Here is the supreme irony and tragedy of sin: the more we repeat our sins, the greater the guilt we incur, but the less sensitive we become to the pangs of guilt in our consciences. Paul says that people store up wrath for themselves on the day of wrath (Rom. 2:5). That’s objective guilt—they are guilty because they have broken God’s law. But some people have so destroyed their consciences that they believe it really doesn’t matter what they do as long as it is consensual and causes no harm. Their subjective guilt—the sense of guilt that accompanies wrongdoing—diminishes.
Most of us are familiar with Martin Luther’s heroic statement at the Diet of Worms when he was called upon to recant. “Unless I am convinced by sacred Scripture, or by evident reason, I cannot recant, for my conscience is held captive by the Word of God, and to act against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.”
Today, we rarely hear any reference to the conscience. Yet throughout church history, the best Christian thinkers spoke about the conscience regularly. Thomas Aquinas said the conscience is the God-given inner voice that either accuses or excuses us in terms of what we do. John Calvin spoke of the “divine sense” that God puts into every person, and part of that divine sense is the conscience. And when we turn to Scripture, we find that our consciences are an aspect of God’s revelation to us.
When we talk about God’s revelation, we make a distinction between general revelation and special revelation. Special revelation refers to that information given to us in the Word of God. Not everyone in the world possesses this information. Those who have heard it have had the benefit of hearing specific information about God and His plan of redemption.
General revelation refers to the revelation that God gives to every human being on earth. It’s general in the sense that it’s not limited to any specific group of people. It’s global, and it extends to every human being. The audience is general, and the information given is general as well. It doesn’t have the same level of detail that sacred Scripture does.
We must make a further distinction within the context of general revelation between mediate general revelation and immediate general revelation. Mediate general revelation refers to the revelation that God gives through an external medium. The medium is creation, wherein God reveals something about who He is. Paul labors the point particularly in Romans 1 that the general revelation mediated through creation is so clear that every single person knows God exists and, therefore, is without excuse.
Immediate general revelation is revelation that is transmitted to every human being without an external medium. It’s internal, not external. It’s the revelation God plants in the soul of every person. God reveals His law in the mind of every human being by planting a conscience within each of us.
However, we face a problem: the conscience is fluid. It’s not fixed. Almost all people adjust their consciences between childhood and adulthood, and the adjustment is almost always downward. That is, we learn how to turn the volume of our conscience down, and we make the necessary adjustments so that our ethics align with how we want to live and not how God tells us we should live.