Luther on the seared conscience


[date uncertain; probably sometime in 1998]

Reading Luther last night for a bit, I found this one thing intriguing: in talking about a scripture that mentions how persons departing from the faith have their conscience seared, he does not, as every modern interpreter I have heard, take this to mean that the conscience becomes insensitive and allows them to get away with bad things that they otherwise would have known were wrong; instead, he takes it (in context, I might add) as that the conscience is over-sensitive, as burned “seared” skin would be to the touch, creating a sense of guilt over matters that are perfectly acceptable in God’s sight – and thereby occasioning the promotion of righteousness based on works. Here is the text in question:

1 Tim 4:1    Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrinesof devils;

1 Tim 4:2      Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron;

1 Tim 4:3      Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth.

1 Tim 4:4      For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving:

1 Tim 4:5      For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.

Here Luther points out that the evidence of the seared conscience is a negative “thou shalt not” standard of holiness – which he saw all around him in the practices of the Catholic church and the monastic orders.

A quick check of commentaries shows that Luther’s point is missed:

•    by the Interpreter’s Bible, which talks of the seared conscience as “burned into insensitivity” and “conscience which does not function” and is “dulled”, whereas Luther’s take on the passage is that this conscience is tender like an inflamed wound and functions more than it should.

•    Matthew Henry also seems to take it that the seared conscience is but one item in a list of characteristics that also happen to include such Roman practices as forbidding [the clergy] to marry, and the imposition of fasts.

•    The Abingdon Bible Commentary says of those with a seared conscience that “they no longer realize that they are hypocrites and liars”, making the specific prohibitions of v. 3 merely examples of the hypocrisy and lies of v. 2. Of course, this does not necessarily contradict Luther’s take on the passage.

The phrase “seared with a hot iron” comes from a Greek word, based on the word for fire, which is used only this once in the New Testament. There appears to be no basis for presuming that it means desensitized, when it could just as easily mean over-sensitized, or inflamed. Of interest to me is that Luther’s reading of this text, while it could be dismissed as a minor component of his polemic against certain practices he observed in the Catholic Church, has some merit beyond that.  Luther’s great theological insight, that “the just shall live by faith”, led him to see any emphasis on religious practices or observable behavioral measures as distractions from, and damaging to, the truth of the gospel. Having been delivered by God’s grace from a bad conscience (which is to say an over-active one, which produced a crushing weight of guilt no matter what he did to overcome it), he saw the promotion of a sensitive conscience, which is to say feelings of guilt, as opposed to the gospel of Christ.

What his argument really does, though, is take away some ammunition from the self-appointed stewards of morality, in any society, who simply dismiss anyone who doesn’t agree with their moral viewpoint as having a seared, namely insensitive, conscience.  If seared doesn’t mean insensitive, then maybe one can’t shut off dialogue so conveniently. But if those who speak lies in hypocrisy based on a seared conscience are promoting devilish, erroneous teachings that manipulate people’s consciences to keep them under control, and in the process make them stay away from the good gifts of God – then what?



7 thoughts on “Luther on the seared conscience

  1. I found this in Luther’s Works, Volume 35: Word and Sacrament I, edited by E. Theodore Bachmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960).
    The treatise in question is Avoiding the Doctrines of Men (1522). In this treatise (pp. 131-153) he cites ten texts, the fourth one of which (pp. 136-140) is 1 Timothy 4:1-7. Going through the text phrase by phrase, in the relevant place (p. 138 ) he says as follows:

    “6. They have a seared conscience. that is, their conscience is unnatural. For as said above, where there is neither sin nor matter of conscience, they make things out to be sin and a matter of conscience. This is as unnatural as the scar of a burn is on the body.”

  2. I believe Luther was right. Natural sex between husbands and wives has been corrupted by this oversensitive conscience, as one example. The world runs on peer pressure and the seared conscience feeds on peer pressure instead of following Godly conscience.

  3. yes Luther was roman Catholic brought up on such guilt ridden mis interpretations of scripture as Augustians version of marriage ” every sex act WITHIN marriage is a NECESSARY SIN”…..
    So glad Luther had the guts to come out of such an evil minded religion of fear, coercion and blasphemy

    1. I would only say that when Luther came on the scene, Roman Catholicism was (in western Europe) the only game in town, and, I suspect, came in nearly as many flavors then as it does today. Since then the RC church has certainly not had a corner on the market of guilt- and fear-driven religion. Many Protestants, Luther included, adopted large chunks of Augustinian thinking with which I, for one, still disagree.

  4. I was thinking about this verse this morning and tried to get a commentary “take” on it and found you. Glad I did. It makes perfect sense to me.

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