A Biblical Theology of the Human Conscience

Nov 5th, 2011 | By | Category: Ethics, Featured Issues

The term “conscience” is not found in the Old Testament.  Perhaps the closest OT term to conscience is “heart” (e.g., 1 Samuel 24:5).  In the New Testament “conscience” is used 31 times, mostly by Paul.  The key passage is Romans 2:14-15.  Scripture teaches that humans, made in the image of God, have an innate sense of right and wrong, a moral monitor that either “approves or accuses” (see Romans 2:14-15).  Conscience serves as an umpire, which disposes the human to view life situations in a moral/ethical light, thus judging/determining that some actions are “right” and some are “wrong.”  The Fall has drastically affected conscience but has clearly not destroyed it.  Evidence of this innate sense of right and wrong is a general agreement in all cultures about certain basic ethical issues (e.g., murder, incest, pedophilia, lying, stealing, etc.).

How Conscience is developed in the NT:  A human being may actually be sincerely following a wrong moral standard that deepens convictions about the “rightness” of certain actions.  Consider Paul before his conversion:  Saul (as he was then known) persecuted Christians with a “good conscience” (Acts 23:1).  His deep-seated conviction (i.e., his conscience) told him “do right” and his ethical standard was “it is right to persecute Christians.”  Thus he followed his conscience but what he did was wrong, because his deep-seated conviction (i.e., his conscience) was ill-informed.  God needed to change his convictions, which He did–beginning at the Damascus Road with his salvation.

  1. When a person becomes a Christian, his/her conscience is heightened, as it were, by being informed both by Scripture and the work of the Holy Spirit.  This is in many ways a lifelong process.  When we then violate personal, societal or biblical standards, we experience guilt.  This is one of the blessings of the conscience for the believer.  This “thermostat” keeps us from doing what might prove injurious to ourselves and to others and ultimately to our relationship with God.  When we willfully sin, conscience in conjunction with the Holy Spirit causes us to experience guilt.  We are then prompted to confess our sins (1 John 1:9) and experience the love and forgiveness of God.  This is now the ongoing process of how we deal with guilt in our lives—via confession (i.e., agreeing with God about our sin).
  2. For you as a believer, conscience may accuse you of something [or you may have convictions about something] when in actuality the action you are contemplating may either be morally neutral or even right.  This is essentially what Paul is discussing in 1 Corinthians 8-10 and Romans 14.  Here the believer’s conscience is “weak,” (i.e., his/her convictions are not in conformity with the truth—the correct theological “knowledge” about idolatry and food).  So, at that point the mature believer must decide to either press his/her freedom or, because of the undeveloped conscience of the weaker brother/sister, choose not to exercise that freedom.  This “weaker” believer then must be open to the liberating teaching of the Holy Spirit who uses God’s Word to teach the truth about all things, including how to look at cultural standards, traditions and practices.
  3. For the believer, there is such a thing as a “seared conscience” (e.g., 1 Timothy 4:2).  If conscience is disobeyed repeatedly or if a believer refuses to develop the deep-seated convictions about issues of life and the maturing process is then halted, one’s sensitivity to moral issues soon becomes dulled.  If this continues, then the result is a seared conscience:  Convictions about a particular issue are developed that the believer knows are wrong or those convictions have not been fully informed by God’s Word.  In this case, conscience is then “seared.”  This is what I believe occurs with some genuine believers when it comes to homosexuality, for example.  Convictions are developed that to practice homosexuality is not wrong ethically.  Continued sin then desensitizes the conscience and the conscience has been seared—either by conscious disobedience to the clarity of God’s Word, or by convictions developed without the clear teaching of God’s Word.  Moreover, Scripture teaches that unconfessed sin and ongoing unbelief can also lead to a desensitized conscience (see Hebrews 3:12-13).  As Postmodernism is intersecting with evangelical Christianity, this is occurring with greater frequency.
  4. Conscience can also “malfunction” in the sense that it becomes overly sensitive or hypersensitive.  Here the conscience “over-functions,” condemning and accusing the Christian for small errors, forgiven actions and normal human failures.  This constant self-criticism and self-reproach rob the Christian of joy and any sense of progress in growth toward Christ-likeness.  The result is often a performance-based Christianity that focuses on actions, not God’s grace, as the basis for acceptance.  Performance-based Christianity is what produces legalism and so much defeat in the Christian life.  [“If I am not performing the way I think I should, the way my pastor thinks I should, or the way my friends think I should” can produce the over-sensitive conscience, and thereby false guilt.]  False guilt is one of the lethal results of performance-based spirituality.

The goal of the Christian believer, then, is to develop a mature conscience.  The Holy Spirit teaches the believer most clearly what is right and wrong from the objective Word of God.  That Word informs us of the truth; the Spirit then enables us to “welcome, embrace” that truth (see 1 Corinthians 2:6-16), so that it transforms us from the inside out; and then we begin to develop those deep-seated convictions in the nonmoral areas of life that can guide and direct us.  The Bible teaches that it is wrong to go against “conscience” but it also clearly teaches that we must be careful to have our conscience informed by God’s Word. PRINT PDF 

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17 Comments to “A Biblical Theology of the Human Conscience”

  1. R.Begley says:

    The article mentions a conscience around issues like homosexuality, stealing and lying, but where does the mature conscience stand on white lies, which to many people in our society, I find easily justified,

    • Jonathan Landon says:

      I think it’s pretty straightforward. Lies are lies. Calling them “white lies” is an attempt to justify them by portraying them as being done with good intent, or having a good outcome. In terms of the article above, a casual and comfortable justification of “white lies” is the act of a seared conscience, of a person who has persuaded himself that evil is good, or that the end justifies the means. Christian ethics has always held that it is not moral to do evil in order to accomplish good. To use an extreme example, it is not moral to murder even an evil person in order to harvest organs for a transplant to save the life of a good person.

      When all available options are evil, Christian ethics does allow one to choose the least evil course of action, but in the case of truth-telling, there are always morally good alternatives. When it is not acceptable to speak the truth outright, the moral person always has the option to remain silent (refuse to respond) or evade the question. Lying is never the only option, and therefore it is not moral conduct.

  2. Dr. Eckman, In Genesis 2, it would indicate that Adam and Eve were unaware of evil until they ate from “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil”. They were only conscience of evil or wrong after they were deceived by Satan saying that “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” They were already like God and became less like Him and separated from Him. The created likeness of God seems to be a spirit or soul, a mind and a heart which other earthly created beings do not have. Romans 2:14-15 would indicate that those reaching the age of reason or accountability because of the fall have knowledge of good and evil and through their mind and heart can recognize and choose between them. Through knowledge of good and evil and cause and results observed and experienced, the Gentiles could determine conduct or laws to do good or evil. Conscience seems to reflect our heart condition as based on input from our mind. Christians through the Holy Spirit can have the mind of God and the heart of God.
    On a related question, I am interested in your understanding of infant and little children’s spiritual standing. It would seem that there is some significance to the original sin being eating the fruit from the tree of the KNOWLEDGE of good and evil. Are little children under God’s special grace until they reach the age of reason or accountability? Is there any significance in Luke’s account of Jesus at age 12 becoming accountable to his heavenly Father rather than his earthly parents? The difference between Luke 2:40 and 2:52 might indicate a change in his position with God?
    I don’t know if you have time or desire to respond to my comments and questions. I am attempting to write a book and want to be scripturally correct and have appreciated your perspective on this type of question.
    Sincerely in Christ
    Jim Siebken

  3. Hi, I wanted to answer to Jim’s question, not that I am a scholar of the Bible but I am a reborn who sits, prays and meditates a lot on the Word and I am given answers (ask and you shall receive!). It seems we are all born with a conscience which strengthens or weakens depending on the choices we make. I tend to equate that with Spirit’s voice in the “wilderness” of our tendency to sin. When we listen to it, we feel remorse, we repent and “right” ourselves with God. I asked God to tell me when I first went against my conscience and it was around 3 when I stole and ate some peaches my parents told me not to eat (the unintended consequences of sin – tummy ache because they weren’t ripe). I was told that previous to that, I would have been rejoined to my Soul who is in Heaven waiting since Jesus’ death on the cross and his spending three days in Hades opening the prisons of Sheol. But after I disregard my conscience, I will have to meet with Jesus and Satan and God at my death and Satan will recite the litany of my sins and I can either follow Jesus’ example in his last days and exercise quiet humility and let God (through His Son) speak for me (and say that my sins are paid in full), OR I can point fingers of blame and justify my sins as did Adam and Eve at the first fall. If I am humble and let Jesus do the talking, I am saved by my faith! If I blame and justify, I have chosen to be like Satan, and I fall again. That is why practicing quiet humility and deference to Christ and Scripture is the MOST IMPORTANT thing we can do besides developing a Christ-like conscience – one that is not “seared” and one that is not weak. In the Greek translation of Scripture, God actually tells Cain to BE STILL before the Lord and that way he can conquer sin which is crouching at his door, and to do right by his conscience. It seems to me that the one thing we Christians forget to do most is BE STILL before the Lord. : )

  4. Jordan says:

    Hi. I am looking for a part in the bible that I remember hearing someone on tv preach about. It said that god talks to you through your heart and your head. Like basically saying that you know it is the true word of God when it feels right in your heart and makes sence in your head. Could you email me at jforney82886@gmail.com and let me know where I can find that in the bible?

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  6. David Evans says:

    James is so close. However Satan is not mentioned in Genesis. Yes – evil may be personified in the serpent mentioned.

    However what is the story really about ? In my view it is akin to a parable. The author of Genesis was attempting to make an explanation of the world as he found it at the time. In doing so he realized that at some point the human species acquired a conscience – and this is a manifestation of a developmental stage where man could think and express abstract ideas.

    Thus, in my view, the parable of ‘Adam and Eve’ should be being celebrated as the most significant event in the development of the human race. As such it is not the point at which man ‘fell’ into sin and became innately bad as many churches would want us to believe. That is just a particular spin they want to put on the parable.

    Yes – it does describe the introduction of concepts of morality and rightness and wrongness – that is the ability to think abstractly.

    Thus churches should be celebrating this great advance in human development which distinguishes us from the animal world. Now this might undercut the following thesis – you are all bad. We have the path to rectify that so come and listen to us – we will show you how to put things right and extend to you the promise of eternal light. So – I don’t expect to be too popular for suggesting this logical interpretation of this aspect of scripture as it’s not too popular to topple a widely used doctrine.

    David L Evans Ph D

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  8. I agree with your analysis.

  9. Solomon Cephas Kanab says:

    I am motivated and inspired by your write – up. I sometimes think of lots of things which are amorous in nature. Something always stops me from practicing my thought. Please where do I stand knowing fully well that God judges the heart. I’m my justified by simply not acting evil?

    • Rachel says:

      Solomon,
      I believe that none of us can be justified by our own actions or even our own pure thoughts. The only way to be justified is through acceptance of Jesus Christ. Every bad thought and action we have done is punishable by death. Jesus took this punishment for us, and only by believing in him are we justified before God. Jesus teaches us that our negative thoughts are sinful as well as our negative actions, but when we follow him we can be forgiven for all of it! Not so that we can continue to sin, but so we can draw near to God who can change our hearts.

  10. Elizabeth says:

    I am debating with a friend who is a Christian but has decided that premarital sex is OK, and he feels that his reading of the Bible and commentators on the subject leads him to have a clear conscience about it.
    I believe his (and their) use of scripture is a reinterpretation (or, less charitably, a willful decision to focus on one definition and exclude all other dimensions of the topic of marriage and sexuality) of various short passages in the New Testament.
    So, he claims that since he is living according to his conscience makes it somewhat akin to not eating meat sacrificed to idols or other prohibitions that Paul basically told people to not argue about.
    I conclude that it’s not my place to judge, and that his conscience is between him and God, after many many attempts to discuss what the scriptures mean. (
    What do you think? I don’t think the conscience is the final say or the best definer of what is right or wrong, but how can I explain that? I’d say it should match what the Bible says about any given topic, but he’s already re-interpreted the Bible to fit what he wants it mean.

  11. david hernandez says:

    Im hoping someone can help me Im a new beliver of God and Lately I feel like I have one badconscience and one good conscience And one Mutual conscience I could be just Overthinking Everything like I usually do but My good conscience belives in god and wants to get close and My bad conscience says horrible things and Middle conscience says stupid stuff like I dont believe in god and Im loosing my mind over this I constantly try to Ignore it and Continue my Reading of the bible and hope Jesus can help me

    • Rachel says:

      Jesus can definitely help you! Continue chasing after him. Satan tries to interfere with our belief in God, but the Holy Spirit can give you power to overcome your doubts and other thoughts.

      “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” (?James? ?4?:?7-8? ESV)

      “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.” (?Ephesians? ?6?:?10-18? ESV)

  12. Bill Roehm says:

    To All,
    One’s hope must be based on what the One who holds all souls say’s. ( “All souls are mine” Ez..18 V 4). Our creator did just that when creating everything about us and the all knowing Lord God ensured His prerogative to judge the entirety of the human race without exception using the conscience. ( ” They are without excuse” Rom. 1 v 20). The conscience is a part of the human races’ gifts from God. One must consult the word of God to be aware of what the Bible calls the “present truth” (2Pet. 1 v 12) and it’s inclusion of what the Lord expects from His elect (Lu. 24 v 33), who, by the way, God sees fit to gather together in places to be exposed to and exercise the Godly influence of the gifts our Father gave to Jesus’ body, of which he is the head. The Church is is on this earth we inhabit for necessary and good reason! Sincerely, a revelation from God is absolutely required in every case to understand anything about Him correctly… without exception! Our conscience is of little use to us to avoid the judgement of God when it comes, for we are saved by Grace through Faith, not conscience! It is, however, the very “tool’ with which God enables his righteousness to divide the lost from the saved ie. judge the world (Rom. 1 v 20 again). Consider that “the answer of a good conscience towards God” ( 1Pet. 3 v 21) likely can be the FIRST of a number of steps in salvation’s life long work, to be followed by as many more as the Lord would provide ( Ps. 37 v 23). Again a revelation of the truth, through His approved and authorized messenger(s) is always necessary ( 2 Pet. 1 v 19,20,21). The conscience is then bolstered and corrected and properly held to become useful in the hands of God always augmented and led by His Holy Spirit and His printed-ministered-revealed will. God does have a remnant that he preserves and by which He chooses to declare His truth in our day ( the days when you are alive to hear it). Jesus says ” fear not my little flock”. Believe God and believe in the message of His Prophets. James 1 v 5 God is a liberal giver!

  13. Ruth says:

    I have a quick question for the author of this article. In point 4, regarding over functioning of the conscience, condemning and accusing us for “small errors, forgiven actions, and normal human failings”. As if to say we should not be condemned by these three things. Can you give an example of the first of these three categories: small errors? I assume you don’t mean to imply there are small sins. Please help me understand this. Thank you!

    • Ryan says:

      Not the author, but in Christ we are not condemned by anything. What benefit could be found from feeling condemned by any of these shortcomings/sins? Either they were paid for by Jesus on the cross or we are condemned for them, it can’t be both ways. God will not condemn His son on the cross and condemn us on judgement day for the same sins. So, there are no small sins, but there are sins that are paid for, which means we need not beat ourselves up to pay for them again.