ConscienceVolume 3, Number 51
Created Date: November 2, 2011
Posted Date: November 2, 2011
Conscience: I wrote this article 30 years ago for the May 1981 edition of the Berean Search Light:
What does the Word of God say about conscience? At least part of the definition of “conscience” in Webster's Dictionary boils down basically to this: If a person follows his conscience, that is, if he does what he believes is right and good, he will be happy and content in that part of his life. On the other hand, if he does something against what he believes is right, that is, against his conscience, he will fell guilty and unhappy. Of course, there is a lot to be said for this thinking, but let's go to the Word of God about it. The word “conscience” is not found in the Old Testament. The Greek word suneidesis, however, is used 32 times in the New Testament and is translated “conscience” in every instance.
It is generally important to note where certain words are used and by what writers. This is because the Word of God was put together perfectly at the direction of the Holy Spirit, and everything is put in its place for a purpose, even though we may not always understand or comprehend this. The word conscience is used once in the Gospel according to John and three times in I Peter. Then, if Paul wrote the Book of Hebrews, where it is used 5 times, Paul uses the word 28 out of 32 times. This is significant. Part of that significance is that the doctrine of conscience applies to each and every believer today. The part that our consciences play in our lives today is important.
Before getting into the teachings of Paul as to the conscience, we should look back at the beginnings of man in the Old Testament. Even though the word itself is not found in the Old Testament, we see evidences of conscience there. Did Adam and Eve have consciences when God first created them? I think that from what we know from the Word of God, they were what people today would call “beautiful people.” I think they used a large part of their brains; they had understanding, intelligence, knowledge. But was that thing called conscience within their minds or hearts when they were first created? “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat; But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it, for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” Gen. 2:16, 17. After God gave this command to Adam He made a woman from him; they had each other and the run of Paradise. Think now: there was nothing wrong for them to do - I submit that they did not know how to do anything wrong, except - they had one command from Got not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. At that time they did not know good and evil; they did not have a conscience as we know it. They did, however, have a capacity for a conscience, that is, they were capable of obtaining a conscience, and this they did in short order. As we know, Satan induced Eve, and through Eve, Adam, to partake of the forbidden fruit: “And the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons”. It was not necessary for anyone to tell Adam that he was naked now; his brand new conscience told him so because he had within him “the knowledge of good and evil.” “And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever: Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.” .
For the next several hundred years God dealt with mankind by what most dispensational teachers term the Dispensation of Conscience during which He revealed His wishes for a right relationship between man and Himself. That is, man knew what was demanded of him to maintain fellowship with God. We know this to be so for a number of reasons, including the fact that Abel pleased God with his sacrifice, whereas Cain did not. Also during this dispensation Enoch pleased God; he walked with God and was taken up to be with Him without dying. This was the period of time when man's conscience was his guide; man had the knowledge of good and evil and was to follow good. But which route did most of Adam's children take? “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”. At the close of the dispensation, recorded at the end of Genesis 7, God could save only eight people: Noah and his family. “And Noah went in, and his sons, and his wife and his sons' wives with him, into the ark, because of the waters of the flood. And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and the creeping things, and the fowl of the heaven; and they were destroyed from the earth: and Noah only remained alive, and they that were with him the ark. And the waters prevailed upon the earth an hundred and fifty days.” , 23 & 24.
That is the bottom line as to where man's conscience, in and of itself, carries man. In the first chapter of his letter to the Romans, Paul teaches this fact. After the flood God dealt with man in what is called the Dispensation of Human Government. Here we find Abraham called out and given God's promise of blessing - and then, later in Exodus, the Law is committed to Moses to be given to Israel. With the exception of the book of Job, God's dealings with man from Exodus all the way through the first part of the Book of Acts is through the Law. During this part of man's history, he could maintain fellowship with God only as he followed the Law. At that time a person had to be an Israelite, or join Israel's company, adhering to Israel's Law and trusting Israel's God from the heart in order to be saved unto eternal life. People certainly had consciences at that time, but the doctrine of conscience is not taught in those Scriptures (Exodus through early Acts), because when you have a definite, detailed set of rules to follow: “Do this; don't do that,” etc., that is, when you have a complete law, a person either obeys that law or he does not. If he does not obey the law, he pays the penalty; if he does follow the law, he continues on without penalty. Galations 4:4 and other Scripture passages point out clearly that the Lord Jesus Christ was made “under the Law.” In His life He followed the Law to the letter. In fact, He is the only one who never broke even one small part of the Law. His apostles and disciples also lived under the Law. However, it is not until Paul is converted in Acts 9, and receives his revelations from our ascended Lord Jesus Christ, that we learn from his writings that Christ fulfilled the Law for us. Thus we no longer gain or maintain fellowship with God through the works of the Law. Rather we learn from Paul and Paul, as revealed to him, unfolds the wonderful truth of God's grace, pure and simple. But he does this in the light of all other Scripture, thus we must have the entire Word of God to fully understand what Paul is teaching now.
As Paul, by divine inspiration, teaches us, he unfolds among many other things, the part that conscience has always played in men's lives throughout history, as well as what part conscience plays in our lives today. There is no way in which we could cover this subject completely in one article, but let us consider a few relevant passages. “Unto the pure all things are pure...”. This means literally what it says; however, it must be interpreted in the light of the rest of the Word of God. If God could have written what man needs to know in one sentence, one verse, or one paragraph, He might have done so. God had given us all we need to know about Him and about salvation in one Book, the Bible. This was not given over a number of years as the need arose. God had it all planned out from before the creation of man. And so we do take God's Word literally, as understood in the light of everything else in the Word. Someone could, and doubtless has, taken this 15th verse and built an entire religion around it. Some might argue that “we who are pure” can do anything: we can covet, lie, steal, commit unclean acts and this is pure and right. But this is not the teaching here. What, then, is the teaching here? Let us read on: “Unto the pure all things are pure; but unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure; but even their mind and conscience is defiled. They profess that they knew God; but in works they deny Him, being abominable, and disobedient, and unto every good work reprobate” .
One who is an unbeliever in the gospel of the grace of God can in no way please God. No matter how clear his conscience may appear to us, no matter how good his life may be in man's sight, he is lost. However, those who believe and trust in the finished work of our Lord Jesus Christ have His perfectness as theirs. The Book of Hebrews teaches what Christ's finished work has done as far as our consciousness of sin is concerned. We cannot, in this brief article, go into each passage in Hebrews that touches upon the conscience. The word is used five times in this book:-9, 11-14; 10:1, 2, 22; 13:18. Hebrews teaches that the Law of Moses was given to make man conscious of his sins. Each time a person violated the Law, he had to do something to cover that transgression. Also, each year, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest had to go into the Holy of Holies with the blood of sacrifice for his own sins and those of all the people during that past year. The Epistle to the Hebrews teaches the real reason for all this. It teaches that, in contrast to the sacrifices of the Law, when the Lord Jesus Christ died, arose, and ascended into heaven, His finished work took away all of our sins once for all, and with them the guilt of our consciences. “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water.” .
It is in the light of this truth that Paul could write to Titus: “Unto the pure all thing are pure: but unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure; but even their mind and conscience is defiled” Titus 1:15. However, just because this is true, it does not follow that every believer has grown enough, spiritually, to understand it. We are saved because we believe and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. New believers are like little babies; they have to eat and grow. Spiritually, we grow as we partake of the Word of God, rightly divided. “And He gave some, apostles; and some, prophets, and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”. The word “perfect” here means “complete” or “full-grown”, and some Christians never reach full growth. They never grow up spiritually and so, among other things, they never fully realize what it is to be delivered from a guilty conscience through Christ. An example of this is found in I Cor. 8:7-13. There in Corinth, pagans would offer sacrifices to idols. The temple priests would accept these sacrifices, then turn around and have the meat sold in the market place. A full-grown Christian realized that an idol “is nothing” (I Cor. 8:4-6), and could eat such meat with a clear conscience. A weak Christian, however, one who had not grown in the Word - and in this knowledge - could not eat this meat without a guilty conscience, as the Apostle goes on to say: “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.” I Corinthians 8:7.Thus Paul teaches here that even if we can do certain things with clear consciences, we must still consider the consciences of those about us. “Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend.” I Corinthians 8:13. This teaching by the Apostle Paul is amplified in I Cor. 10:24-30. But even beyond this there is much for us to learn about the part that conscience plays in the life of the unregenerate man, and the part it plays in the life of the believer. As to the believer: “Now the end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned.” I Timothy 1:5. The last phrase of this verse gives us the basis for everything it teaches for our lives. Everything in our lives as believers is based upon “faith unfeigned,” faith without hypocrisy. From this we have a good conscience and a pure heart, and from all this, in turn, and only from this, can we realize and live what God would have operating in our lives: the commandment of love. “For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this, Thou shalt love they neighbor as thyself.” . Because we are in Christ, we are pure, as taught in Tit. 1:14. Because of His finished work, our consciences have been purged (Heb. 9:14); the “conscience of sins” has been removed (10:2). Then, as we have just seen from Gal. 5: 13, 14, we are “called unto liberty,” but we should not misuse or abuse our liberty, using it as “an occasion to the flesh.” We do not do - or should not do - things which are not pleasing to the Lord, but we do - or should - “by love serve one another.” We “walk in love.” “Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children; And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour.” . I heard a statement the other day that went something like this: “Conscience is the barrier to man's progress.” What this is supposed to imply is that if people would just forget about what their conscience is telling them and go ahead, they could do great and wonderful things. Unregenerate man would like to believe that this is true. We, as believers, can know that through Christ we have a completely clear conscience before God. And with this knowledge and assurance we can walk confidently, without doubts and fears. That is our standing. Then, in our everyday lives, in our daily walk, in the way we conduct ourselves toward others, our conscience works out into the commandment of Love. We think of others before ourselves - we consider their consciences and act accordingly. We walk in love.