Some weeks ago I visited a men’s Bible study, and as we were talking the pastor said something that stuck with me. To paraphrase, he said, “When we sin, we only get better at sinning.” His point was over time sin erodes our conscience with the result that sinning becomes easier. To put it another way, giving in to sin has the effect of whittling away at the judicial power of your conscience.
Before I go any further, perhaps I should answer the question: what is the conscience? The conscience is a part of our humanity, a gift of God’s common grace (Rom. 2:15-16). Based upon the New Testament’s use of the word, Andrew Naselli and J.D. Crowely in their book, Conscience, define the conscience as, “your consciousness of what you believe is right and wrong” (42). The conscience is, thus, your moral consciousness, which functions as a guide and judge of your thoughts and actions.
Back to the point at hand. Paul referred to a conscience that was thus eroded as being “seared” (1 Tim. 4:2). Like a juicy steak on a hot grill or the flesh of your finger against a hot iron, so sin sears the conscience, leaving it calloused and unresponsive. Naselli and Crowley explain Paul’s point in 1 Timothy 4, saying,
By repeatedly suppressing their moral consciousness, these hypocritical liars have desensitized their moral consciousness with the result that they feel no guilt when they teach false doctrines. (38)
This desensitization is the state of a conscience that has been seared, hollowed out, and gutted of judicial authority. By continually disregarding the conscience, it actually stops functioning properly. The conscience falls out of calibration with God’s moral will, regarding things not permissible according to his moral law as permissible. Therefore, it no longer guides and judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart as it is supposed to.
This is, in fact, why Paul was so concerned about those with ‘strong’ and, particularly, ‘weak’ consciences in the church. On multiple occasions in his letters he addressed the relationships between these persons (e.g. Romans 14; 1 Cor. 8). His deepest concern was that the weaker brothers not stumble, that is, transgress their conscience. This concern prompted Paul to exhort the stronger brothers to show deference to their weaker brothers, disciplining their conscience and restraining their liberty (even though their weaker brothers’ consciences were misinformed!).
Paul upheld the conscience in the highest regard, because he knew that when it is habitually disobeyed the conscience begins to fail – similar to the way a muscle suffers atrophy. Like a compass calibrated to the south, so the conscience becomes an unreliable guide; and like an apathetic and negligent parent, so the conscience becomes an unreliable judge.
The point is: sin takes the path of least resistance – it attacks where we’re weakest. And like a riverbed the conscience can be eroded by the rushing tide of temptation, if we don’t attend to its warnings. If ignored, that riverbed will grow deeper, turning the trickling stream of a healthy conscience into the Grand Canyon rapids of a seared conscience.