Word of the Week
December 2, 2023
Suneidēsis: Can You Trust Your Conscience?
In that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them.
Romans 2:15 NASB
Have you heard about the guy who wrote anonymously to the IRS? His letter said, “I cheated on my income tax last year, and my conscience has been bothering me. I am sending you a check for $1000. If my conscience continues to bother me, I will send you the rest.”
You have a conscience, and so do I. When a person seems to have no conscience, we call him a sociopath. However, we normally assume that people have a sense of right and wrong, an inner alarm that sounds when we are in danger of crossing a moral line.
The question is, “Can I trust my conscience?’
We won’t find answers by looking for clues from the world around us, where some look at abortion as murder and others declare, “There’s nothing wrong with it.” Opinion polls will never determine right and wrong. I need to consult a higher authority, and the best place to do that is the Bible.
Today we will take a look at the Greek word for “conscience,” in an attempt to learn what God says about it.
The New Testament word for conscience is suneidēsis (occurs about 30 times). It occurs seldom in early secular writings, usually describing self-knowledge, the ability to think objectively about yourself. It later took on a moral flavor, noticing what was right or wrong about yourself.
You won’t find much evidence of it In the Old Testament either. Hebrew had no separate word for conscience. For the Jews, God renders a verdict of guilty or not guilty; your subjective, personal opinion is not very significant. Instead of talking about “conscience,” the Old Testament refers to your “heart.” David, for instance, prayed for a “clean heart” in Psalm 51:10, and he recorded a vivid description of his misery in the wake of adultery with Bathsheba in Psalm 32:3-5.
So where does the actual word “conscience” show up? Suneidēsis is absent from the Gospels and appears only twice in Acts. Conscience takes center stage in the writings of Paul, the book of Hebrews, and the epistles of Peter. Let’s go there to answer two questions about the conscience.
What does the conscience do?
- The conscience enables us to recognize what is morally right and wrong.
Paul spends the first chapters of Romans proving that we are all sinners. We have all broken God’s law and we are no position to have a relationship with Him.
Someone might object, “What about people who don’t know about the Law of God?”
Paul replies, “You have a moral law imprinted on your heart. Your conscience bears witness against you, as it alternately accuses you for doing wrong or defends you for doing right.” This is true for everyone. Even though the specifics of moral codes differ from one culture to another, everyone has a built-in warning system that goes off when you cross a moral line. It not only says, “You could get in trouble for this,” it says, “This is wrong!”
- The conscience enables us to recognize when we do wrong.
Paul told the Corinthians that he had confidence in dealing with them based on “the testimony of our conscience” which recognized that he had consistently conducted himself with holiness and sincerity in the world, especially toward them (2 Corinthians 1:12). He reviewed his behavior and found nothing that called for repentance.
- The conscience enables us to evaluate others.
A faction in Corinth criticized Paul, critiquing his ministry, and he appealed to the believers there to review his behavior among them. He knew that their conscience would confirm his sincerity and love. He and his associates renounced any form of manipulation, “commending ourselves to every man’s conscience” (2 Corinthians 4:2) and being “made manifest . . . in your consciences” (2 Corinthians 5:11).
In short, suneidēsis looks at a person’s thoughts and actions, evaluating them and sounding the alarm when something is morally wrong.
Our goal is to live with a clear conscience. Scripture emphasizes this repeatedly, speaking of:
- Good conscience (Acts 23:1)
- Blameless conscience (Acts 24:16)
- Clear conscience (2 Timothy 1:3)
- Perfect conscience (1 Timothy 1:5, 19; 1 Peter 3:16, 21)
We want to be able to ask ourselves, “Is my conscience bothering me about anything?” and get a resound “No!”
There is a second question, however.
Is the conscience always right?
Unfortunately, the answer is “No.”
It can be insensitive. The New Testament describes false teachers who have a “defiled” conscience (Titus 1:15). Paul elsewhere describes people with a conscience that has been “seared” (1 Timothy 4:2). Like a burnt piece of steak, these folks have a conscience that is insensitive, toughened by being constantly ignored. If it still sounds an alarm, it has been smothered to a mere whisper. That is why it is always dangerous to ignore the warnings of your conscience. The longer you disregard it, the fainter it will be.
It can be too sensitive. Paul had to referee a controversy in Corinth over the issue of meat offered to idols. One group of believers saw nothing wrong with buying meat from the temple market, while another recoiled in horror from the practice. Their consciences operated at different levels regarding this issue. Who was right? In 1 Corinthians 8-10, Paul analyzed the problem. First, he said that idols are not real. The stone images are just pieces of stone, and they have no effect on any meat. So the believers who bought the meat were not really doing anything wrong. However, that’s not the whole story. He warned them to consider those brothers and sisters who had consciences that shouted “This is sin!” when they thought of eating meat from a pagan source. He said that such people had a “weak conscience” (1 Corinthians 8:7). Their alarm bells were going off unnecessarily.
The solution was not to override the “weak” conscience, however. Paul made it clear that it was not safe to push someone to act against their conscience, even if it was over-sensitive. Such an act would be purposely doing something that you believed was sin. That’s never a good idea.
The overarching guideline is to remember that our consciences are not infallible. They only operate on the basis of what we believe to be true. My conscience might be too sensitive, tormenting me about something that is really OK in God’s eyes. It might not be sensitive enough, rationalizing a situation so that I feel OK about something that God hates.
God, not my conscience is the standard. That’s why it is vital to build my life on the Word of God. Soak in His instructions so that my conscience can constantly be corrected, calibrated to God’s standards of holiness, not those of society or tradition.
One study tool, the New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, suggests that the Corinthians misused the concept of conscience in their controversy about meat and idols. That’s why Paul went into detail to explain the right use of conscience. Some claimed the meat was all right because they had a clear conscience about it. Paul says that conscience alone is not always an infallible guide (see 1 Corinthians 4:4). A man may have a clear conscience because it is dead or inadequately educated. The conscience operates as a moral double-check on our actions, but it needs to be carefully tended. Within that limitation, it is very important (Acts 23:1; 24:16; Romans 2:15; 9:1; 13:5; 1 Timothy 1:5, 19; 3:9; 2 Timothy 1:3; 1 Peter 2:19; 3:16).
Christ had risen, but Peter was bored. “Let’s go fishing!” he told the others, so they launched a boat on the Sea of Galilee. They weren’t catching anything until a man appeared on the shore and told them to throw the net on the other side of the boat. An instant massive catch revealed that Jesus was the one on the beach. Peter jumped overboard and swam to shore while the others brought the fish.
When they arrived, Jesus was already cooking fish on a “charcoal fire.” The Greek word is anthrakia, a fire consisting of a pile of glowing coals (John 21:9).
This word appears only one other time in the New Testament, taking us back to another fire: the glowing coals in the courtyard of the high priest where Peter was warming himself – just before he denied Jesus.
Surely this is no coincidence. Jesus builds a fire that would remind Peter of his great failure. He takes him back to that shameful moment as preparation for the conversation where He is going to restore Peter and welcome him back to the fold as a friend.
At Christmas, we often observe Advent by lighting a candle of joy. Next week we will look at a Greek word that throws light on a moment of great joy in the Christmas story.
©Ezra Project 2023