Summary: What is the conscience? How should Christians react to their conscience? What do we do with guilt, conviction from the Holy Spirit, and violating our conscience? In this post, I deal with all those questions and more.
In my last post, I talked about godly wisdom and how to make choices that honor God and give you godly success. In this post, I teach on the conscience and how to use it to glorify God.
Have you ever felt guilty for doing something you knew was wrong? The question is, how did you know it was wrong? The conscience is that gauge of what is right and wrong, or rather, it is the thing that convicts you if you do what’s wrong.
As disciples of Jesus, we need to understand the conscience and how to work with it. It is a great help to hearing the Holy Spirit. The conscience is an important judge of our character as we live in this world of sin. We have to be careful because we can ignore our conscience, and that may change the way it operates. Let’s get started.
What Is a Conscience?
Our conscience seems to be an important part of who we are. But what is it, and why it’s so important? Dictionary.com defines the conscience as our inner sense of what is right and wrong in our conduct and motives impelling us toward right action. It’s our gauge on moral actions.
When it refers to ethics, it can be seen as “The inner witness to moral responsibility or the inherent human ability or capacity to discern good and evil, right and wrong, as well as to sense guilt when moral codes are transgressed.”1 It deals with our understanding of the moral implications of our choices.
In Christian counseling, the conscience is the moral compass of the mind. “Consciences operate according to the standards that one accepts. If he does not have a biblically-informed conscience, his conscience will not operate as it should. Therefore, it is wrong under these circumstances to “let your conscience be your guide.” The Bible alone may take that place, and one’s conscience should be fortified by it to reason biblically. Nevertheless, it is always dangerous to act against one’s conscience.” 2
Your conscience is informed by whatever moral system you operate by. As such, your conscience can only cause guilt when you violate that moral system. In some cases, society decides your moral system. Christians operate off a biblical system of moral values.
I once argued with an atheist online about moral values. He scoffed at me because I “get my moral values from an ancient book.” When I asked him what he got his moral system off of, he told me he decided his moral values from well informed people around him. When I pointed out there is no difference between how we get our moral systems, he cussed me out and left the conversation.
If the conscience is a compass based off whatever moral system we choose to be held accountable to, the moral system we choose is extremely important. If you decide it doesn’t matter if you kill someone, your conscience will not affect your moral choices and actions.
Some Christian philosophers suggest that everyone has a conscience focused on general knowledge of God’s expectations in His moral law. However, as we will see from biblical evidence, a person can completely suppress morality from a divine Lawgiver.
Conscience in the Bible
Unlike our study on attitude in the Bible, there’s only one Hebrew word for conscience, and one Greek word. That makes it a lot easier for us to gain an understanding of how it is used. The Hebrew word used in the Old Testament for conscience has a range of “hindrance, offense, and stumbling block.”
You can see how the conscience is viewed in the Old Testament. Beyond these ideas of a hindrance, offense, or stumbling block, HALOT (the gold standard of Hebrew lexicons) offers that it can be understood as an opportunity for sin (Ezekiel 7:19; 18:30; 44:12). Further, it can be a reproach of one’s conscience (Isaiah 25:31), and a rock on which someone trips (Isaiah 8:14).
This word especially refers to stumbling. It has a physical meaning for stumbling, but is often used figuratively of a person to stumbles morally, leading to an opportunity for sin. So, the Hebrew word for conscience is a negative word. The conscience in the Old Testament is not something you want others talking about when referring to you. They are talking about your failure to walk straight.
Conscience appears 14 times in 14 versus in the Old Testament (Leviticus 19:14; 1 Samuel 25:31; Isaiah 8:14; 57: 14; Jeremiah 6:21; Ezekiel 3:20; 7:19; 14:3, 4, 7; 18:30; 21:20; 44:12; Psalm 119:165).
In the New Testament, the word for conscience is firmly fixed in the area of morality. The second meaning for conscience in BDAG (the gold standard for New Testament Greek lexicons) says it is inword faculty of distinguishing right and wrong. It is also that the attentiveness to obligation, or conscientiousness.
Paul uses this word the most. In the Corinthian letters, he especially refers to “the strong” and “the weak,” and what we call the matters of conscience. Paul says his conscience is clear (), using the conscience as a test for morality and rightness. In other New Testament writings, the idea of the conscience is a fixed attribute.
Conscience appears 30 times in 29 versus (Acts 23:1; 24:16; Romans 2:15; 9:1; 13:5; 1 Corinthians 8:7, 10, 12; 10:25, 27, 28, 29 ; 2 Corinthians 1:12; 4:2; 5:11; 1 Timothy 1:5, 19; 3:9; 4:2; 2 Timothy 1:3, 15; Hebrews 9:9, 14; 10:2, 22; 13:18; 1 Peter:2 19; 3:16, 21).
A Clearer Picture
After looking into the meetings and uses of conscience in the Bible, what can we take away and understand about the conscience, and how it can be a Christian one? The Greeks and Romans thought the conscience was a fixed part of the mind. The Hebrews don’t really talk about the conscience much.
The best way to understand the conscience is that it is a gauge, and then a judge, based on whatever morality system a person accepts. Your morality system could come from society, peer pressure, a system of rules and laws, or you may not subscribe to any system of morality. Whatever you accept as an acceptable system of laws to live by, your conscience will hold you accountable to that.
The conscience is effective at heaping guilt upon you if you violate the morale of the system you ascribe to. The Bible presents the conscience as something that can change. If you violate it enough, your conscience becomes so used to sin that it no longer convicts you. Paul refers to a seared conscience (1 Timothy 4:2) affected by insincere liars. A week conscience affects a person’s judgment.
Unlike the view of the Greeks and Romans, the conscience is not fixed. Its ability to convict a person of wrongdoing to draw that person back into the right changes through time. Paul described people who reject God as those who “suppress the truth about God” (Romans 11:18-20).
Suppressing the truth and feigning ignorance about God is the first step to destroying the conscience. Once you remove the divine Lawgiver, whatever morality system you want is far from the truth and law of God written on your heart.
It is best to have a conscience Based on two God’s law, convicting you when you do wrong according to God’s expectations. Your goal must be to glorify God in everything you say, think, and do. The Holy Spirit works with your conscience to convict you of sin in your life. You must have a clear and good conscience before God because He is your ultimate Judge.
Dealing with Guilt
Guilt is the reaction when you’re conscience convicts you of sin or doing wrong. We have guilt about what we do even after we have received forgiveness from God or others.
In the Old Testament, one of the offerings was a guilt or sin offering. Rest assured, Christian, Jesus is your guilt and sin offering. He died on the Cross to set you free from guilt about sin. However, if you sin after you have begun to follow Him, you will experience guilt again.
We have a great promise in 1 John 1:9 that if we confess our sin, Jesus is faithful and just to forgive us of all unrighteousness. My paraphrase: “When you confess your sins, Jesus will always be faithful and just to forgive you.” The problem is not Jesus’s waffling between forgiveness and holding a grudge against us. The problem is that we do not take our sin to the Lord and ask for His forgiveness.
Instead, we take His grace for granted. Go before Him often and confess what you’re conscience accuses you of, and receive His forgiveness. If your conscience still convicts you, you must accept this truth that Jesus has forgiven us. Do not allow your conscience to continue to buffet you with conviction when you have brought that sin before Jesus.
Violating Your Conscience
How often you violate your conscience depends on how sensitive it is to the morality system you accept. I would rather my conscience be sensitive to the possible violations and sins I committed against that system. For Christians, the morality system is Jesus’s teachings and commandments.
We stand convicted by the Holy Spirit for ignoring Him and not obeying His guidance. The Holy Spirit convicts us through our conscience. If your conscience convicts you as a Christian, the Holy Spirit is behind that conviction.
Only through obedience to the Holy Spirit and Jesus’s teaching and commands can a Christian live guilt-free. We must listen closely to a sensitive conscience before God. Violating the conscience creates a legalistic lifestyle. Seek to live according to the Holy Spirit’s guidance, and you will not violate your conscience.
Keys to a Godly Conscience
- Listen to the Holy Spirit. Do not give your conscience a reason to hound you with conviction, grief, and guilt.
- Decide with the Spirit your stance on matters of conscience. Every Christian has weak spots to temptation and fleshly desires from the life before Christ. Develop strategies with the Spirit to avoid and keep away from them.
- Have a sensitive conscience. Do not allow sin to make you calloused to God’s laws, Jesus’s teaching, and His commands. Live a life that agrees with your conscience.
- Don’t be legalistic. Rather than obeying the letter of the law, listen to the Spirit. The more you stick to the letter of the law, your conscience will convict you of every little thing. Trust God’s grace, but don’t abuse it.
- Confess your sins. Don’t try to get away with “little sins.” Run to Jesus’s open arms and enjoy His faithfulness to forgive and cleanse you.
Honor your conscience and make sure you do not violate it often. Make it sensitive to the Holy Spirit and you will never go wrong. Confess your sins and receive Jesus’s forgiveness.
Our conscience guides our decisions and actions. Now let’s turn to talk about the issues of Christian morality from the T Commandments.