Your conscience is your consciousness of what you believe is right and wrong. It’s a generally reliable instrument, so as a general rule you should follow your conscience.
But general rules have exceptions. That voice in your head is not necessarily God’s voice. Sometimes your conscience may be theologically incorrect. That was the case for Christians in Rome in the middle of the first century. Some of those Christians had a weak conscience in three specific areas:
- They ate only vegetables (Romans 14:2, 21).
- They valued some days more than others (Romans 14:5a).
- They abstained from wine (Romans 14:21; see also Romans 14:17).
So you can have a weak conscience in a particular area — that is, you may be theologically incorrect (but not heretical) about a particular issue.
The terms “strong” and “weak” in Romans 15:1 imply that a strong conscience is more desirable than a weak one. Why wouldn’t you want your conscience to be as scripturally informed as possible?
Calibrating Your Conscience
Moving from weak to strong on a particular issue requires that you calibrate your conscience. Just like you may calibrate a clock or a scale that is a bit off, you may need to align your conscience with the standard of God’s Word so that it functions accurately.
So how do you know the difference between sinning against your conscience and calibrating your conscience?
- You are sinning against your conscience when you believe your conscience is speaking correctly and yet you refuse to listen to it.
- You are calibrating your conscience when Christ, the Lord of your conscience, teaches you through the Bible that your conscience has been incorrectly warning you about a particular matter, so you decide no longer to listen to your conscience in that one matter.
Suppose that your conscience condemns you for eating bacon. You think that Christians today still must follow what the Mosaic law commands about food. The theologically correct view is that bacon is victory food that Christians under the new covenant can enjoy to the glory of God. But if you think that it’s wrong to eat bacon, then you are sinning if you eat bacon.
But you could calibrate or adjust or train your conscience that bacon is no longer taboo for God’s people (Mark 7:18–19; Romans 14:17; 1 Corinthians 8:8). Even after you are convinced that it is not sinful to eat bacon, your conscience may warn you the first time you eat bacon. But ignoring that warning is not searing your conscience but calibrating it under the lordship of Christ.
A Biblical Example
God graciously included an example in the Bible of someone calibrating their conscience on this very issue: Peter in Acts 10:9–16. God gave Peter a vision of certain kinds of animals that the Old Testament forbade Jews to eat. The Lord Jesus commanded Peter, “Kill and eat.” Peter’s weak conscience revolted against this command: “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.”
When it came to eating unclean animals and fellowshipping with Gentiles, Peter’s faith was weak. But because Christ himself was commanding him, he had to calibrate his conscience so that he would have the faith to accept food and people that he was previously not able to accept.
That’s the difference between sinning against and calibrating your conscience.