Christian conscience


I set out to understand the difference between the conscience of a believer and that of an unregenerate person.  Along the way I decided that something which Jesus has done must have transformed the conscience, because there are differences between the conscience of the believer and the unbeliever.  This exploration proved to be more complex than I first imagined.

What is a conscience?

The idea of conscience is a Greek concept.  In the ancient Greek and Latin thinking prior to Christ the moral conscience was primarily understood in terms of looking backward to evaluate whether the deeds one had done were right or wrong.  It did not function to help the person make future decisions.  In the Hebrew Bible there is no word for conscience.  Instead the actions of the person are understood with reference to the Law of God.  A person can know good or evil by looking at God’s word (e.g. Psalms 16:7; 40:8; 119:11).  In the Old Testament, being ashamed for a deed is not the result of conscience per se, but the result of God’s attitude towards that deed being made known.[1]

In the biblical material the Greek word for conscience does not appear until the book of Acts.[2]  For this reason it is necessary to consider a wider set of ideas, rather than to simply search for the word conscience.  The heart of the person is related to the idea of conscience.  But central to the Greek concept of conscience is consciousness of right or wrong.  To put this another way the conscience makes people conscious of righteousness or sin, most often conscious of sin.  So I will begin with the origin of sin consciousness.

In the very beginning human beings were made in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27).  There is no explanation as to what this means in Genesis one, but the statement is immediately followed by a command to “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.  Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature than moves on the ground” (1:28).  The creation of inanimate objects is not followed by any commands to them.  The creation of sea animals is, however, followed by a command to multiply and fill the seas (1:22).  Although there is no command for the land animals to do so, we might presume that they are also expected to multiply.  But the commands given to the humans are greater.  They are given responsibility to rule over the world which God has made.  Presumably this is because they are the image of God, that is, God’s representatives in the world and thereby its vice-regents.

The second creation account (in chapter 2) also records that the humans were given commands after their creation.  “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.  And the LORD God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die’” (Gen 2:15-17).  Since people are made to be like God they are given very personal commands in regard to how they were to behave in God’s world.  These commands suggest a relationship with the Creator which must be lived out in obedience.  To do otherwise will bring death, which must be seen as the opposite of an open and positive relationship with the God who made them.

Although obedience to the word of God is important to the first human beings, God does not provide them with extensive commands about the things which they are permitted and not permitted to do in the world.  There is no body of law given in the Garden of Eden.  It is not necessary for humans to know good and evil, and indeed it would destructive if they did.  This is why they are forbidden to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  All that the first humans needed to know was that God had given them a command which they were to obey.  The word of God was the means by which humans were to know what is right and by which to judge their actions.  Adam and Eve, therefore, did not possess a conscience.

To say that Adam and Eve did not possess a conscience is tantamount to saying that in their innocence Adam and Eve had no consciousness of sin.  Nor were they intended to have consciousness of sin.  What they were conscious of was their creation by God, his word to them, and their place in the good world.  Adam and Eve were conscious at first only of goodness: God’s goodness, the goodness of creation and their own goodness.  Consciousness of sin served to make Adam and Eve aware that they had violated God’s commands and that they must therefore die.  Although we think of conscience as keeping people from sin, it would not be necessary if the first humans had not eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Moral conscience cannot, therefore, be part of humanity prior to the fall.

After Adam and Eve ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they became instantly aware of several things.  They were aware of their nakedness and hid from one another (3:7).  They were aware of their guilt and they hid from God (3:8).  They also took on shame and blamed others for their sin instead of repenting (3:11-13).  Consciousness of sin is a reality within the fallen world, but it does not necessarily result in people coming to repentance.  Conscience, therefore has limited value, because there was never intended to be a conscience at all.  Humans were made to be innocent and to trust in the word of God.  It can function to make people aware of sin to an extent, but it does not restore innocence.  It is something which traumatises sinners, because knowledge of sin is not something we were ever made to experience.

The conscience of the non-Christian person

There are two ways in which a person may become conscious of sin.  Paul says that the law brings knowledge of sin (Rom 3:20).  This is applicable to those for whom the law of God is given, which is generally the nation of Israel.  The Jews of the first century were proud of the fact that they had been given the law and were thereby superior to every other nation (Rom 2:17-24).  Here it is not so much the conscience acting independently which brings about consciousness of sin, because the law serves that function.  However, when Paul was arrested and spoke to the Sanhedrin in Acts 23, he makes mention of conscience.  This presumably means that conscience plays a part in the Jewish understanding of sin.  Paul’s conscience was clear at this point (23:1) because he knew that the things which he was accused of were not true.

On the other hand those who have not been given the law have conscience to act in its place.  Paul explains that Gentiles can sometimes do what is required by the law, even though they have not been given the law.  “Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them” (Romans 2:14-15).  Conscience in the case of a non-Christian person serves to show the person right and wrong.  It has limited value in helping the person make right choices.  However, the non-Christian conscience does make a person in some way conscious of sin.  It both accuses and defends, that is to say the conscience shows a person that sin has been committed, but also defends the person when it is clear that he/she has done the right thing.

Both means of being conscious of sin have limited value in restraining sin in a person.  The law is weakened by the flesh (Rom 8:3) and hence is unable to fully restrain sin.  Indeed, sometimes knowledge of the law results in more sin, not less (Rom 7:8).  The conscience of the person who does not have the law is also weak in restraining sin.  Knowledge of God which is revealed by the creation is suppressed by people and they have been given over to their sin (Rom 1:18-32).  Although conscience makes people aware that the things that they do are wrong, this does not stop sin or stop people from wanting to sin.  So the conscience of the non-Christian person has some value, but that value is limited.

The non-Christian conscience may become seared (1 Tim 4:2) and thereby have even more distorted function.  Paul warns Timothy of the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared.  These people became this way by following doctrines of demons.  The false teaching of the demons and the lying have affected the conscience so that it cannot function properly.  The conscience would ideally make a person conscious of sin and the need to repent and turn to God for forgiveness.  However, doctrines of demons do the opposite, making a person believe that the way to righteousness is by following a set of rules.  This does not lead to genuine repentance and it only serves to draw the person farther away from God.  The people mentioned in this passage are said to have abandoned the faith.  Once falsehood, lies and false doctrine are accepted, the conscience does not function as it should.

“To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled” (Titus 1 15).  Conscience is unable to escape the corruption of sin, which is not surprising.  Sin affects the whole person, including mind and conscience.  The non-Christian conscience is defiled just as the person is defiled.  Defiled is a religious defilement, which means here that the person is unclean before God.  Since the non-Christian conscience seems capable in some instances of helping the person to do what is right, how can it do this if it is defiled?  I believe that the conscience is something which is ‘delicate’ in the sense that it can easily become corrupted by experience and by choices.  If a person chooses to do what is right often because of upbringing or circumstances, the conscience will remain useful.  If on the other hand the person is defiled or corrupted then the conscience is also corrupted, since it is easily influenced.  This may happen through circumstances of upbringing or through choice, particularly (as the context) suggests through religious defilement of false teaching and dishonest gain.

The Christian conscience

The Christian conscience has some similarities to the non-Christian conscience.  It has a function in common in that it can serve to make the person conscious of having lived rightly.  Paul was able to say to the Sanhedrin that he had lived his life before God in all good conscience (Acts 23:1), because he knew that he had not done what they were accusing him of.  The non-Christian conscience can serve this function also if the person is actually innocent of wrongdoing.  This is the testimony of Rom 2:15.  However, in very many ways the Christian conscience is quite different to the non-Christian conscience.

Firstly, the reason why Paul desired to have a clear conscience was because of his belief in the Law and the Prophets and his hope in God, especially his belief in the resurrection of the dead (Acts 24:14-16).  Paul’s belief in the resurrection of the just encompasses the notion of judgment (Acts 17:31).  Because the Christian is aware that we must all give account for what we say and do there is motivation for the believer to keep a clean conscience.  Unlike the unbeliever, being in Christ and in the Spirit gives us power to actually be obedient to God and to obey the law of the nation (Rom 8:1-4).  In the context of this example in Acts, Paul is not speaking of having a conscience which is washed, but a conscience which is clean because he actually did what is right.  Just as in the example above (Acts 23:1) his actions were right and his conscience bore testimony to that fact.  Although the non-Christian conscience has some capacity to let the person know that he or she has done wrong, the conscience is corrupted by sin and not very accurate.  However, the Christian conscience is pure (this is the corollary of Tit 1:15) and has the required sensitivity to allow the Christian to know that he or she has done what is right.

Secondly, the Christian conscience operates “in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 1:9).  This does not seem to be the case for the non-Christian conscience.  For the unbeliever a special work of the Spirit is required to convict them of sin (John 16:8).  This is not a regular work of functioning with the conscience, but something which occurs as the gospel is proclaimed.  The believer on the other hand is indwelt by the Holy Spirit, cleansed of sin and given a new heart (Ezek 36:26).  Believers are led by the Spirit (Rom 8:14) and must walk in the Spirit (Gal 5:16).  None of this is true of the unbeliever.  Since the Christian conscience does not operate independently of the Spirit it is significantly different to the non-Christian conscience.  The Spirit knows the mind of God (1 Cor 2:10) and unites the believer to Christ.  This means that the Christian conscience has a sensitivity that cannot be attributed to the conscience of an unbeliever.  It must also imply a degree of freedom which cannot be attained by mere obedience to the letter of the law.  The context of Rom 9:1 implies that Paul’s conscience is in accord with the heart of God for Israel.  Something like this can only ever apply to the Christian conscience because the non-Christian conscience cannot know the mind of God.

Romans 9:1 also refers to “speaking the truth in Christ”.  The Christian conscience thus operates in a realm which is different to the non-Christian conscience.  The application of this can be found in the ways in which Paul addresses the dilemma of eating meat offered to idols, a matter which he addresses in two passages in 1 Corinthians (8:7-13 and 10:23-30).  Two matters are important in sorting out this dilemma: Christian freedom and Christian love.  Those who have a strong Christian conscience are free to do whatever their consciences allow.  They can eat food offered to idols because they know that idols are nothing.  This is applicable both in the context of Christian fellowship and meals with pagans.  The Christian conscience has been freed from false concerns by being “in Christ”.  However, being “in Christ” comes with a responsibility to love as Christ loves, that is, in a self-sacrificial way.  For some Christians and indeed for non-Christians the conscience is weak.  Those who think of idols as real may be led astray by the freedom of the Christian conscience.  Therefore, love overrides freedom and the Christian makes concessions for the weaker conscience of others because of love.

The Christian conscience is a cleansed conscience.  Under the old covenant sacrificial system, a sacrifice needed to be offered to cleanse the conscience from guilt.  However, it was necessary to offer sacrifices year after year because the blood of animals does not cleanse the conscience successfully (Heb 10:1-4).  Therefore the annual sacrifices serve to remind the offerers of their sins.  However, when Jesus came into the world he offered himself in obedience to God and the sacrifice of his body has perfected all those who are sanctified by him.  The Christian is a forgiven sinner (Heb 10:5-17).  Therefore there is no more need for sacrifices (Heb 10:18).  The upshot of this is that the Christian conscience has been cleansed by the blood of Jesus.  With a cleansed conscience there is nothing to prevent the Christian from drawing near to God (Heb 10:22).

We needed to have a cleansed conscience because our conscience was evil (Heb 10:22).  The NIV translation calls this a guilty conscience.  Alternatively we might think of this in terms of our consciousness of evil.  Since Adam and Eve opened the way for humanity to have consciousness of evil (and good), humans now have the consciousness of their own evil which cannot be removed, but only suppressed.  ‘Guilty’ is, therefore, not a bad translation, since it captures the idea that the conscience cannot be freed from its consciousness of personal evil.  The only way for this problem to be removed is by the blood of Jesus taking away that evil in our own hearts and thereby cleansing the conscience.  I will discuss how this works later.  In contrast to the idea of an evil conscience there are several NT references to the Christian conscience as a good conscience.

A good conscience is one which is clear of guilt since the person has done what is right.  Paul says that he “lived life before God in all good conscience” (Acts 23:1).  A good conscience facilitates love for others (1 Tim 1:5).  A good conscience is one which knows that there is no accusation which will stick.  This is the result of living as if Jesus is lord of every aspect of life (1 Pet 3:15-16).  Christians submit to baptism because they desire a good conscience (1 Pet 3:21).  This does not seem to be about doing the right thing as such but about asking God to give you a good conscience through the spiritual washing which accompanies the physical washing of baptism.  It seems that the Christian is able to have a good conscience in contrast to the evil conscience of the unbeliever, because a Christian is focused on doing the will of God and living in a way which exalts Jesus as lord.  This is possible because of the rebirth of the Spirit and the renewal which comes through baptism, which gives us entry into a new life.

The Christian conscience has been cleansed by the blood of Jesus (Heb 9:14).  Effectively a cleansed conscience is very different to the non-Christian conscience.  It is different in a qualitative sense.  The non-Christian conscience is only partially effective in the sense that it generally is only able to show a person past wrong behaviour and even then it may not be accurate, because the defiling of the conscience makes the person often accepting of evil in themselves.  The Israelite who offered sacrifices for sins was a step up from the pagan who is without the law.  But even then the person was never free from the consciousness of sin, because sacrifices could never stop being offered.  The Christian conscience, on the other hand, has been washed so that sin should always be thought of as forgiven sin.  Christians have an awareness of sin, because Christians are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, who empowers the conscience.  But no matter what sin is made known, it is a forgiven sin.

This makes the Christian conscience something which is not negative and condemnatory, but something positive.  As forgiven sinners, we are, according to Hebrews 9-10, people who are not conscious of sin, but conscious of God’s grace and forgiveness.  We are conscious of our access to the Father in heaven and hence we no longer seek to come to God through dead works.  Instead we are freed to serve the living God, because of the blood of Jesus.  This is a fundamental difference between the non-believer’s conscience and the Christian conscience.  The conscience of the non-believer will serve to keep him/her from coming near to God, because of guilt.  The Christian has a cleansed conscience which will draw the believer near to God in worship.  This, however, does depend on a consciousness of the blood of Christ.  The Spirit makes this possible through the proclamation of the word.

The Christian conscience is also described as clear or clean (1 Tim 3:9; 2 Tim 1:3).  This is quite similar to the idea of a good conscience.  Clean is used with respect to other important matters.  Love comes from a clean heart (1 Tim 1:5) and calling on the Lord requires a clean heart (2 Tim 2:22).  Our hearts are sprinkled clean (Heb 10:22) by the blood of Jesus (Heb 12:24; 1 Pet 1:2).  Biblically, the heart denotes the inner person or the whole of the person in all his or her decisions, thoughts and emotions.  To have a heart which is clean means that the person has the inner being cleansed of unrighteousness, impure thoughts, wrong motivations and sinful rebellion.  Since the conscience is necessarily connected to the heart, when the heart is clean the conscience is also clean.  The Christian conscience is clean because it has been washed in the blood of Jesus, just as the heart is washed by the blood of Jesus.  A clean conscience must operate more effectively than the non-Christian conscience, because the unbeliever is unable to know forgiveness and therefore finds it difficult to admit to sin for fear of condemnation.  The Christian conscience, on the other hand, knows that sins are forgiven and is therefore tender towards the prompting of the Holy Spirit, who empowers the conscience (see above).

The conscience can have the function of bearing testimony to both the self and to other people.  This is true of the non-Christian conscience which bears witness that the person has either done right according to the law written on their heart or that the person is aware of their own guilt (Rom 2:15).  It is also true of the Christian conscience.  But the range of witness of the Christian conscience is greater.  The Christian conscience can bear witness to the Christian speaking the truth (Rom 9:1).  It can bear witness to the fact that the Christian acted in a godly way in keeping with God’s wisdom and his grace (2 Cor 1:12).  The Christian conscience can bear witness to the uprightness and integrity of other Christians (2 Cor 4:2) and the identity of another person in Christ and his or her calling can also made known to the conscience (2 Cor 5:11).  The Christian conscience can also make a person conscious of God during suffering and thus enable perseverance (1 Pet 2:19).

The Christian conscience is something greater than the non-Christian conscience in an objective sense since it has been washed clean by the blood of Jesus.  But the Bible also provides some practical advice for keeping the conscience clean by acting in the right way.  Live life before God as if there is a judgement coming (Acts 23:1; 24:14-16).  Obey the governing authorities both to avoid punishment and to keep conscience clear (Rom 13:5).  Love one another and therefore avoid acting in a way which would damage the conscience of another Christian (1 Cor 8:7-13).  Live lives of integrity and godliness, faithfully proclaiming the word of God (2 Cor 1:12; 4:2).  Pray and desire to act honourably (Heb 13:18).  Be aware of God in your life and set apart Jesus as lord in all your pursuits (1 Pet 2:19; 3:15-16).

There is, however, a limit to the Christian conscience.

Let a man regard us in this manner, as servants of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God.  In this case, moreover, it is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy.  But to me it is a very small thing that I should be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself.  For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord.  Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God (1 Corinthians 4:1-5).

Here the word conscious is a verb instead on the noun conscience, but the words are clearly connected.  Paul understood that ultimately it is not the conscience which makes the final determination about what is true or false, what is right or wrong in our actions.  This is left to the judgement of God, who is the only one who can see all things.  In the present there are for us things which are hidden and which will be brought to light in the Last Judgement.  Paul does not even make judgements about himself, since this is not his concern.  Nor does he worry about other people making judgments about him.  So the Christian conscience has great value and it greater than the non-Christian conscience.  But is does not usurp the place of the judgement of God on the person.  We must wait until the final day for that judgement.

How is the conscience transformed?

Now that I have explored the way in which the conscience functions in the non-Christian and the Christian, I want to understand why there is a distinction between the two.  What did Jesus do that has transformed the conscience so that it is different in the Christian to that in the non-believer?  This is a result of both the life of Jesus and especially his work on the cross.  Because there is no reference to Jesus having a conscience I have addressed this question by looking at concepts around conscience: the law, the heart, temptation and consciousness of sin.  Because of the way in which Jesus obeyed the law, set his heart on the will of God and resisted temptation he had a clear conscience.  However, on the cross as he became sin he had an intense consciousness of sin.  These things together have transformed the conscience.

Jesus was born under the law

But when the fulness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, in order that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons (Galatians 4:4-5).

The phrase “born of a woman” may be an allusions to Job 15:14 “What is man, that he should be pure, Or he who is born of a woman, that he should be righteous?” and Job 25:4 “How then can a man be just with God? Or how can he be clean who is born of woman?”  If so then, for Jesus, being born of a woman involves being subject to a struggle with sin.  Jesus was “born under the law”.  Although the law is holy (Rom 7:12) it was given so that transgression and sin might increase (Rom 5:20) and as a guardian (until grace was revealed (Gal 3:23).  This means that Jesus was subject to all the requirements of the law; he had to obey every command.  Through the law comes knowledge of sin (Rom 3:20).  Since Jesus was “born of a woman” and thus subject to temptation, and “born under the law” and so subject to its every requirement, there must have been a constant struggle with sin in order to be obedient to every commandment.  Jesus had knowledge of the will of God through the law as this is the OT means of knowing what is right and wrong.  He did not know sin in the sense of knowing about his own wrongdoing, because he did not sin.  However, being subject to the law and to temptation is one step in the transformation of conscience.

Jesus transformed the heart

Sometimes the heart is used as a synonym or in a parallel way for conscience.  The prophetic word works to expose the secrets of the heart (1 Cor 14:25).  The word of God is able to discern the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Heb 4:12).  Hearts will be established as blameless in holiness before God (1 Thess 3:13).  The Christian has the law of God written on the heart and the mind (Heb 10:16), so this is the way in which Christians know right and wrong.  The heart can condemn us (1 John 3:20-21).  This seems to parallel the action of the conscience.

Instead of Adam and Eve being like God through obedience, they succumbed to the temptation to become gods themselves through eating what was forbidden.  This was an attempt to exalt themselves to a place higher than what they had been appointed to.  Instead of obedience they went against the word of God.  But the result was that humanity was debased into sin and thereby into futility.  People now have darkened hearts which refuse knowledge of God (Rom 1:21).  Since all that we think, say and do springs from the heart (Matt 12:34; 15:18-19) human hearts are darkened (Eph 4:18), the human conscience needs to be changed by having a transformed heart.

Jesus said that he is gentle and lowly in heart (Matt 11:29).  This is evidenced by the fact that “he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8).  Jesus overcame the darkness of the human heart by being the one who came down from heaven and the only Son in the bosom of the Father.  Instead of rejecting knowledge of God and desiring knowledge of good and evil, Jesus held fast to knowledge of God and desired only obedience to the word of God.  Jesus reversed what Adam and Eve did by putting the word of God above any desire for self-exaltation.  Instead of taking what is rightfully his he let go of his form as God and took on the form of a servant (Phil 2:6-7).  Because he has undone the fall he has transformed the conscience.  His consciousness was always consciousness of the Father and his word and his will.

Jesus overcame temptation

In the original temptation in the Garden of Eden, the serpent first distorted the word of God, encouraged Eve to distort the word of God, and then called into question the veracity of the word of God.  Eve believed the word of the serpent rather than the word of God.  When Eve and then Adam gave in to temptation, humanity became conscious of sin.  Jesus was tempted just as we are but without sin (Heb 4:15).  Jesus went out into the wilderness in the power of the Spirit (Luke 4:1) and was tempted by the devil.  In every instance Jesus responded to the devil with the word of God (“it is written”).  The devil lied and twisted the words of God in his temptation of Jesus.  The result, however, was different to the temptation in Eden.  After his temptation, Jesus was conscious, not of sin, but of the anointing of the Spirit and the work which God had sent him into the world to do (Luke 4:14-21).  This is again a reversal of the results of the fall.  Instead of being conscious of sin, which is what the conscience produces, Jesus was conscious of God’s will and his obedience to it.

The cross

Since the human conscience, like every other aspect of the human experience under sin, needs to be redeemed, Jesus had to transform the human conscience.  He did this on the cross and in his resurrection from the dead.  The cross is the place where Jesus became conscious of sin for the first time.  Although he had experienced a real struggle against sin when he was tempted in every way as we are, he had never experienced the accusations of a conscience troubled by sin.  As Jesus conducted his ministry the religious leaders tried to find a basis for accusation (Matt 12:10; John 8:6).  In his trials before the crucifixion he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, yet he had no need to respond to these accusations as he was not guilty (Matt 27:11-14).  At no point in his life did he know what it is like to be accused by a guilty conscience.  So prior to the cross he had not taken on the burden of sinners who are plagued by the accusations of the conscience (cf. Rom 2:15).

But on the cross Jesus became sin.  “For our sake he [God] made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).  Before the cross Jesus knew no sin.  He had no consciousness of sin, because he had always obeyed the will of the Father in everything.  But on the cross he took on the guilt of every human being.  Luther puts this very strongly in his commentary on Galatians:

And all the prophets saw this, that Christ was to become the greatest thief, murderer, adulterer, robber, desecrator, blasphemer, etc., there has ever been anywhere in the world.  He is not acting in His own Person now.  Now He is not the Son of God, born of the Virgin.  But He is a sinner, who has and bears the sin of Paul, the former blasphemer, persecutor, and assaulter; of Peter who denied Christ; of David, who was an adulterer and a murderer, and who caused the Gentiles to blaspheme the name of the Lord (Rom 2:24).  In short, He has and bears all the sins of all men in His body – not in the sense that He has committed them but in the sense that He took these sins, committed by us, upon His own body, in order to make satisfaction for them with His own blood.[3]

In bearing the sin of every person, Jesus also bore our guilt.  He must have had such a terrifying consciousness of sin at that point that he was overwhelmed by the flood of sin assaulting his conscience.  Psalm 88 describes wrath like a flood:

Why, O LORD, do you reject me and hide your face from me?  From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death; I have suffered your terrors and am in despair.  Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me.  All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me (Psalm 88:14-17).

The New Testament attributes the words of Psalm 69 to Jesus (John 2:17 makes reference to Psalm 69:9, and Rom 15:3 refers to the same verse).  Other parts of the psalm seem applicable to the cross, particularly the metaphor of a flood.  “Deliver me from sinking in the mire; let me be delivered from my enemies and from the deep waters.  Let not the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up, or the pit close its mouth over me” (Psalm 69:14-15).

Just as human beings are given over to their sins (Rom 1:24-28), Jesus was given over on account of our trespasses (Rom 4:25).  The parallel is not incidental.  What we deserve was borne by the Son of God.  In being handed over to sin and all its consequences, Jesus transformed the conscience by bearing the weight of it.  Jesus tasted death for everyone (Heb 2:9).  But what does this mean?  The sting of death is sin (1 Cor 15:56).  Death is not merely the cessation of bodily integrity and function.  It involves being condemned by the sin which we have committed.  When Adam and Eve ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they died, although not immediately physically.  With death came guilt and shame and alienation.  When Jesus tasted death for us he took our guilt and shame and alienation.

Psalm 40 is mentioned in Hebrews (10:5-7) as applying to Jesus.  He is the one who has come to do the will of God and who delights in God’s will because the law of God is on his heart (Ps 40:8).  Yet Ps 40:12 seems incongruous, “For evils beyond number have surrounded me; My iniquities have overtaken me, so that I am not able to see; They are more numerous than the hairs of my head; And my heart has failed me.”  Surely the Son of God is not a sinner whose iniquities are more than the hairs of his head.  No!  But at that point he had to take on all the iniquities of the world as if they were his own.  His consciousness was plagued by this weight of sin, the weight of sin of every sinner who ever lived.  This was the overwhelming flood of guilt and shame.

The resurrection

When Jesus was raised from the dead he has entered into a new relationship with the Father, having been declared the Son of God by his resurrection (Rom 1:4).  He has been freed from sin through his death (Rom 6:7-10).  Neither sin nor death can ever affect him again.  In his resurrected state Jesus has transcended any consciousness of sin which he had on the cross.  Now the consciousness of Jesus is totally consumed by the presence of his Father as he sits exalted at God’s right hand.  The transformation of the conscience effected by Jesus on the cross means that none can condemn the believer and the risen Jesus intercedes for us continually at God’s right hand (Rom 8:34).  Although the devil continually accuses believers before God (Rev 12:10), those charges cannot stick (Rom 8:31-34).  This must surely radically change the Christian conscience.  Christians can plead the blood of Christ and its cleansing of the conscience (Rev 12:11).


Christian conscience is not the same as the conscience of an unbeliever.  Jesus has transformed the conscience through his life and his death.  In his life he had consciousness of his Father’s will.  In his death he was overwhelmed by consciousness of human sin and guilt.  In this way he has borne every assault of evil on the conscience.  Therefore, the conscience of the believer is transformed.  What is primary for the Christian conscience is consciousness of the will of God, of sins forgiven, of a conscience cleansed by the blood of Christ.  Because of the transformation of the human heart, the Christian is able to live as a person with, not only a cleansed conscience, but also a clean conscience, because we are people who walk by the Spirit.

[1] Theological Dictionary of the New Testament  vol vii, pp 904-908

[2] Except for John 8:9, where conscience appears in some Greek manuscripts.

[3] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works Volume 26: Lectures on Galatians Chapters 1-4  (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia, 1963 [1535]), 277.

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