In Hamlet, Shakespeare wrote, “Conscience does make cowards of us all.” How true! It doesn’t matter what your background is, what religious tradition you were brought up in, or whether you were raised in a nonreligious home. I can assure you that you have at times violated your conscience. Our conscience sits in judgment on all of our actions and says, “Aha! You have violated what you know to be right.”

Our conscience has the power to bless us or condemn us; it can drive us to do great ventures for God, or it can lead us to anger, sleepless nights, and an unending cycle of despair. This internal voice will not be satisfied with our rationalizations.

What is the conscience? The word itself comes from two words: con, which means “with,” and science, which means “knowledge.” Conscience is “knowledge along with us,” or more specifically, the knowledge we carry within us. The conscience is powerful.

There are three characteristics of the conscience that are important for our study.

First, conscience is universal. Every person has a conscience. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul argues that the Jews, who had the law of God and therefore know His will, and the Gentiles, who did not have the written law, have both violated God’s standards and stand guilty before Him. The Jews are convicted by God’s law, Paul says, while the Gentiles will be judged by their conscience:

When Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. Romans 2:14-16

The conscience is the rudimentary law of God written on every human heart.

I spoke with a woman who said she was comfortable with atheism. If God was there, He wasn’t there for her when she needed Him. Yet she did admit to guilt, twinges of regret, and the inner recognition that she had seriously misbehaved. She confessed some dirty laundry that she had to process and said she had no means to wipe her slate clean. “I know that when I face death,” she said, “I will begin to worry if there is ‘something on the other side.'”

Second, conscience can be conditioned. This feature of the human conscience can have both positive and negative effects. In an entirely different context, Paul talks about some Christians whose conscience prohibits them from doing something (such as eating meat that has been offered to idols), while other Christians’ consciences give them the freedom to do so (see Romans 14:1-4, 10-12).

So although the conscience is not always an infallible guide, it either approves or disapproves of the basic moral decisions we make. Almost universally the conscience witnesses with us that stealing, lying, and sexual immorality are wrong.

Third, conscience has tremendous power. It can haunt us day and night, and eventually destroy us.

I am friends with a Christian man whose mother checked into a psychiatric ward a number of times while he was growing up. When he was 22, his mother confessed to him that the man he thought was his father wasn’t his biological father after all. His father was actually a doctor in the community with whom she’d had an affair.

Imagine what this startling confession did to this young man. He struggled emotionally and spiritually, trying to come to terms with who he really was, and questioning his self-worth. After all, strictly speaking, he should not have been born.

Yet today he has an effective ministry and speaks in various churches with joy, challenging people to experience spiritual renewal. He is proof that your parental origin doesn’t have to stop you from enjoying a blessed life and making a positive impact. The key is to take advantage of the marvelous, incredible grace of God.

We shouldn’t be surprised that after his mother confessed her years of deception, she didn’t have to return to the psychiatric ward. At last she was at peace. I remember reading the words of a doctor who said, “I could dismiss half of my patients if I could just look them in the eye and give them the assurance that they are forgiven.”

The eminent psychiatrist Karl Menninger wrote a famous book entitled Whatever Became of Sin? in which he said:

The very word, “sin,” which seems to have disappeared, was a proud word. It was once a strong word, an ominous and serious word. … But the word went away. … Why? Doesn’t anyone sin anymore? Doesn’t anyone believe in sin?

Dr. Menninger was arguing that mental health and moral health are inseparably linked, so he insisted that agents of moral teaching—such as educators and parents—are just as necessary to a person’s well-being as the psychiatrist.

Of course, ultimately, only God can clear our conscience.

Grace is a game-changer

The issue before us is not the greatness of our sin—even if we think we have committed the greatest sin imaginable. “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20). Grace is a game-changer. Sin loses its power in the presence of God’s super-abounding grace.

Recently I read a remarkable book about a US Army chaplain named Henry Gerecke. He was a Lutheran pastor who joined the army during World War II. Because he spoke German, he found himself serving as chaplain to the cruel Nazi leaders who were on trial in Nuremberg, Germany, for their horrible war crimes. Incredibly, as least five of these men (and perhaps seven), most of whom were hanged for their crimes, came to saving faith in Jesus Christ as a result of the faithful witness of Chaplain Gerecke.

Grace isn’t fair! I thought as I read these stories of redemption. But the long arm of grace reaches out to people who clearly don’t deserve it. It reaches out to those who deserve hell; it reaches out to all of us!

“Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit” (Psalm 32:1-2).

Your conscience can be legally silenced. Let your invisible accuser drive you toward God and not away from Him. Let God find you.

Your past is not the final word.

Adapted from The Power of a Clear Conscience, copyright © 2016 by Erwin W. Lutzer. Used with permission of Harvest House Publishers.