The Law and the Falsely Terrified Conscience

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And so, when you preach the Law, you are also instructing the conscience and thereby forming it. For some of your hearers, this will result in activating their consciences, making them more sensitive, so they become more aware of their sin and more urgently seek the Gospel. For others, it is a re-instruction.

A few years back, I met someone who had begun a career in “environmental banking.” She wanted to do something moral with her life and had done something nearly anyone would deign highly commendable: Chosen a career not on the foundation of what would provide her the greatest income, but rather based on what she considered to be an upright pursuit. She had chosen the good over the gold, so to speak.

Years later, as a campus pastor I was amazed at the openness with which students described their career choices based on financial possibilities alone. Law, medicine, engineering, and accounting were the money-makers, and the students were not ashamed to admit it. Interestingly, many conversations proved these students to be no less morally aware than the environmental banker. It was as much respected in their communities to help overcome the impoverishment of present-day South Africa, for instance, as environmental consciousness was a few years earlier in our banker’s home in Germany.

Consider the alternatives. The South African student studying poetry could hardly do it with a good conscience, knowing he could neither pay back the cost of study to his parents nor provide for a better life for himself or his family afterward. The finishing German university student, although certainly having more options than her South African counterpart, would have had to overcome a personal moral prohibition to pursue many of them.

Here we have two consciences steering two people in two nearly polar opposite directions. In describing them, I mean to make but one point: it is not only that the conscience is human rather than divine, but also that it is malleable, subject to instruction and formation. This article is about forming it properly, according to the Divine Law.

In a previous article, The Law and the Terrified Conscience, I followed Philip Melanchthon in the Apology in describing the conscience as something that can be frightened. The basic argument went something like this: Part of Christian repentance is true contrition, and true contrition appears whenever the Word of God condemns sin. That particular Word of God is the Law (since the Gospel never condemns), and contrition is recognizable as a “terrified conscience.”

This is fine, except it creates a nomenclature problem which I do not think can be resolved here, but rather simply has to be lived with. When Melanchthon says the conscience is terrified, he of course really means the person is terrified of the wrath of God against his sin. In this way of thinking, the conscience is on the receiving end of divine proclamation. But when we usually think of our consciences and imagine them helping us see right from wrong before we act or making us feel bad after we act (having a guilty conscience), they seem not to be on the receiving end, but on God’s side, doling out counsel and judgment.

The Apostle Paul writes of the conscience in Romans 2. There, it stands in among (at least some) Gentiles for the work of the proclaimed Law that gives form to a life pleasing to God. But it is not the only way this work of the Law apart from the preaching of the Law is described. Such Gentiles are by nature a Law unto themselves (Romans 2:14) and have the Law written on their hearts (Romans 2:15). The testimony of the conscience in the latter verse seems to be a testimony to the person about the content of the Law, rather than a second testimony to God or the world about the presence of the Law in their hearts.

If the reader prefers this interpretation of Paul’s phrase, “the conscience also bears witness,” he can say the Law written on the heart is parallel to the presence of a conscience but leave open whether the conscience actually is the inscription of the divine Law. What is especially interesting is what follows on the heels of the mention of the conscience: “…and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.” There is conflict in the conscience! This is where we settle into the topic for this article, that the Law forms the conscience.

The idea is this: The conscience is malleable, impressionable. A person who has been taught law and commandments and harsh discipline his whole life will have a conscience that reflects it; one that is harsh and demanding, always accusing and never excusing (cf. Romans 2:15). The opposite extreme exists as well. Someone who is only ever affirmed in his or her actions and decisions, and in the justifications of those actions and decisions develops a conscience which mostly excuses. The first type we describe as “afraid of their own shadow,” the second appalls us with selfishness. Both would benefit eternally from the preaching of the Law, but in different ways – we will get to that idea in a moment.

First though, we must get away from the extreme characterizations that rarely show themselves in reality. Instead, we are dealing with consciences that have been formed by influences other than the Word of God in particular areas of life. Remember the two people I recalled above. Influences like the uninhibited lifestyle of fellow students at college, the disapproval of a respected friend or spouse, or the legalistic demands of a preacher who has forgotten the Gospel message that Christ has fulfilled the Law - these all form the conscience, or rather, deform it.

The reason this is a problem is not difficult to see. The conscience’s condemnation is, for a Christian, the message of a God who is angry with him, viewing him apart from Christ’s atoning work. Remember again Melanchthon’s terrified conscience, which does not trust in Christ. In fact, the malformed conscience, which condemns for that which is not sin, is precisely the concern in Melanchthon’s and Luther’s day. Christians were being subjected to, and therefore condemned by, human laws as though they had divine force. The solution to this was twofold: The Gospel message that Christ died for all your sins and the re-instruction of the person and his conscience regarding the Law.

And so, when you preach the Law, you are also instructing the conscience and thereby forming it. For some of your hearers, this will result in activating their consciences, making them more sensitive, so they become more aware of their sin and more urgently seek the Gospel. For others, it is a re-instruction. These must be taught how their consciences are falsely accusing them and that such voices have no standing before God. They should be freed from those things which God does not condemn or demand and instructed in the things He does.

This can be confusing, especially to the person whose troubling “sins” are violations of human laws and not divine ones, for they are included in the healing provided by the Gospel. Conversely, the pastor cannot very well declare a deed to not be a sin, but then declare a need to be forgiven of it by Christ, since Christ does not forgive “non-sins.” This is the real challenge of dealing with the malleable conscience.

The Formula of Concord (Article 5) helps: The Law reproves unbelief. The malformed, overactive conscience, by accusing where there is no sin, feeds unbelief. The preacher has in the Law and the Gospel two tools against this, both of which must be applied. The Law is used to correct and form, the Gospel to forgive, restore, and free. The goal, in this regard and broadly speaking, is the same from sermon to sermon: The Christian’s conscience is active in condemnation of transgressions of God’s Law but silent in other matters. In other words, it is formed by the Word of God. In the face of this ongoing effort, which is surely not attained entirely in the continued presence of the Old Adam, the most important matter holds true in that it is not left to the voice of the conscience to forgive. This is the task claimed by the voice of the preacher.

The frequent references to the consolation of the terrified conscience in the Augsburg confession and its Apology both suggest the conscience is quite delicate, and its condition is quite important. In the first of these three posts I wrote of the proper tool for addressing it, the Law. In this post, the attention has been on repairing the damage it suffers from constant use and exposure to other influences. In the last one, I will consider the place of the Law in the sermon when its work on the conscience already appears done.