“I always strive to have a clear conscience toward God and men.” Paul (Acts 24:16)
How do you determine right and wrong? If you are a Christian where do you go if the Bible isn’t clear on a decision? Are we left with just our reason? What about Vaccinations and Covid-19 what do we do?
The answer, the conscience. I have been studying the conscience lately and have endeavored to apply it to the idea of Vaccination.
How to define the conscience? Some people refer to it as the small voice, or some feeling of right or wrong.
The Reformers all emphasized the conscience.
Martin Luther: “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.” (1)
John Calvin: “Therefore, in order that none of us may stumble on that stone, let us first consider that there is a twofold government in man: one aspect is spiritual, whereby the conscience is instructed in piety and in reverencing God; the second is political, whereby man is educated for the duties of humanity and citizenship that must be maintained among men. (2)
A simple working definition could be that; the conscience is the soul’s rational sense of moral judgement.
Every human being has a conscience since every human being has a soul. We also have a capacity to consider our ways (Hag 1:5, 7) which is one job the conscience does. It is primarily the rational part of our brain, to make accurate rational judgments the conscience needs knowledge to direct it.
The knowledge of God is there in the conscience (Rom 1:19-20) but it is suppressed (Rom 1:18). We recognize that like all natural knowledge our conscience is corrupted by sin and we have a faulty moral sense. Yet with a renewed heart in Christ, we recalibrate the conscience.
The Greek word used for Conscience in the New Testament is συνείδησις, εως, ἡ (συνεῖδον)(3).
Used most in 1 Cor (8x), Heb (5x), 1 Tim (4x)
If the conscience is, the souls rational sense of moral judgement, then it’s purpose is to distinguish right and wrong for the individual. It is not the infallible rule, but it is a guide or witness when making decisions. We can experiment thoughtfully and practically.
Paul in 1 Corinthians says the conscience provides help in making decisions about right and wrong. Primarily in areas that are not plainly laid out in Scripture, which some ethics and decision making also fall into this category. A test question we could ask is, “Do you eat food sacrificed to idols?”
It is not a sin by itself, but becomes a sin when your individual conscience and that of others is negatively affected.
What a gift the conscience is!
Let’s take a controversial topic that is in the news a lot today.
The Bible doesn’t say you should or should not get the vaccine against Covid 19. How do we determine if we should?
If I get the vaccination against my conscience I could be sinning.
If I don’t get the vaccination and my conscience convicts me I could be sinning.
What do we do? Well if 1 Corinthians is our guide then we should inform ourselves as much as possible about the vaccination. Get the medical information, look at benefits and risks, pray that God will give you wisdom as you explore it.
Then once settled, get the vaccination or don’t! It’s that simple!
Unfortunately we have a third area. Do I force it on others? The answer is no, you do not have authority to bind the conscience of another person. You can educate and inform and even encourage, just like the weaker brother or unbeliever who refuses to eat food sacrificed to idols, but you don’t force them (1 Cor 10:29).
Paul never instructs the Corinthians to force each other to eat meat sacrificed to others, instead he says abstain for their sake. He doesn’t say you can’t eat any meat ever again only that it is not something you insist on when eating with others.
There are areas that you should seek to bind a conscience is when they are in open rebellion to the Word of God. For example, a man that visits pornographic websites must be admonished with the Word of God.
The Westminster Standard Chapter 20, Paragraph 2, discusses liberty of conscience.
“God alone is Lord of the conscience,a and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship.b So that to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience;c and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also.d“
So are we obeying out of blind obedience or are we allowing for a liberty of conscience in our brothers and sisters in Christ?
Following posts will discuss more on the conscience.
(1) Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1950), 185.
(2) John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 847.
(3) William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 967.