The case of career criminal Julian Imperial is an example of the remarkable power of the human conscience, assisted by God's grace. In 1977, Mr. Imperial and an accomplice broke into the southern California home of 73-year-old Mary Stein and beat her to death with a piece of wood. As the two mercilessly bludgeoned the helpless lady, she moaned her dying words, "Oh Lord, I'm coming home."
That simple sentence, spoken by Mary Stein on the threshold of eternity, haunted Mr. Imperial, and when he became a Christian a year after the murder he was stricken with a sense of guilt, shame, and responsibility. Those feelings endured and intensified over 17 years. Although the police were not actively considering him a suspect in the case-now 17 years old-Mr. Imperial still felt impelled to tell the truth. The weight of his conscience was no longer bearable to the Mr. Imperial, the new creation. In 1994 he freely turned himself in to authorities, admitting his involvement in Mary Stein's murder. He is in prison today, but enjoys an inner freedom he never would have known had he not yielded to his conscience.
Perhaps one of the greatest compliments anyone can receive is to be called "a man of conscience." Certainly this is true for the Bible-believing Christian, because it indicates he is devoted, above all else, to the Lord who saved him. To be completely inner-directed by a conscience formed through God's word is the essence of Christian maturity. To act, in whatever circumstance, as a God-pleaser and not a selfish man-pleaser is to attain the "whole measure of the fullness of Christ" (Ephesians 4:13).
How do we become a moral bond-servant to Christ? The world tells us compromise and situation ethics are the better parts of wisdom. "Flexibility," it's called, and it's a sure sign of tolerance and understanding. Today's politically correct arbiters of taste and civility claim a strict conscience and firm standards are indications one is "uptight" and morally retrograde. That can't be responsible Christianity, say these secular sages.
But they know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. At least 13 times the New Testament speaks of having a "clear," "good" or "clean" conscience. Conscience is a God-given inner instrument, a natural moral compass.
Nurtured by the Scriptures, conscience points us toward the center of God's will for our lives. When we allow ourselves to be led by our biblically informed conscience, it gets stronger, just as a muscle does when it is exercised. As our conscience grows more powerful, its authority over our behavior becomes more complete, and we gradually, perhaps imperceptibly, form habits of godly conduct that come to govern our lives. After practicing these habits for a time we reflexively use them, no longer having to struggle with temptations to compromise the counsel of conscience.
This is how Julian Imperial grew to the point of being able to publicly confess his crime. But if we shun and ignore our conscience, it becomes weak and insensitive, oblivious even to the sharpest pangs of guilt.
I remember when I was 16 my parents went away for a weekend, leaving me home alone to manage myself. As I watched them drive away, I realized I could do anything I wanted to do while they were gone.
It seemed that as their car got smaller and smaller in the distance, my heart beat faster and faster with anticipation. Visions of wild parties flashed before me. But as I went back inside and looked around the house, I saw there were dirty dishes to be washed, important homework to be done, a hungry dog to be fed, and an overgrown lawn to be mowed.
Suddenly my independence didn't seem so glamorous. The sense of obligation my parents had instilled within me automatically asserted itself, and I behaved as though they were home.
So it is with the Christian walk: Our sense of conscience, if we have allowed it to gain sway over us and if we have integrated it into our processes of thought, naturally leads us to moral consistency and Christian faithfulness, even if nobody is watching us.
Of course, the eyes of our loving Father are always upon us, and the joy we know he takes in seeing his children honor him is our ultimate reward. For we know it is at great price that we have been redeemed.