The conscience is a moral guide created by God to be followed and corrected by God’s word.
In Acts 24, Paul is asked to give his story like many other instances. But in this instance he says something unique here that I want to spend some time on,
[Act 24:16 NIV] So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.
When I think of conscience I think of Jiminy Cricket. He is a wisecracking cricket that is depicted donning a top hat and tailcoat, with an umbrella. Jiminy was appointed Pinocchio’s official conscience by the Blue Fairy, in hopes that Jiminy can guide Pinocchio on his journey to become a real boy.
The Blue Fairy says to Pinocchio, You must learn to choose between right and wrong.
Pinocchio: Right… and wrong? (looking his hands) But how will I know?
The Blue Fairy: Your conscience will tell you.
Pinocchio: What are a conscience?
Jiminy Cricket: What are a conscience! I’ll tell ya! A conscience is that still small voice people won’t listen to. That’s just the trouble with the world today.
The Blue Fairy says to the cricket, I dub you Pinocchio’s conscience. Lord High Keeper of the Knowledge of Right and Wrong, Counselor in moments of temptation and guide along the straight and narrow path. Arise, Sir Jiminy Cricket.
… The Blue Fairy says to Pinocchio, Now remember, Pinocchio, be a good boy. And always let your conscience be your guide.
… Jiminy Cricket: Well, you want to be a real boy, don’t you? … All right. Sit down, son. Now you see the world is full of temptations. … They’re the wrong things that seem right at the time but, even though the right things may seem wrong sometimes, sometimes the wrong things (chuckles) may be right at the wrong time or… visa versa. Ahem. Understand?
Pinocchio: Uh-uh. But I’m gonna do right!
Pinocchio had to be given a conscience because he wasn’t born with one, but all of us have a conscience in ourselves. We all have felt guilt for something we have done wrong. There have been times in my life where my conscience has been shouting so loud I almost went deaf. There have been times when I tried to ignore my conscience and push it away. But the conscience is a gift from God given so we could live godly lives.
1. The Conscience
The root of the Greek word for “conscience” speaks of knowledge, specifically a knowledge of self regarding something else. It is a self-reflection like in the statement, “I know, am aware, am clear about what I have done.” Added on to that self-reflection is a judgement, a perception of what you have done. The judgment leads to the moral evaluation of your actions.
Let’s use a hypothetical example: My wife Laurel asks me to do the dishes. I snap at her, “If you want them done, do them yourself.”
- First, that awareness of what I did: I know I spoke unkindly and with anger.
- Second, the judgment of what I did: What I said and how I said it led to Laurel being sad.
- Third, the moral evaluation of what I did: It was wrong of me to speak unkindly and out of anger.
- Fourth and lastly, the guilt of what I did: I feel bad for doing something wrong.
Our conscience convicts us of sin. The conscience is our moral hindsight. It is there to tell us the things we have done wrong.
Our conscience is not supposed to be a burden to us. It is supposed to be a guide. It is the internal moral compass. It is part of what makes us humans and separates us from animals. The awareness of right and wrong. The guilt when we do wrong. The peace when we do right.
2. Created by God
- Evidence of God
This is evidence that there is a God who exists. Every human being with few exceptions has a conscience. Almost all human beings agree there is right and wrong, good and evil. Why do most people believe that it is “evil” or “wicked” for someone to walk into a random house, shoot everyone in it, and steal everything in sight?for a man to beat and rape a kind, innocent woman? for an adult to torture an innocent child simply for the fun of it?
Where did this idea come from? Is this concept a product of evolution written in our DNA? Not that science can tell. Is this concept of right and wrong created by culture and societies? Then why do all the societies in history agree to such a large degree, even the cultures that have never had contact with one another.
The existence of a moral code, the idea of right and wrong, indicates there is a transcendental, higher moral code. Because human beings all have this moral code then something larger than humanity had to have created this moral code, God.
That voice in the back of your head that tells you, “You shouldn’t have done that,” is evidence that you were created by God in his image.
- God’s law on our hearts
In Romans 2, Paul is speaking of God’s law. God wrote down his laws for the Jewish people as the Law of Moses, which has the Ten Commandments and all the ordinances. But he makes this statement about the Gentiles, the people without God’s law written down for them. The people who didn’t grow up with the Ten Commandments and the other commands, why is it that so many of them live moral lives? Even today, there are non-Christians who do not know or follow the Bible but live morally, how can this be?
[Rom 2:14-16 ESV] 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 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
People who are not disciplined to live by or and educated by God’s word may still do things God’s word says to do. You don’t have to be raised in a Christian household or even have read the Bible to believe in the sixth commandment, Do Not Murder. A lot of non-Christians agree it is wrong to murder. Most non-Christians are against murder, against adultery (the 7th commandment), against stealing (the 8th commandment), against lying in a court of law (the 9th commandment). How is it that people ignorant of God still follow some of God’s laws? God describes this as God’s law written on their hearts, and their conscience bears witness to them.
Part of being human, part of being made in God’s image, is to have this internal moral compass that we call the conscience. They do these things “by nature”–they have the characteristics and follow the demands without a specific guidance.
When people don’t have God’s word to teach them between right and wrong, what do they rely on? They rely on their conscience.
The conscience is the source of “conflicting thoughts” that accuse or excuse. The conscience can approve of your actions or condemn your actions. The conscience is almost this independent witness in your heart that is not afraid to give you the harsh truth.
Every person has a Jiminy Cricket that will tell us what is right and wrong, but only some people listen to their Cricket.
Imagine how better this world would be if people lived by their conscience.
3. To Be Followed
God gave us a conscience to follow.
Benjamin Franklin said, A good conscience is a continual Christmas.
Your conscience can be your greatest enemy or your greatest ally. When you go against your conscience you create within yourself guilt and shame. This guilt and shame deprives you of peace. It leads to anger, depression, anxiety, and any number of symptoms.
One of the greatest blessings God offers is peace, freedom from guilt and shame that come from sin. Jesus said that if you come to him you will find rest for your souls (Mat. 11:29-30). I firmly believe that some of that rest for our souls is the inner peace that is so hard to find. Without being forgiven of our sins by God, our sins will haunt us and burden us. The burden Jesus places on our shoulders is light, especially compared to the burden of sin.
I would much rather obey Jesus’ commands and have peace than do whatever I want and be plagued with guilt. Guilt is a slice of Hell on earth. Peace is a slice of Heaven on earth.
At one point, Paul encourages people to obey the laws of the government he says,
[Rom 13:5 NIV] Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
Why? To disobey the government might cause your conscience to convict you and cause you to feel guilt and shame. There is no doubt that God would have us use our conscience as a guide to serve him.
As people in the world like to say, “Live with no regrets.” That is a very true statement and a good guide for life. Live your life in such a way in the present that you will regret nothing in the future. Add God to that concept: Live your life before God so that you will not have anything to be ashamed of when he judges you on the Last Day. That is essentially what Paul said in 24:16,
[Act 24:16 NIV] I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.
Paul lived with no regrets. No regret with how he treated other people and no regrets in how he served God. I love this verse by Paul,
[2Co 1:12 NIV] Now this is our boast: Our conscience testifies that we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially in our relations with you, with integrity and godly sincerity. We have done so, relying not on worldly wisdom but on God’s grace.
Paul was able to say: my conscience is clear because I tried my best to live with integrity, with godly sincerity, and depending on God’s grace. There are few things more precious than a clear conscience.
I remember times in my life when I refused to pray to God because I felt so ashamed and guilt-ridden for my sins. My conscience was hammering me over the head. It was not the right reaction to not to pray to God, but I just felt too ashamed to even pray to him.
This is the beauty of God’s grace. God’s forgiveness removes not only sin but our guilt. It cleanses our conscience. Then moving forward, we strive to obey the Lord’s commands and live as the Lord did which minimizes and reduces the sins and therefore reduces the guilt. But what sins we do commit and what guilt we do incur, God forgives us of this.
- Clean Heart
The OT does not use the word conscience. The closest thing you have to the word conscience in the OT is the phrase “clean heart.” David prayed to God, saying,
[Psa 51:9-10 ESV] Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.
An “unclean heart” is a heart with the desire to sin and filled with the burden of corruption. An unclean heart has no peace. A “clean heart” is free of sin and guilty, it is free of the desire to sin. It is a heart that desires what God desires. It is the conscience telling us to do good works and not just to avoid evil works.
- Desire to do good
There are many more scriptures I could refer to.
When the woman was caught in adultery in John 8, after Jesus said, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (8:9), one version says, “Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one.”
Paul speaks a great deal about the conscience when referring to meats sacrificed to idols. He instructs people to not eat meat if it goes against your conscience or someone else’s (1 Cor. 8:10,12; 10:25-29). Paul says not to go against your conscience and to respect other people’s consciences as well. Paul effectively says to go against your conscience is sin (Rom. 14:23).
Paul told Timothy,
[1Ti 1:5 ESV] 5 The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.
But there is one point that needs to be made about the conscience: it is not a perfect guide.
And Corrected By God’s Word
Aren’t there times when a person’s conscience can misguide a person? Maybe you have experienced times when what you thought was the right thing to do was not the right thing to do or you thought something was wrong but it wasn’t wrong.
How about Paul? The Apostle Paul who used to beat and imprison people for being Christians? His conscience led him the wrong way. He thought he was serving God (Acts 23:1).
He knew what he was talking about when in 1 Timothy 4 he mentions people who preach false doctrines who are insincere liars and whose “consciences are seared” (1Ti 4:2). Their conscience has been burned, has been marked with a branding, or has been cauterized. He describes it to Titus that their minds and consciences are defiled (Tts. 1:15).
You have seen it in your life, no doubt, people who have ignored their conscience so much that they might not even have one now. When their conscience tells them they are doing wrong they convince themselves otherwise. It seems that either your conscience molds you or you mold your conscience. People have trained themselves so that their conscience doesn’t have a problem with different kinds of evils. People get so caught up in sin that they forget what sin is. They have ignored the guilt so much that they don’t even feel it anymore.
The book of Hebrews says the blood of Christ offered to God will “purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Heb. 9:14). Our conscience will be cleansed and purified. Our conscience can be healed, fixed, repaired, so that it once again condemns evil acts (“dead works”) and encourages goodness (“to serve the living God). The sacrifice of Christ removes our sin and guilt. The Gospel teaches us what is sin and what is good.
Our conscience is not a perfect guide. Like Paul said about the Gentiles on whose heart a law was written–it is better to know God’s word which was written down and specified than have a broad idea of morality. But the best thing is to obey the Lord, not just know it.
Our consciences need guidance. Our moral compass needs calibration and maintenance. We need to study God’s word and meditate on the Gospel so that we can “discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). Your conscience will only be as accurate as your knowledge of God’s word.
David once wrote, [Psa 119:9-11 ESV] 9 How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. 10 With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! 11 I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.
The conscience is a mad beast that is difficult to tame. You really only have two options, do as he says or ignore him and be tortured by guilt. But God’s word reveals to us that the conscience is actually a tool created by God. It is designed to guide us and help light our path. Like any tool, sometimes it needs fixing and repair. The conscience is supposed to be you burden, it is designed to help you avoid what causes burdens.
Jiminy Cricket said, “A conscience is that still small voice people won’t listen to. That’s just the trouble with the world today.” We open our bibles to strengthen our own Jiminy Cricket. As you live life, listen to your Cricket. That’s the difference between a puppet and a real boy; the real boy let’s his conscience be his guide.
I recall one more verse on the conscience, 1 Peter 3:21. When a person has an unclean conscience that is defiled or seared, they must come to the Lord to have it purified and cleansed. They need to reset their moral compass, be forgiven of sin, and have that guilt removed. This verse tells us that all that happens at baptism,
[1Pe 3:21 ESV] 21 Baptism… now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God [from] a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…
Baptism is an appeal to God out of a good conscience. When a person truly listens to their conscience, it will lead them to seek God, to appeal to him, to request his help, in baptism.
If you are filled with guilt and want to make that appeal to God consider being baptized.