The lead counsel, a renowned academic and lawyer, while applying for a review of a ruling by the Ghanaian national Supreme Court not to reopen a case, implored its judges to make its decision based on their conscience and judicial oath. Up until this point, the petitioner had suffered seven successive unanimous rulings against his request for different reviews. The lawyer maintained that “the Holy Bible should guide the nine justices reviewing the case, quoting Hosea 8:7.
“It states: ‘For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.’ ”1
The lawyer’s message to the court judges attracted diverse media reactions and resonated well with much of the Ghanaian public.
We expect institutions such as the judiciary, political organizations, businesses, and clergy to be guided by sound moral sense. Unfortunately, in today’s world, that is rarely the case. Personal preferences and biases seem to guide our sense of justice in society and the church.2 What is needed are clear consciences, devoid of evil thoughts and conflicting distortions of truth. The question is, In the face of relentless bombardment by countless views and opinions, are our consciences guided by Scripture or by individual preference?
Relativism: The order of the day
We live in a pluralistic society that makes moral rightness or wrongness subject to individual choices and decisions. No one standard or rule regulates human behavior. Postmodernism promotes the idea that people have the power to maintain and live what they consider to be true and ethical without considering its relevance to the larger public. Thus, no normative worldview or interpretative idea seems binding on everyone. Society postulates relativism (the belief that knowledge, truth, and morality exist only in relation to culture, community, or historical context) and nihilism (the rejection of all religious and moral principles).3
We encourage individual preference over universal values. However, encouraging individual values calls for a good conscience to decide what is morally sound and relative. The world needs people with clear consciences who are guided by the Bible to make moral decisions. Author Ellen G. White echoed this: “The greatest want of the world is the want of those men and women who will not be bought or sold, those who in their inmost souls are true and honest, those who do not fear to call sin by its right name, those whose conscience is as true to duty as the needle to the pole, those who will stand for the right though the heavens fall.”4 Especially in a relativistic society, each Christian should be guided by a conscience rooted in the will of the Holy Spirit.
What is conscience?
Conscience is the ability to employ perception, awareness, or contemplation in all facets of life. It calls for a moral responsibility rooted in self-assessment. When conscience is guided by God’s Word, adjudicated by Jesus, and supervised by the Spirit, one may depend on the conscience to serve as a moral compass, counselor, and guide.5
How, then, do we allow our consciences to speak and direct our personal decision-making especially when, in a relativistic world, individuals judge everything based on their own “unguided” consciences? Commenting on the last days as presented in 2 Timothy 3:1–9, theologian and author William MacDonald states, “Outwardly, these people seem religious. They make a profession of Christianity, but their actions speak louder than their words. By their ungodly behavior, they show that they are living a lie. There is no evidence of the power of God in their lives. While there might have been reformation, there never was regeneration.”6 It is a sad testimony of our time. Many pretend to be what they are not. They may present an external resemblance to Christianity, but they have an internal absence of God’s power in their lives.
Sadly, too many of us have centered our religious efforts on conforming outwardly but have had no real transformation of inner nature or character. Although we are supposed to be agents of change, we are sorely in need of change ourselves.
Conscience and the Bible
The word conscience does not explicitly appear in the Old Testament, but the Old Testament uses the word heart (lev) to depict self-awareness, emotions, or judgments. Scripture depicts the heart as the seat of conscience, feelings, remorse, obligation, or inner judgment (1 Sam. 24:5; 25:31; 2 Sam. 24:10). After counting the people for a self-serving census, David’s heart “struck” him, and he expressed a guilty or troubled conscience (2 Sam. 24:10, ESV). Job declared, “ ‘I hold fast to my righteousness, and I will not let it go; my heart will not blame any of my days’ ” (Job 27:6, LEB). “My heart” here suggests a clear conscience.7
The Septuagint employed the Greek syneidēsis or “conscience” in different places, such as Ecclesiastes 10:20, which talks about one’s hidden, internal thoughts (cf. Job 27:6; Lev. 5:1; Wisdom 17:11; Sirach 42:18). The Latin Vulgate also uses the word conscientia in Genesis 43:22 and Ecclesiastes 7:23. The Greek term syneidēsis, “conscience,” appears about 30 times in the New Testament, with 20 occurrences in the Pauline writings—11 are in 1 Corinthians. Here conscience implies one’s moral self-understanding, self-awareness, bad feeling or guilt, or sense of right or wrong (Rom. 2:15; 9:1; 2 Cor. 1:12; 4:2; 5:11). Speaking about the prodigal son, the Bible says, “He came to himself” (Luke 15:17, KJV). When he came to his senses, or became self-aware, it brought transformation and change in his outlook on life. He returned to his father to confess his sins, resulting in restoration to the family he had earlier rejected.
Paul says in Acts 23:1, “ ‘I have lived my life in all good conscience before God to this day’ ” (LEB), and in Acts 24:16, he states, “ ‘I always do my best to have a clear conscience toward God and men’ ” (HCSB). That should be the believer’s way of life, striving to live in harmony with God’s will.8
Further, Paul urges believers to maintain a pure conscience, devoid of any willful violation that affects their wholeness and integrity. He presents conscience as a moral compass that should direct Christian attitude and behavior (1 Cor. 10). For example, he admonished believers not to ask questions concerning food sold in the meat market “for the sake of conscience” (v. 25, MEV; cf. v. 27). However, “if someone says to you, ‘This is offered to idols,’ do not eat it, for the sake of that one who informed you and your own conscience. . . . For why is my freedom judged by another’s conscience?” (vv. 28, 29, LEB). While he draws a line between conscience and morality, the former may not be the ultimate standard of moral goodness. For example, a clear conscience (e.g., 2 Cor. 1:12) may not imply faultlessness before God, the ultimate Judge (1 Cor. 4:4; Acts 5:2, 3).
Nevertheless, conscience has a role in shaping character.9 It requires the Christian to be guided by a clear conscience when making decisions. A decision based on personal preferences may result in living perpetually with a distorted conscience.
Land mines related to conscience
Questions raised by theologians Michael Hasel and Frank Hasel may be relevant to the discussion on conscience and biblical authority: “How do we avoid the misuse and distortion of Scripture? How do we handle unstable people who twist the meaning of God’s Word?”10
Some have appealed to their conscience in their refusal to get vaccines, despite the consequences (job dismissal, health deterioration, and untimely death). This is their right. Some have employed biblical passages in defense of their individual preferences—a practice that may ignore the verses’ actual context. This is not right. One may agree that not getting a vaccine is a matter of conscience without concurring that getting it violates the Word of God.
Throughout history, many have perpetrated unethical activities against others in the name of God and religion. Secular and religious leaders who have committed heinous crimes, such as slavery and abuse, have often done so with a clear conscience. Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians of something like “let your conscience be your guide” (1 Cor. 10:29) may be appropriate here. This is what may be considered the judgment from within (conscience). He says, “I do not even judge myself” (1 Cor. 4:3, NKJV) because he is fully aware of the fallible nature of one’s conscience and how individual self-evaluation could be misleading.
When people are misinformed, they can have clear consciences yet still be wrong. Some Christians subscribe to beliefs and practices not found in the Word of God. They may have clear consciences in practicing such teachings, but the beliefs are still contrary to Scripture. People occupying high positions within the church may use their office to commit evil against their subordinates and may lack the conscience and decency to acknowledge their errors.
Decisions made by contemporary leadership may have been the result of being illinformed, but when the truth becomes more explicit, are we able to do the right thing to clear our consciences? Be sure that you can stand by today’s decisions in years to come without living with a guilty conscience. John’s admonition to the Christian community is timely: “[For we are in God’s hands.] For He is above and greater than our consciences (our hearts), and He knows (perceives and understands) everything [nothing is hidden from Him]. And, beloved, if our consciences (our hearts) do not accuse us [if they do not make us feel guilty and condemn us], we have confidence (complete assurance and boldness) before God” (1 John 3:20, 21, AMPC).
Conscience and pastoral care
The shaping and formation of our consciences are lifelong endeavors influenced by pastors and teachers, church and school, parents and friends, and mentors and society or culture. Conscience may not be the direct voice of God or an infallible guide, and cultivating conscience “is not due to special favors or endowments of Providence. A noble character is the result of self-discipline, of the subjection of the lower to the higher nature—the surrender of self for the service of love to God and humanity.”11
Pastoral care necessitates a well-cleansed conscience to serve as a moral guide on life’s journeys. The age in which we live requires a cultivated, calibrated, refined, and informed conscience to stand the tests of the times. Our consciences should prick us to do the right thing and avoid dishonest options. Guided by the Holy Spirit, the conscience will prioritize courageous moral consideration over spineless ungodly relativism.
Allow the Holy Spirit to shape and form your conscience through daily communion with God. Maintain a healthy conscience, and instruct those with weak consciences (1 Cor. 8:7) to renew their minds in accordance with the Word of God. A conscience honed by the Holy Spirit will hold the Christian to duty.
- “Tsatsu Quotes Bible for Supreme Court Justices to Rule in His Favour,” GhanaWeb, February 22, 2021, https://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/NewsArchive/Tsatsu-quotes-Bible-for-Supreme-Court-justices-to-rule-in-his-favour-1186108.
- See Orathai (Saw) Chureson, “Choosing Leadership,” Ministry, February 2022, 14–17.
- Norman R. Gulley, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, Prolegomena (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2003), 479, 487, 488.
- Ellen G. White, True Education (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 2000), 38.
- Lexham Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Conscience” (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
- William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments, ed. A. Farstad (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1995), 2120.
- Robert W. Wall, “Conscience,” in The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1992), 1128.
- Cf. 1 Cor. 8:7–13; 10:23–30; Rom. 14:23; 1 Tim. 1:5, 19; 3:9; 4:2; 2 Tim. 1:3; Titus 1:15; Heb. 8:10; 9:14; 10:16, 22; 13:18; 1 Pet. 2:19; 3:16.
- See Lexham Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Conscience.”
- Michael G. Hasel and Frank M. Hasel, How to Interpret Scripture (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 2019).
- White, True Education, 39.