Man’s conscience is a slippery topic to grab in the Scriptures. The word that Paul uses for conscience (syneidesis) is essentially absent from the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), and apart from Paul’s letters and mouth, it rarely occurs in the New Testament. To be sure, Paul was not inventing the concept, for there is no question of the reality of the conscience prior to Paul—just the terminology. The conscience can be seen in action throughout the Old Testament, though it is never described as such. Adam and Eve realized they were naked, felt shame, and felt the urge to hide their nakedness. Cain felt the need to lie to God regarding his brother, for he knew he had acted wrongly, and David despaired of his guilt in Psalm 51, crying out for God to cleanse him. Paul simply took up this concept of one’s self-awareness of sin according to the Greek philosophical language of his day.
How would the Lord have us use our conscience, especially according to Paul?
Is the conscience’s purpose to condemn us before God, having us feeling guilty? Since that is already accomplished by the law, the conscience must have another purpose. With Paul’s consistent focus upon the Christian’s life toward his neighbor, Paul takes up the conscience and uses it as a helpful internal conversation of self-evaluation regarding one’s life toward his neighbor.
What is the conscience according to Paul?
Since he specifically speaks of the conscience separately from the heart (1 Timothy 1:5) and the mind (Titus 1:15), one can deduce that the conscience is distinct from them. Furthermore, Paul speaks of the conscience as an active internal conversation within oneself, or an internal evaluation of self-judgment, for he says, “the conscience bears witness” (Romans 2:15; 9:1). Though it is active, it is also an entity that can be described as weak (1 Corinthians 8:10), good (Acts 23:1), and able to be defiled (1 Corinthians 8:7), or wounded (1 Corinthians 8:12). The conscience is more than “the law written on our hearts” because the conscience operates in addition to that law, according to Romans 2:15, “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.” And since pagans (Romans 2:14-15) and Christians (Romans 9:1) alike possess a conscience, Paul recognizes the conscience as an aspect intrinsic to humanity, not limited to those with faith.
So, if everyone has a conscience, what informs it?
What does the conscience use as its parameters of right and wrong, offensive or not? How does the conscience know when it has been defiled or wounded? How can the conscience be a reliable guide since it is part of the fallen sinful man and is infected with sin, as well?
Paul answers these questions through examples of the conscience in action. In 1 Corinthians 8 and 10, the conscience is a key player in determining whether one should refrain from eating food offered to idols. If a person has had “former association” with idols, then his conscience is weakened by that association, as it has been informed and guided by it. “However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled” 1 Corinthians 8:7. Likewise, those who make laws contrary to God’s law still damage consciences “through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth” 1Timothy 4:2-3.
On the contrary, when a person’s conscience is informed by the Lord’s Word, he can partake in identical activities, and yet his conscience will escape unharmed. “Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For ‘the earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof’” Psalm 24:1. “If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience” 1 Corinthians 10:25-27. In this way, while the conscience is intrinsic to all men, it will only convict him, leaving him either defiled or unscathed according to that which informs his conscience. Thus, two people can enjoy a delightful steak that has been offered to an idol, but one person will walk away with a defiled conscience, while the other simply walks away with a full stomach.
Moreover, the conscience of the Christian, the new man, is daily renewed and sanctified by the Holy Spirit. “I am speaking the truth in Christ — I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit” Romans 9:1. To the extent that the conscience is bearing witness in the Holy Spirit, informed by the Word, its judgments are reliable. However, the man as sinner (the old Adam) will always be at war with the new man, attempting to use the conscience to bring despair and angst to the internal conversation of the conscience. Paul expresses such despair in Romans 7:14-20, “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.”
The conscience as defiled or clean before God
Paul describes the conscience as it evaluates past actions, resulting in the conscience being defiled or clean. He acknowledges the conscience’s involvement in future decisions (1 Corinthians 10:29), but its primary role is as evaluating previous action. With the conscience operating as such, and being informed by the Lord’s law—at least within the Christian--it will always leave the sinner defiled, since the law always reveals man’s sin (Romans 3:20). Therefore, the sinner’s conscience rightly accuses him before God, leaving him defiled.
Paul, however, frequently speaks of the conscience as “good” or “clean/blameless.” How can this be if it always accuses sin? For the Christian, having faith in Christ, his conscience is always clean before God. In fact, whenever Paul describes the conscience as “good,” he simultaneously mentions the “faith” in the person (e.g., 1 Timothy 1:5: “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith”; 1 Timothy 1:19: “holding faith and a good conscience”; 1 Timothy 3:9: “They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience”). Therefore, the Christian stands before God with a clean and pure conscience, not according to the law or to himself, but according to his faith in Christ. This is why Paul can honestly confess before the chief priests, “Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day” (Acts 23:1), despite the historical reality that he had done plenty of sin to defile his conscience.
The conscience before one’s neighbor
An essential purpose of the conscience according to Paul is to guide the Christian in his life of love and service toward his neighbor. He demonstrates this in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10, holding the conscience as the central guide for a person’s dietary habits (to eat food offered to idols or not). The intent of preserving the neighbor’s conscience is the only reason Paul gives for not indulging Christian liberty (1 Corinthians 10:28-29). In this way, one’s love toward the neighbor is seen in his respect toward the neighbor’s conscience, for he recognizes that in harming the conscience, the neighbor himself is harmed. “Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ” 1 Corinthians 8:12. Therefore, the Christian’s love toward his neighbor includes his respect for the neighbor’s easily offended and weak conscience.
In conclusion, the conscience of the Christian sets him before his neighbor, to love and serve him according to the Lord’s law. In his sinful flesh, his conscience will be defiled by his own sin in every situation. But as a man of faith, the Christian delights in his clean conscience before God, and he uses his freedom to love the neighbor, putting his neighbor’s conscience before his own.
Pastor Seth Clemmer is pastor to Mt. Calvary Lutheran Church in Estes Park, Colorado.