I was struck recently while reading through 1 and 2 Corinthians with how many times the word conscience appeared in some form or another. It appears 8 times in 1 Corinthians, 3 times in 2 Corinthians, and 6 more times in the 2 books of Timothy and Titus, and 3 times in Romans.
But what does it really mean?
Conscience, according to Paul, is how we live according to God’s will.
AccordingÂ to the Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, the word conscience refers to an inner tribunal of the mind, where we make judgments and decisions in life in ways that could be likened to a court of law.
For example, in the US, we have lawmakers and courts; the courts determine to what degree the behavior of citizens are in conformity to those laws. Our conscience functions in a similar way; God has given each of us a tribunal or court that we use to determine whether or not something we do is correct.
If someone has a guilty conscience, then they are aware that many of their life decisions are not in conformity with some standard they are judging against. This standard could be one’s religious beliefs, parental upbringing, national law, or something like that.
When Paul writes or talks about conscience in the New Testament, he is continually urging people to have a good conscience (Acts 23:1) or a clear conscience (Acts 24:16). He contrasts those with a weak conscience and those with a strong conscience, not wanting the strong to defile the consciences of the weak.
This is important for making decisions in life. Many times, we may be faced with a difficult decision and so we search the bible for a verse to show us God’s will or ask friends or pastors to tell us what we should do. These are all well and good, but the goal should be to have a clear conscience.
That is to say, we need to think about things through the lens of a Biblical worldview, and then to decide for ourselves what to do based on that knowledge. The more we study scripture and learn about God, we are building a sort of precedent; we are strengthening our consciences so that we can make better decisions based on our understanding of God’s heart rather than trying to find a handful or verses to lead us.
The weak conscience, therefore, doesn’t have enough knowledge about who God is to make decisions for himself. The one with a strong conscience, however, knows God’s heart and can make decisions based on conformity to what he knows God would want him to do.
Perhaps another way to view it is this. If you are the assistant to a powerful executive, and she leaves town for a few days, would she want you calling her every five minutes to find out what to do with every little decision? Or would she prefer you to know what she wants done and have you make the decision yourself to implement her will?
Discovering God’s will is a matter of getting acquainted with God’s heart through the scriptures, and build precedent for your inner tribunal. When you need to make decisions, then, you have a Supreme Court in your own heart that can determine whether or not any given life decision is in line with the Lawgiver.