7-12-3 "A good conscience" : A Biblical Analysis
There is a clear NT theme: that the believer always has a good conscience (Acts 23:1; 24:16; Rom. 9:1; 2 Cor. 1:12; 1 Tim. 1:5,19; 3:9; 2 Tim. 1:3; Heb. 9:14; 10:22; 13:18; 1 Pet. 3:16); this clear conscience is a gift from the time of baptism (Heb. 10:22; 1 Pet. 3:21; Heb. 9:14 cp. 6:1; Rom. 6:17). If a believer loses that good conscience, he has fallen from grace. Those who leave the faith have a conscience which is wounded (1 Cor. 8:12), defiled (1 Cor. 8:7; Tit. 1:15), seared (1 Tim. 4:2). It's hard to find a consistent Biblical definition of conscience. " Conscience" in the Biblical sense often refers to how God sees our conscience, rather than how we feel it. Therefore only rarely does the Spirit speak as if " conscience" is something which is good one moment, and bad the next; it is something which we have on a permanent basis. Thus to say " I watched TV last night with a good conscience, but I had a bad conscience that I didn't give out any tracts today" isn't really using " conscience" in it's Biblical sense. Paul repeatedly emphasizes that he has always had a good conscience (presumably, from the time of his baptism, when he stopped kicking against the goads, Acts 9:5).
7-12-3-1 A Biblical Definition Of Conscience
The conscience which the Bible defines is not necessarily our intuitive sense of right and wrong; that twinge of guilt which we may have after certain thoughts or behaviour. All men (and animals) have such a streak in them; yet a good conscience is associated with holding the true faith (1 Tim. 1:3-5,19 3:9). It is impossible for those outside the faith to have a " good conscience" in the Biblical definition of conscience. It therefore doesn't just refer to a lack of guilt twinge. Paul must surely have had twinges of guilt over his behaviour at times (not least over the bust up with Brethren Barnabas and Mark, Acts 15:39 cp. 2 Tim. 4:11); and yet he insists that he always had a good conscience. Hezekiah likewise lived with a good conscience but was at the same time aware of his sins (Is. 38:3 cp. 17). Paul likewise claims that the Jewish forefathers served God with a pure conscience (2 Tim. 1:3 NIV). Yet the Jewish fathers, dear Jacob particularly, must have had plenty of twinges of guilt over their years. Indeed, all the Jewish fathers had a bad 'conscience' because of their sins (Heb. 9:9; 10:2). Surely Paul must mean that they had such a firm faith in forgiveness that in God's eyes they had a pure conscience.
Our natural sense of right and wrong is hopelessly corrupt; our heart is so deceptive that we don't really know how deceptive it is (Jer. 17:9). Many of our daily sins are probably committed due to our deceptive sense of right and wrong. Paul says that although he knows of nothing that would stand against him at the judgment, this doesn't justify him, because the Lord sees differently to us (1 Cor. 4:4 RSV). David likewise knew that his own self-examination was unable to give him an accurate picture of his status before God; " Who can understand his (own) errors?" (Ps. 19:12). All too often one hears it said: 'It's OK in my conscience, so there's nothing wrong with it'. Yet my comment is that our 'conscience', our natural sense of right and wrong, won't jump outside of us at judgment day and stand there and judge us. There is one thing that will judge us: the word of the Lord (Jn. 12:48). Morality isn't relative; there is such a thing as ultimate right and wrong, regardless of what our intuitive sense is.
And yet 1 Cor. 8-10 and Rom. 14:23 seem to teach that what may be right for one man in his Biblical definition of conscience may be wrong for another in his conscience. According to this principle, God blessed the Rechabites for their obedience to their conscience, even regarding something He had not specifically commanded (Jer. 34:19). " Conscience" seems to be used in these passages in a way similar to how we generally use it in modern English. These verses seem to suggest that conscience means our personal sense of right and wrong. However, Corinthians and Romans speak specifically about the food / drink question. They don't talk in general terms about the principles of conscience. There was a right and wrong here; it was quite OK to eat meat, any meat. Indeed to think otherwise, Paul demonstrates, reflected a weak understanding of the Gospel and a respect of idols very close to believing those deities had real existence. However, whilst ideally all believers should have accepted this, there were some weak ones who just couldn't. If they ate the meat, it would be a sin for them, and therefore the stronger believers were not to do anything which might encourage the weak to eat such meat. Here we see a concession (another one!) to human weakness. The standard was: idols don't exist, Christ died to free us from Mosaic regulations; God created this meat to be thankfully received by you; therefore eat! But a concession was made; God allowed men to justify their refusal to accept His teaching, He (the Almighty!) respected their human sense of right and wrong, with the proviso that if they did what was against their conscience, He would count it as sin. I doubt whether we can certainly infer that this principle applies to other issues apart from meat. God made an allowance there, at that time, on the question of meat. He may well do in many contemporary issues, but it is His prerogative to judge this, not ours. In any case, the existence of different 'consciences' was a sign of immaturity in the early brotherhood. Many issues which we tend to class as 'matters of conscience' would be better classed 'matters of personal judgment / allowance'. Whilst God does not aim at robot-like spiritual uniformity between us, we mustn't give the impression that if it's OK in your conscience, then its OK with God. We all have the same clear conscience, and should all respond to that in the same way when it comes to moral issues. There is clear Biblical guidance on issues like how we spend 'our' money, whether we watch certain films etc.; as there was on the meat question. If we have a truly cleansed conscience with God and we believe this, our way of life will become clear, without any struggles of 'conscience' or indecision. But all this depends upon having a clear Biblical definition of conscience.
The Good Conscience
The good conscience is Biblically defined in Hebrews 9, 10. Here the writer is basing his argument on how those under the Old Covenant still had a guilty conscience after their sacrifices, because the blood of animals could not take away sin; the yearly Day of Atonement required them to confess their sins once again. Their conscience was not made perfect (Heb. 9:9). In his overpowering way, Paul drives his logic home: not only is our conscience cleansed by the one sacrifice of Christ, but we are in a more exalted position than the OT worshippers; we are in the very position of the High Priest who on that Day of Atonement entered the Most Holy; we can enter the Holiest with boldness (cp. the nervousness of the Priest) because our consciences are cleansed with Christ's blood. And because of this, " let us draw near" (Heb. 10:22), the language the LXX uses about the priestly serving of God; now we can do the priestly work, because our consciences are cleansed. We are not like the OT believers, who had a bad conscience because of their sins and needed to offer an annual sacrifice for them, as a result of their conscience. We, Paul is saying, by contrast, have no more conscience of sins. According to this Biblical definition of conscience, the conscience is cleansed, and we partake of that cleansing by baptism. At and in that sacrament, we make a pledge to keep that good conscience (1 Pet. 3:21 NIV); perhaps we need to point this out more to baptism candidates. We are once and for all forgiven. Our emphasis must be on confession of failure, not feeling guilty and rushing off a quick prayer, as if this will get us forgiveness. We have been cleansed and covered, we are in the new covenant of grace. Only by breaking out of this can we lose the gracious position in which we stand: we have a conscience which is free of guilt, if we truly believe in the power of the cross and our relationship to it through baptism.
Piling wonder upon wonder, Paul also makes the point that the Lord Jesus made one sacrifice for all sins for all time, and therefore we don't need to offer any more sacrifices or use a human priesthood; we are already totally forgiven of all our sins. Sin was completely overcome by the Lord's victory; " For by one offering he hath perfected for ever (in their conscience) them that are sanctified" (Heb. 10:14 cp. 9:9). " Their sins and iniquities [there seems no hint that this only refers to pre-baptismal sins] will I remember no more" (Heb. 10:17). If we sin wilfully after knowing this, there is no more sacrifice for sins- because that sacrifice was only ever made once (Heb. 10:26). At our baptism, our conscience was cleansed of all sin. There is further evidence, apart from the reasoning of Hebrews, that all our sins, past and future, were forgiven at Calvary:
- On the cross, sin was ended, iniquity reconciled, everlasting righteousness brought in (Dan. 9:24). One sin offering was made for all time.
-We must forgive one another even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven us (Eph. 4:32); not waiting for our brother to repent before we forgive him, but forgiving in advance, in prospect, even as we were forgiven. This takes this issue out of the realms of theology into the painfully practical.
- Our sins were / are forgiven by the blood of Christ- not by our repentance or words of prayer. " God's forgiveness is not just a wiping clean of the slate [from hour to hour]...if it were, prayer would be immoral- a mere incantation to bring about a magical result: and we need to be continually wary of the pagan conception which would reduce it to such a level" (1). These words are so true. Whenever a twinge of guilt arises, we rush off a quick prayer for forgiveness- and then, at the end of the day or the week, we are left with a doubt as to whether our spirituality is valid or not. If this is our experience, we are all too similar to Israel of old; offering the sin offering (cp. praying for forgiveness), feeling guilty, coming to the day of Atonement (cp. the breaking of bread), still feeling guilty, realizing that as the sin offering couldn't cleanse sin, neither could the sacrifice at that feast, offering more sin offerings... It can become the ritual of a bad conscience, stumbling on because there seems no other way to go. But our sins (yes, yours, that snap at your wife, that curse as you spilt your coffee) really were forgiven through the Lord's work on the cross; we really do have access to this through really believing it- and therefore expressing our faith in baptism. Our prayerful response to failure should be to confess it (1 Jn. 1:9), and also profess our faith in the redemption already achieved for us.
All our sins were forgiven when the Lord died for us; both past and future. By baptism we identify ourselves with this work, and we are thereby in a position where we have " no more conscience of sins" (Heb. 10:2,22), knowing that all is forgiven, and only if we fall from grace will this become untrue. Thus YLT speaks of " the conscience" in the NT, as if it is something specific which we have, rather than an occasional twinge of guilt. We have this Biblical conscience " toward God" ; this is how He sees us (Acts 23:1; 24:16; 1 Pet. 2:19; 3:21). Thus we may have a guilty feeling about something, we may doubt our salvation, but our conscience in God's eyes is pure; we are still cleansed in the Lord Jesus Christ. Because we have a clear conscience, God will punish those who persecute us (1 Pet. 3:16 RSV). 1 Pet. 3:21 teaches that baptism saves us not because in itself it means that we are free from the deeds of the flesh (" putting away the filth of the flesh" uses words which elsewhere carry this connotation), but because it gives us a good conscience in God's eyes- according to the Biblical definition of conscience.
(1) L.G. Sargent, The Teaching Of The Master (Birmingham: C.M.P.A., 1961), p.277.