(Unless otherwise stated, all Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version).
Everyone has a conscience, which is that part of our inner being that’s our moral compass, and is supposed to rein in untoward behaviour and keep us in line, morally speaking. Our conscience excuses and approves appropriate behaviour, or convicts and accuses us of inappropriate behavior. The feelings of guilt we experience, after doing something we consider bad, or the feeling of satisfaction we experience, after doing something we consider good, are all down to our conscience. It is what Scripture calls ‘the law of the mind’.
For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them
Conscience, however, works with the standard of morality it has been primed with. What our conscience considers ‘good’ or ‘bad’ depends on the education and sensitization it has been subjected to. The range of appropriate and inappropriate behaviour that each person’s conscience uses to regulate behavior is the product of socialization from birth to the present moment. The sensitization of the conscience occurs via natural and cultural observations, and via religious indoctrination. In the end, our internal moral compass is the sum total of all our exposures and what we’ve come to accept as normal or abnormal.
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.
Thus, the accuracy of conscience as a moral arbiter depends on the accuracy of the information it has been primed with. It depends on the programming that an individual’s conscience has been subjected to over the years. In other words, conscience is subject to cultural and environmental influence, and is not necessarily a true judge of objective reality. Thus, if one’s conscience has been programmed with falsehood as truth, it will judge with such falsehood as objective truth. It will consider such lies as truth and convict or excuse one accordingly, based on violation or adherence to those lies. In other words, depending on its priming, an individual’s conscience can make him feel guilty over an issue that objectively doesn’t merit guilt, as it can excuse him over an issue that truly warrants conviction.
That brings us to the issue of weak conscience. The scripture describes a believer’s conscience as weak if it’s not fully developed in line with the right knowledge of God, being still programmed by wrong suppositions. For instance, in matters like drinking of alcohol, eating of certain meats and observance of certain days as holier than others, the conscience of those who still see these observances as word of God (objective truth) still to be strictly obeyed is said to be weak, because it’s not based on right knowledge. Any conscience not based on right knowledge is said to be weak; such a conscience is not fully developed and has not been primed by the correct knowledge of the word of God.
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that all of us possess knowledge. This knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God. Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that an idol has no real existence, and that there is no God but one. For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many gods and many lords— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.
Whatever the level of enlightenment of one’s conscience, to go against one’s convictions is to violate one’s conscience. It amounts to acting without faith if we go ahead to do what we’re not fully convinced is right, according to our conscience. To violate one’s conscience thus, by acting out of faith with our beliefs, is to sin, for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. Therefore, someone may sin, by violating his conscience, even though his action does not really violate the word of God. Thus, going against an unenlightened or weak conscience, in doing what it erroneously prohibits, is considered a sin by the Scripture, as the act does not proceed from a conviction of faith. But, once the conscience is enlightened and becomes strong, doing the same thing that was considered sinful with a weak conscience would no longer be considered sinful, because the act is now rightly approved by the properly sensitized conscience, in line with the correct interpretation of God’s word. An example is the issue of drinking alcohol. The Bible condemns drunkenness as a sin, but the not the moderate consumption of alcohol. However, if a Christian wrongly believes that the taking of alcohol in any quantity is sinful (because of wrong indoctrination and wrong sensitization of conscience), taking alcohol even in small quantity becomes a sin for such a person, even though the word of God doesn’t really condemn it, because his weak conscience condemns it. To act contrary to one’s conscience at any time constitutes sin. However, if the same person is properly enlightened later and comes to believe that moderate consumption of alcohol is not a sin, doing so will cease to be a sin for him, because he would now be acting in line with his enlightened conscience.
As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God. So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.
However, the issue of a matter being sinful as a result of a weak conscience only applies to what is not really condemned by the word of God, but which an unenlightened conscience condemns. Whatever the level of enlightenment of one’s conscience, violating an extant word of God, even in ignorance, is a sin, for sin is truly the transgression of the law of God, whether or not we’re aware of such a law. Violating a law of God when our conscience is not aware that it’s a law of God makes it a sin of ignorance, as against a wilful sin, which is an infraction of God’s word despite knowing the exact position of Scripture on such a matter. For the sins of ignorance, God overlooks during our period of ignorance, but when we come to the knowledge of the word of God, we’re to repent and seek for forgiveness.
The Acts 17:23-31
For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, To the unknown god. What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for In him we live and move and have our being; as even some of your own poets have said, For we are indeed his offspring. Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.
1 Corinthians 13:9-12
For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
Finally, let’s address the issue of a dead or insensitive conscience. Every individual starts life with a sensitive conscience that develops along the lines of cultural and religious indoctrination. However, how alive and sensitive our conscience remains depends on how we obey it and respond to its judgement. If we repeatedly disobey or overidde our conscience to do things that are inappropriate, we gradually desensitize our conscience. If we continually silence the voice of conscience, it will gradually weaken until it dies. A dead conscience no longer offers us any moral guidance, nor does it regulate our behavior anymore. It ceases to convict or accuse us when we’re wrong. We cease to be conscience-stricken when we do something that’s morally wrong. We become callous and insensitive. We have no remorse any longer when we display inappropriate or immoral behavior. The Bible describes such an individual as having the conscience ‘seared with a hot iron’, the symbolism of a conscience that doesn’t feel anything anymore. These are the people that are said to be reprobate concerning the truth, for their conscience is dead, in relation to truth and morality. Unless the miracle of regeneration takes place in such people, they will continue to operate with gross callousness, insensitivity and immorality, without any qualms, as they no longer have anything within to rein in inhuman or immoral behavior.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
1 Timothy 4:1-3
Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.
In conclusion, conscience is an internal moral compass which is present in every one, and is designed to rein in our behavior and guide morality and conduct. Our conscience develops through cultural and religious indoctrination, which sets the acceptable standard for right and wrong behavior. The sensitivity of one’s conscience is a reflection of how thoroughly we’ve accepted the cultural and religious rules embraced by our conscience, and how submissive we’re to our conscience. A sensitive conscience easily feels guilt on violating our internal code of conduct, while a dead or insensitive conscience results from repeated silencing of the voice of conscience, and feels no guilt pangs when doing something illegal or immoral. With relation to Christians, conscience can be described as weak or strong, depending on how its moral standard approximates with those of the word of God. A weak conscience is based on sentiments and other idiosyncrasies, while a strong conscience is based on the correct interpretation of the word of God concerning an issue. We should be careful to follow our conscience always, and to aspire to keep a clear conscience before God and man in all matters, because to do anything contrary to one’s conscience is a sin.
The Acts 23:1 And looking intently at the council, Paul said, Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day.
The Acts 24:16 So I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man.
Romans 9:1 I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit—
For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.
2 Corinthians 1:12 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.
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