Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Conscience In The New Testament


“A bad conscience is the mother of all heresies(false teaching)” – Calvin.

What follows is is a summary of the teaching of the New Testament on the subject of conscience along with commentary on specific passages, and resources.

Conscience: An Overview

conscience (gk. = suneidaesis): significant history and wide usage among Greeks (technical term in Stoicism), but seems to play lesser role in revelation of OT (perhaps because the ‘bar’ of conscience is God’s revealed will in 10 Comm’s and Law???). See Towner comment on 1 Tim. 1.4 where he makes similar remark, but, perhaps, doesn’t give full weight to presence of ‘conscience’ in OT (cf. Psalm 51: desire for cleansing and 1 Samuel 25.31).

Our English word = conscience = con (together with) science (knowledge).

Conscience = Used 14 x in Paul (with majority of uses in Corinthians correspondence: 8x in 1 Corinthians, 3x in 2 Corinthians). Romans 2.15 shows how conscience functions among gentiles without law as enough to condemn, but not enough to save. Paul was sensitive to conscience in his own life/ministry (Acts 23.1, 2 Timothy 1.7, Romans 9.1). Christians are to keep a clear conscience vis a vis pagan slanders on their character so that pagan slander becomes groundless, and source of shame (1 Peter 3.16). As 1 Corinthians 8 and Romans 14 show, it is possible to have an oversensitive conscience. A clear conscience can only be achieve FIRST by the cleansing of the blood of Christ (Hebrews).

Conscience: Defined

Conscience = our internal court (a judge) which bears witness to the rightness of wrongness of our actions, a preview of the judgment day; a sign that God’s law is written within us (Romans 2:15, 9:1). We are to act in line with our own conscience – not slavishly submit to the conscience of others – while still respecting the conscience of the weaker brother and striving not to cause them to stumble (stumble = trip over their conscience and defile it) (1 Cor. 10:29). The will of God revealed (in his word and in nature) is the rule of conscience; we have no right to bind other men’s consciences (Romans 14); nor do we have a right to try and make men go against their conscience: i.e. to act in a way they think displeases God (even if it is not against his revealed will – we mustn’t run roughshod over other’s consciences). Love, the great command, and summary of the law comes from a pure heart, good conscience, sincere faith (1 Timothy 1:5).

Eckstein, “Conscience is a neutral judge of behavior, according to a norm, that brings judgment either positive or negative to awareness of an individual, by criticism or affirmation.”

Moo, comment on Romans 9:1 (556), ““Conscience” in Paul is an inborn faculty that monitors a person’s conformity to moral standards.”

conscience = self-judgment (in our secret thoughts) which has a premonition of a final judgment -- where we either excuse or condemn our own actions.

Paraphrase of Towner on 1 Timothy 1.5, A good conscience is the organ of decision that enable one to move from the right norm to the right behavior.

Towner, on 1 Timothy 1.5, “For Paul and for us, the conscience is that part or faculty of the mind that gives awareness of the standing of one's conduct as measured against an accepted standard.”

Towner on 1 Timothy 1.5, NICNT, pg. 117, “Consciousness (or lack thereof) of having committed a wrong... conscious is neutral outside the pastorals... a control for behavior by bringing an assessment of behavior to consciousness on the basis of a known norm.” 

Conscience and The Faith (THE Faith = Definite Truth Delivered By God in Christ)

Towner on relationship to THE faith, in pastorals, comment on 1 Tim. 1.5, Conscience is related to conformity and reception of THE faith, the apostolic gospel (cf. 1 Tim. 4.3, Titus 1.15, 1 Tim. 4.1, Titus 1.14 where THE faith has been abandoned): “Thus, Paul argues, rejection of faith rendered conscience bad, seared, that is ineffective....Paul regards the condition of the human conscience as ultimately affected positively by adherence to the apostolic gospel or rendered ineffective by rejection of it. And following from this, the false teacher’s rejection of the gospel makes moral goodness unattainable... Consequently, Paul regards an effectively functioning conscience to be intrinsic to the process that is to lead from teaching to the goal of love.” The chief fruit of is seen in behavior that runs counter to godliness, “The rejection of the faith destroys the capacity of the conscience to make reliable decisions.”

“... the conscience of a good man bears witness for him, and is a co-witness with the Holy Ghost, to which he can appeal, as the apostle did (Romans 9:1)."

Consciences, significantly, does NOT provide, 1) Source of power for right behavior, 2) The source of behavior in and of itself—i.e. the norm is from ‘outside,’ God’s law written on the heart, or God’s law known through revelation.

See C.A. Pierce, “Conscience in The New Testament,” (SBT 15) (London, 1955). 

Different Types of Conscience 

1. Grieved, Bad conscious (1 Sam 25:31)

Looks back with remorse, painful internal barbs of doubt, regret, fear. A bad preview of the judgment day.

Did they get you to trade... a walk on part in the war... Franklin, “A good conscience is like Christmas year round (get exact quote!).”

2. Seared (1 Tim. 4.2)

So often sinned against light that they lose the ability to determine right from wrong; their conscience is dead, and lifeless, so weaken from continual abuse they can not longer put up a fight.

3. Weak (1 Cor. 8, etc)

A conscience that is too touchy, which avoids things which are allowed, which is timid and unsure; hyper sensitive; can be given to the sin of judging those who do not conform to legalistic rules (Romans 14); this comes from a lack of knowledge – a lack of sound instruction -- about goodness of God’s world, and abrogation of OT ceremonial law, and a lack of surety in the free grace of God (1 Cor. 8, Romans 14, 1 Timothy 4:1ff). Note, if anyone goes against a weak conscious because another flaunts their freedom, they are sinning, and could lead themselves into serious destruction (‘perish,’ Romans 14). A Christian should always act in faith (Romans 14: anything that does not come from faith...). A person is freed from a weak conscience by further instruction in God’s word about, 1) The goodness of creation (1 Timothy 4:1-3), 2) Justification by grace, grace alone (Romans 14).

4. Defiled

related to # 3; a weak conscience made uneasy/filthy because of practicing Christian freedom (1 Cor. 8:7).

5. Corrupt

Titus 1.15, “even their mind and conscience is corrupt.”

6. Good

No internal pangs of grief and regret, good preview of the judgment day. Free, clear, and peaceful when considering past manner of life (Acts 23:1, 1 Timothy 1.5)

7. Clear

Very similar to # 3. No ‘blood’ on this conscience; no spots, no dirt. Relates to conduct before both God and Men (Acts 24:16). See also 1 Timothy 3:9, 2 Timothy 1:3. (cf. Acts 20: I am innocent of the blood of all men). See quote from “Friday night lights,” like being totally free and totally clean in regards to maximum effort.

8. Cleansed

This can only be accomplished effectively by the blood of Christ (Hebrews 9:14, 10:22). 


I. Romans 2:15

“Their conscience bearing witness... accusing, even excusing...”

From Douglass Moo, Comment, 151, “Paul continues to speak of those Gentiles who manifest in their behavior an innate awareness of God’s moral demands. In contrast to the often positive use of “unwritten law” among the Greeks, Paul follows Jewish writers in using the concept negatively: knowledge of God’s moral demands among the Gentiles simply demonstrates their guilt... (written on their hearts reminiscent of new covenant prophecy (Jer. 31:31-34)) BUT, “ Jeremiah speaks about the law’s being written on the heart and the complete knowledge of God that will result from it. Paul, however, makes reference to the “works of the law” being written on the heart and makes clear that this process still leaves the issue of the final judgment in doubt (vv.15b-16). As Luther puts it, “the knowledge of the work is written, that is, the law that is written in letters concerning the works that have to he done, but not the grace to fulfill this law.”

As Calvin says, “Enough to condemn, but not enough to save.”

Moo, cont., “The word conscience comes from the Greek rather than the Biblical world. The word had and important technical role in Stoic philosophy... The conscience could be the source of moral norms (as in our popular use of the term), but it is usually viewed as a reflective mechanism by which people can measure their conformity to a norm. If, then, the law is that norm, the conscience of individual Gentiles reveals within each of them the extent to which that norm is being followed. Paul uses “bear witness” (gk. = summartureo) of this process, and the meaning of “conscience” would imply that this “witness” is first of all to them individual themselves. In the light of v. 16, however, there may be a secondary reference to a witness before the heavenly judgment seat... “accusing and excusing”... the witness of the conscience consists in the mixed verdict of one’s thoughts. The debate among the thoughts goes on constantly, but its ultimate significance will be revealed in the last judgment, as v. 16 shows. The excusing and accusing testimony of the thoughts within each person’s conscience portends the verdict of the one who will bring every thought to light.

Bengel on ‘even excusing (v. 15),’ “The concessive particle, even, shows that the thoughts have far more to accuse, than defend, and the defense itself... does not extend to the whole, but only to a part of the conduct, and this very part in turn proves us to be debtors to the whole...”

II. Romans 9:1

“I am speaking the truth in Christ, I am not lying, as my conscience bears witness to me through the Holy Spirit.”

Note: repetition of “bear witness” them from 2:15.

from Moo, Comment on 9:1: “(context for this verse is) ...the great majority of the Jewish people have not responded in faith to the gospel... it is Paul’s task to show that (Israel’s unbelief has not ruptured the continuous course of salvation history...)... Paul draws attention to what he is about to say by forcefully proclaiming his sincerity. He emphasizes the point by putting it positively – “I am speaking the truth” – and negatively – “I am not lying” (the lack of conjunction to connect these clauses lends Paul’s assertions a “solemn emphasis (Dunn, cf. 1 Tim. 2.7 for similar sequence)... “Conscience” in Paul is an inborn faculty that monitors a person’s conformity to moral standards... Paul assures the Romans that he has a good, or “clear,” conscience about the truthfulness of what he is about to tell them...”

1 Timothy 1.5

Towner IVP Comment on 1.5:

But there is more than an impersonal interest in preserving correct doctrine in all of this. For the goal of this admonition is love, flowing out of a cleansed heart, a good conscience and a genuine faith. Faith and love in the Pastorals and throughout Paul's letters signify a correct and personal knowledge of and belief in God, and its proper, active outworking in the life of the believer (see notes on 2:15). Pure heart and good conscience are technical terms in the Pastorals. The heart was regarded as the inward part of the person and the center of one's spiritual and thought life. The total inner life of the believer, cleansed from sin, could be depicted with the term pure heart. For Paul and for us, the conscience is that part or faculty of the mind that gives awareness of the standing of one's conduct as measured against an accepted standard.

But we who are modern Westerners should not read into Paul's term all of our understanding. The concept of individuality bred into us in the West was foreign to Paul's culture. Conscience tends to function individualistically in us to produce feelings of guilt. For Paul and the ancient Mediterranean culture in general, conscience was the internal judgment of one's actions by that one's group--"pain one feels because others consider one's actions inappropriate and dishonorable" (Malina 1981:70). Honor and shame, rather than guilt, were the operative feelings. Therefore, Paul's readers would perceive the conscience as sending internal signals evaluating the rightness or wrongness of behavior (past, present or future) as a member of a group. We, on the other hand, view the conscience as concerned with right and wrong on an individual basis, not necessarily taking into account what others think and expect about us.

1 Timothy 1:18-20

IVP Comment on 1 Timothy 1.18-20:

Paul clearly does recognize the dangers involved. For this reason he qualifies the command of verse 18 by referring, without a break in the sentence, to the believer's personal spiritual condition in verse 19.

The qualifying phrase, holding on to faith and a good conscience, considers the spiritual life from two perspectives. Faith here means a correct knowledge of God and Christ (or the gospel). Good conscience is that inner faculty that causes faith to issue in godly conduct (1:5). According to Paul, the purity of one's faith is directly related to the effectiveness of one's conscience (4:1-2). The concern here is that while opposing the false teachers and their subtle doctrines Timothy could, if inattentive or unprepared, suffer a severe blow to his faith. It is like the doctor who risks infection while attempting to treat a sick person. But in the Christian's case, one has to remember that the enemy is Satan (compare 4:1; 2 Corinthians 11:1-15), and his powers of deception and persuasion are not to be taken lightly or ignored.

Some Christians in Ephesus--Paul singles out two leaders, Hymenaeus and Alexander (v. 20)--made this mistake (and Paul's language, rejected and blaspheme, suggests that it was a conscious one), with devastating results to their relationship with God. Shipwrecked raises images in the mind of "destruction," not "setback." Furthermore, the disciplinary measures taken are severe. Handed over to Satan refers to excommunication from the church back into Satan's realm.

1 Timothy 4.1-5

From IVP Comment on 1 Timothy 4.1-5:

First, as noted previously (1:5), Paul makes a connection between adherence to the faith and the "good conscience." Here, the reverse operation is seen: rejection of the faith leaves the conscience seared as with a hot iron. Behind this image is the practice of branding slaves with a hot iron. Rejection of the faith enslaves one to sin and falsehood, by hobbling the faculty of discernment and making it an ineffective guide to right and wrong.

Second, just as the "good conscience" is related to Christian conduct, here the "seared" conscience issues in perverted conduct (v. 3). For Paul the conscience is the faculty of decision. It enables the believer to proceed from the faith, the vertical dimension of belief and knowledge, to the corresponding horizontal activity of godly behavior (see on 1:5). The false teachers had lost the ability to make such decisions effectively--since their concept of the faith was distorted, their ideas about godly living were equally distorted.

The signal Paul sends is clear. If genuine Christian conduct flows from a vital relationship with Christ, then an imitation that is fanatically forced on others is at best human in origin, at worst demonic. Observable conduct may not be the litmus test of orthodoxy or salvation, but negative results here ought to raise questions, whether one is examining one's own faith (2 Corinthians 13:5) or the claims of a "Christian" movement (Gal 5:6).

2 Timothy 1:7

I thank God whom I serve, as did my ancestors, with a clear conscience, as I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day.

1 Peter 3:16

“...keeping a clear conscience so that those reviling your good conduct in Christ may be ashamed with respect to your being slandered.”

Peter H. Davids, Comment on 1 Peter 3.16, “...Christians need to keep a clear conscience” that will result in “good conduct in Christ.” Unlike its use in 2.19, “conscience” appears with its normal NT meaning of consciousness that their behavior has been moral (Acts 23.1, Romans 2.15, 9.1, 2 Cor. 1.12, 5.11; 1 Tim. 1.5, 19, 3.9; Heb. 13.18). It is no persecution for Christ if the Christian has broken some civil law or rule of God and so deserves the criticism received, but if the conscience is clear one can stand confidently before God and indeed only good behavior (such as Peter has encouraged in 2:11-3:7) will be there to slander.”... (persecutors) will be ashamed when others look at the actual behavior of the Christians and realize how groundless their rumors are. But, on the other hand, Peter’s stress on the coming judgment of Christ means that his primary focus is surely on their shame when they must give an account of their behavior before a Judge who knows the full truth. Here is the ultimate security for a Christian.”

A friend, when under pressure from cruel men about what he did in ministry, “God knows what I do.”


But conscience itself tells us that morality is essentially a matter, not of taste, but of truth; not of feeling, in the first instance, but of judgment, based on principles which are in themselves universally valid, and claim everyone's assent.

Traditionally, and surely correctly, conscience has been held to involve two faculties, ability first to 'see' general moral truths and second to apply them to particular cases. Aquinas called the first capacity synderesis and kept conscientia for the second; Peter Martyr the reformer, followed by many seventeenth-century writers, spoke of theoretical and practical understanding, different words for the same distinction. It was unquestioned among both Protestants and Roman Catholics till this century that the workings of conscience take the form of practical syllogisms, e.g. 'Stealing is wrong; taking the umbrella would be stealing; therefore taking the umbrella would be wrong', or 'Bank robbers deserve punishment; I robbed a bank; therefore I deserve punishment'; and, despite some latter-day hesitations based on doubt as to whether God really reveals universally binding moral truths, the historic doctrine seems true, as anyone who checks his own moral reasoning will soon see. Though conscience pronounces on particular actions and cases, it does so on the basis of general principles, which, though not always explicit in the initial pronouncement, will be explicitly cited in justification if the pronouncement is at any stage questioned. And if no such universal principle could be produced to justify a particular pronouncement, the right conclusion would be that here is no genuine deliverance of conscience at all, but a neurotic symptom (guilt, or an obsession, in the psychiatrist's sense of those words) masquerading as the voice of conscience, and needing to be relieved and dispelled, if possible, by professional therapy.

John Gill on Different Types of Conscience

1. Bad Consciense

1. Blind: Gill: Evil conscience is blind and ignorant, arising from an understanding darkened and alienated from the life of God, through ignorance; when in some it comes to that pass, as to have lost the distinction between good and evil, and between darkness and light

2. Dull: A dull, heavy, stupid conscience, which is no more affected than a man that is asleep; and though in danger, as a man asleep in the

3. Impure: Gill: An impure one, as the conscience of every unregenerate man is; "unto them that are defiled and unbelieving, is nothing pure; but even their mind and conscience is defiled", #Tit 1:15 and so the conscience of a weak brother may be defiled through the imprudent use of a liberty, by a stronger one, #1Co 8:7.

4. Seared: one cauterized, seared, as it were, with a red hot iron, #1Ti 4:2 and so becomes insensible of sin and danger, and past feeling any remorse for sin; it is without any consciousness of it, and repentance for it, #Jer 8:6.

II. Good Conscience.

There may be in unregenerate men, so the apostle Paul, before his conversion, "lived in all good conscience", #Ac 23:1 though a blasphemer and a persecutor.

1. Gill: A weak conscience; which arises from weakness of faith about things lawful and pure, #Ro 14:1,14 1Co 8:7 which is soon and easily disquieted, grieved, and troubled, at seeing others do that which it doth not approve of #Ro 14:15 and which at once judges and condemns another man's liberty, #Ro 14:3 1Co 10:29 or which, by the example of others, is easily drawn to the doing of that by which it is defiled, wounded, and destroyed, as to its peace and comfort, #1Co 8:7,9-12.

2. There is a conscience enlightened and awakened with a sense of sin and danger; which, though for the present distressing, issues well; as in the three thousand pricked in their hearts, who said to the apostles, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" and in the jailor, who came trembling before Paul and Silas, and said, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?"

3. A tender one; as in Joseph, who said to his mistress, tempting him, "How can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God

4. Careful: such as the apostle Paul was studiously concerned to exercise, #Ac 24:16 careful not to offend, by sinning against God, and to give no offence to Jew nor Gentile, nor to the church of God.

5. Pure (1Ti 3:9, 2Ti 1:3). Conscience is defiled with sin, as all the powers and faculties of the soul are: a pure or purified conscience, is a conscience purged from the dead works of sin by the blood of Christ (Heb 9:14, 10:22).

III. The effects of a good and pure conscience...

1. Freedom from the guilt of sin.

Gill: the guilt of sins being removed by the blood of Christ, their consciences do not condemn them for sins that have been committed by them, and from which they are purged, #Heb 10:1,2.

2. Peace of soul and tranquillity of mind. Gill: “One that is justified by faith in the blood and righteousness of Christ, has peace with God, and peace in himself; the effect of this is, "quietness and assurance for ever".

3. Joy (2Co 1:12) as an evil conscience troubles and distresses, and gives sorrow; a good conscience exhilarates, and makes joyful and cheerful

4. Boldness "confidence towards God" (1 J. 3:21) as well as towards men


1. The Conscience of Martin Luther

Luther: If you can’t convince me by the word of God... it is neither right nor safe to go against conscience.

2. The Conscience of Jonathon Edwards

Edwards: Resolved, never to do any thing of which I so much question the lawfulness of, as that I intend, at the same time, to consider and examine afterwards, whether it be lawful or not; unless I as much question the lawfulness of the omission

Edwards: Resolved, whenever I so much question whether I have done my duty, as that my quiet and calm is thereby disturbed, to set it down, and also how the question was resolved.

Edwards: Resolved, whenever my feelings begin to appear in the least out of order, when I am conscious of the least uneasiness within, or the least irregularity without, I will then subject myself to the strictest examination.

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