and conscience condemn even the uninformed heathen. These witnesses testify clearly that everyone answers to God. The spoken word of God preserved for us in Scripture condemns even the church member when he sins. But those redeemed by the work of Jesus Christ are really set free from guilt.

Jesus suffered and died a criminal’s death to pay the moral debt of his people. He lived a holy life to earn righteousness for his people and to enable them to live for him. This is the good news; the gospel sets us free. By this gospel the conscience can be restored to do its holy and good work:

The conscience must first be made alive in Christ by reunion with God. Grace alone restores the conscience. The Father’s eternal love chose to redeem some who are totally unworthy. God the Son redeemed them by his life and death in their place. God the Holy Spirit applies that redemption and regenerates the dead soul.

Once made alive, the conscience begins to operate as it was originally designed. Instead of making up excuses, or changing the rules, it convicts us of our need for a Savior, and it keeps convicting us to follow him repentantly, trusting in his word and promises.

The redeemed conscience must be fed with the revealed truth of God. We face a constant influence of past ideas and worldly confusion. A misinformed conscience makes us feel guilty for the wrong things and excuses our sin. The Bible restores our understanding of what is really right and wrong. Our feelings are not enough. They are not reliable. However, a regenerated conscience fed with the truth of God’s word is a valuable witness to us as we strive to grow into Christ-likeness by Sanctification.

(The Bible quotations in this article are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)

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About Bob Burridge

I've taught Science, Bible, Math, Computer Programming and served 25 years as Pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Pinellas Park, Florida. I'm now Executive Director of the ministry of the Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies

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