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What is the Conscience?

by David A. DePra

     In the New Testament, the word "conscience" is generally

translated from the word "suneidesis." The preface "sun" means

"with." And "oida" means "to know." So we have "to know with."

In effect, the word means "a co-knowledge; a knowledge with


     What we see here is that in each human being, God has put a

sort of "moral monitor." It is as if there is within each of us, a moral

fabric which prompts us to do right. It is almost as if we have

"another self" -- one which is watching us and telling us we ought

to do right.

     You know when you have violated your conscience. You get

this sense of guilt. It is almost like an "inner disruption" to your

sense of peace. Or, to put it another way, you feel "yucky." You

feel like you are somehow dirty, and cannot make yourself clean.

     This is the job of the conscience -- that inner "moral monitor." It

tells you that you did something wrong, and that you need to do


Origin of the Conscience

     It is not the intention of this article to be an argument against

those who claim conscience is the product of evolution. Neither is

it my intention to defend against those who would say conscience

is the product of our environment or social upbringing. Christians

spend too much time arguing with unbelievers about such

nonsense. The Bible tells us to "be ready always to give an

answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in

you." (I Peter 3:15) But the goal in that is never to win an argument,

and proclaim oneself to be smarter than an unbeliever. It is to lead

them to Christ.

     Having said that, I am proceeding in this under the assumption

that I am talking to people who are Christians, or at least inquiring

about Christ. It is from the Biblical perspective that I will address this


     The Bible reveals that the conscience is something which is of

God Himself:

For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the

things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law

unto themselves. Which show the work of the law written in their

hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the

mean while accusing or else excusing one another. In that day

when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ

according to my gospel. (Rom. 2:14-16)

     Note the context: Unbelievers. Paul is saying that Gentiles, who

were never given the law, can, by nature, do what the law says. And,

he says, when they do, they are a law unto themselves -- for they

presently have no relationship with God. But Paul adds that when

these unbelievers DO do what is right -- they are showing that the

the law is written in their hearts, and that it is witnessed to by their


     The message here is clear: There is something of God written

in the human heart, to which the conscience gives witness. And that

"something" is a sense of right and wrong -- as expressed through

the holy law of God. In short, even unbelievers KNOW moral right

from wrong. How much more do those in Christ!

     We can trace the root of this back to Adam. When God created

Adam, He did so with the intention of making him in His own image

and likeness. This was a moral and spiritual likeness. And one of

the first things God did was to give a command. He told Adam that

he was not permitted to eat of the forbidden tree.

     Now ask: If Adam had no sense of right and wrong, would God

have given him a command? If Adam was not, at the core of his

being, a MORAL creature, would he really have been in the image

of God? No. The fact is, in God's universe, right and wrong govern

everything. And God made a man to have dominion over a moral


     We know Adam failed. He became amoral. However, the man

God originally created continued to possess the residue of what

God intended. The conscience is that. The conscience is a distant

echo of the voice of God in the human heart. Man used to be at one

with God. The conscience is part of the hollow shell that was left

once Adam walked away.

What the Conscience IS and ISN'T

     The conscience is a built in "moral monitor" which tells us we

ought to do what is right. But in order to clarify this, we also need to

see what the conscience is NOT.

     First of all, the conscience is not our mind. We do not reason with

our conscience. Therefore, while the conscience tells us we ought

to do right, it is not necessarily accurate as to what right IS.

     When I was growing up Catholic, I used to think it was a sin to eat

meat on Friday. I would feel horribly guilty if I forgot. But now I don't

feel guilty at all. Clearly, my conscience was wrong -- either back

then, or now. It was operating under wrong teaching.

     What we see here is that it is possible for us to feel guilty about

things which are NOT wrong. It is likewise possible for us to feel

innocent about things which ARE wrong. Most people live more in

false guilt than they do in false innocence. But each possibility is


     The conscience does not teach us WHAT is right. Rather, it tells

us to DO right. It is through our seeking the will of God, and through

the renewing of our minds, that we learn the Truth about right and

wrong, and can adjust any pattern of conscience.

     It is here, however, that we must understand a few other things.

My conscience may not define right and wrong to me. But never let

that be an excuse for saying that I don't know any right and wrong. I

DO. I know LOTS of right and wrong. Everyone does. That is in us

from God -- much of it quite clear when it comes to basic moral


     And there is something else which we may not realize. I may be

ignorant on a great many things. Especially the Truth of God. But

the moment I realize I am ignorant -- at least enough to start asking

questions -- I am accountable. I may not KNOW the Truth, but my

conscience will tell me I COULD know it. All I need to do is seek

God, and look into His Word.

     Have you ever realized that God holds you and I accountable,

not only for what we DO know, but for what we COULD know? Yes.

The moment we know there is Truth to know on an issue, we are

accountable for seeking it. This too, is a MORAL issue.

     If your child had ingested poison, and you had, right in front of

you, a manual describing how to administer the antidote, would you

be accountable for opening it and finding the solution? Sure. What

are we to say, that standing there and letting the child die, when the

solution is right in front of you is morally right? No. The moment

you have a book with answers, you are accountable for using it if

the problem arises.

     The Bible is such a book. Do we actually believe that if we

spend our lives neglecting God's Word, that we will be able to

plead ignorance when God asks us why we did not walk in His

ways? Are we going to say, "I didn't know the Truth?" He will say

to us, "You knew the Truth was there TO know. And you were too

busy with other things -- mostly too busy wanting your own way."

     We need beware. For some of us, a Bible which has been

closed for years is the result of a heart which has been closed for

years. There is Truth in that book which will set us free. But some

are afraid of what it will cost them.

     So the first thing the conscience is NOT is an information center.

No. It is a moral center. But there is something else which the

conscience is NOT. It is not an agent which can empower me to do

right. No. It can only tell me to do right, and point out to me when I


     Paul the apostle, even after conversion, said that he could not

always do what was right, and that this frustrated him. He found that

he did the wrong he hated. (see Romans 7) This was his

conscience bearing witness to him as to the righteousness of God.

He fell short of it and knew it.

     The conscience cannot empower us to do the right we know we

should do. And it certainly cannot prevent us from doing wrong. It

is here that we find another great purpose for the conscience: To

turn us to the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

One Message

     If you are listening to your conscience, one message will be

coming through loud and clear: You need help. You need help

from outside of yourself. You will know that there is nothing about

yourself that can live up to what you know is right.

     Of course, you can ignore this message. You can dismiss it or

reason it away. But it is there. Paul writes to the Romans: That

which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God has

showed it to them. (Rom. 1:19)

     God has manifested IN us enough to at least know to TURN

and SEEK Him. God has given us a "moral monitor." If you deny

this, wait until the next time someone violates YOUR sense of

right and wrong. You will leap into action.

     Have you a guilty conscience? Turn to God through Jesus

Christ. In Him there is total forgiveness for sins, and the freedom

to walk with a clear conscience towards God and man.

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