Keeping A Clear Conscience
How to develop your sense of good and evil
The conscience is like a monitor or an alarm that God uses to remind us when something is wrong. Everybody has a conscience, but when it comes to registering what is right and wrong, different consciences may come up with different readings. Sometimes the alarm does not ring when it should; at other times there is a false alarm.
God made us with a conscience, an inborn sense of right and wrong. Remember, Adam and Eve felt guilty and hid from God after they sinned. The conscience is like a law written in the human heart, an inner voice that accuses us if it thinks we are wrong; or defends us if it thinks we are right (Rom. 2:15). If we heed these promptings we have a clear conscience; if we disregard them we should have a guilty conscience (1 Tim. 1:5; Heb. 10:22).
However, the conscience is linked with the mind. What is fed into the mind concerning right and wrong will eventually influence how the conscience works. It is like a computer in that it only comes up with the right answers if it is fed the right information. If our conscience is working right we will be aware of our sinfulness as Adam and Eve were.
Since the conscience can fail to operate when it should and can give a false alarm, it is not a perfect guide of right and wrong. We need to allow for the fact that our conscience can be wrong and we need to recognize that God is the ultimate judge of what is right and wrong (1 Cor. 4:4). The Bible refers to three kinds of conscience: guilty, corrupt and clear.
A Guilty Conscience
Since we have all sinned and fall short of God’s standard, we all should experience a guilty conscience from time to time (Rom. 3:23). Consider these three examples from the Bible. First, when Jesus asked the accusers of the woman caught in adultery if any of them was “without sin” (Jn. 8:7), He exposed their guilt and they departed.
Second, after Peter denied knowing Jesus for the third time, he broke down and cried because he remembered Jesus’ words: “Before the rooster crows twice you will disown Me three times” (Mk. 14:72 NIV). Convicted of his failure, he confessed, was restored and then was used mightily by God in the early Church.
Third, after Judas betrayed Jesus, he was seized with guilt, returned the money he had been paid, and then committed suicide. (Mt. 27:3-5). In each of these cases the alarm sounded when it should, showing us that people can respond to a guilty conscience in a positive or negative way. They either deal correctly with the alarm or try to escape it.
A Corrupt Conscience
If we set our alarm at night but ignore it in the morning, the time will come when we will sleep right through it. In the same way, if we keep ignoring our conscience, it will become ineffective. Because of this, many people have little sense of sin. Their consciences are described as being either “seared as with a hot iron” or “corrupted” (1 Tim. 4:2; Ti. 1:15). These two illustrations involve being burned and injured, or polluted and contaminated. These consciences are insensitive to sin; they do not work properly. This is one reason why evangelism of adults can be difficult.
A Clear Conscience
The Bible says that Christ’s death can change a guilty conscience to a clear one (Heb. 9:14). This kind of conscience is also called a good or clean conscience. In this case, the alarm is set and ready to sound at the right time, and we respond to it. The first step to a clear conscience is to become a Christian.
The Holy Spirit can use our consciences to make us feel guilty of sin (Jn. 16:8). The truth of the gospel enlightens our conscience and brings about conviction of sin, which is the first stage of repentance. For example, when Peter spoke at Pentecost, the people “were cut to the heart” and asked, “What shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent … for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:37-38). Believers are cleansed from a guilty conscience in order to serve the living God (Heb. 9:14; 10:22).
Salvation sets us free from condemnation (Rom. 8:1). But if we do not keep our conscience clear, this will show in our daily life by affecting our fellowship with God and our prayer life. We won’t enjoy God’s presence if we have a guilty conscience – just like we do not feel comfortable around our parents when we have a guilty conscience. A guilty conscience will also affect our faith and love. As a good conscience is linked with strong faith, a guilty conscience leads to weak faith (1 Tim. 1:5,19). As love is an outcome of a good conscience, it is diminished by a guilty conscience. A guilty conscience affects our desire to read the Bible. As a troubled conscience can decrease our appetite for natural food, it can also decrease our appetite for spiritual food.
Caring For Our Conscience
Just as alarms need power, maintenance and correct settings to operate properly, we need to care for our conscience to keep it operating correctly. One thing we must do to keep our conscience empowered and calibrated is confess sin: “If we confess our sins He … will forgive us” (1 Jn. 1:9). He promised through Christ’s death to “cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death” (Heb. 9:14). But it’s not enough just to confess; we must also change our behavior (Jas. 1:22). We must also stop doing what we shouldn’t do. This is called repentance. We must begin to live by our convictions (Rom. 14:5,14,23).
We must train our conscience to be strong. This takes time just like it takes time to train children for adulthood. Those who are mature have trained their senses “to distinguish good from evil” (Heb. 5:14). A conscience marred by a sinful nature needs to be transformed (Rom. 12:2).
Paul said, “I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and mankind” (Acts 24:16). Confessing to and praying for each other are effective ways to keep a clear conscience between each other (Jas. 5:16). Maintaining a clear conscience in our marriage, family and local church, and with neighbors, friends and business associates is important.
As we grasp more and more truth about God’s will, our conscience becomes more enlightened. This does not necessarily mean we should feel guilty about more and more things, because sometimes we feel guilty when we should not. Remember the false alarm. Paul referred to believers who felt guilty for no good reason as having a “weak” conscience (1 Cor. 8:7,8). He referred to those free from this false guilt as having a “strong” conscience. They were more mature, like deacons who “must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience” (1 Tim. 3:9). How important it is to be filled “with the knowledge of His will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (Col. 1:9). We have the Bible and the Holy Spirit to guide us towards this maturity (Jn. 16:13).
How do we act toward other believers when their behavior doesn’t meet our standard? What do we do when we see a believer engaging in what we consider a questionable activity? How do we react when people try to force us to follow their convictions?
The Bible distinguishes between essentials and non-essentials in the Christian faith. The essentials or fundamentals are things which all believers should agree on. They are the tests the Bible sets forth for recognizing false teachers and false ideas about such things as: the person and work of Christ; the good news of salvation “by grace … through faith … not by works” (Eph. 2:8-9); and the inspiration and authority of the Bible as God’s revelation to us.
Apart from such foundational truths, there are many other things in the Bible that are not as clear, and not as easily understood. In these matters we must allow for differing opinions. This includes “disputable (debateable) matters” (Rom. 14:1), where the Bible allows for differences of opinion. This is illustrated in Romans 14 by two examples.
The first concerns eating meat: “One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables” (Rom. 14:2). When the book of Romans was written, the situation among Gentile believers (those with no Jewish ancestry) was an interesting one. Most had participated in pagan worship which included animal sacrifices to pagan gods, or idolatry. The animals that were sacrificed were usually sold as meat on the open market.
So for those who had been saved out of this lifestyle the question became whether they should eat the meat sacrificed to these idols. By eating that meat, were they participating in the idolatry of pagans? This was a hard question for many. And desiring not to participate in idolatrous practices, many of these Gentile Christians became vegetarians. Only in that way could they assure themselves that they were not eating meat sacrificed to idols.
Paul said that the weak believer ate only vegetables, whereas the strong believer’s faith allowed him to eat this meat because he understood that the idols to which the meat had been offered were not gods at all – only pieces of wood, stone or metal. Therefore, if they ate the meat with that understanding, they were not participating in idolatry.
The second example has to do with observing special days as holy days: “One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike” (Rom. 14:5). Those who had been saved out of the Jewish tradition of Sabbath days and festivals were apt to make a great deal out of those observances. However, others not coming from that background felt that every day was the Lord’s day, and none were more special than others. This created problems in the early church. How were believers to live together who did not agree in every detail? How are we, today, to deal with other believers whose opinions differ from ours?
Instructions For Living Together
Those scriptural principles which instruct us to live together in harmony and love with other believers often involve the conscience. It is clear that they are important because of the numerous references to them in the New Testament.
One such principle is that we accept one another: “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable (debatable) matters” (Rom. 14:1). The Christian is to accept other believers without passing judgment on every opinion they hold. We are to allow for differing opinions, because they do not necessarily mean a differing faith, but a faith that is weak.
Another principle is that we respect another’s conscience – regardless of whether it is more strict and scrupulous or more tolerant and easy-going than ours (Rom. 14:3). In other words, we are to allow for the differing conclusions of honest believers who are seeking the mind of Christ. And further, we are to allow for them without criticism, contempt, and judgment (Rom. 14:10). We should not put others down (Rom. 14:13). We should respond with love rather than criticism. Remember, God has accepted them and so should we. He is judge in these matters, not us.
A third principle is that we don’t allow another’s conscience to override ours (Rom. 14:16), and that we don’t force our conscience on others (Rom. 14:22). We can share our opinion, but it is important to give others space to grow and to allow for the possibility that we may be wrong.
A final principle is that we be careful that our behavior does not stumble others and cause them to sin by not following their conscience (Rom. 14:20-21; 1 Cor. 8:13). Don’t let debatable matters destroy the work of God. Paul stated, “Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the Church of God – even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved” (1 Cor. 10:32-33).
Repairing The Alarm
Let’s be like Paul and always strive to keep our conscience clear before God and one another, so that it sounds an alarm at the right time and is silent at the right time. If our conscience is guilty, let’s respond to the alarm like Peter who confessed his sin and was restored to God. If it is corrupt, let’s get our alarm repaired so it can recognize our sin.
Also, let’s endeavor to become more mature by training our conscience to be strong. Those with legalistic viewpoints have consciences that are stricter than the Bible; those with liberal viewpoints have consciences that are more lax than the Bible. Both are weak. Are we allowing the Holy Spirit to constantly use the Bible to develop, exercise and strengthen our conscience so we can readily distinguish good from evil — and live accordingly?