An Outline for Understanding Issues of Conscience and Legalism

An Outline for Understanding Issues of Conscience and Legalism

Most of us have seen the movie “Chariots of Fire” and have been greatly encouraged by the example of Eric Liddell who refused to compete in races on Sunday. But if a Christian held a different position regarding what is allowed on Sunday, could that believer be just as dedicated to Christ with his differing opinion?

Convictions of personal conscience are those areas where a strict absolute is not laid down for us in the Bible. Having such personal convictions does not mean you cannot make a biblical argument for your position, however. Take for example one of the issues in Romans 14—personal diet. One person could argue for eating vegetables only from Genesis 1:29, stating that eating vegatables was God’s will from the beginning. Others could make a case for eating meat from God’s instruction to Noah after the flood in Genesis 9:1-4. Still others could argue for a “kosher” diet from later revelation in the Mosaic Law such as Leviticus 11:1-23. A fourth group might say that the kosher regulations have been abrogated in Christ and that “all foods are clean” (Mark 7:18-19).

“Sounds simple,” you might be thinking. I wish it were so. The trouble arises when a brother or sister does not see an issue as a matter of “personal conscience,” but as a Biblical absolute. What do we do then? How do we treat the brother or sister who differs with us on these matters? Is there a better position? Am I allowed to do anything my conscience permits? This biblical guide in outline form is an attempt to answer these and similar questions according to the Scriptures.

Moral Absolutes vs. Convictions of Personal Conscience

In his letters to Rome, Corinth, Galatia, and Colossae, the Apostle Paul deals with issues of conscience. Much of the debate revolved around the Christian’s understanding of the Law of Moses. What part, if any, of the Mosaic Law is required for Christians?

When there is no moral absolute clearly stated within the jurisdiction of the New Covenant, then the practice falls under the category of a personal conviction. This does not automatically free a brother to participate in any practice that is not specifically mentioned. Scripture says much about the regulation of these matters, and we will cover them later on in this paper.

To help us understand the difference between a moral absolute and a personal conviction, let’s start with two examples. First, modest dress for women is a moral absolute (I Timothy 2:9). Some obey the absolute by holding a personal conviction of “dresses only.” The conscience of other believers allows that “modest pants” do not violate the absolute.

Consider another example: In order to please the Lord and obey the absolute found in I Peter 2:11, “Abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul,” some have chosen not to have a television. Others believe they can own a television, use it wisely, and still obey the moral absolute.

As much as we would like to consider all of our personal convictions as biblical absolutes, the fact of the matter is, they may not be. Consider just a few historical examples of convictions of personal conscience in order to see how each might demand that his side of the position is an absolute:

  • Vegetable vs. Meat diet
  • Honoring the Mosaic sabbath day vs. Considering all days alike
  • Not eating meat sacrificed to idols vs. All things are clean
  • Participating in war vs. Pacifism
  • Going to the theater, dancing, or playing cards vs. Abstaining from the world
  • Drinking wine vs. Being a teetotaler
  • Playing sports on Sunday vs. Abstaining from “your own pleasure”
  • Gun ownership vs. Nonviolence
  • Political Candidate “A” vs. Political candidate “B”
  • Wearing makeup or dying your hair vs. The God-given “natural” look

We must be honest and careful in these matters. Just because an issue is not presented in the Law of Christ does not mean that God has nothing to say about it. There are biblical principles which must guide us in matters of personal conviction.

Instruction from Romans Chapter Fourteen and Fifteen:

  1. We must accept one another when we differ on matters of personal conviction. 14:1, 15:1, 7
  2. We must not be on a campaign to convert others to our position. 14:1, 22, 15:1
  3. There are stronger and weaker positions. 14:2, 15:1
  4. We must not judge others or view with contempt those who differ with us on these matters. 14:3
  5. We are individually accountable to God, and will indeed have to give an account of our behavior to Him. 14:4, 10-12.
  6. We must be convinced in our own minds; that is, there must be no doubt in our minds as to the acceptableness of our position. 14:5
  7. It is possible for Christians with differing conscientious convictions to be pleasing to the Lord. 14:6
  8. The goal is to ascribe to Christ His rightful position as Lord. 14:7-10
  9. Don’t let your liberty of conscience cause a brother to stumble. 14:13, 21
  10. All things are clean that are not forbidden, but I can’t proceed with a doubting conscience. 14:14
  11. Do not practice your liberty in such a manner that will cause offense; this would violate the law of love. 14:15, 20
  12. Temporal matters are not central to the Kingdom of God, but it is the eternal things wrought by the Spirit that should be our focus. 14:17
  13. Remember that your personal convictions are between you and God. 14:22
  14. Never violate your conscience. You cannot do so without sinning. 14:23
  15. We should strive to be at peace, and to please the other for his edification. 14:19, 15:1-2

Biblical Guidelines for evaluating the exercise of our personal convictions: 

  1. Does it Glorify God? Isaiah 43:7, I Corinthians 10:31, John 15:8
  2. Can it be done in the name of Jesus? Colossians 3:17
  3. Does it cause a weaker brother to stumble? Romans 14:15, 21, Matthew 18:6-9, I Corinthians 8:9-13
  4. Is it profitable for you? I Corinthians 6:12
  5. Does it involve wrong company which may lead you astray? I Corinthians 15:33, Psalm 1:1
  6. Does it have the appearance of evil or make provision for the flesh? I Thessalonians 5:21-22, Romans 13:14
  7. Can it be done for the Lord? Colossians 3:23
  8. Do you have any doubts about it? Romans 14:23
  9. Would your parents understand this activity to be honoring to them? (How do you find out? ASK THEM!) Ephesians 6:2-3
  10. Is it something you would like to reap in the life of your children? Galatians 6:7-8
  11. Are you willing to face it in judgment? II Corinthians 5:10        

Matters of Conscience and Legalism

A discussion of one’s personal convictions almost always includes the topic of legalism. To assist in understanding what constitutes legalism, consider the proper and improper ways to understand legalism.

Legalism is:

  1. Distorting the gospel by adding conditions to free grace: Acts 15:1, 7-11; Gal.1:6-7, 2:11-16, 4:8-11, Gal. 5:2-4; Col.2:16-17
  2. Substituting man-made regulations for the Word of God: Matthew 15:1-3
  3. Majoring on the minors and neglecting the more important issues: Luke 11:42
  4. Overconcern with the externals while disregarding matters of the heart: Matthew 23:27
  5. Regarding with contempt or judging a brother based on matters of personal conviction: Romans 14:1-5
  6. Trusting in ourselves that we are righteous based on religious performance: Luke 18:9-14
  7. Hypocrisy, the leaven of the Pharisees: Luke 11:53-12:1

Legalism is not:

  1. A zeal for the commandments of Christ: Matthew 5:19; I Corinthians 7:19
  2. A ministry that teaches others to follow Christ in obedience: Matthew 28:20; I Thes.4:1-2
  3. Strong personal convictions (as long as they are not required of others): Romans 14:2,5
  4. Man-made restrictions for personal protection from sinful habits (as long as we do not begin to view them as binding on others): Romans 13:14; I Corinthians 6:12
  5. A zeal for good works: Eph.2:10; Titus 1:16, 2:7, 14, 3:8, 14
  6. Limiting our liberty for the benefit of others: Romans 14:15, 21, 15:2; Acts 16:1-3
  7. Obedience: John 14:15, 23, 15:10; I John 2:3-5, 5:2-4


The church of Jesus Christ needs men and women of strong conviction. We must, however, submit all of our convictions to the test of God’s Word. Our Lord Jesus Christ commands us not to be judgmental towards those who differ with us on matters of personal conviction. The kingdom of God revolves around much higher things than food, drink, or other external matters. The unity of the Spirit is a precious thing and it should not be sacrificed for issues of personal preference. We should strive to maintain it with all the grace that God provides in Christ Jesus. Let us conclude with the Word of our Lord through His servant, Paul:

For the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. For he who in this way serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another. Romans 14:17-19

Copyright Bill Busshaus 2008; reposted November 9, 2021