The Fairness Of God:
Work Of The Conscience
In a Brief  Survey of the Epistle of Paul to the Romans
Based on sermons preached in PCC Worship Services, July 2003 to Sep 2005
Part 11c of 83


13 (For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified. 14 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: 15 Which shew 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;)” (Romans 2:13-15).

[We have been considering the apostle Paul’s parenthetical remarks on how God could possibly judge the Gentles fairly when they do not have the written Law like the Jews or like Christians. Paul’s answer comprises three parts. Firstly, God is concerned more with obedience than knowledge. Those who know more will be judge more severely than those who know little. Secondly, Paul the Gentiles are not entirely ignorant since the works of the Law remains written in their heart. In this final instalment, we shall consider how the conscience remains active in the Gentile, thereby making them accountable to God.]


3. Work of the Conscience

This is what Paul is saying (v. 15b)—

…their conscience also bearing witness [i.e. bearing witness to the fact that the work of the Law is written in their hearts…], and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another.

The conscience is a faculty of our soul. Every man has a conscience. Whether we are Jews or Gentiles, Christian or non-Christian, Greek or Barbarian, Western or Asian, we have a conscience. It is what gives us a sense of morality. It is what makes us human.

We are all familiar with our conscience. It is the inner voice that tells us whether what we did or what we are going to do, or not do, is right or wrong. You slept late last night. You woke up this morning feeling very tired. You thought for a moment: “Perhaps I won’t go to church today.” What is it that made you come? It was your conscience. You conscience put together your thought, and what you know concerning the Sabbath, and it tells you: Wrong! You must go.

The conscience know essentially only two words: “right” or “wrong.” With this limited vocabulary and their synonyms it performs two basic tasks:

a.   First, it accuses.

If you intend to do something, which your conscience knows to be wrong, it will warn you: Wrong! And it continues to nag at you that what you are going to do is wrong until you decide not to do it. And if you do it, you can count on your  conscience to poke at you to remind you that you did something wrong. You will have no peace of conscience until you repent of your deed.

The Lord Jesus often appealed to this accusing work of the conscience. Once a group of men brought a woman caught in adultery to Him. He said: “He that is without sin among you, let him cast a stone at her.” The apostle John tells us that one by one the men were reminded of their own sins and were “convicted by their own conscience” (Jn 8:9). One by one they slunk away without saying a word.

The conscience is like a policeman in your soul. You can choose to listen to him or not to listen to him. But as long as you fail to obey him, you will have trouble in your soul. The writer of Hebrew speaks of this trouble as an “evil conscience” (Heb 10:22). By this, he does not mean that the conscience is evil, but that the conscience is accusing you of being evil. This is the first function of the conscience.

b. The second function of the conscience is to excuse.

By this, the apostle Paul does not mean that the conscience helps you to make excuses. Far from it! In fact, a properly functioning conscience is allergic to excuses. Even in unbelievers, the conscience will continue to say: “Wrong!” when excuses are invented.

What then does apostle means when he speaks of the conscience excusing? He means that our conscience not only accuses us when we do wrong, but shows approval when we do right.

Suppose you are walking along the street, and you see someone drop his wallet. You pick it up. There is a lot of money in it. If you keep it, you can count on your conscience to trouble you for the rest of your life. But if you go up to the man and say: “Wait sir, you drop your wallet,” you can be sure that your conscience will say “RIGHT!” And you will have a happy feeling the rest of the day.

This is the excusing or approving function of the conscience. The conscience accuses and excuses.

Now, the conscience is an important faculty of the soul. It provokes us to live according to the requirements of the Law that is known to us. It is so important for us to take heed to our conscience that the apostle Paul teaches us that if we cast away our conscience, we will make shipwreck of our faith. While it is not necessary righteous to do what our conscience approves, it is always sin to do what it forbids. To do what our conscience forbids is to cast away our conscience.[1]

There are many things we can say about the conscience. But we must return to what the apostle is speaking about. He is speaking about the role of the conscience in the soul of Gentiles or unbelievers. The conscience works hand in hand with the work of the work of the law written in the heart of every man. Man by nature therefore not only knows what is right, and what is wrong, but is also provoked by their conscience to do that which is right.

Let me put it this way: God has not only written the works of the Law in every heart of man. He has also set in place in the soul of every man, a deputy or personal assistant to remind us to keep the law. This is true of us. This is also true of the Gentiles.

With such divine provisions, how then can anyone claim that God is not fair to judge the Gentiles?

With such comprehensive provision, how can anyone still think that there is such a thing as an innocent pagan? God will judge Jews and Christians based on their knowledge of the written Law. But He will also judge the Gentiles. They will not be judged according to the written Law because they may not have heard or read it. But they will be judged according to the works of the Law written in their heart as well as whether they have taken heed to the deputy that God has set in their soul. God is perfectly fair.

Will anyone be found at the judgement to have met the requirements of the Law perfectly? No, no. Both Jews and Gentiles will be found guilty. The judgement at the day of the revelation of God’s wrath will show that all are guilty. And all except those covered by the blood of Christ will be condemned.


Conclusion

We saw three things in this three-part study:

First, we saw that it not what we know but what we do that counts. Children must be exhorted not to think that they are  “good Christians” simply because they can recite their catechism. Their spiritual health does not depend on how much they know. It depends on whether they are obedient to the truth.

The same is true of us who are adults: The more we know, the more will be required of us. Let us not assume that it is OK to ignore the entreaties and instructions from the Scriptures and from the pulpit. We will all be judged on what we do with the knowledge we have acquired.

Secondly, we learn that the work of the Law is written in every heart,—including the hearts of unbelievers. If you are an unbeliever reading this article, you must realise that you are inexcusable. God has not only revealed himself clearly to you in nature, He has also written the works of his Law in your heart. The fact that you are a moral and religious person testifies of that fact. It testifies that God exists and that you have a soul.

If you were a mere animal as some people would have you believe, you will never think of religion. Have you ever seen the monkeys in the zoo setting up altars for worship? You know deep in your heart that God exists. And you know deep in your heart that He must be worshipped in His own way. You know this because God has written the works of His Law in your heart.

And not only that. But we learned thirdly, that we have a conscience that both accuses and excuses. We know from the word of God that the conscience is not a perfect guide. Sometimes our conscience will excuse us although what we did was not acceptable in God’s sight. In fact, the Word of God teaches us that nothing we do by nature is acceptable to God. All our righteousness are as filthy rags in God’s sight. But our conscience excuses us. 

Why God allows that to happen is outside the scope of our present study. But let us realise that what our conscience approve is not always right, though it is always wrong to do what our conscience forbid.

Your conscience tells you, does it not, that you are wrong to refuse Christ? If you listen to your conscience carefully, you will know that it is wrong to disbelieve God and disobey Christ! Your conscience will tell you that your only hope of being right with God and with yourself is to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ!

Your conscience is set in your soul to provide you a foretaste of the judgement to come. Every time you do something wrong or refuse to do something right, your conscience pricks you. Magnify that pin-prick into a stab with a broad sword, and you will know the pain in your soul that will come at the day of judgement.

Oh do not wait for that day. Flee to Christ today while there is time. That day will be too late. Amen.

JJ Lim



[1] The conscience also helps us to function within a community by helping us weigh and judge one another’s actions. This is what Paul is saying when He speaks of the thought or conscience “accusing or else excusing one another.” There is a sense in which the conscience