THE CONSCIENCE IN CHRISTIAN LIVING


What is conscience? The English word ‘conscience’ is derived from the Latinconscientia, which means “a knowing of a thing together with another person.” The New Testament Greek word suneidêsis (from sun: ‘with’ and eidêsis: ‘knowledge’), which is translated “conscience,” has the same etymological derivation. But knowing with who? Who is the other person that is implied in the etymology of the word? It is God! This fact must be borne in mind whenever we read the word ‘conscience’ in the Word of God. Conscience is not just “knowledge of one’s own acts as right or wrong” (New Webster Dictionary). Rather, it is “that faculty [of our soul] by which we apprehend the will of God, as that which is designed to govern our lives” (The Vine’s Expository Dictionary); or “that knowledge or consciousness by which man knows that he is conforming to moral law or the will of God” (O. Hallesby, Conscience, translated by C.J. Carlsen [Inter-Varsity Press, 1950], 8). Calvin explains:

For as men, when they apprehend the knowledge of things by the mind and intellects are said to know, and hence arises the term knowledge or science, so when they have a sense of the divine justice added as a witness which allows them not to conceal their sins, but drags them forward as culprits to the bar of God, that sense is called conscience (ICR 3.19.15).


Our conscience speaks to our soul concerning the rightness or wrongness of an action, an intended action or a contemplated omission. It knows only two words: ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ Whenever you do something right, your conscience says “right!” and then it leaves you in peace and even satisfaction. But if you intend to do something which your conscience knows to be wrong, it warns you and continues to remind you of the wrongness until you cease from your intended course of action or repent of your deed. In the same way, when you omit to do any duty which you are aware of, your conscience also comes in to remind you until you do what is required. If not, as it reminds you of your error or omission, it inflicts pain on your soul. When this happens, you are said to have an “evil conscience” (Heb 10:22), though it is not the conscience that is evil, but that the conscience is accusing you of being evil.


Paul was referring to this function of the conscience when he says:

For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another (Rom 2:14–15).


The conscience accuses when an action is wrong, and excuses or approves when the action is right. The conscience is our moral consciousness—the resident judge in our soul. It may or may not be right ultimately in its judgement. Its judgement is based on what the soul or intellect knows to be the will of God. The conscience judges infallibly based on this knowledge, but the knowledge could be imperfect. This is especially so in the natural man since the Fall would have clouded all the ‘work’ or requirements of the law of God which is written in the heart of man. In the case of a Christian, the more thoroughly he is instructed and acquainted with the precepts of God, the more likely the judgement of the conscience will be sound.


The conscience is like a reliable programmable apple-sorting machine. If it is well-programmed, it will classify most of the good apples as good, and the others as bad. If it starts classifying all the apples it examines as good even though some are really bad, we know that there is something wrong with the programme, but not the machine.


There is a difference, though, between the conscience of the believer and the unbeliever. Only the Christian may have a pure conscience (Tit 1:15). This is a conscience that speaks clearly. Unbelievers, on the other hand, may only have a dull or impure conscience. Such a conscience will also speak, but it often speaks with a muffled voice except for the most severe crime.


You are acquainted with your conscience, aren’t you? You tell a lie, and your conscience immediately pricked you: “wrong!” It judges, and then it gives you no rest until you tell the truth. Or you may take a bus and you pay less than the required fare. Again your conscience shouts, “wrong!” And it keeps reminding you until you pay up or get off the bus.


The conscience, moreover, does not know how to tell you why an action is right or wrong—that is the function of the intellect. But it pricks you if you do something it perceives to be morally wrong, and it does not care if you have excuses. Try telling your conscience “But the bus company earns so much, what’s 20¢ to it?” But your conscience will not listen. It will continue to remind you of your sin.


The conscience of a Christian is like a subordinate court that God has set over the heart to judge us and to convict us of our deeds immediately—before the Great Judgement Day. However, it is also the Christian who can have any peace of conscience because he can have the assurance that his sins are pardoned.

The Importance of the Conscience

The conscience is perhaps the most important companion for a Christian in his earthly pilgrimage. The Apostle Paul highlights this fact in a remarkable statement in his first epistle to Timothy:

This charge I commit unto thee, son Timothy, according to the prophecies which went before on thee, that thou by them mightest war a good warfare; [19]Holding faith, and a good conscience; which some having put away concerning faith have made shipwreck: [20]Of whom is Hymenaeus and Alexander; whom I have delivered unto Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme (1 Tim 1:18–20).


The charge that Paul refers to here is the instructions that he had committed to Timothy when he left him in Ephesus to take care of the church. This charge was committed to Timothy according to a prophecy which was made during Timothy’s ordination to the ministry. We do not know the content of the prophecy, but it might have to do with the condition of the church that Timothy had to pastor or the kind of troubles that he would face as a pastor. So Paul instructs him to maintain the truth and to charge those responsible for promoting falsehood to stop doing so. Paul believes that if Timothy follows his instructions, then he would be able to “war a good warfare.”


But in verse 19, Paul adds two more conditions that must accompany his obedience to his instructions. Firstly, Timothy must hold on to faith, i.e., he must continue to trust in the Lord and believe all the doctrines that were once delivered unto him. This condition is not surprising. To loose his faith would mean that he would be an apostate himself.


But, this second condition is somewhat surprising: Timothy must hold on to a good conscience. In other words, he may not expect to have success in his ministry unless he holds on to a good conscience. In fact, Paul actually emphasises holding on to a good conscience more than holding on to faith in this verse, for we read: “Holding faith, and a good conscience; which some having put away concerning faith have made shipwreck” (v. 19).


The word translated “which” (Greek: ên) is in the singular in the Greek (unlike the “which” of verse 6, which is plural); so proper grammar tells us that it refers to conscience alone.


Paul is telling Timothy that some have cast aside their conscience and so made shipwrecked concerning their faith. The word translated “put away” (Greek:apôtheô) is a strong verb used only three times in the New Testament (cf. Acts 7:27, Rom 11:1–2). It means “to deliberately thrust away.”


Now in the present context, Paul is painting a picture of the Christian journey. It is like a ship in the sea, and conscience is its rudder steering it in the right course. You remember that James used the same picture with regards to the tongue (Jas 3:4). The rudder is just a thin piece of metal or wood. It is so small compared to the size of the ship, yet it plays a most important role. It controls the direction of the ship. Without the rudder, the ship will drift aimlessly in the sea; it will eventually crash into some rocks or reef.


Here Paul warns Timothy, that those who cast away their conscience are casting away their rudder and may ultimately make shipwreck concerning their faith. This was what happened to Hymenaeus and Alexander (v. 20). They cast away their conscience and made shipwreck of their faith by proving to be apostates, and so Paul “delivered [them] unto Satan,” i.e., excommunicated them, so “that they may learn not to blaspheme.”


What can we learn from this instruction? If Paul thought it necessary to warn the pastor of the church in this manner, how much more must we who are ordinary members of the church take heed to his words. Beloved, the conscience is the rudder of your Christian life. If you cast it away, you will drift away from Christ and be immediately in dangerous stormy sea, on course for shipwreck. When that happens, you will put yourself out of the way of life, and if you persist in it you will prove yourself to be an apostate ultimately.

Casting Away a Good Conscience

Firstly, we must note that it is impossible to literally yank out your conscience and cast it away. Your conscience will always be part of you—you will bring it with you even when you die. Remember also, that an evil conscience is a conscience that is accusing you. Therefore to have a good conscience is to have a conscience that speaks clearly and yet is approving rather than condemning. Thus, to cast away a good conscience is to so deal with one’s conscience that it no longer serves its purpose.


Ultimately, when one casts aside a good conscience, one is left with a seared conscience—a conscience that is no longer sensitive or speaking clearly. Paul speaks of this in 1 Timothy 4:1–2

Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron.


Paul was referring directly to some gnostics and ascetics—some early heretics, but I believe that his prophecy applies generally in our day too.


The word translated “seared” (Greek: kaustêriazô) literally mean to “mark by branding with a red hot iron.” It was a practice in those days for farmers to mark their cattle by using a hot iron with a symbol (brand) at the end. The iron is placed in the fire and heated until red hot and then it is pressed against the back of the cattle to make a permanent imprint—an imprint caused by dead skin over which the hair of the cattle will not grow again. With this mark in place, the owner of the animal can always identify it if it escapes or is stolen. Thus when Paul speaks of “conscience seared with a hot iron,” he is saying that you can sear your conscience—you can cause your conscience to be so hardened or dead that it can no longer function effectively.


But how does searing of the conscience come about? May I suggest three common ways which we must be aware of lest we fall:


By Arguing Against Conscience

Because the conscience will not be silenced, and because it hurts, many of us will try to argue against it. I am sure you are familiar with this: You quarrel with your friend: your conscience rebuke you distinctly: “wrong!” You reply, “but it was his fault!” Conscience says a little softer: “wrong!” You say, “Ok, I started it, but it was because he provoked me!” Conscience says, “wrong!” But now it is barely discernible. The wrongness of your quarrelling with your friend has not changed, you have silenced your conscience by arguing against it.


You realise that when you argue against conscience in this way, you are actually trying to silence conscience and at the same time polluting your conscience. Soon your conscience will be too weak and dull to speak. And if you do it frequently enough, the voice of your conscience will be too muffled to be heard. When that happens you have been hardened by the deceitfulness of sin and are on course for spiritual shipwreck.


By Ignoring Conscience

The second way in which we sear our conscience is by deliberately ignoring it. You know what it says. But you simply ignore it. This is the quickest way to searing your conscience and experiencing spiritual hardening. The first time you commit a sin your conscience may rebuke you. But if you chose to ignore your conscience, and commit the same sin again, your conscience will not speak so loudly. After a while, you will not feel guilty about committing the sin any more: you have been successful nullifying your conscience.


How does a professing Christian eventually stop attending church altogether? How does a thief becomes a kleptomaniac and a murderer becomes a psychopath? I believe the answer is the same: by repeatedly ignoring their consciences.


Beloved, whenever you ignore your conscience, no matter how small the matter is, you are dulling your conscience.


By Drowning Conscience

Some of us are not so good at arguing against our conscience, and we find it hard to ignore our conscience. What do we do? We try to drown out the voice of our conscience. Whenever our conscience speaks concerning some sin in our lives, it hurts. So in order not to hear it, some of us will keep ourselves busy, and so drown ourselves at work. Or we switch on the television or the radio as we attempt to drown the voice of conscience—hoping that it will forget what we did or did not do. Is this not the reason why the TV and radio (or walkman or discman) is so popular with young people today? It takes away their guilt feelings by drowning the voice of conscience. And yes, your conscience can indeed be drowned in this way. It will come up again to remind you of your sin, but if you persist in drowning it, it will indeed be silenced. When that happens, you will no more sense the need to repent for your sins or to grieve for your sins.


Your conscience is placed in your soul by the Lord as a sentinel to guard your heart from sin. Are you arguing against your conscience? Are you drowning it? Are you ignoring it? Beloved, you will make shipwreck of your faith if you continue to do so.

Building and Maintaining a Good Conscience

While guarding against casting away our conscience, it is also important that we seek to build and maintain a good conscience. This may sound very difficult, but it is really very simple. It involves only two steps:


By Enlightening Our Conscience

Remember that though every man’s conscience is authoritative for him, it is not infallible in its judgements. One man’s conscience may allow what another’s forbids. So in 1 Corinthians 8, Paul, in speaking about food offered to idols that are bought from the market, tells us that there is nothing wrong with eating them. But he also says (in v. 7), “Howbeit there is not in every man that knowledge: for some with conscience of the idol unto this hour eat it as a thing offered unto an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled.” So then, there is nothing wrong with eating anything you buy from the market even though the seller had offered it to his idols before selling it. But if you cannot eat it with a clear conscience, then to you, it is wrong and you must not eat it. The situation is different in 1 Corinthians 10:14–22. There, it is participation in idol feast, and it would be wrong even if your conscience approves of it.


What Paul is telling us is that if you think something is wrong although it is actually not wrong, then it is wrong for you. On the other hand, our thinking that a thing is right does not make it right. So, unless your conscience is informed and enlightened, you may sin against God without even realising it.

So then, beloved, our first duty towards building a good conscience is to enlighten our conscience rather than allowing it to be weak and ignorant (1 Cor 8:7, 10, 12). How? By reading and meditating on the Word of God and by hearing sound preaching. Let us not be found habitually sinning against God because of an ignorant conscience.


By Obeying Our Conscience

Although our conscience is not infallible, to cultivate and maintain a good conscience, we must seek to obey it in all cases in which its decisions are not contrary to a higher law. It is because Paul, by the grace of God, was able to obey his conscience, he was able to say, “And herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward men” (Acts 24:16).


And it was because Martin Luther was obedient to his conscience that today we may worship together as a Protestant Church. In the first place, it was an uneasy conscience that caused Luther to nail the 95 theses on the door of Wittenburg Castle on October 31, 1517. Three and a half years later, Luther was called to answer charges of heresy at the Diet of Worms. And there the Reformation could have ended, had it not been that Luther chose to obey his conscience, that was kept bounded to the Word of God, than to obey the Pope. We have on record his immortal words:

Unless I am convinced by Scripture, and plain reason, I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other…. Myconscience is captive to the Word of God; I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.


Can you imagine what would have happened if Luther had crumbled to the pressure to submit to the Pope and disobeyed his conscience? I dare say Luther would have made shipwreck of his faith and the Reformation would have fizzled out.


Let me give you four reasons why we must obey our conscience:


Firstly, the authority of the conscience is derived from God, so to do what our conscience forbids is to sin against God (cf. Rom 14:23). However, remember that to do what conscience allows is not always righteous.


Secondly, disobeying our conscience results in an evil conscience, which is the most miserable thing that a child of God may have. Calvin is not exaggerating when he says, “There is no greater torment than an evil conscience” (Comm. on Acts 16:34). Charles Hodge echoes the same thought, “The greatest happiness flows from an approving conscience, and the greatest misery from a wounded conscience.”


Thirdly, having a good conscience ensures that we have a good, irreproachable testimony. “Having a good conscience; that, whereas they speak evil of you, as of evildoers, they may be ashamed that falsely accuse your good conversation in Christ” (1 Pet 3:16).


Fourthly, disobeying our conscience is a sure way of snuffing out our conscience so that its voice become more and more indistinct and soft. Disobeying our conscience is the surest way to cast away our conscience and to make shipwreck of our faith.

Conclusion

Beloved, do you still hear your conscience clearly? Does your conscience ever prick you any more? When you tell a half-truth, does your conscience smite you? When you quarrel and act in an unchristian manner, does your conscience hurt you? When you break the Sabbath by doing what ought to be done on other days, does your conscience trouble you? If your answer to any of these questions is “no,” or “just a little,” then I am afraid you may be exhibiting symptoms of searing your conscience. Will you not go in secret to the cross of Christ and repent and regain a good conscience before it is too late?


And finally, beloved, do you realise that having a good conscience is most important for maintaining your love and reliance on Christ? For it is when our conscience tells us of our failures despite our best efforts to live the Christian life that we realise experientially that we need Christ. For this reason, those who claim that emphasis on the precept of God and on the conscience is legalism, does not really know what they are talking about. There is a direct correlation between the well-being of our conscience and our enjoyment of God in Christ.


JJ Lim