On the Law of God

I.
Conscience
And Moral Responsibility

OF ALL the beings inhabiting the entire earth, only man has an understanding of morality. Every person is aware that the actions of man are either good or bad, kind or evil, morally positive or morally negative (immoral). By these concepts of morality, man immeasurably differs from all animals. Animals behave as is characteristic of them by nature, or else if they have been trained, in the way they are taught. But they have no concept of morality and immorality and so their behaviour cannot be examined from the point of view of moral understanding.

By what means does one distinguish between the morally good and the morally bad? This differentiation is made by means of a special moral law given to man by God. And this moral law, this voice of God in man’s soul, we feel in the depth of our consciousness and it is called conscience. This conscience is the basis of morality common to man. A man who has never listened to his conscience, but stifled it, suppressed its voice with falseness and the darkness of stubborn sin, is often called unconscionable. The word of God refers to such stubborn sinners as people with a seared conscience. Their spiritual condition is extremely dangerous and can be ruinous for the soul.

When a person listens to the voice of his conscience, he sees that this conscience speaks in him, first of all, as a judge – strict and incorruptible, evaluating all the actions and experiences of a person. It often happens that some given action is advantageous to a person or has elicited approval from other people, but in the depth of the soul this person hears the voice of conscience, “This is not good, this is a sin.”

In a tight bond with this (action of judging), conscience also acts in man’s soul as a legislator. All those moral demands which confront a man’s soul in all his conscious actions (e.g., be just, do not steal, etc.) are norms, demands, enjoinments of this very conscience. And its voice teaches us how one must and must not behave. Finally, conscience also acts in man as a rewarder. This happens when we, having acted well, experience peace and calm in the souls and vice-verse, after having sinned, we experience reproaches of the conscience. These reproaches of the conscience sometimes pass over into terrible mental pain and torment, and can lead a person to despair or to a loss of mental balance if he does not restore peace and calmness in the conscience through deep and sincere repentance.

It is self-evident that man bears a moral responsibility only for those actions which he commits, firstly in a conscious condition and secondly being free in the carrying out of the actions. Only then can moral imputation be applied to these actions and then do they impute a man either guilt, praise or judgment. On the other hand, people not recognizing the character of their actions (children, those deprived of reason, etc.) or those who are forced against their will to commit such actions, do not bear responsibility for their actions. In the epoch of persecution against Christianity, the pagan tormentors often placed incense on the hands of martyrs and then held their hands over the fire burning on their altar. The torturers supposed that the martyrs would not endure the fire and would jerk their hands away, thus dropping the incense into the fire. In fact, these confessors of the faith were usually so firm in spirit that they preferred to burn their hands and not drop the incense; but even if they had dropped it, who would charge that they brought sacrifice to the idol? On the other hand, a drunkard could not be held as free of responsibility since he began to become drunk while still in a normal and sober condition, knowing very well the consequence of being drunk. Thus, in certain northern European states, a person who commits a crime while in a drunken condition is doubly punished, both for having become drunk and for the crime itself.

That the moral law must be acknowledged as innate to people, that is, fixed in the very nature of man, is indisputable. For this is bespoken by the undoubted universality in mankind of a concept of morality. Of course, only the most basic moral requirements can be accounted as innate, a moral instinct of a sort, but not revealed and clear moral understandings and concepts. Since clear moral understandings and concepts develop in man in part through up-bringing and influence from preceding generations, most of all on the basis of religious awareness. Therefore, coarse heathens have moral norms lower, coarser, more malformed than Christians who know and believe in the True God Who placed the moral law into man’s soul, and Who, through this law, guides all of his life and activity.

STUDY GUIDE

Answer the following sentences in complete thoughts.

1. What does man have that no other creature on earth has?

2. What does morality and immorality mean?

3. What is moral law?

4. What is your conscience?

5. What happens when you don’t listen to your conscience?

6. How are some of the ways the conscience acts?

7. What does impute mean?

8. Who do not bear the responsibility for their conscience?

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Translated by Archbishop Lazar Puhalo - used with permission - all rights reserved.


Archbishop Gregory
Dormition Skete
P.O. Box 3177
Buena Vista, CO 81211-3177
USA
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