Last week the Academy of TV, Arts & Sciences honored eight TV shows “found to exemplify television with a conscience.” However, the Emmy-awarding Academy seemed rather confused about what “conscience” is. In addition to a worthy Maria Shriver documentary on Alzheimers, they also commended a program on doctor-assisted suicide, the rather grisly CSI: Crime Scene Investigation for an episode about prejudice, and Fox’s hit show Glee for an episode that celebrated disablity. The latter award provoked outrage from disabled actors and their advocates because, as USA Today reported, the show casts a non-disabled actor in the role of a paraplegic high school student.

Which all raises the question, “what is television with a conscience?” Or, more fundamentally, “What is conscience?” The word is derived from two Latin words that may be translated as “with-knowledge” or “shared-knowledge.” While evolutionary philosophers accept the existence of conscience and the definition of it as “shared knowledge,” for them the sharing is all horizontal, or all human. It is a mechanism by which we internalize the external norms of our own society, helping us to survive and prosper. Christians view conscience much more vertically. It is a divinely created human faculty by which God shares His knowledge of right and wrong with us. Conscience has therefore been described as God’s spokesman, God’s deputy, God’s sergeant major, or God’s inner whisper.

When the Apostle Paul was misrepresented or falsely accused, he derived great comfort and courage from having a clear conscience (Acts 24:14-16). But his view of conscience was quite different to the Emmy Academy’s.

He educated it
Paul prefaced his remarks on having a clear conscience by referring to his confident knowledge of the Scriptures (Acts 24:14). Why is this important? Well, though Adam and Eve were created with perfect knowledge of right and wrong, by their sin they lost most of this. And through this loss of knowledge, we all lost an effective conscience.

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. Unless it is educated with God’s Word, it will either be brazenly insensitive or paralyzingly over-sensitive (1 Cor.8:7, 10, 12).

Martin Luther started a revolution by educating his conscience with God’s Word. When the religious superpower of the day accused Luther 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.”

He exercised it

Once Paul educated his conscience, he “exercised” it (Acts 24:16). This word describes what a drill sergeant does on the parade ground, or what a top athlete does in training. In other words, Paul stirred up his conscience to action; he challenged it and trained it. And he did this “always.” Wherever he was and whatever he was doing, he was prodding his conscience with questions: “Is this right or wrong, true or false, good or bad?” He never let his conscience become lazy, or sleepy. He knew that, like his body, the more he exercised his conscience, the happier and healthier he would be. He feared that silencing or blunting his conscience in one area of life would inevitably lead to problems in all areas of life.

Paul’s exercised his conscience so that it would be “void of offense,” meaning that it would not run into a sharp stumbling-block. If we ignore or disobey our conscience, it’s like running into a jagged rock that wounds and injures us. As someone said, “Conscience is what hurts, when everything else feels so good.” That’s conviction of sin, and it’s a mercy. Thank God he makes us feel pain in our consciences when we sin, so that we are stopped from going further.

And at that point we have two options. We can ignore the “pain” and carry on regardless. If we do, we will end up with a seared and calloused conscience (1 Tim. 4:2). The “scar tissue” will thicken and we won’t feel the pain so much the next time. We will be able to go further and more comfortably into sin.

Or, we can take our painful, bleeding wounds to the bleeding wounds of Christ (Heb. 9:14; 10:22). His blood can purge and heal our consciences. And not only that, if we remove the pains of our bleeding conscience via the blood of Christ, we end up with a conscience that is even more sensitive than it was before we sinned.

He was encouraged by it
A clear conscience gave Paul courage before “God and man” (Acts 24:16). Guilty consciences make people (and preachers) cowards. A guilty conscience silences the Christian at home, at work, at college, and in the pulpit. I’ve seen powerful preachers become bald Samsons in the pulpit because they compromised their consciences through the fear of man.

Martin Luther King said: “Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ Vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But, conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but one must take it because one’s conscience tells one that it is right.”

For Paul, death, resurrection, and judgment (v.15) made him pursue a clear conscience (v. 16). However, it also worked the other way around. A clear conscience enabled him to look toward death, resurrection, and judgment with confidence and courage. Like Mr Honest in Pilgrim’s Progress, Paul had arranged with Mr Good-conscience to meet him at the Jordan of death and help him through it. Truly, there is no pillow so soft as a good conscience. It gives us courage to face the ultimate issues of life.

But if we silence it, sear it, or de-sensitize it while we live; if we never take it to the blood of Christ, we can be sure that it will resurrect with exquisite sensitivity and deafening volume when we die (Luke 16: 23, 25, 27-28). It is the worm that never dies in the fire that is never quenched (Mark 9:48).