Ethics Hamartiology

What authority should we give to the conscience?

Naselli’s explanation of why our understanding of the conscience matters

Andrew Naselli

In a previous post, I shared some of the presentation made by Andrew Naselli (of Bethlehem College and Seminary) at the ETS meetings in Baltimore, in his paper entitled: “Defining the Conscience (Suneidesis): What It Means and Five Reasons It Matters.” After defining the conscience, he does a good job of identifying five reasons why it matters how we define the “conscience.”

  1. It helps us cultivate a good conscience. “You don’t want to travel the pathway from a weak and defiled conscience to a wounded one, to one emboldened by sin, to an evil and guilty one, and finally to one that is seared as with a hot iron,” but we want to have consciences that are “good, blameless, clear, clean, pure” (19).
  2. It helps us love other Christians when we disagree about disputable matters. These are not first-level issues (essential to Christianity) or second-level issues (“which create reasonable boundaries” such as denominations, like baptism). These are  third-level issues, about which members of the same church should be able to disagree peaceably. These are the sort of issues concerning which “Paul limited his liberty for the sake of the gospel (1 Cor 9)” (20).
  3. It “helps us calibrate our convictions about specific disputable matters to be more scripturally informed” (21). In Romans 14, Paul speaks of “strong” and “weak” consciences. “The strong hold theologically correct positions and the weak hold theologically incorrect (but not heretical) positions” (22), and “all of us have at least a weaker conscience on some issues” (21). So we need to be continually informing and training our consciences from the Bible. This is why the testimony of our consciences in regard to a particular issue may change over time, as our understanding of God’s norm changes.
  4. It “helps us evangelize and edify others in different cultures” (24). Here Naselli wisely tags the importance of our understanding this when we engage in cross cultural missionary work. As Scott Moreau has observed, “When we feel that another does not have a proper conscience, we are tempted to develop one that matches ours. When we develop ethical systems, they tend to blend our cultural values together with biblical values, and may not make sense to our target population” (24, citing “Conscience,” in Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, 224). Because God is the only Lord of a person’s conscience, “we must never compel someone to sin against his conscience,” though we can “slowly help them train their conscience to be more in line with God’s standards” (25, citing J. D. Crowley, A Commentary on the Book of Romans for Cambodia (Asean Bible Commentary. Cambodia: Fount of Wisdom), 284). If we are not careful about cross-cultural conscience issues, we may “bypass the native conscience, and natives may ‘convert’ not to Christianity but to a different culture” (27). So J. B. Priest suggests that, in initial evangelism, we “should stress sin, guilt, and repentance principally with reference to native conscience—particularly that aspect of their conscience which is in agreement with Scripture” (27, citing “Missionary Elenctics: Conscience and Culture,” Missiology: An International Review 22/3 (1994), 309).
  5. It “helps us treasure Jesus’ conscience-cleansing cross-work” (28). First, we come to understand that “Jesus’ blood will purify our consciences from acts that lead to death so that we may serve the living God (Heb 9:14)” (28) and, secondly, “we can draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings ‘because we have had our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water’ (Heb 10:22 NET, emphasis added)” (29).

A supplement to Naselli’s presentation, with particular attention to the authority of the conscience

I’m thankful for the work that Naselli has done in this paper, and I agree substantially with him, but I want to interact with a few items which arise in his paper and to add some more reasons why I believe our understanding of the conscience to be important. I do this particularly because he indicates that he is currently working on a book on the conscience that he hopes to coauthor with J. D. Crowley, and I want to pass along some thoughts for him to consider as he continues his project.

The implications of the unreliability of human consciences for their authority

Naselli has made it clear that our consciences are not reliable; they need to be continually educated by the Bible which is the means by which God has revealed to us what he wants us to know about moral norms. He has also stated very clearly that we should always obey our consciences, even though they are not reliable. But at some points in the paper, he makes statements which are not consistent with these affirmations.

“Good,” “clear” and seared consciences

My first suggestion arises in regard to a brief discussion of a “good” conscience and a “clear” conscience (11). Naselli writes:

In the NT, a good conscience and a clear one seem to be identical. Non-Christians (and some Christians) who feel like thy have “a clear conscience” in the popular  sense do not have a “good” one in the biblical sense.

So, what is the “popular sense,” as Naselli perceives it?

When people today say, “I have a clear conscience,” they typically mean, “I don’t feel my conscience condemning me.” But sometimes your conscience should be condemning you: your conscience may not be condemning you because there is something wrong with your conscience.

Naselli suggests that “there is a difference [between a good conscience and a clear conscience] in popular usage,” but I seriously doubt this. I think that when people say “I don’t feel my conscience condemning me,” they mean exactly the same thing as when they say “I did that in all good conscience.” In other words, I think that people use these terms in exactly the same way as the Bible does. They believe that they have a good conscience if they have a clear conscience, that is, if they believe that they acted in the morally right way.

Whether or not people popularly use “good” and “clear” in the biblical sense, however, is not the real problem in Naselli’s discussion of this matter. That significant issue  becomes clear when he explains why the people who “have a clear conscience in the popular sense” do not have a “good” one in the biblical sense:

Otherwise, the ones with the clearest consciences would be those with seared consciences. Everyone with a conscience that is agathos, aproskopos, katharos, or kalos, should feel like they have “a clear conscience” in the popular sense, and some people who have a conscience that is defiled or evil may also feel like they have “a clear conscience” in the popular sense.

This is problematic for a number of reasons. It implies that one should only have a good conscience if one is in fact not guilty, but this belies the fact that everyone’s conscience is unreliable and needs to be educated according to Scripture continually. So, when Naselli writes: “your conscience may not be condemning you because there is something wrong with your conscience,” I think he would be better to say: “because there is something wrong with the standard according to which your conscience bears moral witness.” The conscience may be working very well, without functional defect, but it gives an incorrect judgment because it assesses our behavior according to the standard provided by our understanding of moral norms.

Witness Paul standing before the Jewish Council, after his arrest in Jerusalem: “Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day” (Acts 23:1), which Paul says despite his knowing that his conscience had informed him badly what his responsibility was with regard to the followers of Jesus, prior to Christ’s confrontation with him (as Naselli himself observes, with a quote from James Boice on p. 18. Naselli also mentions in fn39, however, that I. H. Marshall suggests that Paul may be referring to his clear conscience regarding his life as a Christian).

Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me” (TNIV and NASB: 1 Cor 4:4). The NRSV and ESV do not use the word “conscience” here, but speak of “awareness,” and the HCSB of “consciousness,” but since suneid?sis (conscience) derives from sunoida, which is the term Paul uses here, the meaning is the same, and the process of judging one’s moral rightness is clearly what Paul is speaking about. Paul knows that his conscience can be good and clear, but it may still be misinforming him and not in sync with God’s moral judgment.

It is wrong, however, to suggest that everyone who has a good/clear conscience when their conscience is misinformed, so that it is justifying them when it should be condemning them, has a “seared conscience.” A seared conscience (1 Tim 4:2) is a conscience that has been disobeyed repeatedly. Each act of disobedience burns the conscience a little until it builds up scar tissue and becomes insensitive.  Naselli is right, therefore, to recognize that a conscience is no longer reliable at the point at which it has been seared by continued disobedience. But he is wrong to assume that this is the only way in which one’s conscience can become an unreliable moral witness, or to suggest that, if people reach the extreme point of having deactivated their own consciences through continual disobedience, they are culpable when they do things morally wrong but do them with a good conscience.

We are obligated to God to obey our consciences. If we deactivate those consciences, we actually put ourselves into a position at which we can no longer be held morally condemnable for those particular acts, since we do them with a good/clear conscience. What we are responsible for, however, is all the disobediences we did intentionally which seared our consciences, making them defective and completely useless as moral judges in this area of our behavior. This is akin to the issue of other forms of inability to do the morally good thing, when that inability has been incurred by a person’s own choice. That principal is helpful in assessing cases such as addiction. Where people have so habitually violated their consciences that their consciences no longer trouble them when they do what they had previously believed to be wrong, they are culpable for having seared or anesthetized their consciences when those consciences were testifying to the wrongness of their actions.

Much  of the false witness we experience from our consciences derives from mis-education, not from searing. Our moral standard is formed by our upbringing, by the standards our parents teach us, those which we learn in our religious training, and increasingly today through the influence of peers and the ever present mass media. So one’s conscience may be good when it should not be, without ever having been disobeyed. The longer we have lived with a good conscience that testifies with regard to an incorrect moral standard, the harder it is for us to change our minds about the moral standard.

I think that Naselli is correct that “understanding the conscience helps us to cultivate a good conscience” (item 1, p. 19) but, as he notes in item 3, our consciences need to be continually recalibrated through better scriptural information. Having a good conscience is an essential of the moral life, but having correct moral standards, according to which our consciences testify, is also highly important.

I suggest that Naselli would do well to note the inaccuracy of a heading he quotes from Robert Priest, who writes regarding cross-cultural ministry: “In an intercultural situation each interactant will thus tend to condemn the other morally for behavior about which the other has no conscience” (p. 26, emphasis added). This is a very misleading statement because it ignores the continual activeness of people’s consciences. About everything we do, our consciences testify, either condemning or acquitting us, though we become most aware of the function of conscience when it condemns us, since people often act much of the time in accordance with their own moral standard. What Priest would be better to say, therefore, is: “about which the other has a good conscience,” and Naselli would be wise not to let Priest’s heading (in bold font as it is) go without comment.

In addition to Naselli’s five reasons why a correct understanding of the conscience matters, I suggest two more reasons: 1) we are absolutely obligated to obey our consciences even though they are unreliable; 2) although we are objectively guilty if we disobey God’s moral law, what God holds us accountable for is our obedience/disobedience to our own consciences.

The absolute human moral obligation to obey one’s own conscience

My first suggestion is that, although it is essential that we be aware of the unreliability of our consciences, we should be equally aware of our absolute obligation to obey our own consciences.

In defining the conscience, Naselli offered 6 qualifications, which I reported in the previous post on his essay. The fourth of these was that the conscience “produces different results for people based on different moral standards” (17). This is an important acknowledgment of the unreliability of human consciences and the need of education, but the footnote to that statement includes a quote from Ben Witherington III upon which Naselli would be wise to add a comment, lest it mislead readers. Witherington writes: “As faulty as the conscience may be, it sometimes is a good, nagging voice that approves or disapproves what you are contemplating doing. You should listen to the voice, but not give it the final say—that belongs to God and God’s Word” (p. 17 fn36, citing A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on Titus, 1-2 Timothy and 1-3 John, 609).

Witherington may simply be stating the fact of conscience’s unreliability, and the need for its education to ensure that our moral standard conforms with God’s.  But I think it is misleading to tell people that we should not give our consciences “the final say.” On the contrary, we must do so, even as we are aware that they may be testifying wrongly because they are misinformed. I see this principle enunciated most clearly in Rom 14:22-23: “Blessed are those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve [in other words, who have a good/clear conscience]. But those who have doubts are condemned if they eat, because they do not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (NRSV).

Naselli has treated this well. Commenting on that passage, he says: “Don’t sin against your conscience. Listen to your conscience. Cultivate a good conscience” (19). Amen! Having a good conscience is of utmost importance, so we must always obey the dictates of our consciences.

The distinction between objective and subjective guilt

Romans 14 sets up for us a framework which I have often found to be mystifying to students in my ethics classes. It has led me to make a critical distinction between objective and subjective guilt. Paul teaches that we must always obey our consciences, because if we fail to do so we will sin because we will not have acted “in faith,” or from the proper motive. Disobeying our consciences therefore makes us subjectively guilty. But the dispute at Rome that Paul is addressing in this chapter indicates very clearly that, however important it is to have a conscience that is clear, that justifies us, the differences between our moral standards will frequently produce different judgments from consciences in the church.

People with a “weak” conscience have misunderstood the freedom they have in Christ, so their consciences forbid them to eat foods which God does not forbid them to eat. Consequently, if such people eat foods which God allows but their consciences forbid, they are subjectively guilty, but they are not objectively guilty. They have not broken God’s moral law but they have still sinned for having intended to do so. By the same token, if one is ignorant of God’s prohibition with regard to a particular action so that one does what God forbids, that person will have a clear conscience, even though they are guilty of breaking God’s law. Subjectively, they are not guilty, but objectively they are.

This leads me to the second additional reason which I think we should add to the list of reasons why a proper understanding of the conscience matters.

The testimony of our consciences is the standard God uses in his final judgment

My first supplementary point is generally well received, once people get their heads around it, but my second is sometimes a harder sell.

There are two standards operative in God’s final judgment: his law and his grace. We are judged according to what God has revealed to everyone, in nature and conscience (Rom 2:12,16 1:19-20), and to particular people by means of more specific verbal revelation through his prophets, and particularly through the inspired written Word of God. Those without particular revelation will be judged according to the universal revelation which God gives to every one (Rom 1:18-20; 2:11,12). People are judged according to what they have done in this life (2 Cor 5:10; Mt 16:27; 25:35-40; Rom 2:6; Rev 20:12; 1 Cor 3:8; 1 Pet 1:17; Rev 22:12), including good deeds (Eph 6:8; Heb 6:10), words (Mt 12:36), and thoughts (1 Cor 4:5; Rom 2:16). But they are also judged according to their motives for those actions (1 Cor 4:5; Rom 2:16; 14:24).

With regard to the grace of God, believers’ good works are brought out as evidence of their relation to the Redeemer, and participation in His righteousness, which  confirms their salvation. Some have been more privileged than others and this adds to their responsibility (Mt 11:21-14; Rom 2:12-16). This is also true of unbelievers, all of whom have received much good from God that they did not deserve, and for which they did not give thanks.

I am convinced, however, that what God will hold us all accountable for in the final judgment is our subjective guilt not our objective guilt, that is, for sins not done in ignorance, but intentionally, in acts of disobedience to our consciences. In fact, I have suggested elsewhere that the punishment rightly accruing to objective guilt (that is, for violation of God’s moral law), when it was incurred out of ignorance, is one of the universal benefits of Christ’s redeeming work (Who Can Be Saved?, 101-02). It is on this account that God holds us accountable only for our subjective guilt, not for sins done in ignorance, and yet he maintains the moral sanctity of his holy law. This was illustrated and proto-typified in the provision God made for sacrifices to be offered by the whole congregation for sins done unintentionally by individuals within the congregation (Num 15:22-26).

Naselli’s work in regard to his fourth reason why a proper understanding of conscience matters, namely, his discussion of the different moral standards which people are taught in different cultures, is particularly helpful. The reason we should emphasize to the people whom we teach that they must obey their consciences is the priority of subjective guilt. God will condemn them if they disobey their consciences, but not if they obey their consciences, even though they break God’s law in so doing. In other words, disobedience to God’s moral law is not always culpable. People may be inculpable on account of ignorance. Of course, we should not leave people in their ignorance, but we must allow God’s Word and his Spirit to change people’s understanding of what is morally right and wrong, so that objective and subjective guilt/innocence become as closely aligned as possible. In the process of cross-cultural ministry, we may well find our own understanding of God’s law more clearly defined, so that for us as well as for those we disciple, the difference between our objective and subjective guilt can grow steadily smaller.

As we attempt to bring people to repentance, we will certainly want to teach them God’s moral law, his objective standard for righteousness. And we can expect that, though fallible, their own moral awareness will have discerned what is objectively right to some degree. As Robert Priest nicely puts it, in “initial evangelism,” we “should stress sin, guilt, and repentance principally with reference to native conscience—particularly that aspect of their conscience which is in agreement with Scripture” (“Missionary Elenctics,” 309; cited Naselli, p. 27).

Francis Schaeffer’s thought experiment

Frances Schaeffer

Francis Schaeffer did a thought experiment that illustrates well the point I have been making.

If every little baby that was ever born anywhere in the world had a tape recorder hung about its neck, and if this tape recorder only recorded the moral judgments with which this child as he grew bound other men, the moral precepts might be much lower than the biblical law, but they would still be moral judgments.

Eventually each person comes to that great moment when he stands before God as judge. Suppose, then, that God simply touched the tape recorder button and each man heard played out in his own words all those statements by which he had bound other men in moral judgment. He could hear it going on for years–thousands and thousands of moral judgments made against other men, not aesthetic judgments, but moral judgments.

Then God would simply say to the man, though he had never head the Bible, now where do you stand in the light of your own moral judgments? The Bible points out . . . that every voice would be stilled. All men would have to acknowledge that they have deliberately done those things which they knew to be wrong. Nobody could deny it.

We sin two kinds of sin. We sin one kind as though we trip off the curb, and it overtakes us by surprise. We sin a second kind of sin when we deliberately set ourselves up to fall. And no one can say he does not sin in the latter sense. Paul’s comment is not just theoretical and abstract, but addressed to the individual–“O man”–any man without the Bible, as well as the man with the Bible.

. . . God is completely just. A man is judged and found wanting on the same basis on which he has tried to bind others.

–Francis Schaeffer, The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century, 49-50.


All in all, I commend Naselli for good and helpful work in his 2013 ETS paper, and I offer these comments and suggestions to help him as he moves forward in his thinking about this very important subject.


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

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