In the fourteenth century, Dan Michel of Northgate in England wrote a treatise on the seven deadly sins. He entitled it Ayenbite of Inwyt. The Middle English translated to “The Remorse of Conscience,” but if you look at the ancient words you see that conscience is an inward wit (Inwyt) that bites again and again (Ayenbite) to remind by its pangs that moral standards have been violated.
In the New Testament the Greek word translated “conscience” is suneidesis. The root of this word comes from a verb “to know,” and the prefix “sun” means “with” implying that a second party shares knowledge with you. In the earliest classical Greek usages of this word, it referred to two eyewitnesses in court who agreed on what they saw. Socrates then used this term to refer to the way in which knowledge acted as a witness to reveal his ignorance.
The New Testament use of suneidesis depends on an Old Testament understanding of guilty feelings. Whether it was Cain regretting his murder of Abel, Jacob’s older sons ruing their treatment of Joseph, or David mourning his sin with Bathsheba, the decisive element that prompted guilt was God’s expectations about human behavior. Old Testament characters judged themselves by much more than subjective feelings. In the Old Testament, the concept of conscience was always negative. It judges and condemns.
The New Testament builds on the idea that the Word of God is the second party with which a person’s inward voice should agree, but a conscience can be a good conscience as well as a bad one (1Tim. 1:19). In one passage, Peter directly connected suneidesis and God. “For this is commendable, if because of conscience toward God one endures grief, suffering wrongfully” (1Pet. 2:19). Much of 1 Peter concerns learning to suffer as Jesus did. Peter’s point is that when our conscience tells us to do the same thing Christ’s conscience told Him to do in the face of suffering, then we have a perfect conscience toward God.
If there always lurks in the background of the notion of conscience a second voice with which we agree when evaluating the morality of our behavior, then it stands to reason that the other voice may vary from person to person. The Bible say that there is an inborn awareness of fundamental ideas of truthfulness and righteousness (Rom. 2:14, 15), but it also recognizes that people who listen to immoral voices can pervert their consciences and make them insensitive to God’s ways (1 Tim. 4:2).
Conscience is like an old spring-driven alarm clock. We can pay attention to its alarm and rouse our good behavior. Or we can give it a good swat and go back to sleep. The alarm clock is a machine; it’ll be back on the job tomorrow morning. Our conscience is a dialogue between our self-awareness and our moral codes. We need to respond regularly to it, or self-awareness concludes the moral code is meaningless.