1 Timothy 4:2 – “seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron”
In this passage the Apostle Paul is describing the character of false teachers in Ephesus whom Timothy must confront and command to stop spreading their “strange doctrines” (1 Tm 1:3, 4). It is their seared conscience that permits them to be not only hypocrites who simply pretend to be servants of righteousness, but also liars who misrepresent and mangle the word of God (1 Tm 1:6, 7). But what is the conscience, and how does it become seared? You can’t see it on an x-ray or ultrasound. It can’t be surgically removed or repaired if it is sick. In fact, how does one even diagnose if they have a sick or healthy conscience?
The problem of conscience is primarily a problem of knowledge – knowledge of self in relation to the God who has revealed Himself and His will in His word. Surprisingly the Hebrew Old Testament has no word for “conscience” and the only time the word is used in our English Old Testament it is translated from the Hebrew word for “heart” (1 Sm 24:5). But even though the word is absent, the concept is not. Adam and Eve hid from God; Joseph’s brothers were tormented by what they had done to Joseph (Gn 42:21); David’s heart troubled him for conducting an ill-advised census (2 Sm 24:10). A closer examination reveals that this inner turmoil is connected with God’s attitude toward the deed committed. It is the result of a self-accusation that God’s word has been violated. In fact, the Greek word for “conscience”, suneidesis, carries the idea of being aware of, or conscious of right and wrong, good and evil, true and false. Such awareness requires an objective, absolute, and authoritative standard of right and wrong, good and evil, true and false. Without an objective standard there can be no knowledge of any violation.
It is precisely at this point where fallen man vies with God for authority. Who establishes this standard of right and wrong, good and evil, true and false – man or God? There is no third choice. When people refuse to let God be the judge of good and evil, when they insert their own standards to counter His, these people usurp for themselves a sovereignty that belongs only to God. They would undermine God’s law in order to enact their own, and in so doing they hope to avoid the accusations of conscience. After all, if it is legal then it must be right. But God’s law is not so easily evaded.
What is the conscience?
God is the definer of good and evil and He has placed the knowledge of each in the heart of every person (Dt 30:14). Even people who do not have God’s written Law show they have God’s Law as an internal principle at work in their lives (Rm 2:14, 15). This can be easily proven by simply asking anyone anywhere if they have ever done anything wrong. How do they know what they did was wrong? What convicted them that what they did was wrong? God has reserved for Himself sovereignty over the conscience. Conscience is both a prosecutor and a judge. Its job is to accuse, convict, and condemn. It is used by God as a spur to bring a person to see themselves as they are in relation to Him – guilty, condemned, hopeless, and helpless.
What was the teaching that emanated from the seared consciences of these false teachers? They were men “who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods, which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth” (1 Tm 4:3). In other words, they were calling evil what God had called good. They were enacting laws which were contrary to those of God thereby vying with God for dominion and counting themselves more lords over people’s conscience than God.
A seared conscience is one that has become insensitive to the accusations of God’s law written on the heart, uncaring about its standing before a just and holy God, and indifferent to the threats, warnings, and judgments for violating that Law. Such a conscience has lost the ability to distinguish between good and evil, right and wrong, true and false. Because of fallen man’s natural enmity to the things of God, a seared conscience will approve what God forbids, and forbid what God approves. This lack of torment, guilt, or even remorse when confronted with God’s word is the result of a refusal to acknowledge the authority of God as Lawgiver and indicates a complete abandonment by God (Rm 1:28-32). This is why God pronounces a terrifying “Woe!” on all who call evil good, and good evil; who substitute darkness for light, and light for darkness; who substitute bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter (Is 5:20).
Such was the southern kingdom of Judah. The scribes had twisted God’s law into a lie (Jer 8:8). They congratulated themselves for their wisdom even while rejecting God’s word (Jer 8:9). There was a superficial spirituality that denied the need for repentance and the judgment of God (Jer 8:11; 23:17), and there was absolutely no shame connected with the most flagrant violations of God’s word (Jer 8:12). Idolatry was thought good while obedience to God was considered evil (Jer 44:16-19).
Such is the nation in which we live. All three branches of our national government – administrative, legislative, and judicial – are dominated by people with seared consciences, as is the majority of our state and local governments. Laws are being enacted by people that assume a jurisdiction over the consciences of men and women, and who presume that laws made against the command and interest of God must be of more force than the laws God has commanded. They foolishly think they have the authority to outlaw God’s word (Ps 2:1-5). Our public education system has succeeded in searing the conscience of much of our youth and is bent on further searing. More and more churches, pulpits, and professing Christians are calling evil good, and good evil, all in the name of tolerance, love, unity, and acceptance. What a futile and foolish thing it is to resist the Supreme Authority to which all creation submits and archangels bow.
Men and women have power over outward things, to do this or that which God’s law requires, but they have not the least authority to control any dictate of conscience. God has not given anyone a power over their own conscience; much less has He given power over another’s conscience to any human agency. What a infringement of God’s sovereignty to try and make the conscience a slave to man either through legislation, false doctrine, “sensitivity training”, or under the guise of education. Such arrogance requires a seared conscience in order to avoid the accusations of the conscience (Eph 4:19).
There are only two ways to silence a guilty conscience.
One is to sear it, to make it insensitive to the Law of God written on the heart thereby having the ability to call evil good, and good evil, to flagrantly violate God’s law without a twinge of conscience or the slightest blush of shame, to turn sin into a virtue, and to glory in shame (Phil 3:19). A seared conscience is one that has been given over to its own way and one on which the word of God has no impact. There are two types of false peace which ruin most people; peace in sin, and peace with sin. Both dominate the lives of most people today.
The second is to confess sin as sin, to appeal to God for a good conscience (1 Pt 3:21), and to have our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience (Hb 10:22) by trusting the sacrifice of Christ to wash us in His blood and cleanse us from all sin. The condemnation of conscience is nothing else than the application of God’s word to a person’s life; either the universal application of God’s law written on the heart of all mankind (Rm 2:14, 15), or the specific application of Scripture to specific individuals (Ac 2:37).
God’s word curses all who violate it and conscience applies this curse to the guilty sinner (Hb 4:12). This was the effect of Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost. The people who heard Peter’s message “were pierced to the heart” (Ac 2:37). The Greek word translated “pierced”, katanussomai, appears only here in the entire Bible and describes the feeling of intense pain associated with anxiety, agitation, inner turmoil, and remorse. Compare this response to that of the Pharisees (Mt 21:32). Confession of sin as sin leads from self-condemning isolation, anxiety, and depression to forgiveness and a clean conscience (Ps 32:3-5). A guilty conscience is an active conscience. The great Puritan pastor John Flavel wrote,
“In how sad a case are those that never felt any burden in sin, that never were kept waking and restless one night for sin. There is a burdened conscience, and there is a benumbed conscience. The first is more painful, but the last more dangerous. O it is a fearful blow of God upon man’s soul, to strike it senseless and stupid, so that though mountains of guilt lie upon it, it feels no pain or pressure; and this is so much more sad, because it incapacitates the soul for Christ, and is a presage and forerunner of hell.” John Flavel, The Method of Grace: How the Holy Spirit Works (Rapidan, VA: Hartland Publications, 1997), 161.
Conscience in the Modern Day
Sadly, most of our culture and the professing church have gone the way of most of mankind in dealing with the accusations of conscience. Like the people of Judah they have declared, “As for the message that you have spoken to us in the name of the LORD, we are not going to listen to you! But rather we will certainly carry out every word that has proceeded from our mouths,” (Jer 44:16, 17). They have silenced the voice of conscience or anesthetized it with drugs and as such will not endure sound doctrine (2 Tm 4:3), but rather demand the silencing of those voices which would apply God’s word to the conscience.
The torment of a conscience under the convicting work of God’s word is a burden no man or woman with an active conscience can bear. There is nothing so sweet as the favor, peace, and pardon of God to a soul that has long been under the accusations, fears, and terrors of conscience. Do you know this peace? The joy is inexpressible when the accusations and condemnations of conscience are over, and can never be understood by anyone who has never felt the anguish of sin.