What Makes Conscience Good?

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by Dr. Alan Keyes  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  November 6, 2018   

Truth of Christ over primacy of conscience

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Dr. Alan Keyes

Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, and His greatness is unsearchable. … The Lord is good to all, and His compassion is over all that He has made. … The Lord upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down. The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand, you satisfy the desire of every living thing. The Lord is just in all his ways, and kind in all his doings. The Lord is near to all who call upon Him in truth. He fulfills the desire of all who fear Him. He also hears their cry, and saves them. The Lord preserves all who love Him; but all the wicked He will destroy. (Psalm 145:9, 15–20)

What does it mean to act in good conscience? At its root, the word suggests that one acts with knowledge. But in the presence of good and evil, the Apostle Paul's Romans discussion of natural conscience invokes a process of deliberation, during which the choice for good or evil hangs in the balance. Saint Paul's account (Romans 2:14–16) suggests that conscience involves knowledge of good and evil, i.e., the very knowledge humanity acquired when Adam in Eve transgressed God's rule for humankind's pristine existence. 

One after the other they eat and assimilate the fruit God warned Adam to beware. Virus-like, it all at once alters God's program for humanity's existence, pointing it from God's way of living to the way of dying all unchristened human beings have ever since had to endure.

We live, therefore, just in the presence of good and evil, but in the midst of the choice between the one and the other. We learn from Eve's example that the knowledge involved in that choice may come either:

  • From our own natural faculties (as when Eve "saw that the tree was good for food and that it was a delight to the eyes");
  • From other natural beings in God's creation (as when Eve saw, as a result of the crafty serpent's suggestion, "that the tree was to be desired to make one wise");
  • Or, from God's rule for our existence (that which God communicated to Adam directly and Eve must have learned in substance from Adam — Genesis 3:6).

People who profess to believe in God and Jesus Christ know, by what God Himself reveals to us, the fatal consequences that came of Eve's choice to follow her own understanding instead of the rule informed by God's prevision of those consequences. We take that as proof of that God's knowledge extends beyond what our faculties can reach. Now, the words of the Psalm quoted above affirm, in respect of all things, that "God's greatness is unsearchable."

If this is true in all respects, it is certainly true of God's knowledge of all things. For, as their author, He is the beginning and the end of all things. There are things we human beings can never find out. Our knowledge as human beings can, therefore, never be as great as God's knowledge. Isn't this why, as another Psalm instructs, we should "trust in the Lord, and do good"? And why, in Proverbs, it says, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding"?

Surely, the counsel of God in this respect takes account of the knowledge of God. So, as we deliberate the choice between good and evil, in any case, what should we take as our standard or rule for knowledge? Should it be the knowledge God shares by His Word, as He did when He warned Adam against eating the forbidden fruit? Or should it be the knowledge acquired with the limited powers of our human understanding, the very powers Eve relied on for her primordial choice, to the detriment of all?

The answer depends, of course, on what faith we profess in God and Jesus Christ. Trust in God, and we will follow His commandments, regardless of what our empirical understanding inclines us to do. Trust in God, and we will follow His example, given to us in Christ, regardless of the example set by other natural creatures, including other human beings. This imperative of trust applies in every possible circumstance. For God's provisions — His rule and rules for all things — are informed by His knowledge of every instance, every instant, every circumstance of all possible existences, even such as are beyond our ability to know, imagine or even conceive.

If we submit to the heart of God, inform our will by the instruction of God and pattern our actions on the example of God-in-Christ, how can true conscience condemn our action?

Considering this imperative of trust, what sense does it make for any human beings to claim, "We have been called to form consciences" (Amoris Laetitia 37), except in the light of God's commands. It is true that conscience resides in "the most secret core and sanctuary of a person" (Amoris Laetitia 169) where "each one is alone with God, whose 'voice echoes in the depths of the heart.'" 

But, as followers of Christ, do not we pray that Christ's mind will replace our mind, and Christ's heart will become our own? Does God-in-Christ uphold some different truth, when He speaks to us in that most holy, secret refuge, then in the Gospel He commands us to share boldly with all individuals, all nations and indeed all His creation — God's voice in His written and Incarnate Word.

The Apostle John writes to the children of God (1 John 4:4) that "he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world." If some sly counsel or inner prompting — to which we are, like Eve, susceptible — goes against God's rule for our existence, these words from John's first epistle remind us of God's supremacy. They promise help when we need it to strengthen our relative weakness, like the words from the Psalm above ("The Lord upholds all who are failing and raises up all who are bowed down.")

Therefore, John admonishes us, "We should not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God." How can we do so without reference to the written and Incarnate Word, through which God shares as it were the touchstones of His truth, found in the way of truth that is in Jesus Christ?

These days, those who counsel submission to the multifarious conscience of the world and our own understanding pretend that attending too much to God's heart and will put us athwart His command of loving charity. But the first command of love is to love wholeheartedly, above all. As the Psalm quoted above also reminds us, God is "just in all His ways, and kind in all His doings."

If we submit to the heart of God, inform our will by the instruction of God and pattern our actions on the example of God-in-Christ, how can true conscience condemn our action? Rather His Word, enacted, reveals the falsehood of any voice that claims to speak for conscience while it contradicts the truth exampled by God in the words of Scripture and the way of life restored and revealed in Christ Jesus.

Dr. Alan Keyes served as Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations under President Ronald Reagan, and ran for president in 1996, 2000 and 2008. He holds a Ph.D. in government from Harvard, and writes at his website Loyal to Liberty.


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