Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
October 12, 1961

"Having A Good Conscience"

L. A. Mott, Las Vegas, Nevada

In the study which follows, I would like to lead your thinking in an investigation of the meaning of a phrase found in 1 Pet. 3:16, "having a good conscience; that, wherein ye are spoken against, they may be put to shame who revile your good manner of life in Christ."

The word conscience (suneidesis) occurs 32 times in the King James Version of the New Testament. We read of a good conscience (Acts 23:1; 1 Tim. 1:5; Heb. 13:18; I Pet. 3:16, 21); a pure conscience (1 Tim. 3:9; 2 Tim. 1:3); and a conscience void of offence. (Acts 24:16) But on the contrary, one's conscience may be defiled (1 Cor. 8:7; Tit. 1:15); and/or evil. (Heb. 10:22)

The primary point of inquiry in this study is: What constitutes a good conscience? What qualities must the conscience possess in order to be labeled good?

The Meaning Of "A Good Conscience"

Sectarian people sometimes think they cannot possibly be in error because they are not conscious of any teaching or practice displeasing to God. In our efforts to teach them the truth, we have answered these people by saying that one may have a good conscience even though he is in sin and has not obeyed the truth. Though I have formerly reasoned with people along these lines, recent study has led me to question whether that idea is scriptural. Now I am sure it is true that one may be in error without being conscious of it, or without having his conscience bother him. Do not misunderstand. What I am questioning is whether such a person can scripturally be said to possess a good conscience. Let me ask you to be just as candid as possible as you examine the following argument.

I do not believe that a good conscience can exist in the absence of either of the following: (1) Proper enlightenment as to right and wrong, and (2) Conduct in harmony with this knowledge.

The Greek word suneidesis (conscience) is compounded of sun, meaning with, and oida, meaning to know. The fundamental idea is knowing together with one's self." (Marvin Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, Vol. I, p. 654) Hence, suneidesis denotes the consciousness of a person within himself as to his conduct as measured in terms of his knowledge of right and wrong.

Every person has some standard of conduct. It may be a false standard. But this is beside the point. The standard of conduct is the person's concept of what is right. Also, each person knows what his conduct is. The function of the conscience is to testify as to whether the individual's conduct is in harmony with what he conceives to be right. When one's conduct is not in harmony with what he thinks is right, his conscience convicts him of guilt and "bothers" him, as we say. When his conduct is in harmony with what he thinks is right, his conscience approves him. But if his standard of conduct (what he conceives to be right) is erroneous and he is ignorant of the truth, then he may commit evil (conduct not in harmony with truth)

and still be approved by his conscience, provided he has acted in harmony with what he thinks is right. But though his conscience does not bother him, I do not believe it can be said that he has a good conscience in a scriptural sense, for his knowledge is imperfect Return with me now to our text. Peter is writing to Christians who are "spoken against" by enemies. (1 Pet 3:16; cf. 2:12, 15) False charges are being brought against them. Peter instructs them to make sure they have a good conscience. This will be the Christian's answer to the charges. In this way those who bring the false charges will be "put to shame." But — think a minute! — it is certain that the argument against the Christian's enemies which Peter has in mind is the Christian's good life. The good life of the Christian would refute the charges and prove them to be false. It is clear from this verse that only the individual whose life is good has a good conscience. When a person has an accurate concept of what is right and is living in harmony with what he knows to be right, then and only then can he be scripturally said to have a good conscience.

If a person can have a good conscience even while in sin and error, then, pray tell, how on earth could a good conscience be an effective answer to those who speak against Christians? If that was true, a murderer, thief, evil-doer, or meddler (4:15) would have a good conscience, provided he always did what he thought to be right How could characters like this put their enemies to shame by having a good conscience?

The conclusion of this argument is: No one has a good conscience unless (1) he has a good knowledge of the truth, and (2) his conduct is in harmony with his knowledge.

In the conclusion of this two article series which will appear in the next issue of this journal I will deal with the objection which is racing through the minds of almost all of you who have completed a critical reading of this article: What about the apostle Paul?