refers in general to that human moral awareness that judges an action right or wrong.
Although the word “conscience” does appear in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word usually translated “heart” does refer to conscience in a number of passages, for example, “Afterward David's heart smote him” (1 Samuel 24:5). Compare
2 Samuel 24:10;
Job 27:6. The New Testament also uses this Hebraic reference to conscience: “if our heart condemn us” (1 John 3:20-21.) The word for “reins” or “kidneys” sometimes refers to conscience. In
Psalms 16:7 the psalmist thanked God for giving him counsel and because his reins or kidneys admonished him, meaning his conscience reproved him. (See
Psalms 73:21 for “heart” and “reins” in the same verse.)
“Conscience” in the New Testament is the translation of a Greek word derived from a verb that means “to know with.” This suggests a moral consciousness which compares an action with a standard. Paul, it seems, took a word from popular Greek usage in Corinth and used it to reply to some of the Corinthian Christians. For Paul, God is the Creator and Sustainer of all things. God judges persons by His standards as revealed in Jesus Christ. These standards are reflected in His creation and especially in persons who are morally responsible because of their capacity of choice. To Paul the “conscience” is a person's painful reaction to a past act which does not meet the standard. A person can react wrongly because of wrong information, wrong environment, and wrong habit. Yet Paul would have said that, in spite of these liabilities, a person's conscience must be obeyed. Paul, however, would not have said that a person has no other guide. If past actions have not been such as to produce painful reactions, the person is said to have a “pure conscience” (1 Timothy 3:9;
2 Timothy 1:3). When sensitive and active in judging past acts, the conscience is said to be “good” (Acts 23:1;
1 Timothy 1:5,1 Timothy 1:19;
1 Peter 3:16,1 Peter 3:21;
Hebrews 13:18) or “void of offence toward God” (Acts 24:16). If the conscience is not active in judging past acts, it is said to be “weak” (1 Corinthians 8:7,1 Corinthians 8:10,1 Corinthians 8:12) and may be wounded (1 Corinthians 8:12). When the conscience is insensitive, it is “seared” (1 Timothy 4:2). The sinful conscience is “defiled” (Titus 1:15) or “evil” (Hebrews 10:22).
1 Corinthians 4:4, Paul used the verb from which the word for “conscience” is derived. He wrote: “For I know nothing by myself.” This phrase means “my conscience does not accuse me.” Paul completed the sentence by saying: “yet am I not hereby justified: but he that judgeth me is the Lord.” Paul, in short, taught that a pure conscience is valuable, but that Christ is the final standard by which a person is judged.
H. Page Lee