How to Avoid Shipwreck: The Importance of a Clear Conscience
Scripture—1 Timothy 1:5:
“Now the end [goal] of the commandment is charity [love] out of a pure heart, and of a good [clear] conscience, and of faith unfeigned.”
What is your conscience? How does it function? Can you trust it? Is it a safe guide to follow? These are only a few of the many questions one could ask.
In the simplest of terms, the conscience is the inner “voice” or judgment that assists in distinguishing right from wrong. It is the faculty which warns you that you are doing something wrong, or neglecting to do something you should.
Scripture reveals much about the importance of one’s conscience. It teaches us that a biblically trained conscience is a good guide (1 Tim. 1:5; Acts 23:1). And if properly trained, it also acts as a motivating force (Rom. 2:14-15). However, the conscience must be educated by the Scriptures (1 Cor. 4:4; Psa. 119:11). If one is not careful, it can be damaged, either by hardening or searing (1 Tim. 1:18-19).
Further, one’s sense of assurance of salvation and happiness is based upon a clear conscience (2 Cor. 1:12). In this message we will briefly explore each of these aspects of the conscience.
A Biblically Trained Conscience is a Good Thing
One of the primary goals of Scripture is to enable Christians to have genuine faith, to love God and their fellow humans out of a pure heart, and to keep their conscience clear (1 Tim. 1:5). In fact, a clear conscience is so important that Paul warned Timothy that failure to keep one’s conscience clear would inevitably result in spiritual shipwreck. He then names two such shipwrecks (1 Tim. 1:18-20).
Paul states that God used his own biblically trained conscience to guide him. In Romans 9:1 he asserted that the Holy Spirit gave him inward assurance that what he was writing to the Roman church was “the truth in Christ,” and contained no deceit or falsehood. He was guided by a God-given inner assurance from his conscience.
Paul made keeping his conscience clear a daily imperative. He said,
“Herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward men” (Acts 24:16).
A conscience void of offence toward God is a “clear” conscience; there is no inner awareness of disobeying God or failing to obey God in any matter. A conscience void of offence toward men includes an inner awareness of treating others properly and a confidence that no one can point their finger and say, “You did me wrong and you have made no attempt to make it right.”
Toward the end of his life, Paul testified to the Sanhedrin and to others that he had “lived in all good conscience before God” for his entire Christian life (Acts 23:1).
A Biblically Trained Conscience Serves as a Motivational Force
A scripturally trained conscience sharpens one’s ability to discern good from evil. The Apostle John records that scribes and Pharisees, experts in the Law of Moses, realized their own hypocrisy by the working of their conscience.
As they listened to Jesus’ challenge, “He who is without sin among you, cast the first stone,” John records that they were “convicted by their own conscience” (John 8:9) As a result, they were moved to reexamine their condemnation of a guilty woman.
Every person is born with a God-given conscience. It is not trained, but it does have some awareness of right and wrong. Paul explains:
“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 shew 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 the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel” (Rom. 2:14-16).
In other words, the role of the conscience is to “approve” or “disapprove” of one’s own thoughts, attitudes, and actions.
You Must Educate Your Conscience by Gaining Scriptural Knowledge
It is possible to have a “clear” conscience but, from God’s perspective, be guilty. Paul wrote about this danger when he said, “My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Cor. 4:4).
The standard of behavior, and the standard for our conscience, is the Word of God. Ignorance of God’s Word does not excuse wrong behavior, even if a person’s conscience is “clear” while he is doing wrong.
The Psalmist gives us good council when he writes, “Thy word have I hid in mine heart that I might not sin against thee [God]” (Psa. 119:11). The Scriptures are designed to educate our conscience. Paul wrote,
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom;
teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Col. 3:16).
The Word of God serves as a lamp unto our feet, and a light unto our path (Psa. 119:105). When we are taught by God’s Word, our conscience becomes more and more attuned to God’s standard of right and wrong. It is as the Psalm says,
“The entrance of thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding unto the simple” (Psa. 119:130).
To such a biblically educated conscience Paul says,
“Let the peace of God rule in your hearts [be the umpire]” (Col. 3:15).
The peace of Christ is experienced by having a biblically informed clear conscience.
You Can Damage Your Conscience
Paul warns Christians that part of their civil responsibility is to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment, but also as a matter of conscience (Rom. 13:5). The term “conscience” refers here to the believer’s knowledge of God’s will and purposes. He had just explained in Romans 13:1 that secular rulers are appointed by God and they function as His servants (Rom. 13:4).
Therefore, the necessity for a Christian to submit to government is based upon the knowledge that such submission is the will of God (1 Pet. 2:13-15). To know to do good, and to do it not is sin (James 4:17). And known disobedience always clouds the conscience.
A person who has not had his conscience biblically trained can have what the Bible calls a “weak” conscience. Such a person can have a “guilty conscience” by thinking something is wrong that God’s Word does not condemn. Paul wrote to the Corinthians and warned about using their influence to cause a “weak” Christian to sin.
Paul illustrated this truth by discussing the pros and cons of eating meat offered to idols. Paul wrote that if a Christian, who did not fully understand that eating meat offered to idols was not sin, believed it was sin, but went against their conscience and ate, they would be sinning and their conscience would be “defiled” (1 Cor. 8:7).
Then Paul warned that if you sin against your brothers or sisters in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ (1 Cor. 8:12).
Paul advises his readers that, in order to keep their conscience clear, they should eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any questions (1 Cor. 10:25). One must not defile his conscience. To emphasize this truth, Paul said that whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin (Rom. 14:23).
To emphasize the seriousness of keeping one’s conscience clear, Paul warned Timothy about people who had departed from the faith and as a result had so damaged their conscience that they now believed lies.
“The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons.
Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron” (1 Tim. 4:1-2).
Assurance of Salvation and Personal Happiness Require a Clear Conscience
Paul spoke of the inward assurance and personal happiness a clear conscience brought him: “For our rejoicing is this, the testimony of our conscience, that in simplicity and godly sincerity, not with fleshly wisdom, but by the grace of God, we have had our conversation in the world, and more abundantly to you-ward” (2 Cor. 1:12).
He testified to Timothy that he served God with a clear conscience (2 Tim. 1:3). And the Apostle John wrote that a clear conscience produces confidence toward God (1 John 3:20-21). As Christians, we are to “hold the mystery of the faith with a pure [clear] conscience (1 Tim. 3:9).
We have a duty not only to keep our conscience clear, but also to make sure our conscience has been taught by God’s Word. We do this by prayer and following the teachings of Scripture.
If we neglect these, we will end up with either a misinformed conscience, which won’t be a godly guide, or a weak conscience, which sees sin where there is no sin. The former condition leads to carelessness, the latter condition to uncertainty and spiritual bondage. Such conditions are signs of a spiritually malformed conscience.
The good news is that such a condition can be corrected by large doses of scriptural knowledge administered by a wise, godly counselor. In all your activities, keep your conscience clear!
So, if your conscience is not clear, why not immediately take care of all troubling concerns and ask God to help you to keep a clear conscience?
Dr. Allan P. Brown teaches such courses as Christian Beliefs, Doctrine of Holiness, Wisdom Literature, Hebrew, Preaching Holiness, Romans and Galatians, and Letters to the Hebrews.
He has been on faculty at GBSC since 1996 and is the author of several books and articles.
Dr. Brown also speaks at churches, camp meetings, revivals and more.