What Is the Conscience according to the New Testament?

conscience

When interpreting Scripture, it’s all too easy to impose our own ideas onto the text, rather than drawing out what the biblical author and the Holy Spirit intended to convey. Sound biblical exegesis is all about getting back to the original author’s intent so we can faithfully apply the text to our lives, and the lives of those we serve.

Mobile Ed’s new Biblical Exegesis bundle walks you through how to do just that, from Genesis to Revelation. Because exegeting the Old Testament is quite different from exegeting the New, each testament receives its own treatment in separate courses, so you’re equipped to tackle any passage of Scripture with sound exegetical principles.

We worked with Bethlehem College and Seminary professor Andy Naselli to produce our New Testament exegesis course, included as part of our biblical exegesis bundle. In it, Dr. Naselli walks you through practical examples of sound exegesis. In this post,  Dr. Naselli provides a taste of how to use the exegetical principles he teaches in his New Testament exegesis course to solve a particularly thorny issue in biblical studies: what is the conscience?

Here’s Dr. Naselli.

What is the conscience?

The Greek word for conscience (συνείδησις, suneidēsis) occurs in the New Testament 30 times. What does it mean?

The place to start is by carefully reading all 30 passages where the word appears in the New Testament. Imagine that you lived in the year 2500, and you were trying to figure out what the word email meant. You could start by reading sentences in which the word email occurs, and you could observe how other words in those sentences shed light on what an email is. For example, an email is something you can read, skim, ignore, write, compose, draft, send, shoot, forward, delete, revise, receive, archive, etc.

I won’t take the time here to inductively work through all thirty times the word conscience occurs in the New Testament. Instead I’ll summarize the data.

The passages in which conscience occurs help us answer two basic questions that in turn help us define the term.

Question 1: What Can the Conscience Be?

The conscience can be either positive or negative. Positively, (a) the conscience can be good in the sense of blameless, clear, clean, and pure (Acts 23:1; 24:16; 1 Tim. 1:5, 19; 3:9; 2 Tim. 1:3; Heb. 13:18; 1 Pet. 3:16, 21), and (b) the conscience can be cleansed, that is, cleared, perfected, purified, washed, purged, and sprinkled clean (Heb. 9:9, 14; 10:22).

Negatively, the conscience can be weak (1 Cor. 8:7, 10, 12), wounded (1 Cor. 8:12), defiled (1 Cor. 8:7; Titus 1:15), encouraged or emboldened to sin (1 Cor. 8:10), evil or guilty (Heb. 10:22), and seared as with a hot iron (1 Tim. 4:2).

Question 2: What Can the Conscience Do?

The conscience can perform at least three actions. It can (a) bear witness or confirm (Rom. 2:15; 9:1; 2 Cor. 1:12; 4:2; 5:11), (b) judge or try to determine another person’s freedom (1 Cor. 10:29), and (c) lead one to act a certain way. The New Testament gives four examples of how your conscience can lead you to act a certain way:

  • The conscience can lead you either to accuse or defend yourself based on how your conscience bears witness (Rom. 2:15).
  • The conscience can lead you to submit to the authorities (Rom. 13:5).
  • The conscience can lead you not to bother asking where your meat came from because eating meat sacrificed to idols is not something your conscience should condemn you for (1 Cor. 10:25, 27).
  • The conscience can lead you not to eat meat that someone tells you was sacrificed to idols for the sake of that person’s conscience (1 Cor. 10:28).

So How Should We Define the Conscience?

Here is one way to define the conscience: your consciousness of what you believe is right and wrong. That definition implies that (1) the conscience produces different results for people based on different moral standards; (2) your conscience can change; and (3) the conscience functions as a guide, monitor, witness, and judge.

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Equip yourself to tackle any biblical passage with sound exegetical principles with the Biblical exegesis bundle. You can save nearly 40% when you get it on Pre Pub. Pre-order now!

Andy Naselli


Andy Naselli
is assistant professor of New Testament and biblical theology at Bethlehem College & Seminary and an elder of Bethlehem Baptist Church.

Comments

  1. Jerry Albright says:

    If the conscience is, as you have defined it, “guide, monitor, witness, and judge,” it begins to sound like the Paraclete, or
    Holy Spirit, promised by Jesus.

    • Lori Schmitt says:

      Hi, Jerry..just a thought on this. The difference is that the Holy Spirit is NOT active in us until we receive Christ as Savior. The Holy Spirit is holy and constant, unlike the conscience, which is based on only personal moral views, which can be both incorrect and unstable.

  2. Richard Radke says:

    Dr. Andy, Jerry, and Lori.
    I appreciated the thoughts and lesson on conscience, but thought that for the good of all readers that it would be helpful to include that, yes, the conscience can be different depending on different moral standards, but those moral standards come from how the conscience has been taught, instructed and practiced. One can have a pure and good conscience, like the Apostle Paul, (Acts 23.1), yet be sinning and totally going against Christ in beating Christians and trying to make them blaspheme against Christ. The reason, Paul’s conscience lacked the knowledge of the Truth about Jesus Christ.

  3. Jim Matzke says:

    Dr. Naselli: How can we link Romans 2:12-16 with Acts 17:26-28 or can we?

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