Part One 11. Conscience

The Problem of EVIL and The Judgments of GOD

CONSCIENCE and consciousness are as closely connected in sense as they are in form. Indeed, the verb of suneideesis, TOGETHER- PERCEIVING conscience, is suneideoo, which means be conscious. The Authorized Version renders it be privy (Acts 5:2), consider (Acts 12:12), beware (Acts 14:6), and know (1 Cor.4:4). To this last passage Wigram's concordance adds: (lit. am conscious). In every passage be conscious is a better rendering. So that, in essence, conscience is a form of consciousness. It is, indeed, a question whether Hebrews 10:2 should be rendered: having been once cleansed have no longer a conscience as to sins, or a consciousness of sins, for the original is of sins, and the sense comes to the same thing.

It would seem from this that conscience, like consciousness, is a relative perceptive faculty. One might reason that the experience of sin would greatly strengthen the conscience, so that, when once cleansed from sin, the conscience would be present more than ever. But this seems to be denied in this passage. It disappears when sin is cleansed away, just as we have no consciousness of our bodily functions when all is well, but are disagreeably conscious when something goes wrong. As conscience seems to be used only in relation to sin in the Scriptures, it seems to depend on sin for its presence. One who does not yield to sin has a good conscience. One who does has an evil conscience. It is consciousness as to right or wrong, good or evil.

When we are beyond the reach of evil we will have nothing to which a conscience can respond, hence it ceases to function, and is practically extinct. Before our first parents ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they lacked this knowledge, hence had no conscience, or consciousness of either. This consciousness did not come to them until after they sinned. Then it found immediate expression. What told them that they were naked? Conscience. Before they possessed the knowledge of good and evil they were no more disturbed by their acts than an infant. We are not born with a conscience. Babies are sometimes unutterably cruel to animals without at all realizing it. They have not yet developed a conscience, for they cannot distinguish good from evil.

Conscience, as its main stem in the Greek indicates, is a perception. In usage, it has become restricted to the perception of good and evil. Before sin entered there could be no such thing. And when sin disappears it will go with it. It is only a temporary function which is dependent on sin for its existence.

We cannot reason that man was created with a conscience, hence always has had one and always will have. I would not be surprised if Adam was created conscious, but it would be folly to deduce from this that he, or his descendants, cannot become unconscious. Mankind is not conscious perhaps a third of their lifetime, while they sleep. Consciousness is not a vital element of humanity, but a state, an experience, apart from which he may live and move and be. So with conscience, which is consciousness in relation to right and wrong. Where no evil exists there can be no corresponding consciousness, or conscience. When sins are cleansed away we are no longer conscious of them, hence can have no conscience.

One of the remarkable features of the entrance of sin is the entire absence of any indication of a conscience in either Eve or Adam. When we read the record we wonder why Eve's conscience does not intervene. She should have hesitated, at least, before going contrary to God's precept. There is not the least hint that she had any such misgivings as we would have under similar circumstances today. But right afterward, what a change! Consciousness of having done wrong immediately drove them from the divine presence. They had a "bad" conscience then, though it worked very well. Becoming conscious of sin and guilt is conscience. How could they have this before, when all was very good? Consciousness of evil cannot exist apart from the presence of evil. Even now, one who always seeks to please God is hardly conscious of a conscience. And when sin itself is repudiated, conscience will go with it.

In Israel, very little was revealed in reference to the conscience. Even our Lord made no reference to it. Why was this? Where God's law is, there is no need to depend on conscience. The conscience may be weak (1 Cor.8:7) or bad (Heb.10:22), or defiled (Titus 1:15) or even cauterized (1 Tim.4:2). It is by no means an ideal deterrent from evil or guide to the good, even though it may, at times, effect what the law fails to do (Rom.2:15). But God's law is always good. It can be depended upon. It does not vary with the individual, or with the times. Therefore, in the Hebrew revelation, the law takes the place of conscience, and the appeal is made to the heart. It is because Paul deals with the nations who have no law that he appeals so often to his own conscience and to that of his readers.


We speak of an administration (not dispensation) of conscience because this was the leading innovation which characterized the era from the sin of Adam until the deluge. Before this God had been personally present with the primal pair in the garden of Eden. Thereafter this close fellowship was broken. God withdrew. He gave no law to guide them. They and their offspring were left to themselves. All that they had was the knowledge of good and evil and the consciousness that wrong-doing was displeasing to God--that is, conscience. This was the slender link that united them to God. It was the basic principle of His dealings with them. The object of the entire arrangement was to display the inability of mankind to get on without God, even though they knew good and evil, and had conscience as a constant monitor to urge them to do good.

It is necessary for God's glory and the good of all creation that man's infirmity and depravity should be displayed by a series of demonstrations, in each succeeding one of which he is found under more favorable conditions. In order to do this God alters His relations to mankind, or a select part of it, so as to create a new and more likely situation. These are called administrations. In each, there are special "dispensations," that is, divine gifts, but these should not be confounded with the administrations, for the dispensations usually continue, while the administrations change. Besides, if we think of administrations as dispensations we will always try to characterize them by His gifts rather than by that which characterizes God's relation to man and governs the mode of His dealings with the race. In my yieldingness, I allowed myself to be drawn into this confusion to some extent when I changed the name of the first administration from innocence to creation. May I be forgiven this conciliatory error!

A special feature of these testings of mankind is the cumulation of the gifts, in order to make the next trial less severe. Thus, after the knowledge of good and evil was imparted, this was not withdrawn when it failed. It has continued ever since. Nor was government repealed when promise and law came on the scene. As a rule, each "dispensation" remains and is added to the next gift in order to aid in lightening the next trial. But this rule does not always hold. Rather it is reversed when the present grace gives place to indignation.

In order to show what man is, a series of situations is needed in which he fails under continual tests, each less exacting, than the last. Dispensations (God's gifts) are all intended to make the conditions more favorable and give man a better chance of success. The resultant condition is what characterizes the administration. Thus, as a result of the gift of authority, we have the administration of government. Once we see the divine purpose in these succeeding changes, all of the series become intelligible, and we have the desire to crystallize our findings, by giving each a name. We could call the first No-knowledge-of-good-and-evil and thus keep within the divine vocabulary. As our word Innocence is only a shorter way of saying this, we have no conscience about it. So with the next administration. We might call it With-a-knowledge-of-good-and- evil, but Conscience expresses the same thing and saves six words and six hyphens.

It may not appear so at first glance, but the testing in Eden was the severest trial that will ever come to mankind, because our innocent ancestors had no knowledge of good or evil. I strongly object to the use of non-scriptural terms, so I discarded "innocent," but we need an expression which condenses this fact in a single term. So I am strongly inclined to restore "innocence," and will hold on to "conscience," for it is its complement, describing as it does those who know good and evil. Without the knowledge of good or evil mankind is as weak as water, and the bond between it and God can be snapped almost without effort or delay. So it happened at the very first trial. As we will see, this test finds man less prepared than any subsequent one, and the reason for this is the absence of conscience to warn Eve before she offended the Creator. Never since has man been so helpless, except in the years of his infancy.

With the knowledge of good and evil man was provided with a conscience and so had a constant deterrent within himself. It took the place of God's personal presence, and did not leave him helpless when He was away. But this inward restraint, this divine voice which indwelt each one, was not sufficient to keep the race from utter depravity. Man, left to the restraint of conscience, corrupted himself beyond remedy. This is a great lesson to learn. In Eden there was no restraint but the presence and prohibition of God. In His absence, this failed to keep man from destroying himself. Then comes conscience, then government by his fellows, until we come to government by Christ Himself with an iron club. All restraint fails, when man is left to himself. Only the power and presence of God can preserve man.


Therefore, after the deluge, an added factor was granted, which has done much to keep mankind from going headlong into destruction once again. Authority was given man over man so that wickedness would be punished by man himself, and so deter him from the unbridled violence of the preceding period. Surely mankind ought to stand now! No longer innocent, but possessing the knowledge of good and evil, and restrained by the sword of the magistrate, mankind as a whole has managed to keep from exterminating itself. Yet even this safeguard, as all of God's gifts, has been abused, so that Christ must be called upon to take the reins of government.


When the failure of human government was practically proven, as conscience had been (although both continue), God makes a radical change in His dealings with humanity. Instead of taking them as a whole, he now selects an individual, and later a nation, to be a channel of blessing to the rest. In a sense, the administrations of Conscience and Government continue, for the mass of mankind are not immediately affected by the later administrations. Yet even the promise to Abraham and the segregation of Israel were intended to reach all nations. A select few were to be helped by promises. God came nearer to them by giving them an expectation, which is a very potent power in enabling a weak mortal to live upright.


Perhaps the most definite and practical assistance, yet the most disappointing, was God's next change. Instead of leaving the nation of His choice under the administration of Government, at a distance from Him, He drew near to His own nation and dwelt among them Himself. Instead of leaving them in the dim light of conscience, He gave them His righteous law, and became their King. This, one would think, should enable them to live righteously and holily, and thus end the demonstrations of man's frailty when apart from God. But they rejected His sovereignty and demanded a king like the other nations. At heart, they did not obey His righteous law, but became hypocrites, so that God had to drive them out of their land and scatter them among the nations. Even with all these wonderful privileges, man proved an utter failure.


But what is the law, compared to the incarnation? The law demanded. Christ gave. The law was holy. Christ was gracious. Surely men would love Him and follow Him, Who was the very Word and Image of the Deity! The people to whom He came had not only conscience but law to enlighten them. Yet, thus highly privileged, man is not merely a failure, but a pervert and a murderer, for they crucify the gracious One.


Now that it is evident that man is at enmity with God, and cannot come to Him apart from His holy spirit, God's dealings take on a new aspect. From now on they are characterized by the importation of His spirit. At Pentecost, He poured out of His spirit on those of the nation of Israel who believed. Here at last is a power which can cope with human infirmity and sin! Yet, in the Pentecostal administration, the nation rejected His spirit and spurned His messengers. So long as they are not all thoroughly regenerated by his spirit, they are not able to respond to His mercy. Here we have the sacred nation at its best, so the demonstration gradually ends. Just as God had turned to them, so, now that He has shown their failure, He turns back to mankind as a whole, but with a new dispensation, spirit, and a new administration.

In taking up the nations once again, God cannot very well deal with them as if they had been under the administration of promise, or of law, or the incarnation, or of the spirit, for these were limited to the chosen people. Hence he ignores all this, and reverts to Abraham before his circumcision. All these accumulated privileges had failed, so there was no profit in trying them once again under less favorable conditions. But the dispensation of the spirit, even in Israel, leaped over the narrow confines of the other gifts and was freely bestowed upon the proselytes of the nations.


The call of Saul of Tarsus was itself a new departure in the ways of God, and the indication of a new administration. Through him, God gradually changed His method of dealing both with the nations and with Israel. Instead of heralding the kingdom to the Jews among the nations as the twelve had done in the land, in order to demonstrate their apostasy, he reaches the devout among the nations in order to provoke them to jealousy, as Moses had foretold (Deut.32:21). In this administration, which is dealt with in Paul's earlier epistles, the nations are blessed with Israel and receive their spiritual things while they themselves are still apostate. God had not dealt with the nations so before, nor did He even foretell such blessing in the prophets. As it was only a preparatory arrangement, leading up to the next administration, we have called it the Readjustment.


When Paul wrote Ephesians, after the heralding of the kingdom as recorded in the book of Acts had closed, God once more changed His way of dealing, continuing the trend in the era of Readjustment. Then the nations were blessed through Israel, in their defection. Now the character and place of blessing is changed from physical and earthly to spiritual and celestial, hence it cannot come through that nation, but is independent of them. From being guests at Israel's board the nations become fellow members of God's family. From being aliens in God's kingdom they become fellow citizens. From being split into two bodies by fleshly rites, they become joint members of one body.


I suppose that everyone will concede that the judgment era which will follow the present is not an administration of grace, nor was it kept a secret. Quite the contrary. God has warned both Israel and the nations of a time of judgment to come in which His indignation will be poured out. This belongs to and closes man's day, and ends the present evil eon, hence it cannot be incorporated into the Kingdom administration, for which it is a preparation. That the Kingdom is a distinct administration is so generally conceded that it hardly seems necessary to point out its distinctive lines, although it repeats features of the Incarnation, for Christ is present, and Pentecost, for the spirit is poured out and blessing flows through Israel to the nations.

This publication may be reproduced for personal use
(all other rights reserved by copyright holder).