The Guilty Conscience


Conforming our consciences to God’s Word is the only way to avoid legalism and to live in Christ’s freedom.

“Therefore the showers have been withheld, and the spring rain has not come; yet you have the forehead of a whore; you refuse to be ashamed” - Jeremiah 3:1–3.
Scripture often likens the relationship of the Lord to His people as that of a bridegroom to a bride (Isa. 62:5), and Israel is often pictured as an adulteress when she chooses an idol over the one and only God (for example, Hos. 1:2–3).

This analogy lies behind today’s passage wherein Jeremiah accuses the old covenant community of having “the forehead of a whore” and refusing “to be ashamed” (3:1–3). A harlot can only “work” consistently if she suppresses the shameful feelings that attend her deeds. She must lose all sense of embarrassment and be unable to blush. Israel has a harlot’s forehead, she no longer turns red with shame over her wickedness (6:15).

There is often a disconnect between objective guilt and our subjective feelings of this guilt. We may be objectively guilty of sin and yet feel innocent because repeated sin has made us callous to the pangs of conscience. For example, our society’s distortion of human sexuality becomes increasingly visible the more people feel the logical consequences of the so-called “sexual revolution” and its blatant casting off of the shame attached to premarital sex.

It is also possible to have a guilty conscience when no objective guilt is present. Some people, for example, may be convinced that consuming alcohol is against God’s law. Yet while Scripture condemns drunkenness, it nowhere says that consuming strong drink is in itself evil. In fact, wine, not unfermented grape juice, is viewed as a good gift of the Lord (Ps. 104:14–15). False guilt attaches to many people in this area because some traditions have prescribed a rule against alcohol when no such law is present in the Bible.

However, this particular distortion of guilt feelings can be complicated since authentic guilt may occur even if a person drinks without ever becoming drunk. God’s Word says that “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). If a person believes that consuming alcohol is wrong and takes a drink, he has transgressed what he believes is glorifying to God and has therefore chosen sin over his love for the Lord. The sin is not in the drinking of the wine itself, it is in violating the conscience (vv. 1–23).

Coram Deo

We cannot bind another’s conscience where Scripture does not do so. I might not take a drink if I have a problem maintaining sobriety, but the Bible does not condemn alcohol, and so I cannot forbid my brother in Christ from drinking. This is not subjectivism. The church must bind our consciences where Scripture binds them (Matt. 18:15–20). Conforming our consciences to God’s Word is the only way to avoid legalism and live in Christ’s freedom.

Passages for Further Study

  • Jer. 8:12
  • Gal. 5:1, 13–15
  • 1 Peter 2:16
  • 2 Peter 2


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