What Is Conscience?

Conscience is making a comeback among Christians. Over the past few years, the term conscience has been increasingly referenced in debates occurring both in our churches (e.g., appeals to conscience on moral issues) and the public square (e.g., defending the right of conscience). We hear a lot about conscience, but what exactly does it mean?

The general concept of conscience can be found in almost every human culture, but it has a unique and distinctive meaning for Christians. The Greek term for conscience (suneidesis) occurs more than two dozen times, and serves an important concept, particularly in the Pauline epistles. If we examine the way Scripture talks about conscience we uncover five general themes:

436473-55317-61. Conscience is an internal rational capacity that bears witness to our value system.

A few decades ago, a common trope in comedies and cartoons was the shoulder angel/devil. A person’s inner turmoil was personified by having an angel, representing conscience, on the right shoulder and a devil, representing temptation, on the left shoulder. This type of folklore imagery gave people the false impression that the conscience was like an inner listening room in which a person could hear the voice of God (a “good conscience”) or the devil (a “bad conscience). A more Biblical view is to consider the shoulder angel/devil as representing witnesses to our inner value system.

Our conscience is a part of our God-given internal faculties, a critical inner awareness that bears witness to the norms and values we recognize when determining right or wrong. Conscience does not serve as a judge or a legislator; that is a modern take on the concept. Instead, in the Biblical sense, conscience serves as a witness to what we already know. (Rom. 2:15, 9:1)

Conscience may induce an inner dialogue to tell us what we already know, but more often it merely makes its presence known through our emotions. When we conform to the values of our conscience we feel a sense of pleasure or relief. But when we violate the values of our conscience, it induces anguish or guilt.

John MacArthur describes conscience as “a built-in warning system that signals us when something we have done is wrong. The conscience is to our souls what pain sensors are to our bodies: it inflicts distress, in the form of guilt, whenever we violate what our hearts tell us is right.”

2. Conscience is a trustworthy guide only when it is informed and ruled by God.

A few days before he became a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2004, Barack Obama sat down with religion reporter Cathleen Falsani to talk about his faith. When Falsani asked, “What is sin?,” Obama replied, “Being out of alignment with my values.”

While there is a lot wrong, theologically speaking, with that answer, it does contain a kernel of truth. What Mr. Obama was describing as “being out of alignment with my values” is what we could call “violating our conscience.” To violate one’s conscience is indeed a sin (as we’ll discuss in a moment). But what makes something a sin is not merely being out of alignment with our values but in choosing our own will over the will of God.

Our conscience is therefore only trustworthy when it does not lead us to choose our will over God’s will. As R.C. Sproul explains,

[W]e have to remember that acting according to conscience may sometimes be sin as well. If the conscience is misinformed, then we seek the reasons for this misinformation. Is it misinformed because the person has been negligent in studying the Word of God? “

A prime example of the way our conscience may lead both Christians and non-Christians to sin is when we violate, or advocate for the violation, of creation ordinances. Among the creation ordinances are the clear injunctions to preserve the sanctity of the marriage bond between one man and one woman, the necessity and propriety of godly labor, and the keeping of the Sabbath (Gen. 2:1-3, 15, 18-24). Our conscience bears witness to the reality and truth of these ordinances, and we are guilty of sin when we deny or break them

3. Conscience is to be subordinated to, and informed by, the revealed Word of God.

Conscience cannot be our final ethical authority because it is, unlike God’s revealed Word, changeable and fallible. Too often, though, Christians reverse the order and attempt to use their conscience in order to judge God and his Word. Many Christians claim, for example, “I could not worship a God who would say [a clear statement from the Bible]” or “I couldn’t believe in a God who would do [something the Bible claims God clearly told someone to do].”

In making such statements they may be appealing to their conscience. But in such cases, their consciences are being informed by Satan, not by God. A person’s conscience may cause them to question a particular interpretations of Scripture. But our conscience can never legitimately judge a holy God or his holy Word. When we find ourselves thinking “Did God really say?” when Scripture clearly says he did, then we know it is the serpent and not the Savior speaking. (Gen. 3:1)

4. To willfully act against conscience is always a sin.

“The conscience of the Christian is obligated and bound only by what the Bible either commands or forbids,” says Sam Storms, “or by what may be legitimately deduced from an explicit biblical principle.” Our conscience should always be informed by what God has said. But what if we are mistaken about what the Bible commands or forbids? What if, for example, I believe that the Bible forbids any form of dancing — and yet I go square dancing ever Saturday night. Is that a sin?

In that case, it would be a sin to square dance since I would be acting in a way in which I think is wrong.

Imagine if I were at a neighbor’s house and see a wallet lying on the floor. Thinking it’s my neighbor’s wallet, I quickly take the cash from it. Later I realize that it wasn’t my neighbor’s wallet at all – it was my wallet, which had fallen out of my pocket. Would I still be guilty of theft, even though it was my own money I took? Yes, I would be since I had intended to do wrong. I had intended to steal – intended to violate God’s commands — even though I was mistaken about the object of my theft.

As Paul says, “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23).” R.C. Sproul expands on that verse by saying:

If we do something that we think is sin, even if we are misinformed, we are guilty of sin. We are guilty of doing something we believe to be wrong. We act against our consciences. That is a very important principle. Luther was correct in saying, “It is neither right nor safe to act against conscience.

Sproul adds that the “conscience can excuse when it ought to accusing, and it also can accuse when it should be excusing.” While we should challenge misperceptions of what the Bible commands and forbids, we should be careful about encouraging people who are not yet mature in the faith or are underdeveloped in knowledge of Scripture from acting in ways that will violate their unformed or immature conscience.

5. Conscience can be suppressed by sin.

If we desire to develop a positive habit, we need to perform an action repeatedly, over time, until it becomes an automatic reflex. The same process occurs when we fall into sin. When we sin, we reject God’s authority. If we repeat our sin, over time, the rejection of God’s authority becomes an automatic reflex.

Even unbelievers, who innately know God’s general revelation, such as his invisible attributes, the creation ordinances, and the Noahide Laws, begin to deny such knowledge because of sin. Paul says that by our unrighteousness we suppress the truth. They think they are wise, but their sin makes them foolish. Eventually, God gives them over to their debased minds. (Rom. 1:24)

Believers are also in danger of falling into this destructive pattern. Sometimes our sin leads us to doubt the very reality of God. When we deny God’s authority we begin to doubt his existence so that we can salve our conscience about his judgment. (Not all doubt is caused by sin, but sin almost always leads to doubts.) Sin can cause our conscience to become “seared” and “corrupted” and wholly unreliable. (1 Tim. 4:2; Titus 1:15)

This is why to protect our conscience and keep it in working order we must preach the gospel to ourselves daily. We must call on the Holy Spirit to convict us of sin, lead us to righteousness, and remind us of the judgment that we are spared by our union with Christ Jesus. Only then can our conscience serve its intended purpose of helping us conform to the values of our Creator.

  • Roy Tinker

    I would suggest that the New Testament classifies Sabbath keeping as not being a strict requirement for all believers, but rather a matter of individual conscience (Romans 14:5, Colossians 2:16-17).

    • Pete

      Amen Roy. To be more precise, I’d say that the NT nowhere requires Sabbath keeping at all for any believer.

    • Joe Carter

      I think we should distinguish between keeping the “letter of the law” on the Sabbath and keepIng the “spirit” of the Sabbath. It’s certainly true that we are not obligated to keep all the Sabbath restrictions that were in place of the OT. But does that mean that we can ignore God’s pattern of living when it comes to observing a day of rest? Does Christian liberty mean we can work our farm animals seven days a week, 365 days a year?

      I think we should always be careful not to make Sabbath-keeping a strict requirement. But we should not swing too far in the other direction either and dismiss the purpose of the Sabbath altogether.

  • James

    I would add that it is nowhere commanded of the first man and woman either. And it is a sign of the covenant between Israel and God. Exodus 31:12-17, especially verse 17. This is why when the new covenant is implemented, which includes Jews and Gentiles, the Sabbath is not reiterated. Second Corinthians 3. We see that the tables of the law have passed away as the governing law of the new covenant people of God. In the epistles we see nine of the 10 Commandments restated but the Sabbath command conspicuously absent. The nine Commandments are restated and are part of the code of conduct for the people of Christ, but they are not “front and center” anymore. Rather, the two great commands are front and center-to love God with heart, mind, soul, and strength and to love neighbor as yourself. Under the old covenant, most of the people of God were in covenant with him were unregenerate. Hence the “remnant.” Under the new covenant, every person of God has the Holy Spirit. We can live the laws of love. Praise God for his work of new creation. The Lords Day is about deliverance from sin, not Egypt, unto heaven, not Canaan. We celebrate His resurrection and the new world to come.

  • Joe Carter

    I would add that it is nowhere commanded of the first man and woman either.

    I think we need to make a clear distinction between a “creation ordinance” and a “command.” Certain requirements may be deduced from creation ordinances without making them commands.

    For example, marriage is a creation ordinance, but we are not all commanded to be married. Similarly, sabbath-keeping is a creation ordinance, but we are not commanded to keep it in any particular way.

    What the ordinance states is: “So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.” God many the Sabbath “holy.” That has not changed. We may disagree on what observing it’s holiness entails, but we can’t dismiss the requirement that we acknowledge it is holy.

  • James

    The article is otherwise very good. Thank you for writing it.

  • Caleb

    I enjoyed reading this article and appreciate its value. I do have one criticism, however. Point one of the article explains that the conscience is not a place where we listen to God vs. the devil. Then, in point three, the last paragraphs ends with an example where our own thoughts are “serpent and not the Savior speaking.” I understand the point, that both God and Satan speak into our values, which in turn affect our thoughts and actions. The writing is inconsistant, though, and seems to go directly against point one.

    • Joe Carter

      Perhaps I should have been more clear about point #1. The misimpression some people have is that the conscience is like courtroom where a debate is taking place. God and the devil try to persuade us and our conscience decides which side to go with.

      In reality, conscience it just a witness to the values that we have already formed and align with. So my point in #3 is not that the God and the devil are having a debate, but that our values have been shaped by the devil (prior to our conscience getting involved) if we claim that we can judge the veracity or authority of God’s Word.

  • Joe Hollmann

    So I have a question for anyone who thinks they know the answer to…how does our conscience react towards laws or values not instilled immediately in creation? Are these from bearing God’s image, who in his sovereignty later developed laws (10 Commandments) that matched the integrity of a righteous conscience?

    • Eric F

      All the law of God including the 10 commandments, are that which proceeds from the mouth of God. Whatever proceeds from the mouth of God contains His character. So the Lord established the conscience in such a way that it may see His character. That makes it a witness of His law. So if your conscience can see the character of God (His law is the same) it would say to you, “He is like this, are you like this?” Then a man may respond to that in a plethora of ways. Typically mankind’s response it is to darken one’s own conscience. The Lord is aiming for a clear conscience. A clear conscience is the goal of Paul’s instruction (1 Timothy 1:5). Let us then consider the conscience as a window. A clean window results in seeing things as they are. A dirty window results in things being hidden, covered, and unclear. Conscience is defiled by sin. It is cleaned by Christ. Adam had a clear conscience, he knew God’s law, when he sinned, his conscience condemned him (seeing that it was wrong) so he hid himself (dirtied his conscience) to cover his evil. So a clean conscience only comes from God, any other kind of clear conscience is merely that of a man who has so muddled his conscience He cannot see the Light of the Lord in comparison to his own corruption. He is like a burnt out light in a dark room who says “I am no darker than this room!” Let us stand in His light and be exposed.

  • Jordan Carpenter

    I do not agree that “[t]o willfully act against conscience is always a sin.” How do you square that principle with the freeing grace found by someone who comes out of a hyper-legalist tradition?

    Your example about square dancing is even more confusing than your thesis. If you “believe that the Bible forbids any form of dancing”–a belief that is contrary to any plain reading of the Psalms–haven’t you failed to do what points 2 & 3 demand, i.e. subordinate your conscience to God?

    What if my conscience, based on a misinterpretation of scripture, demands that I view my wife as “less than.” Would I sin if I were to *accidentally* think of her in a more egalitarian way?

    • Joe Carter

      The sin isn’t in doing the thing that your conscience forbids (at least when it isn’t a sin). The sin is that you actively choose to disobey God.

      Now it could be that you are wrong about what God wants you to do. But if your intention is to disobey God, then you’ve sinned.

  • http://flamingfundamentalist.blogspot.com Curt Day

    Point #4 is wrong. Conscience is not only fallible, it can be corrupted. People have supported wrong causes out of conscience. Jim Crow was support in part because of what was taught from the Bible to some people. To break a conscience that said one must segregate was not sin. Neither was it sin for those Nazi soldiers who broke loyalty oaths to Hitler. And both involved going, at least partially, against the conscience because of the strong, internal constraints involved.

    So whether breaking the conscience is sin is not this black-white issue. That doesn’t mean we should take the conscience lightly. But it is not infallible and is subject to being misinformed by all of the important influences that affect us in life.

  • http://www.thinkpoint.wordpress.com Steve Cornell

    What is the more general role of conscience in society? We don’t hear much about conscience anymore perhaps because we no longer live in a culture where the virtue of honor plays a prominent role in the conduct of individual lives and communities. The old duty to honor others functioned as a healthy motive for restraining wrongful, inappropriate and disrespectful behaviors. Honor, as a valued social virtue, was taught in the context of family life, mentored through parental example and reinforced through community expectation. All of this helped to foster a guiding role for the restraining benefits of conscience. Honor encourages us to treat our fellow humans with a protective form of respect. It flourishes best in humble hearts that believe in the dignity of human beings based on the Imago Dei. Honor shares the company of virtues like gratitude, courtesy and respect. The disappearance of these virtues is evident everywhere in the cultural life of 21st century America. In a society where conscience is shaped more by convenience and the sovereignty of personal preference, we should not be surprised that we’ve become a culture of law. Expansive law rarely provides the best context for human flourishing and easily becomes an occasion for corruption.

    • http://flamingfundamentalist.blogspot.com Curt Day

      I agree with part of what you are saying. There is a diminishing role of conscience in society because of our society’s emphasis on the individual first and consumerism second. The combination of the two relegates behaviors that would hurt others from being off-limits to viable options depending on one’s preference and mood.

      But we also have to realize, and the young people are taking the lead here, that society is more integrated than ever and part of this is due to a social conscience. And sometimes one’s individual conscience conflicts with another’s social conscience.

      In short, despite our change in society, not all is bad news for the conscience.

  • Pete

    Joe – it would seem that you’re right, there is a lot of debate about this topic of consceince. Did you expect the kind of comments that you’ve received? Do you think you could elaborate a little on the issue of whetehr the consceince can change. In other words can our consceince be educated so that I can be biblically persuaded that something I think is wrong when God doesn’t call it wrong isn’t really wrong? Like, if I think that playing cards is wrong, but God’s Word doesn’t call it wrong can I be biblically “educated” so that I no longer have a consceince problem with playing cards? Can you provide biblical references that teach that my consceince can be educated? That my consceince should be educated? You reference MacArthur’s book The Vanishing Consceince. In that book he makes a great “biblical case” for a number of points concerning consceince. But, when he deals with this issue of educating consceince the point he makes (that it can and should)comes with no biblical confirmation at all. An entire chapter on the point of educating consceince but not one biblical reference to back that teaching. Why? Perhaps because there isn’t a single biblical verse that teaches that the consceince can, let alone should, be educated. How would you respond? What am I missing? I’d appreciate hearing your thinking. Blessings.

    • Tim Mullet

      Pete the whole Bible is given to help us educate our consciences.

      Psalm 119:9-11 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.

      • Pete

        Thank you Tim, I appreciate your attempt to answer my question to Joe. But, I’m afraid you missed my point, perhaps because I didn’t make my point with clarity. My question has to do with those convictions held that are not based on objective truth (the Word of God). In other words the situations addressed in Romans 14, which are frequently referred to as freeom areas. Like one Christian considers one day holy, while another Christian considers all days the same. The first Christain is called “weak” in Romans 14 and the second “strong”. In other words, the first Christian isn’t able to enjoy the freedom that God allows believers to consider – one day is not holy or special over the other six days and he is considered “weak” in his consceince. His consceince tells him that to not respect that day as special or holy is sin even though God never says that. The second man who considers all days the same is more in line with God’s truth and called “strong” in consceince (which shows that under the New Covenant Sabbath keeping is abolished – or else we’d be required to consider one day as holy over the others in which case the second brother’s position couldn’t be acceptable). Paul’s instruction is never to educate the first brother as to the truth that the second brother already understands. He never instructs that the weak brother be educated or that he can be so that he will be strong in consceince and be able to participate in the freedom that we don’t have to respect one day over the other six days. Paul’s instruction is that the second brother (the strong one) is to accept his weaker brother without looking down on him and that the first brother (the weaker) is to accept the stronger brother withouot passing judgement (which shows that the weaker brother is aware that the stronger brother’s position is not sin according to God, but his consceince won’t allow him to participate in this freedom – to him it would be sin). If our consceince can and should be educated/informed and that in doing so it can change this would seem to be the ideal place to make that point – but Paul does not. Essential his instruction leaves both brothers right where they are and exhorts them to not only live in acceptance of one another, but to live out their opinions in faith. The weaker is to keep that day he deems holy in faith and the stronger is to abide in the freedom of his opinion that all days are the same in faith.

        That’s my difficulty with all this talk of educating the consceince and the idea that our consceince can grow to be more in line with the truth of God. There are many areas that God doesn’t directly speak to,making them areas of freedom – Christians are free to determine what they believe is most pleasing to God FOR THEM in those areas.

        • Tim Mullet


          I do understand where you are coming from now. Thank you for the clarification. Having said that, I do think that you are reading things into Romans 14 that are not there.

          You say, “Paul’s instruction is never to educate the first brother as to the truth that the second brother already understands.”

          Yet, this is not Paul’s instruction. ESV Romans 14:1 As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. There is a difference between seeking to humbly educate a brother on a wisdom issue and seeking to “quarrel over opinions.” Paul’s point is surely not, “never have a conversation,” but “keep things in perspective.” Romans 14:20 20 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.

          Paul himself is doing what you are declaring him to be condemning. He is seeking to educate the Corinthian church on the difference between a weak conscience and a strong conscience. According to Paul, the weak person believes he can only eat vegetables (14:2), esteems particular days (14:5), etc. His instruction is that the church should not fight over these things, but the strong person should be willing to give up his right to exercise his freedom, so that he does not lead the weak person into sin. If the weak brother is convinced that something is a sin, which is not in fact a sin, then do not force the issue and flaunt your liberty in his face. Accept him. Do not fight with him. Allow him time to mature.

          Hope that helps and is not missing your point,


        • Eric F

          Agreed. One cannot educate the conscience. If we could then it would not be our conscience in would just be our mind. Most of this scripture that you are referring to deals with strength of faith and not strength of conscience. The conscience is referred to as either clear or not clear, but faith as weak or strong. According to this passage of scripture you referenced, the conscience is to be maintained as clear whether your faith is weak or strong. Therefore,us changing our conscience is not God’s idea at all, but our idea. Why do we concern ourselves with changing our conscience to be most accurate? He only says keep it clear. The other side of the coin is he says to have faith and accept those weak in faith. We must concern ourselves with believing the Lord, and with loving our brothers where they are. A person strong in faith has a greater freedom than someone who is weak in faith. So we should humble ourselves and not try to do everything right, but only believe God and have a clear conscience. So each person is under obligation to God to maintain a clear conscience, and we cannot be another’s judge while we always have our own conscience to deal with.

          • Pete

            Eric, thanks for your reply. I really like a lot of what you are saying. I especially like your precison that “educating our consceince” really amounts to “educating our mind”. And, I realize that the word consceince is not in Romans 14, that you are right by pointing out that it is “weak or strong in FAITH”. But, faith in what? What kind of faith? Not faith in God or His Word, in my opinion. But, faith in “my opinion on an area that God does not clearly or specifically speak to” (see Romans 14:1-6 NASB “opinions” in verse one is equivilent to “faith” in verse two; verse five gives another example of differing “opinions” and each are exhorted to be fully convinced [have a convition] in his own “mind” or opinion; verse six says that each one acts on his opinion “for the Lord” I take that to mean he believes it is the only way for him to please God in regard to the issue – observing or not observing a day, eating only vegetables or eating everything. But, I can’t have a conviction about an issue/item that God has clearly/specifically spoken to that is contrary to what God has said – God says don’t steal, I can’t say it’s okay for me to steal because my consceince won’t let my children go hungry when I could just rip off a grocery mart – our only godly response to what God has clearly commanded/spoken to is to OBEY. But, where God allows freedom, I need to make up my mind what bestpleases God for me in that situation). Later when everyone is exhorted that whatever is not done in faith is sin I take that to mean not done in line with ones opinion; conviction. Where do these convictions come from – not the Word of God (because God only has one truth for each issue it’s either required to observe one day or all the others or it isn’t; it’s either true that one should eat only vegetables or it’s not. So where do they originate? In a persons weak or strong consceince. One man’s consceience allows him to eat all things (which is what God allows) but another man’s consceince will only allow him to eat vegetables (even though God hasn’t limited a believer’s eating only to vegetables). At least that’s how I’ve understood it. Maybe we’re saying the same thing me using consceince/opinion/conviction, you use faith. What do you think? Please show me where if you think I’m missing something or not handling Romans 14 accurately. In any case, thanks again for giving more to think about. Peace.

            • Eric F

              Pete, I think I agree somewhat with what you are saying but I do not think the understanding you have of the working together of faith, conscience, and opinion are in line with the scripture here.

              Firstly, Faith in one’s own opinion is unnecessary. My opinion is related to my perception and understanding. Every man thinks his own opinion is right until proven otherwise. That is the very nature of opinion. God always moves man from his own notions toward believing Him. The two are at odds. Notice in Romans 14:1 he speaks of opinions as being related to the weak in faith. Little faith, is always accompanied with opinions of men.

              Now, the one with stronger faith in God (and what He has said) is exhorted to accept the lesser. So strong faith produces a perspective that differs from the man of weak faith. So one accepts God’s opinion, the other is not yet able to accept God’s opinion and thus has his own opinion. The one who is strong in faith believes God. The one who is weak does not yet believe Him as thoroughly. He is weak in faith, not lacking faith.

              Apparently though, strong faith and weak faith can lack love, or else he would not have told both not to judge the other. So it is not whether we have strong faith or weak faith that he is talking about, but love. He does not say to the weak “believe all food is clean or you are not believing God’s truth.” He is not concerned with coercing men to believe God’s truth, but that they would bear with one another while God teaches each one.

              So no do not “form an opinion” only believe God as far as you are able and love others. There are things which the Lord says that we have not yet come to believe. A mental agreement with the truth is not the same as having faith. If an unbeliever believes he can eat whatever he wants with no consequence, do we call that “having faith that all things in Christ are clean in themselves” Romans 14:14 ? No. So faith in this word produces something different than merely eating rightly. So this discussion is on faith. Conscience has a role, but it is not strong or weak. Conscience is the most sensitive weak part in a person, it gives way at the slightest wrongdoing. Conscience cannot be reasoned with. Faith is strengthened as one knows and experiences God, conscience is made clear and maintained clear as one walks with God.

  • Pingback: TGC: What Is Conscience? | S.E.A.L.E.D.()

  • Pingback: PowerLinks 03.06.14 | Acton PowerBlog()

  • Pingback: Credo Magazine » Credo’s Cache()

  • Pingback: Today in Blogworld 03.07.14 - Borrowed Light()

  • Pingback: Mere Links 03.07.14 - Mere Comments()

  • Pingback: The Saturday Post(s) | A Pilgrim's Friend()

  • Pingback: What Is Conscience? – The Gospel Coalition Blog « ajcerda()

  • Pingback: Do You Have a Conscience? | Redemption Church of Northridge()

  • Pingback: Passion Points | Three Passions()