Someone once defined a conscience as “that still small voice that makes you feel still smaller.” Parts of this definition may be close to the truth but the whole picture of the human conscience is not captured in this definition. The following essay will present scriptural information that gives a comprehensive understanding of what the conscience is, and what the conscience does.
Adam had a conscience as part of the spiritual equipment God designed and provided for His creature. A conscience is somewhat analogous to a computer. The computer is designed to accurately store and recall data (information) almost instantaneously. The conscience stores information that becomes immediately available through one’s thoughts (Rom. 2:15).
Continuing the analogy, Adam’s conscience was initially like a computer without any programming software. God programmed Adam’s conscience by His good command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 3:17). Violating God’s command would program evil into Adam’s conscience and be revealed to Adam through his thoughts. One thought might be that Adam was now, himself, capable of judging good and evil by using himself as the standard.
Adam ate, recognized he was naked, became afraid—his sin and conscience at work—and covered himself in fig leaves (Gen. 3:1-7).
The final evidence of Adam’s conscience at work was revealed by God’s question, “Who told you that you were naked?” (Gen. 3:11). Quite naturally, Adam’s just-programmed-with-evil conscience had informed him through his thought life that he was naked.
Now fast-forward to the congregation of Israel about to enter the land from their wilderness wanderings. Moses called attention to the little ones in the congregation, and described them as those “. . . who, this day, have no knowledge of good or evil . . .” (Deut. 1:39). To follow the computer analogy, the consciences of the little ones had yet to be programmed with good or evil.
Initially, fathers would discipline their children by a set of rules in the home which, if broken, carried consequences (cf. Heb. 12:9-10 for discipline from earthly fathers). Thus began the programming of a conscience.
As a Jewish child grew, the tenets of the Law were added to the rules of the home. The good information for programming would come from the Law (cf. Rom. 7:16). The evil information for programming would come from sin (cf. Rom. 7:14). Additional major sources of good and evil information for programming the little ones’ consciences would be family and friends.
Under the new covenant, God installs a new heart and spirit (Ezek. 36:26). On that new heart, God’s Spirit writes His law (2 Cor. 3:3; Rom. 2:15). The Spirit’s action likely programs the new heart with good. Other sources of good programming are family, the Bible, and other believers.
Since the new heart and new spirit will eventually be clothed in an immortal body (i.e., a body without sin), the conscience of a believer is active at the righteous judgment of God (Rom. 2:15-16).
Herein resides a theological enigma. How can an immortal body without sin (sin that is evil) have a conscience that accuses the believer through his thoughts on the basis of past evil deeds at the righteous judgment of God?
One answer might be that a believer’s memory will be the source of information about good and evil deeds done in his mortal body. Jesus’ illustration of the rich man and Lazarus shows that the dead rich man had a memory about his five living brothers (Luke 16:19-31).
One unique feature of this particular illustration is that Jesus used names of real people—Lazarus and Abraham—for the persons in His illustration. Note: Abraham, who lived and died long before Moses and the prophets, knew about both.
Another unique feature of the illustration is the strong parallelism between the illustration and Jesus’ actual resurrection of Lazarus. In fact, some portions of Jesus’ illustration became reality when Jesus did raise Lazarus from the dead. Some Pharisees, who had Moses and the prophets, wouldn’t listen to either of them exactly as in Jesus’ illustration. Finally, the Pharisees also were not persuaded by Lazarus’ resurrection as evidenced by their decision to kill Jesus (John 11:1-53).
Therefore, it’s likely that an immortal believer’s memory will contain his conscience. In turn, his conscience will inform the believer’s thought life at his righteous judgment of God.
Now, back to a newly reborn believer: his new spiritual equipment is housed in a body still inhabited permanently by sin—a spiritual computer virus—that programs the conscience with evil. As the believer matures, his senses are trained from God’s word to discern good and evil (Heb. 5:12). That training of his senses probably is stored in his memory.
Sin as a virus can be countered by God’s security software program consisting of the His Spirit Who can separate the virus’s input from the newly programmed conscience (cf. Rom. 8:13). Other sources of evil programming are public opinion, educational institutions, opinion polls, charismatic personalities, peers, secular seminars, and sometimes family.
Using another analogy, the apostle Paul revealed that the conscience can be “. . . seared . . . as with a branding iron” (1 Tim. 4:2). A branding iron leaves a permanent, identifiable mark. In the case of a conscience, that mark is likely evil as evidenced by evil deeds (aka as his works).
Perhaps a conscience can even “become callous” (Eph. 4:18). Probably a callous conscience is one that has simply become insensitive so it doesn’t transmit good or evil information to the individual’s thoughts.
A believer’s conscience can become defiled (1 Cor. 8:7). A defiled conscience likely transmits mixed messages of good contaminated with evil to the believer’s thought life.
The conscience can also be cleansed (Heb. 9:14). Cleansing is analogous to reprogramming a computer and can take place any time after installation of the new heart. Basic cleansing is from any and all of man’s evil inclinations; reprogramming is done by the Spirit exclusively with God’s good.
Finally, the function of the conscience in a believer is to bear witness to good or evil done by the believer. The witness is through his thoughts that alternately accuse or else defend him based on the works being evil or good respectively (Rom. 2:15; 7:24). In so doing, the conscience is like a built-in moral compass or GPS system; the display for the compass or GPS is the believer’s thoughts.
The goal of spiritual living is to keep a good conscience (Acts 23:1; 1 Pet. 3:16). Prayer to God for a good conscience is a one way to achieve that goal (1 Pet. 3:21). The other way is to aggressively avoid internal evil’s practices by the Spirit as well as to reject external evil packaged in all its nefarious forms.