Why do we have a conscience? Is it always a good idea to follow your conscience? What does the Bible say about the human conscience?
We can all recall moments when we felt gripped by guilt because of something we did. We can also attest to times when we felt good—morally unapologetic—about something we did.
The human conscience is responsible for these feelings.
But what is the conscience? Why do we all have one?
The Bible holds the answer for anyone curious to know about this uniquely human component.
Read on to learn about the nature of the conscience, whether it should be followed and the inspiring purpose behind the conscience.
What is the Bible’s definition of conscience?
Probably the closest thing to a biblical definition comes from the apostle Paul:
“For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law . . . [they] show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them” (Romans 2:14-15, emphasis added throughout).
Based on this scripture, we can define the conscience as an inner witness that testifies to the rightness or wrongness of our actions. Put another way, the conscience is the part of your mind that makes judgments on your behavior. It either accuses or excuses you.
The conscience is the part of your mind that makes judgments on your behavior. It either accuses or excuses you.Most of us recognize when our consciences accuse us—we feel guilt and shame. When we feel neither and have no reservations about something we did, our consciences excuse us. For example, if someone were to return a lost wallet, he or she might say, “I have a clear conscience.”
The New Living Translation puts it, “They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right.” (Romans 2:15).
To use an analogy, think of the conscience as your personal referee. As you participate in the game of life, he stays on the sidelines. He paces up and down the court, closely observing every move—or choice—you make. His job is to monitor the game, not play it for you. He looks for rule violations. When he sees one, he blows a whistle or raises a flag. He is responsible for letting you know whenever a rule is broken.
The conscience works in much the same way. But can you always trust your conscience to faithfully carry out its job?
Is your conscience reliable?
A glance at world history hints at how unreliable the human conscience is.
Many of us are familiar with the notorious villains who have appeared on the global stage over the years. Sometimes we can feel perplexed when we consider their stories and atrocities. We wonder how people can act so wickedly without a flicker of moral doubt.
How can human beings commit heinous crimes—even against the young and innocent—seemingly without bothering their conscience?
This phenomenon will also be a factor in the future persecution of Christians. Jesus warned His followers that misguided consciences would be responsible for their deaths: “They [religious persecutors] will put you out of the synagogues; yes, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service” (John 16:2).
The inherent weakness in the human conscience is clearly seen from these examples.
Consciences reflect the values and beliefs of the individual.
Of course, values and beliefs come in all kinds of hues. From the darkest shades of immorality to the purest shades of righteousness, personal ideas about right and wrong cover a spectrum. Where we fall—which is influenced by a host of factors like family, education, experience, personality and choices—is what molds our conscience.
This explains why certain extremists commit gross evils for their “cause,” then—when questioned—insinuate a willingness to do it again given the opportunity. Under the right conditions, the human conscience reaches a state where it permits—or worse, encourages—evil.
The lesson is that the human conscience is not a sufficient compass in and of itself.
Scripture teaches this principle again and again. Human beings are severely limited in their ability to discern true beliefs and values on their own. The Bible, therefore, strongly warns against self-reliance for moral direction.
Proverbs 14:12 says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.”
In Jeremiah 17:9, the prophet admonished, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?”
This is a result of the decision our first parents made in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve turned away from the complete revelation of God regarding morality. They chose instead to adopt their own values and beliefs regarding right and wrong—good and evil. All of their descendants have followed suit. The result has been inadequate ideas, rooted in the limited human perspective, that have laid the groundwork for a corrupted conscience.
The conscience is intended to be a moral guidance system, but by itself it is prone to error and can lead us morally astray.
What should you do then?
However, all is not lost. God installed a conscience into human beings for a reason, as we will see. The good news is that the human conscience can—and should—be educated and trained.
Let’s go back to the analogy of your conscience as a referee.
We can all be immensely grateful that virtually every professional sporting event or competition requires a certified referee. But for the sake of illustration, imagine a terribly inexperienced referee. Imagine a referee with only an elementary understanding of the game—or who has never even read the rulebook.
He would fail to blow the whistle when you broke a rule. He would overlook violations. He would let fouls slide. Knowing which plays were legal and which were illegal would stump him. Undoubtedly, he would struggle to make accurate judgments on challenging calls.
Now think about the flip side.
Imagine a thoroughly educated referee who knows the ins and outs of the game like the back of his hand. You could count on him to inform you when you do something illegal. You could trust his willingness to faithfully enforce the rules. You know he would promptly call fouls, catch violations and determine when you step out of bounds.
The same principle applies to the human conscience. What makes a good moral conscience is a proper moral education. Without one, the conscience becomes like the untrained referee.
Fortunately, God offers a robust education on the rules of life through His Word. These rules are expressed broadly through the 10 Commandments and other principles found throughout the Bible (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
When someone diligently studies and applies the Word of God, which is God’s mind in print, his or her conscience becomes aligned with godly values. Naturally, godly behavior will follow if one chooses to yield to such a conscience.
Undoubtedly, this is what God wanted from the ancient Israelites. Notice what He told them to do regarding His commandments: “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up” (Deuteronomy 6:7).
In other words, He wanted their consciences to be educated in His way so they could educate their children’s consciences in that way.
Elsewhere, God says to “bind” His instructions around your neck and “write them on the tablet of your heart” (Proverbs 3:3). If they are followed, God promises “length of days and long life” and “peace”—both of which are made possible by a strong moral guidance system (verses 1-2).
The effectiveness of an individual’s conscience depends on his or her learning and committing to follow God’s principles.
The divine purpose of the conscience
God’s plan is to bring people into His eternal family (Hebrews 2:10). However, in order to accomplish this magnificent purpose, He requires every individual to develop the mind and character of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 4:13).
The conscience plays an integral role in that process.
And the conscience conforms accordingly.
Thus, it becomes possible for the Christian to make truly good decisions. Armed with a godly conscience, the Christian is able to accurately assess himself or herself for any wrongdoing. If sin is identified, it will produce guilt, which leads to repentance and self-correction.
This is the divine and awesome purpose of the human conscience: to aid our decision-making, facilitate our response to sin, and provide a witness that we are developing the character of Jesus Christ.
May we all strive to be able to say, like the apostle Paul, “I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day” (Acts 23:1).