By Cecil Willis
We often hear one advised, in religious matters, just to follow his conscience and he will be all right. Since so much emphasis is placed upon the conscience by our contemporaries, and since there is quite a lot in the Bible about the conscience, a discussion of what the Bible says about the conscience seems appropriate.
As we begin this article, we first need to understand what we mean by conscience. We may, for the purpose of this lesson, think of the human mind as being compartmentalized. One part of the mind chooses a standard by which every action of one is to be governed. All of us have a standard by which we think one ought to be governed. This standard is not always correct, but we have a standard. The conscience is that part of the mind which either approves or disapproves one’s actions, on the basis of their being either in or out of harmony with the standard one has chosen, by which every action of one is to be governed. All of us have a whether or not he has acted as the standard he has chosen to guide him tells him to. The conscience is not a standard itself. It simply tells one whether he has violated his standard of action or not. In the Bible, several different kinds of consciences are mentioned. The outline of our article will consist of a review of these different kinds of consciences that one may have.
A Good Conscience
First of all, the Bible speaks of a good conscience. In Acts 23:1, we read: “‘And Paul, looking stedfastly on the council, said, Brethren, I have lived before God in all good conscience until this day.” One may have a conscience like Paul had – a good one. The apostle Peter also mentions a good conscience and says that baptism is the answer of a good conscience. “The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 3:21). So one may have a good conscience. But what does it mean to have a good conscience?
It simply means for one to have conducted himself in accordance with the standard he has chosen. It does not say that the standard is correct. It just says that the standard has not been broken. A good conscience is an unviolated conscience. However, most people today think it would be impossible for one with a good conscience to be lost. But even though one might do what he thinks is right, if he is wrong as to what he thinks he ought: to do, his actions may be wrong, and consequently, one with a good conscience may be lost. Paul is a perfect example of this. Before the council, he could say “I have lived before God in all good conscience until this day” (Acts 23:1). What did Paul mean? Does he mean that he had always done rightly? Not at all. It simply meant he had followed his conscience. In Acts 26:9, he tells us what his standard told him to do. He says “I verily thought with myself that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth.” Paul felt that Christ was an imposter, that He was not the Son of God as He claimed. So he fought against the Lord with all his might. He held the coat of those who stoned Stephen; entered into every house, and dragging men and women, committed them to prison; when they came to be put to death, he gave his word against them; at the time when he met the Lord, he was then on his way to Damascus that he might bind and punish all that he found there following Christ. Paul did not violate his conscience. That is why he could say he had a good conscience. But a good conscience was not all that Paul needed. He had been taught wrong. He had rejected Christ when he should have accepted him. Even though Paul had a “good conscience,” he says he was yet “chief of sinners.” In 1 Tim. 1:15, he says “Faithful is the saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.” So having a good conscience does not guarantee that one is right. Paul as a chief of sinners, even though he had a good conscience, an unviolated one, could have died as a chief sinner and gone to hell.
If all one has to do is follow his conscience, then truth is a variable. It is not uniform. This leads to every person becoming a standard of truth. If this be true, then whether you are following the truth or a lie matters not. It is only important that you follow it carefully. But we do not believe this. The atheist might conscientiously believe there is no God. If he follows the dictates of his conscience, God would be obligated to save him in his unbelief, if all one has to do to be saved is follow one’s conscience. If one’s conscience should tell him to worship many gods instead of Jehovah alone, this theory would say he could be saved in so doing, while the Bible denies that he can. If an unviolated conscience will save one, then the Mohammedan who follows the Koran, trusts in Mohammad, worships Allah, and prays toward Mecca would be saved, for he has a “good conscience” in so doing. The Hindu is governed by the Vedas, worships Brahama, and many other gods, offers human sacrifices, but in so doing he has a good conscience, and if this is all that is necessary, his salvation is guaranteed. If a “good conscience” alone would save, then one could follow the Old Testament, deny that Christ is the son of God, offer animal sacrifices with a good conscience and be saved. I suppose even the murderers of Christ were doing what they thought they should do, for afterward some of them repented in obedience to the gospel. But’ if all one has to do to be: saved is have a good conscience, then these murderers would have nothing to repent of, for they had done precisely what they thought they ought to do. All a good conscience means is that one has lived within the bounds of one’s chosen standard. It does not guarantee that the standard chosen is the correct one.
A Weak Conscience
One may have another kind of conscience, a weak conscience. A weak conscience is one that does not speak out loudly and discriminately for it has not been properly taught. Paul says, “For if a man see thee who hast knowledge sitting at meat in an idol’s temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be emboldened to eat things sacrificed to an idol’?” (1 Cor. 8:10). This man who is described by Paul as “weak” was one who did not know enough to decide properly between right and wrong. The other person, we might say, he who was strong, was one whom Paul described as one “who hast knowledge.” This question discussed in 1 Cor. 8 and 10 was whether a Christian ought to eat meat that had been used in a sacrificial service to an idol. Paul said that those who had knowledge to know that the idol was nothing but a piece of stone or wood, could eat the meat, for the meat had not been defiled. But there were some who could not differentiate between eating of the meat and worshiping the idol. So they could not eat the meat. They were described as “weak.” Their conscience had not been taught adequately. There are many today who cannot clearly distinguish between right and wrong, because they have not been taught properly. Their conscience is weak.
A Defiled Conscience
Paul speaks of certain people whose conscience was defiled. He says “To the pure all things are pure: but to them that are defiled and unbelieving nothing is pure; but both their mind and their conscience are defiled” (Titus 1:15). Since these people had a defiled conscience, it is likewise possible that we might have a defiled conscience. What kind of conscience is one that is defiled? Defiled means contaminated. One with a defiled conscience is one who is so polluted that he cannot ascertain good from evil, because his standard is corrupt. Paul is a perfect example of this. He could, not recognize right from wrong, because his chosen norm was incorrect. Denominationalists are unable to determine right from wrong, because they are committed to a false premise. They depend on their feelings to guide them in the right way. One will say he knows he is right because he just feels deep inside of him that he is. But one may feel that he is right in a certain matter, when actually he is in error. Remember Paul did just this. Many consciences are unviolated, and yet defiled, and therefore the person is in error.
A Seared Conscience
There are others who are in such a condition that it led Paul to speak of their conscience as being seared. He speaks of them in 1 Tim. 4:1, 2. “Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron.” To sear something means to make it insensitive. In the West, cattle are branded with a hot iron. This branding removes the sensitivity from the seared portion of skin. There are some consciences that have been seared.
The way a conscience becomes seared is by it repeatedly being run over. When one does something that the conscience, drawing from the dictates of the chosen authority, forbids, it cries out to the offender. To illustrate how one’s conscience may become seared, let us speak of this instance. Suppose one has been taught from his youth, from the Scriptures, that it is his duty to worship God on the Lord’s Day. When he fails to do this, his conscience cries out, reprimanding him. One time he misses, and he is pricked in his heart by his offended conscience. But again and again he violates that which he knows to be right. Again and again he tramples under foot his conscience, until finally he can miss services with no feeling of having done evil at all. His conscience no longer cries out against his unrighteousness.He has so frequently walked over his protesting conscience until it cries out no longer. It is no longer sensitive to his transgression. This is what is meant by a seared conscience.The most precious and valuable restraining influence that a man has is his conscience, and there is but little hope for a man when his conscience no longer pricks him when he does evil. If he has no conscience to cry out against his unrighteousness, he has nothing to condemn him in anything that he does.
An Evil Conscience
Paul speaks of another kind of conscience, too. He says, “let us draw near with a true heart in fulness of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience: and having our body washed with pure water” (Heb. 10:22). These people had their hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience. What kind of conscience is an evil conscience? It is one that has not yet been seared, but that has been violated and cries out because of one’s guilt. This is a healthy sign. It notifies a man that he has not done what he should do. It tells him that he has transgressed the law fat he has chosen for himself. It should make a man want to correct his waywardness. When a person has an evil conscience, and when he is sincere, he is then ready to repent of his snis, and make amends for them. There are many, I am sure, who do not have good consciences. There are many that know how to act better than they have.
A person cannot have a good conscience so long as there is a single commandment of which he is aware that he has not obeyed. One cannot have a good conscience in the sight of God if God said believe, and if he has not done it. One’s conscience must be evil (violated) if God said repent and if he has not done so. Knowing that God said for one to confess his faith with his mouth, he who has not done so must have an evil conscience. Baptism is the answer of a good conscience toward God. Peter said “which also after a true likeness doth now save you, even baptism, not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the interrogation of a good conscience toward God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 3:21). One who has not been baptized cannot have a good conscience toward God. One’s conscience must be evil who has not been baptized, for God commands it.
If conscience is not a safe guide in matters of religion, what is? One must choose the word of God to be his standard, and be guided by it alone. As soon as one learns that God requires something of him, without hesitation he should comply with God’s command. Then one can always have a good conscience toward God, a conscience that has chosen the right guide or standard, and has faithfully kept it.
Truth Magazine, XVIII:46, p. 3-5
September 26, 1974