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Conscience Before and After

The apostle Paul was a remarkable man for many reasons, one of which was his constant willingness to comply with his conscience.  He explained this when he stood before the Jewish Sanhedrin, saying, "Brethren, I have lived my life with a perfectly good conscience before God up to this day” (Acts 23:1; see also 2Tim. 1:3).  When he said this, he was not claiming that he had never sinned, for he knew that he had sinned by blaspheming the Lord and persecuting the Lord’s church (1Tim. 1:12-16).  Instead, he was saying that he had never intentionally done something that he knew to be wrong.  Even when he was persecuting the church, he thought that it was the right thing to do (Acts 26:9-11).

There have been very few people who could make the claim of living in perfectly good conscience before God as Paul did.  For most of us, there have been times when we knew our deeds were wrong, but we did them anyway.  When we did this, we ignored the warnings of our consciences.  In fact, there are times when it is as if our consciences are rendered completely silent so that we plunge headfirst into sin unabated.  Often, it is only after we commit sin that our consciences begin to prod us with the guilt of our evil deeds.  Our consciences then become our accusers by testifying against us that we have done wrong (Rom. 2:16).

What is it that makes us insensitive to the warnings of our consciences?  Why is it that we sometimes choose to sin when we know that it is wrong?  Why does it seem that the conscience often speaks louder after we commit sin than it did before we sinned?

For some people, they have made their consciences insensitive by a continual practice of hypocrisy and sin.  Hypocrisy is playacting, which means that the hypocrite pretends to be something that he is not.  After awhile, the hypocrite begins to convince himself that he is someone other than who he really is.  Such hypocrites are "seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron” (1Tim. 4:2) so that their consciences are insensitive to the sin they commit.  This is a condition of willful ignorance that is self-inflicted and very hard to cure.

For others, it is the power of temptation that quiets the warnings of the conscience.  Temptation occurs when a person "is carried away and enticed by his own lust” (Jas. 1:14).  Sometimes the object of temptation and the attraction of lust become so strong that they are obstacles to the conscience.  Through the fog of temptation, the warnings of the conscience become harder and harder to see.  However, after sin is committed and the thrill of lust and pleasure is gone, the fog clears and the guilty conscience brightly burns.

To overcome these obstacles to our consciences, we must follow the prescriptions of God’s word.  One such prescription is humility, which prevents us from thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought to think (Rom. 12:3).  Humility is an honest appraisal of oneself, and it prevents a person from being carried away in self-righteous hypocrisy.  Another prescription is a diligent study of God’s word, which will correctly train the conscience and strengthen it against the temptations that come (2Tim. 2:15; 3:16-17).  Indeed, one of the foremost goals of Bible instruction is a good conscience (1Tim. 1:5).  Yet another prescription is prayer for ourselves and for others (Matt. 6:13; Heb. 13:18).  Certainly, we can call upon God to empower the conscience to be sensitive to every temptation as a guard against sin.

Most importantly, God’s word gives us a prescription for healing a guilty conscience, and that is obedience to the gospel of Christ.  Peter described baptism, which is a pivotal point in salvation, in this way: "Baptism now saves you – not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience – through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1Pet. 3:21).  Through baptism and obedience to the gospel, sinners can appeal to God and receive from Him a new, good conscience.  This is done when the blood of Christ is applied to sinners in order to "cleanse [their] conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Heb. 9:14).  Thus, our consciences are given a fresh start and a clean slate with the guilt of our past sins taken away.  Moreover, our consciences are given a fresh start in the same way as Paul was given a fresh start, for we can be certain of right and wrong through Christ’s gospel.

Therefore, let us follow God’s prescriptions for a good conscience.  Let us obtain good, clean consciences through obedience to the gospel of Christ, and let us keep them clean through continued faithfulness unto God (1John 1:9).  Let us train our consciences to be as sensitive when we a tempted as they would be after we have incurred the guilt of sin.  If we have sinned and our consciences are burning with guilt, then let us convert that guilt to godly sorrow and bring about the repentance that leads to life (2Cor. 7:10; Acts 11:18).  Let us keep our faith and our good consciences to the glory of God.

Stacey E. Durham




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