By James T. Collard
There is a tremendous amount of controversy and misunderstanding surrounding the nature and function of the conscience today. A good example of this was seen in a 2009 article of Christian Century. The author stated that her alma mater (which was left unspecified) recently made a switch from using social security numbers as student identification numbers to using a computer generated nine-digit number assigned to the student.
However, as soon as the program was initiated there were complaints from several students concerning the new system. There were several Christian students that had received numbers containing the sequence “666” and felt they could not continue their college careers with the “mark of the beast” in their student identification. The university had created a whole new constitutional crisis!
The university attorney ruled with the students. “A public institution must take reasonable steps to protect religious practice if . . . a burden has been placed on the free exercise of religion. Equality in applying policy is not enough; religious conscience must be accommodated, even if it means granting certain special benefits to some students and not others.”Clearly, this issue of conscience and liberty with its application in any context is murky at best.
This issue of conscience was also discussed by the Roman Catholic Church in the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). They saw the incredible necessity of defining conscience for the sake of unity in their teachings of doctrine. They defined the function of conscience in this way:
Deep within their conscience men and women discover a law which they have not laid upon themselves and which they must obey. Its voice, ever calling them to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, tells them inwardly at the right moment: do this, shun that. For they have in their hearts a law inscribed by God. Their dignity rests in observing this law, and by this they will be judged. Their conscience is people’s most secret core, and their sanctuary. There they are alone with God whose voice echoes in their depths. Through loyalty to conscience, Christians are joined to others in the search for truth and for the right solution to so many moral problems which arise both in the life of individuals and from social relationships. Hence, the more a correct conscience prevails, the more do persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and endeavor to conform to the objective standards of conduct. Yet it often happens that conscience goes astray through ignorance which it is unable to avoid, without thereby losing its dignity. This cannot be said of the person who takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is gradually almost blinded through the habit of committing sin.
Believers need to understand the importance of this issue and its impact on the actions of every human being. However, an understanding of conscience must be rooted in the Word. The Scripture does teach on the conscience, and a proper understanding of it should reflect good study in and exegesis of the Word. The goal of this paper is to produce a biblical theology of the conscience, define and explain the function of conscience and its co-union with the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, and prove that it is impossible for a believer to have a seared conscience.
A THEOLOGY OF CONSCIENCE
In order to understand how the conscience works, it is imperative to first define what it is and develop a biblical theology from its use in Scripture. In this section the word “conscience” will be studied and a biblical theology will be formed based on exegesis, analysis, and synthesis of the Scriptural texts.
The Conscience Defined
What is this entity that is called the conscience? Man’s spiritual understanding distinguishes between what is both true and false and right and wrong. He looks at the facts in a situation of spiritual or ethical morality and arrives at a conclusion based on an internal judgment of right and wrong that is also influenced by an accepted rule of right. This is a normal experience for all men, no matter how faintly his internal judgment of right and wrong impacts his decision. However, another factor enters to endorse the conclusion of action reached by a peculiarly mandatory urge of obligation to the right and deprecation of the wrong. This other factor is conscience. “The usages of conscience in the New Testament suggest that it pertains, broadly speaking, to one’s ethics of morals; i.e., the conscience is a moral consciousness.”
Therefore, based on ethnology and New Testament usage, the conscience can be defined as “the inner knowledge or awareness of, and sensitivity to, some moral standard. That standard may differ with each individual . . . but even so the conscience is the faculty of man by which he has an awareness of some standard of conduct.” To summarize, the conscience is an innate faculty possessed by all men through which they are able to identify right and wrong.
A Biblical Theology of Conscience
The noun suneidesis literally means “knowledge with” and carries with it the idea of both “consciousness” and “conscience.” When the verb form word is used in the perfect tense with present implications, it should be interpreted “to be conscious of” or “to have a conscience about.”
“Conscience” in the Old Testament
The Old Testament does not have a word that is translated “conscience” in the King James Version. However, this is not to say that the Old Testament fails to interact with conscience. Most of the references to what is understood to be conscience are translated “heart.” This should be understood as the voice of a divine judge who demands an account from mankind about his earthly dealings. This is how David’s heart was smitten and reminded of guilt as he was summoned to penitence by the prophet Nathan (Psalm 50:10). When David states, “Create in me a clean heart [emphasis mine] and renew a right spirit within me” he is most probably referring to what would be understand as a clean conscience in New Testament revelation.
The relation between the Hebrew notion of heart and the Greek connotation of conscience is most marked in the writings of Philo, the first man to truly think through the doctrine of the conscience theologically. In Philo’s theology, the conscience is not merely an autonomous court of appeal, but rather an individual entity that is entirely shaped by the law of God. It is capable of both accusing and correcting based on whether it is awakened through shame or pleased and propitiated through righteousness of action. Conscience performs all of this in an effort to drive the sinner back into personal fellowship with God. It is this relationship with God that provided the Old Testament foundation for Philo’s early explorations into the doctrine of conscience.
“Conscience” in the New Testament
The verb sunoida occurs only twice in the entire New Testament. However, the noun form suneidesis appears nearly thirty times. It is seen only once in the gospels and twice in the book of Acts. All the other usages occur in the writings of Paul, Hebrews and 1 Peter.
Conscience in the Writings of Paul
There are twenty-nine uses of suneidesis that are most definitely included in the canon. For sake of brevity all of these cannot be examined but some broad principles can be taken from each of these writers who examine this idea of conscience.
Romans. In Romans 2:15 Paul brings two distinct entities into play: the “law written in their hearts” and the “conscience which bears witness.” Murray makes a very clear distinction between these two faculties. He argues that the law referred to is “the law of God . . . which the Gentiles in view did not have, the law the Jews did have and under which they were, the law by which men will be condemned in the day of judgment.”
The conscience cannot be identified with this law for three particular reasons. First, the conscience is noted as giving joint witness. Second, conscience is a function that operates in the immaterial nature of man. The law of God is integrated into our nature; it is the antecedent to the operations of conscience and the cause of them. Finally, the precise thought is that the operations of conscience bear witness to the fact that the law of God is indeed written on the heart. “Not only does the doing of the things of the law prove the work of the law written in the heart but the witness of conscience does also. Hence the distinction between the work of the law and conscience.” Hahn clarifies this further. Conscience is illustrated as a court of appeal which cannot by any means “promulgate any statutes” but is able to deliver judgment on the cases it is presented with.
In Romans 9:1 Paul introduces a new, difficult section on the process of salvation with direct application to the nation of Israel. He states, “I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost.” Anders argues that conscience in this text demonstrates the valid role that conscience can play in the spiritual life when it has been shaped and disciplined in spiritual maturity.
Later in this epistle Paul discusses government’s capacity to serve as a minister of God’s wrath (13:1-7). In verse 5 Paul surfaces this idea of conscience once again. Pierce gives a succinct summary of the verse.
It is your duty to God to be subject to the power: to rebel is not only illegal therefore, it is also morally wrong. It is not simply punishment by society that awaits the rebel, and the fear of which should deter him: it is also, for the law can be broken on occasion with impunity, the more terrible and less avoidable – for it is already within him – pain of conscience. And both are parallel manifestations of God in action to maintain the order of things: the one is the wrath external and mediated by society, the other is its internal counterpart.
In summary, the epistle to the Romans teaches that the conscience is a divine gift to all men. This gift is explicitly clear in the moral consciousness and possesses the law of God written on every heart. “Conscience therefore does not possess its own intrinsic authority: its authority rests in God himself who has given it, and on his law, the knowledge of which it brings to man’s attention.”
1 and 2 Corinthians. Chapter 8 provides some important insight into this issue of conscience. In regards to food being offered to idols, new converts did not want to take any chance of being contaminated by the evil pagan influences from which they had been rescued through salvation. Although they knew the pagan gods previously worshipped were not real, these believers still struggled with the real idolatrous practices in which they had recently participated. Their consciences were not yet strong enough to allow them to eat foods offered to idols without having it pull them back into idolatrous activity.
If these “weaker brothers” eat meat offered to idols with their more knowledgeable spiritual brothers contrary to their conscience, they have defiled their conscience through eating. Even though the act itself is not morally or spiritually wrong, it becomes sinful when it is committed against the conscience. This concept of a “defiled conscience” is one that has been ignored and/or violated. MacArthur sheds helpful light on this issue.
Such a conscience brings confusion, resentment, and feelings of guilt. A person who violates his conscience willingly does what he thinks to be wrong. In his own mind he has committed sin; and until he fully understands that the act is not sin in God’s eyes, he should have no part in it. Defiled conscience is defiled faith. Such behavior brings guilt feelings, despair, and loss of joy and peace. It may also lead to sinful thoughts connected with former pagan practices and even lead a person back into some of them.
Verse nine is a stern warning to mature believers. They are not to become a stumbling block to weaker brothers. If an immature believer sees a more knowledgeable brother doing something that bothers his weak conscience, his spiritual life is now damaged. A mature believer should never influence a fellow Christian to go against something that his conscience is protecting him from. It is possible for a stronger brother to lead a weaker brother into sin by placing him in a situation he cannot handle and thus leading him against the promptings of his conscience (vs. 10-11).
It is never right to cause another believer to violate his conscience. When a believer does this he sins against Christ himself. Causing a brother to stumble is more than an offense against him. It is an offense against the Savior.
What then is the teaching about the conscience gleaned from this chapter? First, Paul is proclaiming the freedom that every believer has from regimentation by an alien conscience. Second, Paul is very emphatic in his calling for stronger believers to be sensitive to the needs of a brother who possesses a weaker conscience.
In chapter 10 Paul addresses similar issues in dealing with believers eating meat offered to idols. There are two particular situations in which the believer could come into innocent contact with idolatrous meat: the marketplace and another person’s home. It is notable that conscience in this text is given a subordinate role to love. Paul comments that it is best to avoid asking questions about the origin of the offered meat so that questions of conscience are not raised. In short, it is a case, not of defiling the conscience of the eater (stronger brother), but of avoiding inflaming the conscience of the weaker brother.
Therefore, the purpose of conscience of 1 Corinthians is to teach the overriding principle of edification through promoting love and personal discipline in the life of every believer.
Paul rejoices in the testimony of his own conscience in that it has been informed by God, the creator and sustainer of the universe (2 Cor 2:12). In the same fashion, he sincerely hopes that the consciences of others will be informed in the same manner (2 Cor 4:2; 5:11). “Thus, not only is the avoidance of a bad, accusing conscience worth aspiring after. It is even more important to have a good conscience which confirms the agreement of faith and life. Appealing to such a conscience which is in line with the will of God, Paul can also demand obedience to those in authority (Romans 13:5).”
The Pastoral Epistles. The Pastoral Epistles place a tremendous amount of emphasis on the importance of having a good conscience. 1 Tim 1:5 names the conscience as one of the prerequisites for true Christian love, and verse 19 exhorts believers to “hold faith and a good conscience.” The summation of conscience in the positive sense is found in 1 Tim 3:9. “Holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience.” The mystery referred to here is a reference to New Testament revelation. The faith is the content of the New Testament revealed truth. Believers are commanded to embrace the content of this revelation with a conscience that does not accuse them. It is not enough to merely believe the truth, it must also be practiced and modeled in everyday life. The affirmation of the believer by his conscience is directly proportional to the depth of biblical knowledge coupled with daily, continual obedience. “Thus, the conscience can be regarded as the place where the ‘mystery of faith’ is to be found.”
The negative side of conscience is found in Titus 1:15 which speaks of the “corrupt and unbelieving” whose “minds and consciences are corrupted.” Because the Cretan false teachers were holding their position in regard to the necessity of ceremonial purity, they were demonstrating the corrupt nature of their minds and their consciences. In essence, they could no longer determine right from wrong in this corporate issue of cleansing. Another negative example of conscience is found in 1 Tim 4 where the expression “seared conscience” is used. This phrase will be explained later in the paper.
The purpose of conscience in the Pastoral Epistles is to demonstrate the relationship of faith and truth to a pure conscience. In direct contrast, the rejection of truth results in the immoral behavior of false teachers. It is imperative for every believer to embrace faith and truth in an effort to maintain their pure conscience before God.
Conscience in the Book of Hebrews
Brown does an exceptional job of explaining the purpose of conscience in the book of Hebrews:
Hebrews also stresses the Christological basis of the New Testament understanding of conscience, when it declares that “the blood of Christ” purifies the conscience “from dead works to serve the living God” (9:14). Using the symbolism of the Day of Atonement ritual in which the high priest entered the sanctuary once a year, Hebrews 10:22 urges believers to enter themselves, drawing near “with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” Late Judaism knew of no complete release from consciousness of sin despite repeated cultic rites (cf. 9:9; 10:2). It is only because of the high priestly sacrifice of Christ that “we are sure that we have a clear conscience” (13:18).
Thus, the purpose of conscience in Hebrews is to demonstrate how believers can not only be freed from their sinful consciences, but also how their consciences can be purified through the sacrificial atonement of Jesus Christ.
Conscience in the Petrine Epistles
There are three references to suneidesis in Peter’s letters (1 Peter 2:19; 3:16, 21). In this letter Peter’s audience is challenged to live lives that are free from accusation. Believers must be able to withstand any accusations from a pagan world with a clean conscience. Provided that a believer is right with God and obedient to his promptings, those who engage in groundless charges must come to the realization that such indictments are baseless. This letter also shows how the believer should be confident to stand before pagan opposition without fear. This confidence is not based on some outward ritual washing but on a good conscience before God. Thus, the purpose of conscience in the Petrine letters demonstrates how a good conscience is integral for the followers of Christ to maintain their spiritual purity in a pagan culture.
The conscience is an innate faculty that all men possess by which they are able to identify right and wrong. The Greek word for conscience is suneidesis and it literally means, “knowledge with.” In the Old Testament the word is never used but its idea is seen in the word “heart.” suneidesis is most used proficiently in the writings of Paul. In Romans the idea of conscience is a divine gift to all men. This gift is explicitly clear in the moral consciousness and it makes clear the law of God that is written on every heart. This idea is continued in Corinthians when Paul encourages other believers to take their divine gift and subjugate it out of love for other believers. Believers must be careful of the consciousness of other believers. Each man is accountable to Christ and must obey his conscience as must as it has been informed. Love is the prevailing spirit in this whole discussion on Christian liberty. The pastoral epistles instruct the believers of the importance of truth in relation to the conscience. Hebrews demonstrates how the sacrificial work of Christ frees the conscience from sin and Peter teaches that the believer must maintain his pure conscience in a pagan culture.
Therefore, a biblical theology of the conscience could be defined in this way: the conscience is an innate faculty that is possessed by every man and informed by the law of God written on the heart. The believer’s conscience is freed from sin and purified by the sacrificial work of Christ on the cross. In the believer, the conscience is informed even more through the working of the Holy Spirit and the impartation of divine revelation. Every believer is answerable to his own conscience. However, when in a situation with a weaker brother the believer with the more informed conscience should, out of a spirit of love, submit his conscience to help that believer stay within the bounds of his own conscience. Finally, every believer must work to keep his conscience pure and unspotted from the world in order to answer every possible accusation from the pagan culture.
Properties of Conscience
Before regeneration, an unbeliever is led by his conscience. His moral judgments are good only as much as his depraved nature has informed him so. Therefore, his judgments will always be tainted by sin. However, after salvation, the Holy Spirit resides in the believer and now works with the conscience to help the believer make right moral choices through informing the conscience of what is right and pleasing to the Lord. In this section the functions of conscience both prior to and after regeneration will be examined, along with the co-union of the Holy Spirit and conscience.
The Functions of the Conscience
The functions of the conscience are threefold. First, it distinguishes that which is morally right and wrong. Second, it urges man to do that which he recognizes to be right. Finally, the conscience executes judgment on a man’s acts and executes that judgment within his own soul.
Distinguishing Morally Right and Wrong
The term that could be used to describe this function is “witness.” This description has already been used several times in the biblical theology of conscience. Matheson makes an interesting observation:
Conscience speaks in man’s heart with authority. It, so to speak, demands attention and commands obedience. There is complete indifference to merely personal feelings in the functioning of conscience because its concern is solely with the question of right and wrong, and there is no respect to persons. That man has within himself a factor whose functioning is perfectly impartial and without bias, which cannot respect his own person as over against another and which claims binding authority over him, is surely a striking fact. To deny the claim of one’s conscience is consciously to break one’s own integrity, to prove disloyal, traitorous, untrue to oneself.
The conscience bears witness in three separate ways. First, it bears witness to all of humankind by showing to themselves that they are aware of and sensitive to an inward law (Romans 2:15). Second, it bears witness by confirming emotions as actual feelings (Romans 9:1). Here the conscience indicated internally to Paul that his statement about his felt grief was directly in line with his actual feelings. Finally, Paul rejoices because of the witness of his conscience that he has lived “with devout motives and godly sincerity” (2 Cor 1:12). These three examples of the conscience bearing witness demonstrate the importance of this function of conscience.
Urging to Right Action
The second function of the conscience is to act as a judge. The conscience acts as an adjudicator regarding the moral quality of every action of man. One author called the conscience, “the moral judiciary of the soul, not the law, nor a sheriff, but a judge.” If the action falls in line with the persons standard of conduct, the conscience gives a “not guilty” verdict and vice versa.
“Feeling inward remorse or moral pain over a wrong action indicates that one’s conscience as a judge has pronounced him guilty.” This is probably the most prominent function of the conscience to be understood universally. Many Greek authors including Plutarch, Demosthenes and Philo wrote treatises concerning the guilty pangs associated with a condemning conscience. Shakespeare also considered this idea of conscience. In his rendition of Hamlet (Act III, Section I) he wrote, “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.” The first illustration of conscience as judge is found in the garden of Eden. After Adam and Eve committed sin and God came to walk in the garden with them, they both hid out of shame. The pangs of conscience were experienced for the first time in human history. “We cannot turn conscience on or off, because it acts automatically. Adam was afraid for the first time because he was aware of guilt and of the consequences of guilt. His act had activated his conscience. Apparently it was there all the time, created with him, but it had not acted because Adam had never disobeyed before. He had never had the eyes of conscience opened until he had, in fact, become guilty.” The conscience is our moral judge.
Executing Judgment in the Soul
The executing of judgment in the soul brings remorse when an individual has broken God’s law. Matheson explains. “Through their consciences God awakens men to a sense of the unsatisfactory relationship in which they stand to Himself. . . . There comes with such awakening always a sense, however feeble, of overhanging penalty as the natural accompaniment of a sense of guilt. Therefore conscience goads to amendment of life in order thereby to escape avenging justice.” This type of awakening is typically self-centered in its scope, but may range from faint stirrings to truly agonizing concern. It comes to its ultimate crisis under consciousness of being face to face with God, with the consequent appreciation that the sinfulness of sin arises from our disobedience to Him. The primary example of this in Scripture is David when he is confronted by the prophet Nathan. David fought back his conscience over and over again, but when openly confronted by Nathan, the conscience executed its judgment and David was overwhelmed with a burden of guilt out of which he wrote Psalm 52. The conscience clearly acts as the executor of judgment upon the soul, working to convict the heart and bring a wayward soul back in line with the truth of God’s revelation.
Pre- and Post-Regeneration Conscience
Just as man is translated from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light through the sacrificial work of Christ and regeneration, so too is the conscience renewed at the point of salvation. No longer is the conscience in bondage to the slavery of sin.
The Unsaved Conscience before Regeneration
The unregenerate conscience can be viewed both positively and negatively. It is possible for a depraved individual to make a good moral choice that is affirmed by the conscience. This is possible because unregenerate man still possesses the image of God (albeit tainted by sin) and has divine law written on his heart. However, there are no explicit examples of this in the Scripture.
We have seen that the presence of conscience in man does not in any way imply any germ or root of righteousness in him. . . . Yet through their consciences God awakens men to a sense of the unsatisfactory relationship in which they stand to Himself. This awakening to a sense of doubt and fear as to their relationship to God may come without the written word of God. Men may thus be moved to a marked amendment of conduct and to behavior that is strikingly like righteousness. For there comes with such awakening always a sense, however feeble, of overhanging penalty as the natural accompaniment of a sense of guilt. Therefore conscience goads to amendment of life in order thereby to escape avenging justice.
All examples of a positive conscience in the unsaved involve promptings to bring men to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. In addition to this, there are examples of a pricked conscience (Acts 2:37 no doubt substitutes the word “heart” for “conscience”) and a witnessing conscience (Rom 2:15). This seems to indicate a general condition of lost souls possessing a conscience that is in the process of trusting or hardening.
The negative side of unregenerate conscience involves many of the texts that were examined earlier. The unregenerate are subjected to a weak conscience (1 Cor 10:28-29), a defiled conscience (Titus 1:15) and even a seared conscience (1 Tim 4:2). Clearly, the conscience of the unregenerate is completely depraved and has no redemptive qualities apart from the saving grace of Jesus Christ. The unregenerate conscience can prompt men to come to Christ through the proclamation of the truth of God’s Word. It is by the working of God to bring those whom He chooses to Himself.
The Renewed Conscience after Regeneration
The conscience of the believer differs from that of the unbeliever in two primary ways. First, the conscience is no longer in bondage to the sin nature but takes precedence over it. Second, the object of the conscience is not to please self but to please God. Many of these elements of conscience have already been touched on so they need to be reviewed only briefly. The regenerate conscience is God-focused (1 Pet 2:19), one in which God has compete control and self-will is not considered. It is also good (1 Tim 1:5, 19; 1 Pet 3:16, 21) and pure (1 Tim 3:9; 2 Tim 1:3). The conscience also bears witness to the validity of a man’s statements and actions to indicate that they were done in the power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit (Rom 9:1; 2 Cor 1:12; 5:11). The regenerate conscience is also informed and developed (1 Cor 10:25-27) over the weak conscience described in 1 Cor 8. “This signifies the conscience free from the law, the desires of the flesh, superstition and unbiblical tradition. It is the disposition of the man who lives freely and fully in the benefits of grace to the glory of God.”
The negative aspects of the regenerated conscience differ from those of an unbeliever due to the believer’s righteous standing before God. However, the believer’s conscience can be weak (1 Cor 8:7, 10, 12) or ignorant. The believer who typifies this type of conscience is living a life bound in the grave clothes of legality. It is possible for the believer to have an unperfected (Heb 9:9; 10:2) and unclean conscience (Heb 9:14) which depends on something other than the blood of Christ to purge its guilt. It seems also that the believer’s conscience can be evil according to Heb 10:22. Zuck states, “Only those whose hearts have been sprinkled from an evil conscience (made clean from a guilty conscience) can draw near to God in spiritual worship and service.”
So then, the regenerate and unregenerate consciences differ in relation to the sin nature and the ultimate priority of self versus God. What is the agent that makes this change come about? How is the conscience taken from being unregenerate and depraved to a new, sanctified conscience?
The Role of the Holy Spirit and Revelation
What is it that evokes change in man? The revelation of God in the Old and New Testaments is the agent that brings forth life change in every man (Rom 10:17; James 1:22-24).
The law belonged to the Old Covenant. The New Testament believer is free from the law. To speak of the duties of a believer is therefore to put him in bondage under the law again. This constitutes unevangelical preaching. The believer has had the law written in his heart; the love of God has now been shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Spirit. Therefore he does the will of God in willing love and obedience.
This “new education” done in the hearts of regenerated believers by the Holy Spirit is accomplished through the truth of God’s Word and the process of sanctification. “God has not relied solely upon nature to accomplish the task of . . . conditioning in every man’s conscience. The universal work of the Holy Spirit is also said to be a contributing factor. . . . This inner self-attestation of God is the result of God’s activity in man, that it is witnessed to by conscience, producing in every man . . . an inalienable knowledge about his moral reciprocal relation to God.”
The Holy Spirit also enables believers to live a life of love in relation to conscience that is commanded in 1 Cor. Matheson makes note of this fact. “The revelation of God which peculiarly characterizes the enlightenment of the understanding under regeneration is the exhibition of His love. The truth of this exhibition bears on conscience in a powerful manner.” Just as justice acts as the bonds of conscience, so love acts as an inescapable obligation based on our response to the love of God. This affects the entirety of the Christian life. Although it is true that the affections cannot be compelled, the underlying principle of regeneration is just that! The sinful nature cannot love God. “That which is born of the Spirit” can love Him as it is its very nature to do. “This love is constrained under a sense of obligation to Him for the love He exhibited toward sinners in giving his Son to die for their redemption, and in His Son’s giving of Himself (Gal 2:20). It is their appreciation of this love that carries sinners out of themselves so that they do ‘not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again’ (II Corinthians 5:15).”
Clearly, the Holy Spirit works a very important role in regards to the post-regeneration conscience. It uses the revelation of God’s Word to instruct the conscience of a believer and “re-educates” it according to the truth of the gospel. As the believer’s conscience is re-instructed to act according to the transforming truth of the gospel, the spirit of love promoted in the Scriptures will prevail in the conscience and instruct the believer to live a life in submission to the Savior.
There are three primary functions of the conscience: it distinguishes between what is morally right and wrong, it urges an individual to right action, and it executes judgment upon the soul based on the action chosen. The functions of the conscience are similar in both saved and unsaved individuals. However, there are two primary differences that should be noted: the conscience is no longer in bondage to the old sin nature and the primary goal of the conscience is not to please man but rather to please God. These distinctions are manifested through revelation and the illumination of the Holy Spirit as the conscience is re-educated to live according to the truths of God’s Word.
The Searing of Conscience
A common catch phrase that is use when issues of conscience are considered is the idea of a “seared conscience.” Many times this phrase is used when describing a believer who has fallen into habitual sin or is living a life apart from fellowship with God. However, the conception that a believer can have a seared conscience is a mistaken one. In this section an exegesis of 1 Tim 4:2 will be considered along with practical conclusions to prove that a believer cannot, in fact, have a seared conscience.
An Exegesis of 1 Timothy 4:2
What is clear in this passage is that it is possible for a person to defy the voice of his conscience habitually until it is reduced to insensibility. “Seared with a hot iron” is the word kauteriazo and carries with it the idea of making insensitive, like the skin of an animal that has been continually cauterized by a branding iron. What is unclear is whether or not this condition of insensitivity can occur in the life of a believer.
The individuals referred to in 1 Tim 4:3 are false teachers who are spreading heretical teachings in the church at Ephesus. Although it not entirely clear what these false teachings are, some would argue that there is a Gnostic trend at work. Through these teachings they endorsed “the visible expressions, the ascetic practices, and the endless discussions of religious trivia, thinking themselves to be obviously righteous because there were obviously religious. Consequently, they left themselves vulnerable to the deceit and doctrines of demons (4:1-3).” The end result of this false teaching is a moral and spiritual apostasy preceding the last days. It begins first with a departure from the truth and finishes with seduction by demons and their doctrines. Paul notes that this apostasy had already begun in some gullible women in the church (2 Tim 3:6) and men like Hymenaeus and Philetus (2 Tim 2:17-18). Lea and Griffin argue that these unbelieving false teachers were the only ones who had their consciences cauterized.
Two possible emphases may come from this statement. So insensitive had their consciences become that they had lost the power of moral decision making (cf. Eph 4:19). Grieving the Spirit had led to resistance, and resistance had led to quenching (Eph 4:30; 1 Thes 5:19). Paul may also have been suggesting that their consciences carried the brand of Satan. By teaching what was actually false, they had been branded by Satan as his possession and therefore did his will. This shade of meaning emphasizes that the false teachers were willing tools of Satan. Since the context had already emphasized demonic involvement in spreading error, this likely was Paul’s chief emphasis.
MacArthur agrees that this passage refers only to false teachers, but his application of the seared conscience is different. He understands the seared conscience as one that is completely destroyed, allowing the false teachers to carry out their hypocrisy. He states, “The false teachers’ consciences have been so ignored and misinformed that they have become like scar tissue burned senseless, which cease to function. With scarred consciences, they feel no guilt or remorse as they purvey their false doctrines.”
Clearly, both MacArthur and Lea argue that these unregenerate false teachers have damaged consciences that are beyond repair. What is the end result of such a cauterized conscience? The answer is found in the second half of Romans 1. The one fundamental reason for the wrath of God revealed against man is the fact that unregenerate man intentionally suppresses again and again the truth about God. This correlates directly with the previous discussion of conscience. Every man has the law of God written on his heart, but through conscious rejection and suppression of that innate faculty of moral knowledge he sinks to the lowest form of depravity. That rejection enables him to be a tool of Satan and spread false teaching in the church without remorse while masquerading as a participant of “the faith.”
Conclusions on I Timothy 4:2
Can a believer stoop to this level of wickedness? The wicked men described in 1 Tim 4 are clearly not members of the household of faith and are totally depraved in every facet of their being. It is difficult to conceive that a believer who is indwelt by the Holy Spirit can have a conscience that is completely destroyed and influenced by Satan. As discussed earlier, the believer has a renewed, informed conscience through revelation and the Holy Spirit of God. Although it is possible for a believer to have a desensitized or damaged conscience, it is impossible for a true follower of God to have a cauterized conscience.
Matheson strengthens this argument.
Salvation from sin means salvation from practicing iniquity and from dealing in untruth. This requires a conscience functioning under the light of truth and free from offence toward God and toward men. To have such a conscience is the exercise of everyone who is working out his own salvation with fear and trembling because it is God who is working in him both to will and to do of His good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13).
When an individual is regenerated, he is translated from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light. His whole being is transformed. The “new man” includes a transformation of conscience as well. While the basic functions are the same, the education though God’s revelation will not allow a believer to fall into the complete apostasy and moral chaos in which the false teachers in 1 Tim 4 find themselves.
The conscience is an innate faculty that all men have by which they are able to identify right and wrong. A biblical theology of conscience reveals that the conscience is informed by the law of God written on the heart. It is free from sin and purified by the blood of Christ. The believer’s conscience is educated through divine revelation and the indwelling Holy Spirit. Every believer is answerable to his own conscience but in certain situations a believer should, out of a spirit of love, submit his conscience to help a weaker brother stay within the bounds of his own conscience. Finally, every believer must work to keep his conscience pure and unspotted from the world in order to answer every man.
The functions of conscience are similar in both believers and those outside the family of God. However, those who are regenerated have a conscience that is instructed by the revelation of God’s truth and the indwelling Holy Spirit. As a result, it is impossible for a believer to have a conscience that is damaged beyond repair. Those who allow their consciences to become seared completely silence their conscience so that it can no longer distinguish between right and wrong. This is impossible for the believer who has a conscience informed by God’s revelation.
The goal of every believer is to state with the Apostle Paul, “I have lived in all good conscience before God” (Acts 23:1). May the Lord grant patience and diligence to every man who seeks to serve him with a conscience that is pure and undefiled.
James Collard was a senior in the spring of 2012, when he wrote this paper for his Biblical Studies Senior Seminar.
Martha C. Nussbaum, “Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality,” Christian Century 126 (February 2009): 39-40.
Anthony Egan, “Conscience, Spirit, Discernment: The Holy Spirit, the Spiritual Exercises and the Formation of Moral Conscience,” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 138 (November 2010): 58-59.
William Matheson, “Conscience,” Westminster Theological Journal 4 (May 1942): 98.
Roy B. Zuck, “The Doctrine of Conscience,” Bibliotheca Sacra 126 (October 1969): 331
Zuck, “The Doctrine of Conscience,” 331.
Zuck, “The Doctrine of Conscience,” 329.
H. C. Hahn, “Conscience,” in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. Colin Brown (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975), 1: 348.
The ESV uses the word “conscience” once in its translation of the Old Testament (1 Samuel 25:31). In the LXX there are only three passages that make use of the word suneidesis. This is probably because the Israelites were more concerned with man’s attitude toward God as opposed to his attitude toward himself. He was more interested with his accountability before God than exploring his self-consciousness. Hahn, “Conscience,” 1: 349.
Hahn, “Conscience,” 1: 349. See also 1 Samuel 24:6 and 2 Samuel 24:10.
It should be noted that the idea of a clean heart is more common in the LXX than in the Hebrew Masoretic text of the Old Testament. Hahn, “Conscience,” 1: 349.
Hahn, “Conscience,” 1: 349.
In 1 Cor 4:4 sunoida appears in the reflexive form. “I am not aware of anything against myself.” Acts 5:2 suggests a shared knowledge; “with his wife’s knowledge he kept back.” Hahn, “Conscience,” 1: 350.
This use of conscience is found in John 8:9. This text is omitted from many of the older manuscripts and the entire pericope is a textual variant. Outside of this one use, the word suneidesis is not found in the gospels.
Both uses of suneidesis in Acts involve Paul making declarations concerning his own conscience before the Sanhedrin and Felix (Acts 23:1; 24:16). Thus, a theology of conscience in the writings of Luke will not be examined in this biblical theology due to the fact that both of Paul’s declarations are reflected in his epistles as well. However, from these references a reasonable inference can be made as to how the phrase was used by the apostle. The adjectives used with suneidesis, agathe and aprokopos, are both words which combine positive and negative ideas with conscience. Bruce F. Harris, “SUNEIDESIS (Conscience) in the Pauline Writings,” Westminster Theological Journal 24 (May 1962): 180.
John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), 74.
Murray, Romans, 75.
Hahn, “Conscience,” 1: 350.
Max Anders, Romans, Holman New Testament Commentary (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2000), 278.
Page Lee, “‘Conscience’ in Romans 13:5,” Faith and Mission 8 (Fall 1990): 87-88.
C. A. Pierce, Conscience in the New Testament (London: SCM, 1955), 71.
Harris, “Conscience in the Pauline Writings,” 180.
A weaker brother is defined as one whose conscience constrains him from participating in practices that are not prohibited in Scripture. His conscience is not yet informed as to the wonderful liberation of grace received at salvation.
John MacArthur, Jr. 1 Corinthians, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody, 1984), 194-195.
The word “perish” in verse 11 carries with it the idea of “to come to sin.”
MacArthur, 1 Corinthians, 196.
Hahn, “Conscience,” 1: 350.
Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 487-488.
Hahn, “Conscience,” 1: 350.
Harris, “Conscience in the Pauling Writings,” 183.
Hahn, “Conscience,” 1: 350.
MacArthur notes that this revelation encompasses the mystery of the incarnation of Christ (1 Tim 3:16), of the indwelling of Christ in believers (Col 1:26-27), of the unity of Jews and Gentiles in Christ (Eph 1:9; 3:4-6), of the saving gospel (Col 4:3), of lawlessness (2 Thes 2:7), and of the rapture of the church (1 Cor 15:51-52). John MacArthur, Jr., 1 Timothy, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody, 1995), 128.
The command given here is specifically for deacons, but the qualifications for deacons are qualifications that all believers should meet. That is the basis for the argument of the author when it is stated that all believers should hold to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.
MacArthur, 1 Timothy, 128.
Hahn, “Conscience,”, 1: 351.
Thomas D. Lea and Hayne P. Griffin, Jr., 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman, 1992), 292.
Roy B. Zuck and Darrell L. Bock, A Biblical Theology of the New Testament (Chicago: Moody, 1994), 366.
Hahn, “Conscience,” 1: 351.
Norman Hillyer, 1 and 2 Peter, Jude, New International Biblical Commentary (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1992), 116.
Zuck, “The Doctrine of the Conscience,” 332.
Romans 2:15; 9:1; and 2 Cor 1:12 are the three texts used to describe the conscience as a witness. “Their actions show to all that they are aware of an inward moral law; their consciences show to themselves that they are aware of and sensitive to such a law; and their thoughts or reasoning which condemn or approve one another’s conduct show that they possess and follow an inward law or moral standard of some sort.” Zuck, “The Doctrine of Conscience,” 333.
Matheson, “Conscience,” 101.
Zuck, “The Doctrine of the Conscience,” 333.
John Y. Clagett, The Christian Conscience (Schaumburg: Regular Baptist Press, 1984), 14.
Matheson, “Conscience,” 111.
Hallesby in his chapter entitled, “The Conscience of Fallen Man” argues extensively for an understanding that divides the conscience into two units: form and content. He defines content as “the concrete substance of the judgment which conscience pronounces” and form as “the peculiar function of the soul which tells man that he ought to do the will of God.” He goes on to argue that the form of conscience is the same in all men, and thus, infallible. However, he states that the content of conscience is very fallible because it is dependent on the extent of the knowledge of the will of God that that individual possesses. There are two major flaws in this argument. First, to argue that any part of depraved man is infallible is incredibly dangerous. Second, to dichotomize the conscience is to excuse our sin nature away simply as poor education of the consciences content. The conscience in fallen man is completely and totally depraved. Even though every man possesses the law of God written on their heart, their conscience can easily lead them astray through the deceitfulness of our sin nature (Jer 17:9). O. Hallesby, Conscience (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1933), 41-42.
Congdon argues that this can possibly give us insight into the mind of God. “In His omniscience He knows that the glorying of the proud is vanity; still, though they may boast of goodness the Lord permits no recording of it in His Word. On the contrary, God will show that their approving conscience is actually only a defiled thing.” Roger Douglass Congdon, “The Doctrine of Conscience,” Bibliotheca Sacra 103 (January 1946): 78.
Matheson, “Conscience,” 111.
Congdon, “The Doctrine of Conscience,” 78-79.
Whether the lost or the saved are in view here is under question. Paul warns Christians against giving people occasion to say something like this against them: “We thought him very narrow, we thought he recognized only Christ as God, but you see he partakes with us in the recognition of all our gods. He has so much more liberty than we thought.” Thus it could be argued the same type of conscience is here as is also predicated in the believer. Congdon, “The Doctrine of Conscience,” 79.
”Defiled” carries the idea of dyed, polluted, or stained. It is comparable to the “blinded mind” of the unbeliever.
Congdon, “The Doctrine of Conscience,” 79.
Congdon argues that the conscience possesses an innate goodness, not one that is simply concerned with an outward appearance of goodness. This leads to an inward satisfaction in having nothing between God and self. However, to argue that man has any sense of innate goodness is to deny total depravity. Also, to argue that the end result of a good conscience an inward satisfaction in man seems to take the God-focus out of the regenerate conscience and place it back on man. The better understanding is to view the good conscience as one that is renewed by God and informed by the Holy Spirit to make good moral choices that are pleasing to God. Congdon, “The Doctrine of Conscience,” 76.
Congdon, “The Doctrine of Conscience,” 76-77.
Zuck, “The Doctrine of the Conscience,” 337.
Hallesby, Conscience, 111.
Clagett, The Christian Conscience, 31.
Matheson, “Conscience,” 118.
Matheson, “Conscience,” 118-119
Zuck, “The Doctrine of the Conscience,” 339.
This trend is seen in the prohibitions against marriage and certain foods (1 Tim 4:3) and the pursuit of false knowledge (6:20; cf. 1:4, 6; 4:7; 6:4). “As was true with most Gnostic variations, this teaching led to asceticism on the one hand and it excused greed and sensual indulgence on the other. Both extremes are always the logical ends of such a philosophy. Marriage was forbidden and certain distinctions between clean and unclean foods were reinstituted (4:3, 8; 5:23; Titus 1:15) under the guise that such practices insured a higher from of holiness.” Zuck and Bock, Theology of the New Testament, 338.
Zuck and Bock, Theology of the New Testament, 335.
Lea and Griffin, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, 129.
MacArthur, 1 Timothy, 151.
Anders, Romans, 48-49.
Here an important distinction must be made. A damaged or desensitized conscience is one that is quieted or made weak through habitual sin and is in need of cleansing. However, this conscience never ceases in its function as a judge and always condemns sinful actions based on the revelation of God’s Word and the work of the Holy Spirit. A cauterized conscience is one that fails to condemn wickedness in any capacity, and is completely incapable of determining any sort of moral ethic due to the extent of its damage and insensitivity.
Matheson, “Conscience,” 123.