Every person is controlled by their conscience. This can be good news or bad news. How well do you know your conscience? Have you ever considered its role in the life of believers and unbelievers? We have all felt the despair of a condemning conscience, as well as the joy of a clear conscience.
Have you ever considered how the conscience impacts your life? If we are to live a life characterized by faith, we must know how our consciences can drive us toward legalism and how the Gospel can change our relationship with our consciences by motivating us toward freedom.
Our conscience is a means to live, given to all by God’s common grace. From His mercy, He has placed His laws on the hearts of everyone (Romans 2:15). It serves as a way to restrain the evil in the world. The main function of the conscience is to accuse or excuse the actions of the individual. Actions are judged as either good or bad based on the conscience’s standards.
The conscience is part of the flesh and is not inerrant. Like the rest of our flesh, it is subject to the fall and can become non-biblically based. False teaching can distort the conscience, while our actions can sear it (1 Timothy 4:2).
Despite the fleshly characteristics, our consciences still teach us right from wrong. We are given an internal sense of morality that is a reflection of God’s laws.
A conscience gone bad
We are born interpreters who are always trying to make sense of the world around us. While the conscience primarily provides us a sense of morality, it is used by our intellect to help us gain an understanding of God. Without the illumination of God’s Word through the Holy Spirit, the natural man only has his conscience to guide him. This has been described as the Natural Law of God that is shown in the Mind Map below—reading from left to right.
With the presence of right and wrong, the natural man will conclude the presence of something greater than himself; a God who is pleased with good works and angry with acts of evil. Further reasoning can conclude this God is the creator of the universe and knows and sees all things (Romans 1:20; Hebrews 4:12-13).
This view is incomplete leaving one to conclude God’s main characteristic is His righteousness. He can seem cold and distant, like a stern Father who is only pleased when one lives up to His expectations. His attributes of love, grace, and mercy are hidden.
As such, when the conscience is violated, we feel deserving of God’s wrath (1 Samuel 6:20, Hebrews 10:31). Rest, i.e. approval of God, can only be found with a clear conscience. Thus we conclude good works is the key in our relationship with God. When God’s laws are obeyed, our conscience is clear and we feel accepted by God (Psalm 32:2).
The conscience is a strong motivator since living with a condemning conscience is unbearable. It is the fuel behind our legalistic tendencies. However, the path of good works is futile because it does not take into account our in-Adam-ness. Our hearts are bent away from God and towards evil (Romans 3:10-12). We cannot escape sin because it dwells within us.
Despite what good works we achieve, our indwelling sin will continue to condemn us through our conscience, leaving us to feel unaccepted by God. As a result we strive to silence our consciences, resulting in a worship of the conscience. Expectations begin to snowball since a person can never be sure if their works are good enough. The response to failures is to try harder. Over time our failures will lead to despair. We flee from God (Genesis 3:8).
We begin to hate our conscience and look for ways to ignore its judgment. We become distracted through various vocational or relational pursuits or through the use of mind-altering substances, explaining the abuse of alcohol and prescription drugs in our society.
When ignored, the conscience is seared or hardened. Now sinful behaviors can take place unchecked. The battery has been removed from the smoke detector though the fire still rages.
Life apart from God leaves humanity in a miserable condition. We are unable to meet the standards of a healthy conscience and our self-reliant attempts are doomed to failure. The only solution is to find ways to suppress our condemning conscience, which only introduces more evil into our lives (Romans 1:18). We are left without hope and are children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3).
A conscience working correctly
But God does not leave us without hope. The Gospel is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes (Ephesians 2:4-5; Romans 1:16). As Christians, we are made righteous in Christ through faith (Romans 3:2).
The indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit illuminates our minds (1 Corinthians 2:14; Ephesians 1:17) and our eyes are opened (Isaiah 42:7). We are now able to see what was once hidden. We perceive our fallenness and come to understand sin is not something we do but something we are apart from Christ. It is an internal bent towards evil that resides in our hearts.
Additionally, God’s entire character is revealed. He is not just righteous, but loving, merciful, and willing to extend grace for those who confess their sins (1 John 1:9).
We are now new creations in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17), but we still live life in fleshly bodies (Galatians 5:16). Our consciences are re-calibrated to biblical standards, but function the same; it still accuses or excuses our actions as seen in the second Mind Map below—reading from left to right.
It is important for every Christian to understand this dynamic. Sin is still part of the Christian life (1 John 1:8) and our consciences will condemn our actions, which can lead to feelings of guilt.
Despite feeling guilty and possibly shameful from sin, we must remember our righteousness is through faith alone and not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9). Faith in Christ’s work is required, not our ability to overcome sin through man-centered means. Compared to God’s holiness, even our righteous works are considered filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6).
The life of faith is upside down thinking—like many other aspects of the Gospel (Luke 17:33). It often goes against what we see and feel, but if we fail to recognize the Christian life is a life of faith and not sight (2 Corinthians 5:7) we can drift back to rely on our flesh, disconnecting us from the power of God and leaving us ineffective in our walk.
Trusting faith, not flesh
Since we are still in the flesh, we all deal with condemning consciences to some degree. So how should a Christian deal with a condemning conscience? To answer this question, we need to understand the many influences on our thinking.
We live in the midst of a spiritual battle and our enemies—the world, our flesh, and the devil—will use whatever means possible to entice us to trust in our flesh. We are powerless when we are operating in our own strength. The use of a condemning conscience is one of their strategies as shown in the Mind Map below.
A condemning conscience is the foothold Satan (2 Corinthians 10:3-6) can use to twist our thinking (Genesis 3:5) about God. Coupled with a season of suffering, we can start to think God is displeased with us. We can become bewitched by our own abilities (Galatians 3:1) and start to think God expects more than what we are delivering, leaving us to try harder to complete our faith (Galatians 3:3).
In doing so, we return to trusting moral efforts and place ourselves under the law again. Our faith is replaced with legalism. Our consciences are clear when we do good and our feelings tell us God is pleased. When we sin, we feel God is displeased and we try harder.
God becomes the stern Father figure again, only this time He is more disappointed since we should know better. We become sin-focused, looking for sin in our own lives and in the lives of others. Our thoughts are filled with commentary about our performance verses the performance of others (2 Corinthians 10:12).
We become enslaved and examine every thought and action. We are reluctant to turn to God in prayer; we know He will just be disappointed. The enemy’s goal has been accomplished; we have removed ourselves from God’s means of grace. We are left anxious, burdened and heading to despair. We need a good theological view of a condemning conscience through the Gospel. The Gospel reminds us the Christian life has a dual nature.
It is possible to be loved and accepted by God while we ourselves are sinful and imperfect. Martin Luther’s famous phrase is that Christians are simul justus et peccator—simultaneously righteous and sinful.
When a person receives credited righteousness (i.e. is justified), he or she is still wicked! The justified status is not given to them because they have gotten their hearts into a certain level of submission and worship.- Tim Keller, Galatians for You
The Gospel reminds us how God is wholly pleased with His Son (Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:11) and He chooses the weak and unites us to Christ (1 Corinthians 1:28-31). We are now in Christ and thus righteous in God’s eyes. Our performance doesn’t change God’s thoughts about us. The Gospel gives us the freedom to boast in our foolishness. We are now liberated from our consciences.
A condemning conscience should serve as a reminder of the weakness of our flesh and evoke a worship of Christ’s work and God’s love. It should lead us to draw closer to Christ with humility (James 4:6) putting us in line to receive God’s grace (Galatians 2:14).
Yes, the sin needs to be confessed (1 John 1:9), amputated (Matthew 5:30), or mortified (Romans 8:13), but not because God is displeased with us. It is because sin prevents us from receiving God’s grace while inhibiting the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives (Ephesians 4:30). It isolates us from fellowship with God (1 John 1:7-10).
For the Christian, a condemning conscience indicates an area of unbelief or a lack of faith and a proper response is to examine our hearts. God is working to change our hearts (Ezekiel 36:27-28) and restore us as image bearers. It is a process accomplished by drawing close to Christ through faith while uprooting self-trusting efforts to complete ourselves. The Christian life is a life of God-dependence.
Call to action
If your conscience condemns you, then I recommend a Gospel-based response like the following seven action items.
1. The possible presence of sin. It is possible for our conscience to become overly sensitive. Rick’s webinar titled True Guilt or False Sense of Guilt can help discern this.
2. If there is sin, search your heart. Ask God to search your heart (Psalm 139:23-24), through the Holy Spirit, to uncover any pockets of unbelief.
3. Talk to a friend and ask them for honest feedback. We all have blind spots and mature Christian friends are a means of God’s grace.
4. Spend time in prayer wrestling through these Gospel truths. Strive to become Gospel-focused. Consider starting a devotional reading through The Gospel Primer. Read and meditate on the 10 Gospel tips Rick recently shared in his article, I failed as a parent. Now what?
- The Gospel is greater than all your sin.
- The Gospel can forgive you for any of your sin.
- The Gospel is not helped by your effort.
- The Gospel is not hindered by your failure.
- The Gospel does not need you to be a success.
- The Gospel allows you to cooperate with Him.
- The Gospel will overcome your mistakes.
- The Gospel says you are not the Messiah.
- The Gospel releases you from fear of failure.
- The Gospel is a reminder to rest.
5. Take ownership of your badness, remembering God sent Christ to restore you to Him (Galatians 6:1-2). He wants you to be in His presence.
6. Recognize you have been delivered from sin and regularly respond in praise,
- To God for His mercy.
- To Christ for His perfection and sacrifice.
- To the Holy Spirit for ongoing counsel.
7. Rest in your forgiveness (Romans 8:1). Find a friend to help walk you through this. If you can’t find one, then you will be able to find one on our site. Learn more about that here. Be free to Love God and serve others through faith (Matthew 22:36-40).
Here is a sample homework assignment you could use for this article. This assignment would apply to any person, regardless of age.
- Read it through, savoring the thoughts.
- Read it again while rolling your mouse over the verses, then read the verses as they pop up. (They will pop up if you roll your mouse over them.)
- Go back and write out by hand each verse in the article.
- After you write the verse, ask these three questions of the verse: (1) What does it mean? (2) What does it mean to me? (3) How can I change in response to this verse as used in this article?
- At the end of the article, Mark is calling you to prayer. Pray each day for 10 days to the Father, Son, and Spirit, according to how Mark outlined the content of your prayers.
- In addition, print off all three mind maps and “memorize” them to the point you could teach them.