Q: If a person has scruples of conscience about doing something which Scripture neither commands nor forbids, should the person be told to ignore his/her conscience?
A: It has often been said, “You cannot get away from your own conscience.” The apostle Paul describes the way the conscience works, even in the heathen, when he writes 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 2:15). It is, of course, possible to bribe people to do what they know to be wrong, but that same individual’s conscience cannot be bribed to sanction the evil deed.
The conscience also cannot be bribed to keep a person from doing an activity that he or she believes is necessary, when Scripture says otherwise. The misinformed conscience needs correction. Yet until that correcting is done by appropriately studying and personally applying what God has said to New Testament Christians, we cannot expect the conscience to act differently. Nor should we wish it to act differently until the proper basis for the change has been understood. For example, the apostle Paul dealt with the man who would not eat certain meats, even though the Bible does not forbid such eating: “But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). In this verse, Paul uses the word “faith” in contrast to the word “doubt.” Here faith means conviction—a conviction that an action or inaction accords with God’s will and His Word. If an erring conviction of the heart is not first changed through correct instruction in the Word of God, then the conscience will have to abide by its own judgment. Knowledge of the law is one thing, and the conscience is another.
This is clear: While the eating of meat is an adiaphoron (something neither forbidden nor commanded by God), note that Paul says, “But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean” (Romans 14:14). In other words, if a person were to eat what, according to his own conscience he should not eat, then the person is violating his conscience. And sins against the conscience invoke the wrath of God just as much as sins against the Ten Commandments (cf. 1 Corinthians 8:11).
A person may live in luxury and ease and yet often experience the gnawing worm of conscience holding him guilty before God. Only God’s gracious forgiveness through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ can restore peace to the troubled soul. Thanks be to God that we have this assurance in the Gospel! When the heart condemns us, we rejoice to know that “God is greater than our hearts” (1 John 3:20) and to know that “where sin increased, grace increased all the more” (Romans 5:29). This grace from Christ moves the forgiven conscience to see and be guided only by Christ’s holy Words, nothing more or nothing less.