Conscience, Change, and Counseling

Dr. Brian Allison

A proper understanding of the Biblical notion of conscience is essential for counseling philosophy and effectiveness. The paucity of material on the topic of conscience in current Christian counseling literature is disturbing, given the role of conscience in human experience and behaviour, as well as its critical and singular place in Biblical anthropology, and its foundational and indispensable role in spiritual maturity and progress. The concept of conscience is particularly well-developed in the Pauline corpus; and although the Old Testament does not use the term 'conscience', the concept is pervasive.

Definition of Conscience

Conscience is the heart's internal or spiritual witness. Romans 9:1,2 reads, "I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies [bears witness] with me [summarturoÚshj moi] in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart." The phrase 'summarturouses moi' may be translated "bears witness along with me." The apostle's self-evaluation is that conscience stands as the verifying dynamic in his thought life. It serves to confirm the truth of the affirmation and words in his own mind. Paul's own conscious knowledge – or, in this case, self-knowledge – is borne witness to; and thus, in personification, this knowledge is shared with his conscience which functions in a verifying role.

The Greek word for conscience is sune…dhsij, the Latin, conscientia, which etymologically means 'a knowing with', or 'shared knowledge'; but it is wrong to believe that the intended meaning is that conscience shares this knowledge with God, and that conscience is the 'voice of God'. David Adam, in A Handbook of Christian Ethics, states that conscience is "the voice of God's Spirit in our souls – or rather the organ whereby we recognize that voice which has a right to command us" (35). He further states, "For conscience is 'knowing along with' – it is the knowledge I have 'along with' another, and that other is God, the Infinite Spirit" (231). However, as Delitzsch rightly states:

Nothing is more commonly read, than that conscience is a voice of God within us. Surely, literally and logically regarded, this is wrong. For conscience (conscience, from con = cum, sun) is closely related to the Greek sune…dhsij (conscientia), and is thus a subjective idea, and indeed a purely subjective and not a correlative idea…The sun is not that of fellowship or intercommunion, but sune…dhsij imports (keeping in view the distinction between the I as knowing and the knowledge, vid. 1 Cor. iv. 4) the knowledge dwelling in the person of man; and indeed, as an ethical conception, the knowledge proceeding from man's consciousness of God…If we ask about the nature of the conscience, it is everywhere found that it is not God who gives witness to the conscience, but the conscience that gives witness to man" (Biblical Psychology, 159-161).

The witness of conscience is a moral one. As Rehwinkel notes, "Conscience is man himself speaking as a moral being to himself" (Conscience, 7). The conscious knowledge in view to which conscience bears witness pertains to ethical truth or law. Conscience, as an internal or mental witness to one's conscious moral knowledge of (perceived) truth or law, also serves in the capacity of a judge, evaluating and determining the moral value and merit of actions, behaviour, and conduct which are based on, and informed, by that knowledge. Similarly, Gallagher states, "'Conscience' here means the capacity of a person to make rational judgments about whether a course of action in a particular situation is morally good or morally evil. Conscience in this sense is not a feeling but an ability to judge" (Christian Ethics, 127f.). Thus, we read in Romans 2:14f., "For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, 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." God's moral law is imprinted on the spirit's of all peoples. It is part of their natural constitution, in virtue of the imago Dei; that is, people are, by nature, moral beings. There is an innate capacity to know right from wrong. Butler remarks, "Conscience does not only offer itself to show us the way we should walk in, but it likewise carries its own authority with it, that it is our natural guide; the guide assigned us by the Author of our nature: it therefore belongs to our condition of being" ("Sermons," Reading in Ethics, 248). Conscience bears witness of the internal law of God (though, of course, conscious awareness of this law may be blurred because of socio-cultural factors and influences), as well as bears witness of inculcated law (e.g. parental rules), and bears witness to the personal consciousness of the knowledge of law.

Function of Conscience

Conscience derives its significance and importance from the fact of law, rules, directives, and even expectations – imposed precepts and principles. The place and role of conscience presupposes imposed precepts and principles. The philosophical justification for conscience is the reality of a created moral universe. With the rise of the conscious or personal knowledge of precepts and principles – that is, the acquisition of moral knowledge – there is, normatively speaking, the correlative rise of the moral sense of precepts and principles. Conscience becomes awakened and activated in the presence of 'law', and remains active and functional as long as the witnessed 'law' is conformed to. Conscience is moral awareness of right and wrong, which in actual expression consists of a positive and negative side. The conscience, in bearing witness to one's conscious knowledge of moral truth or law, ordinarily condemns the self when that knowledge of truth or law is violated or denied. The moral agent's thoughts 'accuse him'; he typically feels the pangs of guilt because of transgression, as well as the stabs of fear because of anticipated punishment or judgement. Conversely, the conscience, in bearing witness to one's conscious knowledge of moral truth or law, ordinarily justifies the self when that knowledge of truth or law is conformed to or accepted. The moral agent's thoughts excuse, commend, or 'defend' him; he feels the peace of approbation, and even pardon. Delitzsch writes, "Conscience, therefore, is not an echo or abode of an immediate divine self-attestation, but an active consciousness of a divine law established in man's heart" (Biblical Psychology, 165).

'Let conscience be your guide" is poor and faulty counsel unless God, as revealed in the Scriptures, is acknowledged and accepted as the ultimate moral reference point. The Christian conscience is always one that is coram Deo. Thus, we read, for example, "Paul, looking intently at the Council, said, 'Brethren, I have lived my life with a perfectly good conscience before [or, 'in reference to'] God up to this day'" (Acts 23:1; see also 1 Pe. 2:19). Christians should live in such a manner that they may readily commend themselves "to every man's conscience in the sight of God" (1 Cor 4:2; see also 5:11).

So, conscience serves to guide and regulate moral actions, behaviour and conduct. People often act in a certain way because of the dictates of conscience. Paul writes, for example, "But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience' sake" (Rom 13:4b,5; also 1 Cor 10:25). Conscience compels the self to choose and perform the right or the good through exerting internal coercion – registered by the sense of 'must' or 'ought' – in the heart towards actually realizing one's conscious awareness of the right or the good. Conscience not only judges what is the (perceived) right, but also prompts towards the achievement of it. Rejection or denial of the voice of conscience initially produces inner disturbance, unrest, and anguish. Thus, we read, for example, "Now when they [Jews] heard this [preaching], they were pierced to the heart [pangs of awakened conscience], and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, 'Brethren, what shall we do?'" (Acts 2:37); and 1 Samuel 24:5 reads, "It came about afterward that David's conscience bothered [lit., heart struck] him because he had cut off the edge of Saul's robe." A violated or denied conscience, through failing to choose or perform the right or the good, typically produces mental and emotional dis-ease – the experience of conviction – because of the experience of condemnation resulting from the conscience's intrinsic nature to be blameless, that is, the inner compulsion for the moral agent to live in harmony with his conscious moral knowledge of 'law' (see Acts 24:16). Adams correctly observes, "When we sin and our consciences evaluate the act or attitude as such, they next proceed to activate unpleasant visceral and other bodily responses to warn us to cease and desist and repent" (Manual, 95). Conviction, the experiential effect of neglected conscience, should produce positive behavioural change, the achievement of which quiets conscience. The pangs of conscience demand 'conversion'.

Kinds of Consciences

The Scriptures refer to different kinds of consciences (the emphasis here is on the ethical character of the moral agent's thought life and subsequent behaviour): the good conscience, the clear conscience, the defiled conscience, the evil conscience, the seared conscience, and the weak conscience. A good conscience is a blameless or non-condemning conscience. The moral agent is living according to, or in conformity with, his conscious moral knowledge of truth or law. Simply put, the moral agent is living in (perceived) obedience. We read, for instance, the exhortation, "And keep a good [¢gaq»n] conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame" (1 Pet 3:16).

A clear conscience is similar to a good conscience, in that the moral agent is free from a sense of condemnation and guilt. A good conscience is one in which the moral agent achieves positive ethical good; a clear conscience is one in which the moral agent is blameless or irreproachable. We read, for instance, "Deacons likewise must be men of dignity, not double-tongued, or addicted to much wine or fond of sordid gain, but holding to the mystery of the faith [that is, embracing and demonstrating Christian truth] with a clear conscience" (1 Tm 3:8,9; see also 2 Tm 1:3). A good and clear conscience is a Christian's greatest spiritual possession, from the human side (cf. Acts 24:16).

A defiled conscience is a conscience in which the possessed moral knowledge has been disparaged and overridden. The voice and pangs of conscience have been resisted or despised (1 Cor 8:7). An evil conscience is a conscience in which the possessed moral knowledge has been deliberately rejected, and the subsequent ethical behaviour and conduct are demonstrably godless and immoral (Heb 10:22). A defiled conscience logically leads to an evil conscience; and the end of an evil conscience is a seared conscience in which its witnessing and judging capacity and function have virtually ceased; and the moral agent has become ethically insensitive to truth or law (see 1 Tm 4:2).

A weak conscience exerts faint, uncertain, or undefined moral pressure on the moral agent toward definite conformity to truth or law. The rejection or neglect of possessed moral knowledge effects minimal disturbance or unrest which is designed to prevent wrongdoing or offensive action. The conscience has limited power to restrict, guide, and regulate ethical behaviour and conduct. The weakness of conscience typically results from poor or insufficient moral education and religious training. The possessed moral knowledge of a weak conscience is deficient, confused, or lacks an adequate authority basis.

Failure to respond in a morally compliant way to conscious moral knowledge, by rejecting the voice of conscience, results in weakening the witnessing and judging power of the conscience, leading to the erosion and dissipation of conscious moral knowledge, which is usually coupled with the willing engagement in immoral/inappropriate behaviour and conduct. Thus, we read, for example, in 1 Corinthians 8:7f., "Yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him. However not all men have this knowledge; but some, being accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were sacrificed to an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled." Moral exercising, informing, and strengthening of conscience are essential for spiritual maturity and growth. Rehwinkel writes, "Conscience becomes inactive and dull by willful neglect of its warning voice. If the person having a guilty conscience consciously and stubbornly acts contrary to his convictions and to his better knowledge and hardens himself in his sin, the voice of conscience is smothered and all restraint of evil is removed. The result is the deadening of conscience and the utter stifling of the voice of condemnation and a complete surrender to the dominion of sin, as exemplified by hardened criminals, profligates, and infidels" (Conscience, 84). The effective functionality and development of conscience depend upon responding to, and carrying out, the dictates and convictions of conscience – "But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil" (Hb. 5:14). To refuse to listen to the voice of conscience results in 'wounding' it (see 1 Cor. 8:12); and the inflicting of enough wounds will eventually kill it.

Conscience and Counseling Issues

There are various issues that should be of concern to a Biblical counselor or pastor with respect to the subject of the conscience and Christian behaviour and lifestyle. Three important areas of concern are: 1) guiding parents in the moral education and training of their children; 2) questions pertaining to faith; and 3) questions pertaining to salvation. The following are some proposed leading thoughts concerning these particular areas of concern, respectively, that counselors and pastors should seriously consider in their ministries.

1. Developing (Educating) the Conscience

Conscience does not function in a vacuum. Its ability and strength are dependent upon defined and authoritatively-rooted moral knowledge, which in turn is dependent upon proper moral education and training. The functionality and effectiveness of conscience are only as good as the internal 'system of law', or code of ethics, of which it is a witness, and according to which it judges. Early parental influence and training are critical for the shaping and developing of conscience. A child's conscience develops mostly during the first five years of life. Minirth, though his analysis of conscience may be flawed, rightly states, "The unhealthy aspects of early parental teachings do produce problems. For example, parents who are extremely strict, dominating, or legalistic produce a child with a conscience which is always condemning him and which he can never please. Of course, the other extreme (parents who are not strict enough) is equally harmful" (Christian Psychiatry, 67; see also Clinebell, Pastoral Care and Counseling, 141). The sociopath, for instance, has an underdeveloped conscience; the obsessive-compulsive an overdeveloped one. Proper moral education and training, for the Christian, centre upon, and must be informed exclusively by, the Word of God. Christian parents must test the validity and acceptability of their moral teaching and training according to the Word of God, stressing principles, rather than a rigid catalogue of rules and regulations. The prohibitions and expectations of parents exert incredible force on the child's development of conscience. Collins writes, "The child learns how to act in ways which will bring praise and avoid punishment…. But when there are poor parent models, and/or moral training which is punitive, critical, fear-ridden or highly demanding, then the child becomes angry, rigid, critical and burdened by a continuing sense of guilt" (Christian Counseling, 121). Christian parents have a spiritual and moral obligation to diligently study the New Testament Scriptures so that they may clearly and responsibly understand its moral framework and content; and ferret out and forfeit their culturally-based or societally-derived morality. They must be faithful and earnest students of the Word of God which alone should be the rule and source of morality (vis à vis television, radio, magazines, etc.).

Furthermore, appropriate discipline and punishment must be an essential part of moral training, for the exacting of discipline and punishment for the lack of conformity to moral standards helps to properly shape and develop the child's conscience. A child then understands that serious consequences ensue upon committed misdemeanors. The experience of serious consequences steels the moral fibers of the conscience through the presence of healthy fear. Punishment and discipline, however, must be balanced with rewards and positive reinforcement to ensure healthy moral development.

2. Conscience and Faith

There is a vital and inextricable connection between conscience and faith. A healthy, thriving faith is dependent upon a healthy, high functioning, and sensitized conscience. 1 Timothy 1:18f. reads, "This command I entrust to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you fight the good fight, keeping faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected [i.e., failed to listen to conscience] and suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith." The absence of obedience is the erosion and demise of faith. Rehwinkel concurs, "Christians who deliberately and wantonly act contrary to their conscience and their better knowledge thereby destroy their faith and cease to be Christians. A Christian faith and an evil conscience cannot be harmonized because they are incompatible; the one will eventually succumb to the other" (Conscience, 93f.). Obedience is an essential dynamic of faith, for obedience entails a focus on, and commitment to, God and His will. The conformity to God's will is both the necessary expression and demonstration of faith. Disobedience is an act of unbelief (see Heb 3:18,19). Conversely, a good and clear conscience results in strong and genuine faith. To achieve such a conscience, there must be clear instruction from the Word of God, as well as a personal commitment to obey that instruction. 1 Timothy 1:5 reads, "But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith." A good and clear conscience is the sure and indispensable impetus of Biblical sanctification. According to Titus 1:15, a defiled conscience, on the one hand, and unbelief and disobedience, on the other hand, are two aspects of the same spiritual state – two sides of the same coin. True conversion entails the restoration of an evil or defiled conscience so that obedience and holiness may then become inevitable attainments (see Heb 9:9,14). The absence of the evidence of obedience to Jesus Christ and to holiness of life reveals an unconverted state, regardless of profession or insistence to the contrary.

A good and clear conscience is the basis of the assurance of faith. Thus, 1 John 3:19-22 reads, "We will know by this that we are of the truth, and will assure our heart before Him in whatever our heart condemns us; for God is greater than our heart and knows all things. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do the things that are pleasing in His sight." If a Scripture-informed conscience does not condemn, but rather approves the moral decisions and actions, the believer has the certainty, or at least the grounds of the certainty, of acceptance with God. To live in a pleasing way before God, thus knowing His approval, necessarily dispels doubts concerning salvation. Christians who are weak in their faith must examine the reality and quality of their obedience, seriously considering from what they must repent. Christians who are struggling with faith, who have nagging and plaguing doubts, should be guided in the evaluation of the moral climate of their lives and the depth of their surrender to Christ.

3. Conscience and Salvation

Teaching and preaching which address the conscience are essential for entrance into and experience of salvation. Before salvation may be received, the conscience must be awakened and activated because salvation (both the act and process) involves repenting from wrongdoing and pursuing righteousness. Without an active and well-informed conscience, there can be no conviction of sin and repentance, and thus no salvation.

Christian teaching and preaching, whether from the pulpit or in the counseling room, must centre on informing and shaping the conscience – dealing with the issues of right and wrong, and clearly setting forth the moral will of God – by vigourously explaining and applying the Word of God in order to counter and reverse the morally insensitizing and intoxicating societal influences to which believers are constantly subjected, and which inadvertently educate their consciences and make them worldly. God's standards and expectations in Christ must be uncompromisingly presented, as opposed to innocuous religious sentimentality (e.g. that God always accepts, regardless of conduct), if real positive behavioural change is to occur. To be sure, there must be a balance between encouragement and exhortation, but teaching and preaching that does not consistently stimulate, address, and inform the conscience will result in complacency and indifference – both moral and spiritual decline. Such a didactic ministry need not be negative in tone; but the critical point is that it must be challenging because salvation depends upon the healthy and high functionality of conscience – faithfully and consistently obeying the will of God. Even the motivation of love in pursuing Christ relates to conscience, for such a motivation to have force, the motivation itself must be simultaneously deemed right and good. The Spirit prosecutes His sanctifying work by illuminating the mind with the Word of God and by convicting the conscience of its truth, resulting in a change of lifestyle which is God-oriented. Again, there can be no salvation experience apart from the exercise of conscience. Rehwinkel aptly writes, "Without an alert conscience, Christians would become self-righteous Pharisees and would cease to grow in sanctification. Conscience is the door to the soul of a sinner. If the pastor [or counselor] fails to knock at this door at the proper time and in the proper way, he and his message may never gain entrance" (Conscience, 97).

Conscience and Counseling

The personal counseling of believers certainly involves more than the consideration of conscience (counseling is a very complex undertaking); but conscience plays such a large role in behavioural change that it should be a primary counseling consideration. Again, there can be no significant and God-pleasing behavioural change apart from the positive role of conscience. The counselor or pastor must help the seeker or inquirer to understand his or her 'system of law' or morality, and to evaluate it against the truth and morality of the Scriptures. Further, the seeker or inquirer must be encouraged and directed to honestly examine his or her motives and thoughts – determining clearly the moral shortfall and failures, as revealed by the Scriptures – while also securing a commitment to repent and to conform to the of truth and morality of the Scriptures. Because conscience is a central issue in effecting Biblical change, acknowledgement and confession (of sin, failure, deficiency, etc.) must be necessary dynamics in the counseling process. Acknowledgement/confession is a precondition for positive behavioural change – conformity to the image of Christ.

True confession is the conviction and admission of sin or wrongdoing. James 5:16a reads, for instance, "Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed." It entails identifying the sin, recognizing the evil or horror associated with the sin, and feeling sorrow over the sin. Confession results in a religious reformation and restoration. Leslie Weatherhead correctly states, "Confession is the pouring out from the soul of all its conscious repressed and hidden sins and poisons and burdens and grief and sorrows. And it is a necessity for spiritual health...Unless sin is confessed it produces a brooding disposition characterized by great depression.... Suppressed sin, like suppressed steam, is dangerous. Confession is the safety-valve" (Weatherhead, 1929, 88).

Recognizing and acknowledging the problem or sin often presupposes the act of courageous and objective self-examination. Typically, the honesty of self-examination should generate a twofold understanding, which, in turn, should fuel and shape true confession. The first understanding concerns God. Through self-examination, a Christian should realize that God is good, merciful, and loving, as well as holy and righteous; and such an understanding of God should lead to repentance (cf. Rom 2:4). The second understanding concerns the Christian himself. Through self-examination, a Christian should realize that he has repeatedly spurned God's goodness, mercy, and love, and that he has failed to conform to His righteous standards and holy expectations; and this understanding should humble him. Another way to state this twofold understanding is that a person must understand God as being true and faithful and himself as being untrue and unfaithful (ultimately to the covenant).

The second element of true confession is the sense of disturbance at the evil of the wrong or sin committed. That is, the Christian should experience repugnance or disgust over personal sin, which is essentially the feelings of shame. With the recognition of having committed a wrong, a Christian should experience guilt (i.e., the sense of conviction). With the realization of the evil of the wrong, a Christian should experience shame (i.e., the feeling of a loss of dignity or self-respect). With this experience of shame, a Christian has acquired a true sense of sin. The understanding which underlies, and gives force to, this experience of being appalled or disgusted concerns that of the holiness of God. Strictly speaking, on the one hand, in understanding God's righteousness – that the irreproachable, divine Lawgiver judges sin – one feels guilt. On the other hand, in understanding God's holiness – that He is too pure to behold iniquity and cannot look favourably on sin, and that one is unclean in His sight – one feels shame. The third element of true confession is the expression of sorrow over the wrong or sin committed – a 'weeping over his sin.' Sorrow or grief comprises the essence of brokenness. Religious transformation demands spiritual brokenness. Mourning over personal sin is ultimately restorative, not depressive.

So, with these three elements – the realization of wrongdoing, the experience of shame for the wrongdoing, and the expression of sorrow over the wrongdoing – true confession is evident; and conscience achieves the spiritual goal intended by the moral Creator. MacArthur practically states, "Our conscience constantly confronts us with our own sinfulness. Try as we might to blame others or seek psychological explanations for how we feel, we cannot escape reality. We cannot ultimately deny our own consciences…. If we are willing to acknowledge our sinfulness and seek His grace, He will wonderfully deliver us from our sin and all its effects" (Biblical Counseling, 104,115).

Works Cited

Adam, David. A Handbook of Christian Ethics. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1925.

Adams, Jay. The Christian Counselor's Manual. Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Pub. Co., 1973.

Butler, Joseph. "Sermons". Readings in Ethics. New York: Appleton, Century, Crofts, Inc., 1935.

Clinebell, Howard. Basic Types of Pastoral Care & Counseling. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1984.

Collins, Gary. Christian Counseling. Waco: Word Books, 1980.

Delitzsch, Franz. A System of Biblical Psychology. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1966.

Gallagher, John. The Basis for Christian Ethics. New York: Paulist Press, 1985.

MacArthur, John and Wayne Mack. "Counseling and the Sinfulness of Humanity." Introduction to Biblical Counseling. Dallas: Word Publishing, 1994.

Minirth, Frank. Christian Psychiatry. Old Tappan: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1977.

Rehwinkel, Alfred. The Voice of Conscience. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1956.

Weatherhead, Leslie. Psychology and Life. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1957.