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Our entire lives move forward in faith. We do what we do because we believe—a synonym for faith—it is right, whether our motives and methods are right or wrong. Obviously, I’m not talking about biblical faith but a kind of faith that motivates us to move forward because we have a cause, purpose, or agenda that we want to come to fruition. Let me share a few examples of actions we take because we believe—at the moment of insanity—it’s the best course of action. I’m not suggesting all these things are the proper moral choices, but all decisions come from a heart that believes it’s the right thing to do, even if it’s a momentary lapse of judgment, or as James would say double-mindedness (James 1:5-8).
But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin (Romans 14:23).
Paul said it this way, “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). Now, before your biblically trained mind blows a head gasket, let me explain. Paul was not thinking about anger, porn, adultery, or flying planes into buildings. He was talking about secondary issues like eating meat, drinking wine, and celebrating certain days. Paul taught his readers that whatever you do, you must do it from a heart of faith: you must believe that your actions are proper. The essence of all decision-making is that all your choices come from a belief system that says it is okay to do what you want to do. Faith to do something—right or wrong—is not Christians’ exclusive, hermetically sealed domain. To believe and act on that belief is part of being human. It’s how our minds operate: we think, believe, and act on what we believe.
We move forward in faith because we have removed doubt, which releases us to do what we do with the confidence that it’s right. The problem is that we will make the wrong decision if we base the doubt-removing process on skewed presuppositions and erroneous data; we believe it’s right, though the Bible forbids such things. Mercifully, God gave us an internal moral thermostat that helps us guard against acting with wrong presuppositions and insufficient data. We can discern between right and wrong, even if we’re not Christians. Our conscience is our inner voice that monitors and directs all of our actions.
For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them (Romans 2:14-15).
The conscience is one of the soul’s most essential elements because it governs how we think about and respond to good and evil. Our conscience can accuse us, or it can excuse us. What Paul had in view in Romans is a people group who did not know about the Old Testament. They did not have a Bible. They did not know God through special revelation (Romans 10:17). Though they did not accept the Bible’s truth claims, they did possess a moral thermostat that convinced them of right and wrong actions. This means of common grace to all of humanity is one of the most compelling reasons why none of us will have an excuse if we choose to reject Christ (Romans 1:20-21). Regardless of a person’s relationship with Christianity, everyone is born with an internal wiring system that enables them to discern right from wrong. Even a child knows the difference between right and wrong.
Paul elevated the importance of the conscience, a warning that should motivate us not to tinker with another person’s thermostat unwisely. The implication is clear: the conscience is malleable. A person will be in moral trouble if he bends his thermostat outside biblical parameters. We see this moldable idea in Paul’s letter to Timothy. He called this the seared or hardened conscience. Do you see what happened to those people who had hard consciences? Once their consciences became calloused, they could do all sorts of evil practices because a hardened conscience ceases to condemn us of wrongdoing. A hardened conscience is like a callused hand—it feels no pain.
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 (1 Timothy 4:1-3).
If the conscience is not brought under the clarity and scrutiny of God’s Word (Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 Timothy 3:16-17), in the context of a biblical community (Hebrews 10:24-25), as illuminated by the Spirit of God (John 16:13), it will harden. Paul knew we had to handle our consciences with the utmost care. That is why he talked about never eating meat in front of a person whose conscience accused them of wrongdoing; they believed it was wrong to eat what was offered to idols (1 Corinthians 8:13). Paul aimed to use wise and practical love (1 Corinthians 8:1-2) when engaging those with a mis-calibrated faith.
Paul taught how old Jewish traditions trained newly-minted Christian believers. He also appealed to Christians in Ephesus to change some of their ways—practices born out of old belief systems—that kept them entangled in a former manner of living (Ephesians 4:22). These young converts in Corinth and Ephesus still had faith in ideas that were not biblically sound (1 Corinthians 8:1-13). They had misplaced faith, but it was faith nonetheless. Faith is about what you believe is right, regardless of how that belief lines up with God’s Word. The man will only fly an airplane into a building because he believes his action is correct. He has misinformed faith to do an ungodly atrocity. He is acting out of and proceeding from a twisted belief system.
We understand how a terrorist will commit terror, but what if we make it more practical since none of us will fly a plane into a building? Did you know we act according to our faith when choosing sinful anger toward someone? We believe it is right to do in that moment of heretical madness (James 1:5-8). When we’re in our sin-filled anger episode, we have convinced—another word for faith—ourselves that we are right, and based on that false belief, we respond accordingly. What we believe—as shown by our anger—and what the Bible teaches are at odds. After choosing sinful anger, the most important thing we can do is recalibrate our beliefs to biblical faith. The worst thing we could do is to validate our conscience through blame-shifting, justifications, or rationalizations.
If we do not recalibrate our conscience to the teaching of God’s Word, we will alter our moral thermostat to a new ethical standard that will begin to condone sinful anger. The man who flew the plane into a building needed to adjust his deceitful belief system to God’s Word rather than a belief system that condoned such brutality. Regrettably, he calibrated his conscience to a pagan belief system, ignoring a God-given conscience and His inspired Word. It did not seem odd to him to kill 3,000 innocent people or to take his own life. This tragedy begs a few questions for us to ponder and apply. How are we similar to him? How have we convinced (faith) ourselves that our actions are correct? How many times have we justified what we did?
On a few occasions, when I have vented anger toward my wife, I immediately started recalibrating my conscience to an alternate belief system—my way versus the Bible’s way—by justifying my actions. This recalibration process permits me to blame my actions on her or some other innocent scapegoat. Initially, my conscience would blare at me, telling me to stop being angry at my wife. A biblically informed conscience should do this, which is the beauty of God’s Word when illuminated by the Spirit. The perfect sweet spot is when our conscience—internal, moral belief system—and God’s Word are aligned.
Because I chose to make my conscience incongruent with God’s Word in the moment of sinful anger, my conscience flexed and adapted to my new morality. This new morality permits me to be angry, believing it is okay to be mad without remorse or repentance. If we do not bring our conscience under the Word’s surveillance and management, it will drift from the truth while adapting to a rogue reality and seal itself—harden—into that new belief system. At that point, we will act according to our newly minted, albeit evil, belief system.
Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness” (Hebrews 3:7-8).
The misguided Muslim, who wants to kill people, has a different faith. It is a faith steeped in hatred for anyone unlike him. His conscience does not condemn him because he has saturated his conscience in an evil belief system. We see this idea in our country every day.
This kind of faith is born from sinful heart cravings (James 4:1-3). People like this blind themselves to the truth of God’s Word by embracing another truth while affirming their actions as right. Their rightness and the Bible’s rightness live incongruently, but they are free to do as they please because their consciences do not condemn them. It’s sobering to think how we can desensitize our consciences to such a degree that we can’t sense the immorality we perpetrate on others.
This hardening concept is what happens to the porn addict. Perhaps the first time he did porn, he felt a twinge of guilt. Maybe he repented or tried to repent, but he was unwilling to go all the way by letting others know about his sin. Rather than exposing his sin’s complexity to God’s sanitizing light (1 John 1:7-10), he went through a private repentance process that did not altogether pull his conscience in line with God’s Word. This half-hearted process of worldly sorrow put down a thin layer of hardness over his inner voice. After looking at porn and masturbating a few more times, the condemnation began to subside. Perhaps he convinced himself by the intellectually dishonest argument that it was okay to masturbate. Or, maybe he blamed his wife because she was unwilling to have sex with him.
Whatever his reasons were, they all served the same purpose: to harden his conscience to the point where he could look at porn, masturbate, and not feel bad about what he was doing. He built a new belief system into his psyche, an aberrant faith. His unique-to-him and adjusted faith made him free and clear to do porn. His moral thermostat went utterly off the biblical grid, and he could not or would not (probably a combination of both) see the truth. An addict is a man who is in full-tilt self-deception. If we do not feel deep conviction and personal brokenness over our sin (see Psalms 32 and 51), one of the most productive things we could do is let others know about our sin. Our conscience is too distorted to see what is happening and our wills are too weak to do anything about it.
Sin will capture us (Galatians 6:1). In such cases, our problem is more than behavioral sinning. The deeper sin I’m talking about is the deception that is going on inside us. Our deceit is more complicated than the behavioral sin committed. There is probably nothing more frightening than living life while blind to the deceptiveness of the heart. My appeal to anyone is not to play around with this. Paul had a high view of conscience. There is a reason his language sounded hyperbolic in 1 Corinthians 8:13. To fool around with the conscience is a matter of life and death. Our conscience is our highest level of morality, and if it is not in line with the Word of God, we may be able to live with ourselves because we have readjusted it, but others will have a hard time living with us.
If there is any sense that you may be hardening your conscience, will you share the truth about yourself with others? Will you let others speak into your life? Let others help you readjust your conscience to biblical clarity and norms.
One of our Mastermind Students was thinking about these things and responded by giving me this instructive step-by-step analysis of how we can warp our consciences and put things back on track. Will you spend time reflecting on this progression?
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).