A Biblical View of the Conscience
As I prepared my message on Hebrews 9:11-14, I had to stop and think a while about the last verse. It says that Jesus’ blood will, “…cleanse our consciences from dead works so that we can serve the living God.”
Prior to wrestling with that verse, I thought I knew the basics of Jesus’ death and what it accomplished:
- it propitiated God’s wrath against our sin (Romans 3:25-26)
- it cancelled the record of our debt to God (Col 2:13)
- it reconciles us to God (Romans 5:10-11)
But Hebrews is saying that the new conscience isn’t just a side-benefit of Jesus’ death, it’s right up there with those other accomplishments. It’s central to the fulfillment of God's New Covenant promise, “I will put my laws into their minds and write them on their hearts.” (Hebrews 8:10)
The conscience is our internal sense of what’s right and wrong. It’s our moral consciousness. Since all moral laws are sourced in the character of God, it’s crucial that our conscience be restored as we grow closer to him. In fact, the New Testament has over two dozen references to the conscience! It’s an important topic that we need to understand. Let’s do a brief overview of the Bible’s teaching on the conscience.
The Conscience of an Unbeliever
First, the Bible teaches that the conscience of unbelievers is woefully distorted. The conscience of unbelievers are “seared” and “corrupted” to such an extent that nothing is pure to them. (1 Timothy 4:2; Titus 1:15). Because of their rebellion against God, an unbeliever’s conscience is correspondingly damaged beyond what any human can do to repair it.
Baptism is an Appeal for a New Conscience
God’s word says that when an unbeliever trusts in Christ, their baptism is more than just an identification with Christ, his burial, and resurrection. It is also, “an appeal of a good conscience to God—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21). What meaning the Scripture gives to the act of baptism! When believers are baptized, they are essentially telling God, “I’m trusting my life to you. Let my old conscience die underwater and, as I rise, replace my conscience by writing your word on my heart.” Baptism asks God to fulfill his New Covenant promise.
Intimacy with God and the New Conscience
One wonderful consequence of our new, God-given conscience is that it enables us to draw near to God with a sincere heart (Hebrews 10:22). Through Jesus’ priestly work and our restored conscience, we can boldly approach God’s throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16). Yet the Psalmist also warns us that we lose the benefit of this intimacy when we idolize sin, “If I see wickedness in my heart, the Lord will not hear” (Psalm 66:18). Intimacy with God is a gift that comes with our regenerate conscience; but God requires his children to continue to take sin seriously as they grow more deeply connected with him.
We Must Protect Our New Conscience
Once we receive that new conscience, the Bible teaches that we must keep it clear. We must protect the new conscience we have received and continually foster its sensitivity to God and his teaching about right and wrong. The apostle Paul said, “I do my best to always have a clear conscience toward God and toward people” (Acts 24:16). Paul didn’t take it for granted that his conscience would automatically remain pure. He worked to preserve and build upon that which God had done.
The Spirit and the Word Guide the Conscience
Thankfully, we are not left on our own to purify our consciences. God gives us his Holy Spirit who applies his word to our hearts as a witness of God’s will. Paul said that his conscience conveyed the assurance that ultimately came from the Spirit in Romans 9:1, “I am telling the truth in Christ (I am not lying!), for my conscience assures me in the Holy Spirit.” He also wrote that one of the goals of his instruction was “a good conscience” in those he taught (1 Timothy 1:5). People immersed in God’s word and submissive to the Spirit will experience growing assurance that their conscience is aligned with God’s will.
Lifestyle and Friendships Can Help or Hinder the New Conscience
Our lifestyle can influence our conscience in positive or negative ways. Romans 13:5 instructs us to subject ourselves to governing authorities “…not only because of the wrath of the authorities, but also because of your conscience.” Christians who willingly comply with government authorities aren’t just making a good witness to the world, they are honoring and protecting the pure conscience given to them because of Christ’s payment on the cross.
The people with whom we fellowship are a major factor that can either hurt or help our conscience. 1 Corinthians 15:33 says, “Bad company corrupts good morals.” If we spend most of our time around people with unregenerate consciences, our own moral sensitivity will likely suffer. Likewise, Christians can callously sin against each other and damage each other’s consciences (1 Corinthians 8:12). We need to be careful with our relationships. We also need to look out for the consciences of others, not just our own.
Evangelism Requires a Clean Conscience
When we share the gospel, we must be very considerate of the effect of our behavior on an unbeliever’s conscience. 1 Corinthians 10:25-29 says that knowingly eating meat that was part of idol-worship could unintentionally harden an unbeliever’s heart to Christ. We should also realize that God requires all those who proclaim the gospel to have a clean conscience (2 Cor 1:12; 2 Cor 4:2; 1 Peter 3:16; Hebrews 13:18). If we want to share the gospel, God wants to use a clean vessel, unstained by a pattern of sinful practices.
The Danger of Neglecting the Conscience
Paul warns Timothy that he knows some who have rejected the importance of protecting their consciences and, consequently, “have suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith” (1 Timothy 1:19). While we don’t know the specifics of what these associates of Paul did, this verse draws a clear connection between one’s faith and one’s conscience. Neglecting one has a negative impact on the other.
God Examines Our Conscience on Judgment Day
Finally, Romans 2 gives us a stunning picture of how God will vindicate Christians in the judgment, “These, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they demonstrate the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus” (2:14b-16). This means that when we appear before God, he will look to see if we have that new conscience he gave us, the law he wrote on our hearts. That law on our hearts is evidence that we belong to the New Covenant community of Christ.
This has been a very brief overview of the Bible’s teaching on the conscience. Two things are clear to me. First, God cares deeply for our conscience. Second, the conscience is fundamental to our spiritual state. It is not some extraneous detail that the Bible occasionally addresses.
To put it in perspective for us, Scripture gives no promises to how God will protect our physical bodies in this life. If anything, we are told that being a Christian is dangerous to our physical bodies (Mark 10:29-30; John 15:19-20; John 16:33; 1 Thessalonians 3:3-4; 1 Peter 4:12-14).
On the other hand, Jeremiah 31, Ezekiel 36, and Hebrews 8 all contain bold, specific promises about how God will reconfigure our inner self, write his word on our hearts, and begin the process of reforming our conscience to reflect his own will.
These amazing promises came at a high cost for our Lord Jesus Christ. Let’s be thankful to him for securing them for us.