Seminary Viewpoints

Conscience: What Is It?

Sam Horn | August 23, 2018
Viewpoint Blog

Your conscience is always speaking, either affirming or accusing the rightness of your choices, but are you listening – or more importantly, should you be listening? If you are uncertain how to answer that question or if “let your conscience be your guide” sounds like a quote from the Bible, it may reveal that Jiminy Cricket has shaped your idea of conscience more than Scripture.

An Overlooked Doctrine.

The standard we live by – or at least try to – is determined by our conscience. Every choice we make and any growth in godliness involves the conscience. So the question we must ask ourselves is: “What do I really know about my conscience?”

The Scripture is not silent about this important topic. The Greek term for conscience is mentioned over 30 times in the NT, so clearly God intends for us to understand what He has to say about our conscience. Unfortunately, many believers do not really know these texts or understand what they teach about the nature, function, responsibility, and biblical development of the conscience.

A Neglected Gift.

I am convinced that much of the spiritual deprivation and weakness present in much of contemporary Christianity – and in our lives specifically – is due to the neglect of what the Bible teaches regarding conscience.

Understanding the conscience is a major component to living a godly life, yet it is a blurry topic to many believers. Some misunderstand their conscience to be the very voice of God, and some simply ignore it because of its potential to misguide. Tied to their suppression of their conscience is usually a misapplication of Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?”

To them, the conscience is like a wild horse that can’t be tamed. Why bother training it – or riding it – if it will inevitably take you the wrong direction? Yet by ignoring their conscience, they have dismissed a necessary means through which God speaks and transforms. God desires to cleanse and renew our conscience in order to carry us from being blind and ignorant of His will to having the eyes of our hearts enlightened, approving what is excellent.

The conscience is a central component to Christian living—here’s why.

1. The New Testament emphasizes it.

Paul gives great weight to the importance of conscience in his charge to Timothy to keep a good conscience (1 Tim. 1:19-20). Other places where Paul addressed the importance of rightly relating to one’s conscience (Acts 23-24, 1 Corinthians 8-10, Hebrews 9-10, 1 Peter 2-3, etc.) add even more weight to our responsibility to strive to keep our conscience void of offense before God and toward men.

Paul clearly presents a good conscience as essential to the Christian life – so essential that it is coupled with faith and illustrated as something that is necessary to train and maintain in order to avoid a shipwrecked faith (1 Timothy 1:19-20). So the conscience is not a minor note in Christian theology. In order to grow, prosper, and even survive as a Christian, we need a conscience that is renewed by God’s Word, sensitive to God’s Spirit, and discerning of God’s voice.

2. God’s Spirit leads with it.

Every believer is on a journey that begins with salvation and leads ultimately to glorification. One important means God uses to guide us throughout this journey is our conscience. How will we hear God’s Spirit convict, and therefore guide, if our conscience is not trained? And how will we redeem the time, walking not as fools, but as wise, if our consciences are not transformed to rightly understand and respond to the will of the Lord expressed in His Word?

3. Sanctification relies on it.

A conscience assured by God’s Word will result in a life aligned with God’s will. Take Romans 12 for example. Present your body as a living sacrifice, holy, and accepted to God. Verse two shows what that looks like in a believer’s life. My life should not be conformed to the world; instead my mind needs to be transformed so that my conscience is able to discern what is the good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God.

4. Every moment involves it.

Your conscience, though it can be suppressed, is never completely silent. Though certainly not infallible, the conscience serves as a moral compass inside of you, rendering a verdict about decisions we make when measured against whatever standard our conscience perceives to be valid and applicable to that situation.

Our conscience is only as good or as valid as the standard by which it measures and evaluations our thoughts, motives, decisions, and actions. Therefore, properly training the conscience is of utmost importance and has potential for major dividends in the life of a believer.

Teach the truth about conscience.

Believers today need thoughtful, biblical teaching on the conscience. When believers come to understand the important process of informing, aligning, and shaping their conscience to an accurate understanding of the Word of God, they become more sensitive to the Spirit’s prompting and more discerning of the Spirit’s leading.

This kind of growth is what teaching about the conscience should aim for. The goal is to build up mature believers who don’t suppress their conscience. Rather, they obey it, aligning it as closely as they can with God’s will by saturating themselves with God’s Word, allowing their ever-speaking conscience to become a continual avenue for God to speak and transform their life.

I encourage you to seek out the many passages that refer to the conscience. You will begin to discover the numerous misconceptions that exist and see the answers God has given to our questions on the conscience – questions that when answered will prove invaluable for believers’ growth in godliness. (I plan to address some of these questions and misconceptions in later posts, so stay tuned.)

There are a number of great resources that provide immense help on this topic. One is a recent book by Andy Naselli and J. D. Crowley entitled “Conscience: What It Is, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ.” It is a short, thorough, practical study of what the Bible actually teaches about our conscience. It is probably the single most helpful book on this topic I have read, and I believe it is well worth the time you would invest in reading this helpful book. You can get a copy of the book here.