4.2.1.3 Conscience

Holy Scripture uses various terms to describe conscience as a gift which mankind has received from God [1]. In reference to this the Old Testament often uses the term "heart", in which the voice of God can be heard. Thus we read in Deuteronomy 30: 14: "But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it." In contrast, Apostle Paul explains that the will of God was not only laid into the hearts of those living under the Mosaic Law, but also into the hearts of the Gentiles: "For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them" (Romans 2: 14-15). Therefore all human beings carry within themselves an awareness of the will of God–all of them possess such a conscience.

Sinful human beings are without orientation. They have lost the security and support that comes with obedience to God. Here the authority of conscience can help in making decisions that correspond to God's will. Nevertheless it is still quite possible to arrive at erroneous decisions, especially if the conscience is not guided by reason and faith.

Human beings–who have been left to their own devices–can perceive the will of God in their conscience. Thus the authority of the conscience is capable of leading an individual's will toward that which is good. For this reason, individuals should endeavour to continually expand and sharpen their conscience through the law that has been written into every human being's heart.

The conscience distinguishes between what is good and what is evil. If the conscience is governed by reason and faith, it assists mankind in acting wisely. It likewise allows human beings to recognise whether they have incurred guilt before God or their neighbour, and reveals where they have transgressed against God's will and violated His ordinances, whether in thought or deed.

First and foremost, human beings must recognise themselves and give account to their own conscience. If the conscience attests that they have sinned and incurred guilt, and–provided they allow themselves to be guided by remorse and repentance–God in His grace offers forgiveness through the merit of Christ. This is the path God has established for the justification of mankind who has fallen into sin.

Human beings can experience Holy Baptism with water as the healing care of God: "There is also an antitype which now saves us–baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 3: 21). God's word strengthens human beings so that they can continue along the path they have begun toward salvation. Thereby the conscience undergoes a constant sharpening process, which aids human beings in recognising God's will more and more clearly.

The experience of grace fills the heart with the peace of God, and the conscience, which had previously condemned the individual on account of his sins, is calmed. John sums this up with the words: "And by this we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before Him. For if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things" (1 John 3: 19-20).

SUMMARY

The authority of conscience can help make decisions in accordance with the will of God. It is the conscience that weighs the question of what is good and what is evil. (4.2.1.3)

If the conscience is defined by reason and faith, it helps human beings to act wisely, and allows them to recognise whether they have incurred guilt with God or their neighbour. (4.2.1.3)

[1] The term "conscience" is used in many other contexts–e.g. sociological, philosophical, and psychological–which are not treated here.

See also