Olsen Park Church of Christ

“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 “conscience.”

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.”

1.      It is the soul with a “pure heart” that can approach God in worship (Psalm 24:3-4).

2.      After His sin with Bathsheba, David prays to God “create in me a clean heart” (Psalm 51:10).

3.      The 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.”

4.      The 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).

5.      The New Testament uses both concepts in juxtaposition (1 Timothy 1:3-7). Paul acts from a “pure heart” and a “good conscience.”

6.      This 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). 

1.  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.

B.  Simply 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).

2.  However, it is always sin to go against one’s conscience.

C.  Violating one’s conscience leads …

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.

A.  Obedience 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…

1. “Hearts 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…

2.  “Bodies 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). 

B.     Having 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…

1.      We 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).

1.      When 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).

2.      It 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. 

3.      This 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).

Kyle Pope 2010

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