Not Just Personal: The Conscience and Its Restoration

In 1932, in the waning days of the Weimar Republic, Eberhard Arnold published a booklet on the conscience and its relation to politics and society. This article is adapted from a newly released English edition of that work.

The conscience is an organ of extraordinary delicacy, representing the deepest feelings of the human spirit. Like a sensitive recording instrument, influenced by every change of weather, it is liable to be damaged by any shock. When we thoughtlessly leave the doors of our inner life open to the ever-changing atmosphere of the times, the conscience is in danger of being thrown off balance.

But not only then: it can be led astray just as much by mental and intellectual development. Even an increase of religious activity can cause serious derangement. The conscience is an uncertain factor even in the holiest spheres of life. It remains diseased as long as it is not healed by the power of Jesus’ surrendered life. Bound to false ideals, that is, to erroneous human thinking, it remains unreliable until it experiences freedom – and asserts its freedom – in the true and vital Word of God, in the living Spirit of Jesus Christ.

The unhealthy state of an erring conscience comes to expression in annihilating self-accusations, which can even lead to derangement. Here, the conscience is reacting in the wrong place. It is typical of all false ideals and goals that they rob the conscience of certainty about the essential thing, binding it instead to what is secondary. As long as other points of attraction compete with the magnetic pole, the compass needle jerks unsteadily here and there without any accuracy.

This restlessness gives rise to a wavering judgment which, like a bird of prey, looks for a victim. There are cases in which a sick conscience lets no thought arise and no step be taken without submitting it to serious misgivings and harsh judgments. Such a sickness fills the whole of life with grievances and dissatisfaction, with self-laceration and injustice.

Only when the conscience that inflicts such suffering on itself experiences the remission of sins through Christ can healing be given. Those who have been forgiven much love much. Those who experience love forgive much.

Historically, there was a tendency to call even the healthiest reactions of the conscience a sign of sickness that should be ignored, and this same tendency prevails again today in a new form. It must be repudiated decisively. The conscience must never be silenced or despised. Rather, it must be led to splendid health by being freed from false aims and directed toward the kingdom of God. In this way, it will be filled with new clarity and new content, leading to lively activity in all areas of life embraced by the conscience – not just in personal life, but in questions of public responsibility and vocational activity.

This purification includes being freed from property, bloodshed, and lying just as much as being purified in the area of sex. During and after the [First] World War, all manner of dishonest business practices gained ground, even in circles that had long shown a certain sureness of moral instinct. For much of the German nation, any effective defense the conscience might have had against the powers of hell had been destroyed – for example, by political murder (justified as “self-defense”) and by thoughtless openness to allowing a recurrence of war and civil war.

Today again, there is scarcely any real uneasiness about the injustice of mammon and property – an injustice that in fact kills love in all aspects of life. In the obvious confusion of conscience among people, it is not surprising to find a lack of restraint over covetous desires and brazen infidelities. This critical and turbulent state is bound to lead to destruction; ominous signs gather on all sides. Meanwhile, spiritual leaders explain the ever-increasing confusion in such bedazzling ways that no one feels uneasy.

In Christ, the conscience that used to be our enemy becomes our friend. Previously, it had to condemn our life; now it says yes to the new life given to us in Christ. Freed from all impurity through community with him, the human spirit accepts the assurance and certainty given in Jesus Christ. So the conscience, as Christ’s conscience, becomes a representative of God. The way of Jesus is love, agape. This kind of love is unique. It gives a very definite direction. It is a way, and this way is very clearly marked out. In the experience of God’s love, Jesus Christ leads us up to the loftiest peaks of willpower, clarity of recognition, and a strength of heart that is joy. He does not do this for our sake. He wants us to pass on the streams of this power of love that is poured into our hearts. These streams are meant to flood the earth, revealing God’s heart and establishing his glory.

Love gives up all possessions. Christ’s justice conducts no lawsuits. It does not carry on a middleman’s business or any business that is to the disadvantage of another. It foregoes all its own advantage, it sacrifices every privilege, and it never defends a right. Christ’s justice never sits on a jury, never deprives anyone of freedom, and never passes a death sentence. It knows no enemies and fights no one. It does not go to war with any nation or kill any human being.

And yet when this justice is at work, it is justice in its most active form, peace in its most energetic form, and constructiveness in its most effective form. The sum total of all we are commanded to do is to love: to love with a pure heart, a clear conscience, and a genuine faith. In order for perfect love to flow freely, Jesus showed the conscience the way of responsible community in God. This is the essential nature of his kingdom and his church.

Adapted from Inner Land, vol. 2, The Conscience (Walden, NY: Plough, 2019).

Article edited for length and clarity.