Your Conscience on a Spectrum (and a Flowchart) – Bobby Jamieson

I recently preached two topical sermons on the conscience: “The Conscience and the Christian” and “The Conscience and the Local Church.” To accompany the sermons, I developed two graphics that address different aspects of how we should handle our own consciences and relate to others’ consciences.

Here’s the first, which I call the “Conscience Spectrum.”

How the Conscience Works

Conscience is your inner sense of right and wrong that judges everything you’ve done or are considering doing.

Strictly speaking, your conscience delivers only black-and-white judgments (e.g., Rom. 2:15, “Accuse or even excuse”). Whether looking backward at something you’ve done or forward at something you’re considering, your conscience tells you only “right” or “wrong.” To start on the left end of the spectrum, your conscience only tells you whether an action is prohibited or permitted. And on the right end, whether an action is required or not required.

Conscience is your inner sense of right and wrong that judges everything you’ve done or are considering doing.

The reason I’ve filled in both ends of the spectrum with black is that in both cases your conscience is bound. Whether your conscience tells you something is prohibited or required, it constrains your behavior. It issues you a command you must heed. Whatever God’s Word prohibits, your conscience should prohibit; whatever it commands, your conscience should command. But because of sin, nobody’s conscience is perfectly aligned with God’s will. Nonetheless, God’s will is the standard to which we should continually recalibrate our consciences.

Whenever your conscience isn’t bound by either a requirement or a prohibition, you’re free to act (or not to act). When a matter falls into the clear central zone, you might seek advice about whether to act, but no fellow Christian, church leader, or church standard should command you one way or the other. That would be going beyond God’s will and binding your conscience where he hasn’t.

But notice I’ve shaded in the edges of the clear space with hash marks. That’s because the boundaries are sometimes blurry. There are actions God’s Word doesn’t strictly forbid, but they sure seem like a bad idea. A wise friend or pastor might advise you—even warn you—not to do it, but such advice shouldn’t be taken as a divine command. Conversely, there are actions God’s Word doesn’t strictly require, but they seem sufficiently wise, profitable, and beneficial to you and others that someone might strongly encourage you to do them.

In this territory, we’re still in the realm of counsel, not command. Keeping a clear distinction between the two protects your own conscience, protects Christian liberty, and ultimately protects the gospel.

How to Handle Differing Consciences

What happens when Christians disagree about what belongs in the black, white, or shaded sections? What if you think some act is a sin but another member of your church seems not to? Here’s where the second graphic comes in, which we can call the “How Not to Judge” flowchart.



Taking our cue from Romans 14:1–15:7, the goal in this flowchart is to figure out how to respond when another believer’s sin is bothering you—and how to do so without judging him, which Paul repeatedly warns against (Rom. 14:3–5, 10, 13). Assume this person is a member of the same local church as you. You see him do something or hear him say something you think is a sin. What should you do?


Start by asking Is the sin against me? If it is, your first order of business is to forgive the person. Forgiveness is inward and vertical before it’s ever outward and horizontal.

Whenever someone sins against you, you’re obligated, within the confines of your own heart, to refuse to make her pay for her sin, to refuse to punish her for it, and to will her good in love. This is what Jesus teaches in Mark 11:25: “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” (Tim Keller’s recent book Forgive is outstanding on this point.)

If the sin is relatively minor, after forgiving the person it’s often best to simply forbear. In other words, forgive and move on. No need to say anything.

If the sin is relatively minor, after forgiving the person it’s often best to simply forbear.

As Paul exhorts us, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col. 3:12–13).

Reconcile (When Possible)

But forgiveness might not be all you should do. When do you say something to the person who sinned against you? The simplest answer is “When his sin continues to bother you.” It might bother you because of how seriously it harmed you. Or, even if you’re not affected personally, you might be concerned about what this sin says about the person’s spiritual state.

In any case, if his sin is serious enough that it keeps blinking on your moral and emotional radar, it’s probably best to talk to him about it. This is what Jesus teaches in Matthew 18:15–17 and Luke 17:3–5. It’s an effort to extend forgiveness outwardly and horizontally.

Whether you’re able to successfully extend that forgiveness depends, first of all, on having already forgiven the person in your heart. It also depends on whether he repents of his sin and asks for your forgiveness. You can only control the former. That’s why Paul says, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Rom. 12:18).

Of course, there’s a sense in which you can extend forgiveness to the person regardless of whether he asks for it. But for the relationship to be reconciled and restored, for forgiveness to be both offered and received, he must repent.

Pray and Decide Whether to Say Something

What if the sin isn’t against you? What you mustn’t do is judge, condemn, grow embittered, or harbor resentment. As the popular saying goes, “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” Instead, start by praying for the person and saying nothing to anyone but God.

But when should you say something? After all, as Keller puts it, “It is never loving to allow someone to go on sinning in a grievous way.” As Paul says (speaking not of sin against you but of sin in which someone’s “caught” or “found out”), “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness” (Gal. 6:1).

Here are two key questions to ask: (1) How confident are you that this is a sin? and (2) How serious a sin is it? The higher the sin scores on both counts, the more likely you should say something.

What if you try to talk to the other person, and it turns out you disagree about whether the act in question is a sin?

One factor to consider is whether there’s a theological difference at the root. One Christian views Sunday as the Sabbath and thinks it’s a sin to do any type of work; another doesn’t. You can address the theological issue if you like. But, like in Romans 14, recognize there are theological and practical issues Christians will continue to disagree about. We’ve disagreed over the Sabbath for 2,000 years. This might be one you have to live with!

It’s important to recognize Paul’s entire discussion in Romans 14:1–15:7 is built on the conviction that Christians should be able to live together in rich harmony, as members of the same church, despite ongoing clashes of conscience.

Christians should be able to live together in rich harmony, as members of the same church, despite ongoing clashes of conscience.

If there isn’t a theological difference at stake, make sure you agree about the moral basis of how you evaluate the issue. Your conscience works by applying a rule to a specific situation. It evaluates the particular in light of the universal. A judgment of conscience involves evaluating some situation outside the Bible with reference to a principle from the Bible. There are always two parts to the judgment.

So if you decide to pursue a conversation with the brother or sister you disagree with, try to come up with every relevant scriptural passage and principle. Lay them all out on the table and look at them together. Make sure you’re agreeing about the biblical basis for how you should evaluate the disputed behavior. Only then discuss the action. Give each person a chance to characterize it. And if you think her understanding of the behavior is defective, try to improve it, and see if she agrees with your improvement.

2 Tools for Unity

Even here, Christians will disagree. Is going five miles an hour over the speed limit a sin? What about jaywalking? Or not tipping at a restaurant? Recognize you can agree about the scriptural rule and disagree about its application.

Locating the source of disagreement helps contain it. Your disagreement is only there. It’s not about the lordship of Christ but about whether this action violates that rule. And remember that not every disagreement is a matter of conscience. Some are simply preferences. Not every preference ought to be a conviction of conscience.

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