“A Conscience without Offense
toward God and Man”
Introduction. (Acts 24:10-16). As Paul is accused by his
own Jewish countrymen, in our text he is allowed to answer before the Roman
governor Felix. We notice in the last verse of our reading his declaration that
he strives to have “a conscience” without offense toward God or man. The world
has many different notions about the “conscience” from some soft voice that
speaks inside our head, to a cute little cherub that appears on our shoulder. What
does Scripture teach about this part of the inner man that is called the
“conscience?” Tonight let’s study together what the Bible would teach us
about the human conscience.
I. Meaning of the Word
“Conscience.” The word “conscience” is actually a Greek concept
which comes into the Bible story when Greek becomes the language of the ancient
world. Most translations don’t use the word “conscience” in the Old Testament
because the Hebrew text speaks in terms of the “heart” and not the
A. Conceptual etymology.
The term “conscience” was born from the Greek word sunoida which
literally means “to know-with” something. It first was applied to a witness in
court who had personal knowledge of something, then came to have a reflexive
sense of knowing one’s self (see Kittel, Vol. 7, p. 898). It is interesting how
often this judicial sense is retained in Scripture. Paul will speak of the
“testimony” of the “conscience” (2 Cor. 1:12).
1. Properly, the conscience is not something distinct from our inner man,
but the knowledge we have regarding our own thoughts, attitudes, and behavior.
This is seen in Paul’s description of the conscience “bearing witness” within
one’s self, so that the thoughts of a person “accuse” or “excuse” him or her
regarding one’s behavior (Rom. 2:15).
2. The New
Testament word suneidesis “knowing-with [one’s self],” is reflected in
our English word which comes from the Latin word conscientia meaning
“knowledge-with [one’s self].”
B. The “Heart” and the “Conscience.” While the Old
Testament does not properly use the idea of the “conscience” the same concept
is expressed in terms of the “heart.”
is the soul with a “pure heart” that can approach God in worship (Psalm 24:3-4).
His sin with Bathsheba, David prays to God “create in me a clean heart” (Psalm
heart can be “troubled” when one feels that they have done wrong (1 Samuel
24:4-5). The NASB translates this “conscience” but it is literally his “heart.”
soul willing to do what he knows (or believes) to be wrong is described as
having “stiffened his neck and hardened his heart against turning to the Lord”
(2 Chronicles 36:13).
New Testament uses both concepts in juxtaposition (1 Timothy 1:3-7). Paul acts
from a “pure heart” and a “good conscience.”
makes it clear that “the heart” and the “conscience” are simply two different
ways of describing the conviction of the soul.
II. Conviction and
Defilement of the Conscience.
A. One may be
“convicted” by the conscience (John 8:7-9).
This is what Acts 2:37 calls being “cut to the heart.” They understood that
they were not right with God, and they acted to remedy this problem.
following the conscience does not make one right with God. One can be
condemned in what he approves (Romans 14:22). For example…
1. Paul lived in “good
conscience” while persecuting the church (Acts 23:1).
it is always sin to go against one’s conscience.
C. Violating one’s conscience
1. To a
conscience that is “defiled” (Titus 1:15).
2. To a
conscience that is “seared with a hot iron” (1 Timothy 4:2).
3. Our faith
to suffer “shipwreck” (1 Timothy 1:19). Instead…
D. Christians must maintain a “pure conscience” (1
Timothy 3:9; 2 Timothy 1:3). Our understanding of God’s word may be
insufficient, causing us to be mistaken in our convictions, but we must never
act against what we believe to be right.
III. Romans and First Corinthians on the Conscience.
A. The book of Romans is addressed to Christians
in the church in Rome, most of whom had come to Christ from a Jewish
background. This is seen in many places in the book.
1. In chapter fourteen
Paul addresses two issues that would have been struggles for Jewish brethren
who wrestling with their responsibility to the Old Law, now that they had come
to Christ: foods and observance of Mosaic holy days (Romans 14:1-7). What
must the Jewish Christian do? Do you follow Mosaic dietary laws? Do you keep
Mosaic holy days?
a. In Christ,
Paul told the Colossians these things are no longer obligations (Colossians
2:16-17). He echoes the same thing in Romans 14:14a, declaring, “I know and am
convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself.” That is
the Divine revelation on the matter—but, what must be the reaction towards
those who don’t fully understand this?
2. First we must note
that Paul is not talking about matters of human imagination (e.g. someone
thinking its ok to fornicate or murder and feeling conviction to do so). Paul
is talking about matters of indifference before God (i.e. the Divine revelation
is that it is not sin to eat, but neither is it sin to refrain from eating).
3. May the Christian
who understands this compel the one who does not to violate their conscience
and eat? No. (Romans 14:11-22). Notice: 14b “to him who considers anything
to be unclean, to him it is unclean.” The conscience is a precious thing which
must be kept tender. It is what convicts us when we do wrong. It can be
misinformed, but acting to violate the convictions of the heart is always wrong
because it destroys that part of our inner man which draws man back to
obedience to God.
4. We may teach, and
persuade, and strive to come to a different understanding with a brother, but
we want to bring a person to be “fully convinced in his own mind” (14:5). At
the same time, it is always sin to violate our own conscience, or compel
someone to violate his or her conscience (Romans 14:23). Notice this: before
God it is acceptable to eat all meats, but if he “doubts” and eats he “is
condemned.” Does that mean that the truth is determined by each person’s
conscience? No, it means God expects man at all times to do what we
understand His word to teach. The soul who would believe something and act
contrary to it—or compel someone else to act contrary to it is a rebel before
God. To do so is not acting from faithful obedience and is sin!
B. First Corinthians is addressed to a church
which was largely made up of Gentiles. For them, the problem was not one of
following Mosaic dietary restrictions, but a history of eating meat sacrificed
to idols as an act of pagan-worship (1 Corinthians 8:4-10).
1. If the Christian who
understood that eating meat was not necessarily an act of worship to an idol,
disregarded the influence they might have on the new convert, they might “wound
their weak conscience, and sin against Christ” (1 Corinthians 8:12).
2. Showing respect for
conscience (1 Corinthians 10:24-33). Paul here teaches two different responses
to two different situations. With unbelievers, eat—don’t ask. If it
told—don’t eat (because of the unbeliever’s conscience)! Notice: Christians
are taught to have concern—even for the conscience of unbelievers! Why?
Because only when the conscience is preserved can one be acceptable to God.
The soul with a defiled, seared, or hardened conscience will not be moved by
the word of God.
IV. The Conscience and Obedience to the Gospel.
to the Gospel allows one to be able to have a “good conscience” (Hebrews
10:19-22). Let’s note two things from this text…
sprinkled from an evil conscience” (10: 22a). This is probably referring to the
blood of various sacrifices that was sprinkled on the priests and on the
altar. The blood of Christ can “cleanse” the conscience from “dead works” (Hebrews
9:13-14). We feel guilt because of sin. We regret past deeds. Christ’s blood
can “cleanse” the conscience. Note further…
washed with pure water” (10:22b). In Christ, the only “water” that is ever
said to “wash” the body is baptism. The Bible tells us baptism is an “appeal
to God for a good conscience” (1 Peter 3:18-22, NASB).
been forgiven of sins, and striving to live obedient to Christ, Christians
should always live with a “good conscience” (Hebrews 13:17-18). It is
interesting that the Hebrew writer speaks of obedience to the eldership yet
then goes on to speak of maintaining a “good conscience.” If these
responsibilities ever conflict…
must obey God rather than man (Acts 5:26-29).
C. It is
commendable before God to suffer wrongfully “because of conscience toward God”
(1 Peter 2:18-23).
we maintain a “good conscience” and yet suffer for it, those who persecute us
will be caused to be ashamed on the Day of Judgment (1 Peter 3:15-17).
is probably in this sense that Paul speaks to the Corinthians of “commending”
himself “to every man’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2).
Think about this for a moment—how much would you respect someone that claimed
to believe something but then willingly went against that in the face of
pressure? Would you trust that person? In the same way, when we hold our
ground, and stick to our convictions, people may disagree with us, but they
will never be able to claim that we were not sincere.
is the point we noted in the beginning, we as Paul must strive to have, “a
conscience without offense towards God and man” (Acts 24:16).