What you should know about your Conscience
Your conscience is your consciousness of what you believe is right and wrong. It’s a generally reliable instrument, so as a general rule you should follow your conscience.
But general rules have exceptions. That voice in your head is not necessarily God’s voice.
Sometimes your conscience may be theologically incorrect. That was the case for Christians in Rome in the middle of the first century. Some of those Christians had a weak conscience in three specific areas:
1. They ate only vegetables (Romans 14:2, 21).
2. They valued some days more than others (Romans 14:5a).
3. They abstained from wine (Romans 14:21; see also Romans 14:17).
So, you can have a weak conscience in a particular area — that is, you may be theologically incorrect (but not heretical) about a particular issue.
The terms “strong” and “weak” in Romans 15:1 imply that a strong conscience is more desirable than a weak one. Why wouldn’t you want your conscience to be as scripturally informed as possible?
Moving from weak to strong on a particular issue requires that you calibrate your conscience. Just like you may calibrate a clock or a scale that is a bit off, you may need to align your conscience with the standard of God’s Word so that it functions accurately.
Here we are in the modern age — the age of the Internet, smartphones, space travel, and heart transplants — and our problem is fundamentally the same as always: Our consciences condemn us and make us feel unacceptable to God. We are alienated from God. And our consciences bear witness.
We can cut ourselves, or throw our children in the sacred river, or give a million dollars to charity, or serve in a soup kitchen, or a hundred forms of penance or self-injury, and the result will be the same: The stain remains, and death terrifies.
We know that our conscience is defiled — not with external things like touching a corpse, a dirty diaper, or a piece of pork. Jesus said it is what comes out of a man that defiles, not what goes in (Mark 7:15–23). We are defiled by attitudes like pride and self-pity and bitterness and lust and envy and jealousy and covetousness and apathy and fear.
God graciously included an example in the Bible of someone calibrating their conscience: Peter in Acts 10:9–16. God gave Peter a vision of certain kinds of animals that the Old Testament forbade Jews to eat. The Lord Jesus commanded Peter, “Kill and eat.” Peter’s weak conscience revolted against this command: “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.”
When it came to eating unclean animals and fellowshipping with Gentiles, Peter’s faith was weak. But because Christ himself was commanding him, he had to calibrate his conscience so that he would have the faith to accept food and people that he was previously not able to accept.
That’s the difference between sinning against and calibrating your conscience.
Your conscience is the inward testimony of God’s law written on your heart (Romans 2:15); it is like a microphone to God’s law, so that no one can ever say before God, “I didn’t know I was sinning” (Romans 2:16). The unbelieving suppress the truth of God within them (Romans 1:18), but this is no excuse for not knowing God, because the conscience, more like an undying worm than a cricket, regularly reports to them that they are sinning against God’s law.
Many of us are familiar with Martin Luther’s heroic statement at the Diet of Worms when called upon to recant his teaching. “Unless I am convinced by sacred Scripture, or by evident reason, I cannot recant, for my conscience is held captive by the word of God, and to act against conscience is neither right nor safe.”
Today, we rarely hear any reference to the conscience. Yet throughout church history, the best Christian thinkers spoke about the conscience regularly. Thomas Aquinas said the conscience is the God-given inner voice that either accuses or excuses us in terms of what we do. John Calvin spoke of the “divine sense” that God puts into every person, and part of that divine sense is the conscience. And when we turn to Scripture, we find that our consciences are a significant aspect of God’s revelation to us.
We don’t want to hear the judgment of conscience; we want to destroy the judgment of conscience. That’s our nature. The only antidote is knowing the mind of Christ. We need men and women whose consciences have been captured by the word of God. Thank God for his word. It exposes the lies we tell ourselves to make us feel better.
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