Last time I began talking about the conscience. You may have noticed that while I said I was going to give a biblical talk and that the Bible has a lot to say, I didn’t actually reference the Bible at all. The reason is this: the Bible doesn’t actually define the conscience.
That’s not at all strange; the Bible uses many words that it never defines because its original readers were expected to know them. This is one reason why it’s important to study the original languages, or at least to have trustworthy people you can rely on to do this for you. (Not everyone should take up the languages. You may be off the hook!)
So to define the conscience, I took the scholarly dictionary definitions of the Greek term and briefly fleshed out the distinctions with a biblical theology of morality and human nature.
Now we turn to the conscience in action in Scripture, specifically looking at two things the conscience does: condemning and confirming. It’s that inaudible voice in your heart that tells you sometimes “you’ve fallen short of the mark,” and others “you’ve done as you should.”
No one has to tell you about these feelings. We all know them! The confirming bit is nice, but the condemning not so much. And if we believe both these senses are from God, you might wonder why would God give you a feeling of condemnation? Is it to punish you?
Look at what Paul says in Romans 2:12–16:
For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For 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. (Rom 2:12-16 ESV)
Here Paul says that we are all in the same boat: we are going to be judged and perish if we fall short. Some people have the law (that is, the commandments of the Old Testament), and some don’t. But access is not what God is judging here; it’s actions.
Those who have the law are expected to use it as a help to do what is right. But those who do not have the law are not therefore helpless. They still have the conscience. They still have help! It’s there to guide us, to give us help to know how to act.
The purpose of the conscience is to change your behavior.
Paul’s greater point here is that we all stand condemned, either by the law or by our conscience. And what that implies is this: the conscience—even a fallen, sinful conscience—is accurate enough to give you trustworthy guidance. When we fail to listen to it, it testifies against us.
In the absence of a word from God, the word from your soul will hold you accountable.
And so as a Christian, one of the things we see is that we are by no means freed from this accountability. Even though we have the Bible and the Holy Spirit, the conscience hasn’t been replaced! This is why over and over again we see that part of the Christian walk is keeping a good conscience.
In Acts 24, Paul writes:
So I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man. (Act 24:16 ESV)
Remember the Greatest Commandment? Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And the second greatest, the Golden Rule? Love your neighbor as yourself. What’s one clue that you’re keeping these commandments?
You guessed it. Your conscience.
A clear conscience means of course one that does not condemn you. (And not because you’ve turned it off. More on that in a future post.) Another way of talking about the same concept is a good conscience. For example, consider what Paul says to Timothy:
The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. (1Ti 1:5 ESV)
In context, he contrasts this example with people who would rather pursue vain discussions, teaching without actually living out their faith. I’m reminded of Romans 13:10, where Paul says that love does no harm to its neighbor, therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
If this is the love Paul has in mind, then he tells us right here where that comes from: a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith. If you want to fulfill what John Wesley called “the royal law of love,” (cf. James 2:8), a good conscience is crucial. You need to live in a way that doesn’t cause your conscience to condemn you.
One last example, which I think helps sum things up. This time it’s from Hebrews:
Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things. (Heb 13:18 ESV)
What does it mean to pursue a clear conscience? To try and act honorably in all things.
Let me be clear: being a Christian means far more than just listening to your conscience—but it doesn’t mean less. If you call yourself a follower of Christ, you must do whatever you can to obey your conscience, because if you can do that it will help you love others as you should.
Next time I want to take a moment and address how we should respond to the condemnation we sometimes feel in our hearts. After you feel that pang of guilt, what do you do?