Adam and Eve were created with perfect consciences, with perfect knowledge of right and wrong, with a clear inner voice encouraging them to do right and warning them to avoid wrong. Herman Bavinck did not believe Adam and Eve had a conscience before the fall. He said that conscience was “a proof of humanity’s fall, a witness to human guilt before the face of God” (Reformed Dogmatics, Vol 3, 173).
I humbly beg to differ. Conscience is not just a negative (telling us what is wrong and convicting us when we do it), but a positive (telling us what is right to do and approving what is done right). Romans 2:15 tells us that conscience not only accuses but defends; it not only tells us what is wrong but also what is right. And it does that not just retrospectively but prospectively as well. That’s what makes Adam and Eve’s sin even worse. They not only had God’s command, they also had clear and clean consciences. They had the outer voice of God’s command and the inner voice of conscience. And despite all that they rejected that knowledge and disobeyed that voice by sinning in the garden of Eden. This resulted in serious damage to their consciences, and ours.
Sin filled our consciences with guilt, shame, and fear, suppressing the volume of God’s inner voice; muffling it and mixing it up. While conscience is still present, even in the heathen (Rom. 2:15), its loss of reliable knowledge means its voice is dim, distant, and often confused.
Due to the effect of sin on our consciences, and its subsequent fallibility, we need to have our consciences re-educated. Our lack of information and our misinformation must be replaced with divine information. And that only comes through God’s Word. Alphonse De Lamartine said: “A conscience without God is like a court without a judge.” That’s why, before claiming possession of a good conscience in Acts 24:16, Paul said in verse 14 that he believed “all things written in the law and the prophets.” He had a good conscience because he had an educated conscience.There are many who claim to have a clear conscience, whereas what they really have is an uninformed conscience, or a badly educated conscience, often resulting in a brazenly insensitive conscience. A badly educated conscience though can also produce a paralyzingly oversensitive conscience (1 Cor. 8:7, 10, 12). People can think something is wrong when nothing is wrong. All consciences, insensitive and over-sensitive, need to be informed and filled with the Word of God.
Martin Luther started a revolution by educating his conscience with God’s Word. When the religious superpower of the day accused him of pitting his puny conscience against the might of the Church, he replied: “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I can do no other, so help me God.”Tomorrow we will see that a good conscience is also an exercised conscience.