In the concluding chapter of his book The How and Why of Love: an Introduction to Evangelical Ethics, Michael Hill offers practical steps to living a Scripturally moral life. He divides these steps into the two major categories that comprise morality: decision-making and character-development. For moral decision-making, Hill suggests that we (1) start with the big picture, (2) draw out the principles and values involved and (3) find a place for rules. For developing Christian character, Hill examines several important moral virtues listed in the New Testament and then emphasizes the importance of “educating your conscience.”
I am particularly interested in this idea of educating one’s conscience partially because I hear so little about the role of the conscience in moral decision-making. Hill argues that the conscience is not legislative. That is, its function is not to give a person “the principles and rules of morality.” This view of the conscience would see Scripture and a person’s conscience saying essentially the same thing. Someone trying to be as moral as possible, listening careful to the dictates of his conscience, would inevitably come to the same conclusion about the morality or an action as would a person who was studying Scripture to find out the same thing. In this case, “there is no need to have a knowledge of Scripture if one desires to be moral. Scripture is merely a moral reminder.” Of course, this is the view of the conscience that Hill argues against. In reality, Scripture presents a different view of the conscience: not as a legislator, telling a person what to do, but as a judge, telling a person that what he did is wrong.
The Apostle Paul’s perspective seems to concur with the judicial view of the conscience: “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.” The actions of the conscience (if the “conflicting thoughts” are an extension or result of the conscience’s activity) are like the actions of a judge—accusing (condemning) or excusing (pardoning).
Hill’s conclusion here is that the conscience must be educated. It is not an infallible guide to morality, for it can be seared (1 Timothy 4:2). It seems that Hill has struck on a point that all Christians would do well to heed carefully. Running a “conscience check” on a particular action is not sufficient to gauge that action’s morality if our consciences are not educated by the Word of God. In a culture saturated by the media, we might be more in danger of conscience-searing than Christians before us. When we engage in excessive eating, trivial spending, lustful lingering, profane humoring, and blasphemous amusing without a shudder of the conscience, perhaps we are well on our way to desensitizing it. Only by restricting the volume of the world’s voice, and amplifying the volume of God’s voice in our lives can we hope to restore our consciences to their proper degree of sensitivity.