Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
December 7, 1961
NUMBER 31, PAGE 1,12a

Paul's Conscience

Robert C. Welch, Nacogdoches, Texas

The conscience, like personal sincerity, of a man is hard for others to determine or to define. Attempts to do so may lead to wrong conclusions. These things can only be determined by what the person says and does. There must be evidence of consistency between his actions and his motives, between his words and deeds and his knowledge. "For who among men knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of the man which is in him?" (1 Cor. 2:11)

Paul said; "Brethren, I have lived before God in all good conscience until this day." (Acts 23:1) He, and, of the human race, he alone, could know the condition of his conscience; except as he expressed it to others. We might know from previous actions that a man was lying about his having a good conscience. We do not, however, have that problem with Paul. He is not misrepresenting the case when he says that he had lived in all good conscience until the day he said it. That is doubly guaranteed. Not only is he a man of integrity, but he was also guided by the Holy Spirit in making that statement. Accepting his statement at full value, then, we are able to determine the scriptural meaning of conscience.

The Role Of Conscience

The conscience is neither a safe guide nor a guide for the person. Its function is not that of a guide. Neither is our understanding of matters a guide. Some suppose that we cannot be wrong if we do what we sincerely think to be right. If that be correct, then ignorance is bliss, for the man with little understanding of right and wrong is in better condition than the one with greater understanding; and the man who is in ignorance of the gospel is in better condition than any of us. We, of course, can do no more than we understand to be right, and we ought to do as much as we understand. The function of the conscience comes in right here. It restrains us from what we understand to be wrong and urges us in what we understand to be right. It can go no further, however, than the limits of our understanding. It is a "knowing with one's self."

There is only a shade of difference between the conscience and consciousness. The latter is inward awareness to outward phenomena. The former is the inward awareness to the inner self. The man may be conscious of his actions, considering them to be right. As he does this his conscience approves; he has a good conscience. (Acts 23:1; 1 Pet. 3:21) He may be conscious of his actions, considering them to be wrong. As he does this his conscience disapproves; he has an evil conscience. (Heb. 10:22; 1 Cor. 8:7) But the approval and disapproval is limited to the understanding of right and wrong. If the understanding be imperfect then the conscience will act accordingly. Paul is not asserting for himself a pure life and perfect understanding either before or after he became a Christian. But he does claim that his life was consistent with his understanding; that is, that he had a good conscience.

The truth is our guide. (Matt. 7:21-23; John 8:32) Man sins when he disobeys it, or refuses to obey it, even if he does not know the truth. That was Paul's condition before his conversion. (1 Tim. 1:13-15) Had he known the truth but refused to obey it, he would have violated his conscience; it would have been evil. But he declares, in specific language in Acts 23:1, and in plainly significant statements elsewhere, that he did not go against his conscience; it was good. The truth of God is the outside force which is to direct our lives; the will, and not conscience, is the inward directing force. The will should be strong enough to compel us to act according to that which truth and conscience approve.

Companion Statements

The definition which is often given for the word conscience is used by Paul as he discusses his past life. In this instance he is speaking particularly of his past life as a Jew and his hatred of Christians: "I verily thought with myself that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth." (Acts 26:9) Thus he declares his conscientiousness in the matter. He did what he thought was right even though it was wrong. His constant conscientiousness is further verified in the same case, as he declares that when he learned the truth he "was not disobedient to the heavenly vision." (Acts 26:19)

Furthermore, as he speaks of this same matter on another occasion during his trial he refers to the law and the prophets, which he once misunderstood but now understands, in these words: "Herein I also exercise myself to have a conscience void of offence toward God and men always." (Acts 24:16) While he persecuted the church his deeds were evil, but in those evil deeds he did not sear his conscience, it was not violated, it was void of offence, it was a good conscience; so that when the time came, as in the parable of the sower, he received the word into an honest and good heart; and because he did those things ignorantly in unbelief he obtained mercy. (1 Tim. 1:12-16)

His Defense

Sometimes objection is made to his having a good conscience while persecuting the church. The objectors suppose that his statement about his good conscience only applies to his life as a Christian. They assume that since he was making his defense before the Jews when he made the statement that he would not need to include his persecution of Christians in such a defense. It just so happens that when he was speaking directly to the Jews he specifically said that he was making his defense and he included his persecution of Christians in that defense: "Brethren and fathers, hear ye the defense which I now make unto you .. ..and I persecuted this Way unto death." (Acts 22:1-4)

When he later appeared before Agrippa he was just as specific about the matter. "I think myself happy, King Agrippa, that I am to make my defense before thee this day .... I verily thought with myself that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth." (Acts 26:2-9) Thus, this part of his life was definitely in view in his reference to his having lived in all good conscience till the day of his trial before the Jewish council.

Men, as in Paul's case, of an honest and good heart, who have a care for their conscience before God and men, though they have sinned ignorantly in unbelief, need to receive the word in understanding, faith and obedience, letting their baptism be the answer of a good conscience toward God. (1 Pet. 3:21)