Psalm 51:17 speaks of a contrite heart, and Isaiah 57:15 and 66:2 speak of a contrite spirit. In what inner part are we contrite? To be contrite is to exercise our conscience. Both the contrite heart and the contrite spirit are related to the conscience. When we exercise our conscience to confess our sins, our heart is contrite and our spirit is also contrite. As we have seen, repentance is something in the mind; in Greek repentance means “a change of mind.” We have to have a change in mind and turn our mind to the Lord. Then after we repent, our confession follows. Whereas repentance is in our mind, confession is a matter of our conscience. Therefore, when we confess, we have both a contrite heart and a contrite spirit, because the conscience is a part both of the heart and of the spirit.
According to the Scriptures, the Lord comes into our spirit, but our spirit is enclosed within our heart. The heart is the gateway—the entrance and exit—of the spirit. Our heart must be open to the Lord in order for Him to come into our spirit. How can we open our heart? We must repent and continue to repent in order to exercise our conscience. Not only did we need to repent at the time we heard the gospel, but even after we are saved, we have to repent continually. In the seven epistles in Revelation 2 and 3 the Lord demands that we repent (2:5, 16; 3:3, 19). To repent is to turn our mind, which is one door of the gateway of our heart. When we turn our mind and our mind is open, our confession follows. This is the exercise and opening of the conscience. Then when we have true repentance and real confession, our emotion and will follow to make a decision for the Lord. In this way the whole heart is exercised and open, and the Lord comes in through our heart into our spirit.
However, many times after we are saved, we close our heart again and imprison the Lord in our spirit. Therefore, we must repent again. We must exercise to turn our mind even more and then follow to exercise our conscience by confessing. Then our emotion will be for the Lord, and our will follows to make a decision for the Lord. In this way the entire heart opens, and the way is paved for the Spirit to come in to fill us in our spirit. This shows us that the conscience is a very central matter, having very much to do with the heart and the spirit.
According to the New Testament, a Christian’s conscience is very important. The apostle Paul said that he exercised himself to always have a conscience without offense toward God and men (Acts 24:16). He lived in a good conscience before God all the time (23:1). He also said that the Christian life is a life of love out of a pure heart and out of a good conscience and out of unfeigned faith (1 Tim. 1:5). Both love and faith depend on a pure conscience. Without a pure conscience it is hard to have love and faith. Moreover, he said that if we thrust away a good conscience, we will become shipwrecked regarding the faith (v. 19). By this we can see how important the conscience is.
Before the fall man lived in the presence of God and was directly under the government of God, so there was no need for the conscience. After the fall, however, man fell out of the presence of God into himself, and in losing the presence of God, he lost the government of God Himself. Therefore, man began to need his conscience as a government, a control. This is why the conscience came into function so manifestly after the fall. By the fall the conscience was developed very much, and it stepped in to govern human beings. This is why Bible students say that after the fall the second dispensation, the dispensation of the conscience, began. After the fall man was under the control, the government, the rule, of the conscience. This was a self-government.
This, however, was not the end of the fall of man. Following this was a second step, in which man fell from self-government. Genesis 9:6 says, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, / By man shall his blood be shed.” This indicates that since man was lawless, God put man under human government. After the second fall humans needed to be governed by others. Consider today’s Los Angeles; if we were to take the police and courts away, what kind of city would this be? The entire fallen race of man is under human government. In school and at home there is a human government. I am ashamed to say that many in the church today still need a kind of human government. This is because man has fallen again and again.
After the third dispensation, the dispensation of human government, came the dispensation of promise. God promised to come in to deliver people back. At that time, however, men could not understand what God meant by His promise, so He gave them the law. Therefore, this was the dispensation of the law, which proved to man how much he needed God’s salvation. After this came the dispensation of grace. Grace came to fulfill the promise.
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