What is the conscience?
We all have an innate sense for what is right and wrong, an “inner voice” that evaluates all of our thoughts, words and deeds. This “inner voice” is called the conscience, and it gives me information whether something is morally right or wrong.
However, my conscience is not something constant, which never changes. It is formed and developed by my environment, experiences and understanding. Therefore, the conscience is different in every human being, and it cannot be used to have the “final say”.
A clear conscience
Nonetheless, having a clear conscience is the minimum requirement to have peace with God. I must never, under any circumstances, act against my conscience, because that is the same as deliberately committing sin. A clear conscience means that I am living perfectly according to the light (the understanding) that I have.
If I have consciously committed sin, I must ask God, and if necessary, people for forgiveness. My affairs must be put in order before I can make any progress in my spiritual life.
An oversensitive conscience
It is common for people to continue feeling guilty inside even after having received forgiveness of sin. Satan, the accuser, can continue to accuse me about past sin, or because I am tempted. Then I must resist him in faith and refer him to Jesus who has wiped out my guilt. I also have to turn away from sinning in order to be free of guilty feelings.
I may also feel guilty because of an oversensitive, weak conscience that accuses me of all kinds of things that don’t actually concern serving God at all. I can be very concerned with outward things that I consider to be right or wrong, without finding God’s will. This can also lead me to judge others or meddle in their business, when they may be acting with a perfectly clear conscience according to the understanding they have. Similarly, I can feel guilty myself because of others’ opinion of what I have done or said. Satan, the accuser, tries to use this opportunity to bring me into despair about myself or to start accusing the others.
If my mind is to serve God, He can help me in this area, so that my conscience is guided in the right direction. God’s Word has clear guidelines as to what His will really is, and I can pray for the Holy Spirit, the Helper, to guide me and give me a clearer understanding.
A damaged conscience
If I harden myself in one or more areas in my life, and deliberately act against my conscience time and again, I may end up with a damaged conscience. By repeated disobedience, the conscience is “turned off” in these areas, with the result that I can do what I actually know is wrong, without feeling guilty in my conscience any more. Of course this is an extremely dangerous condition—the wages of sin haven’t changed even if I don’t acknowledge guilt anymore.
However, if I repent wholeheartedly and start to serve God and do His will, the Holy Spirit can show me these areas too. I must then take up a tough battle against this sin and put my affairs in order. It is written that I must reap what I have sown, and this “harvest” can be painful and hard to bear, but by obedience and endurance I can be healed.
My salvation and a conscience in development
Paul wrote that he knew nothing against himself, but that this alone did not justify him. (1 Corinthians 4:4) That is, he had a clean conscience, but he still knew that there were areas in his life that were not perfect in God’s light. More than a clean conscience was required to be completely saved.
If I want to do God’s will, the Holy Spirit will enlighten me about areas of my life where my conscience isn’t sensitive enough to react. The Spirit will show me the sin that dwells in my flesh (my human nature), and this is a far larger area than merely the sin that is visible. If I am obedient to the Spirit and His guidance, my conscience will also develop and cover a larger area.