Question: "What does it mean to have a good conscience (1 Timothy 1:5)?"

Answer: In 1 Timothy 1:3–11, the apostle Paul instructs his protégé Timothy on how to deal with false teachers in the church. After giving a brief description of their false teachings (verses 3–4), Paul explains why he wants Timothy to stop these destructive and divisive ideas from spreading: “The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5).

The motivation behind Paul’s instruction to Timothy is love. Instead of demonstrating love for one another, the believers in Ephesus were wasting time in “endless discussion” and “meaningless speculations,” arguing about “myths and spiritual pedigrees” that did nothing to “help people live a life of faith in God” (1 Timothy 1:4, NLT). They were so caught up in controversy that they missed the higher calling—to love God first and then others (Matthew 22:35–40; 1 John 3:11; 4:7; 1 Corinthians 13:13).

As vital as it is to be doctrinally correct, it is equally important to have our heart attitudes and resulting behaviors right before God. Our mission is not to be right and show others they are wrong. Love is the true goal. The quality of love should define our lives and motivate our actions above all else. In 1 Timothy 1:5, Paul lists three foundational attributes necessary to cultivate love: a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith. These were virtues the false teachers had “turned away from” (1 Timothy 1:6, NLT).

So, what does it mean to have a good conscience? The original Greek word (agathos) that Paul uses in 1 Timothy 1:5, rendered as “good” in English, refers to moral excellence. The “conscience” (syneid─ôsis in Greek) is the psychological faculty or internal capability that allows a person to distinguish between right and wrong. It is the inner judge written on the believer’s heart (see Jeremiah 31:33) that accuses and convicts when we do wrong and approves when we do right (see Romans 2:14–15).

A person with a good conscience lives and behaves according to a God-given moral code of excellence; he or she possesses upright inner convictions and is able to discern between right and wrong. Paul charges Timothy, “Cling to your faith in Christ, and keep your conscience clear. For some people have deliberately violated their consciences; as a result, their faith has been shipwrecked” (1 Timothy 1:19, NLT).

It is possible to have either a good conscience or a conscience that is “defiled” or “corrupted” through rebellion (Titus 1:15). When we receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, His blood purifies “our consciences from sinful deeds so that we can worship the living God” (Hebrews 9:14, NLT). Our guilty consciences “have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean” (Hebrews 10:22, NLT).

Warren Wiersbe compares a good conscience, or a clean conscience, “to a window that lets in the light of God’s truth” (The Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 2, Victor Books, 1996, p. 414). The more we study God’s Word, the more light we let in and the more sensitive we become to right and wrong. Paul informs Timothy that the false teachers, those who “abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons,” have persisted in their sin and rebellion against God to the point of having their consciences “seared as with a hot iron” (1 Timothy 4:1–2). The light of God’s truth is shut out from such hearts.

The concept of having a good conscience had a somewhat different meaning for the believers in Ephesus: “For first-century people, conscience dealt with a person’s conduct within the chosen group. A good conscience meant living according to the standards and practices which the group (in this case the church) deemed proper and acceptable. It meant living without shame among one’s peers or companions” (Larson, K., Holman New Testament Commentary, vol. 9, Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000, pp. 146–147).

Nowadays, we view having a good conscience and the ability to discern right from wrong mainly from an individual perspective. But in ancient times the word carried the weight of responsibility and answerability. The apostle Peter seems to have in mind this sense of accountability among peers when he instructs, “And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way. Keep your conscience clear. Then if people speak against you, they will be ashamed when they see what a good life you live because you belong to Christ” (1 Peter 3:15–16, NLT).