Already in this election cycle we’ve heard a great deal about the conscience. Religious liberty stands or falls with ones ability to speak and act according to conscience. Likewise, many political commentaries have spoken about the conscience with regards to voting. Some, like Wayne Grudem, have made a matter of moral obligation to vote for Donald Trump. Others, like Andy Naselli, have explained why his conscience cannot vote for the not-so-conservative “conservative” choice.
In truth, we are going to hear a great deal more about the conscience. But what is it? And how does a biblical understanding of the conscience help us in these difficult times—in our voting and more to be at peace with brothers or sisters in Christ who hold different views of the political landscape. Again, Naselli is helpful, as he and J.D. Crowley have written a book on the subject: Conscience: What It Is, How to Train It, And Loving Those Who Differ.
In what follows I provide an overview of their book that both encapsulates some of their key points and hopefully whets your appetite to consider further this important topic.
What is the Conscience? (ch. 1–2)
In the opening chapter Naselli and Crowley define conscience in ten ways (pp. 21–31).
- Conscience is human capacity.
- Conscience reflects the moral aspect of God’s image
- Conscience feels independent (as if it stands outside ourselves to judging ourselves)
- Conscience is a priceless gift from God
- Conscience wants to be an on-off switch, not a dimmer
- Conscience is for you, and you only
- Conscience is unique–no two people have the same conscience
- No one’s conscience perfectly matches God’s will (save Jesus Christ)
- You can damage your conscience, so beware of insensitivity and oversensitivity
- Conscience has two great principles
- God is only Lord of conscience, so
- Obey your conscience
From this understanding, they turn to a list of thirty verses in the New Testament. From two uses in Acts, twenty uses in Paul, five in Hebrews, and three in 1 Peter, Naselli and Crowley observe how conscience (syneidēsis) is used in the New Testament, and how we should think about the conscience in general. In short they categorize conscience as what it can be, saying (40–41):
- The conscience can be good as in the sense of blameless, clear, clean, and pure (Acts 23:1; 24:16; 1 Timothy 1:5, 19; 3:9; 2 Timothy 1:3; Hebrews 13:18; 1 Peter 3:16, 21)
- The conscience can be cleansed, that is, cleared, perfected, purified, washed, purged, and sprinkled clean (Hebrews 9:9, 14; 10:22)
- The conscience can be weak (1 Corinthians 8:7, 10, 12), wounded (1 Corinthians 8:12); defiled (1 Corinthians 8:7; Titus 1:15), emboldened to sin (1 Corinthians 8:10), guilty (Hebrews 10:22), or seared as with a hot iron (1 Timothy 4:2)
They also show what the conscience can do (41–42):
- The conscience can bear witness or confirm (Romans 2:15; 9:1; 2 Corinthians 1:12; 4:2; 5:11)
- The conscience can judge or try to determine another person’s freedom (1 Corinthians 10:29)
- The conscience can lead one to act a certain way––to accuse or excuse yourself (Romans 2:15), to submit to authorities (Romans 13:5), to not ask about the origin of (sacrificed) meat (1 Corinthians 10:25, 27), or conversely, to refuse to eat meat sacrificed to idols (1 Corintihans 10:28).
From these observations, they define conscience this way:
“The conscience is your consciousness of what you believe is right and wrong” (42).
This definition implies that (1) “conscience produces different results for different people based on different moral standards,” (2) “conscience can change,” and (3) conscience functions as a guide (going forward) and monitor, witness, and judge (looking backward) (42–43). All in all, the conscience is God’s gift to all people made in his image, a thermostat and thermometer to help regulate the temperature of our soul.
How Do We Deal With Conscience? (ch. 3–4)
Next, Naselli and Crowley ask what you should do when your conscience condemns you (ch. 3) and how you should calibrate your conscience to match God’s will (ch. 4). They begin by quoting John MacArthur (“The conscience may be the most underappreciated and least understood attribute of humanity.”) and say, “Your conscience is a gift. God gave it to you for your good. And when it is condemning you, you need to discern why and then respond” (45).
From this evaluation of the conscience’s goodness, they reflect on the promise of clean conscience (Hebrews 9:14) and how the cleansed conscience grows in sensitivity to God. They remind us that “our knowledge of God and his laws” will always outpace “our obedience to God and his laws,” (48), hence the normal experience of the growing Christian is a heightened awareness of sin that was not present as an unbeliever. Such a condition makes self-condemnation a threat for earnest Christian.
Yet, just as the gospel promised cleansing to the lost sinner, so the gospel continues to cleanse the conscience of the believer. First John 1:9 (“if we confess your sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us of all unrighteousness”) is the believers lifeline. When our hearts condemn us because of sin, God is greater than our hearts (1 John 3:20). He has made a way of forgiveness and cleansing, and our confession is the means of enjoying that freedom.
At the same time, Naselli and Crowley point out that sometimes our hearts wrongly condemn us because our consciences are wrongly calibrated. Hence, they spend chapter 4 assessing ways our consciences need to be better informed by the truth of Scripture and sometimes even truth outside the Bible. In this regard, they share an important principle: our consciences can, do, and must change, so long as it is being shaped by truth—coming from the Bible and factual information in the world (64).
They then give a number of examples of how the conscience is formed either by adding to or subtracting from conscience. This approach (adding or subtracting) clarifies the process of how our conscience are formed and should be conformed (1) with biblical truth (2) over a period time (66–68). Still, it’s not enough to merely allign our consciences with Scripture, we must also learn how to get along with others with whom we disagree.
How Do Christians Relate to Those With Whom They Disagree? (ch. 5–6)
After addressing the individual’s conscience, Conscience turns to the difficult task of unifying Christians who hold different convictions about “third-tier” issues. Importantly, they begin with an introduction of theological triage (85–87), which also applies to ethical issues or other matters of practice. From there they consider the four ways “strong” and “weak” consciences wrongly respond to one another. And they give three ways in which true consciences may operate.
After providing this clarifying rubric that outlines the way we can overburden or overlook matters of conscience, Crowley and Naselli provide twelve principles from Romans 14–15 on how to approach matters of conscience. In order these include (96–117):
- Welcome those who disagree with you (Romans 14:1–2)
- Those who have freedom of conscience must not look down on those who don’t (Romans 14:3–4)
- Those whose conscience restricts them must not be judgmental towards those who have freedom (Romans 14:3–4)
- Each believer must be fully convinced of their own position in their own conscience (Romans 14:5)
- Assume that others are partaking or refraining for the glory of God (Romans 14:6–9)
- Do not judge each other in these matters because we will all someday stand before the judgment seat of God (Romans 14:10–12)
- Your freedom to eat meat is correct, but don’t let your freedom destroy the faithful week brother (Romans 14:13–15)
- Disagreement about eating and drinking are not important in the kingdom of God; building each other up in righteousness, peace, and joy is the important thing (Romans 14:16–21)
- If you have freedom, don’t flaunt it; if you were strict, don’t expect others to be strict like you (Romans 14:22a)
- A person who lives according to their conscience blessed (Romans 14:22b–23)
- We must follow the example of Christ, who put others first (Romans 15:1–6)
- We bring glory to God when we welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us (Romans 15:7)
Each of these points provides vital application of the biblical text to situations we face today.
One more chapter closes the book, as Crowley shares his missionary experience and how matters of conscience impact servants of Christ who enter into other cultures. He explains how various cultures have differing scruples which missionaries must navigate as they share the gospel and its implications without requiring of other cultures things that go beyond the pale of Scripture. The principles he explores also have relevance for anyone crossing cultural boundaries.
A True and Timely Resource
In the end, Conscience is a clear summary of an often misunderstood subject. It helps introduce what Scripture says about the heart and mind and how we can grow in developing a conscience that is conformed to truth and helps us love others. For these reasons alone, I would highly recommend this short book, but there is another more timely reason and it is the one I mentioned at the start.
In an era when “conscience” continues to be discussed in relation to religious liberty, politics, and voting, it is vital Christians know what they believe about the conscience. In other words, as our culture becomes increasingly secular (and even pagan) our Christian sensitivities are going to be increasingly challenged. As Naselli and Crowley indicate, sometimes truth comes through understanding technology and other external data. But such specific knowledge cannot replace the need for a biblical foundation on this topic. Therefore, if you are interested in crossing boundaries to share Christ without letting your conscience get in the way, this is a book for you.
May God help us stand for truth with hearts trained by Scripture, so that our consciences would be neither unnecessarily hyper-sensitive nor callously insensitive.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds