People use the phrase, “Get a conscience” all the time. They usually refer to people they think are morally base. These are people who don’t make the right moral decisions as far as they are concerned. It’s usually phrase we used for criminals.
But everyone already has one. It’s one of those things we develop early on in life. What is a conscience? And how does it help us with morality?
Conscience is tied to the mind. It gives us the ability to discern whether we are following the moral frameworks we have agreed upon. As we take a look at the human conscience, I am discussing it from a theological point of view, not a psychological or sociological one.
In the Garden
Our discussion of conscience in the Bible starts under a tree with a piece of fruit. God told Adam and Eve they can eat a family tree in the Garden of Eden except for the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
With so many choices in front of them, the serpent drew them to the one place they should never be. The Bible doesn’t mention any curiosity about God’s rule or the tree before Genesis 3. And we don’t know how long they were in the garden before this event.
Taken on face value, this tree may have represented the knowledge of morality, the ability to choose what is good over what is evil. Before this moment as far as we know, Adam and Eve had no concept of evil. Only good as mentioned by God up to this point when he created everything.
But then this fateful day happened. When Eve examined the tree and its fruit before she ate it, she said it seemed like any of the other fruit in the garden (Genesis 3:6). This shows one of the reasons why we should not be the arbitrators of morality. She couldn’t even see the dangers God foresaw in this tree.
We won’t get into the philosophical questions of why the tree was in the garden but God presented a boundary humanity couldn’t resist. Before the moment when Adam and Eve partook of this tree’s fruit, they relied on God to handle the waters of morality.
The moment they partook of the fruit, they became responsible for moral choice. Never needing a conscience before, it now would be the arbiter, the monitor of whether they followed moral laws or not. Humans opened themselves up to a matter beyond their depth, and not much has changed today.
The Bible doesn’t describe the conscience as something that ties us to a moral law system. Whatever moral system we agree to follow, it holds us to that. In other words, if your moral system was God’s commandments and laws in the Bible, your conscience will hold you to that system.
If you don’t have that moral framework, whatever morality you are taught or follow is the basis for your conscience. It monitors the morality placed in your mind and heart. I contend that humans were not made with a blank moral slate.
I suggest that God’s basic moral laws have been placed within every human being. We all know it’s wrong to murder and commit adultery. We have a general understanding of the golden rule reversed, that we don’t want anyone to do to us what they wouldn’t do to themselves. I also believe that every person understands that there is a greater being than themselves.
But beyond these very basics, most people look to society to tell them what moral laws they must follow. Every civilization has its rules, usually written down for people to follow. They listen to the opinions of other people about morality, and if they agree, they follow them as well.
Most societies contain social and civic laws. Social laws may be unwritten rules, and they may change from time to time, but the conscience holds people to those rules as well as the civic ones. You may find yourself having the hardest time remembering which social laws are in vogue at each moment.
Although the conscience doesn’t define our moral rules, it holds us to the ones we expect ourselves to follow. It defines the principles we will follow, punishing us when we fall short. But it also rewards us when we obey the laws we subject ourselves to. It’s a worse taskmaster than the laws themselves unless we don’t listen to it.
Types of Consciences
the Bible describes at least three types of consciences. Most often talked about is the clear conscience. This is a conscience that is right before God and does not penalize us in our moral decisions and actions.
Paul seeks to have a clear conscience before God and others (Acts 24:16). He says to Timothy that one Christian goal is to exercise love from a pure heart and good conscience (1 Timothy 1:5). A good conscience is a companion to faith (1 Timothy 1:19; 3:9).
Paul served the church with a clear conscience (2 Timothy 1:3). The writer of Hebrews connects a clear conscience with the actions that follow (Hebrews 13:18).
Peter says that a good conscience comforts us when we are being dishonored by others (1 Peter 3:16). They are the ones who end up feeling shamed. Part of being redeemed is receiving a good conscience from God (1 Peter 3:21).
On the road from a good conscience to one that is headed in the wrong direction, a seared conscience happens next. A good conscience before the Lord means we are clear from any wrongdoing. But a seared conscience doesn’t convict us because it suffers blow after blow of us ignoring moral laws and our conscience.
In 1 Timothy 4, Paul describes false teachers who twist the truth of God’s word, teaching doctrines that go against God’s Word. He describes them as liars who have a seared conscience (1 Timothy 4:2).
A seared conscience is not completely destroyed yet. But it is well on its way. False teachers know better. You don’t become a false teacher by not knowing the truth. It’s possible to teach false teachings you have learned from others, but it’s more likely you knew the truth and began to change it to suit your own desires.
As we travel down the wrong path of ignoring the law and our consciences, they become depraved and evil. They may even go so far as to completely ignore the base code of God’s law imprinted upon every human heart.
The writer of Hebrews describes our conscience before we met Christ and he became our high priest, sprinkling clean our hearts (minds) from an evil conscience (Hebrews 10:22). He affirms that our conscience was evil before we met Christ. No Christian should ever return to this state of conscience.
Paul discusses the peer person versus the evil person. An evil person has both an evil mind and an evil conscience (Titus 1:15). This means that they ignore their conscience so that they no longer even reference it or a moral system. But the mind also was evil, thinking evil thoughts and finding new ways to displease the Lord.
It’s a Start
The conscience is a good start toward morality. But it still relies on whatever law we consider moral. Morality is only part of holiness. God is not only concerned with thinking and acting the right way. He is more concerned that it is integrated and becoming more like him.
Paul gives an example of comparing Jews and Gentiles according to God’s law and how their conscience is involved (Romans 2:12-16). Jews have special revelation from God, knowing his laws and expectations he gave them on Mount Sinai.
There are Jews who do not follow the law of God. They are no better, maybe worse, than the Gentiles who don’t have that special revelation. Gentiles don’t know what God expects of them. But on the day of judgment their conscience will accuse and even excuse them because they have followed God’s law and their hearts even without knowing the written law (Romans 2:15).
I think this is a most telling passage of Scripture. It affirms what I mentioned earlier, that God has a base code of morality written into humans, for even the Gentiles understood God’s law, though not having it written down.
It also affirms that the conscience holds us to the standard we know is right, even if it is not a full-fledged understanding of God’s complete laws. Our conscience monitors our morality and penalizes us if we get it wrong, but rewards us if we get it right. It’s just so much easier to know God’s laws and expectations.
The conscience is a start because it won’t get us into heaven but it also won’t let us fall into immorality if we listen to it. It won’t save, but it will condemn. This is why we must learn of God’s laws and expectations before it’s too late.
The Bible says some interesting things about conscience and morality. We are in the very best of circumstances when we know God’s laws and follow them. We must listen to our consciences because they keep us in the right with God and everyone else.
Our consciences help to train us to be holy. As we listen to them and allow the Holy Spirit, to redeem and renew our consciences so we not only know what is right but follow them, we will be blessed.
We will be conformed to the image of Christ and find ourselves one day in glory with him for eternity. Leave a comment and describe how you understand the conscience from a biblical framework.