As Jesus was sitting in the temple teaching the people, the scribes and Pharisees dragged a frightened woman in and set her down in their midst saying, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. Now Moses in the law commanded us that such should be stoned, but what do You say?” These Jewish rulers were testing Jesus, trying to find an accusation to bring against Him. However, Jesus turned the tables on them and confronted them with a moral dilemma of their own. At first, Jesus stooped down and began to write on the ground with His finger, as if He didn’t hear them. When they continued questioning Him, Jesus raised Himself up and said, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first,” after which He stooped down and wrote on the ground once more (John 8:2-8).
The scribes and Pharisees were religious men who believed their strict observance of the Law of Moses made them righteous (Matthew 23:28, Luke 18:11-12, Philippians 3:4-6). You might have expected these self-righteous men to go right ahead and stone this woman, whom they considered to be a sinner, but the Scripture says they were “convicted by their own conscience” (John 8:9). The word convicted means they were reproved or rebuked. Who rebuked them? Their own conscience! While they sought to bring an accusation against Jesus (John 8:6), He focused their attention on the issue of their own sin, saying, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” The question He posed to them was “Are you without sin?” Their conscience rebuked them, clearly testifying within them that they were not without sin. Beginning with the oldest, down to the youngest, they all walked away. The woman was left alone with Jesus, the only one who was “without sin,” yet He did not condemn her. He sent her away and admonished her to sin no more (John 8:9-11).
What is the Conscience?
Some people describe the conscience as that “little voice” in our head that tells us what to do. In cartoons and TV commercials the conscience is often pictured as a little white angel with a halo that speaks in one ear telling us to do what is right while a red devil with a pitchfork speaks in the other ear telling us to do what is wrong. While these are not accurate descriptions, they do emphasize the basic function of the conscience: to discern between right and wrong.
Webster’s Dictionary defines the word conscience as “an awareness of right and wrong, with a compulsion to do right.” It comes from a Latin word that literally means “to know with.” The Greek word translated conscience in Scripture is the word sunedeisis. The preposition sun means “together with.” The verb eido means “to see, know, perceive or discern.” The word consciencemight be called joint-knowledge or co-knowledge with one’s self. Thayer’s Greek-English Lexiconsays the conscience “distinguishes between what is morally good and bad, prompting us to do the former and shun the latter, commending the one, condemning the other.”
How Did Man Come to Have a Conscience?
When God created Adam and Eve, He placed them in the Garden of Eden to tend and keep it. He commanded that they could freely eat of the trees in the garden, except for one tree.
“But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:17)
We read in Genesis, chapter 3, how the serpent deceived Eve and she ate the fruit from the forbidden tree, gave the fruit to her husband, Adam, and he ate also.
“Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves coverings. And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.” (Gensis 3:7-8)
The first thing Adam and Eve did was to make themselves coverings from fig leaves. Why would they do this? We read in Genesis 2:25 that when they were created “they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.” Why would they be ashamed now? They were now “conscious” of their nakedness. Having eaten the fruit from this tree, they now knew the difference between good and evil (Genesis 3:22), not because the fruit itself caused some type of chemical reaction or physical change within them, but because they had committed evil by disobeying God. They were ashamed of their nakedness, but they were more ashamed of their sin against God and tried to hide themselves from His presence. This knowledge of good and evil marked the beginning of man’s conscience, his consciousness of sin.
Do All People Have a Conscience?
We sometimes hear people described as being “without a conscience” or committing “unconscionable acts.” Do all people have a conscience, or just believers? The apostle Paul, in 2 Corinthians 4:2, speaks of “… commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.” We see from this statement that all men have a conscience, both believers and unbelievers. For example, the incident described in John, chapter 8, involving the Jewish rulers and the woman caught in adultery, shows that the scribes and Pharisees had a conscience. These men were clearly unsaved, for though they made an outward show of righteousness (Matthew 23:28), their hearts were far from God (Matthew 15:8). When these self-righteous men were questioned about whether they were without sin or not, their conscience rebuked them, and none dared cast a stone at the woman caught in adultery.
Another example of unbelievers who are said to have a conscience is the Gentiles during the Old Testament period. The covenant of law was made between God and His chosen nation, Israel. The other nations, who are called Gentiles, had no part in this covenant. They were “strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:11-12). Though they were “without law,” God still held them accountable for their sin, just as if they were under the law.
“For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them.” (Romans 2:14-15)
Though the Gentiles were not under the law, they still did the things contained in the law. What would lead them to do the things in the law if the law had never even been given to them? It was their “nature,” something they were born with. The work of the law was written on their hearts. Their conscience bore witness within them as to what was right and wrong, accusing or excusing each thought, word and deed.
Just as we are born with a sin nature passed on to us from our father, Adam, we are also born with a conscience, the ability to discern between good and evil.
Why Was Man Given a Conscience?
Is the conscience good? Is it something man should follow? In general, the answer to these questions is “Yes.” While we certainly see a moral decline in our world today, we still see a basic moral goodness, even among unbelievers. How is this possible? The answer is man’s conscience.
Knowing what man’s sin nature is like, we might expect to find absolutely no good, moral behavior among unbelievers (Ephesians 4:22), but this is not the case. For example, consider the issue of modesty in dress. We live in a world that is becoming more and more immodest in dress, yet most people still maintain a sense of modesty and decency in their choice of clothing. What leads them to do so? Their conscience does. This sense of decency and modesty began in the Garden of Eden immediately after Adam and Eve sinned. They knew they were naked and sought to clothe themselves. Their newly acquired conscience led them to do what was morally good, to be modest about their bodies.
We also see man’s conscience leading him to be in subjection to governing authorities (Romans 13:5). We live in a world that increasingly disrespects governments and disobeys laws, yet most people, because of their conscience, still recognize the necessity of having laws and authorities to enforce these laws.
Remember that God has given man a conscience. It is His way of controlling or throttling man’s sinful nature. We live in an “evil age” (Galatians 1:4). As we get closer to the end of this age, we know that “perilous times will come” (2 Timothy 3:1). Yet, as evil and perilous as the world is now, think how much worse things would be if man had no knowledge of good and evil; if he had no conscience leading him to do what is morally good and right. The world would be so terrible that it would be impossible for men to have any type of peaceful and safe co-existence.
Is Following Our Conscience Good Enough?
Many people believe if they just follow their conscience and do what it tells them is “good” then God will accept them and they will one day go to heaven. While our conscience is basically good and we would hope that most people would follow their conscience, the Bible clearly teaches that being morally good does not save anyone from their sins. Our conscience allows us to discern or know good and evil. It may even lead us to strive to do what is morally good in men’s eyes, but in our flesh we are powerless to do what is good in God’s eyes (Romans 8:3, Romans 3:10-20). We are all sinners who fall short of God’s holy and righteous standard (Romans 3:23). Because of our sin, we are separated from God, and are under sin’s penalty, which is death (Romans 6:23). No matter how carefully we follow our conscience in thought, word and deed, we cannot change our spiritual condition. We remain “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1-3).
God Himself has provided the only way for us to be saved from our sins (John 14:6). Because of His great love for us, God sent His only begotten Son into the world to die on the cross of Calvary for the sins of the whole world (1 John 4:9-10, 2:2). Salvation has nothing to do with our moral goodness or good works (Ephesians 2:8-9). The finished work of Christ is what makes it possible for us to be saved and enter into a relationship with God. When we believe that Jesus Christ, God’s Son, died for our sins, was buried, and rose again (1 Corinthians 15:3-4), when we put our complete trust in Christ and His finished work on the cross, God saves us. He makes us alive in Christ (Ephesians 2:4-5). We become sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:26).
The unsaved person needs to have his conscience cleansed (Hebrews 9:14). Good works or religious works have no power to accomplish this cleansing. Even the sacrifices, which were offered under the law, could only cover the people’s sins; they could never take them away. Therefore, people remained conscious of their sin and guilt. True forgiveness of sins and cleansing of our conscience comes only through the blood of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:14; Hebrews 10:9-14).
God may use our conscience, in some way, to lead us to acknowledge that we are sinners, but following our conscience is not enough to save us.
Should We Let Our Conscience be Our Guide?
We often hear people use the expression, “Let your conscience be your guide.” We have already stated that for mankind in general, the conscience serves a good purpose, but is the conscience a reliable guide for a believer, for one who has trusted Jesus Christ as Savior?
The Scriptures teach that the conscience can be good (Acts 23:1; 1 Timothy 1:5,19), pure or clean (1 Timothy 3:9, 2 Timothy 1:3), and without offense (Acts 24:16). The Scriptures also teach that the conscience can become weak (1 Corinthians 8:7, 10, 12), evil or wicked (Hebrews 10:22), defiled, stained or polluted (Titus 1:15, 2 Timothy 3:3-4), even seared with a hot iron (1 Timothy 4:2). We certainly see this corruption in the consciences of unbelievers. Paul told Titus:
“To the pure all things are pure, but to those who are defiled and unbelieving nothing is pure; but even their mind and conscience are defiled.” (Titus 1:15)
The conscience of an unsaved person, over time, can become defiled or corrupted. We see this in our society today. People rationalize their behavior. They adopt a philosophy of moral relativism or situational ethics, which declares there are no moral absolutes, but each person determines for himself what is right or wrong depending upon the situation. With this type of philosophy, it is easy to see how a person’s conscience can become so corrupted that it reaches a point of being “seared with a hot iron” (1 Timothy 4:2). The Greek word translated “seared with a hot iron” is where we get our word cauterized. It refers to a conscience that has become insensitive or unfeeling, and thus unable to discern right from wrong.
Though we expect to see this corruption of the conscience in those who don’t know Jesus Christ as Savior, we must recognize that the conscience of a believer can also become defiled. Paul testified in the Lord that believers should:
“… no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart; who, being past feeling have given themselves over to lewdness, to work all uncleanness with greediness. But you have not so learned Christ.” (Ephesians 4:17-20)
Since Paul directs us to “no longer walk” this way, it must be possible for us to continue do so, even after we are saved. A believer who continually walks in accordance with the world and his own fleshly desires may become “past feeling;” his conscience no longer able to reliably discern between good and evil.
If Not Our Conscience, What Should be Our Guide?
When we trust in Jesus Christ as Savior, we become a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). We receive a new, spiritual nature, the new man, which is “created, according to God, in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24). We still retain the old, sinful nature we were born with, a nature which “grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts” (Ephesians 4:22) but our new nature enables us to live for and please the Lord. Having these two natures, there is a constant struggle within us as to which nature will have control (Romans 7:15-25). How can we know and do what is right?
God has not left us alone in this struggle. He has given us His Holy Spirit to dwell within us (Romans 8:9,11) and to strengthen us (Ephesians 3:16), but only as we live “according to the Spirit,” which means controlled by or led by the Holy Spirit. In order to do this, we must present or yield ourselves to Him (Romans 6:13, 12:1-2), placing ourselves completely at His disposal for His use. This is what Paul described as being “spiritually minded” (Romans 8:6). Our conscience may not always be a reliable guide, but the leadership of the Holy Spirit in our lives is absolutely trustworthy!
How do we tell the difference between our conscience and the leadership of God’s Spirit within us? That might be difficult if God had not given us a revelation of His will for our lives—the Word of God! The Bible is God’s Word. It is “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16). It is the source of absolute truth and we can rely upon it implicitly. God’s Word teaches us, reproves us, corrects us, and instructs us in how to live righteously (2 Timothy 3:16). God’s Word thoroughly equips us for a life of service for Him (2 Timothy 3:17). When we diligently apply ourselves to the study and practice of the Scriptures, being careful to rightly divide the Word of truth, we can be unashamed, knowing that God approves of the work we do for Him (2 Timothy 2:15).
God’s Word is a much more reliable guide than our conscience. It is a living, powerful book that pierces our very hearts and souls. While our conscience may be weak, defiled, even seared with a hot iron, when we are confronted with the truth of God’s Word, it becomes a discerner, a critic of the thoughts and intent of our hearts (Hebrews 4:12). God’s Word gives us the true picture of what is right and wrong, what is good and evil, what is pleasing to the Lord and what grieves Him. Yes, there are moral absolutes, and we find them clearly taught in the Scriptures.
As we read and study God’s Word, we grow in knowledge and in our ability to discern the things that are excellent to God (Philippians 1:9-11). Thus, if we truly want to know and follow God’s will, we must take to heart what Paul told the Colossian believers: “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Colossians 3:16). When our minds and hearts are filled with the truth of God’s Word, we will know what is right in His eyes. When we are yielded to the Holy Spirit and controlled by Him, we will be able to live and please the Lord.
Is the Conscience Important to a Believer?
Once we are saved, is our conscience still important? Yes. The apostle Paul stressed the importance of the conscience in his testimony before the Jewish Sanhedrin (Acts 23:1) and before the Roman governor, Felix (Acts 24:16).
Paul told the Jewish leaders, “Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day” (Acts 23:1). Though he stood accused by the Jewish leaders, men who claimed to be righteous, Paul knew in his heart, through the testimony of his conscience, that he was doing what was good and right in God’s sight. This was Paul’s first priority, to please the Lord, not to please men, as he said in Galatians 1:10, “… for if I still pleased men, I would not be a bondservant of Christ.” Paul’s testimony, throughout his ministry was, “I thank God, whom I serve with a pure conscience, as my forefathers did” (2 Timothy 1:3). Certainly Paul was not relying solely upon his conscience. He studied and knew the Old Testament Scriptures, he received revelations from God, and he was led of the Holy Spirit. Yet, Paul considered the testimony of his conscience to be important as well.
Paul later told Felix, “I always strive to have a conscience without offense toward God and men” (Acts 24:16). The expression “without offense” means that which does not offend, strike out at, or cause to stumble. First and foremost, Paul wanted to ensure that he did not offend or strike out at God. Yet, Paul also strove to live a life without offense toward men. This didn’t mean Paul sought to please men, but that he made sure his words and actions didn’t cause others to stumble.
To have a conscience that is “without offense” toward men, there are two areas of concern. The first is our conduct or manner of life, the way we live before the Lord and other people. This is a vital part of our testimony. Philippians 2:15 teaches that we live “in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation,” and as children of God, we are to “shine as lights in the world.” To effectively do so, we should become blameless and harmless in our conduct before others. This doesn’t mean we must be sinlessly perfect, but that we live a life that others cannot easily find fault with, a life that is genuinely devoted to Christ. O, that the testimony of our conscience might be the same as Paul’s.
“For our boasting is this: the testimony of our conscience that we conducted ourselves in the world in simplicity and godly sincerity, not with fleshly wisdom but by the grace of God, and more abundantly toward you.” (2 Corinthians 1:12).
When our conscience testifies that our conduct is pure and godly, then God can use our lives to impact others. Paul stressed the importance of his conduct in ministering to those in Ephesus (Acts 20:17-27) and Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 2:1-12).
The second area of concern, if we are to have a conscience “without offense” toward men, is how we handle the Word of God. As believers we are to bear a testimony for the Lord, not only by the way we live (Philippians 2:15), but also by “holding forth the word of life” (Philippians 2:16).
When we share the truth of God’s Word with others, we must be careful in how we handle and present it. To begin with, we must first know the truth ourselves. Paul instructed Timothy,
“Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)
When we diligently study and rightly divide the Word of truth, we can know and understand God’s will and His plan and purpose for His church during this present dispensation of grace (Ephesians 3:19). We must know the truth of God’s Word for it provides the answers that people need to hear (Colossians 4:6). Even Peter admonished the Jewish believers:
“But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear; having a good conscience, that when they defame you as evildoers, those who revile your good conduct in Christ may be ashamed.” (1 Peter 3:15-16)
However, just knowing the Word is not enough. We must also be careful in how we present the Word to others. Paul told the Corinthians:
“But we have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness nor handling the Word of God deceitfully, but by manifestation of the truth, commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.” (2 Corinthians 4:2)
When Paul proclaimed the gospel to the people in Thessalonica, his ministry was sincere, his motives pure. His desires were not self-seeking, but for the glory and praise of God (1 Thessalonians 2:4-6). As a result, the people “received the word of God … not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe” (1 Thessalonians 2:13).
Finally, as we speak the truth of the Word, it is vital that we do so “in love” (Ephesians 4:15). Paul told Timothy,
“And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth, and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will.” (2 Timothy 2:24-26)
Our responsibility is not to change people’s minds, but to gently, patiently, and humbly share the Word of God with them, trusting God to change their hearts and lives.
When our conduct is pleasing to the Lord and our handling of His Word is pure, then the testimony of our conscience will be one that is without offense toward both God and man. While the conscience is not the absolute guide for our lives as believers, the testimony of our conscience plays an important role in our service for the Lord. May each of us be able to say, as Paul did:
“I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day.”