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Our entire lives move forward in faith. We do what we do because we believe (faith) it is the right thing to do, whether it is the right or wrong thing to do. Here are a few examples of actions we take because we believe, at the moment, it’s the best course.
Paul said it this way, “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” (Romans 14:23). Now, before your biblically trained mind blows a gasket, let me explain. Paul was not thinking about anger, porn, adultery, or flying planes into buildings. He was discussing secondary issues like eating meat, drinking wine, and celebrating certain days.
Paul was teaching his readers that whatever you do, you must do it from a heart of faith: you must believe that what you are doing is the right thing to do. The essence of all decision-making is that all of your decisions come from a belief system that says it is okay to do what you want to do. Faith, right or wrong, is not the exclusive, hermetically sealed domain of Christians. To believe (faith) and act on that belief is part of what it means to be human.
But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin (Romans 14:23).
You move forward in faith because you have removed doubt, which releases you to do what you do. The problem is that if you base the “doubt removing process” on bad information, you will make the wrong decision. Mercifully, God gave all of us an internal moral thermostat that helps us to guard against acting in bad faith.
Your conscience is your inner voice that monitors all of your actions. It is one of your soul’s most important aspects because it governs how you think about and responds to good and evil. Your conscience can condemn you, or it can excuse you, as we see in Romans 2:14-15.
For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.
What Paul had in view in Romans is a people group who did not know about the Old Testament. They did not have a Bible. They did not know God through special revelation (Romans 10:17). So they did not accept the Bible’s truth claims, but yet they did possess a moral thermostat that convinced them of right and wrong actions. This truth is one of the most compelling reasons why none of us will have an excuse if we choose to reject Christ (Romans 1:20-21). Regardless of their relationship with Christianity, every individual is born with an internal wiring system that enables them to discern right from wrong.
Paul elevated the importance of the conscience, which is why he did not want any of us to tinker with another person’s conscience unwisely. The conscience is bendable, and if it bends outside biblical parameters, a person will be in moral trouble. We see this moldable idea in Paul’s letter to Timothy. He called this the seared or hardened conscience.
Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth (1 Timothy 4:1-3).
Do you see what happened to those people who had hard consciences? Once their consciences became calloused, they could do all sorts of evil practices because a hardened conscience ceases to condemn you of wrongdoing. A hardened conscience is like a callused hand–it feels no pain. If the conscience is not brought under the daily clarity and scrutiny of God’s Word (Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 Timothy 3:16-17), in the context of a biblical community (Hebrews 10:24-25), as illuminated by the Spirit of God (John 16:13), it will harden.
Paul knew we had to handle our consciences with the utmost care. That is why he talked about never eating meat in front of a person whose conscience demanded it was wrong to eat meat offered to idols (1 Corinthians 8:13). Their belief system had convinced them that eating meat was wrong. He aimed to use wise and practical love (1 Corinthians 8:1-2) when engaging those who believed (faith) differently.
Paul taught how old Jewish traditions trained new believers. These young converts still had faith in ideas that were not biblically sound (1 Corinthians 8:1-13). They had misplaced faith, but it was always faith. He also appealed to the Christians in Ephesus to change some of their ways–practices born out of old belief systems–that kept them enmeshed in a former manner of living (Ephesians 4:22).
Faith is about what you believe is right, regardless of how that belief lines up with God’s Word. The man will only fly an airplane into a building because he believes his action is what he is supposed to do. He has (misinformed) faith to do it. He is acting out of and proceeding from a twisted belief system. But what if we make it more practical since none of us are going to fly a plane into a building? Did you know that you are acting according to your faith each time you choose sinful anger toward someone? You believed it was the right thing to do in that moment of anger (James 1:5-8).
When you’re in your sin-filled anger episode, you have convinced–another word for faith–yourself that you are right, and based on that false belief, you respond accordingly. What you believe–as shown by your anger–and what the Bible teaches are at odds.
If you do not recalibrate your conscience to the teaching of God’s Word, you will readjust your moral thermostat to a new moral standard that will begin to condone sinful anger. The man who flew his plane into a building needed to adjust his deceitful belief system to God’s Word, rather than a belief system that condoned such brutality. He calibrated his conscience to a pagan belief system. It did not seem odd to him to kill 3,000 innocent people or to take his own life. This tragedy begs a few questions for us to ponder and apply.
On a few occasions, when I have vented anger toward my wife, I immediately started the process of “recalibrating my conscience” to an alternate belief system (my way versus the Bible’s way) by justifying my actions. This recalibration process “permits me” to blame my actions on her or some other innocent scapegoat. Initially, my conscience would blare at me, telling me to stop being angry at my wife. A biblically informed conscience should do this, which is the beauty of God’s Word when illuminated by the Spirit. The perfect sweet spot is when (1) your conscience, (2) belief system, and (3) God’s Word is aligned.
If I had chosen to make my conscience incongruent to God’s Word, my conscience would have flexed and adapted to my new morality. This new morality would then permit me to be an angry person, who believed it was okay to be angry, without remorse or repentance. If you do not bring your conscience under the Word’s surveillance, it will drift from the truth, while adapting itself to a new “word,” and then seal itself (harden) into that new belief system. At that point, you will act according to your newly minted, albeit evil, belief system.
Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness” (Hebrews 3:7-8).
The misguided Muslim, who wants to kill people, has a different kind of faith. It is a faith steeped in the hatred for anyone who is not like him. His conscience does not condemn him because he has saturated his conscience in an evil belief system. We see this idea in our country every day.
This kind of faith is born out of sinful cravings of the heart (James 4:1-3). People like this blind themselves to the truth by embracing another truth while affirming their actions as right. Their rightness and the Bible’s rightness are at odds, but they are “free” to do as they please because their consciences do not condemn them.
Let me illustrate – This is what happens to the porn addict. Perhaps the first time he did porn, he felt a twinge of guilt. Maybe he repented or tried to repent, but he was unwilling to go all the way by letting others know about his sin. Rather than exposing his sin’s complexity and depth to more light (1 John 1:7-10), he went through a private repentance process that did not altogether pull his conscience in line with God’s Word.
This half-hearted process allowed his conscience to adjust just enough to harden a bit. After looking at porn and masturbating a few more times, the condemnation began to subside. Perhaps he convinced himself by the intellectually dishonest argument that it was okay to masturbate. Or, maybe he blamed his wife because she was not willing to have sex with him.
Whatever his reasons were, they all served the same purpose: to harden his conscience to the point where he could look at porn, masturbate, and not feel bad about what he was doing. He built a new belief system. He was now “free and clear” to do porn because of his unique and adjusted faith. His moral thermostat went utterly off the biblical grid, and he could not or would not (probably a combination of both) see the truth. An addict is a man that is in full-tilt self-deception.
If you are that person who does not feel deep conviction and personal brokenness over your sin (see Psalm 32 and 51), one of the most productive things that you could do is let others know about your sin. Your conscience is too distorted to see the depth of what is happening to you. Sin has caught you (Galatians 6:1).
Your problem is more than behavioral sinning. The deeper sin that I’m talking about is the deception that is going on inside of you. Your deceit is more complicated than the behavioral sin committed. There is probably nothing more frightening than living life while blind to the deceptiveness of the heart.
My appeal to you is not to play around with this. Paul had a high view of conscience. There is a reason his language sounded hyperbolic in 1 Corinthians 8:13. To fool around with the conscience is a matter of life and death. Your conscience is your highest level of morality, and if it is not in line with the Word of God, you may be able to live with yourself because you have readjusted it, but others will have a hard time living with you.
One of my Mastermind Students read this article and responded by giving me this instructive step-by-step analysis of how we can warp our consciences and put things back on track.