In the beginning Adam and Eve had no conscience of things right or wrong. There was no need for a conscience since there was no sin to compare with righteousness. All was righteousness. Adam and Eve were given a conscience when they ate of the fruit in the middle of the garden – the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Now they knew sin. They knew they had disobeyed. They knew they were naked. This was the only sin they were aware of at this time although that sin had separated them from God. They knew something was different between them and God but was not fully aware of what it was. Because of their awareness of this difference, they hid themselves from God and also tried to hide their nakedness.
This awareness was their conscience kicking in.
David said it this way. Psalms 51:3 “My sin is ever before me”.
Solomon wrote it this way in Prov. 28:1 “The wicked flee when no man pursues: but the righteous are bold as a lion.
In the New Testament John spoke of it in this manner in 1 John 3:20-21. “if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things. Beloved, if our heart condemns us not, then we have confidence toward God.”
Now this trait of having a conscience has been passed on as is seen in Adam and Eve’s children Cain and Abel in Genesis 4:3-7 (NIV).
When in the course of time when Cain and Abel brought an offering before God, God was pleased with Abel’s offering but not with Cain’s offering. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast. “6 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? 7 If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”
God was trying to teach Cain to have and keep a good conscience but Cain did not rule over his conscience and choose what was evil instead of good. He chose to kill his brother. Cain willfully chose this action. His conscience would have told him it was wrong but he choose to disregard what his conscience told him was wrong. We are said to have “free will”, that is, the freedom to choose either what our conscience says is right or what our conscience says is wrong. Our conscience does not make us do something. It only tells us if the action would be right or wrong to do.
What then is a conscience? A conscience, then, is a sense or feeling of our heart or mind (the spirit of man) which approves of or disapproves of our attitudes, thoughts, words or actions.
From God trying to teach Cain, we can see that a conscience can be trained or allowed to be abused and left untrained. God’s values of right and wrong are the standards of righteousness our conscience should follow to be our guide to right and wrong.
Our conscience can be wrong by wrong training. Let’s look at the life of Saul (later Paul) found in Acts 22:1-11. By persecuting the Christians he was persecuting Jesus. This was wrong. It was sin. Saul was persecuting Christians because he thought this was what was pleasing to God. This is what he says in the following chapter.
Acts 23:1 (NIV) Paul looked straight at the Sanhedrin and said, “My brothers, I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day.”
Later he says this in Acts 24:16. (NIV) 16 So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.
From what we had seen so far, we can see that a conscience is not a perfect guide for a person if it has not been trained by the righteousness of God. A conscience guided by God’s holiness will guide a person into acceptable ways.
Saul had a clean conscience before God but not a good conscience.
Saul had been guided by the Jewish Sanhedrin who approved the persecution of the Christians. The Sanhedrin had given him papers to do that activity so Paul had no conscience against it. Saul thought he was doing what God wanted him to do but he was mistaken because of a flaw in what he knew about God. (We will come back to this thought later.)
A good conscience or clean conscience, then, is one which approves the thoughts or actions which one has had or has done. This is based on the understanding of or the knowledge of what is right and wrong. Paul said he had always done what he did with a clear conscience, even when it was not what God approved.
Remember, the conscience is not the part of man which causes a person to do a certain things – this is the will of man – but it is a part of man which only approves or disapproves of what is done. (The will of man is a separate topic but still related to the conscience of man.)
Sin is what separates us from God. Sin is what should cause us to have a guilty conscience when we know God righteousness.
All have a conscience for the good to some degree since everyone will accept some standards of right and wrong which matches up with God’s standards of right and wrong.
A guilty conscience is one which disapproves of the thoughts or actions a person has taken. A guilty conscience is caused by the guilt of sin. A person who recognized his sin then will feel the guilt because of a guilty conscience.
God’s desire is to have the sin which comes between him and man to be removed or dealt with. This sin is what God looks at for making a judgment. God’s love for mankind, his final creation, caused him to provide a way to look beyond or through the sin by having it already dealt with in the body of Jesus. This way was to have Jesus take the punishment due the person who sins. We find God’s provisions for this in the New Covenant or New Testament. When the guilt is taken away the conscience is cleared. The conscience is cleared by an act of God but it must be kept clean by each individual’s acts of faithfulness to God.
In Hebrews 9:14 (NIV) the writer said this: 14 How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!
The sacrifice of Jesus can clean our consciences from sin.
Acts chapter 2 has the story of Peter telling those first hearers of God’s plan and how God was going to clean their conscience. First read all of Acts 2. Then go back to verse 37 to see that many of the listener’s consciences had been taught to recognize the sin they shared in approving of Jesus’s death.
They were convicted in their hearts of their sin so they had guilty consciences and asked Peter and the other apostles what they should do to clean their conscience. Remember only God can take away or forgive sin and Peter replied God’s remedy to them in Acts 2:38. Even though they believed that Jesus was both Lord and Christ, they were commanded to repent and be immersed in the name of Jesus so their sins will be forgiven and then they would be given the gift of the Holy Spirit to live in their hearts. By their obedience their sins were forgiven and their conscience was cleaned.
The knowledge of their sin gave them their guilty conscience while the forgiveness of their sin gave them a clear conscience. Peter continues for some time as recorded in Acts 2:40-41 with this record: “40 With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
Many, that day, may have left with a guilty conscience because they had refused to obey. Those who accepted (believed) and obeyed his message were baptized. These, then, had a clean conscience and began to follow the teaching of the apostles as indicated in verse 42.
It is not recorded the “many other words he warned them with but what is needed for people to keep their conscience clean can be found throughout the rest of the New Testament.
The writer of Hebrews said it happens like this: Hebrews 10:22 (NIV) 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.
Then Paul warns Timothy that the followers of Jesus have to hold on to their faith and a good conscience. See 1 Timothy 1:19 (NIV). 19 holding on to faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and so have suffered shipwreck with regard to the faith.
In his same letter Paul writes this in Timothy 3:9 (NIV). 9 They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience.
A clear conscience is therefore important and it takes work. He did not want any to make shipwreck with regard to their faith.
We must then strive to have an attitude like Paul who states this in Acts 24:16. (NIV) “So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.”
In Galatians 5:16-26 (NIV) he wrote this: 16 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.
Our lives now must be lived so our conscience is directed by God’s righteousness. We must continue to grow.
Peter states it like this in 1 Peter 2:2 .(NIV) Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation.
We can let our conscience be a guide in directing what we do, say and think if it is in good working order – that is - if it is from a pure mind and approved of God.
A conscience that is from a pure mind and approved of God is one which abhors that which is evil and cleaves to that which is good.
When our conscience is in “good working order” – that is, knowing what is right and what is wrong can serve as a check or guide in the things that we do, say or think.
We are warned throughout the Bible about not falling away.
Look what Paul writes to Titus in Titus 1:10-16 .(NIV) 10 For there are many rebellious people, full of meaningless talk and deception, especially those of the circumcision group. 11 They must be silenced, because they are disrupting whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach—and that for the sake of dishonest gain. 12 One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” 13 This saying is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith 14 and will pay no attention to Jewish myths or to the merely human commands of those who reject the truth. 15 To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted. 16 They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good.
Paul wrote this scathing rebuke stating that “both their minds and consciences are corrupted”. In order for them to have consciences in good working order their minds cannot be corrupted with false ideas. These false ideas corrupt a good conscience.
Again in 1 Timothy 4:1-16 Paul gives these warnings. 1 The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. 2 Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. 3 They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. 4 For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5 because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. 6 If you point these things out to the brothers and sisters, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed. 7 Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. 8 For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. 9 This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance. 10 That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.
Truth was corrupted by these deceiving spirits and hypocritical liars. Their conscience had been seared as with a hot iron. Our minds and hearts have to know the truth and hold fast to the truth to keep our conscience from also being seared.
The Letter to the Ephesians has these valuable instructions for Christian living. Look at Ephesians 4:17-32. (NIV) 17 So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 18 They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. 19 Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.
(These verses describe those who have a conscience that is not acceptable to God. This conscience could not be a guide to what was right or what was wrong.)
20 That, however, is not the way of life you learned 21 when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. 22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
(When we are taught with the truth that is in Jesus, our conscience will be trained in what is right and what is wrong.)
25 Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. 26 “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 and do not give the devil a foothold. 28 Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.
(We must continue our training in all the ways of God’s holiness.)
29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
When we have willingly put Christ as our Lord and Master, we will want to do what he wants us to do. This gives us joy. 2 Cor. 1:12-14 indicates there is only one that we should follow and that is Jesus, our Lord and Christ.
As we commit ourselves to doing only what we know is right we will be adding knowledge to our faith so that we will have a conscience that is not seared with a hot iron. We will be guided by the light that Christ brought into the world.
One word of caution is needed here. We cannot always use the conscience of another good person as a good guide for us. In other words, the other person may think one thing is OK to do but you have learned better. Just because they have a clear conscience in doing a certain thing, that does not mean you will also retain a clear conscience if you do the same thing. Your knowledge should not let you do something that you consider wrong even if the other person considers the act as OK.
1 Corinthians 10:16-30 (NIV) is an example of this. 16 Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf. 18 Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar? 19 Do I mean then that food sacrificed to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s Table and the table of demons. 22 Are we trying to arouse the Lord’s jealousy? Are we stronger than he? 23 “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. 24 No one should seek their own good, but the good of others. 25 Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, 26 for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.” 27 If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. 28 But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience. 29 I am referring to the other person’s conscience, not yours. For why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience? 30 If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for.
Also look at Rom. 14:22-23. 22 So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. 23 But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.
Why do I want a clean conscience rather than a guilty conscience?
My conscience affects my whole being. It can make me feel happy, sad, guilty or glad. It can cause me emotional stresses and strains. I want a conscience that will help me with knowing the right and the wrong. When I have a conscience that is approved of God it will let me know what is right and what is wrong.
I want a clean conscience or a good conscience because of the peace, joy and happiness it will put into my life.
A study piece started in Dec. 2013. Larry E. Whittington