Making Biblical Decisions: Understanding Your Conscience – April 12, 2024

As we seek to make biblical decisions, the conscience should play an essential role. We discussed the decisions we should make on debatable issues when others disagree with our choices. However, what should we do when we disagree with our decisions? This seems like a weird question. However, many people seek to suppress their guilt and feelings of anxiety and move forward with their choices, giving no thought to their conscience. Others view their conscience as though it is never wrong and end up binding themselves unnecessarily. Individuals arrive at both bad ends because they fail to understand their conscience. The conscience may be the most underappreciated and misunderstood part of the human being. Modern psychology seeks not to understand the conscience but to silence it. Rather than address the guilt from the conscience, they seek to silence the conscience through affirmation. Unfortunately, this same attitude has infiltrated the modern church as well. Many Christians seek ministers and counselors who will tickle their ears rather than address their hearts.[1]

To combat this mistreatment of the conscience, we must understand our conscience. Scripture has much to say about the conscience. In the New Testament, the word translators have translated as conscience appears thirty times. Examining these texts, we conclude that the conscience is God’s gift to man to help us towards moral purity. Some define the conscience as “your consciousness of what you believe is right and wrong.”[2] However, Romans 2 indicates that our conscience is much more. It is the God-given alarm system that alerts us to our violation of God’s Law. The Puritan Richard Sibbes defines the conscience as the soul reflecting upon itself.[3] Yet, because our conscience is part of us, it is also impacted by the Fall. As a result, it is also affected by what we believe to be right and wrong.

Therefore, the conscience is both a tremendous asset and a dangerous ally. As J. I. Packer notes, “An educated, sensitive conscience is God’s monitor. It alerts us to the moral quality of what we do or plan to do, forbids lawlessness and irresponsibility, and makes us feel guilt, shame, and fear of the future retribution that it tells us we deserve, when we have allowed ourselves to defy its restraints.”[4] In the right place, the conscience is a wonderful asset for Christlike sanctification and a necessary protection against sin.

Yet our conscience is also subject to the Fall and, therefore, not inerrant. Satan seeks to use our conscience against us. He corrupts and desensitizes our conscience so that it will not alert us to evil. Satan uses the worldly attitudes and beliefs surrounding us to dull our conscience to sin. As we consistently encounter sin, we fail to take notice. When we do notice, our conscience brings guilt, shame, and unease. Sibbes compared the feelings aroused by the violated conscience to “a flash of hell.”[5] Because these feelings are painful, the world informs us that guilty feelings are always erroneous and hurtful. Just ignore them.

As we ignore the conscience’s feelings, we begin to fail to notice any presence of our conscience. I grew up just a few blocks from Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colorado. Every day, a squadron of F-16s would take off and fly around the city. Visitors consistently noticed and commented on the aircraft noise. Bizarrely, those of us who lived there never noticed the noise. Our minds had filtered it out so much that we rarely noticed it. When visitors noticed, we acknowledged what they heard and informed them that they would no longer notice in a short while. In the same way, Satan uses constant confrontation with sin in our lives and culture to dull our conscience to its presence and effects.

When Satan cannot dull our conscience, he heightens our conscience so that it falsely accuses us and unnecessarily binds us. He cripples us with guilt over things that are not sin. He causes us to call things sin, which are not sin, and undermine the gospel in our lives. Rather than enjoying the freedom God grants through the gospel, we become bitter and resentful as we seek to please God through our self-righteousness. Both cases (the dull and the heightened conscience) reveal that while it is a gift of God, the conscience is not inerrant. So, we cannot always heed Jiminy Cricket’s advice to let our conscience be our guide. Yet, neither can we afford to ignore it.

As Christians examine the Old Testament, they strangely discover a seeming absence of any reference to the conscience. However, this absence is not because the conscience is a New Testament invention. Instead, the conscience is so much a part of us that the Hebrew mind did not distinguish between the conscience and the individual. They viewed the inner person and the conscience as inseparable.[6] A well-known example of this blending of the conscience with the inner person can be examined in Exodus. When God, through Moses, commanded Pharaoh to let the Israelites go, Moses informs us that Pharaoh “hardened his heart” (Exod. 8:15). Pharaoh ignored his conscience (his heart) and turned off the God-given alarm system.

Blending the inner person with the conscience is important because it informs us that we cannot ignore the conscience (for it is an essential God-given asset). Nor, as fallen creatures with an innate sinful nature, can we afford to assign an all-knowing nature to the conscience (doing so would make it a dangerous ally). Instead, we must seek to hold our conscience in its rightful, God-given place and treat it in a way that it can accomplish its rightful, God-given purpose. Next week, we will address how we can hold the conscience in its rightful, God-given place. To do this, we must understand how our conscience is corrupted and redeemed.

[1] John MacArthur, The Vanishing Conscience (Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 1995), 50.

[2] Andrew David Naselli and J. D. Crowley, Conscience: What It Is, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2016), 42.

[3] Alexander B. Grosart, ed., Works of Richard Sibbes (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, n.d.), 3:208.

[4] J. I. Packer, Rediscovering Holiness (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Publications, 1992), 151.

[5] Grosart, Works of Richard Sibbes, 3:210–11.

[6] MacArthur, The Vanishing Conscience, 37.