A Guilty Conscience

by Pastor Paul M. Sadler

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Four of our grandchildren have a large high-spirited dog named Molly. Molly is like most dogs; she loves to eat and romp with the kids. But she also likes to roam the neighborhood, crashing through the neighbor’s flowerbeds and vegetable gardens. Needless to say, a dog her size could do a lot of damage in short order. To correct the problem, Kevin and Jessica purchased an electronic collar. They merely set the transmitter in the house to all the boundaries of the yard. When Molly approaches one of the borders, her collar begins to beep, and then the unit gives her a mild shock when she gets too close to the perimeter. It didn’t take Molly long to realize that, when she hears a beeping sound, she knows to stop before she gets zapped.

Along these same lines, God has put an invisible beeper, a conscience, inside every human being, which warns us when we’re about to do something wrong. At his second appearance before the Diet of Worms, Martin Luther stated about his stand, “To go against conscience is neither right nor safe.”

“For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses” (Rom. 5:13,14).

The term impute in this passage is an accounting term; it simply means “to put to one’s account.” While men sinned during the period between Adam and Moses, they were not held accountable for those sins because God had not yet given the commandments that prohibited them. This does not mean that they were any less guilty of sin or any less deserving of eternal judgment. It is important to remember that, during this period, men were living under the dispensation of conscience; therefore, they were without excuse. This is what Paul means in Romans 2:

“For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another” (Rom. 2:14,15).

Conscience means “to know” or “with knowledge.” Under that dispensation, conscience was to govern mankind. It required men to do all known good, and abstain from all known evil.

After Adam and Eve had sinned, “they knew that they were naked” and consequently, they sewed figs leaves together to cover themselves (Gen. 3:7). In other words, their consciences were activated to know the difference between good and evil, and right and wrong. They knew they had sinned against God and felt guilty as a result of it.

Cain knew that God required a blood sacrifice, but he did evil in the sight of the Lord and brought an offering from the fruit of the ground. He sinned and had to deal with the guilt of his decision (Gen. 4:5). God would not receive Cain’s offering because it came from the earth, which had been cursed. Abel, on the other hand, responded to God in faith and brought what God required of him.

God is teaching us that, even though there was no Law between Adam and Moses, we are to understand that conscience was their guide, for they were “a law unto themselves.” As a result, they were without excuse. You see, God is demonstrating that, no matter what dispensation He has placed man under—Conscience, Law, Grace—all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.

With this in mind, Paul adds, “Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses.” Even though the Law of Moses hadn’t been implemented at that time, death still reigned supreme in that, eventually the people died. But that raises this question: if the sins of men were not charged to their account, why did death still have mastery over them? Simple: they had sinned in Adam, which is true of the entire human race. Since we are Adam’s posterity, we are all born in him. He is our federal head. What was true of him is true of us as well.

God, in His infinite knowledge, sees what we are unable to see. When Adam reached for that forbidden fruit, we were in him; consequently, we are identified with his sin. Another example of this principle is found in Hebrews 7:9,10. So then, the trio of death— physical, spiritual and the possibility of eternal death—reigned because we have all sinned in Adam. This also explains how a newborn, who has never committed one sinful act, sometimes dies due to complications. They sinned in Adam! Personally, I believe God has made a very special provision for these little ones (II Sam. 12:22,23).

“Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound” (Rom. 5:20). The Law magnified sin! It shined a spotlight on it to show man how exceedingly sinful he really is. When the Law says, “Thou shalt not steal,” man’s natural response is to question the law rebelliously and disobey it. When you tell a toddler that he is not allowed to open the basement door and then move out of their range of sight, he will put his hand on the door knob and look to see if you’re watching. You see, it shows us that there is a natural tendency to do wrong. God magnified that a hundredfold when He gave the Law. Once again, it was to demonstrate that all are sinners in word, thought, and deed.

From the beginning, conscience has been woven through all the ages and dispensations. It is what’s known as a trans-dispensational truth. But we find it interesting that there is very little emphasis placed on conscience under the Mosaic system, which shouldn’t surprise us (Heb. 9:9). The commandments served as the conscience of the people of God in time past: “Thou shalt not…,” “This do and thou shalt live…,” “If you hearken unto the voice of the LORD thy God, to keep His commandments and His statutes….” There was a law or statute to govern every step of their lives.

When we turn to the Gentile epistles, Paul makes frequent references to the conscience under grace. Today we have liberty in Christ, but we are never to use that liberty for an occasion to the flesh, whether it’s to entertain impure thoughts or commit an immoral act. Grace teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldly lust. The Law demands; grace beseeches! As God implores us to walk worthy of our calling, He uses His Word, the Spirit, and our consciences as an early warning system, to assist us in living a life that is well pleasing to Him. Remember and remember well: it’s a dangerous thing to disobey your conscience.

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