The Victorious Christian Life

A Lesson Series for the Earnest Christian

© 2002 by Thomas W. Finley, 2013 Revised Edition

Lesson Twenty-One: The Conscience of the Believer

There is the need to say more about the conscience so that the believer can understand this inner function that is so crucial to his spiritual life.

The conscience and knowledge

Our conscience is understandably influenced by our concepts of what is right and wrong. Scripture makes this very clear (see especially 1 Cor. 8, 10 and Rom. 14). The passages noted speak of believers who have different understandings of what is acceptable to God, and thus their consciences are affected differently by the same matter.

A foremost Scriptural example would be the eating of meat sacrificed to idols. Of course, that topic had much more meaning to those early believers, many of whom came out of cultures that worshipped idols and sacrificed meat to those idols. This meat could later be sold in an idol’s temple, or in the meat market for anyone to eat (1 Cor. 8:10; 10:25). Some believers, whose life before Christ included contact with idols, were very sensitive toward anything to do with idols.

Because of their revulsion of idols, some believers felt that to eat meat sacrificed to an idol would be a sin in God’s eyes. If they ate such meat, their conscience would condemn them as sinning. On the other hand, the apostle Paul’s teaching tells us that some who were more mature in the Lord came to an understanding that idols in themselves were merely blocks of wood, not gods, and meat that had been set in front of them was not defiled (1 Cor. 8:4). Also, these ones who were stronger in the faith realized that in God’s New Testament economy eating or not eating certain things has nothing to do with God’s approval of us (1 Cor. 8:8; Rom. 14:14, 17). Such believers had “liberty” to eat things that others condemned in their consciences (1 Cor. 8:9; Rom. 14:22-23).

By these passages we can see that a believer’s conscience is shaped by his knowledge. Scripture here also shows us that believers can have different views on what is sin and what is not on some matters that are not clearly defined morally in the New Testament. Additionally, if you read these passages carefully, you will see that Paul is encouraging the preservation of each believer’s personal walk before God by means of one’s own conscience. Each one should live before God according to his own convictions of mind, with their subsequent affect upon the individual’s conscience (Rom. 14:2-8, 22-23).

Moreover, we should be very careful about damaging another Christian’s conscience by emboldening them to follow our example in matters (which are not clearly defined morally) where they do not yet have the spiritual knowledge to do so (Rom. 14:14-15, 21-23; 1 Cor. 8:9-13). In fact, if we do this, we damage the building up of the body of Christ (Rom. 14:19-20), and are guilty of sin in this very matter (1 Cor. 8:11-12).

Although knowledge and the conscience are closely related, let us not confuse the two. Knowledge is something we hold in our mind (part of our soul), whereas conscience is a function of our spirit. We are three part beings, with a body, a soul and a spirit (1 Thess. 5:23). The soul, with the mind, is very close to the spirit, and the Bible shows that a sharp two-edged sword is needed to divide, and thus differentiate between the two (Heb. 4:12). We should always live unto God by contacting Him in our spirit (Jn. 4:24; 2 Tim. 4:22).

Therefore, we must be careful not to live directly by our knowledge of what is sin and what is righteousness. To do this is to regress to the independent life of the self, and to live from the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen. 2:17, KJV). Rather, we should strive to live in union with Christ and pay attention to our spirit, including the sense of our conscience in all matters. Actually, as we grow in Christ, our conscience not only helps us evaluate what is right and wrong, but it also witnesses as to what is of God and what is merely of man (2 Cor. 1:12). Many doings of man, including Christian works, appear to be “good,” but they are not approved of God because He is not the author of them (1 Cor. 3:12-13; Eph. 2:10).

The conscience and our fellowship with God

If we have a clear understanding of the principles noted above, we can see that the conscience is not a perfect guide as to what God’s highest will is in an absolute sense. This is because our conscience is limited by our present knowledge concerning God and His will, and we all must “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18).

As we grow in the Lord, we will condemn things in our life that we used not to condemn, and we may feel the liberty to do things that we earlier condemned. Yet, conscience, as a faculty of our reborn spirit, is God’s perfect guide for us in our present state. It is obedience to the guidance of our conscience that determines our present fellowship with Him. There are some critical verses in 1 John relating to this fellowship:

This is the message that we have heard from Him and announce to you, that God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. . . . If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 Jn. 1:5-9)

We see here that God is Light, which speaks of His absolute holy, moral character in contrast to the darkness of sin. To be in “fellowship with God” means that we are experiencing an intimate, up-to-date sharing of His holy, spiritual life. The verses above tell us that it is not possible to have this fellowship with God if indeed we are engaging in sin (walking in darkness). What is also being recognized here is that although God’s Light is absolute perfection, we have only a limited knowledge and a limited enlightenment of this perfection as it relates to our personal conduct at any time. At any given time we do not see all of our imperfections as measured against the perfection of God, or against the person of Christ. Our conscience, which is geared to our knowledge of spiritual truth, can only condemn us according to that standard of knowledge we have. For us to “walk in the Light” means that our living is according to the light that we do have from God, which is in accordance with our present knowledge and the dictates of our conscience. If we “walk in the Light” which He gives us in our being, then we experience “fellowship with one another,” and, importantly, “the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.” This means that as we respond to God’s enlightenment, which includes confession of our known sins to God, He also is cleansing us of all the unknown sins we do not see! So, even if there are shortcomings in our lives of which we have no consciousness, we can still have intimate fellowship with God.

As we grow in the knowledge of God’s truth our standard of light increases and our spiritual walk deepens. We come to know God more deeply and live in a higher measure of light. We thus become more sanctified, having our actual living reflect a higher degree of His holiness.

The dangers of a violated conscience

The Bible makes it very clear that if believers do not take care to keep a conscience void of offense they face grave spiritual danger. Let us look at some passages in this regard.

“But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. For some men, straying from these things, have turned aside to fruitless discussion, of the Law, even though they do not understand either what they are saying or the matters about which they make confident assertions” (1 Tim. 1:5-7).

To stray from maintaining a good conscience may put us on a course of serving God in vain and misleading others. Such a course could involve an unchecked, fleshly ambition to be a leader among God’s people (“wanting to be teachers,” 1Tim.1:7).

But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods, which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth (1 Tim. 4:1-3).

In the passage above we see certain liars propagating doctrines of demons. Such lying men have a conscience that has been seared. A seared conscience is one that has been so damaged as to be beyond feeling. This happens when a believer repeatedly violates his conscience and refuses to listen to its voice. The voice of the conscience grows more muted with each unremedied violation, until one cannot hear it at all. According to the context here, these are teachers in the church! What a sober warning this is for us to keep a good and sensitive conscience through confession and turning away from evil. If we do not do this, we may find ourselves cooperating with the demons in spreading false doctrine or doing some other evil.

“This command I entrust to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you may fight the good fight, keeping faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and suffered shipwreck in regard to their [lit., the] faith” (1 Tim. 1:18-19).

What a strong warning is here! This passage shows that our faith and a good conscience go together. However, if we reject a good conscience, our faith may leak out, eventually causing us to doubt even the fundamental doctrines of “the faith.” This is what happened to Hymenaeus and Alexander (1 Tim. 1:19-20). Hymenaeus became a heretical teacher who damaged the church (2 Tim. 2:17-18), and the Alexander in 1 Tim. 1:20 may well be the Alexander who opposed Paul’s apostolic ministry (2 Tim. 4:14-15).

The fruitfulness of a good conscience

The Bible upholds the clear, or good conscience, as being of great value in God’s plan for the believer. Let us look at some very positive Scriptures on this topic.

“But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5).

Love is the supreme and overarching virtue that God desires from us (Jn. 13:34-35; 1 Cor. 13:13; Gal. 5:14). In this verse from First Timothy we see that a good conscience is needed in order for love to flow from us.

“Deacons likewise must be men of dignity, not double-tongued, or addicted to much wine or fond of sordid gain, but holding to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let these also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons if they are beyond reproach” (1 Tim. 3:9-10).

Here we see that those who have a tested character, holding the faith with a clear conscience, are worthy to be assigned responsibility in serving the body of Christ.

“I thank God, whom I serve with a clear conscience the way my forefathers did, as I constantly remember you in my prayers night and day” (2 Tim. 1:3).

This verse is from Paul’s final letter, written shortly before he was martyred. This was his testimony as to how he had served God during his great apostolic ministry. If we wish to be useful to God, we must learn that the first requirement is to do all of our service, no matter how small, with a clear conscience. Any service that is not of this sort will be burned up at the Judgment Seat of Christ as wood, hay and stubble (1 Cor. 3:12-13).

A final word

May the Lord impress all of us afresh with the need to deal with matters of conscience. Also, may He give us a heart to search out His truth and learn from Him so that we may grow in our understanding of His perfect will. We should not be living at a level of last year’s knowledge. Each passing year should see our conscience develop so that it is more sensitive, touches more aspects of our living, and is more in line with God’s model for us – Christ Himself.

Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ

And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart" (Jer. 29:13, NASB)