The Nature of Conscience
Hebrews 5:12-14
For when for the time you ought to be teachers…

It is clearly implied in the context that ignorance confines men to very imperfect guides in life, and that a true religion ought to develop growth in knowledge, not only, but skill in using knowledge as a means of restitude; and still more clearly in the closing verse is it declared that the conscience of men requires education, in order that it may, "by reason of use," "discern both good and evil." Using. exercising, disciplining a man's conscience, according to the conception of this passage, is the method by which it may be made to discern good and evil. First as to the nature of conscience. It is a moral sentiment or emotion subject to all the conditions of all other emotions in the mind of man. It does not differ in that regard from any sentiment or any emotion. All the great moral desires or sentiments are dependent for opportunity and for incitement upon the foregoing action of the intellect. The intellect thinks and perceives for the conscience just as much as it does for hope, for fear, for veneration, or for love. It is the precursor of these elements. Therefore the desires or sentiments are not, in and of themselves, intelligent. There is not a sentiment of hope with a little intellect of hope in it. There is not a sentiment of veneration with a little thinking power in it. There is not a sentiment of conscience with a little thinking mind belonging to it. The intellect belongs to all sentiments. Every sentiment draws its knowledge, and therefore its opportunity and incitement for action, from the common understanding that overspreads all the sentiments. They are dependent upon the reason for light. No man discerns the rightness or the wrongness of anything through his conscience. It is the intellect that sees the agreement or disagreement of conduct with the rule of life. It is conscience that experiences pain or pleasure in itself at this disagreement or agreement. The action of conscience, therefore, is partnership action. What some term "the moral sense" is the co-operative action of the intellect and the sentiment of conscience. No mind, no intelligent conscience. The reason, therefore, stands related to all sentiments — to conscience and the rest — as the keys on the keyboard do to the pipes in an organ. All the pipes have the potentiality of certain sounds, differing one from another; but they do not sound themselves. They never open their throat to speak until the keys are pressed. We open them with our hands. The whole issuing range of harmony from the instrument is determined at the key-board and not behind it. We touch the keys first, and the response comes afterward. So reason is the key-board of the mind; and when it pronounces any course of conduct, or any action, to be right, the conscience approves it — that is, it gives forth the sentiment of pleasure to itself; and when the reason condemns any course of conduct or action, then the conscience gives back to itself the sentiment of pain. But while on the one side it is true that the conscience does not itself think, nor perceive, nor discern, it would be wrong to suppose that it has nothing to do with thinking, perceiving, and discerning. Indirectly it has much to do with them, for, while the emotions of the soul have incitement and opportunity from the intellect, the intellect is not unaffected by them. Strong emotions inspire the intellect with a sensibility peculiar to the truths which belong to those emotions that are acting. Or, if I may so say, figuratively, a feeling gives its colour to the intellect, and makes it susceptible of the kinds of truth which it otherwise would not discern. For example, every kind of sorrow produces in the intellect a sensibility to the peculiar class of truths which are concerned in sorrow. If one be overladen with sorrow, everything he sees becomes Fad, and everything he thinks of has a colour of sadness in it. But if the sorrow be cleared away, and mirth come in the place of it, the intellect no longer sees the shades, nor the low tones or tints of truth. It sees, dancing on every side, all the variable elements of the truths that belong to mirth. There is, then, a cooperative or interchangeable action of the intellect upon the emotions; so that a perfect education of either one requires the education of the other. They work together; and a proportion and balance between thought and feeling is indispensable to thought and indispensable to feeling. Therefore, so far from the intellect, devoid of emotion, being the discerner in regard to the greatest sphere of truth, it is precisely the opposite; the intellect is utterly unable to discern what is true in these higher realms except by the force of underlying feeling, which does not see, but which inspires the intellect with a quality that enables it to see, the truths which belong to these several departments. Secondly, consider the function and scope of conscience. Its function relates, properly, to reason, or intellect; to sensibility, and to truths of rectitude. It inspires the reason with that sensibility by which it discerns all truth, in so far as it relates to the moral conduct of mankind. When right is done, the conscience gives forth pleasurable emotions. When wrong is done, the conscience gives back pain. Thus it approves or condemns. It presides in all the spheres of men — in the household, m the market, in the forum, in government — and makes itself felt in universal law. At the same time it leavens every feeling of the soul, inspiring in each one a sense of truth and righteousness and rectitude in his own sphere. And it is a restraint upon unregulated and extravagant thought and emotion. Thus in all things it brings itself into human experience, whether it be in the form of feeling, or whether it be in the form of action. With this foundation, I remark, first, that we discern in the action of conscience, practically, in a very great number of instances, the variety and intensity of our own judgment. Thou* sands of men are said to be conscientious simply because in the respects in which they have a sense of right and wrong they are intense, though they are not intelligent. Men who have a profound conscience toward God, toward His Book, toward His Church, toward His ministering servants, and toward truths that have in them something of the element of eternity — those men often have almost no conscience in regard to elements which relate to the welfare of mankind. So you shall see an Italian bandit who goes to bed with remorse because he did not pay his vows to the statue of the Virgin Mary, nor say the prayers that he had vowed, but who will wipe the dagger with which he had stabbed a man in the back with a sense of having performed a virtuous action! Ill anything which relates to religion many men are very conscientious; and such men are said to be very religious; but in the things which relate to worldly affairs these same men often have no conscience. Envy, jealousy, anger, hatred, rivalry, supersession, all such things they indulge in innocently, without the least idea that conscience has anything to do with them. They have not a conscience for truth everywhere, but they have a conscience for truth in spots, and of a certain kind. They have a conscience for truth toward the supernatural, for truth toward the supernal, but not for truth toward the human. Multitudes of persons there are who have a conscience about pins, but not about crowbars. They have a conscience about nettles, but not about serpents' teeth. That is to say, they exalt the bottom until it is as high as the top, and the top can be no higher. On the other hand, there are those who, not by feebleness of intellect but by an over-refined process or habit of searching and researching into metaphysical threads and films and gossamers, are perpetually bringing about them insoluble matters and tormenting themselves and their friends with questions in life which have no practical issue, but exist in the bowels of their brain and are being spun out. They weary themselves by excessive addiction to a subtle conscientiousness which works in such channels. Then, next, come mechanical consciences, or consciences that act entirely by rule and custom, and not by determining right or wrong through the reason. A mechanical conscience can only act in reference to cases which have been already determined; for it is a conscience which acts according to precedent or rule. Now, rules are the indispensable eyes of ignorance, as principles are the indispensable eyes of intelligence. They are the resultants of practical experiments in right and wrong through ages, and are not likely to be set aside for any one. It is far more likely that generations of men, as the result of continuous trial, will be right in practical affairs than that any single man will. Where, therefore, we are prone to ignore a custom because we are at liberty to act from original considerations we shall be very likely to substitute conceit for wisdom. For the great mass of mankind, then, conscience must determine right and wrong. That is, their intellect must ask, "What is custom?'" "What is rule?" And they must go by that. Yet it is not the best guide. It is the very thing that is condemned in this passage. Wider civilisation and a higher life are full of things that must of necessity be outside of customs and rules, and for which no precedent can be established; and these must be determined by the application of principles. Hence you will find that the Word of God constantly recognises the propriety of a man determining right and wrong by referring to his original moral feelings. Many a man has trained his conscience to an interpretation of sensibility — that is to say, conscience and the understanding together, which form the moral sense, has been trained in such a way that they interpret right and wrong precisely as musicians interpret right and wrong in music, not as the result of any experience by which they say, "One, two, and three make a discord", but as the result of feeling. A discord hurts the ear of one who is cultivated in music. Now, there is such a training of a man's moral sense that whatever is dishonour-able, whatever is coarse, whatever is wrong in one way or another, hurts him. First comes the feeling of pare, and he has to determine the cause of it afterwards. The intellect and conscience working together are so sensitised that that which is at variance with or unlike moral principles, with truth, with simplicity, with fairness, with honour, with any virtue, is offensive to them. They have been so drilled in things right that the first appearance of a thing that is wrong strikes oppugnance into them. On the other hand, you will find men who are strict Sabbath-keepers, who are strict in the letter of honesty, who are strict in a thousand conventional elements of right and wrong, but who in business spheres, in the development of a campaign, in an enterprise where there is rivalry, where there is some end to be gained by combination, or where there is pressure in one direction or another, are overreaching, and do not hesitate to do wrong, and violate the principles of humanity. They were never in such a case before; they have had no training of conscience which makes them feel that they are transgressing the law of right; and their want of integrity does not trouble them. But there are some men who shrink back instinctively from things that are wrong, and do not themselves know why they are shocked at them. There are many things that we are familiar with, but that we are unconscious of. There are many things that we know without thinking of them. I know the surface of the ground on which I walk without knowing it. I know a hill or a level without knowing it. My foot knows more than my head in these matters. It has been trained respecting them. We get up and sit down, we go backwards and forwards, we do a great many things where the body is concerned automatically. We have come to that point where intantaneity is the law of operation in many physical things. Higher than that, men may come to that state of mind in which, without any conscious intellectual operation, by instinct or moral insight, they shall abhor that which is evil, and in which they shall instinctively seek that which is good. This is the highest form of conscience. I must add one or two remarks. First, I think our times need training in judicial ethics far more than in intensity of spirituality. It is morality that develops spirituality, and not spirituality that develops morality. You cannot put on your roof until you have built your foundation. The lack of training in the principles of honesty and integrity is the weakness of our times. This training, like all real training, should be first in the household. I only add that perhaps more than any other single thing in the training of children, in the family, in the school, and in the preliminary stages of their life, are needed, first, training in what is right and wrong, and second, the development of an instantaneous subjection of thought and action to that which is determined to be right and wrong, and a habit of doing that which is duty instantly without questioning.

(H. W. Beecher.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat.

WEB: For although by this time you should be teachers, you again need to have someone teach you the rudiments of the first principles of the oracles of God. You have come to need milk, and not solid food.

The Lesson of Ripeness
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