The conscience is that inner voice that lets us know whether we are walking in the will of God or whether we have departed from it. When Paul said, “I thank God, whom I serve with a clear conscience” (2 Tim. 1:3), he was saying that he had an awareness that he was doing God’s will. This awareness brought Paul great comfort. Some people were violently opposed to Paul. They considered him a lawbreaker and a blasphemer. But Paul’s conscience convinced him that he was doing the right thing in the eyes of the Lord. “We are sure that we have a good conscience” (Heb. 13:18).
The word conscience appears about 30 times in the New Testament, and in the original Greek (suneidesis) it is made up of two words that loosely translate as “with knowledge.” Your conscience knows when you have crossed the line and missed the mark. How does it know? From where does your conscience acquire the knowledge of right and wrong? For some, this knowledge is defined by cultural norms. For others, it may come from some religious code such as the Law of Moses. But ultimately any definition of right and wrong is grounded in the character of God. God alone defines what is good and it is his sense of morality that is hardwired into creation.
Conscience as a cultural construct
Is it acceptable to eat meat that has been offered to idols? This was one of the thorny questions that divided the New Testament church. In the Jerusalem church, James simply said “Don’t eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols” (Acts 15:29). But that was easy for him to say. In Jerusalem, meat was never sacrificed to idols.
A Jewish believer would have nothing to do with idol meat, but a Gentile believer had been eating it all of his life. Should he stop? Should he alienate his neighbors by asking questions about their meals? The Apostle Paul’s answer was, “It’s a matter of conscience” (e.g., 1 Cor. 10:25).
Say you lived in a city like Corinth and you wanted to purchase meat from the market. If you learned that the meat had been left over from a temple sacrifice, would you still buy it? What if you were invited for a private meal with unbelievers? Would you ask questions about where the meat came from? Paul was clear that we should have nothing to do with pagan festivals (1 Cor. 10:14, 20), but he was also well acquainted with the realities of living in an idol-worshiping culture. “If your conscience is going to be troubled, don’t ask questions about where the meat comes from” (see 1 Cor. 10:25). “And if an unbeliever cooks you a nice meal, don’t ask questions about that either. Just enjoy the meal” (see 1 Cor.10:27).
Maybe your conscience isn’t troubled at all. Maybe you share Paul’s view that God doesn’t really care what we eat (see 1 Cor. 8:8). If so, eat with gusto. But understand that not everyone shares your revelation. For some people, eating meat of dubious origin will violate their conscience and cause them to stumble (1 Cor. 8:7). If you flaunt your freedom in front of such people, you’re not acting in love (see 1 Cor. 8:9–13). And loving others is the bottom line, because that is the will of God for everyone everywhere, regardless of culture.
That was then; this is now. The modern church is divided on a host of issues including tattoos, alcohol, women in leadership, dancing, watching Disney, the length of skirts, the length of hair, cosmetics, Monty Python movies, Dungeons and Dragons – you name it. What is acceptable to you may not be acceptable to someone else because these are matters of conscience. Your conscience decides when you have crossed the line, and that line will be different for different people in different denominations. If my conscience says I am free to drink but your conscience says drinking is a sin, then my conscience will not let me flaunt my freedom in front of you.
Conscience as a law-giver
People who live under the law have a conscience that is like an internal judge reminding them of the rules for right and wrong. The law-based conscience is a powerful constraint on behavior. Break the rules and your conscience will accuse you of being a sinner and it will pound you with guilt and condemnation.
When Jesus defended the woman caught in adultery from the men who sought to stone her, he appealed to their consciences. “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:8).
Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last. (John 8:9a, NKJV)
If these had been ordinary men, Jesus might have said “Have mercy on this daughter of Abraham.” But these were religious men who were intolerant of the sins of others. In their law-loving eyes, this woman had to be punished. Jesus did not argue with them; he simply prodded their consciences. “Are you much different from this sinner?” And their highly-developed consciences did the rest. The little judge inside their heads condemned these men as sinners and hypocrites.
The conscience is a merciless judge of all who live under the law and this is why religious people often battle with truckloads of guilt. Since none of us is perfect, there is always something for the conscience to condemn. “You haven’t prayed enough, done enough, given enough.” Even non-religious people feel this guilt when they live under some sort of code. “I’m a failure. I’m not doing what an ideal parent/spouse/student is supposed to do.” But we were never meant to live under rules or be led by law; we were meant live under grace and be led by the spirit. When we do that, the conscience plays a completely different role.
Conscience as a tool of the spirit
A healthy conscience is not one that hammers you with the law or one that is subject to society’s definitions of right and wrong. A healthy conscience is one that is in tune with the Holy Spirit. The law is a shadow, but the Spirit of Christ is the true Guide by which we live.
I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit. (Romans 9:1)
The conscience makes judgments based on knowledge, and the best source of knowledge is the Spirit of Truth. When the Holy Spirit bears witness with our spirits that this is the way to go, and your conscience heeds this instruction, it will not matter what anybody else says. You will be convinced in your conscience that “God has said it, I believe it, and that settles it.”
Paul, looking intently at the Council, said, “Brethren, I have lived my life with a perfectly good conscience before God up to this day.” (Acts 23:1)
Paul was able to stand before the murderous men of the Sanhedrin because his conscience was fully submitted to the leading of the Holy Spirit. There was nothing they could say that could shake his confidence before God.
Sometimes we receive a conviction in our conscience that our minds cannot understand. “I sense God is leading me this way and I don’t know why. It doesn’t seem the smart thing to do.” In those moments the conscience is an invaluable aid to our faith. “But I’m convinced this is from the Lord so I will do it.” On other occasions our conscience will react negatively to something that seems, to all outward appearances, a good thing. “Although your offer is attractive, I don’t have a peace about this. I will have to pass.” Our reasoning minds may be confounded by what our conscience is telling us, but wisdom is proved right by her actions.
When Paul told Felix “I do my best to maintain a blameless conscience before both God and men” (Acts 24:16), he meant that he lived in submission to the good will of God. And when Paul spoke of the Gentiles having a law written in their hearts, “their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them,” (Rom 2:15), he meant that the same God who gave the Law to the Jews, taught all of us how to live in accordance with his will.
When we rebel against God, an inner alarm goes off alerting us that we are going the wrong way. This alarm keeps ringing until we either turn back in repentance or we harden our hearts to the things of God. Those who refuse to heed the alarm and who embrace deception eventually sear their own consciences (1 Tim. 4:2). Their consciences become useless (Tit. 1:15). The alarm that might have saved them from disaster is now silent and they are truly lost.
What if your conscience condemns you?
Many of us struggle with guilt. We feel guilty for things we did do and things we didn’t do. When we do well we feel guilty for not doing better. And when we fail, guilt pounds us. Worst of all, guilt never goes away. Like an alarm that won’t switch off, guilt is the soundtrack to our lives. Happily, there is a cure:
Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus… let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. (Heb. 10:19–22).
The only cure for a guilty conscience is the cleansing blood of Jesus (Heb. 9:14). Since the cross is God’s cure for sin, it is also the cure for guilt. Do you battle with guilt? Look to the cross. All your sins and failings are there.
Under law, the best of us is justly charged guilty of sin. But under grace, the worst of us is charged righteous on account of Jesus (see 2 Cor. 5:21). This is one of the most profound revelations of grace yet many miss it. They say, “I know I am righteous and justified but I feel guilty.” Connect the dots. If you are righteous and justified, you cannot be guilty.
“I haven’t done enough for the Lord. I have let him down.” A guilty feeling is a symptom of unbelief in the goodness of God. Deal with it. Take that feeling and make it bow to the obedience of Christ. If you’re in the habit of speaking the faithless language of guilt, learn the new language of God’s love and grace.
“But what if I sin?” When you sin, the accuser will seek to bring a case against you, and in the eyes of the law, he has a good case! However, the issue is not whether you have stumbled but whether Jesus has been raised to life for our justification (see Rom. 4:25). If Christ has been raised then you have been justified. Case dismissed.
Holding to your good conscience
This command I entrust to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you fight the good fight, keeping faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith. (1 Tim. 1:18–19).
We are exhorted to keep the faith and hold onto a good conscience. These two things are connected. If you reject or cast away a good conscience your faith will be shipwrecked.
Sometimes we battle condemnation in the form of self-criticism or self-doubt. “I’m a failure. I’ve messed up. God will never accept me.” When that happens, we need to remind ourselves that “God is greater than our heart and knows all things” (1 John 3:20). Our heavenly Father knows every dumb thing you’ve done and every dumb thing you’re going to do, and knowing all this he still loves you and calls you “Beloved” (1 John 2:7). There is nothing you can do to make the Father love you any more, and nothing you can do to make him love you any less. Knowing this fills you with confidence (1 John 3:21) and helps to silence the inner critic.
Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God. (1 John 3:21)
You can choose to live under condemnation or confidence. The way to be free from a condemning conscience is to assure your heart that God justifies you, he is for you, and he loves you no matter what. Nothing can separate you from his love (Rom. 8:38–39).
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