Let Your Conscience Be your Guide? Not Exactly, by Ben Witherington

from 2005 Bible and Culture Blog

I am in the process of working on a commentary on the Pastorals and the Johannine Epistles both in one volume. While dealing with the latter I was looking at 1 Jn. 3.19-20 today — “This is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence, whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and God knows everything.”

I came across a wonderful passage in a commentary by William Loader on the Johannine Epistles (pp. 43-44) on this text where he stresses that the writer of 1 John….

“assumes conscience [or heart] may deceive in much the same way as feelings may deceive. Faith means trusting in God’s love and making ourselves available for its action despite what we may feel. Faith cannot be based on feelings. Nor should its criterion of authenticity be absence of struggle. A troubled conscience or mind may coexist with a life of faith. By shifting the basis for confidence from human feelings and inner harmony to hard faith facts about God and behaviour, the author is boycotting a common religious trend, then and now, to make inner human experiences the criteria of spirituality…. It would [also] be wrong to read this passage as devaluing conscience or our thoughts and feelings altogether. They may be a guide, but their quality as guide will be determined by the quality of person who is being guided. The author is not operating with an idealistic notion of conscience as somehow representing the voice of God within….He operates rather with the notion that our thoughts and feelings are part of our own system of awareness which may be misinformed and misguided. There is also a touch of realism in the author’s obvious appreciation that Christians may well at times have to struggle with unresolved tensions within their personalities which have their origin somewhere other than God. There is a profound comfort in the assurance that God is greater than our conscience and knows all (3.20), because this God is the God of love and compassion and may be trusted.”

This passage has many insights to be contemplated but I will share just three:

1) a troubled conscience may at times be a good thing (a sign that one is deeply concerned about an injustice), it may at times be a bad thing (a sign of something done wrong), but it is not an infallible thing. The Bible never suggests— “let your conscience be your guide” or “to your own heart be true”. The problem with this sort of advice is that our hearts or minds or consciences are just as fallen and prone to error as our feelings.

2) There are times when persons struggle with being sure they are Christians. They wrestle with feelings of not being good enough, and the like. This text should be a great comfort. God has the trump card— he can over-rule your feelings or tender conscience and reassure you that you are in right relationship with God even if it does not feel that way;

3)the quality of the conscience depends on the character of the person in whom it resides, and just how sanctified that person truly is. Sometimes mass murderers sleep just fine at night, with no qualms of conscience. Sometimes some Christians have a weak conscience, and find offense in any little thing. Notice how Paul says that the overly scrupulous person in 1 Cor. 8-10 is the Christian who is weak in faith. In either case the conscience is not a good barometer of the truth or what is right. This is why at the end of the day the author of 1 John stresses that we must trust God and place our trust in the Gospel message, not trust ourselves as the last arbiters of truth, right, “and the godly way” and finally

4) the Pauline rule, whatever is not of faith, is sin for you, is a good one, when one is wrestling with one’s conscience. As faulty as the conscience may be, it is sometimes a good nagging voice that approves or disapproves what you are contemplating doing. You should listen to the voice, but not give it the final say. That belongs to God and God’s Word.

Read more:
  1. Jesus, Canon and Theology   (Witherington, Darrel Bock,Dan Wallace video lecture)
  2. What’s News about Jesus   (Witherington, Darrel Bock, Dan Wallace         video lecture)
  3. Ben Witherington on Luke 18:1-14 – The nature of Prayer
  4. Ben Witherington – The truth Structure and a Poem
  5. Ben Witherington – Claude Galen quote

Ben Witherington – The truth structure of reality and a poem

From Ben Witherington’s ‘Bible and Culture’ blog at Patheos.com

Have you ever noticed that there is a truth structure to reality itself?  What do I mean by this?  Well consider what happens when you tell a lie.  Go ahead, admit it, you’ve done that before.   What happens when the lie is challenged?  Well then you are confronted again with the truth of the matter and you have a choice either to admit the lie, orrrrrr  you have to make up another lie.   ‘Oh what a subtle web we weave….’ and indeed when you start weaving a web of lies and deceits, you have to keep going and try to be consistent with your previous lie, because there are always flaws with lies.  Lies, like the prince of lies, cannot stand the light of day and real scrutiny.  ‘Be sure your sins will find you out’.   Whereas when you tell the truth,  you don’t need to keep imaginatively inventing things, one story after another, one excuse after another.   The truth really does set you free, in so many ways,  free from having to cover things up, free from having to go on lying, freedom from having to live a lie.  One of the saddest truths about fallen human beings and lying is that after a while, a person is so enmeshed in their own web of lies, they begin to believe them, themselves.  Deception turns into self-deception, and all kinds of self-justification and rationalization.   But life was not meant to be this way at all.

Remember the story of the Garden of Eden, which turned out to be the Garden of Evil?  The down-fall began with a little lie, indeed as Jesus was to call it later ‘THE lie’— it was subtle, it was more of an insinuation than a frontal attack on the truth—- ‘did God really say?’   But in fact God had not prohibited eating from every tree in the garden, only one.   And the path from insinuation to a bold-faced lie is a short one— ‘you will not die’  lisps the snake.  The father of lies would make God out to be the liar.

An awful lot of discussion about sin forgets entirely that the most primal sin is lying.  Whether it is a little white lie, or a lie the size of an elephant, it is still a lie.  And any lie is a denial of God’s existence, not merely of his truth.  There is a reason why Jesus says  ‘I am the truth’.   If you want to be a saved person, then you have to face not merely truth in the abstract, you have to face the truth about yourself.   And the truth about ourselves is not entirely pretty.  There is something serpentine about us as fallen persons.  Like a snake that crawls along the ground, we are earthbound, though there is heaven in our hearts and dreams.   There is a reason why children aren’t named Judas in our culture, indeed probably a reason why really major sports teams don’t want to call themselves the ’serpents’.   Shoot, they will even call themselves the ‘fighting okra’ instead of that (check out Delta State U.).    There is a p.r. problem with the name ‘Judas’ or ’snakes’.  And part of it is that we realize deep down that there is something wrong with lying, which in part is a realization that there is something wrong with ourselves.

The truth structure of reality is such that it can be rather unforgiving.  I mean it is true that if you jump off a 10 story building with no parachute you will not merely experience a heavy bit of gravity, you will likely crash land. And it will hurt. Pain, as C. S Lewis once said is God’s megaphone reminding us we are living against the truth structure of reality.  God structured into reality accountability for words and deeds, at least in the long run.

There are always consequences to lies,  not the least of which is when you cry wolf too often and there is no wolf, you develop an air of unbelievability. No one trusts you.  And that brings us back to ground zero— truth.    Trust is grounded in truth and honesty.  Love is grounded in trust which is grounded in truth and honesty.  You cannot unconditionally love someone you don’t totally trust.   You may ‘lust them’  but you can’t totally love them.  And trust always presupposes that truth in reality structure—- always.    A relationship not based in truth cannot last ultimately.  The reason we call it true love is because it is a love based in truth and honesty and loyalty and devotion.  True love is not blind love because it always wants the best for the other person, wants them to be their best selves, their true selves.

Have you ever taken a lie detector test?  I did once, and I learned something about myself, namely I need to be more careful in what I say, and hew as closely as I can to what I know of the truth.   Of course you can pass a human lie detector test simply by being honest, and not necessarily telling ‘THE truth’  only telling honestly what you believe to be the truth.   But when it comes to God’s lie detector test,  the bar is raised considerably.   God does not accept an approximation of the truth, he wants the truth, the whole truth, and nothing  but the truth.  So much does he want that, that he has sent us the Holy Spirit as a constant early warning and internal warning system to remind us of the truth, especially the truth about ourselves, which often is painful.

And then there is the whole deal about the moment of truth, the crisis moment, when we have a chance to be our best selves.      Here is a little poem to meditate on, on that subject.    And while you are reflecting on that,  I would just say—- despite all the psychological literature that urges us to ‘be who we are’   and ‘be true to ourselves’  the Bible doesn’t really agree.  We are to be who God intends us to be, created in his image, and modeling his character, and above all we can only be true to our best selves, when we are true to God.  It is not enough to be honest with God, we have to be tried and true.  God doesn’t just want our honest selves,  though that’s a good start, he wants our true selves,  being conformed to the image of his Son, Jesus.  Are you suffering from some truth decay?   We all do from time to time, which is why we always need reminders about the truth, and how it sets us free to be all He wants us to be.


It sneaks up on you unawares
While you are preoccupied
It catches you quite unprepared
Enthralled as you are in your pride.
Blindsided, you flinch instinctively
When suddenly you are accosted
You realize in an instance ‘it’s now…’
Or else you’ve totally lost it.
All those years of pure preparation
All those long times of careful thought
Have arrived at this destination
So why do you feel you are caught?
Shocked by the sudden challenge
Your defensive reflex, a surprise
Call up the ‘the hope that’s within you’
And look them right in the eyes.
Like fumbling with keys in the doorway,
You find you’re at a loss for words,
Why suddenly this ineptitude
Your nervousness seems absurd.
And there is no graceful exit,
No quiet bowing out
No way to delay the inevitable
You’re in the ring, no doubt.
‘Speak now, or else forever
Forever hold your peace’,
The questioner is insistent
She seeks some sort of release.
When the moment of truth is upon you
And you have no time to prepare
Will you know what to say in that instant
Will you find out how much you care?
Will you call on the Spirit for guidance
Will you ask that the cup might pass
Will you be alarmed by your feeling
That the moment is here at last?
Will you feel like a total coward
A child without his homework
Will the force of the question flatten you
Will you turn your head with a jerk.
Will you say ‘I don’t know him’
Will you deny him multiple times,
Will you say ‘I must be leaving’
When recognized, turn on a dime?
When all your learning fails you
And all your bravado too,
When you have no cup of courage
And you don’t know what to do,
Will the moment of truth unmask you
And reveal the imposter inside,
Are you really his true disciple,
Or are you just along for the ride?
In the moment of truth you find out
Just exactly where you are,
Either someone whole-heartedly committed
Or someone who hasn’t gone that far.
Are you flirting with being his follower
Without fully embracing his grace
And when the road gets bumpy
Are you wanting out of the race?
The moment of truth reveals all,
It gives you a progress report
As to whether the truth is within you
Or is it still something you court?
But the moment of truth need not define you
It’s not a final exam,
Even Peter’s denials didn’t end things,
“It need not decide who I am”
And when you see another failing
Fumbling, falling down,
Don’t turn away in scorn,
It could be you on the ground.
But for the grace of God,
We all would come up short
When the moment of truth comes calling,
Christian faith is no spectator sport.

What’s News about Jesus, Lecture 2 with Drs. Darrell Bock, Dan Wallace, and Ben Witherington

EXTREMELY USEFUL information in these 2 lectures given at Dallas Theological Seminary by 3 of the foremost Evangelical New Testament Scholars. The second video’s discussion on theNew Testament Canon is one of the best I’ve heard and worth note taking as these scholars discuss the Canon within the Church Fathers context.Drs. Darrell Bock, Dan Wallace, and Ben Witherington discuss the current media coverage about Jesus and address issues concerning the “lost” tomb of Jesus, extra-biblical gospels, and the DaVinci Code. (76 minutes)

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Jesus, Canon and Theology, Lecture 1 with Drs. Darrell Bock, Dan Wallace, and Ben Witherington

80 minute apologetics discussion from 2007:Drs. Darrell Bock, Dan Wallace, and Ben Witherington dialogue on the historical and biblical foundation for the person of Jesus, the formation of the canon, and the development of theology.

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