"Paul didn’t command the stricter Christians of Romans 14 to get with the program and start eating meat as Jesus allowed. Nor did he command the meat-eaters to end their carnivorous ways on the outside chance they might upset the vegetarians." IX Marks
In chapter 5, Naselli and Crowley discuss “Twelve Principles about How to Disagree with Other Christians on Disputable Matters.” #1 is “Welcome those who disagree with you (Rom. 14:1-2).” Here they re-define the weak conscience:
The weak person’s conscience lacks sufficient confidence (i.e., faith) to do a particular act without self-judgment, even if that act is actually not a sin. To him it would be sin … His conscience lacked the confidence (faith) to do those things without self-condemnation.1
This definition is excellent, as is the remaining discussion, which is based on it. They go on to describe weakness and strength as a spectrum2 extending from permissive (strong) to strict (weak). This is the pattern for the rest of the book, where “weakness” is treated as strictness, not theological immaturity.
The goal of this book is “to put conscience back on your daily radar, to show from Scripture what God intended and did not intend [the] conscience to do, and to explain how your conscience works, how to care for it, and how not to damage it.”1
As their titles suggest, the first two chapters deal with defining the conscience. Chapter 1 defines the conscience as “your consciousness of what you believe is right and wrong.” Chapter 2 examines how the New Testament writers taught about conscience and develops a biblical understanding of the conscience from these data. Included in this is a definition of the “weak conscience”: an “uninformed moral consciousness.”2 As we’ll see later, this is the first of two definitions given in this book, and this presents a dilemma.
Chapter 3 answers, “What Should You Do When Your Conscience Condemns You?” The answer is the gospel, for nothing but the grace of God in the atoning work of Jesus can free us from guilt. This applies to the lost man approaching the cross with his guilt and the long-time believer who must again and again return to God in confession and seek forgiveness. We must never allow our guilt to become a tool for the accuser to bring us to despair.
(Read the series so far.)
We all seek to apply Scripture to our lives. Those applications should be both biblical and logical. We have seen1 that at least some applications ought to be thought of as particular to each believer. This means that sometimes, at least, my application, even if it is really biblical, logical, and God-intended, is still only my application, and might not be God-intended for my friend.
But are all applications particular, or are some universal? Are there “good and necessary” applications that we all must make? And if so, what impact do these have on the matter of applications that shape and train our consciences?
The phrase “good and necessary consequences” (hereafter, “GNC”) comes from the Westminster Confession of Faith2 (WCF):
Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:1-5)
These verse were probably written 5-10 years after Romans and 1 Corinthians. Paul’s teaching on the conscience was well circulated in writing and taught in person throughout his three missionary journeys. This seems to allow him to be very brief with his statements in 1 Timothy. He gave Timothy a warning about false teachers who will come into the church. They will have two false teachings: forbidding marriage and certain foods.
These are familiar conscience issues. Marriage is an issue of the conscience in 1 Corinthians 7 and 9. Food is perhaps Paul’s most commonly used example (Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 8-10) of an issue of conscience. But there are new things to be learned from this short passage.
(Read the series so far.)
What if God wants you to “strengthen” on an issue that is passionately prohibited by our group? If you logically think that it is permissible, but still feel that it is wrong, how do you adjust your conscience without violating your conscience?
Our conscience seems to have a mind of it’s own. It tells us that something is wrong and we do not have to think it through in the moment. And we don’t seem to be able to disregard its conclusion. In this sense, the conscience seems out of our control.
Oddly enough, though, we can lie to ourselves about our circumstances for the sake of our consciences. The German public persisted for some time in thinking that only foreign Jews (not German Jews) were killed in the holocaust.1 Why lie thus to ourselves? Because it keeps our conscience from condemning us (or lessens the blow). The lesson here is that our conscience can condemn us without our permission, but we can deceive it. J.D.Crowley says,