A Biblical Exploration of The Term “Conscience”

Recently I found myself doing a serious study on something I had never studied: the conscience.

kronk-shoulder-devil

Instead of taking my understanding of conscience from Disney, I unpacked the term in scripture.  Here is what I found:

A comprehensive exploration of the noun syneidēsis in the New Testament:

General Definition

The noun used in the scripture is syneidēsis, meaning literally “with knowledge/perception”, or that part of the soul which distinguishes good and bad. Syneidēsis is derived from the verb synoraō, meaning “to see/perceive together” (with others or one’s own internal self). The English noun “conscience” literally means “with knowledge” and comes from the Latin conscientia, which is a derivative of conscire, a Latin version of syneidēsis. It’s the internal faculty found in all people that comes alongside information and brings conviction with regards to the truthfulness of that information and the need to act upon that information.

Biblical Text

John 8:9 – The term appears here, but John 8:9 is part of the pericope adulterae (John 7:53-8:11) and is not in the canon of scripture.

Acts 23:1-5 – Paul labored to live his life (a) before God and (b) in all good conscience (Acts 23:1; Acts 24:16 has a similar statement). In Acts 23:2-5 Paul gets punched in the face by someone at the command of Ananias, though for reasons that the text doesn’t tell us, Paul doesn’t immediately know that Ananias is the high priest (or possibly that Ananias specifically gave the order). Paul then calls Ananias a “whitewashed wall” for violating the law (Deut. 25:2 forbids giving someone a beating in court before they’re found guilty), but Paul apologizes for his speech when he discovers that the high priest gave the order for his beating since the scripture outwardly condemned speaking against authority (Ex. 22:28). This passage is a great “real-time display” of Paul’s own submission to his conscience. When Paul didn’t know that Ananias was the high priest, he didn’t have any problem pointing out Ananias’ violation of the law. Once Paul was made aware that he was speaking against the high priest, he changed his tune since it appears that even though he was making a right accusation against one who violated the law, he was more concerned with his own obedience to the law than pointing out another man’s transgression of the law.

Acts 24:14-16 – In speaking to Felix, Paul comments that he worships the God of his forefathers, which means (a) believing everything in the scriptures (v. 14) and (b) hoping in the resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked (v.15). Paul states these two points as his reasons for why he “always take(s) pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man”.

Note that Paul’s conscience is the final court to which he appeals; his conscience defends/accuses his conduct before both men and God. Paul doesn’t appeal to the scriptures–that he “always take(s) pains” to obey God’s word since knowing and believing the word of God is in itself a means to an end: the clear conscience (which, in practice, means “being righteous”).

Romans 2:12-16 – Romans here talks about God’s righteous judgement against all men: both Jews and Gentiles. In 2:12, Paul makes the opening point that those who sin without the law will not be judged by the law (they’re still sinning and they’ll still die, but they won’t have the face the requirements of the law) where as those who sin under the law will be judged by the law. In 2:13, Paul explains how this can be: “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified”. In other words, having the law of God (and studying it until your fingers bleed) doesn’t make someone righteous; all men are equally in a bad spot since nobody can actually do what the law demands. Paul then deals with objections to the first category (“all who have sinned without the law”) in 2:14-16 and deals with objections to the second category (“all who have sinned under the law”) in the rest of the chapter.

In 2:14-15 Paul explains how the Gentiles can “transgress the law” without actually having a written copy of the law. Whenever a Gentile (read “unregenerate person”) does anything that is taught in the law (i.e. acts in an externally loving way to anyone), they reveal that God’s moral requirements are actually within their hearts in some way, but there’s also a second reason why they can sin without having the law. Their consciences also reveal an awareness of God’s moral requirements; whenever they refrain from an action due to their conscience (i.e. guilt) they show their cards (morally speaking). Gentiles are not entirely a-moral creatures, and both the right actions they do and their hesitancy toward various evil actions are a two-fold accusation against them that will convict them as sinners when they stand before Christ and their motivations are finally placed on display.

In other words, Gentiles don’t sin because they disobey the scripture; they sin because they disobey the conscience. The conscience is a more basic moral court than the scripture, sure…but it’s still a damning one. Teaching someone to ignore their conscience is teaching them to ignore the moral safety net that God has placed in their hearts for when they fall off the high wire of obedience to scripture.

That’s a frightening thought.

Romans 9:1 – This is a passing reference to the conscience, but one worth noticing. Here, Paul proclaims that he is speaking truthfully, and the way he does that is by claiming that his conscience, as empowered by the Holy Spirit, testifies to the truthfulness of his words. In other words, Paul equated standing aright before his conscience with standing aright before God; the conscience is what can still the doubting heart when someone is unsure of their own truthfulness or motivations.

Romans 13:1-5 – In 13:1, Paul makes the general point that all governing authorities are established by God (including the bad ones). Paul then works out an application from this principle in 13:2 when he states “whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and wrongdoers will be judged as such, both by the ruling authorities (13:3) and by God himself (13:4). In 13:5 Paul then says that one must obey those who rule for two reasons: (1) to avoid his wrath in their form of their sword, and (2) to preserve one’s conscience.

It’s worth noting that God’s wrath (as manifest by the sword of government) is spoken of at the same level as conscience. In other words, it’s not just escaping the wrath of God that is important: it’s equally important to preserve the conscience.

1 Corinthians 8:1-12 –1 Corinthians 8 & 10 are the two of three extended passages in the New Testament that address the issue of disputable matters. The flow of 8:1-13 is as follows:

8:1 – With regards to the issue of idol meat, all people claim that they “know” but not all people love.

8:2-3 – Those who claim they “know” don’t know enough; the one who loves knows as he ought to know.

8:4-6 – Meat offered to idols isn’t tainted since idols don’t actually exist and therefore cannot actually taint meat.

8:7 – Not everyone knows that idols don’t actually exist so when they eat the meat, their conscience is defiled because it is weak (read “misinformed”).

8:8-9 – Food doesn’t make or break one’s relationship with God, but the one who eats needs to be careful…

8:10-11 – If the Christian with a weak conscience sees you doing openly something that he (wrongly) thinks is sin, he will be tempted to ignore his conscience. If a Christian is taught to ignore his conscience, he will be destroyed.

8:12 – Though it appears (on the surface) that you’re simply enjoying your freedom, you’re actually sinning against Christ by teaching him to ignore his conscience.

8:13 – ” Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.”

It’s worth noting that Paul mentions the defiled conscience as still being the guide of the weak brother. In a scenario where the Christian with the strong conscience might be tempted to “seize the teachable moment”, the Christian with the strong conscience should rather bend over backwards to keep from offending the brother with the weak conscience. The reason for all this is in vs. 10: the Believer with the weak conscience should never be taught to ignore his conscience and teaching them to do so is sinning against them and Christ (8:12).

This shows the priority of the preservation of conscience in the life of the believer.

1 Corinthians 10:23-33 – The flow of 10:23-30 is as follows:

10:23 – Paul cites the Corinthian slogan “all things are lawful” and gives two corrections: not everything is helpful and not everything is building up.

10:24 – Paul then gives a balancing principle for their slogans: ” Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor”.

10:25-26 – Paul still gives the Corinthian believers permission to eat idol meat without raising questions on the grounds of their own consciences, since all things belong to God (and nothing belongs to an idol).

10:27-29– Anticipating questions, Paul then gives a real life example of someone being invited over to the house of an unbeliever. If an unbeliever serves a believer food, the believer is free to eat freely (10:27) but if the unbeliever informs the believer that the food is “defiled”, then the believer should not eat it (10:28) for the sake of the conscience of the unbeliever (10:29).

10:29-30 – The believer should watch out that the unbelievers’ conscience isn’t defiled by the believer’s participation of their liberty.

10:31-33 – Paul then urges the Corinthians to consider God’s glory in all their activities and to follow Paul’s example of trying not offend anyone as much as he can, for the sake of the integrity and proclamation of the gospel.

It’s worth pointing out here that Paul was concerned about the consciences of unbelievers, which tells us that Paul understood unbelievers to have functioning consciences that could be an ally in gospel proclamation. The importance of the conscience is why Paul wanted to go to such lengths to not offend the conscience of both believers and unbelievers.

2 Corinthians 1:12 – Paul here boasts about how he and his associates were simple and sincere towards the Corinthians, and he comments that his conscience testifies to that fact. With questions of his own personal conduct and righteousness, Paul’s ultimate court of appeal for himself is his conscience.

2 Corinthians 4:2 – Paul here is speaking of himself and his associates in the light of some doubts by the Corinthians regarding their authenticity. Paul reminds the Corinthians of his straightforward speech and honest handling of the scripture, and set himself, in the sight of God, before the Corinthians’ consciences in order to be judged as authentic.

Paul knew that he could say many things, but the conviction of Paul’s authenticity would have to be one that the Corinthians arrived at on their own. The Spirit would have to settle their consciences on the issue, and Paul knew he could not manipulate the Corinthians into sincerely believing that he was an authentic workman of the Lord.

2 Corinthians 5:11 – After commenting on the fear of the Lord in 5:6-10, Paul says that he and his associates attempt to persuade others because they fear the Lord. Paul then defends his authenticity, saying that “what we are is known to God” and continues with saying “and I hope it is known also to your conscience”.

Again, Paul knows that the testimony that will convince the Corinthians of his authenticity is the testimony of their own conscience. Paul knows that his argumentation won’t convince them (in and of itself), though he follows 5:11 with some arguments for his authenticity. The Spirit, empowering the conscience, is what ultimately settled the Corinthians on the question of Paul’s authenticity.

1 Timothy 1:3-5 – This is a passing reference to the conscience. In 1:3, Paul warns Timothy to silence the false teachers whom are teaching contrary doctrine and devoting themselves to myths and genealogical obsession (1:4). The reason Paul gives this command to Timothy is because of Paul’s love for Timothy that comes from his undivided heart, good conscience, and sincere faith. Paul knew that it was loving to charge false teachers to be silent because this was the instruction he got from the scriptures, his conscience and his desires (for all parties involved).

1 Timothy 1:18-19 – This is a passing reference to the conscience. After talking to Timothy about addressing the false teachers, Paul encourages Timothy to follow through with his instruction. Paul encourages Timothy in saying that he knows that it is the Lord’s will for Timothy to do these things (1:18), and Paul tells Timothy that if he follows the instruction that he has received from the Lord he will “wage the good warfare”, as well as maintain the faith and his good conscience (1:19). I’d suggest that Timothy’s maintaining of faith involves his preservation of the church and the maintaining of good conscience involves his preservation of himself.

It’s worth noticing that the “prophecies previously made about you” (in other words “divine revelation”) served to maintain the faith and good conscience.

1 Timothy 3:9 – This is a passing reference to the conscience. The deacons of the church, in order to be qualified to be deacons, need to have a clear conscience.

1 Timothy 4:2 – This is the only occurrence of the phrase “seared conscience” in the New Testament. It refers to the conscience of insincere liars (4:2) who have departed from the faith and devoted themselves to “deceitful spirits and teachings of demons” (4:1), forbid marriage and require abstinence from certain foods (4:3).

Christians cannot have a seared conscience and still be considered Christians. If someone gets to the point where their conscience is seared (completely unfeeling), they need the gospel before anything else.

2 Timothy 1:3 – This is a passing reference to the conscience, where Paul simply thanks God that he serves God with a clear conscience.

It’s interesting to note that the conscience is Paul’s judge of whether or not he’s serving God.

Titus 1:15 – This passages is parallel to 1 Timothy 4:2. The subject matter of 1:10-16 is that of dealing with false teachers and the “defiled conscience” mentioned in the passage belongs to the one who is “defiled and unbelieving” who “profess to know God, but they deny him by their works” (1:16).

All people have a conscience but Christians cannot have a defiled conscience.

Hebrews 9:9-14 – In the ninth chapter of Hebrews, the author talks about the imperfections of the old ceremonial law. He starts by mentioning in 9:9 that the sacrifices could not cleanse the conscience of the worshipper, since the washings were only outward (9:10). When Christ appeared as the high priest (9:11), this changed. When Christ entered the holy place by his own blood and secured eternal redemption (9:12). The goat/bull blood sanctified the external (9:13) but the blood of Christ sanctifies the conscience (9:14).

This cannot be missed: Christians may not have a perfectly instructed conscience, but they have a perfectly cleansed conscience.

The conscience is purified from dead works; that means that the conscience is empowered to stop convicting the believer from pursuing external, ritualistic and spiritually dead worship (to which all unregenerate men are enslaved). In the Lord, the believer is free to turn from those dead works toward serving the living God.

The judge of what “serving the living God” is the conscience.

Hebrews 10:2 – This is a passing reference to the conscience. The author writes how if the sacrifices under the Old Covenant would have been perfect they would have both cleansed sin and the conscience (10:2), but rather only served as an annual reminder of sins (10:3) since goat/bull blood cannot take away sin (10:4).

Hebrews 10:22 – This is a passing reference to the conscience, but it’s worth noticing that in Christ, the evil conscience is “sprinkled clean”. In the Old Testament, the blood of the sacrifice was sprinkled on the garments of the priests to make them holy (Ex. 29:19-21; Lev. 8:22-30), and blood was sprinkled on various other accoutrements in the temple for the purpose of purification (Lev. 4:4-7, 4:15-18; Heb. 9:21-22), as well as lepers (Lev. 14:1-7). The imagery of sprinkling something in order to ritually cleanse it comes up in the Exodus (Ex. 12:7-13; Heb. 11:28) as well as the prophets (Ez. 36:25). The reference in Hebrews instructs us that in Christ the conscience is cleansed and set apart for the Lord.

Hebrews 13:18 – This is a passing reference to the conscience made by the author of Hebrews. It’s interesting how as a closing to the letter, the author asks for prayer that the leaders to whom the Hebrews look may have a clear conscience. Of all the things they could ask for, that one is worth noticing as it reveals their priorities and is a shorthand request that requires a whole lot of other ingredients to work (instruction in the scripture, a wisdom, spiritual power, etc.).

1 Peter 2:19 – This is a passing reference to the conscience made by Peter regarding conscience. Peter simply says that it is a gracious thing to endure sorrow in unjust suffering for the sake of one’s conscience (toward God).

1 Peter 3:14-16 – Peter here talks about suffering for the sake of righteousness. Peter instructs his readers to not fear those who persecute them nor be troubled by them (3:14). Instead, believers who suffer should set Christ apart as holy in their hearts and be prepared for their hope that they have. In the face of cruel suffering, believers aren’t permitted to be aggressive and vitriolic towards their persecutors but are commanded to be gentle and respectful of them (3:15), and to do so at the measure of their conscience (3:16) so that when they are slandered their good behaviour may be “in Christ” and shaming to their accusers.

It’s interesting that the judge of what sort of behaviour is “in Christ” (or “done by/for Christ’) is the conscience, not the scripture.

1 Peter 3:18-21 – Peter continues his thoughts and reflects on Christ’s suffering. Peter writes how righteous Jesus suffered for the unrighteous “us” (3:18). Peter then comments on how those who are now in prison previously heard the proclamation in the days of Noah, and in that day eight people were saved through water (3:19-20). Peter comments that baptism is typologically connected to the flood: water and salvation were connected both in Noah’s day and are also connected ours. In baptism there is cleansing, not in the removal of dirt but rather in the entreaty of God for a good (clean) conscience.

The sub-point here that Peter is making is that baptism involves a profession of belief to the church and also involves a serious appeal to God (for a clear conscience).

Summary:

– The term “conscience” literally means “with knowledge”: it’s the faculty found in all people that comes alongside information and brings conviction with regards to the truthfulness of that information and the need to act upon that information.

1.   The conscience is a functional but inarticulate moral faculty in believers and unbelievers alike (Rom. 2:14-15; 1 Cor. 8:7-12, 10:28-29; 2 Cor. 4:2, 5:11).

2. The conscience isn’t lost when someone becomes a Christian; it’s purified and set apart for the Lord (Heb. 9:14, 10:22)

3. The conscience of a Christian can be weak/misinformed (1 Cor. 8:2-3, 7) or wounded (1 Cor. 8:12) but not defiled (Tit. 1:15) or seared (1 Tim. 4:2); only unbelievers can have defiled or seared consciences. The weak/misinformed or wounded conscience is still an authority and should not be ignored (1 Cor. 8:12).

4. The integrity of the conscience in believers is highly important and must be maintained (Rom. 13:5; 1 Cor. 8:10-12; 1 Tim. 1:19, 3:9), even in unbelievers (1 Cor. 10:28-29).

5. The conscience was the court to which Paul went to judge his own conduct as righteous or not (Acts 23:1, 24:16; Rom. 9:1; 2 Cor. 1:12; 1 Tim. 3:5; 2 Tim. 1:3) and functions in all believers in the same way (1 Pet. 3:16).

6. One of the purposes of believing and learning God’s word is the cultivation of righteousness, and the assurance of righteousness in the life of a believer is a clear conscience (Acts 24:14-16; 1 Tim. 1:18-19).

7. Mature Christians seek a clear conscience (2 Tim. 1:3; Heb. 13:18; 2 Pet. 3:21)

Until Next Time,

Lyndon “To ye who complains, I have less pictures now.” Unger

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