Every human, and only humans, have a conscience. Animals don’t have consciences because they don’t have the capacity for moral judgment. Humans alone have this capacity, because only they are made in the image of God.
Our consciences feel like an independent, third party watching over our lives. This is because all humans know intuitively that God exists (Romans 1:19-20) and all have an imperfect-but-accurate version of God’s law written on their hearts (Romans 2:14-16).
Verse 16 makes the connection between our intuitive knowledge of God and our intuitive feeling that Someone sees all the secrets of our life. Our conscience feels private, but it also gives us this sense that an all-powerful, all-knowing divine judge sees the secret things and will someday judge those secrets at a terrifying tribunal.
This means that our consciences are precious gifts from God! Just as pain in our body alerts us to a physical problem, so guilt in our conscience alerts us to a spiritual problem. God gave us this for our good, so that we’d recognise our guilt and turn from our sins to Jesus.
Exactly how do our consciences work? First of all, they’re more like on-off switches, not dimmers. They aren’t wired to say, “It’s complicated.” Conscience gives guilty or innocent verdicts. It either accuses or excuses (Romans 2:15). It’s very black and white. It doesn’t do grey areas very well. This is why it’s of utmost importance that our consciences be governed and guided by what God considers right and wrong, not our culture or parents or friends.
No two people have exactly the same conscience. If they did, passages like Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 wouldn’t be in the Bible. As Christians, we have much more in common than not in common. But we will inevitably disagree about non-essential matters (like going to the movies, etc). No one’s conscience perfectly matches God’s will. Everything has been tainted by sin, including our conscience. None of us will ever get it all right.
But this doesn’t mean that our consciences can’t change. As we grow in our understanding of God’s revealed will, we will add things to our conscience that need to be added and subtract things that need to be subtracted. This is a life-long process, but we have the Word, the Spirit, and the Church to help us.
Our consciences can change for the better, but they can also change for the worse. We can damage them, making them insensitive or oversensitive, by either ignoring our inner voice so it gets weaker and weaker or packing it with rules that are matters of opinion, not right and wrong.
Both of these kinds of damage can happen in the same person. We can “sear” our consciences in one area by repeatedly sinning against it (1 Timothy 4:2), while being unnecessarily strict in other areas (v. 3).
Jesus said the Pharisees were straining out gnats but swallowing camels (Matthew 23:24). A generation ago, some churches in America would forbid drinking and dancing but train their deacons to stand at the doors to keep out Black people. They were choking on the camel of a conscience shaped by the culture, instead of by Christ.
The Bible teaches that going against our conscience is sin, even if the action isn’t a sin in and of itself (Romans 14:23). Why? Because our intent is to sin. But this doesn’t mean that our conscience is always right. There’s “one ring to rule them all,” namely, the Lord and his Word.
Our conscience isn’t lord of itself. Our parents or pastors or friends aren’t lords of our conscience. If God shows us through His Word that our conscience is making a mistaken or unnecessary moral judgment, our conscience must bend to His Word.
Consciences can produce different results for people who have different moral standards. Someone’s conscience could be clear even while they do something wrong because their conscience is based on immoral standards. For example, when advocates for abortion talk about this issue as if it’s a civil rights issue or a moral good, their consciences may be clear, but the standards governing their consciences are contrary to God’s word.
Conscience is our self-awareness about what’s right and what’s wrong. It acts as a guide and a judge. It has a forward-looking and backward-looking function, warning us before we do something wrong and urging us to do what is right. It accuses and condemns us when we do wrong and commends us when we do what is right. When our conscience condemns us, praise God we have a Conscience-Cleanser in Jesus Christ!
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