Summary: What role does conscience play in Christian citizenship? That is the study presented in this message.
“One must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.”
How many sermons have you ever heard concerning the conscience? I confess that I have been in service to the churches for almost forty years, and on only two previous occasions have I ever preached a sermon dealing with conscience. Just as telling is the fact that I cannot recall ever hearing a single message dealing with the conscience. Comparatively few systematic theologies even make mention of conscience. Listen carefully, therefore, for the message which you are about to hear may be the sole message on this subject you will ever hear.
In our studies through this portion of the Apostle’s contribution to the Word of God, we have witnessed Paul teaching about the proper function of government. Additionally, he has presented the expectation that Christians will be exemplary in their submission toward the legitimate authority of government. As we have seen throughout this series of studies, whenever we speak of submission and authority we enter the realm of controversy. Accordingly, I am compelled to issue a caution to those who either listen to this message or read it. I caution not to draw unwarranted conclusions concerning the role of Christians in the modern state on the basis of this single message. You must be cautious before making any statement concerning the legitimate authority of government based upon this message in isolation from the truths presented in the entire passage.
The purpose of this message seeks neither to explore the authority of government nor to explore the limits of obedience toward government; these issues have been explored previously. We previously explored the parameters of governmental authority and the requirement for Christian submission. I encourage you to review the previous messages in this particular series before you draw any conclusions concerning a biblical view of the Christian in the modern state. We have witnessed two powerful reasons for this required submission. First, government receives authority from God. Thus, if we resist the authority of the state, we are resisting the authority of God, and God will judge us. Second, the state itself will judge us if we resist its authority. The state will insist upon obedience and will punish us if we do not submit to its authority.
Together, these are two good reasons for Christian submission to the authority of the state. At this point, we might think that Paul is prepared to move on. However, just as we think he is prepared to wrap up his argument, he says, almost as an afterthought, “Oh, yes, and also because of conscience.”
No longer is Paul’s argument merely pragmatic, but now it touches the very heart of our lives as children of the True and Living God. To this point, it is as if Paul had said, “You should obey the state because you will get in trouble if you don’t.” Now, however, he says, “You should obey the state because it is the right thing to do; and you know you should do what is right.” James Boice observes, “Instead of treating us as we might treat an animal, training it to respond mechanically by rewarding desired behaviour and punishing undesirable behaviour, Paul treats people as responsible moral agents—that is, as human beings made in God’s image—by appealing to our consciences.”
A DEFINITION OF CONSCIENCE — We know that the concept of the conscience was more important to Paul than to all other Bible writers. I say this because the word conscience occurs twenty-nine times in the ENGLISH STANDARD VERSION OF THE BIBLE, only one of which occurrences is in the Old Testament. There, it translates the Hebrew word which was usually translated “heart.”
The word conscience occurs in the New Testament twenty-eight times. Peter uses the word twice and the author of Hebrews uses the word four times. However, the Apostle Paul uses the word no less than twenty-two times (including two times in statements recorded in the Book of Acts). The English word conscience is from the Latin conscientia, a compound of con (“together” or “with”) and scio (“to know”). This is a translation of the Greek suneídāsis, which means literally “knowledge with.” This is fine, but what is the conscience? The nominal meaning of the concept of conscience is “an inner awareness, a knowledge within one’s self.” Roger Congdon, in a thorough study of the concept of conscience, concludes that “conscience is our ‘knowing with’ God’s law by which we realise whether or not we are conforming to His standard.”
Conscience appears to be inherited, for though the wicked may act as though they are without conscience, evidence seems to point to the conclusion that conscience is a part of all mankind. Congdon argues persuasively, “In the natural man, of a surety, it is not dominant, for the sin nature prevails and perverts it. Education may colour it; exercise will strengthen it. To disobey its voice dulls the power it has, and to ignore it constantly will result in a callused conscience. But the voice is still there and still capable of speaking. It seems probable that if a man were absolutely destitute of conscience he could not be saved, because it would be impossible for him to realise his need of a Saviour otherwise. As long as the gospel is addressed to all men, then, and all are saveable, it would appear a logical conclusion to say that all have workable consciences.”