Freud called it the “super ego.” The Hebrews included it in the figures of speech “heart” and “kidneys.” The judges at the Nuremberg trial of the Nazi war criminals referred to it as “the universal human conscience.” In English the word “conscience” is well known, and some will remember the little cricket in the Disney film giving the advice, “Let your conscience be your guide.”
Even as you read this your conscience is at work. The English word “conscience” means “with+knowledge” even as the Greek word SYNEIDESEI [with+idea]. [Acts 23:1] The judges at Nuremberg, as well as doctor Freud, were aware that all humans are possessed of that thing called “conscience.” Why?
It would seem that if humanity was merely the product of accidental evolution – through tens of millions of chaotic even miraculous mutations – there would be no need whatsoever of a “conscience.” On the other hand the faculty of conscience is sufficient for most to point to a divine Maker of the conscience. [Romans 1:20]
The Hebrew Bible does not actually have a word for conscience, but the Hebrew LEB [Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance #3820] infers conscience, soul, mind. Over 500 times LEB is rendered by the word “heart.” It is a Jewish rabbi of the 1st Century who defines the conscience. In Romans 2:15,
“The non-Jewish [ethnic groups] demonstrate the Law’s work written within their hearts [Jeremiah 31:33] – the combined testimony working between their conscience [Greek = SYNEIDESEOS] and their logical thoughts either prosecuting or defending them.” [21st Century Version of the Christian Scriptures© (TCV)]
We will return to this verse later.
According to Paul the conscience is that faculty of heart and mind that acts something as an “umpire” or “judge” regarding thought and conduct that is either good or bad. All humans possess conscience in one degree or another, just as the Nuremberg judges spoke of “the universal human conscience.” Since the word conscience includes the word “knowledge” we can see the importance of knowledge in the function of the conscience. This knowledge may be divided in two parts:
When does the conscience first make it appearance in the Bible? We find no contradiction when we find its use right at the beginning of humanity in the Garden of Eden. And this in relation to “knowledge.” By reading Genesis chapters two and three we can see that upon Adam’s creation he began to gather knowledge of things around him. Using a modern analogy we might compare Adam as a human-creature to have been given the hard-wiring of the brain and certain implanted “software” that came with that brain. This is something like buying a computer that comes with certain software already downloaded.
We judge that Adam’s conscience came “downloaded” with certain fundamental rules or laws. Likely these included commands against murder, theft, lying, as well as certain positives regarding moral virtues. In other words Adam would have naturally known that these were wrong. This would be that divinely implanted knowledge as part of the conscience. However, there were other more precise rules or laws that would not come naturally and had to be learned through the gaining of further knowledge.
It is perhaps for this reason the fruitage of a certain tree was forbidden by the Creator. It is true that some vegetation or flora are poisonous. It makes good sense that God would teach his human children which foods were safe to eat. This is done among birds and animals where the mother actually teaches her offspring what and what not to eat. So Adam gained an important piece of knowledge as part of his conscience: he must not partake of the “tree of the knowledge of what is good and what is bad.” [Genesis chapters 2 and 3]
Only the Creator can judge what is good or bad. The American novelist Ernest Hemingway wrongly concluded: “What is good is what I feel good after. What is bad is what I feel bad after.”
The conscience does not function in isolation, for the Creator gave humankind more software. These included primarily two:
By themselves in a godly context ego and desire may be properly directed by the prime universal principle. This key principle is what God wants of all His creation. It is expressed by Paul regarding what God’s purpose will ultimately accomplish: “That The God should become everything to everyone.” [1 Corinthians 15:28]
However, when ego and desire run amuck the consequence is disaster. We note this in the case of Adam and Eve. We see desire become overpowering so Eve disobeyed God and her husband and ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Bad. Genesis 3:6 reports,
“Because of this the woman realized that the tree’s [fruit] was good and desirable food, as well as pleasing to the sight. So she took some of the fruit and ate it.” [21st Century Version of the Hebrew Scriptures©]
There is nothing wrong with normal pleasure or desire for the very name “Eden” means “pleasure.”
Sin begins in the mind. When the mind contemplates a sinful act, word, or thought the conscience comes into play as something of an “umpire.” James 1: 14, 15 describes the process that leads to sin:
“Rather, everyone is tempted by their own desire, being drawn away and allured. Then, the desire having conceived gives birth to sin, and this sin, when it reaches full growth, brings forth death.” [TCV]
Having followed through on wrong desire the ego of Adam causes him to blame God and his wife. Genesis 3:10-12 alludes to Adam’s ego and conscience:
“At last the man answered: ‘I heard Your voice in the paradise garden, and I got frightened because I was naked and so tried to hid.’ At this [God] asked: ‘Who ever said you were naked? Have you eaten from the very tree I commanded you not to eat?’ The man answered: ‘It was the woman You gave me – it was she who gave me that fruit to eat, and so I went ahead and ate it!’”
Why was Adam “frightened”? It was because his conscience judged him to be wrong, unrighteous in that he disobeyed God’s command.
As a result of violating their God-given consciences the Creator condemned the parents of all humanity. In doing so we today have an important lesson: the violated conscience results in God’s displeasure. The conscience becomes violated when ego and desire go awry and drive a person into sin.
The conscience, because it means “with+knowledge” can be educated with godly knowledge. Adam and Eve had at the start only one command to keep. In time God would add other laws and commandments that would aid humanity in subjecting the earth and its marvelous creatures. [Genesis 1:28] God’s laws and commands would change as humanity itself changed and grew.
The apostle Paul wrote more about the conscience than any other Bible writer. Hebrews 5:14 describes how the conscience can be trained when it says,
“Solid nourishment belongs to mature persons, those who through the use of their sensory organs have been trained like an athlete to be able to distinguish between what is good or bad.” [21st Century Version of the Christian Scriptures©]
If the conscience is habitually violated it leads to developing moral scar tissue that has lost its feeling. Paul describes certain Christians in this manner,
“…the hypocrisy of those who speak falsehoods, their own conscience having been seared.” [TCV]
When the conscience habitually accuses or condemns a person it becomes “seared.” Soon the ego with its conscience can justify anything. Like the young Christian woman who justified her abortions by saying, “Everyone was doing it.” Nearly every kind of sin can be rationalized away until finally the ego and its desire completely controls everything. The person becomes more and more selfish and materialistic – or even fleshly – and every motive serves self-interest.
The opposite of this egocentric desire is that of self-sacrificing love and devotion. That is, though it is harder on me what is best for others? For example, Jesus taught what is required to become one of his disciples:
“If anyone wishes to follow me they must disown ‘self’, heft a personal cross, and then keep following me constantly. For whoever wishes to preserve their soul will forfeit it; and, whoever forfeits the soul because of me will find it.” [Matthew 16:24, 25 TCV]
Again the Nazarene taught,
“You must agonize to enter through the narrow door, because many I tell you will seek to enter and will not be strong enough.” [Luke 13:24 TCV]
Paul gives us an example how God’s law and the conscience can function together. However, he points out that a spirit of freedom can cause offence to others. He does this in 1 Corinthians chapters 8 and 10. We remember that Jews under the Law of Moses were bound to many laws regarding food. There were certain foods a Jew could not eat and if he or she did so it would violate their conscience.
When Messiah came he “fulfilled the Law” [Matthew 5:17] so that it was no longer necessary to be “kosher” regarding what one ate or drank. This new freedom is first mentioned in the Gospel of Mark when “Jesus proclaimed all foods clean.” [TCV] Paul does something similar when he writes,
“You may eat anything being sold in a meat market without a judgment of conscience.” [1 Corinthians 10:25 TCV]
Though this freedom allowed former Jews who were now Christians to eat foods formerly forbidden a conscience trained by the Law of Moses may be easily wounded in the face of this new liberty. Paul addresses this problem in 1 Corinthians chapters 8 and 10 when he uses the word “conscience” eight times. [1 Corinthians 8:7, 10, 12; 10:25, 27-29] He gives the example of a Christian attending a meal at a pagan’s home. Now the pagan could eat anything, but he may feel something is objectionable to the Christian. So the host points out that a certain food had been offered to an idol and then purchased at the meat market. Now Paul has said that a Christian may buy and eat anything in any meat market without wounding the conscience. HOWEVER, by eating such food it might “wound” the conscience of the host. So, in such a case it would be better not to eat certain foods. What should be avoided is harming the conscience of another.
Christians should strive to “commend ourselves to every human conscience.” [2 Corinthians 4:2 TCV] Paul associates the conscience with other features of a Christian’s attitude:
“The purpose of this current command is out of compassionate affection from a clean heart, a good conscience, and conviction free of hypocrisy.” [1 Timothy 1:5 TCV]
The Christian elder who oversees a congregation should be a person “keeping the mystery of the Faith with a clean conscience.” [1 Timothy 3:9 TCV]
Some Christians have “pushed aside” their former “good conscience”:
“Hold on to your deep conviction as well as a good conscience, which some have pushed aside causing a shipwreck of their faith.” [1 Timothy 1:19 TCV]
The Christian, unlike the Jew under the Law of Moses, is not bound to hundreds of regulations. In this regard let us turn to the subject of the New Covenant conscience. Such was foretold by Jeremiah when he said:
31 Behold, days come, saith Jehovah, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah [= THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH] : 32 not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers, in the day of my taking them by the hand, to lead them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they broke [= THE LAW COVENANT], although I was a husband unto them, saith Jehovah. 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel [= THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH], after those days, saith Jehovah: I will put my law in their inward parts [CONSCIENCE], and will write it in their heart [DEEPEST INCLINATIONS AND MOTIVES]; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know Jehovah; for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith Jehovah: for I will pardon their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more. [Darby]
When Yehowah says “I will put my law in their inward parts and will write it in their heart” He refers to the conscience. After quoting Jeremiah 31:31-34 Paul states that the Law could not perfect the human conscience when he writes,
“… these gifts and sacrifices which are being brought forward are unable to perfect the consciences of those performing the worship services.” [Hebrews 9:9 TCV]
Only the sacrificial atonement of Christ can “perfect the conscience.” Paul writes in this regard:
“May we continue to approach The God with a true heart in complete conviction – our hearts having been sprinkled from a wicked conscience and our body bathed in clean water.” [Hebrews 10:22 TCV]
Christians should be able to say,
“We are convinced we have an excellent conscience, conducting ourselves correctly in everything.” [Hebrews 13:18 TCV]
When a person wishes to commit themselves to Christ as his disciple this prayer ought to accompany their water baptism, “a request made unto God for a good conscience as a result of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” [1 Peter 3:16, 21 TCV] At this time a new “umpire” enters the life of the Christian. It is Christ and his teachings. Paul uses this figure of speech when he writes,
“Permit the peace and harmony of the Christ to be the controlling factor within your hearts.” [Colossians 3:15 TCV]
The words “controlling factor” are literally “acts as an umpire.” [Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance #1018, brabeuo] Rotherham renders this verse, “Let the peace of Christ act as umpire in your hearts.”
How does Christ “act as an umpire” in a Christian’s conscience? Remember “conscience” means “with+knowledge.” Note what Paul says next:
“Allow Christ’s word take up residence within you with all of its rich wisdom.” [Colossians 3:16 TCV]
The only way to do this is to study the Sayings of the Nazarene as they are recorded in the four Gospels. Such added knowledge will greatly enhance the Christian conscience.
God through His prophet Jeremiah promised a change from the 600 laws of Moses – later codified by the “Second Moses” to 100,000 – to a new spiritual law to be written on the Christian conscience. What “law” would this be? Paul helps us understand when he writes,
“Now you were all invited to freedom, brothers. But do not use this liberty as a fleshly opportunity. Rather, out of compassionate affection be servants to one another. For the entire Law of Moses is fulfilled in the one statement: ‘You should love your neighbor as yourself.’” [Galatians 5:13, 14 TCV; compare Romans 13:8]
The Nazarene Master taught the same. When asked which were the greatest commandments Jesus answered:
“‘You shall love YHWH your God with your complete heart, your total person, and your whole mind.’ This is the greatest and premier commandment. A second commandment is similar, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire Law, and the Prophets, hang on these two commandments.’” [Matthew 22:37-40 TCV]
The disciple James calls this “the kingly law.” [James 2:8]
We can reduce the New Covenant “law” affecting the Christian conscience to two matters:
This is the summary found in 1 John 3:23,
“And this is His commandment: we should believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and continue to show compassionate affection to one another, just as He gave to us a commandment.” [TCV]
On the first matter of faith, Paul writes:
“For everything that does not originate from conviction [or, faith] is sin.” [Romans 14:23 TCV]
Thus, a lack of faith is sin, and the Christian conscience should move the believer to strive to gain the faith needed. Thus any thought or act may be examined by the question, “How does this affect my faith?” Or, “How do my words and works demonstrate that I trust in God?”
The second part of God’s commandment is the matter of showing love to others. According to the teachings of Christ such love must also be shown to one’s enemies. Spiritual perfection can only be achieved by such love. [Matthew 5:43-48] So any thought or act can be confronted with the question, “Am I showing love in this?”
One can ask, “What hurts me?” Or, “If I was in this situation how would I like to be treated?” Thus, the Christian conscience would condemn anyone who deliberately caused hurt to another. Or, if a Christian failed to demonstrate love as they would have expected it.
On the subject of the Golden Rule, Jesus taught:
30 “Continue to give to everyone who keeps asking you, and do not ask the person who takes your possessions to return them. 31 Now just as you want people to do to you, you continue to do the same. 32 And if you only continue to love those who love you – what charity is there to that? 33 And if you only continue to do good to those who keep doing good to you – what kind of charity is that? Even sinners do the very same thing! 34 And if you ever lend money hoping to receive it back – what kind of charity is that? Even sinners keep lending money expecting an equal amount in return! 35 Instead, all of you continue to show loving concern for your enemies. And continue doing good – continue lending money without expecting anything to be paid back. If you do your reward will be considerable, for you will become the Most High’s offspring, because He is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Continue to be charitable just as your Father is charitable.” [Luke 6:30-36 TCV]
So the Christian’s conscience is confronted by only two laws: believe in and love God, and love others. All matters of life may be judged against these two criteria. The Creator does not want in His universe those who hate Him or others. Such persons will only cause hurt and pain to others and thus have no right to live in His universe.
Those who believe that God should be “everything to everyone” will experience a perfected conscience that finds faith in God and love of neighbor no burden at all. [1 John 5:3] The “genuine disciple” of Christ Jesus will experience the Nazarene residing within the heart and conscience, acting as an umpire judging whether a thought, word or act is good or bad. O how glad we are as we rejoice that our Master has taken up residence in our mind, heart and conscience to guide us to ever greater holiness, righteousness and goodness.
Nazarene Commentary 2000© by Mark Heber Miller
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