The Troubled Conscience

by | Mar 1, 2016

The troubled conscience

Tony Payne

We all know the feeling of a pang in our conscience. But how are we to understand what ‘conscience’ really is, and what place it has in our Christian lives? Tony Payne looks at both how our society misunderstands conscience, and at the liberating biblical vision of a clean and healthy conscience.

There’s a story in the book of Samuel that beautifully captures the universal human experience we call ‘conscience’.

Saul and his soldiers are hunting for the once-beloved but now renegade David. Saul goes in to a cave to see a man about a dog (as we might say), not realizing that this is the very cave in which David and his small band of men are hiding. Deep in the cave, David’s men point out the obvious—that David will never get a better chance than this to kill the corrupt and deranged king that Saul has become.

David creeps up quietly to Saul, no doubt with conflicting thoughts and emotions. But he cannot bring himself to kill him. He just cuts off a corner of Saul’s robe, presumably while Saul is busy doing what he is doing. Afterwards David feels terrible even for having done this, for dishonouring Saul in this way. And the King James Version records his feelings like this: “And it came to pass afterward, that David’s heart smote him, because he had cut off Saul’s skirt” (1 Sam 24:5).

His heart smote him.

This is something we have all felt. As we creep up on something that we know in our guts we shouldn’t do, there comes a pang, a pain, a hotness, a flush of shame, a sense of guilt. Our heart smites us.

But of course, as often as not, we will still go ahead and do that thing we felt bad about. The flush of shame and guilt only intensifies as we do so, but then it fades after a time. We might even go back and do that thing again, and more than once, and find that the pang of guilt seems to diminish, almost as if we were desensitizing ourselves to it. By the time we’ve done that thing we felt was wrong half a dozen times, we tend not to feel so bad any more. As Mr Bennett says in the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice after realizing what a neglectful father he has been: “I’m heartily ashamed of myself, Lizzy. But don’t despair, it will pass … and no doubt more quickly than it should.”

What is that feeling when our heart smites us? Historically it has been described as our ‘conscience’, as a kind of inner moral umpire that blows the whistle and tells us that we have done (or are about to do) the wrong thing.

In one sense, that seems simple enough to understand, and we have all felt it.

But grasping what the conscience really is, and what place it has in our Christian lives, is not quite so simple. This is partly because we ourselves are complicated creatures. Some of us have ‘things on our conscience’ that seem to hang around, even after we know we have been forgiven; some of us have very tender or over-active consciences that smite us at the smallest provocation; and some of us have consciences that are alarmingly hard to wake up.

The other reason that ‘conscience’ is a slightly trick subject is that modern Western culture has taken a particular turn of mind on the subject of conscience over the past 200 years or so that has proved to be confusing, and a bit of a dead end.

In fact, before we look at what the Bible says about ‘conscience’, we should take some time to understand the confusion that our society experiences about conscience, and moral choices generally. It’s part of the air we breathe, and we can’t help but be infected by it.

Can the conscience vote?

Nothing exemplifies the state of our society’s thinking about morality generally, and ‘conscience’ particularly, more aptly than the phenomenon of the ‘conscience vote’. This is where members of political parties are given leave to vote according to their ‘consciences’ rather than having to vote along party lines. (As I write this, there is a push underway within the Australian parliament to allow MPs a ‘conscience vote’ on the subject of same-sex marriage.)

What does a ‘conscience vote’ imply? It must mean that each of the politicians has some inner sense of right and wrong, some form of moral intuition, that deserves to be heard and that might in some way be restricted or violated by being forced to toe the party line.

Why this personal sense of morality should only be allowed to shape a politician’s vote on some issues I am not sure. Surely there are many political questions about which individuals might have strong moral feelings. Does this mean that politicians have to ignore their consciences most of the time (which hardly sounds healthy, let alone right or consistent)?

It’s also hard to figure out how a vote should be the best method to determine a way forward on legislation that is a matter of ‘conscience’. If all the politicians have their own personal moral feelings about a particular issue—feelings that don’t run along party lines—how is toting up the number of people who feel one way rather than another a rational or fair way to determine what would make for the best policy?

The disturbing issue underlying the strange phenomenon of the ‘conscience vote’ is the confusion our culture experiences when having to work out whether anything is right or wrong, or good or bad. And this confusion—this loss of any sense of moral certainty—goes back a long way.

Losing touch with upstairs

Just over 200 years ago, there began a massive shift in the way Western society thought about most of the big questions of life, including morality and conscience. The consequences of that shift are now so totally normal to us that we tend not to realize how significant they are, nor how far we have drifted from the way people have thought about morality for most of human history.

To explain this change, I’d like to use an illustration that I first learned and adapted from Francis Schaeffer,1See particularly his Escape from Reason (IVP Classics, 2007). and which I have recently used elsewhere to discuss how our society deals with the question of religion and faith.2T Payne, Can we speak about Islam? (a free ebook available to members of

For most of human history, people have thought of all of reality as being like a grand house, with an upstairs and a downstairs and a staircase between the two.3T Payne, Can we speak about Islam? (a free ebook available to members of

‘Upstairs’ was the realm of God and all things spiritual and ideal. It was where ‘the good’ was to be found, and where moral virtues derived their character. ‘Downstairs’ was the world of nature, of physical matter and everyday reality, of human thought and rationality. And between the two was a broad ‘staircase’, whereby what was upstairs was related to what was downstairs.

Staircase pic1

Now different philosophies and religious faiths have offered strikingly different accounts of exactly what was ‘upstairs’, and what was ‘downstairs’, and how the two were related to one another (that is, what the staircase consisted of and how it worked). The account provided by the Bible is very different from the version supplied by, say, Platonic philosophy or by Islam.

In the theistic view, God created the downstairs. He gave it its character and nature based on what was upstairs—that is, on his own character and person—and he continued to act downstairs by his Spirit to sustain all that he made, and to communicate with downstairs in various times and different ways.

In Islam, the Quran and Muhammad are the key elements of the communicative staircase. In Christianity, the staircase par excellence is Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, whose word and will are revealed in the words of the Bible.

However, dating from the 18th century, the thinkers of the Enlightenment (and those that followed them) began to doubt whether there really was anything or anyone upstairs, and in particular whether there was any reliable staircase. They decided to stop using the staircase—which for them meant the Christian staircase of an authoritative Bible—and to try to work everything out from what they could see and experience and think about downstairs.

This emerging worldview, which we might call ‘secular humanism’, operated on the assumption that even if there was an eternal creator God up there somewhere, we had no access to him. The only true and reliable knowledge was what we had access to here and now in this world and this age (which is what the word ‘secular’ means). Rather than looking to the Church or the Bible for authoritative answers, it was up to us to figure it out. Humanity was in charge of the quest for true knowledge, not God or some religious authority (and so, ‘humanism’).

For secular humanism, this world and ourselves was all that we could truly and rationally know.

This shift in thinking had massive consequences. It meant, for example, that all religions were really just human ‘leaps of faith’—valiant (but ultimately doomed) attempts to bridge the gap that the demolition of the staircase had created.4I explore this consequence in the ebook mentioned above, Can we talk about Islam?.

It also meant that morality and ‘values’ (or ‘virtues’ as they would have put it) were untethered from any divine or absolute reference point. Right and wrong were no longer objective realities, determined by God, woven into the character of ‘downstairs’, and taught to us via the staircase. Morality was now a do-it-yourself exercise—something that we needed to work out for ourselves, based on rational thought about the nature of things, or intuition, or perhaps on what produced the best results.

Now, for many people then and since, this abandoning of an objective ‘upstairs’ reference point for morality had the smell of freedom about it. At last, there was no God in heaven telling me what to do or how to behave. Now I could chart my own course, live by my own lights, do what I want.

However, this ‘freedom’ didn’t turn out to be a freedom from all forms of morality, because the phenomenon and experience of morality stubbornly continued to exist. People continued to sense—very strongly—that certain things were good and others evil; that certain things were right and others wrong; that certain character traits were praiseworthy and others contemptible.

The only problem: How, in the absence of any objective reference point, could the ‘good’ and the ‘right’ and the ‘virtuous’ be determined? If there is no accessible God upstairs who determines the goodness (or otherwise) of things here downstairs, then how can even the categories of ‘good’ or ‘evil’ or ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ have any meaningful, universal content?

Staircase pic 2

One of the answers that emerged was to reframe what was meant by ‘conscience’. In the absence of any absolute or objective knowledge of good and evil (that is, with no access to ‘upstairs’), the best we could do was to “follow our conscience”. In the absence of a map or set of instructions issued from above, the conscience came to be seen as an inner moral compass.

Some viewed this moral compass in rational terms, as an aspect of our ability to think things through. By virtue of us being rational beings, and perceiving the value of certain actions as good and desirable, we could construct a framework of moral principles and justice that made rational sense. The ‘conscience’ was regarded as that part of our rational faculties that interfaced with these moral principles and policed our adherence to them.

Others saw conscience more as being based in feeling, intuition and personal choice rather than in rational thought. The inner moral guide felt (rather than thought) its way towards truth and goodness, and chose for itself what would constitute morality. This choose-what-you-feel Romanticism is very prominent the modern conception of conscience. It is beamed into us as we bathe in the screen-light of every rom-com, sit-com and offering of the Disney corporation.

Neither of these conceptions of conscience or morality have been particularly successful or consistent in solving the dilemma. The rationalist approach tries to arrive at universally applicable principles of human rights, but finds that these rights constantly conflict with one another. In the absence of any objective order of ‘good’, who is to say that your right to do a certain thing (e.g. the right to determine what I do with my body) should take precedence over the rights of others (e.g. the right of a 20-week-old foetus not to be killed)?

The intuitional or voluntarist approach likewise struggles to deal with the problem of conflicting feelings—if you strongly feel that you ought to be able to do a certain thing, what if I strongly feel that you shouldn’t? Whose feelings win when the proposed actions come into conflict?

All of this leads to the confused moral landscape we now find ourselves in, where, on the one hand, no-one is allowed to tell anyone what to do (it’s all just personal choice based on what my conscience feels to be right), but on the other hand, certain causes or issues have become absolute moral principles that everyone must agree with on pain of persecution (like same-sex marriage).

In sum, whether emphasizing head or heart or some confusing combination of the two, ‘conscience’ in modern Western culture has come to be seen as a personal, autonomous moral guide; as a somewhat hard-to-nail-down faculty that gives us access to what is good and right, in the absence of any objective morality derived from ‘upstairs’.

It’s important to be aware of this dominant train of thought in our society, because we can’t help but be shaped and influenced by it. It’s the currency of our personal day-to-day lives, and the lives of our neighbours and friends—because all of us still experience the personal wounding pain that comes with going against ‘conscience’. Even if most people in our culture aren’t really sure what conscience is, or how it relates to what is ‘right and wrong’, they still experience the hurt and shame that afflicts us when we go against our principles. The pain can be intense, and people go to quite extraordinary lengths to make it go away—to drown it, or soothe it, or in some way atone for it. But sadly, in the weird personalized world of ethics we now inhabit, there is no-one to forgive you when you fail to live up to the moral standards you’ve crafted for yourself. As many people keep discovering, forgiving yourself turns out to be much easier said than done.

Four heart-changing truths

Into this chaotic walled-off mess we’ve made for ourselves ‘downstairs’, the true God who made us and everything still speaks.

What does the God who created us with a conscience have to say about it?
Let’s look at it under four headings.

a. God’s world has a moral shape

It is no accident or trick of our senses that the world seems like a moral place. The Bible says that the world does indeed have a moral shape and order to it, because God made it that way. The world that God has created has his own character and wisdom woven into its very fabric. As Proverbs 8 puts it, the wisdom of God—which encompasses his love of righteousness and hatred of evil—was with God at the very beginning “like a master workman” when he created the heavens and the earth (Prov 8:22-31). This is the basis upon which Proverbs continually calls people to seek wisdom via the fear of Yahweh, because a good and flourishing life in God’s world will never be possible unless we understand the character and will of the one who made us and everything.

In other words, the Bible insists that what is ‘downstairs’ has indeed been shaped and ordered by what is ‘upstairs’; that morality is a real and objective element of the created order, not something that we impose upon it. Morality is not something that God has arbitrarily imposed on the creation—as if he might just as easily declared stealing to be right and good if he had felt like it at the time. The moral order is not an artificial matrix overlaid on the brute raw material of creation. It is part of the way the world actually is (which is why it can be observed by anyone, at least to some extent).

Just as there are certain regularities that we observe in nature and call ‘laws’, so there are laws or patterns of behaviour within the world that either conform to the way the world was created to be, or not.

The first is that we can see that some things are right or wrong, or good or bad, simply by thoughtful observation of their consequences. This is (in part) the message of the wisdom literature. Prudence and hard work are good; carelessness and laziness are bad. It doesn’t take divine revelation for us to see the truth of this ‘wisdom’, because the effects of the different forms of behaviour are so obvious. The same can be said of adultery versus delighting in your own wife; or gentle and apt speech versus malicious or gossipy speech. The goodness and rightness of one kind of behaviour is obvious by its pleasant, satisfying, life-giving consequences (and vice versa).

However, this form of observation and the general moral truths it might reveal only go so far—which is in fact another truth that the wisdom literature insists upon. The world is also often confusing, opaque and impossible to fathom (as Job and Ecclesiastes in particular remind us). We cannot see the whole, nor understand all that is good or right. For that we depend on God’s own speech to us about himself and the world: at many times and in various ways through the prophets (that is, in the Old Testament), and finally and completely through his Son Jesus Christ (in the New Testament). Paradigmatically in the law and the prophets, and finally and completely in the person, word and works of Christ, we see the created moral order revealed, explained and exemplified.

There is a staircase, in other words. There is a reliable, trustworthy and readily available means of knowing what is ‘good’ and ‘right’ (and ‘evil’ and ‘wrong’) because God has made it known: in creation itself, through Israel and finally through Jesus Christ.

b. We are morally aware people

Every human culture experiences the impulse to label some actions or attitudes as ‘good’ or ‘right’ and others as ‘evil’ or ‘wrong’. This shouldn’t surprise us, because we ourselves are part of the moral order that God has created. We are morally aware beings. The categories of good and evil make sense to human beings everywhere, and this too is part of the way God has made us.

By rejecting God and his order, humans manage to get themselves terribly confused about what constitutes right and wrong, and about how we should determine the content of morality. And of course, we also by nature have a powerful impulse to rebel against God and all that he stands for, including his moral will for our lives.

However, whatever moral code or framework we have—and everyone has one—when we go against it we feel an inner pang or pain. ‘Conscience’ is actually a common word the Bible uses to describe the part of us that experiences this hurt.5It is not as if every description of this phenomenon in the Bible uses the word ‘conscience’. Passages which speak of shame, guilt, sorrow, grief, remorse, and so on are also very relevant. The pain of conscience is the tearing sound of our moral principles and our actual moral choices parting company.

In this sense, conscience in the Bible is like a judge that passes sentence on us, and punishes us emotionally because we’ve gone against our moral principles. And, like a judge, conscience is only really active when a crime has been committed. Judges don’t roam the streets shaking people’s hands when they do the right thing. Conscience is also like that—we don’t tend to feel it when are just motoring along, doing fine, and acting in accord with our moral values. We only sense our conscience becoming active when we go against our standards of what is right and wrong. Otherwise, our conscience leaves us alone, and we say that ‘our conscience is clear’. (See Rom 2:15 and 9:1 for a couple of examples of the word being used in this way, both positively and negatively.)

It is important to note, then, that according to the Bible our consciences don’t make the law, any more than a judge does (the recent actions of the US Supreme Court notwithstanding). Our conscience is more like a judge than a lawmaker. Conscience doesn’t discover what the good is, or what constitutes right and wrong. It just pronounces against you when you’ve broken whatever you perceive the law to be, or gives you a pass if you don’t.

Now this of course is partly why our society is so confused about morality and conscience. We have this inner judge that accuses us, and that continues to remind us that we are moral beings and that moral actions matter to us. In some cases we can even observe and perceive the moral order implicit in the creation—although not consistently or accurately, because of our own blindness and prejudices.6For example, nearly everyone in our culture would morally recoil at the cold-blooded murder of a two-week old baby, but a significant number of people in our community no longer recoil at the cold-blooded murder of that same baby at 26 weeks in utero. However, having cut all ties with God, and without any sort of objective lawmaker or morality, our inner judge has no consistent lawbook. It’s as if the judge goes to consult the law and the shelf where the books are supposed to be has been largely cleared out. In its place is a confused jumble of half-truths and personal preferences that are in constant flux, some of which may be accurate and some of which are all over the place.

Even so, we still feel pain when we transgress against these principles we’ve constructed for ourselves (or that have been constructed for us through social convention, the education system, and the influence of our family and peers). And we’re uncertain what to do with these feelings. We feel divided against ourselves. Even though our culture keeps telling us that we are free to be and to do whatever we want to be and do, we keep bumping up against the painful reality that we can’t even consistently be the people we’ve decided that we want to be.

Now this understanding of what ‘conscience’ is—the judge who afflicts us emotionally when we transgress our principles—is broadly the meaning that the everyday Greek word suneidesis (usually translated ‘conscience’) had in the literature of New Testament times.7CA Pierce, Conscience in the New Testament, SCM, London, 1955. Pierce’s classic work has its shortcomings, but his basic insight about the nature of suneidesis in Greek literature, and the way the New Testament takes up this use of the word still stands. For a more nuanced account that builds on Pierce, see C Maurer, ‘suneidesis’, in G Friedrich (ed.), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1964-74, VII, p. 914ff.

But the Bible introduces a quite revolutionary and liberating idea—that it might be possible to have a good or cleansed conscience.

c. A good or clean conscience is now possible

In the Bible, the first step to a good conscience is to gain a thoroughly bad conscience.8For a thorough and excellent discussion of how God awakens and afflicts our consciences as we become conscious of our sin, before cleansing our consciences through the Spirit-applied gospel, see chapters 5-7 in Christopher Ash’s Pure Joy(IVP, Nottingham, 2012). The whole book is worth reading.

It all starts when, by the work of God’s Spirit, our mind begins to get in touch with moral reality. We hear God’s word and it dawns on us that it is true—that God is indeed the creator of the world and our lord and maker; that he is good, loving, righteous and holy; that he has made us to live a certain way; and that we have consistently chosen to ignore him, to go our own way, and to flout the way he says we should live in his world. We realize not only that there is a moral order, but that everything about us tends in the opposite direction. We perceive not only that there is such a thing as ‘bad’, but that being bad is our natural modus operandi.

When this hits home, our conscience smites us. It accuses us as never before, and rightly so. We feel grieved with a deep sorrow, not only that we have done wrong things, but that our whole lives have been lived ‘in the wrong’. We have rebelled against the totality of God and his moral order.

This realization, and the awful pain in the conscience that it causes, are the first steps in a most wonderful liberation. The same Word that tells us just how much in the wrong we are also declares that God has done something to put us in the right—to obliterate our guilt and shame by providing complete forgiveness of sins through the death of his Son on the cross.

Through what Jesus has done, an extraordinary and unheard of possibility opens up—that of a genuinely clear conscience:

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. (Heb 10:19-22)

The gospel is the news that the messed up divided self we have—that can’t meet even our own standards let alone God’s—can now be healed and cleansed and made whole again. We can now have a conscience that is fully informed of how much we have transgressed, and yet stands fresh and joyful before God, because that same God has removed our transgressions from us as far as the east is from the west.

d. Heads and hearts are changed

The new relationship we have with God through the gospel puts us back in touch with moral reality—with what the world really is like, what we are really like, where everything is going and what everything is for. By the Spirit opening our eyes and overturning our rebellious heart, we find ourselves in a new moral landscape; or rather in the one that was always there but which we failed to see.

As we see more of that reality, and as the truth of it penetrates and transforms our mind, so too our hearts and desires change—falteringly, never perfectly, but with unmistakable power. We start to want different things. We start to realize what truly is good and right and, rather than our hearts running from that realization, we find ourselves wanting to embrace it.

Our conscience still afflicts us, because we still fail. But the liberating possibility that the Bible holds out is of a cleansed and rightly educated conscience. We no longer have to put up with a blundering inner judge who only has a jumbled and distorted set of laws and principles to go by. We can now have a conscience that rightly excuses or rightly accuses us, according to the moral reality that is really there.

Conscience and Christian living

What place does the cleansed and renovated conscience have in the ongoing Christian life?

There’s far more to say than there is space here to say it in, but let’s look at three aspects of how conscience functions in daily Christian living.

a. Respecting conscience

If our minds and hearts and consciences have been liberated by the Word and Spirit, why do Christians still have differing consciences? And what do we do with this? Should we just ignore conscience (since it’s more of a feeling than an objective moral truth) and just plough on?

Paul deals with this issue in 1 Corinthians 8-10 (and in Romans 14, although without using the word ‘conscience’). In both instances, the problem was over which foods Christians could or should eat. In both instances, Christians felt differently on the question at the level of conscience. And in both instances Paul differentiates between the objective moral truth—that in reality all foods are clean and able to be eaten—and the different experiences of conscience that Christians have. (Some could eat anything without a care in the world; others had real pangs of guilt or conscience if they ate certain foods.)

Paul’s clear advice in both cases is that we shouldn’t go against our consciences. This is because we’re all at different levels of maturity in our understanding of what is good and right and true in God’s world. Our inner judge may now have access to God’s ‘lawbook’, but our grasp of that lawbook is never perfect. We all have a way to go in educating our consciences; some of us have further to go than others.

So in the case of the Corinthian and Roman Christians, those who had figured out that all foods were indeed clean had a truer grasp of the moral reality of things than those who still labored under the restrictions of various food laws. Nevertheless, Paul encourages those who genuinely believed that certain foods were forbidden not to go ahead and eat and offend their consciences, because to do so would be to act faithlessly and disobediently in their hearts towards God. And correspondingly, he urges those whose consciences gave them no trouble when eating certain foods to be considerate and caring of the ‘weaker brothers’.

It’s important to note that Paul is talking here about issues that don’t constitute sin in themselves. You can celebrate a day or not celebrate a day; or eat certain foods or not; or drink certain drinks or not. These things aren’t righteous or unrighteous in themselves, and we should be considerate of one another’s differences on such matters. However, we wouldn’t be able to say the same thing about adultery or stealing or greed or same-gender sex—as if we might agree to disagree about whether such things were acceptable, and leave room for one another’s consciences. In fact, just a few chapters earlier in 1 Corinthians, Paul warns his readers not to be deceived about those who practise such things. His warning is very blunt indeed: they will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9-10).

Now, might it be possible for people to engage in such unrighteous behavior, and for their consciences to give them a pass? Is it possible for the mind and the conscience to become darkened or faulty?

b. Don’t always trust conscience

Like every other part of us, the conscience isn’t perfect. Sometimes (as we’ve just seen) it can be poorly informed or educated. But sometimes, like most parts of us, the conscience itself can be faulty.

i. The seared conscience.

We all know the experience of becoming too accustomed to doing that thing we know we shouldn’t do. Our conscience hurts us the first time we transgress, but if we ignore that grief and suppress it, we may find it hurts a little less the second time, and still less the third, and so on. (This of course is where we need one another to issue a note of warning or rebuke or admonishment. The voice of a concerned brother can be just the thing we need if we are ignoring the voice of our conscience.)

If that pattern of beating down our conscience continues long enough, the conscience may effectively become desensitized or, as the Bible puts it, “seared” (1 Tim 4:2) It becomes numb. It no longer feels the pain. It is able to bear with the hypocrisy of believing one thing but doing another, and no longer be grieved by it.

This is one all-too-common variety of faulty conscience, but some people suffer almost the opposite problem.

ii. The tender conscience

Some people have a conscience so sensitive and tender that the smallest transgression causes real anguish. People with tender consciences can experience intense shame and guilt even if the crime is very minor, or even if no crime has really been committed at all.

The tender or over-active conscience will sometimes refuse to believe that it is possible to be forgiven; or else it may acknowledge the truth of forgiveness but feel little of its relief.

As with most emotional difficulties, the causes of an overly tender conscience are complex, and often bound up in wounds experienced in our family life (especially in our upbringing).

But as with all human weaknesses, God can heal and strengthen the tender conscience—if not totally in this life, then at least in part. With good teaching and prayer and patient reassurance in loving fellowship, the frail conscience can become more robust.

c. Don’t ignore conscience

As Christians, our consciences will keep operating, will keep blowing the whistle on us, will keep grieving us, and for very good reason—because we will keep doing the wrong thing. In this sense, the conscience is like a God-implanted alarm bell that we ignore to our peril.9I am grateful to Christoper Ash for this image.

Now sometimes it may be a false alarm (because our conscience is still ill-informed), or perhaps the alarm might be too weak or too loud.

But the alarming pain that comes from our conscience in most instances presents us with a choice. We can respond to the sorrow of having done the wrong thing by repenting, or we can ignore or drown the pain and continue on in sin, with all the dreadful consequences that follow.

As Paul puts it:

As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. (2 Cor 7:9-10)

The Christian response to a grieved conscience is first to check that our conscience is not deceiving us. But then it is to repent, to turn back, to put our trust (once again) in the Lord Jesus Christ, and to experience (all over again) the joy and liberation of a cleansed conscience.

Read. Watch. Listen.

References   [ + ]

1. See particularly his Escape from Reason (IVP Classics, 2007).
2, 3. T Payne, Can we speak about Islam? (a free ebook available to members of
4. I explore this consequence in the ebook mentioned above, Can we talk about Islam?.
5. It is not as if every description of this phenomenon in the Bible uses the word ‘conscience’. Passages which speak of shame, guilt, sorrow, grief, remorse, and so on are also very relevant.
6. For example, nearly everyone in our culture would morally recoil at the cold-blooded murder of a two-week old baby, but a significant number of people in our community no longer recoil at the cold-blooded murder of that same baby at 26 weeks in utero.
7. CA Pierce, Conscience in the New Testament, SCM, London, 1955. Pierce’s classic work has its shortcomings, but his basic insight about the nature of suneidesis in Greek literature, and the way the New Testament takes up this use of the word still stands. For a more nuanced account that builds on Pierce, see C Maurer, ‘suneidesis’, in G Friedrich (ed.), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1964-74, VII, p. 914ff.
8. For a thorough and excellent discussion of how God awakens and afflicts our consciences as we become conscious of our sin, before cleansing our consciences through the Spirit-applied gospel, see chapters 5-7 in Christopher Ash’s Pure Joy(IVP, Nottingham, 2012). The whole book is worth reading.
9. I am grateful to Christoper Ash for this image.
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