What is the conscience?

The conscience is generally understood as the non-physical part of a person that determines right and wrong. The conscience is sometimes referred to as a "moral compass." The word conscience is used 28 times in the English Standard Version of the Bible. The Greek New Testament term translated "conscience" is suneidesis, meaning "moral consciousness or awareness." The conscience produces feelings of guilt when wrong is done and joy when good is done.

To live with a guilty conscience is to live in fear. "The wicked flee when no one pursues, but the righteous are bold as a lion" (Proverbs 28:1). As the protagonist in Poe's "The Tell-tale Heart" found, a guilty conscience produces turmoil, anxiety, and restlessness of heart. Do what's right, the proverb says, and possess a lion's courage.

The apostle Paul lived with a good conscience: "Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day" (Acts 23:1). By Paul's own admission, keeping a clear conscience took careful attention and effort (Acts 24:16; see also Romans 9:1).

In Romans 2:14-15, Paul says that the conscience provides moral awareness of right and wrong even among unbelievers. "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."

When Paul commands believers to obey governing authorities, he appeals to the conscience: "one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience" (Romans 13:5).

The conscience is mentioned eleven times in his letters to Corinth, usually concerning the issue of eating meat devoted to idols. In 1 Timothy 1:5, Paul says, "The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith." Unfeigned love, which is the fulfillment of the Law, will be accompanied by a good conscience.

We have an important warning in 1 Timothy 4:2 that the conscience can be "seared." Hypocrisy, lies, and sinful living can numb the conscience. A person who damages his conscience loses the ability to discern right and wrong and habitually makes wrong choices.

The Christian is to have "a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame" (1 Peter 3:16). A healthy conscience, attuned to God's ways, is a blessing, and as we live our lives before God we can walk in the confidence that a good conscience affords.

Related Truth:

What is human nature?

Does humanity truly have free will?

Do we have a body, soul, and spirit? Are we made of two parts or three? Dichotomy or trichotomy?

Why did God create humanity?

What does it mean that humanity is created in the image of God?

Return to:
Truth about Humanity

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