Warning signs are all around us. Most of the time we notice and obey them without thinking, unless of course, they prevent us from doing something we really want to do, like diving into a refreshing swimming pool clearly marked “No Diving.”
Throughout our lives, we hear, see, and obey thousands of signs put there to prevent us from experiencing physical harm or death.
God, in his infinite wisdom, knows you and I need an internal warning system, an alarm system, to keep us from spiritual death. It’s the conscience, something not mentioned too much anymore.
But is it just a warning system, and alarm system? Or is there a more nuanced why of looking at the conscience, a way that takes faith, sin, and one’s relationship with God into consideration?
A More Nuanced View of Conscience
The Greek term for conscience, "suneidesis" or a similar idea, occurs more than 30 times in the New Testament, especially in Paul’s epistles.
Our conscience is an awareness of right and wrong, a faculty God has given us, so we can refer to the norms and values we recognize when making decisions. It’s not just an alarm or a moral compass directing us to do right or wrong. It serves as a witness to what we already know.
As Christians, as God-fearing people, God-loving people, we owe it to ourselves, to our eternal salvation, to make sure it is wired as a witness to godly values and norms, and to our very faith.
Faith and conscience work together.
Bible as Final Authority
If conscience bears witness to and helps us act according to what we already know, how important then, is what we know and how we acquire that knowledge.
American Calvinist theologian Sam Storms notes: “The conscience of the Christian is obligated and bound only by what the Bible either commands or forbids, or by what may be legitimately deduced from an explicit biblical principle.”
Also, the conscience may bear witness and be guided by undesirable and sinful values not found in Scripture or not worthy of being labeled Christian or even godly.
An Important Balance
There’s a balance between our mental, emotional, and spiritual states when our overall psychological well-being is optimum. There’s even an emotional dimension related to conscience in that we experience relief when we have decided to act correctly.
When one of these areas gets out of whack, our decision-making can be negatively affected.
When we process information correctly, including what we take from the Word of God on balance with the norms and values we hold, and express our feelings correctly, it’s a winning combination as we choose to do the right thing, change and respond as we should.
When the balance is disturbed, warning signs emerge, internally as disappoint or guilt, and even external, affecting our physical health and overall wellness.
Martin Luther suggests “You should not believe your conscience and your feelings more than the word which the Lord who receives sinners preaches to you.”
Hebrews 10:22: “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” Paul is here urging us to steer our conscience away from sin, and instead, willfully, in faith, live a life of obedience to God’s will.
The Beatitudes Perspective
A broader understanding of conscience beyond being an alarm system is to look at it from the perspective of the Beatitudes espoused by Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount.
The Beatitudes emphasize the humble state of humans and the righteousness of God. Each beatitude depicts the ideal heart condition of a citizen of God’s kingdom. In this idyllic state, the believer experiences abundant spiritual blessings.
In these statements, Jesus describes simple acts that form the cornerstone of the ideal Christian values and lifestyle. Therefore, living out the Beatitudes' examples is as important, and perhaps even more important than legalistic do’s and don’ts, for a Christian, for God-fearing believers, who want to make daily decisions, not just based on right and wrong, but based on relationship with others and God himself.
As Christians who have Jesus Christ as their personal savior, we also have the Holy Spirit to help us hear that inner voice loud and clear.
We must call on the Holy Spirit to convict us of sin, lead us to righteousness, and remind us of the judgment that we are spared by our union with Christ Jesus. Only then can our conscience serve its intended purpose of helping us conform to the values of our Creator.
In God’s Words
“For our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience, that we behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God, and supremely so toward you.” (2 Corinthians 1:12)
“How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” (Hebrews 9:14)
In the Words of Others
“Every human has four endowments – self- awareness, conscience, independent will, and creative imagination. These give us the ultimate human freedom...the power to choose, to respond, to change.” Stephen Covey
“There is a higher court than courts of justice and that is the court of conscience. It supersedes all other courts.” Mahatma Gandhi
In Your Words
Have you ever “disobeyed” your conscience, acting contrary to what it told you to do or not to do? If yes, what were the emotional and spirit consequences?
Reflect on Hebrews 10:22 and the relationship between following your conscience and faith in God's Word.
Read the Beatitudes? Consider the implications his reframing of the understanding of Christian living with your understanding of following your conscience.