What is the conscience?

Sometimes the turmoil of trying to decide between doing right or wrong is illustrated with a devil sitting on a person’s shoulder and an angel sitting on the other. Both whisper in the person’s ear in an effort to persuade him which choice to make. This illustration is an entirely fictional representation of the familiar pull between right and wrong. Everyone knows the battle between what you should do and what you want to do. That voice whispering in your ear telling you to do right is your conscience. The voice that tells you when you’ve done wrong is your conscience.

The Bible describes the conscience and tells how the person should respond to his conscience. The apostle Paul expressed his desire to have a clear conscience (Acts 24:18) and he warned of those who had their consciences cauterized by much sin (1 Timothy 4:2). The apostle Peter exhorted Christians to do good so they would have a good conscience. (1 Peter 3:16)

Modern science attributes the conscience to social structure. According to modern thinking conscience is a result of humans being are social creatures. We learn right and wrong from our society. We strive do what is accepted by our culture to maximize our ability to receive the evolutionary benefits of being part of a group. While still young we let external social standards become an internal judge by which we determine right from wrong.

The Bible disagrees. The conscience is not something created by the pressures and standards of culture. Scripture represents the conscience as a personal, internal reality that exists in all people. Romans 2:14 speaks of those who do not have a written copy of the law of God but who naturally do what is contained in the law. That this is true is evident by the cross-cultural nature of basic morals. Murder, deceit, theft and marital unfaithfulness are nearly universally condemned. Even in situations where a man may be praised for slaughtering his enemies, he will be condemned for killing his next door neighbor. A man may be honored because he has a large harem, yet he would suffer disapproval for sleeping with another man’s wife. Nearly all of the last six of the ten commandments find their counterparts in cultures across the world. A universal basic morality exists because of the conscience.

The most important Biblical passage describing the conscience is Romans 2. The conscience teaches all men the basics of right and wrong, condemns disobedience and defends obedience (Romans 2:15).The conscience is the little voice inside each heart that evaluates our actions. The conscience holds court on our thoughts, desires and behaviors. The conscience is the inborn understanding of God’s standards and our internal prosecutor which points out when we violate those standards.

The conscience is not created by society, but it can be shaped by our culture, upbringing and religion. The conscience can be taught, mis-taught, hardened and over-sensitized. Sin corrupts the conscience. (Titus 1:15) When ignored the conscience becomes desensitized and eventually insensible. The conscience can also be trained. When the Bible is rightly understood and rightly applied it teaches the conscience to reflect Biblical principles of right and wrong.