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A Cauterized Conscience

Scripture Reading - 1 Timothy 4:1-5

Text: "Speaking lies in hypocrysy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron" (1 Timothy 4:2).

The passage of scripture before us was used by the Apostle Paul to warn believers in every age and dispensation of the dangers of heresy and hypocrisy. Those who are most inclined to overlook or neglect his warning are such as have "Their conscience seared with a hot iron." Without a proper understanding of this dangerous condition, we will be virtually defenseless in combating it within our personal lives. Because of the importance of this ancient warning, we shall now devote our time and energy to examine its significance in the age in which we live.

Anyone who departs from the truth of God and adheres to the doctrines of satan is in a dangerous situation. Yet there are many who do so even among professed Christians. Sin is rampant in our land and the reason is obvious, satan is having his way in the lives of the masses. There is widespread immortality manifest in adultery, fornication, homosexuality, alcohol and drug abuse; to list only a few. Paul referred to such sins as "works of the flesh" (Galatians 5:19). Since the Bible speaks so strongly in denouncing such actions, why are so many in the modern American churches engaged in such evil practices? Some people are able to sit under biblical preaching, then engage in sinful practices with little or no remorse. How can such behavior be explained? Paul did a grand job in giving an explanation when he described the seared conscience. Because their conscience has been seared with a hot iron, they do not feel the pains of conviction which might otherwise bring about repentance.

When we face the reality of this problem we begin to also recognize the magnitude of it. The problem is magnified because satan has convinced people to let their conscience be their guide. In theory the idea of being guided by the conscience may seem good, but there are some enormous difficulties and dangers in that system of thought; which shall be discussed later in the sermon. Before we can deal with those problems, we must first take a careful look at the conscience from a biblical perspective.

The Bible has a great deal to say about the conscience because God has always recognized the important role it plays in human behavior. However, the word "conscience" is not found at all in the Old Testament, it is strictly a New Testament word. In the Greek it seems to suggest the idea of knowing oneself. The conscience has also been called "co-knowledge" which is used to describe a second awareness. The first or primary awareness is in the act of doing, saying or thinking something. Following that is the secondary awareness (conscience) by which we internally judge whether it was good or evil. This second awareness or self-judging may be referred to as our conscience and by it we establish our own sense of morality. Therefore, there is a conscience in all of us. It is an involuntary action. Just as our lungs function in breathing, our heart in the circulation of blood and our stomach in the digestive process, all without a thought given to doing it; even so, our conscience becomes active or remains dormant, set to function automatically as an involuntary action. The problem then is not because some people have a conscience, while other do not. That which Paul declared was the fact that some people have altered their conscience so that it does not function as it should. In much the same way that you lower the setting on a thermostat so that the furnace will not run as often, some have altered their conscience so that it will not have the same frequency of operation that it once did.

There are three basic ways that the altering of normal conscience functions may occur. The first has already been touched upon with the thermostat illustration. The conscience is reset as the person becomes accustomed to sin. Many people who experience this problem have been brought up in Christian homes. Often godly parents carried them to church, taught them to pray and set before the child a good example of Christian character. Because the Bible had an influence on the family, high standards were set for every person in the home, adults and children alike. While the children were growing, their conscience was being set to activate the alarm at even the minor faults. There needs to be more parents and homes in which the conscience is set by Bible teaching.

Sometime children brought up in such homes, continue to be guided by an active conscience. They have an acute awareness of the presence of sin, both in themselves and in the world around them. Thank God, many who are brought up in Christian homes remain true to their Christian faith and live by Christian values. Unfortunately, that is not true in every case. Even in the Bible we find accounts of good people whose children went astray. Perhaps you know of some families within your community where that has happened. Some of you might have experienced this heart rending situation within your own family. If so, may God comfort you and give the needed grace to help.

In such cases, the conscience of the wayward child has been reset. Like a furnace thermostat, the parents had set it to keep the children warm in their hearts toward God. Along came someone else and reset their conscience so that it let them grow cold toward the church and God. Perhaps they came under the influence of their peers and accepted a new set of values for their life. It might be that satan used their weaknesses or lusts to grasp a strong hold and reset their conscience; but in either case the conscience was altered and did not function as it should.

The second reason that a person's conscience might not properly function is that it was never set right. Just as there are people who have deformed members of their body, there are others whose mind and conscience is deformed. It is not normal in its function, because it has never been normally set. Unlike those whose conscience has been reset, some people have never had their conscience properly set. All of us have seen the sad situation of children brought up by wicked parents. Because the parents don't pray or attend church or read the Bible, the children are not taught to do so. When the only thing that children hear from their parents is profanity, or cursing and see the example or immorality or intoxication; what can they be expected to do but the same. An instance of what I have described was shared with me by a school teacher. She had a boy who though rather young in age, constantly cursed and took God's name in vain during his conversation. One day she kept him after school and talked to him about the problem of his profane conversation. The boy did better after the teacher told him that his speech was not right. He did not know it was wrong to take God's name in vain, much of what he heard at home was profanity. He had learned to talk that way from his parents so he felt no remorse for his conscience had not been properly set in the beginning. Imagine the many handicaps of such an upbringing. A deformed conscience is only one difficulty such a person must overcome. Some people never have a sense of morality and since their conscience was never properly set, it does not sound a warning at the presence of sin. Even the fine jeweled watch that keeps almost perfect time, may keep good time an hour wrong, if it was set an hour wrong to start with. Those whose conscience was set wrong to start with, hopefully will come to the time when their conscience can be reset to the right values. By God's grace, many are able to rise above such upbringing, for we can all attest to the fact that we have known some who did. This is the reverse of the first problem, but those who love God, who are born of His Spirit and who learn from His Word; can develop a good conscience that helps keep them on the straight and narrow way.

The third and final problem that I shall discuss with regard to the conscience is the one that Paul wrote about in our text. This problem also affects a great many people. The condition that Paul described is similar in many ways to the first problem which was discussed. That problem was a resetting of a good conscience, so that it did not alert the person to sin. What Paul describes is different, but the consequences are basically the same as the first problem. Perhaps the reason that he called our attention to this situation is due to the fact that it may be more widespread in the church than either of the other problems previously outlined. If a person once had a good conscience and reset it to become a bad one, they have likely already left the church and gone after the worldly ways. Those who had their conscience set evil and have not yet reset it to become a good conscience, have not likely entered the church as yet. However, when people attend church, participate in its activities, profess to love Jesus and then live in direct violation of the teachings of the Bible with no evident conviction and guilt - they probably have a conscience that has been seared with a hot iron.

Such people may have either a good or bad background. Some may have in the past taken their cross and made a public profession of faith in Jesus as the Son of God. They may have listened to Bible teachings and even enjoyed the benefits of Christian fellowship. Yet they persist in holding onto some sinful practice and seem unaware of its evil. Perhaps some felt the tugging of their conscience for a while, yet they now are adamantly set to pursue their sin. If anyone calls it to their attention they quickly make it known that they see no problem with the practice. Indeed their conscience must be seared with a hot iron.

Two things seem to be suggested by the words of Paul with regard to the hot iron. First, in ancient times criminals were often branded with a glowing hot iron, just as a mark would be burned in the hide of cattle. A letter or symbol which identified the crime was burned into the flesh of the offender so that as long as he lived, it would be evident to all who met him that he had been guilty of a crime. The second idea is one that is used even in our day by the medical profession and it is called cauterization. During some types of surgery there is profuse bleeding and so the surgeon cauterizes or burns the arteries to seal them. In either or both cases, the burning of the hot instrument destroys the sensitivity of the nerve endings. Because the nerve endings are damaged there is a lack of feeling experienced in those areas. It is this lack of feeling which characterizes scar tissue, that is being used to describe how the conscience of some become so insensitive to sin. Scar tissue from a burn does not have as much feeling as normal tissue and so when the conscience has been seared with a hot iron, it loses the sensitivity of feeling that would be experienced with a normal conscience.

Paul described many people when he said, "Who being past feeling have given themselves over unto lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness" (Ephesians 4:19). It is apparent that he was talking about those who do not know God and are ignorant of His laws. Yet the expression "past feeling" does seem an apt description of all who have their conscience seared with a hot iron and who have lost their sensitivity to the presence of sins. Whether he has reference to people who do not know God or those who once embraced the faith and departed from it, both sin and feel no remorse. It is because of a cauterized conscience that people turn from the teachings of God and substitute them with the attitudes of men. Have you known such a person? Have you wondered how they could sit and hear the Word and then govern their lives by the laws of society? Even though they may not have yet forsaken God, they have fallen away from some of His ways. If only they felt conviction for their sin or we could help them see the error of their way! James 5:19-20 says, "Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins." This is difficult, if not impossible to achieve with regard to those who have a cauterized conscience.

An Indian once described the problem addressed by Paul. He said the conscience was like a three cornered object inside of him. When he did wrong, it turned and the corners hurt. If he persisted in the wrong, the object would turn so much that it would wear off the corners and would no longer hurt. The hurting has stopped for those who have a cauterized conscience. The guilt has faded and the injury has scared over as if it had been burned with a hot iron. Because feelings can be lost and the conscience can be cauterized by satan, we must be careful not to govern our lives by our conscience. The only accurate standard and one that does not rely on feelings, is the pure word of God. In the last verse of our Scripture reading (1 Timothy 4:5), Paul spoke of that which is sanctified by the word of God and prayer. We all need to spend more time in the word and pray for divine guidance as we do so. When we are guided by divine truth, not conscience; we will be able to refrain from doing those things which defile us. The Psalmist asked, "Wherewith all shall a young man cleanse his way? by taking heed thereto according to thy word" (Psalm 119:9). He not only posed the question, he also presented the answer; declaring that it is not our conscience which we should follow, but rather God's word. His personal testimony was "Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee" (Psalm 119:11). The conscience may fail to tell us when we do wrong, but if we are looking to the scriptures for guidance, they will condemn every sin and condone every act of righteousness.

Jesus said, "... It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God" (Matthew 4:4). Therefore, "Let us search and try our ways, and turn again to the Lord" (Lamentations 3:40). Have you relied on your conscience for guidance only to now discover that you have turned from God? If so, turn again to God and measure your life by the scriptures. As we purify ourselves, living by the Bible; then perhaps Jesus will also say to us, "Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken to you" (John 15:3). His word can keep us from evil, even when our conscience might not. Remember this, your conscience is like the brakes on your automobile. They will serve you well if kept in good working order, but if not they can be dangerous. Therefore, use the word of God to set or reset your conscience, then you will have feelings that will help you recognize when you have gone astray. But don't rely altogether on the conscience, even when you have set it properly, for satan and the world will be working to reset it again to their standard.

God designed the conscience to convict us of our sins. It did that for the brothers of Joseph (Gen. 42:21) as well as those who brought the adulterous women before Jesus (John 8:9). But God does not just intend that the conscience convicts us of sin, but that a good conscience may encourage us when we do right (Hebrews 13:18). There is joy in a good conscience, "For our rejoicing is this, the testimony of our conscience, that in simplicity and godly sincerety, not with fleshy wisdom, but by the grace of God, we have had our conversation in the world, and more abundantly to you-ward" (2 Corinthians 1:12).

Abraham Lincoln said, "I desire to conduct the affairs of this administration that if at the end, when I come to lay down the reins of power, I have lost every other friend on earth, I shall at least have one friend left, and that friend shall be down inside me." As we live our final days on the shores this side of death, let us so live that we may keep our conscience in harmony with God's will. If we fail to do so, we will not only live with sin, but die with a defiled conscience. Yet how much sweeter shall be our passing if we have a good conscience toward God.

Let me leave you with a final word of warning: Scar tissue is difficult to remove. It is much easier never to allow our conscience to be seared with a hot iron, than it will be to remove the scar tissue which results. May you keep your conscience set right through a diligent study of Godís word. Search the scriptures daily as did the early Berean saints (Acts 17:11). Don't let your conscience be your guide, look to Jesus as your example (John 13:15) and pattern, then the Lord will be the guide for your conscience. To have the flesh seared with a hot iron is painful at first, but gradually the pain diminishes and the feeling dies - don't let that happen to your conscience. If it has already happened, then pray for grace to overcome it; for the glory of God.

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This page last updated on June 17, 2014