The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines conscience as “our moral sense of right and wrong.” It arises instinctively in each of us defining how we relate to God and to the rest of the world. It is not the instinct of the “survival of the fittest” that is found in animals. In fact, it tells us to care for the weakest. That is somehow morally right. When we violate our conscience, it tells us that we are wrong. It is the internal ‘voice’ that separates right from wrong within us. It is our knowledge of good and evil. We gained this knowledge when Adam ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Gen. 3:6) We gained the moral sense of right and wrong. We gained a conscience.
Conscience is an attribute of God. He lives in righteousness. All that He does is righteous. God is light. “This is the message we have heard from Him and declare to you: God is light, in Him there is no darkness at all.” (1 John 1:5) It is His nature. God is not the knowledge of righteousness–He just is righteousness. He is the very reality of righteousness. We saw this reality expressed in Jesus, a human totally dependent on God. God is light. In Jesus, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5) The light overpowers and destroys everything that is in darkness.
When man ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, his eyes were opened. “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.” (Gen. 3:7) We gained the ‘knowledge’ of good and evil. We gained a conscience. The problem is we were not given the ‘ability’ to follow it. We knew something that was divine, but we were human. When we gained the knowledge of good and evil, we were ‘like God,’ able to separate good from evil, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:22), but not ‘God,’ as we were still human and unable to do what we now knew, “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Rom. 7:15) “For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.” (Rom. 7:18) “For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members” (Rom. 7:22) Our conscience is “A sharp accuser, but a helpless friend!” (An Essay on Man, Epistle II, 1733). It condemns us but does not help us out. The conscience lets us discern what is right and wrong, but it could not practically help us carry it out. So we are naked in front of God, and can only hide. Having gained the knowledge, we were still human.
The only way we can follow our conscience is if we become divine in nature. That is why God had to come to dwell in the human spirit to give him a divine life. He came to solve our sin problem by releasing the life-giving Spirit (1 Cor. 15:45), transferring us into the divine kingdom. “For He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of His Son He loves.” (Col. 1:13) Christ has finally bruised Satan’s head by dying on the cross for us so we can receive God into our beings again. We have been restored to eat of the tree of life again, gaining the divine nature, gaining Christ, whose life abides by our conscience as He lives through us. We have become dependent on God. That is the gospel message.
The divine nature within us, God in man, is simply His love. The essence of God is love. The centrality of who He is, is love. It is love that constrains us to keep His commandments. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15) Why if we love Him will we keep His commandments? “For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died, and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live to themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.” (2 Cor. 5:14-15) The love of Christ is what controls us. It is what allows us to keep our conscience. We no longer live to ourselves, but for Him who died and rose again on our behalf. That is why the first four commandments are related to God. Even as humans, it is love that keeps us faithful to our spouses, that keeps us from wanting to hurt each other especially when we are wronged, that helps us care for our children and for our children to care for us, that tells us the most important thing to us is our families, not things, so we don’t take what is not ours, that keeps us from lying to each other. (Note these are the last six commandments related to man.) This human love is imperfect, so we need laws and rules to keep us from violating what naturally should flow from our love for one another. We have marriage contracts and volumes and volumes of written laws to give us rules of behaviour as we cannot agree on things. Our love is human. Only when we have the love of Christ controlling our behaviours is this love for each other perfected. “I in them, and you in me, that they may be perfectly one.” (John 17:23) It is through Christ that we can all love one another. We are no longer living to ourselves but for Him. “And He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.” (2 Cor. 5:15) We have become selfless through Christ. We have become imitators of Christ. “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.” (Eph. 5:1-2) We have become sacrificial through Christ. Then we can love our enemies as ourselves. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” (Mat. 5:44) Our love through Christ becomes unconditional. This is the selfless, sacrificial and unconditional ‘agape’ love we express through Christ to God and to man. Through Christ we have the ability to follow our conscience.