An Exposition of Hebrews
by A. W. Pink
A Good Conscience
(Hebrews 13:18, 19)
Hebrews 13:18, 19 is closely connected with the verse which immediately precedes. In our present portion the apostle mentions another duty which believers owe to those who minister unto them in spiritual things, and this is that they should earnestly remember them before the Throne of Grace. The writer of this epistle besought the prayers of the Hebrews, supporting his plea with a declaration of the sincerity and fidelity with which he had sought to discharge his office. The very fact that the true servants of Christ are so conscientious in the performance of their work, should so endear them to those they minister unto that a spirit of prayer for them ought to be kindled in their hearts. They are the instruments through which we receive the most good, and therefore the least we can do in return is to seek to bear them up before God in the arms of our faith and love.
Before we consider this special need of Christ’s servants, and our privilege and duty in ministering unto the same, we propose to devote the remainder of this article unto a careful consideration of the particular reason here advanced by the apostle in support of his request, namely, "for we trust we have a good conscience in all things willing to live honestly." This expression "a good conscience" occurs in several other passages in the N.T., and because of its deep importance it calls for our closest attention. Much is said in the Word about conscience, and much depends upon our having and preserving a good one, and therefore it behooves us to give our best consideration to this weighty subject. Not only is it one of great practical moment, but it is especially timely in view of the conscienceless day in which we live. What, then, is the conscience? What is a good conscience, and how is it obtained and maintained? May the Spirit of Truth be our Teacher as we seek to ponder these vital questions.
Conscience is that faculty of the soul which enables us to perceive of conduct in reference to right and wrong, that inward principle which decides upon the lawfulness or unlawfulness of our desires and deeds. Conscience has well been termed the moral sense, because it corresponds to those physical faculties whereby we have communion with the outward world, namely, the five senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. Man has an ethical instinct, a faculty or moral sensibility informing and impressing him. "It is far higher in the scale and keener in its perceptions than any mere bodily sense. There is an inner eye, that sees into the nature of right and wrong; an inner ear, sensitive to the faintest whisper of moral obligation; an inner touch, that feels the pressure of duty, and responds to it sympathetically" (A.T. Pierson).
Conscience is that mysterious principle which bears its witness within us for good or evil, and therefore it is the very center of human accountability, for it greatly adds to his condemnation that man continues sinning against the dictates of this internal sentinal. Conscience supplies us with self-knowledge and self-judgment, re-suiting in self-approbation or self-condemnation according to our measure of light. It is a part of the understanding in all rational creatures which passes judgment on all actions for or against them. It bears witness of our thoughts, affections, and actions, for it reflects upon and weighs whatever is proposed to and by the mind. That it bears witness of emotions is clear from, "My conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart" (Rom. 9:1, 2). So again we read, "Take no heed unto all words that are spoken, lest thou hear thy servant curse thee; for oftentimes also thine own heart (conscience) knoweth that thou thyself likewise hast (inwardly) cursed others" (Ecclesiastes 7:21, 22). Its voice is heard by the soul secretly acquainting us with the right and wrong of things.
That conscience exists in the unregenerate is clear from Paul’s statement concerning the Gentiles: "Which show the work of the law written in their hearts: their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the meanwhile accusing or else excusing one another" (Rom. 2:15). Though the heathen never received the Scriptures, as Israel did, yet they had within them that which accused or excused them. There is within every man (save the idiot) that which reproves him for his sins, yea, for those most secret sins to which none are privy but themselves. Wicked men seek to stifle those inward chidings, but are rarely if ever successful. "The sinners in Zion are afraid; fearfulness hath surprised the hypocrites" (Isa. 33:14). Unregenerate men are without faith, yet not without fear: "The wicked flee when no man pursueth" (Prov. 28:1). There is that within man which appalls the stoutest Sinner after the commitral of any gross evil: his own heart reproves him.
The Creator has gifted the human soul with various faculties, such as the understanding, affections, and will; and He has also bestowed upon it this power of considering its own state and actions, both inward and outward, constituting conscience both a monitor and judge within man’s own bosom—a monitor to warn of duty, a judge to condemn for neglect of the same. It is an impartial judge within us, that cannot be suspected of either undue severity or ill-will, for it is an intrinsic part of our own very selves. Conscience anticipates the Grand Assize in the Day to come, for it forces man to pass verdict upon himself, as he is subject to the judgment of God. It is resident in the understanding, as is clear from 1 Corinthians 2:11, where the conscience is termed our "spirit."
The presence of conscience within man supplies one of the clearest demonstrations of the existence of God. To this fact the Holy Spirit appeals in Psalm 53. "The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God" (verse 1). Now how does he prove there is a God? Thus, "There were they in great fear, where no fear was" (verse 5). Though there was no outward cause for fear, none seeking to hurt them, yet even those who lived most atheistically were under a fear. An illustration is seen in the case of Joseph’s brethren, who accused themselves when there was none other to accuse them: "They said one to another, We are verily guilty concerning our brother" (Gen. 42:21). Though a man should hide himself from all the world, he cannot get away from himself—his heart will pursue and condemn him. Now the very fact that there is such a hidden fear in man after sinning, that their hearts smite them for crimes done in secret, argues there is a God.
This fear is found in the most obstinate sinners, and in those who, because of their high station and power are exempt from human justice. History records how kings and emperors have followed their wickedness without interference, yet even the infamous Caligula trembled when it thundered. It was not a fear that they might be found out by man and punished by him, for in some notable instances this fear prevailed to such an extent that human punishment had been a welcome relief, and failing which they perforce laid violent hands upon themselves. What can be the reason for this, but that they feared a Judge and Avenger, who would call them to account? As the apostle said of the heathen, "They know the judgment of God" (Rom. 1:32): there is a witness in their own souls that they are liable to His justice. Mark the fearful consternation of Belshazzar: the paling of his countenance, smiting of his knees, loosing of his joints, when he read the sentence on the palace walls (Dan. 5:6).
"There is nothing in man that more challenges and demands adequate explanation than his moral sense. Conscience is a court always in session and imperative in its summons. No man can evade it or silence its accusations. It is a complete assize. It has a judge on its bench, and that judge will not be bribed into a lax decision. It has its witness-stand, and can bring witnesses from the whole territory of the past life. It has its jury, ready to give a verdict, ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty,’ in strict accordance with the evidence; and it has its sheriff, remorse, with his whip of scorpions, ready to lash the convicted soul. The nearest thing in this world to the bar of God, is the court of conscience. And though it be for a time drugged into a partial apathy, or intoxicated with worldly pleasure, the time comes when in all the majesty of its imperial authority this court calls to its bar every transgressor and holds him to a strict account" (A.T. Pierson).
But though the presence of conscience in us bears witness to the existence of a holy, righteous, sin-hating and sin-avenging God, it is scarcely correct to say (as numbers have done) that the conscience is the voice of God speaking in the soul, rather is it that faculty which responds to what He says. When Christ declared "he that hath ears to hear let him hear," He signified, him that has a conscience attuned to the Most High, who desires to know His will and submit to His authority. Conscience sits upon the bench of the heart as God’s vicegerent, acquitting or accusing. It acts thus in the natural man, but in the regenerate it is a godly conscience, guided in its operations by the Holy Spirit, bearing its testimony for or against the believer according to his character and conduct, Godwards and manwards.
The actual term conscience is derived from "scio" to know, and "con" with. There is some difference of opinion as to the precise application of the prefix, whether it be a knowledge we have in common with God, or a knowledge according to His Law. Really, it is a distinction with very little difference. The "knowledge" is of one individual alone by himself, but this "knowledge with" is where two at least share the same secret, either of them knowing it together with the other. Conscience, then, is that faculty which combines two together, and makes them partners in knowledge; it is between man and God. God knows perfectly all the doings of a man, no matter how carefully concealed; and man, by this faculty, also knows together with God the same things of himself. Hence we read of "conscience toward God" (1 Pet. 2:19), or as the Greek may also be rendered (see margin of R.V.) "the conscience of God"—having Him for its Author and Object. Conscience is God’s vicegerent, acting for and under Him.
Thus, as the very term implies, conscience must have a rule to work by: "knowledge together with." It is not only a knowledge, but a knowledge coupled with a standard, according to which a process of inward judgment is carried on. Now our only proper rule is the Word, or revealed will of God. That is divided into two parts: what God speaks to man in His holy Law, and what He says to him in His blessed Gospel. If conscience departs from that Rule, then it is a rebellious one, it has ceased to speak and judge for God, and then the light in man is turned into darkness, for the (inward) eye has become evil (Matthew 6:23). In his primitive condition man had only the Law, and the proper work of conscience then was to speak warningly and condemningly in strict accordance with that Rule, and to allow none other. But our first parents listened to Satan’s lie, broke the Law, and came under its condemnation.
Wherever we go conscience accompanies us, whatever we think or do it records and registers in order to the Day of accounts. "When all friends forsake thee, yea, when thy soul forsakes the body, conscience will not, cannot, forsake thee. When thy body is weakest and dullest, the conscience is most vigorous and active. Never more life in the conscience than when death makes its nearest approach to the body. When it smiles, acquits, and comforts, what a heaven doth it create within a man! But when it frowns, condemns and terrifies, how does it becloud, yea, benight all the pleasures, joys and delights of this world" (John Flavell). Conscience, then, is the best of friends or the worst of enemies in the whole creation.
Much of our peace of mind and liberty of spirit in this world will be according to the favorable testimony of conscience, and much of our spiritual bondage, fear, and distress of mind will be according to the charges of wrong-doing which conscience brings against us. When the gnawings of conscience are intensified, they become unendurable, as was the case with Cain, Judas and Sapphira, for they supply a real foretaste of the internal torments of Hell. Most probably this is that "worm that dieth not" (Mark 9:44) which preys upon the lost. As a worm in the body is bred of the corruption that is therein, so the accusations and condemnations of conscience are bred in the soul by the corruptions and guilt that are therein; and as the worm preys upon the tender and invisible parts of the body, so does conscience touch the very quick of the soul.
But notwithstanding what has been predicated of the conscience above, it is, nevertheless, defiled (Titus 1:15). In the natural man it is exceeding partial in its office, winking at and indulging favorite sins, whilst being strict and severe upon other sins to which a person is not constitutionally prone. Thus we find the conscience of king Saul exceedingly punctilious in a matter of the ceremonial law (1 Sam. 14:34), yet he scrupled not to slay eighty-five of God’s priests! The reason why the conscience is so uneven is because it has been corrupted by the Fall: it is out of order, just as a foul stomach craves certain articles of diet while loathing others which are equally wholesome. So it is in the performance of duties: conscience in the natural man picks and chooses according to its own perverted caprice: neglecting what is distasteful, performing what is pleasing and then being proud because it has done so.
Now conscience is either good or evil, and that, according as it is governed by the revealed will of God. Briefly, the evil conscience first. This is of several kinds. There is the ignorant and darkened conscience, relatively so and not absolutely, for all (save idiots) possess rationality and the light of nature. This is the condition of the heathen, and alas, of an increasing number in Christendom, who are reared in homes where God is utterly ignored. Then there is the brazen and defiant conscience, which blatantly refuses to be in subjection to God’s known will: such was the case with Pharaoh. In the case of Herod we see a bribed conscience, pretending that his oath obliged him to behead John the Baptist. The seared and insensible conscience (1 Tim. 4:2) pertains to those who have long resisted the light and are given over by God to a reprobate mind. The despairing and desperate conscience leads its possessor to lay violent hands upon himself.
At the new birth the conscience is renewed, being greatly quickened and enlightened by the Holy Spirit. Through the exercise of faith the conscience is purified (Acts 15:9), being cleansed by an appropriation of the blood of Christ (Heb. 9:14). A good conscience may be defined, generally, as one that is set to please God in all things, for it hates sin and loves holiness; it is one which is governed by the Word, being in subjection to the authority of its Author. Its binding rule is obedience to God. and to Him alone, refusing to act apart from His light. Consequently, the more conscientious the Christian be, the more he refuses all domination (the traditions and opinions of man) which is not Divine, the more likely is he to gain the reputation of being conceited and intractable. Nevertheless, each of us must be much on his guard lest he mistake pride and self-will for conscientious scruples. There is a vast difference between firmness and an unteachable spirit, as there is between meekness and fickleness.
How is a good and pure conscience obtained? Briefly, by getting it rightly informed, and by casting out its filth through penitential confession. The first great need of conscience is light, for ignorance corrupts it. "That the soul be without knowledge, it is not good" (Prov. 19:2). As a judge that understands not the laws of his country is unfit to give judgment on any matter that comes before him, or as a dim eye cannot properly perform its office, so a blind or uninformed conscience is incapable to judge of our duty before God. Conscience cannot take God’s part unless it knows His will, and for a full acquaintance with that we must daily read and search the Scriptures. "Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? by taking heed thereto according to Thy Word" (Ps. 119:9). O to be able to say, "Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path" (Ps. 119:105).
Let us now mention some of the qualities or characteristics of a good conscience. First, sincerity. Alas, how little of this virtue is left in the world: what shams and hypocrisy now obtain on every side—in the religious realm, the political, the commercial, and the social. This is a conscienceless generation, and consequently there is little or no honesty, fidelity, or reality. That which now regulates the average person is a temporary expediency, rather than an acting according to principle. But it is otherwise with the regenerate: the fear of the Lord has been planted in his heart, and therefore can he say with the apostle, "We trust we have a good conscience, in all things willing to live honestly." A sincere conscience genuinely desires to know God’s will and is truly determined to be in subjection thereto. Guile has received its death wound, and the heart is open to the light, ready to be searched thereby.
Tenderness is another property of a good conscience. By this quality is meant a wakefulness of heart so that it smites for sin upon all occasions offered. So far from being indifferent to God’s claims, the heart is acutely sensitive when it has been ignored. Even for what many consider trifling matters, a tender conscience will chide and condemn. Job resolved to preserve a tender conscience when he said, "my heart shall not reproach me as long as I live" (Job 27:6). Again; we may understand this characteristic from its opposite, namely, a seared conscience (1 Tim. 4:2), which is contracted by an habitual practice of that which is evil, the heart becoming as hard as the public highway. Pray frequently for a tender conscience, dear reader.
Fidelity. When conscience faithfully discharges its office there is a constant judging of our state before God as a measuring of our ways by His Holy Word. Thus the apostle Paul could say, "Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day" (Acts 23:1). The favorable judgment which others may entertain of him will afford no satisfaction to an upright man unless he has the testimony of conscience that his conduct is right in the sight of God. No matter what may be the fashions of the hour nor the common custom of his fellows, one whose heart beats true to God will not do anything knowingly against conscience: his language will ever be, "whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye" (Acts 4:19). On the other hand, his frequent prayer is, "Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts; and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting" (Ps. 139:23, 24).
Tranquillity. This is the sure reward of sincerity and fidelity, for Wisdom’s ways (in contrast from those of folly) "are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace" (Prov. 3:17). An offended conscience will offend us, and "a wounded spirit who can bear?" (Prov. 18:14). The Christian may as well expect to touch a live coal without pain, as to sin without trouble of conscience. But a clear conscience is quiet, condemning not, being unburdened by the guilt of sin. When we walk closely with God there is a serenity of mind and peace of heart which is the very opposite of the state of those who are lawless and disobedient, "for the wicked are like the troubled sea, which cannot rest." The tranquility of a good conscience is an earnest of the undisturbed calm which awaits us on High.
But let it be pointed out that every peaceful conscience is not a good one, nor is every uneasy conscience an evil one. The conscience of some is quiet because it is insensible. "When a strong man armed keepeth his palace, his goods are in peace" (Luke 11:21): that is a quiet evil conscience, because put to sleep by the opiates of Satan. True tranquility of conscience is to be determined from the other properties: it must issue from sincerity, tenderness, and fidelity, or otherwise it is a seared one. We must consider not how much inward peace we have, but how much cause: as in a building, not the fairness of the structure, but the foundation of it is to be most regarded. On the other hand, a tender conscience is liable to err through lack of sufficient light, and needlessly write bitter things against itself, which is a "weak conscience" (1 Cor. 8:12); as we may also be troubled by sins already pardoned.
Now a good conscience can only be maintained by constant diligence: "herein do I exercise myself to have always a conscience void of offense toward God and men" (Acts 24:16). The apostle made it his daily employment to keep his conscience clear, that it might not justly accuse him of anything, so that he should have the witness in his own heart that his character and conduct was pleasing in the sight of the Holy One. The maintenance of a good conscience is an essential part of personal piety. "This charge I commit unto thee, son Timothy... holding faith and a good conscience" (1 Tim. 1:18, 19): that is the sum of personal godliness—faith being the principle of things to be believed by us, conscience the principle of the things to be done. Faith and a good conscience are linked together again in 1 Timothy 1:5 and 3:9, for we cannot hold the one without the other.
If the reader will turn back to Acts 24 he will find that Paul was replying to charges brought against him. In verses 14-16 he made his defense, giving therein a brief epitome of practical and experimental Christianity. As the foundation he gives an account of his faith: "believing all things which are written"; as the immediate proof thereof—"and have hope toward God"; and then a brief account of his conversation: "herein do I exercise myself to have always a conscience void of offense." A saving knowledge of the Truth, then, is such a belief of the Scriptures as produces an hope of eternal life, which is evidenced by a keeping of the heart with all diligence. The same is enumerated again in "The end of the commandment" (the design of the Gospel institution) is that love which fulfils the Law, issuing from a heart that beats true to God (1 Tim. 1:5).
"Herein do I exercise myself": we must make it our constant endeavor. First, by a diligent and daily searching of the Scriptures that we may discover the will of God. We are exhorted "Be not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is" (Eph. 5:17), and this in order that we may ascertain what is pleasing to Him, so that we offend not either in belief or worship. A conscience ill-informed is, at best, a weak and ignorant one. Second, by a serious inquiry into the state of our heart and ways: "Stand in awe, and sin not; commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still" (Ps. 4:4). We need to frequently challenge and call ourselves to account. If we would have conscience speak to us, we must speak often to it. It is given us for this very reason that we may judge of our state and actions with respect to the judgment of God. Then "Let us search and try our ways" (Lam. 3:40). Take time, dear reader, to parley with yourself and consider how matters stand between you and God. Short reckonings prevent mistakes, so review each day and put right what has come between you and God.
Third, a uniform course of obedience: "Hereby we know that we are of the Truth, and shall assure our hearts before Him" (1 John 3:19). Fourth, by a constant alertness: "Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation" (Matthew 26:41). Fifth, by a serious resistance and mortification of sin: cutting off the right hand and putting out the right eye. Sixth, by a sincere repentance and confession when conscious of failure. Seventh, by faith’s appropriation of the cleansing blood of Christ.