The Witness-Bearer Within Us
“My conscience bears witness with me in holy spirit.”—Rom. 9:1.
1, 2. (a) Why should we be very interested in learning about the witness-bearer within us? (b) What is this witness-bearer, and with what is it associated?
WE ALL have a witness-bearer within us. It can greatly aid us in making decisions that seriously affect both our present and future happiness. Actually, this witness-bearer contributes testimony in trials involving our very life. And the way we respond to its voice unavoidably affects the lives of others. This makes all the more tragic the fact that it can become a perverted witness. It can supply misleading testimony or even fail completely to speak out at critical times.
2 What is this witness-bearer? It is our conscience. (2 Cor. 1:12) In English, “conscience” basically means the same as the Greek term (sy·neiʹde·sis) used by inspired Bible writers. It means “co-knowledge” or “having knowledge of something with [oneself].” It is the voice of what Bible writers refer to as “the secret self,” “the man we are inside,” “the secret person of the heart.” (Ps. 51:6; 2 Cor. 4:16; 1 Pet. 3:4; compare Romans 7:22.) Have you ever used expressions such as, “In my heart I felt it was the right thing to do”? Or, “I would like to do what you ask but something inside me says ‘No”’? This is conscience speaking, our inward realization or sense of right and wrong.
3, 4. How does our conscience ‘bear witness’? And how can it guide us morally?
3 How is it a “witness-bearer”? In that it testifies either against or in favor of our conduct as measuring up to moral standards, either accusing or excusing us. It can be a valuable moral safety factor because it can inflict pain when it condemns, or bring pleasure when it approves.
4 For example, after David performed an act of disrespect toward King Saul, the record says that “David’s heart kept striking him.” (1 Sam. 24:5; compare 2 Samuel 24:10.) His conscience condemned him. Following another serious misdeed, David suffered the pangs of a guilty conscience. As he himself relates: “When I kept silent my bones wore out through my groaning all day long. For day and night [God’s] hand was heavy upon me. My life’s moisture has been changed as in the dry heat of summer.” But when he finally confessed his wrong to God and gained His pardon, David experienced relief and joy. His conscience was put at ease, made clean again.—Ps. 32:1-5; compare Ps. 32 verses 10, 11.
GOD’S WISDOM SEEN IN HUMAN CONSCIENCE
5-8. (a) Why did God not need to give the first humans an extensive and detailed law code? (b) Even when new situations and circumstances should arise, how could they determine what the right course to take would be? (c) Give examples as to how the faculty of conscience would act in them.
5 At the beginning of mankind’s history, Jehovah God did not surround the first humans with rules to control every minute detail and facet of life. His general instructions and the one negative command he gave them can be summed up in a few lines in the Bible. (Gen. 1:28-30; 2:15-17) Why was no extensive code of law necessary?
6 Jehovah God created his human creatures with intelligent minds and with hearts possessed of moral sense. By the cooperation of mind and heart the faculty of conscience results. Man’s conscience has its source in the fact that man was made in God’s own ‘image and likeness,’ not in a physical sense, obviously, but in a moral likeness. (Gen. 1:26, 27; compare 2 Corinthians 3:18.) Thus, the faculty of conscience was implanted in humans from creation forward.
7 Instead of giving laws spelling out and defining every detail of right and wrong, God could fortify man’s moral sense by revealing His personality, ways and standards to man. Thereby God would provide principles to guide his human children. As they grew in knowledge, understanding and appreciation of him, their conscience or moral sense would enable them to apply these principles to whatever circumstance might arise.
8 God, for example, had no need to give Adam a formal law telling him not to beat his wife or throw stones at her, or forbidding the slaughtering of animal and bird life just for the “sport” of it. Why, all around the human pair they could see evidence of their Creator’s love, his generosity, consideration and kindness. They could see it in the marvelous, versatile bodies he gave them, the beauty and rich variety of their environment, the delights he had provided for all their senses—smell, taste, touch, sight and hearing. (Ps. 139:14; 104:10-24; Eccl. 3:11) How much more potent an appeal to righteousness and goodness should this make to human hearts than a mere decree! God’s love for them set the pattern for the human pair’s dealings with each other. It provided the basis for their conscience to speak out against cruelty or inconsiderateness of any kind.
SIN INTRODUCES INTERNAL CONFLICT
9. What effect would disobedience have on the perfect man, and why?
9 Since he was created in God’s likeness, for Adam to reflect his Father’s qualities, to ‘mirror’ his Creator by right conduct, would be the normal, natural thing for Adam to do. Yet he was free, as a moral agent, to make his own choice. If given a choice between acting in harmony with God’s personality and ways or acting contrary thereto, Adam could take either course. But only by choosing the harmonious course could man “feel right” about the matter. To take a contrary course would “go against the grain,” producing internal disturbance in man.
10. How does the account at Genesis 3:6-11 show that Adam had a witness-bearer within him?
10 The historical records bear this out. When Adam and his wife violated the one negative command God gave them, they suffered internal upheaval. They began experiencing feelings of guilt, anxiety, shame and insecurity. When his Creator spoke to him, Adam admitted an attempt to hide, out of fear. It was as if a built-in lie detector were at work in him, providing just cause for God’s immediately asking: “From the tree from which I commanded you not to eat have you eaten?” Indeed, a witness-bearer within man was testifying to that very conclusion.—Gen. 3:6-11.
11, 12. What other force now became part of human nature, and what effect does it have on man’s moral nature and conscience?
11 From that point forward man has had two opposing forces working within him. Though made originally in God’s image, he now became sinful, imperfect. Sin marred humans’ reflection of their Creator’s “likeness,” it produced a flaw inherited by all Adam’s descendants, with none being able to free themselves from it by their own efforts. The tendency toward wrongdoing now became part of human nature. But did it wipe out or replace the inner sense of right and wrong called conscience? No, this continued as also part of human nature. So—particularly when faced with moral issues and decisions—humans experience an internal conflict because of these opposing forces inside them.
12 But with sin operating in them, could human conscience still function satisfactorily without a detailed law code to control it? Yes, as the historical record shows.
CONSCIENCE KEEPS FUNCTIONING WITHOUT LAW CODE
13, 14. Even with sin in the picture, what shows that human conscience could function properly without a law code?
13 Not until after the Flood do we find a stated law about murder. (Gen. 9:5, 6) So, then, did people prior thereto feel free to kill with no sense of guilt? By no means.
14 In Eden, human death was revealed by God to be for violators of his will. (Gen. 2:16, 17) Logically, then, death should come only as the penalty for sin, and God, as the known Life-Giver, should be the one to designate those meriting death. So, what happened when Cain allowed sin to cause him to kill his brother in heated anger? No stated law condemned murder; yet Cain’s conscience testified against him, as seen by his evasiveness when he was questioned by God. (Gen. 4:3-9) Later, the conscience of Cain’s descendant Lamech evidently excused him for killing a young man who wounded him. Lamech pleaded self-defense, apparently claiming immunity against any revenger of the man’s death. Why? Because he knew of God’s promise of action against any attempted avenger in Cain’s case and felt his own case far more justifiable than Cain’s. (Gen. 4:17, 18, 23, 24) So, humans were never without principles and precedents to guide their consciences.
15. How could people’s consciences testify against rebellion toward headship, against indolence, sexual immorality and similar wrongs, with only the history of Genesis 1:26 to 4:16 as a basis?
15 People knew the principle of headship, for God had made known his own headship in Eden and had designated man’s headship over woman. Without laws condemning idleness, they knew that man should work in caring for God’s earthly provisions. This, too, was revealed in Eden. Before the Law covenant with Israel specifically condemned homosexuality, adultery and rape, they realized that sexual unions were to be between man and woman and that such unions were not to be temporary (as in fornication or adultery) but lasting, in a family relationship with the united ones ‘leaving father and mother’ to enter such enduring relationship, as “one flesh.” (Gen. 2:24; note also Joseph’s course; Gen. 39:7-9) Without any laws against trespassing or stealing, they could appreciate the principle of ownership rights, in view of God’s command regarding the trees in Eden. Without statutes against fraud, cheating, slander, false accusation, they could see the bad results that came from the first lie.—Gen. 1:26–4:16.
16. Would varying circumstances or new situations change this?
16 So, even if no law code was given with specific decrees and rules, people had principles and precedents to guide them and to equip their consciences to act as true witness-bearers. The situations might differ from person to person, variations of circumstances might arise, yet they could draw upon those principles to arrive at right conclusions, to make wise decisions. In the centuries following, and even prior to the giving of the Law covenant to Israel, God’s dealings with men and his expressions provided further revelation for those still striving to reflect his likeness.
17. Show how Jesus and his apostles demonstrated the value of these principles and precedents as guides to righteousness.
17 In the first century of the Common Era, Jesus and his apostles called on these early principles and precedents in advocating the righteous view to take in regard to such matters as divorce, persecution and slander, wifely submission to a husband, homicide.—Matt. 19:3-9; John 8:43-47; 1 Tim. 2:11-14; 1 John 3:11, 12.
18. (a) What kind of people make formal, specific laws needful as deterrents? (b) Contrast these with the person who genuinely loves righteousness.
18 All of this helps us to appreciate the rightness of the apostle Paul’s statement that “law is promulgated, not for a righteous man, but for persons lawless and unruly, ungodly and sinners, lacking loving-kindness, and profane, murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, manslayers, fornicators, men who lie with males, kidnappers, liars, false swearers, and whatever other thing is in opposition to the healthful teaching.” (1 Tim. 1:9, 10) The man who has a genuine love of righteousness in his heart does not need specific laws condemning such things to cause him to abstain from them. If he is sincerely striving to manifest God’s “likeness” and to ‘walk with Him’ he will repudiate all such practices. On the other hand, if any person is lacking that righteous desire, specific laws with penalties attached for the violator may act as a deterrent—but they will never fully succeed in preventing his engaging in wrongdoing. Human history gives abundant evidence of this.
THE LAW COVENANT AND CHRISTIAN CONSCIENCE
19. What several purposes did the Law covenant given to Israel serve?
19 In time Jehovah God gave a full set of laws and regulations to the nation of Israel. While this served as a deterrent to wrongdoing and also provided valuable insight into God’s standards and qualities, Jehovah had a greater, more farsighted purpose in giving this law code. God gave it to Israel “to make transgressions manifest,” so that they, although his chosen people, could lay no claim to righteousness on the basis of their own merit and works. Their inability to keep perfectly that law exposed to full view their sinfulness and powerfully demonstrated their need of the ransom provision God would make through Christ Jesus. Simultaneously, the Law contained ‘shadows’ or foregleams of God’s future purposes and the means for carrying these out.—Gal. 3:19; Rom. 3:19, 20, 24.
20. (a) How does the new covenant differ from the Law covenant? (b) Why does the absence of a detailed law code not allow for lower standards among Christians?
20 Even while that Law code was still in force, however, Jehovah foretold his making a new covenant with persons who would have his law put “within them,” not through some engraved or printed law code, but ‘written on their hearts.’ (Jer. 31:33) That new covenant was made with spiritual Israel, the Christian congregation. They are not under the Law code given Israel. (Gal. 4:4, 5; Heb. 8:7-13) Does this absence of such a detailed law code allow for a lower standard of morality among Christians? No, to the contrary, Christianity calls for even higher standards, as Jesus’ own teachings showed. (Matt. 5:21, 22, 27, 28, 31-48) And it clearly calls for greater exercise of conscience. As Christians we are tested as to whether we have God’s ways ‘written on our hearts’ or not. Our not being placed under a detailed law code puts us to the test as to what is really in our hearts.
21. As Christians, what knowledge should form the basis for the testimony our conscience gives us? Must scriptures be in the form of a direct command, prohibition or specific law to have a molding effect on our conscience?
21 Of course, as Christians we have both the inspired Hebrew and Greek Scriptures giving us splendid insight into God’s personality, his ways and standards, purposes and will. In them we have the records of the words and deeds of God’s Son who came to earth and revealed or “explained” his Father to men, that through him we can “fully know the Father.” (John 1:18; Matt. 11:27) So, then, even though the specific laws and commands given to us as Christians may be few as compared with the Law covenant and its hundreds of statutes and regulations, we are far better equipped to know how to act in the ‘likeness and image of God.’ In reality, we are responsible for ALL that we know about God, and ALL such knowledge should have its effect on our conscience, whether it is stated as a direct command, law or prohibition for Christians or not.
SHOULD RULES REPLACE INDIVIDUAL CONSCIENCE?
22. What would some like the governing body of the Christian congregation to do, and why is this not complied with?
22 But many persons are not satisfied with this. They still want to have explicit rules made, precise lines drawn, beyond what God’s Word sets forth. So, should the governing body of the Christian congregation today assume the responsibility for supplying an exhaustive set of rules to cover every conceivable situation? No, for this would be complying with a wrong point of view, a view similar to that which prevailed among the Jews during Jesus’ earthly ministry, though not beginning nor ending then.
23, 24. Who had a similar concern for specific rulings? Give examples.
23 It was the Pharisees and other religious leaders who fostered such attitude. Above and beyond the Law covenant they built up a supplementary code of traditions and rules, attempting to cover every minor aspect of the application of the Law covenant. Each restriction contained in the Law was thereby split into a multitude of lesser restrictions.
24 For example, the sabbath law forbade the doing of work on the seventh day. But what is included in “work”? These religious leaders tried to define with extreme precision what such “work” embraced. Plucking of grain to eat (such as the apostles did on a sabbath day) was ruled to be a form of reaping, hence “work” forbidden on the sabbath. (Mark 2:23, 24) One tradition ruled that even to catch a flea on the sabbath was wrong because it was a form of hunting. Technicalities were abundant. One ruling held that ‘if a man tore garments or set fire to objects with the sole intention of destroying them, he was not guilty of violating the sabbath. But if he destroyed them with a view to later improvement (as in destroying a building in order to rebuild it) he was to be punished.’—The Jewish Encyclopedia, 1909, Vol. X, p. 599; compare Matthew 15:4-6; 23:16-19.
25. (a) What was dangerous about setting down such complex set of rulings? (b) What did Jesus say about this course?
25 What was the dangerous, damaging effect of trying to spell out with such hairline precision the application of each law? M’Clintock and Strong’s Cyclopædia recognizes the real menace this course of the religious leaders presented, saying that they “sought to observe painfully the letter of the law, and to confide as little as possible to the judgment and conscience of individuals.” (Vol. IX, p. 191; italics ours.) What the religious leaders did was, in effect, to superimpose their own conscience, scruples and personal preferences and prejudices on all the rest of the people. Jesus likened this adding of traditions to the Mosaic law to placing “heavy loads” on the shoulders of men and he warned that this elevating of human traditions to ‘a par with the Scriptures resulted in making God’s Word invalid. (Matt. 15:1-9; 23:1-4) Jesus told the religious leaders who condemned his disciples for plucking grain on the sabbath, “If you had understood what this means, ‘I want mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless ones.”—Matt. 12:1-7.
26. What example shows how traditional rulings hindered the Jews from exercising their consciences correctly? And what effect did it have on their hearts?
26 Later, in a synagogue, Jesus appealed to their consciences in applying God’s law. The Law covenant said nothing about efforts made to care for the sick on the sabbath, but Jewish tradition allowed this only where the person’s life was in danger. Confronted with a man having a withered hand and having the question thrown at him by the religious leaders as to whether it was ‘lawful to cure on the sabbath’ or not, Jesus asked, ‘What man among you having one sheep would not lift it out of a pit if it fell therein on the sabbath? Really, of how much more worth is a man than a sheep! Is it lawful to do a good deed, a fine deed, on the sabbath?’ But they refused to exercise their consciences; they remained silent. Jesus then became indignant, “being thoroughly grieved at the insensibility of their hearts,” and he proceeded to heal the man.—Matt. 12:9-13; Mark 3:1-5.
27. (a) Why is it wrong to want someone else to make our personal decisions for us in moral matters? (b) What questions now arise, to be considered in the following article?
27 To want someone, an elder or body of elders in a congregation, or the governing body of the Christian congregation to set forth a code of laws beyond what the Bible contains, therefore betrays a wrong attitude. In matters where God’s Word calls on us to exercise the faculty of conscience—of judgment, insight, discernment and wisdom—we should not try to put the responsibility on someone else by getting him to issue a ‘ruling.’ We may wisely seek counsel and guidance—yet what is said cannot go beyond that nor should we wish it to. But how can we have assurance that this “witness-bearer” within us is giving right testimony? How can we keep its voice strong and clear? Read the next article for the answers to these questions.
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CONSCIENCE results from cooperation of an intelligent mind with a heart having moral capacity