Conscience and Its Descriptions

By Weldon E. Warnock

Let us begin by defining conscience. William by Hendriksen states, “Conscience is mans moral Billy W. Moore intuition, his moral self in the act of passing judgment upon his own state, emotions, and thoughts, also upon his own words and actions whether these be viewed as past, present, or future.” (Commentary on I & II Tim. & Titus, p. 62) W. E. Vine says, “That process of thought which distinguishes what it considers morally good or bad, commending the good, condemning the bad, and so prompting to do the former, and avoid the latter.” From this we see that conscience is both positive and negative. It approves and condemns. Paul wrote concerning the Gentiles, “Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the meanwhile accusing or else excusing one another” (Rom. 2:15).

The word, “conscience,” does not occur in the Old Testament Scriptures. However, the idea is found there. For example, it is said of Adam and Eve “And the eyes of them both were opened, and, they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons” (Gen. 3:7). When God asked Adam, “Where art thou?” Adam replied, “I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself” (Gen. 3:9-10). We see conscience pricking the heart of David when he said unto the Lord, “I have sinned greatly in that I have done: and now, I beseech thee, O Lord, take away the iniquity of thy servant; for I have done very foolishly” (2 Sam. 24: 10). In the New Testament the term, “conscience,” occurs twice in Acts, five times in Hebrews, three times in I Peter and about twenty times in Pauls letters.

R. L. Whiteside stated the meaning of conscience in a simplified way when he wrote that conscience is “that feeling of pleasure when, we do what we think is right, and of pain when we do what we think is wrong. It is that which backs up our moral judgment.” (Commentary on Romans, p. 59) Since our moral judgment may be wrong, it is imperative that we obtain the correct information in order to make proper, moral judgments. Saul of Tarsus always did what he thought was right, and therefore always had a good conscience. But, as Whiteside said about Paul, “his information was wrong, and therefore his moral judgment was wrong.” (Ibid., P. 59)

The source of information that is infallible and inerrant is the Bible, the Word of God. Whatever the Bible teaches about any matter, the Bible is right regardless of our preconceived notions or the voice of our consciences. Human conscience is not the supreme law-the Word of God is. “Let your conscience he your guide” may be a pleasant platitude, but it is dangerous and destructive as a philosophy of life. A far better epithet would be, “Let the Bible be your guide.” This is in keeping with the Psalmists statement, “Than shalt guide me with thy counsel, and afterward receive me to glory” (Ps. 73:24). The Psalmist further stated, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (Ps. 119:105).

Descriptions of Conscience

There are various descriptions of conscience referred to in the New Testament. We read of a good conscience, a pure conscience, a weak conscience, a seared conscience, a defiled conscience, a perfect conscience and an evil conscience. Let us briefly notice each of these.

A good conscience is one that is free from guilt or wrong doing. Peter wrote, “Having a good conscience; that whereas they speak evil of you, as of evildoers, they may be ashamed that falsely accuse your good conversation in Christ” (I Pet. 3:161. A good conscience may also be realized in what a person thinks to be right, although his actions be wrong (Acts 23: 1). Paul thought he was right when he was wrong. He was not conscious of guilt. Hence, he had a good conscience.

A pure conscience is one that is clear, non-hypocritical, incorrupt and sincere. Paul said, “I thank God, whom I serve from my forefathers with pure conscience, that without ceasing I have remembrance of thee in my prayers night and day” (2 Tim. 1: 3). One of the qualifications of a deacon is that he “holds the mystery of the, faith in a pure conscience” (I Tim. 3:9).

A weak conscience is one that is lacking in moral judgment. It is ignorant. This type of person is not strong enough to distinguish dearly between things lawful for a Christian and things that are unlawful. We read in I Cor. 8 – 71 “Howbeit there is not in every man that knowledge: for some with conscience of the idol unto this hour eat it as a thing offered unto an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled.” This kind of conscience is to be respected and given every consideration by those who are strong and learned. I Cor. 12:8 say, “But when ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ.”

A seared conscience is one that is cauterized, calloused and hardened. Paul wrote to Timothy about some who would depart from the faith as “Speaking lies – in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron” (I Tim. 4:2). “By constantly arguing with conscience, stifling its warnings, and muffling its bell, they at last have reached the point where conscience no longer bothers them.” (Hendriksen, Op. Cit., p. 146) Through rebellion and stubbornness, conscience is permanently seared. The truth of God has no effect upon the hearts of many because they have seared their conscience.

A defiled conscience is one that is polluted, contaminated by sin. Paul wrote, “. . . and their conscience being weak is defiled” (I Cor. 8-7). The word “defiled,” in this text literally means to “besmear, as with mud or filth, to befoul” (Vine). In a figurative sense, however, it indicates a conscience that is filthy by sin.

The writer of the Hebrew letter speaks of a perfect conscience. Heb. 9:9 reads, “Which was a figure for the time then present, in which were offered both gifts and sacrifices that could not make him that did the service perfect, as pertaining to the conscience.” A perfect conscience would be, therefore, the pardon of sins; the perfection of moral consciousness. The preceding verse shows that the Mosaical sacrifices could not procure this for mankind, but rather they were symbolic of our pardon and foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Christ.

An evil conscience is simply a mind conscious of wrongdoing; of having sinned against God. Heb. 10: 22 states, “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water.”

In conclusion, I want to suggest two things: (1) Maintain a good conscience. Do not abuse it. It serves an important function in your heart. (2) Realize that your conscience is not an infallible guide that the Word of God (the Bible) is the infallible guide. The conscience cannot decide truth and error. Your intellect does that. The conscience simply acts in conjunction with what the heart believes to be right and wrong.

TRUTH MAGAZINE, XVI: 40, pp. 9-11
August 17, 1972