Sermon for December 27, 2020

Conscience, what is it?

1 Timothy 4:1-6

1 Timothy 4: 1-6 The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. 2 Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. 3 They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. 4 For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5 because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. 6 If you point these things out to the brothers and sisters,[a] you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed.

“Thus conscience does make cowards of us all”– William Shakespeare in Hamlet.

Like many of you, I am sure, one of the requirements in high school was to read Shakespeare.  I had to read two of his works, Macbeth and Hamlet.  In one of the most famous dissertations known in Hamlet is the statement above.  Dealing with troubled times, Hamlet outlines a long list of the miseries of experience, ranging from lovesickness to hard work to political oppression, and asks who would choose to bear those miseries if he could bring himself peace with a knife.  It is his conscience the prevents him for committing suicide.  It is the difficulty of knowing the truth in a spiritually ambiguous universe, and the connection between thought and action.[1]  It is a very deep work of art.

In Jesus’ day, or in Paul’s day when he writes this letter to Timothy, the Greeks had some strong influence on the idea of conscience.  While Plato and Aristotle did not mention conscience per se, they did have discussions of the virtues, practical wisdom, and weakness of will that form the critical backdrop to medieval discussions of conscience.

St. Jerome, interpreting Ezekiel’s vision of four living creatures coming out of a cloud. Each creature was shaped like a man, but each had four faces: the front face was human; the right was that of a lion; the left was that of an ox; and the back was that of an eagle (Ezekiel 1.4–14). Jerome identifies the human face as representing the rational part of man, the lion as the emotional, the ox as the appetitive, and the eagle as that “which the Greeks call synteresis: that spark of conscience.[2]

Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas believed that conscience in Scripture could be broken down into two parts.  The first part seems to be a power for discovering the truth of very general practical principles like “obey God,” “honor your parents,” and “do not harm your neighbors.” The second part of conscience involves the application of the very general principles to situations that may be either general or particular.  This second part can be mistaken since the very general principles of the first part may be misapplied through ignorance or faulty reasoning. The misapplication explains, to a certain extent, how conscience, oriented to good, can be involved in the performance of evil actions.

Why does any of this matter?  Well, these points of view are an answer to a serious question:  What is the conscience?  We begin by revealing what it is not:

YOUR conscience (as a Christ follower) is NOT the HOLY SPIRIT!

Your conscience belongs to you and it can be influenced by many things.

  • Your upbringing
  • Your education
  • Your life experiences
  • Your own expectations

 However, another influence will change your conscience.

  • You let go of YOUR influences and you allow the HOLY SPIRIT to influence your conscience.

This is a HUGE difference!  God has always operated in this way to influence our conscience towards the Perfect Way, just look at the 10 Commandments!  But look at what both Paul and Timothy are dealing with…

1 Timothy 1:18 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, 19 keeping faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith. 20 Among these are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan, so that they will be taught not to blaspheme.

WOW!  WHAT!?!  The key to understand these verses is the word PROPHECY which needs defined.  Often, people associate prophecy with predicting the future. The Anslem Study Bible states that the prophet’s primary concern is with contemporary events within social and political contexts.  Most, but not all of prophetic literature in the Bible are dealing with the present reality during the author’s inspiration by God.  There are, however, some instances where future events are declared, mainly the promise of God on the earth, Emmanuel (God with us), born of a virgin, a man of many sorrows, the forgiveness of our sins, the spotless Lamb…Jesus!

There is the human tendency to look at prophetic literature as doom and gloom and judgement, but a more careful read is to see that there is still hope.  While the prophets speak to a generation dealing with the consequences of their actions, mainly, falling away from God, God offers hope and rescue if they decide to return.  That decision is based on a sensitive conscience.  Therefore, in Paul’s letter to Timothy, he remarks that some have decided for themselves to be closed off, to be seared or welded shut their consciences.  This means that their consciences are of their own volition, controlled by their own opinions and are not influenced by the Holy Spirit! 

Titus 1:15 To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted. 16 They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good.

Paul is battling Greco-Roman cultural influences about human reason and here is his response…

1 Corinthians 2:11–13 (ESV): 11 For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. 13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.

So, what is a “GOOD CONSCIENCE”?  That is easy!  It is one that is open and sensitive to God’s leading.  It is selfless instead of selfish.  And this influence of the Holy Spirit WILL BE EVIDENT!  Why?  Because it will be different than the way the world is.  The Holy Spirit’s influence on the conscience is revealed this way:

Galatians 5:22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

A good conscience means that I look at everyone differently, even myself.  The Spirit is helping me deal with all my specks and logs, so much so, that I do not bother pointing out specks in others.  If there is no judgement if I live by the Spirit, why should I judge others?  The Spirit being lived out in me may be the GOOD that helps someone else’s conscience to become good too!  Only Jesus can do that!


[1] SparkNotes editors. “No Fear Hamlet.” SparkNotes.com, SparkNotes LLC, 2005, www.sparknotes.com/nofear/shakespeare/hamlet/.

[2] Langston, Douglas, “Medieval Theories of Conscience”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2015/entries/conscience-medieval/>.

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