The Theologian - The internet journal for integrated theology


The Centrality of "Conscience" Terminology in Hebrews 9-10

by Paul Worledge




The central section of Hebrews focuses on the high priesthood of Jesus. In 8:1, the writer claims: "Now the main point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest…". In 8:3, he points out that "…every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; hence it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer." The writer then goes on to quote Jer. 31:31-34, picking up especially on the need for a "new covenant" (8:13). It is the comparison of the old covenant with the new one and especially the greater effectiveness of Christ’s sacrifice (especially 9:11ff) that is the main theme of Hebrews 9:1-10:18. This is followed by a series of exhortations to the readers, which are based on the proceeding arguments (10:19ff). These argue that thanks to Christ’s sacrifice and High Priestly ministry the way is now open for us to approach God (10:22). The writer is thus concerned with what Christ’s sacrifice means for our relationship with God.

It is in this context that the writer introduces the ‘conscience’ terminology. He uses the word suneidesis four times in these two chapters (9:9,14; 10:2,22), but only once elsewhere (13:18).

In this essay we will explore what the significance is of the use of this terminology in these chapters. Why does he use this term and not another term? To do this it is necessary to have a firm grasp of the word’s meaning which we will examine by considering its use in contemporary Greek culture and in the rest of the New Testament. We will also need to consider how it relates to any similar ideas in the Old Testament. Having clarified what ‘conscience’ means in Hebrews, we will be able to consider why the author has used this word and draw out its true significance.

Having explored the significance of the term we will look at its centrality to the writers argument. Is the conscience, as Bruce claims, "the one effective barrier to man’s fellowship with God;" or are there other barriers that Christ’s sacrifice deals with? We will consider the flow of argument through the whole section, but focus particularly on the debated phrase "the heavenly things" (9:23), since Attridge claims that this refers to "conscience."


Meaning of ‘conscience’

In Greek Literature

The noun suneidesis comes from the root verb sunoida, which means "to have knowledge with." When this is used in a reflexive sense for the self-assessment of ones own deeds it is clear how the connection with conscience arises.

For our purposes, though, we need to turn to Pierce’s study of the popular uses of the word in Greek society around the time of the writing of the New Testament. He describes the idea connoted by suneidesis under three headings. The first is the place of suneidesis in the created universe as a whole. Socrates (410BC) saw it as "knowing of sacrilege and injustice within." This links with the literal meaning of the verb mentioned above. However, by 170BC Polybius was describing it as an "accuser … which dwells in the soul of every man." By the first century AD people saw it as something that was implanted by God as a guardian. Indeed, for Philo conscience was "an instrument in God’s hand to bring men to conversion." All of these understand the conscience as something that is internal to man.

Secondly Pierce describes the moral reference of conscience. It always refers to his own acts and character, not those of others and need not consult any external authority. Thus it is a witness that is private. Further, Pierce argues, it always refers to past acts. This includes three alternatives: aorist (begun and completed in the past), perfect (a condition resulting from a completed act) and present (action begun in the past, but continuing in the present). Finally it always references bad acts, conditions or character. According to Pierce, "For the New testament period, … , it is safe to say that in popular usage … suneidesis is concerned only with bad acts, conditions or character."

Pierce’s final heading is the function of the conscience, which was to cause pain for the bearer. Pierce claims, "Wherever such a result is stated, or may be inferred from the description of suneidesis by simile or some other means, it is always a greater or less pain, defined often in the strongest terms – a crippling or disabling thing." The conscience was not considered to give forewarning that an action you were considering was wrong, but merely to make you feel bad after you had overstepped your moral limits. (Philo seems to suggest that the conscience can have the positive function as a guide. However, this is due more to his failing to distinguish between conscience and other terms and it "goes beyond the general drift of Philo’s doctrine of conscience.") Further, since " suneidesis, being basically a pain, the "good conscience" is basically the absent suneidesis." This absence can be expressed as kathara suneidesis (clean conscience), that is empty of any past bad deeds.

To summarise, the ‘conscience’ was understood to be internal, concerned only with ones own bad acts, conditions or character, which had occurred in the past, caused you pain and could only be described as good if it was absent or empty.


The concept in the Old Testament

There are only three occurences of suneidesis or sunoida in the LXX:

Job 27:6, "I do not know myself that I have done anything amiss."

Eccles. 10:20, "Curse not king in thy conscience."

Wisd. 17:11 For wickedness condemned by a witness within, is a coward thing, and being pressed hard by conscience, always forecasteth the worst lot."

Pierce dismisses the quote from Ecclesiasticus as not applicable to his discussion on conscience since the word is used for "knowing". However, the other two quotes have not altered the Greek understanding of the terminology, for the first is both self-assessing and deals with past bad deeds, whilst the latter is internal, condemns bad deeds and causes pain. Thus, Pierce claims that, "conscience is one of the few important Greek words of the New Testament that have not had imported into them, through use by the LXX, a colouring from the Hebrew experience and outlook of the Old Testament."

Yet, despite the relative absence of the word suneidesis, the Old Testament does acknowledge the inner discord in man. Anguish comes upon Jacob’s sons for what they had done to Joseph (Gen. 42:21), and David’s heart is stricken (1 Sam 24:5; 2 Sam 24:10 cf. 1 Sam 25:31; 1 Ki. 8:38).

In Ps. 51:2 David claims a constant consciousness of sin, but acknowledges that it is sin against God and evil in God’s sight (51:3). He claims that it is God who has crushed his bones (51:8) - not his conscience. Thus, he sees his sin in the light of his relationship with God.

Further, a dominant theme in the Psalm is the idea of "cleansing" from sins (vs.2 cf. vs. 7, 10). "In the Old Testament … purity and impurity are spoken of chiefly in a cultic sense … [and] grounded on the presupposition that uncleanness and Yahweh are irreconcilable opposites … [I]mpurity is inimical to Yahweh and separates one from worship and from God’s people, so that it must be purged out as an abomination." (cf. Lev. 7:19f) Yet the prayer of 51:10 for a "clean heart" makes "the concept of cleanness … personal rather than cultic." (cf. Jer 33:8; Ez. 39:24) It shows that there is a need for internal cleansing of sins. This assumes that the sins have left an "internal stain." This stain is highlighted when one comes before God (cf. Is. 6:5; Jer. 2:22) and needs to be cleansed to enable access to God.

Thus the Old Testament did not develop its own word for conscience. Yet, there is an underlying assumption of an "internal stain" left by sin along with a recognition of a consciousness of past sins that causes anguish.


In the New Testament

The noun suneidesis occurs 30 times in the New Testament. 8 of these are in the passages in 1 Corinthians on the issue of meats sacrificed to idols. In tackling the issue of ‘conscience,’ Paul first states that an absent conscience is not enough to acquit him. What matters is God’s judgement (1 Cor. 4:4). Conversely, a conscience influenced by a false understanding can be oversensitive (1 Cor. 8:7,10). However, Paul says it is better to avoid inflaming another's conscience (1 Cor. 10:27-30), although here it is clear that conscience is dependant on accurate knowledge of your sin. Thus Paul portrays conscience as defective, dependent on accurate knowledge and habit and environment. Indeed, in Tit. 1:15, Paul describes the "corrupt" as having their "minds and consciences ...corrupted." For them, their conscience has ceased to have any effect, so that their actions "deny God."(Tit. 1:16). It is possible for some to have completely defective consciences.

However, in Romans, the conscience is portrayed in a more positive light. In Rom. 2:15, Paul claims that Gentiles have a conscience which witnesses to the law written on their hearts. It is expressed in accusing and excusing thoughts, which will play a part on the day of judgement (2:16). This fits with the Greek concept of conscience for it understands it in a judicial capacity, judging past sins. Nevertheless, Paul, although admitting that conscience plays an effective moral role, nonetheless emphasise the fact that God is the ultimate judge and will ultimately use the conscience for His purposes. Paul also mentions that he has a clear conscience on a particular matter in Rom. 9:1. Yet again, this not by itself, but confirmed by the Holy Spirit. Finally in Rom 13:5, God’s wrath, mediated by the authorities and conscience are paralleled. This suggests that Paul understands the term as "the pain suffered when he has done wrong," and as such is in line with the Greek understanding of the word. Further, though the context suggests that it is to help us obey the state, in knowledge that God is its ultimate founder. In all these three cases, Paul sees the conscience as having a positive use, but always alongside God as the ultimate judge and guide.

In the later writings the conscience is often characterised by special attributes like "good" (Ac. 23:1; 1 Tim 1:5,19; 1 Pet. 3:16), kathara (1 Tim 3:9; 2 Tim. 1:3), kale (Heb. 13:8), anposkopos (Ac.24:16). These attributes of ‘conscience’ portray "something absent altogether from the surrounding Greek world and exceptional in Hellenistic Judaism….the good and clear conscience as the healing of inwardly divided man and therewith a new existence by the act of God in Christ."

The New Testament in general takes on the Greek concept of suneidesis with caution, aware that the human conscience without reference to God is defective. A clear conscience by itself is not enough, God's approval is needed as well. It admits it has a role alongside God’s wrath to accuse us of sins (esp. Rom. 2:15), but speaks of a transformed conscience for those who have a new existence in Christ.


Significance of ‘conscience’ in Hebrews 9 and 10

What then is the significance of suneidesis in Hebrews 9 and 10? Does it fit the Greek understanding of the word or is there a different or deeper meaning here?

In 9:9 the gifts and sacrifices of the old covenant are criticised for being unable to "perfect the conscience of the worshipper." This old sacrificial system was preventing the worshippers from truly entering into the sanctuary from truly being able to worship. Thus Hebrews give the term suneidesis a distinctly religious overtone, connecting the state of the worshippers conscience with his ability to approach God.

This is developed in 9:14, where we are told that the blood of Christ will 'purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God.' This describes what it means to be perfected with respect to conscience. "The object of the verb in 9:9 and 10:1 suggests that teleioun (perfect) was being applied to believers in a 'vocational' sense: they are perfected as would be worshippers as those who would draw near to God, through the work of Christ. The better hope through which Christians would draw near to God has to do specifically with a definitive cleansing of conscience." The idea of 'cleansing' (katharizo) picks up the cultic idea that you needed to be clean to be involved in the Old Covenant worship. Hebrews seems to be paralleling the state of ones conscience with how 'clean' the worshipper was in cultic terms.

What is seen to make the conscience 'dirty' in 9:14 is 'dead works'. (This phrase is probably linked with the allusion to the 'sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer' in 9:13. In Numbers 19:9, 16-19; where this 'sprinkling' is to cleanse someone who has been in contact with a dead body.) As suneidesis in Greek is always related to past wrong deeds, it is natural to see the 'dead works' as refering to these. Indeed, this is made more explicit in 10:2, where 'conscience' and 'sins' are linked. In this passage the writer is claiming that "... the old cultus sanctioned by the law was incapable of achieving the decisive purgation of worshippers...."(10:1,2). Rather, "the sacrifices [of the day of Atonement] really provided ... a reminder of sins." (10:3) This then recalls the religious tone given to suneidesis in 9:9 as something in need of cleansing, but also links suneidesis with the memory of sins, which fits the Greek idea. The genitive in the phrase suneidesis hamarton is probably closest to the idea of a genitive of content, in the sense that the stain or memory of the sins remains in the conscience and it is these that need to be cleaned away.

This conscience 'containing' 'sins' or 'deads works' is further described as poneras (evil) in 10:22. However, here the 'heart' is described as 'sprinkled' (pepantismenoi) from it. This linking of 'sprinkling' and 'heart' points to an 'interior purification' . Thus clearly here, the 'conscience' is seen as internal. When we link this with the idea of the need for 'cleansing' we have something very close to the idea of an 'internal stain' that was implicit in the Old Testament. However, because of this interior purification of the 'evil conscience' brought about by the 'blood of Jesus' (10:19) we are able to approach God (10:22). In this sense the conscience needs to be emptied or wiped clean to be good in the sense of allowing us to approach God.

Suneidesis in Hebrews is seen as: internal, because it is linked with the 'heart' (10:22); only concerned with past wrong doings that is 'dead works' (9:14), 'sins' (10:2), 'evil' (10:22); and could only be described as 'good' that is in the sense of allowing you to worship (10:22) if it had been 'cleansed'. As such it was in line with the Greek understanding, but reinterpreted past wrong doings and what the ultimate 'good' was with Old Testament terminology. It does not imply the Greek idea of the 'conscience' as involving some kind of psychological pain, but this does not mean that this concept is absent. Indeed, the idea that Christians have a 'cleansed' conscience implies that they no longer have the pain of guilt in their lives. This in turn suggests a psychological blessing of being a Christian. However, this is not the main thrust of Hebrews 9 and 10. That is the ability to be able to approach God.

However, perhaps more radically than the re-interpretation of the idea of 'conscience' from its Greek sense is the use of the term in relation to the Old Testament. We saw that in Psalm 51 in particular there was an implicit idea of an 'internal stain' that needed to be cleansed by God. In Hebrews 'conscience' seems to fit with this idea. It thus gives a name to what only an implicit idea in the Old Testament.

Thus, the 'conscience' terminology is significant in Hebrews 9 and 10, because it links a Greek psychological concept with Old Testament categories, and in so doing reinterprets both. Most importantly, it takes the reinterpretation of the Levitical cleanliness rules to their ultimate conclusion by identifying the implicit idea that emerges in the Old Testament (especially in Psalm 51) with a real internal aspect of human nature. By using the terminology the writer to the Hebrews is then able to show what really needs to be made clean to allow true worship of God.


Centrality of ‘conscience’ to the argument of Hebrews 9 and 10


As we have already noted Hebrews 9 and 10 come after a quote from Jeremiah 31 and include a repetition of part of that quote. In chapter 8, the quote is introduced to show that there is need of a 'New Covenant.' Hebrews 9 and 10 has as its main theme to show how the New Covenant, inaugurated by means of Christ's death on the cross and His blood (9:15-20), is superior to the Old Covenant. However, "although the Old Covenant is to be superseded and invalidated, it receives recognition as shadow and example"( 9:23f). There is therefore, a discontinuity and a continuity between the old and new covenants.


Perfection of Believers and Approaching God

The reason for this discussion is to do with the question of the "perfection of believers." This theme was introduced in 7:11, where the writer argued that the old covenant was not able to perfect worshippers (7:11,19). In 7:19, however, he links perfection with the ability to be able to approach God. The idea of approaching God is a theme running throughout Hebrews: Christ leads to heavenly glory (2:10), enter heavenly rest (4:3,10), Christ is the anchor behind the veil (6:19), Christ enters (9:12,24), possible by Christ's obedience (10:5-10). Indeed, it is the failure of the Old Covenant to allow the worshipper to approach God that was the fundamental problem. He had to approach through representatives (9:6), only the High Priest could go into the Holy of Holies once a year (9:7) and the outer sanctuary prevented penetration of the inner sanctuary (9:8-9a). The problem is reiterated in 10:1. However, because of Christ's inauguration of a new covenant, the believer is perfected to approach God (10:22).

This perfection of the worshipper is linked to the conscience. In both 9:9 and 10:1, it is because the Old Covenant fails to deal with the conscience that it fails to make the worshipper perfect. Further, 10:22 suggests that is because under the new covenant we have cleansed consciences that we can approach God. Thus as Lane claims, "A decisive cleansing of conscience is a prerequisite for unhindered access to God." Believers are perfected so they can approach God and this involves the cleansing of the conscience as a most significant element."


Conscience and Jeremiah 31

The writer's repetition of two verses from Jeremiah 31 in 10:16-17 shows that he wants to relate the preceding discussion of sacrifice and priesthood with the prophecy of the new covenant. In particular he wants to underline two blessings of the new covenant. The writer has argued that the new covenant provides a cleansed conscience, which is necessary for worshippers to be able to truly approach God. It is in this fundamental way that the new covenant is superior to the old. However, we now need to consider how the theme of conscience is related to the two blessings that are emphasised? Is it related to one, both or neither?

The first blessing is that God will put His law on their hearts. This is a blessing that goes 'deeper' into man than the old covenant, where the laws were written on stone tablets It is a blessing effecting man internally. We would thus expect it to be related to the conscience which is internal. Indeed, 'heart' (kardia) is next mentioned in 10:22, where we are told to approach God with a 'true heart' recalling the blessing from Jeremiah 31. Yet, this is further described as 'having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience.' Thus, a clean conscience is linked with the blessing of having laws written on their hearts in Jeremiah 31. The old covenant failed to do this, indeed the ritual of the day of atonement made the conscience worse( 10:2) - it added to the burden of sin (10:1-4). The old sacrifices could never take away sins (10:4; 10:11). These two verbs, whose stem is ainreo, suggest a sense of a "burden that needs lifting." They thus fit with the understanding of conscience. However, Christ's single sacrifice 'perfected,' the believers. This recalls the earlier argument about perfection of the worshipper with respect to conscience (9:9,14). This is the context in which the first blessing is quoted (10:16). Thus, conscience is intimately connected with the first blessing.

However, are we meant to connect it with the second as well? This promises that God will forget their sins. The first thing to note is that this is a blessing connected with God's internal attitude, not man's. Secondly, the verb used to summarise this is distinct form the verbs used for the removal of sins from the conscience. There is no sense of a lifting of a burden. Rather, the closest human analogy is more one of cancelling a debt or pardoning someone. These two facts suggest that this blessing is not to be linked with 'conscience'. Attridge, suggests that the mention of the remembrance of sins in 10:3 is a reference to this blessing. Yet, there it is man's remembrance of sins that is in question - not God's!

The 'Heavenly Tabernacle and Conscience"

The 'purifying' (katharizo) terminology is a common theme throughout these chapters. This cleansing was done by the blood of animals in the old covenant (9:13,8-22), but in the new covenant it is the blood of Christ that brings about a more effective cleansing (9:14). Yet is it just 'conscience' that is cleansed in the new covenant? Blood was used for the inauguration of the old covenant (9:18), but more specifically it was used to consecrate the people (9:19) and to cleanse the cultic implements (9:21). In the new covenant people are cleansed by having their "consciences purified from dead works" (9:14). There is thus a deeper internal cleansing of man in the new covenant. However, also in the new covenant there is a purification of the 'heavenly things' (9:23). We now need to consider what this means.


Survey of Meanings of the Heavenly Tabernacle

Ellingworth lists 7 interpretations of the cleansing of the heavenly tabernacle before adding an eighth. (1) The sacrifice 'immunises' the heavenly sanctuary from being defiled when sinners enter it. This view does not do justice to the image of cleansing. (2) The sanctuary is purified by the destruction of Satan or more generally of evil powers. There is no reference to these in the context and it does not fit the Old Testament cleansing imagery being used. (3) The 'heavenlies' refer to the people of God. This is argued by referring back to 'God's house' in 3:6. However, the terminology is very different and there is no hint of this link in the context. Indeed, the imagery picked up from the Old Testament points to a distinction between the people who are cleansed (9:19) and the tabernacle (9:21). (4) They refer to Christ's representative humanity. There is no hint in the context that Christ is the one being 'cleansed'. Rather, he offered himself as a pure sacrifice. (9:14). (5) Some suggest that katharizesthai should not be understood in 9:23b. This, however, is unnatural and does not solve the problem of the meaning of the verse. (6) Ellingworth suggests that the 'purification' is referring to consecration and does not necessarily mean that there was any previous impurity. The idea of consecration is in the context (9:18). Yet things and people are consecrated to worship God and the whole force of these two chapters is that people need to be perfected by cleansing first (9:14). Thus, although consecration may still be in view here, cleansing is a necessary part of it. Further, if cleansing is necessary, there must be some sense in which the thing being cleansed is defiled. Indeed, as Lane points out the whole argument is based around the fact that in the old covenant and the new it is blood that provides access to God by the removal of defilement. (7) Attridge argues that in Philo the temple could symbolise human interiority. As such he links 'the heavenlies' with "the consciences of the members of the new covenant." This fits the general discussion, understanding blood in a cleansing role, but fails to explain the transcendent language.

The temple may have been used as a metaphor for human interiority in some Jewish writings (cf 1Cor. 3:16;6:19), but "heaven" is never used in this way. Indeed, in Hebrews and especially in this context, it often refers to the place where Christ has gone to rule with God (4:14,8:1;9:24). (8) Lane argues that since the Old Testament suggests that the earthly cultus is polluted by the sins of the people (eg Lev. 16:16; 20:3; 21:233; Num. 19:20) the writer to the Hebrews is claiming that it also pollutes the heavenly reality. This fits the use of the metaphor in Hebrews where, "the cultus on earth is inseparably linked to the situation in heaven (cf 8:5; 9:7, 11-12, 23; 12:18-24). Indeed, just as Christ has entered into the Holy Place, we too are told we can do so, because of His blood (9:19). The way has been opened up (9:20), because the heavenly things have been cleansed by Christ's blood, just as the earthly sanctuary had to be cleansed by blood as part of the ritual to allow the High Priest to enter the Holy of Holies on the day of Atonement.(Lev 16:14-16). Of the 8 options, Lane's is the only one that takes the imagery seriously.

However, Lane fails to ground the imagery. The external cleansing of people in the Old covenant was connected with the internal cleansing of the conscience in the New Testament, which in turn is related to the first blessing quoted from Jeremiah ((:16). So, can we find a similar meaning for the cleansing of the 'heavenlies' in the new covenant? In 9:23, blood, the cleansing agent is linked to the forgiveness of sins. Further, in 9:26, the removal of sin, must "in this context have primary reference to the purging of the 'heavenly' things in 9:23." These two words have a distinctive meaning to the verbs relating to the cleansing of the conscience form sin. Further, this word is repeated in 9:18 after the second of the blessings quoted form Jeremiah, the one that promises that God will forget their sins. Since, the heavenly sanctuary is where God dwells (8:1), if it is defiled with the sins of the people, that defilement will be a reminder to God of their sins. It thus makes sense that God can only truly forget their sins if the heavenly sanctuary is cleansed of their defilement. Further, only if God has forgotten someone's sins is it safe for them to draw near to Him (9:19,20), since otherwise they would only receive His judgement. In the final analysis then the cleansing of the "heavenly things" refers to God forgetting man's ins. Just as the new covenant has an effect more internal to man by cleansing his conscience, his memory of his sins, it has an effect closer to God by cleansing the heavenly tabernacle, God's memory of man's sins. Only Christ's blood shed on the cross can do this (10:19).



The writer to the Hebrews brings together the Greek concept of conscience with the Old Testament understanding of the need for internal cleansing. This radical move allows him to describe in what sense sin is purged internally from man by the blood of Christ. It is by using 'conscience terminology' that he describes how man is perfected to be able to relate fully to God in New Covenant terms.

However, the conscience is not as Bruce claims, "the one effective barrier to man’s fellowship with God." From the above discussion it is clear that Hebrews 9 and 10 sees two barriers to man's fellowship with God that Christ's sacrifice overcomes. Both are to do with dealing with sin. Firstly and significantly is man's conscience, man's memory of sins. Yet as with the rest of the New Testament conscience by itself cannot give an indication of our standing with God. Rather, secondly, we also need God to wipe our sins from His memory. Thus, conscience is central to the argument of Hebrews 9 and 10, in as much as it is one of two things that Christ's blood deals with in opening the way for us to approach God.


About the Author

The Revd. Paul Worledge is a graduate of Oxford University and Oak Hill College, London.  He is currently the curate of a church in Bournemouth, England.