Christian Conscience: The Watchful Monitor of Stewardship
Stewardship has a watchful monitor in the conscience.
Consider carefully what the conscience does. We do not say, “what the conscience is.” Fruitless hours of speculation can be spent on what conscience is. It can be questioned whether or not all persons have a conscience, and if so whether it is acquired by birth or developed by environment. Avoid such detours by focusing upon how conscience behaves, what it does, and why that can be enlisted in service.
The term conscience implies “knowing together,” or “knowing with,” at one and the same time: from con meaning “with” and science meaning “knowledge.”
What Conscience Does
What, then, is known together by conscience?
Two things: (1) the divine law, spelled out in the Ten Commandments and inscribed by God upon the human heart as part of the divine image in each human being; and, (2) the action one has done, or contemplates doing; the thoughts and purposes one entertains; in short, all behavior. Conscience brings law and conduct together, and judges behavior by the Law. Conscience is the inner courtroom where God’s Word and our conduct meet for judgment. Conscience is God’s witness in each human heart: “They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness” (Rom. 2:15). Paul is here speaking of those to whom the Law did not come by special revelation, the Gentiles.
Conscience monitors behavior, makes demands upon it in the name of the Law. And in response, the believer can strive to keep his conscience clear of accusation against him by seeking to obey God’s Law—and here conscience becomes ally to the believer and to the church.
Paul says to the Roman governor Felix: “So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man” (Acts 24:16). That is to say, the Christian always strives to love, which is obedience to the Law.
A Bridge to the Particular
Conscience plays a unique role in the obedient life.
It is often said that the Bible falls short of particulars in laying down regulations for Christian obedience. We are never expressly told, for example, how much we may keep for ourselves of all the goods that God gives us. We are not informed as to whether money should be given to one charity or to another, or whether it is right to enjoy good food and drink while many starve. The Bible declines to be an ethical recipe book. The Word only reveals general mandates and universal commandments.
Why? Because God provides conscience to be the bridge from the general and universal law to the particular act. Conscience is, so to speak, the elbow where the vertical command coming down from God governs the horizontal deed done among men.
The Bible is geared to conscience. The Word is addressed to conscience, and should be preached to conscience. Out of the struggle to do the revealed will of God in daily living, conscience emerges ever more sensitive and helpful. Conscience is the agent of Christian maturity.
It is easy to dispute the trustworthiness of conscience. “Let your conscience be your guide” is indeed not always a guarantee that what follows is in full accord with divine Law. The conscience requires a constant tutor—the Word of God. Believers bring conscience to the worship service to school it the better in awakening response to the Law—the version written on the conscience vibrating in harmony with the preaching of what is written in the Scriptures.
Estranged from the church, and indifferent to the Bible, conscience may indeed become more and more wayward and less and less reliable: “Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done” (Rom. 1:28).
But aroused again and again by the Word preached, tutored by the Word studied, and disciplined by an alert eldership, the believer’s conscience serves as the living voice of the Word, “now accusing, now even defending” what he thinks, says, and does (Rom. 2:15).
Conscience is there. We need not, and could not, create it. But how exciting a challenge to enlist its voice in our efforts to serve the Christ through obedience to the divine Law in the form of good stewardship.