THE WEAKNESS OF THE CONSCIENCE
We have clearly said before that Christ is the standard of holiness for our life. Even though the conscience is important, it is not the standard. At the same time, even though the conscience is not the standard of holiness, it is the standard that testifies whether or not we please God in our daily living. In other words, the conscience is the standard of the present level of our holiness. If we can live every day according to the leading of the conscience, we have attained to the level we presently should attain to. If we maintain a good conscience, we will not fall behind in our spiritual journey. Thus in our daily path of walking according to the spirit, the conscience is a very necessary factor. In whatever our conscience guides us, if we disobey it, we will be rebuked, lose our peace, and be temporarily cut off from God in our fellowship. It is indisputable that we should follow the spirit completely through all the guidance of the conscience. But is the leading of the conscience perfect? This question still remains.
We know that the conscience is controlled by its knowledge. It can only guide people according to what it knows. Then if men do not obey, it condemns. It does not condemn something that it does not know. Therefore, if we compare the standard of the conscience with the standard of God’s holiness, the standard of the conscience is very inferior. It has at least two shortcomings. One, as we said before, is the limitation of its knowledge; it can only condemn the wrongdoings that it knows. Consequently, since our conscience does not possess certain knowledge, we allow many things that are not according to God’s will to remain in our lives. God knows, and believers who are more mature than us also know, that our shortcomings are numerous. But since we have not received the light, these shortcomings remain. Is this not a big defect? This, however, is permissible because God does not condemn what we do not know. Even though we are at fault, God is well pleased, and He fellowships with us because we have acted according to the leading of the conscience.
There is still a second defect which can hinder the fellowship of the believer with God. A little knowledge can not only lead the believer to condemn something that should be condemned, it can also lead him to condemn something which should not be condemned. What should we say then? Has the conscience led wrongly? No, the leading of the conscience cannot be wrong and should be obeyed by the believer. But the measure or degree of knowledge differs. Due to a believer’s lack of knowledge, there are many things which he will be permitted to do when he possesses more knowledge, but these things are not allowed at the present time because of the lack of knowledge. If he were to do them, the conscience would condemn, and he would have sinned. This is the immaturity of the believer. This means that many things are fully permissible for the fathers because they have the knowledge, experience, and position. But if the children were to do what the father does, it would definitely not be permitted due to their lack of knowledge, experience, and position. This is not to say that there are two criteria for right and wrong, but that it is impossible for the criteria for right and wrong not to be different according to each one’s position. This is true in spiritual things as well as in physical things. Many things, when done by the mature believer, are completely in accordance with the will of God. However, if a young believer were to follow and do the same, to him it would be a sin.
The reason for this is none other than differences in the degree of the knowledge of the conscience. If, according to the conscience of a believer, a certain thing is permitted, and he does it, he is doing the will of God. But if the conscience of another believer does not permit the same thing, he will sin if he does it. As we said before, this does not mean that the highest will of God is different, but that God leads each one according to his respective position. One who has knowledge has a stronger conscience; consequently, he has more liberty. One who is without knowledge is weaker; consequently, he is more restricted.
This matter is clearly taught by the apostle in 1 Corinthians. At that time, the believers in Corinth had many misunderstandings about the matter of eating things offered to idols. Some thought that idols were nothing and that the food could be eaten, whether or not it was offered to idols, since God is one and there is no other God (8:4). Others, before they were believers, had been idol worshippers. Therefore, when they saw that the food they were eating had been offered to idols, they could not help remembering the past. Consequently their conscience was not at peace. When they ate, they were defiled because their conscience was weak (v. 7). The apostle understood that this distinction was caused by the presence or absence of knowledge (v. 7). The former, because of their knowledge, were not rebuked by their conscience; therefore, after eating, they did not sin. The latter, because of their lack of knowledge, were not at peace in their conscience; therefore, their eating became their sin. From this we see that knowledge is very important. More knowledge can sometimes cause the conscience to condemn more, but it can also cause the conscience to have less condemnation.
Therefore, in similar matters of the shadows of the things to come, we should ask the Lord to grant us more knowledge so that we will not be unreasonably bound. However, such knowledge should be kept with a humble heart; otherwise, we will fall into the flesh like the Corinthian believers. If our knowledge is inadequate and the conscience still rebukes, we still have to obey the voice of the conscience no matter how great a price we have to pay. We should not think that because this is not wrong according to the highest standard, that we do not need to care for the conscience and can just do it. We should remember that the conscience is the current standard of God’s guidance. We should obey; disobeying is a sin. What is condemned by our conscience is certainly condemned by God.
(Collected Works of Watchman Nee, The (Set 1) Vol. 13: The Spiritual Man (2), Chapter 7, by Watchman Nee)