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Thursday, July 19, 2012 | Comments (9)

by John MacArthur

The smoke detectors in your home or office are there to make you aware of a specific, imminent threat to your safety. But what good is a fire alarm that constantly misfires, sending you false warnings of nonexistent danger? A malfunctioning warning system can be as bad as having no alarms at all—worse if you get in the habit of ignoring it altogether.

In the same way, a weak conscience can do more harm than good.

A weak conscience is not the same as a seared conscience. A seared conscience becomes inactive, silent, rarely accusing, and insensitive to sin. By comparison, the weak conscience is hypersensitive and overactive.

Ironically, a weak conscience is more likely to accuse than a strong conscience. Scripture calls this a weak conscience because it is too easily wounded. People with weak consciences tend to fret about things that should not provoke guilt in a mature Christian.

A weak conscience results from an immature or fragile faith not yet weaned from worldly influences and not yet saturated in the Word of God. Weak believers are to be accepted with love and not judged because their consciences are too tender. Paul instructed the Romans, “Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions. One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only” (Romans 14:1-2). Paul makes it clear that the weak believer is likely to be overscrupulous, legalistic, troubled by his conscience in an unhealthy way. In fact, a weak conscience is often the companion of legalism.

Paul repeatedly admonished the early church that those with strong consciences were not to be judgmental (Romans 14:3), and above all they must not encourage those who are weak to violate their consciences. Weak believers must not learn to overrule their consciences. If that becomes a habit—if they condition themselves to reject all the promptings of conscience—they will thus forfeit one of the most important means of sanctification.

In fact, Paul instructed those who were strong to defer whenever possible to the qualms of the weaker brother’s conscience. To encourage an immature believer to wound his own conscience is to lead him into sin: “He who doubts [on account of a weak conscience] is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23).

Paul devoted several chapters of 1 Corinthians to dealing with issues of Christian liberty—in particular, the problem of eating meat that had been offered to idols. Christians in the early church were saved out of various forms of idolatry, and their consciences were sensitive—even hypersensitive—to any behavior that reminded them of their former sinful practices. While the mature believers in the Corinthian church knew there was no spiritual harm in eating meat offered to idols, Paul urged them to abstain for the sake of their weaker, less mature brothers and sisters.

His point was simple: If your faith is strong and your conscience healthy, you may enjoy your own freedom in Christ without making any effort to arouse more intense scrutiny from your own conscience: “Eat anything that is sold in the meat market, without asking questions for conscience’ sake” (1 Corinthians 10:25). But if you have reason to think that someone watching you might be wounded in conscience by your exercise of freedom, abstain. Guard the other person’s tender conscience.

The church today ought to pay more attention to Paul’s exhortation. Rather than exercising—and parading—all our freedoms, we should be mindful of how the example of our life impacts others. Whether in word or deed, we can’t afford to put stumbling blocks or occasions to fall in someone else's way (Romans 14:13).

After all, a weak and constantly accusing conscience is a spiritual liability, not a strength. Many people with especially tender consciences tend to display their overscrupulousness as if it were proof of deep spirituality. It is precisely the opposite. Those with weak consciences tend to be too easily offended and stumble frequently (cf. 1 Corinthians 8:13). They are often overly critical of others (Romans 14:3-4). They are too susceptible to the lure of legalism (Romans 14:20; cf. Galatians 3:2-5). Their thoughts and hearts are soon defiled (Titus 1:15).

Throughout Paul’s discussion of those with weak consciences (Romans 14; 1 Corinthians 8-10), he treats the condition as a state of spiritual immaturity—a lack of knowledge (1 Corinthians 8:7) and a lack of faith (Romans 14:1, 23).

Paul clearly expected that those with weak consciences would grow out of that immature state, like children inevitably outgrow their fear of the dark. Those who choose instead to live in such a state—particularly those who point to a too‑tender conscience as something to boast about—have a warped sense of what it means to be mature in the faith.

True spiritual growth enlightens the mind and strengthens the heart in faith. It is ultimately the only way to overcome a weak conscience.

(Adapted from The Vanishing Conscience.)


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#1  Posted by Jason Dibona  |  Thursday, July 19, 2012 at 4:03 PM

Believing all that was written to be true my question is this. Exactly how do we relate this passage as believers with the real life circumstances in our culture today. For the Jews in Paul's day it was the consumption of meat sacrificed to idols, today we deal with issues like going to movies and how one should dress and drinking alcohol

#2  Posted by Jeremiah Johnson (GTY Admin)  |  Thursday, July 19, 2012 at 4:38 PM


Good question. As far as relating Paul's teaching to our society, the areas you brought up are a good place to start. Of course we need to examine any exercise of our Christian liberty in terms of its direct spiritual impact on us. But we also must consider any indirect impact--specifically, the example it sets for other, less-mature believers. In fact, Paul would say those considerations ought to help determine how and when we exercise our freedoms, or if we exercise them at all. If we make it a priority to live in such a way that builds up immature believers, protects their weak consciences, and encourages their spiritual growth, then we'll be far less preoccupied with exploring all the facets of our liberty in Christ.

#3  Posted by Naomi Durocher  |  Friday, July 20, 2012 at 5:57 AM

Jason, John preaches a sermon on how we as Christians should use our liberty in Christ for Gods glory. It really blessed me and encouraged me in the Lord. It is under the series, A Course For Life, and it is the "Using Your Liberty" message. The entire series is phenomenal, I listen to it while I workout. GTY has a great iphone app too, I LOVE it! Hope this helps.

#4  Posted by Rudi Jensen  |  Friday, July 20, 2012 at 11:05 AM

#1 Jason

Rejection of God is a cyclic event. It happens to all generations. We receive and embrace the truth, but ends up misusing our liberty and ends up rebelling against God. Please read Jeremiah chapter 5 and following, here God speaks to apostate Jerusalem. People do not understand that misused liberty leads to destruction because we want more than God want for us. Obedience to God keep us within the boundaries where God is on the throne, not our freedom. Are you satisfied with Gods good gifts? Or are you thinking you deserves more? It is all about the heart.

Strive to love God above all. Then He will give you all you need.

#5  Posted by Yvonne Hertzler  |  Friday, July 20, 2012 at 12:11 PM


first of all I would like to say that I really appreciated this message. Spoke right into my life and strengthened my conscience. But I have a question:

I would like to know if being a vegetarian falls under the category of having a weak conscience (be it because one doesn't want to hurt animals or because one wants to boycott the meat industry because of its unethical treatment of animals/health risks for humans)? Would you consider this a legitimate conviction for a Christian to uphold?

Thanks :-)

#6  Posted by Steve Mateuszow  |  Saturday, July 21, 2012 at 5:45 AM

Hi All:

I can relate very much with this message. I live in Lancaster County Pa., and live in close proximity with many Mennonite people. Many of these people truly love God, and exibit the fruit of the Spirit in their attitudes (Gal 5:22-23), and their actions (Heb 13:15, James 1:27 etc.). However, at the same time, there are alot of strict rules in their dress, owning certain items like tvs and computers and in some cases even cars. I work with several Mennonite people from all types of denominations, some being very strict, and others being less so. I try to make it a practice to keep Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-10 in mind, especially when certain topics come up, such as watching tv etc. I do have a neighbor family that are very overscrupulous in their convictions, and they can be very judgemental. In fact, they have tried on several occasions to persuade us to attend their church. Without coming right out and saying it, they believe that our church, which is Reformed is not a good church. In their eyes, their church is correct and other churches are wrong. This can be very frustrating at times, and I find myself becoming defensive, and tempted to point out flaws in their church. I know that if I were to do this, it could lead to strife. Thanks for this article, and if anyone has a similar story, I'd love to hear about it. Blessings Steve.

#7  Posted by Rudi Jensen  |  Saturday, July 21, 2012 at 12:57 PM

#5 Yvonne

Matthew 15:16-20

"And he said, Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”

In this chapter, Jesus answered them in verse 3, "why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?" He then took them to a greater command, love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. His conclusion is in part in verse 8, "...their heart is far from me"

Jesus points out that evil come out from the heart. Deal with the inside, not the outside. Food is not an issue. (But don't serve me oysters)

#8  Posted by Isaiah Stillman  |  Sunday, July 22, 2012 at 3:22 PM

I am very convicted! Praise the Lord for truth ! I so desire a clear conscience!

#9  Posted by Isaiah Stillman  |  Sunday, July 22, 2012 at 3:27 PM

Coming from a large family, I will agree with you. If I truly love others and desire to please Lord Jesus, I will set aside anything that would cause my brother or sister to stumble. So hard to do at times! Also, being newly married, I am learning this well praise Him.