The Infused Courtroom
The Apostle Paul unfolds for us in Romans 2 that even the Gentiles who don’t have the Law actually know it by nature because it “is written on their hearts” (2:15).
Paul then communicates to us the global, natural purpose of this God-infused courtroom in the heart of every man: to either accuse or excuse (2:15b). Therefore, every one knows God’s Law (literally: con [with] + science [knowledge]). Every sin, every trespass against God’s moral Law expressed in the 10 Commandments is a known sin, i.e. the sinner knows that when they lied, committed adultery, stole, blasphemed God’s name, etc. is wrong. And their conscience will either accuse them or excuse them. The unbeliever knows with absolute certainty that it is sinful to lie on that paperwork at the office — and so does the one who has been born again. So, what is the difference?
Bothered, or a Holy Bothered
Perhaps one of the most concrete examples of this distinction can be found in the life of Joseph in Genesis 39. At this point in Joseph’s life, he has been bought by Potiphar (the captain of the guard in Egypt) as a slave to work in his house. Thus, after some time he moves up the ranks and is now the in charge of Potiphar’s house and is entrusted with the care of it all!
Enter Potiphar’s wife who finds the very handsome Joseph, handsome (v.6-7). She throws herself at Joseph and Joseph responds thus: “[Potiphar has not] kept back anything from me except you, because you are his wife. How then can i do this great wickedness and sin against God?” (39:9).
According to Roman 2, the typical unbeliever might respond with thoughts similar to Joseph’s, but different. And the distinction is an eternity of difference.
If Joseph was a pagan, he may initially respond the way he did with a “No, I better not; you’re the boss-man’s wife.” But, then, he could think, “Well, Potiphar is a jerk. And his wife is here alone with me. And who would find out anyway?” It is possible to keep sin enclosed and secret for a lengthy amount of time if there is the utmost precaution. The sinner’s conscience would be, by the Apostle’s authority, bothered. It would accuse him to do that to someone; adultery against another man’s wife, even to a pagan, is pretty messed up at the least — especially considering the coming angry husband if he finds out (cf. Proverbs 6:30-35).
Even unbelievers can have a bothered conscience — but Joseph had a holy bothered conscience. His concern was not primarily against his neighbor, but against God.
Signs of Life
Christian, consider your life. When you have the opportunity (or are in the act of) to sin, your conscience is going to sound like the tornado alarm — similar to a pagan’s. But, consider the strength of your conscience’s appeal: not to man, but to God. Yes, part of obeying our conscience is loving our neighbor as the Law is summed up with; but the primary offender of breaking God’s Law is always God first and primarily (cf. Psalm 51).
Do you know that loud, keeping-you-awake-at-night, bothersome conscience? Do you feel that holy bothered conscience? Thought it is painful, though it is strong — when you respond in repentance and faith in God’s Law and God’s promise and find your conscience clean before the Lord, rejoice! Rejoice that this is a sign of your being made alive together with Christ (Ephesians 2:4-5)! Your new and highest desire is to please the Lord, to fear God and to keep his commandments because they have been supernaturally written on your heart as part of the New Covenant (cf. Jeremiah 31:31-34). Unbelievers do not feel any inclination towards offending the God that created them because there is no fear of God before their eyes (Romans 3:18). Their main thought in this process is one of great rebellion, as if God didn’t exist in the first place (Psalm 10:4).
When God’s Word convicts you and accuses you of trespassing God’s Law, your conscience will loudly remind you and accuse you for your good. You have a fear of God before your eyes. It is good that this is your experience; this is a gracious blessing that the Spirit has worked within you. You are alive to Christ and his glory! How could you sin against that God?
Your Conscience Before the Court
The good news of the gospel is that as you stand before God, Christian, you can do so with a clean conscience cleansed from evil (Hebrews 10:22) because you are standing in the New Covenant. We can have full assurance that God has declared us righteous in Christ because of “the blood of Jesus” (Hebrews 10:19). Your final courtroom day before the Most High will be one of absolute freedom of judgment for your sins, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ. Therefore, rest in Christ’s work for your rest and safety from condemnation and not in your conscience, ultimately.
But, because of Christ’s work for you and his cleansing blood, we must listen to and work to obey our conscience when it accuses us before God and his Law. Seek direction from God’s Word and renewal by seeing more of his revealed will in the Scriptures. Desire wisdom and direction from your local church and your pastor on issues where you are unclear or unsure. Trust your conscience by binding it to God’s Word. And may we sing with Charles Wesley:
Almighty God of truth and love,
to me thy power impart;
the mountain from my soul remove,
the hardness from my heart.
O may the least omission pain
my reawakened soul,
and drive me to that blood again,
which makes the wounded whole.