Romans 2:15; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Every person is born with an internal mechanism which helps him understand the difference between right and wrong.1 The Bible teaches that God writes His own law on the hearts of people so that their own thoughts either accuse them of their actions or provide excuses for them (Romans 2:15). Thus, a teenage boy might “sweat it out” when being questioned about the broken window because he knows that it was his ball that broke it, while an apparently guilty man can stand before a court and testify to his innocence without any shame because he knows he did not commit the crime. This is man’s “moral compass” which the Bible calls a conscience. The word conscience (syneidesis) means to “see together” or “perceive along with.” It refers to the inner conversation one has with oneself. Because every person is created in God’s image, everyone is born with this internal knowledge of God’s moral law. Unfortunately, this moral compass can be damaged or turned off, even in some respect in the heart of a believer. Thus, the Bible teaches that it is imperative that people guard their conscience carefully.2
The Conscience of an Unbeliever
The conscience is man’s moral guide, even without access to the Moral Law (Ten Commandments) of God found in the Bible (Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5). In every society, laws are written to protect people against injustice. Hammurabi’s Law Code, over 3700 years old, legislates activities between people, outlawing certain human behaviors that harm others. For example, it contains laws relating to crime, slavery, land disputes, family/relationship problems such as marriage and divorce. It even has some civil laws pertaining to how businesses should function.3
In a perfect world, man’s conscience helps him understand the right action to take in every situation. We do not, however, live in a perfect world. The fact that man has this “moral compass” does not mean that it always properly guides him, or his decisions are always moral. Throughout history, humanity has codified laws which are actually harmful to its society. Many non-Christian cultures have indoctrinated ideas which oppress people for their race or gender. This is because human conscience can be influenced by its own sinful flesh (internal forces), by ungodly, worldly powers (external forces), and/or even by Satanic powers (invisible forces).
The Bible indicates that an unbeliever can damage his conscience in two ways. First, his conscience can break. It can be broken. In fact, the apostle Paul indicates that there is a noetic effect of sin on the mind (Ephesians 4:17-19). An unbeliever orders his life after the spiritual emptiness of his mind (worthless thoughts—v. 17). He has no understanding of God because he is estranged from the life that comes only from God (v. 18). Thus, his heart is “blind.” He is “past feeling” any shame or conscience of sin (v. 19). Unbelief is, in this way, a progressive spiritual disease. This is why an unbeliever’s conscience is defiled (miano). It is stained with sin like a piece of clothing is dyed with color. Everything an unbeliever thinks flows through this grid of corruption. His conscience is defiled. The effect on his soul is profound. His conscience tells him that there is a God, that sin is wrong, and that he needs a Savior, but his mind drifts away from those truths. The stain grows progressively worse. The “staircase” of depravity in Romans 1 indicates that as people reject God, He gives them over to sensual sin (v. 24). As they continue to turn towards sin, God gives them over to “unnatural affections” (v. 26). It is only when they completely reject God that He leaves them alone. He removes Himself from their minds so that they willingly take pleasures in abominable things even when they know they deserve God’s wrath (v. 32). There is a reason why suicide is a major leading cause of death in children and young adults.4 The “cognitive dissonance” in the human heart puts a strain on the psyche that it cannot bear. Homosexual teens are three times likely to attempt suicide as those who are heterosexual.5
The Bible teaches that people with a broken conscience can be rescued by the gospel. In addressing the various sins that were common in the Corinthian culture, Paul notes that among these was homosexuality (1 Corinthians 6:9). But he also notes that “and such were some of you” (v. 11).6 God declares those who believe the gospel to be righteous. They are washed from their sins and sanctified in Christ. This indicates that a broken conscience can be restored by God. A defiled conscience does not have to permanent.
Second, if an unbeliever’s conscience is left untreated, it can become “seared” (1 Timothy 4:2). Paul relates this directly to two different factors: a departure from faith through the influence of demons (v. 1). He gives this warning to Timothy after a section about the church’s important responsibility to preach the gospel to unbelievers. There will be some, he warns, who will seem to come to Christ only to “apostatize” or to fall away from the truth. He connects their apostasy to the work of demons—their departure is inevitable because they listen to “wandering spirits” who teach “devilish doctrines” that “seduce” through “hypocritical lies.” As a result, these apostates’ moral compass is seriously damaged. Their conscience becomes “seared” like a steak. That is, they become insensitive to their inner moral guide just like a third-degree burn destroys the nerve endings in the skin. Unbelievers with a seared conscience become “deaf” to the inner voice of conscience which causes them to make choices that are not morally grounded. The implication from 1 Timothy 4:1-2 is that the seared conscience is damaged beyond repair. This is what Paul describes of those who “do not like to retain God in their knowledge” (Romans 1:28). They are given over to a reprobate mind which is “without understanding” (v. 31). Thus, they know that God will judge them for sinful actions but they no longer care about it. The psychological terms for the “seared” conscience are sociopathy and psychopathy. Psychologists explain that psychopaths have no moral compass that helps them to discern between good and evil and do not feel empathy towards the pain of others. Sociopaths share similar traits but psychologists believe that these are usually caused by childhood abuse. As a Christian, it is a blessing to know that our conscience is protected by God. While some Christians, because of abuse, may exhibit some traits of sociopathy, their conscience can be healed and controlled by the power of the indwelling Spirit.
The Conscience of the Believer
The indwelling Spirit is not just abiding in our physical body (1 Corinthians 6:19), but He is also indwelling our immaterial soul (2 Corinthians 1:21-22). Through the latter, we can commune with God. His Spirit bears witness with our spirit (Romans 8:16). It means that the indwelling Holy Spirit (the Spirit of Christ) interacts with our spirit. The value of this indwelling is that our conscience provides a voice for the Spirit of God to speak to us internally. This is basically what Paul confesses in Romans 9:1. The Spirit of God is connected to his conscience. In fact, it is by listening to this internal voice of the Spirit through the conscience that conviction forms. When a believer says, “it is a matter of conscience,” he means that the inner voice of the Spirit either requires or forbids him to do something. At this point, the conscience is functioning as God designed it to do. Likewise, when we sin our conscience informs us that we have violated God’s commands. When Adam sinned against God, it was his conscience that drove him into the bushes (Genesis 3:7-8).
The problem comes when the inner voice of conscience is not biblically informed. God’s Spirit uses the Bible to lead God’s children through life. Just as a Christian grows in knowledge as he matures in Christ, so his conscience develops as it becomes increasingly biblically informed. The more mature a Christian is in Christ, the stronger his conscience will become (by “strong” conscience I mean “biblically informed conscience”). Christian maturity, Paul indicates, prevents a believer from being “tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine…” (Ephesians 4:14). If a Christian fails to mature in some area of life, his conscience in that area can become “weak” or “wounded” or even “damaged.” This causes him major life problems.
A Weak Conscience. Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 8:7-10 that immature believers (or even mature Christians with an area of conscience that is not biblically informed), have a “weak” conscience. He relates this in the section where he is dealing with the problem of eating meat offered to idols (1 Corinthians 8-10). He has already confessed that idols are “nothing in this world” (v. 4). Idols are just ornamented carvings of wood or stone, or molded precious metals. They are not actually “gods” (vv. 5-6). Consequently, there is no spiritual value in eating meat or refraining from eating meat (v. 8). However, some immature Christians in Corinth were struggling with this issue because they were still associating the meat with the idol (v. 9).
A Wounded Conscience. The real problem for those with a weak conscience is that they can actually wound their already weak conscience. That is, by doing the very thing their conscience is telling them not to do, they wound the conscience further (v. 10). When a Corinthian believer with a weak conscience about eating meat offered to idols ate that meat, he wounded his conscience (v. 12). The word wound (typto) means to “strike” or to “beat.” The weak conscience Christian is assaulted spiritually when he does the thing which his conscience forbids him to do.
A Damaged Conscience. By refusing to listen to his conscience, the spiritually immature Christian “perishes” (v. 11). This is not a reference to eternal judgment. Rather, he “defiles” his conscience in a way that causes him to reject the inner leading of the Holy Spirit in the future. When you fail to listen to conscience, even once, you become more likely to reject your conscience in the future. The damaged conscience is still defiled, even though it is not as bad as the defiled conscience of an unbeliever. This defilement is more like becoming dirty. The conscience becomes soiled like a pair of jeans after a day working in the mud. Only through repentance of sin can the “filth” of sin be cleansed from the conscience. This is true, even when the “sin” is not apparently “sinful.” The action itself may not be wrong, but in refusing the counsel of conscience, the believer can sin against himself.
Exercising the Conscience
It is important that a Christian learns to listen to the Holy Spirit speaking through his conscience. How can we learn it? By letting the Holy Spirit illumine His Word upon our spiritual mind. This is how the conscience gets “trained” to think like God thinks. Thus, a “weak” conscience can grow increasingly strong as a believer obeys his conscience according to biblical instructions. Thus, you must train your conscience through the daily intake of God’s Word. The received word (through meekness) must be heeded as the Spirit leads (James 1:19-25). Furthermore, every Christian should consciously determine to respond to the Spirit during a worship service. Every aspect of his heart should be in tune with God. The music should guide his thoughts toward God. His prayers should lead him into greater communion with God. The preaching should challenge, inspire, convict, and encourage him to grow in his Christian walk. By doing this, the Christian protects his conscience from being wounded or worse.
It is also important for Christians to protect the consciences of others. Christian love ought to compel a believer to suspend his own liberty for the sake of another’s conscience (Romans 15:1-2). This is what it means to live like Jesus in this area (v. 3). The context of this section is also addressing dietary restrictions (14:2). In this case, Paul warns those with a strong conscience (a biblically informed conscience) to be careful about how they deal with others who have a weak conscience (a non-biblically informed conscience). The difficulty here is that every Christian is susceptible to a non-biblically informed conscience on one issue or another. You can be “strong” in one area and, at the same time, “weak” in another. Do not despise those who have a weak conscience on an issue. Christian love never allows us to despise our brothers and sisters in Christ. Be extremely careful when you talk about an issue to your Christian friend when you know he has a weak conscience on that issue. If someone believes that eating pork is ungodly (this might be the case for a new convert from Islam or some other religion that outlaws eating pork) don’t serve bacon at breakfast. You know that eating bacon is not a spiritual issue. His conscience may not be ready for that. If you encourage him to go against his conscience, you are guilty of defiling his conscience.
At the same time, those who are struggling with their conscience about an issue should not pass judgment against those who do not think about that issue the same way that they do. Judging other believers (evaluating their “godliness” based upon one’s own position on an issue that is not specifically addressed perceptually in Scripture) is not right. God did not make you the judge of other Christians (14:3). He has a Master in heaven who will judge both him and you.
Finally, if you do have a conscience issue about something, do not go looking for Christians who disagree with you. Paul commanded the Corinthians to not ask about the origin of the meat they were eating (1 Corinthians 10:27). If you try to play detective in order to “judge” the other person, then you may be right about the issue, but you violated Scripture in doing so.
The most important things to remember is that as you mature in Christ, protect your conscience and obey it. You might have a non-biblically informed conscience about a particular issue, but do not violate your conscience (even if someone you consider “spiritually mature” is doing it). If the alarm goes off in your heart, listen to the warning. Even if the warning is a “false alarm,” it is better to have the conscience working than to shut it off.
- Can you point to a specific situation where you know it involved a “conscience” issue?
- Do you purposefully protect your conscience? If so, list some ways you do that here. If not, list some reasons why you don’t.
- How can you help others by protecting their conscience? List some ways you might do that.
- Read Romans 14:1-11
- What is the problem presented in the text? Why would it be a problem?
- What principle does Paul give in v. 7?
- What does Paul mean by the “judgement seat?” How does this apply to the argument?
- How can we stop “judging” one another?
1 Not everyone has this. The terms sociopathy and psychopathy, though different in some respects, refer to the problem where one’s moral compass is damaged. This will be discussed later on in the lesson.
2 Some of the material in this lesson has been adapted from an unpublished paper: Matters of Conscience by Dr. Stephen Hankins.
3 See http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/txt/ah/Assyria/Hammurabi.html
4 See https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-truth-about-exercise-addiction/201710/why-are-suicide-rates-higher-among-lgbtq-youth
5 See https://www.thetrevorproject.org/resources/preventing-suicide/facts-about-suicide/#sm.0000wtrnz8mogdtkph41nusve9sor
6 The imperfect tense of the “to be” verb indicates that this is considered to be “past tense” and does not carry with it continual action.