Conscience: Can yours be trusted?
We are clearly warned in Scripture about our thinking. What are you feeling guilty about that you shouldn’t be doing? What are you NOT doing that you should be doing? We are told that we are evaluated by God by how we function in relation to our conscience.
14 For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves:
15 Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another😉 [Emphasis added]
Here we can learn that even though the Gentiles didn’t have the Bible or the Mosaic Law written out for them, they, as unbelievers, still had a conscience with norms and standards. As an expression of it they would quite naturally speak of things they believed to be right as well as things they believed to be wrong. They would also speak of things just and things unjust. Has this changed? Don’t people do similar things today and in every generation? And then don’t they quite naturally realize they need to treat people the way they’d like to be treated. Does a person have to be a student of the Bible to know these things? This passage we just noted speaks of this issue.
People are often told to let their conscience be their guide. Is that good advice? Well, it depends on the person’s conscience. That may be fine for some people, but is it good advice for everyone? We find in life that there are not only people who choose to violate their conscience, but there are people who choose to make a habit of it. Some do this more than others, but the problem of sin itself is universal.
23 For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; [Emphasis added]
There are no exceptions.
10 As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: [Emphasis added]
Even so-called “good people” are sinners. The reality is that all are sinners, and all will at times violate their conscience. And, as we just noted, some will choose to do this more than others. Throughout the Bible this principle is expressed in various ways.
9 The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? [Emphasis added]
Therefore, it should be clear to all of us that the conscience can be a good guide, but only if a person chooses to develop it around good norms and standards. A part of our motivation for living honorably as believers is the knowledge that God will judge us by the manner in which we are submitted to those things that make for a good conscience.
16 In the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ… [Emphasis added]
But if we make a habit of violating our conscience, we are warned about bad consequences. Aside from the consequences of the bad decisions, there can be the destruction of one’s conscience. Yes, people can get to the point of where their conscience is in a sense destroyed.
15 Unto the pure [people who choose to live by right standards] all things are pure: but unto them that are defiled [those who make a habit of violating their conscience and good norms and standards] and unbelieving is nothing pure; but even their mind and conscience is defiled [MIASMOS = contaminated, polluted, corrupted].
16 They profess that they know God; but in works they deny him, being abominable [BDELUKTOS = denotes an object of disgust], and disobedient [APEITHEIA = unwilling to be persuaded – obstinate rejection of the will of God], and unto every good work reprobate [ADOKIMOS = perverted and rejected]. [Emphasis added]
You’ve probably heard the term, hardened criminal. This is the eventual end for people who keep resisting truth and keep violating their conscience. Their conscience becomes hardened. In other words, these people become desensitized to evil. This is like callouses on one’s hands that have made them insensitive. In this case, we’re talking about how one thinks. This develops in a person as they reject authority and those things that are morally right and just. And we need to realize that all authority is of God. It is God that the person is actually rejecting, not just the standards or the person before them.
1 Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers [EXZOUSIA = authority]. For there is no power [EXZOUSIA = authority] but of God: the powers [EXZOUSIA = authority] that be are ordained of [HUPO = under] God.
2 Whosoever therefore resisteth the power [EXZOUSIA = authority], resisteth the ordinance [DIATAGE = ordinance or disposition] of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation [KRIMA = a verdict, a pronounced sentence].
3 For rulers are not a terror [PHOBOS = a source of fear] to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power [EXZOUSIA = authority]? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:
4 For he is the minister [DIAKONIA = servant] of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain [a reference to capital punishment]: for he is the minister of God, a revenger [EKDIKOS = punisher] to execute wrath [ORGE = anger] upon him that doeth evil.
5 Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath [ORGE = anger], but also for conscience [SUNEIDESIS = conscience] sake. [Emphasis added]
Therefore, the bottom line here is that people are to live lawfully so as not to violate their conscience and have to pay a penalty for it before men and God. And I’m not speaking of divine discipline, but temporal punishment from the ruling authorities and the believer’s loss of eternal reward at the Judgment Seat of Christ.
II Corinthians 5:10
10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad. [Emphasis added]
We are warned in many ways and through many historical situations that resistance to authority hardens the heart of the individual and does damage to their conscience. This means it destroys one’s sense of what is right and wrong before God. Probably the most famous of all stories on this in the Bible is that of the Pharaoh of Egypt in Moses’ day. We are told that because of his continued resistance to the will of God his heart was hardened. Here’s the first account of this given in the Bible.
21 And the Lord said unto Moses, When thou goest to return into Egypt, see that thou do all those wonders before Pharaoh, which I have put in thine hand: but I will harden his heart, that he shall not let the people go. [Emphasis added]
In the pages of Scripture that follow there’s the full story of this hardening of the Pharaoh’s heart. It was Pharaoh himself who resisted God’s will, so there’s a sense in which he hardened his own heart.
I Samuel 6:6
6 Wherefore then do ye harden your hearts, as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? when he had wrought wonderfully among them, did they not let the people go, and they departed? [Emphasis added]
But we are told that ultimately it was God who was hardening his heart as He gave him so many opportunities to do as He pleased. The Pharaoh’s resistance brought about a hardening to his heart just as it happens in people today.
Throughout Israel’s history there were cases of people hardening their hearts to God. Other terms are used, but it all represented resistance to God’s will. Every such case brought on hardship and suffering that could have been easily avoided.
16 But they and our fathers dealt proudly, and hardened their necks, and hearkened not to thy commandments, [Emphasis added]
There was an abundance of such cases throughout the time of our Lord’s earthly ministry.
40 He hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart; that they should not see with their eyes, nor understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them. [Emphasis added]
Hence, we have exhortations that people should never choose to do this. Bad decisions always reap bad consequences. One of them is the destruction of one’s own conscience.
8 Harden not your hearts, as in the provocation, in the day of temptation in the wilderness: [Emphasis added]
We must beware lest we think there’s some advantage to us in resisting God’s will. There never is! We need to be wise to that in all our decision-making.
12 Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God.
13 But exhort one another daily, while it is called To day; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. [Emphasis added]
Sin is deceitful in many ways, but the most basic of all is in thinking that some sin is advantageous to us. Again, it never is! Knowing that principle and others serve to help us in resisting sin.
11 Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee. [Emphasis added]
This tells us the main “counseling” a person needs concerning their sinfulness is the counseling of God’s Word.
One of the best passages on all this is found in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It stands as an important warning about the consequences of sin and one of those consequences being the destruction of one’s own conscience.
17 This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye henceforth walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity [MATAIOTES = emptiness] of their mind,
Here he’s warning about choosing to live like “empty-headed” unbelievers, that is, being ignorant of God’s Word and His will in decision-making.
18 Having the understanding darkened [SKOTOO = darken – This is the absence of the “light” of God’s Word in one’s life], being alienated from the life of God [Speaking of the way God would have us to live] through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness [POROSIS = A covering with a callus, a hardening. It is metaphorical of a dulled spiritual perception.] of their heart:
19 Who being past feeling [having been desensitized] have given themselves over unto lasciviousness [ASELGEIA = denotes excess, lack of restraint], to work all uncleanness [AKATHARSIA = uncleanness – a reference to impure beliefs of any kind but often associated with things sensual] with greediness [PLEONEXZIA = an excessive desire to have more].
This “greediness” speaks of the frantic search for happiness one enters apart from God. I deal with this subject extensively in my book Discovering God’s Rich Blessings in Times of Suffering. In chapter 10, I speak of King Solomon who was extremely wealthy but was absolutely miserable most of his life because of his continued violation of his conscience. God had given him great wisdom, but he kept ignoring it. Time and time again he kept violating his conscience.
20 But ye have not so learned Christ; [Meaning they had been taught and knew otherwise.]
21 If so be that ye have heard him, and have been taught by him, as the truth is in Jesus:
These last two verses are telling us that such teaching, such thinking, is not of our Lord. But then he tells us what we’re to do instead of this.
22 That ye put off concerning the former conversation [ANASTROPHE = behavior] the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts;
Like a dirty garment, we’re to “put off” such things from our lives.
23 And be renewed [ANAKAINOO = made new] in the spirit of your mind;
We are to let God’s Word transform our thinking, providing in us a new conscience with His norms and standards.
24 And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness [HAGIASMOS = denoting a separation].
This “holiness” is a wonderful way of thinking that is separate and different from that of the world of unbelievers. This is pointing out the contrast that exists between what we might speak of as human viewpoint and divine viewpoint. We are to address life as God would have us address it. To learn to do that we must commit ourselves to the habitual intake of God’s Word. That involves not just reading the Bible but studying it.
25 Wherefore putting away lying, speak every man truth with his neighbour: for we are members one of another. [Emphasis added]
This “putting away” is all about the decisions we make. Bad choices produce a bad life. Good choices produce a good life. Some people have so much trouble seeing and accepting this simple principle. This whole paragraph of thought from the apostle Paul is telling us that true Christian living demands a will to make a thorough transformation of one’s thinking. And, again, among other things, this demands a new conscience, a new set of norms and standards by which we are to live. Our old nature will fight us every step of the way in doing this. Furthermore, there’s the bad influence of people to consider. People are typically drawn to people who think as they do, people with whom they agree. It is what makes people compatible. It is like an old saying of mine—Show me your friends and I’ll show you your future. Growing in Christ typically creates a new set of friends, people with whom we feel a compatibility in our thinking. All this takes time. But we should resolve to make whatever changes are needed to move us along steadily in our spiritual growth and development. This should always be our main goal in life. The apostle Paul makes an important statement about this in his first letter to Timothy.
I Timothy 1:5
5 Now the end of the commandment [speaking of our goal] is charity [AGAPE = love] out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned [ANUPOKRITOS = without hypocrisy]: [Emphasis added]
One of the biggest complaints you’ll ever hear about “Christians” and churches is to do with the hypocrisy that is often disclosed. Much is real and some is not. But hypocrisy is to always be avoided. We must be genuine in the way we live. By living the kind of life we proclaim, we can be the positive influence God wants us to be. You may have heard the phrase—”The life I see you leading speaks so loudly that I can’t hear what you’re saying.” Yes, our walk must be consistent with our talk. Only when we do this will we have a new and clear conscience. Furthermore, when we don’t live with a clear conscience, we tend to avoid speaking forthrightly on certain issues. For instance, a pastor may avoid teaching on certain subjects he knows he is in violation of himself. No one should be this way. Please notice Paul’s words about this.
II Corinthians 4:2
2 But have renounced the hidden things of dishonesty, 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. [Emphasis added]
Paul is saying that he presents himself as an example of his teaching. Should we not be doing the same?
Lastly, there’s this thing of “holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience.”
I Timothy 3:9
9 Holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. [Emphasis added]
I have found that this truth of “the mystery” is an extremely controversial subject. It is a big step when a person understands that salvation comes by faith in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ alone. What enormous controversy there is about this! Many “religious” but unsaved people attend churches. Many of these are even in positions of leadership. They refuse to accept and proclaim this message of grace. That alone is a difficult and controversial situation. But there’s this other hurdle that can also be a part of the situation. When people hear of “the mystery” truth of Scripture in Paul’s writings, it is always a test for them. Like the simple gospel message, there’s a tremendous amount of resistance to it. Religious tradition is a powerful obstacle to truth of any kind, but especially this. The doctrine of what Paul speaks of as the mystery, this secret of God revealed through him, has been so opposed that few believers know of it or understand it at all. Others know it but they won’t go public with it. They choose not to have to deal with the resistance it would cause. It is because of all this strong opposition that Paul makes his last request of the Ephesian church.
18 Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints;
19 And for me, that utterance may be given unto me, that I may open my mouth boldly, to make known the mystery of the gospel,
20 For which I am an ambassador in bonds: that therein I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak. [Emphasis added]
Do you boldly present the gospel of salvation? Do you also boldly speak of this mystery truth that was first given and revealed through the apostle Paul? More than anything else, these are the two things of primary importance that we’ve all been commissioned to proclaim boldly. How do you feel in your conscience about what you’ve been doing on this? Always realize that, just as it was with Paul, we, too, will face tremendous opposition in this. It will be inward opposition [from our sinful nature] and outward, especially from “religious” and well-indoctrinated people. Nevertheless, if we’re to maintain a clear conscience, we must stand firm for what we know to be true. We need to be able to say as Paul says in these next two verses.
1 And Paul, earnestly beholding the council, said, Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day.
But as Paul faced opposition, we will too!
2 And the high priest Ananias commanded them that stood by him to smite him on the mouth. [Emphasis added]
Such physical abuse has been minimal in America, but that is steadily changing. Regardless of what happens in politics, the “religious” opposition to truth is always the most subtle and the deadliest.
Spiritual growth brings on a new conscience. You actually take on the conscience of God. This is a part of what is means when we speak of people becoming godly in their thinking.
II Corinthians 1:12
12 For our rejoicing is this, the testimony of our conscience, that in simplicity and godly sincerity, not with fleshly wisdom, but by the grace of God, we have had our conversation in the world, and more abundantly to you-ward. [Emphasis added]
In conclusion, what kind of conscience do you have? Is it framed by the Word of God? Is it in development or have you scarred and hardened your conscience by continually violating it and moving in the wrong direction with your thinking? Only spiritual growth through the consistent intake of God’s Word will produce a truly good conscience. By making a habit of that, we’ll have a clear conscience and much to enjoy now and look forward to in God’s blessing. Certainly there’s blessing because we’ve accepted Paul’s gospel of the grace of God but there’s also tremendous blessing associated with our faithfulness to this which is spoken of the mystery truths disclosed to us through the writings of the apostle Paul.