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The word 'conscience' appears in Hebrews 9-10 three times:

9(which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, Hebrews 9:9, ESV

14how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. Hebrews 9:14, ESV

22let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Hebrews 10:22, ESV

The author seems to use the term to show a particular contrast between the efficacy of the old covenant and of the new.

What is the author of Hebrews contrasting? What does he mean by the word?

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There is one final usage in Hebrews that helps explain how the author is using the term:

18Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things. Hebrews 13:18, ESV

From this verse it is clear that the word is being used to describe a concrete difference in the heart of members of the new covenant versus the old. By contrast, it cannot be understood to refer to a particular state of forgiveness or imputed righteousness.

This fits with the overall message of Hebrews with its strong focus on the heart, and especially with chapters 9 and 10 where the other three usages occur. All three are in close proximity to the pivotal quotes from Jeremiah concerning the heart change under the new covenant:

8For he finds fault with them when he says:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, 9not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt. For they did not continue in my covenant, and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord. 10For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 11And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. 12For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” Hebrews 8:8-12, ESV

16“This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,”

17then he adds,

“I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” Hebrews 10:16-17, ESV

Members of the new covenant are changed (regenerated) at the deepest level of their heart inclinations — the inclination to rebel has been replaced by the inclination to obey, or as the author puts it, they now are "desiring to act honorably in all things".

A "clear conscience" is not to say that sanctification is complete, but that it has started. It is not to say that atonement is now unnecessary but that it is now required for sins committed despite their deepest inclinations, rather than sins committed because of their deepest inclinations.

So the author is using 'conscience' as a virtual synonym for the concept of regeneration. If when I sin, I am doing the very thing I hate, my conscience is clear in this sense. If I go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, I am not regenerate.

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  • I say you've had a great question and the best answer for quite some time. I vote you reward yourself, Jack. – John Martin Apr 5 at 22:21
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The Greek word here is συνείδησις (suneidēsis), which can mean both "conscience" and "consciousness."1 The word also appears in Hebrews 10:2, in addition to the other verses you cite, but here the ESV translates the word as "consciousness" rather than "conscience":

ἐπεὶ οὐκ ἂν ἐπαύσαντο προσφερόμεναι, διὰ τὸ μηδεμίαν ἔχειν ἔτι συνείδησιν ἁμαρτιῶν τοὺς λατρεύοντας, ἅπαξ κεκαθαρμένους;

Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins?


As verse 7 states, the high priest would only atone for the unintentional sins (ἀγνόημα - agnomēma) of the people:

Into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people.

According to the Law, however, intentional sins could not be atoned for by ritual sacrifice:

If one person sins unintentionally, he shall offer a female goat a year old for a sin offering. And the priest shall make atonement before the LORD for the person who makes a mistake, when he sins unintentionally, to make atonement for him, and he shall be forgiven. You shall have one law for him who does anything unintentionally, for him who is native among the people of Israel and for the stranger who sojourns among them. But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the LORD, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him (Numbers 15:27-31)


Verses 9-10 reiterate this. The ESV here reads:

According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation.

But I think the translation may slightly miss the mark. The Greek text does not say "perfect the conscience", but rather "perfect the worshipper" (ελειῶσαι τὸν λατρεύοντα); and while "reformation" (probably borrowed from the KJV) may resonate with some readers, it is probably better rendered as something like "make right" (ὀρθός - orthos, meaning "straight" or "right" - is the root of the verb διόρθωσις). A more literal translation of this passage might be:

καθʼ ὃν δῶρά τε καὶ θυσίαι προσφέρονται μὴ δυνάμεναι κατὰ συνείδησιν τελειῶσαι τὸν λατρεύοντα, μόνον ἐπὶ βρώμασι καὶ πόμασι καὶ διαφόροις βαπτισμοῖς καὶ δικαιώμασι σαρκός, μέχρι καιροῦ διορθώσεως ἐπικείμενα.

... According to which both gifts and sacrifices are being offered, which is not able to perfect the [one] who worshippeth, as concerning conscience, only in food and drinks, and diverse ablutions and ordinances of [the] flesh being imposed [on them], until the time of setting things straight.2


So we conclude from the text itself that the contrast is between a time in the past when things were not "straight" or "right" (ὀρθός) and the time of "straitening" (διόρθωσις). Before that time, consciousness of sin could not be erased by the atonement of the high priests of old (cf. Numbers 15:27ff above), but was erased by Christ who came as High Priest (Hebrews 9:11)


This line of reasoning is explained in one modern Orthodox commentary:

Perhaps the use of "sins of ignorance" [ἀγνόημα] points up to the fact that deliberate sins were not forgiveable (Numbers 15:27-31), so as to make a contrast with the effectiveness of the sacrifice of Christ, which would cover all of man's sins: "... the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin" (I John 1:7).


1. See, e.g., Bauer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature
2. Orthodox New Testament translation (not to be confused with Orthodox Study Bible)

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One of the 3 steps of the Yom Kippur ritual involved the Aaronic chief priest making atonement for his sins before approaching into the holy place. Because the priest never was made "perfect" they had to repeat this each year:

YLT
Heb 9:7 and into the second, once in the year, only the chief priest, not apart from blood, which he doth offer for himself and the errors of the people, Heb 9:8 the Holy Spirit this evidencing that not yet hath been manifested the way of the holy places , the first tabernacle having yet a standing; Heb 9:9 which is a simile in regard to the present time, in which both gifts and sacrifices are offered, which are not able, in regard to conscience, to make perfect him who is serving,

Not being made "perfect" with regard to conscience is to never to be so bold as to approach God without an apology in hand and an appeal for forgiveness of sins.

However, when Jesus approached God he had made a permanent purification in that he died to sin and escaped the dominion of death:

YLT Heb 9:12 neither through blood of goats and calves, but through his own blood, did enter in once into the holy places, age-during redemption [freedom] having obtained;

Rom 6:9 knowing that Christ, having been raised up out of the dead, doth no more die, death over him hath no more lordship; Rom 6:10 for in that he died, to the sin he died once, and in that he liveth, he liveth to God;

So Jesus was made perfect and can approach God without a consciousness of sins.

Likewise the baptized believer is baptized into his death and is no longer under the power of sin:

Rom 6:3 are ye ignorant that we, as many as were baptized to Christ Jesus, to his death were baptized? Rom 6:4 we were buried together, then, with him through the baptism to the death, that even as Christ was raised up out of the dead through the glory of the Father, so also we in newness of life might walk. Rom 6:5 For, if we have become planted together to the likeness of his death, so also we shall be of the rising again; Rom 6:6 this knowing, that our old man was crucified with him , that the body of the sin may be made useless, for our no longer serving the sin; Rom 6:7 for he who hath died hath been set free from the sin. Rom 6:8 And if we died with Christ, we believe that we also shall live with him, Rom 6:9 knowing that Christ, having been raised up out of the dead, doth no more die, death over him hath no more lordship; Rom 6:10 for in that he died, to the sin he died once, and in that he liveth, he liveth to God; Rom 6:11 so also ye, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to the sin, and living to God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

But "To the Hebrews" is written specifically to the Jews and for their benefit Jesus ratified the new covenant which was specifically designed to deal with the sins of the Jews under the first covenant:

Heb 9:15 Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.

And for the Jews is the double good news that he's ratified the new covenant with the Jews for the forgiveness of sins:

Heb 10:9 then he added, "Behold, I have come to do your will." He does away with the first in order to establish the second. Heb 10:10 And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. Heb 10:11 And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. Heb 10:12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, Heb 10:13 waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. Heb 10:14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. Heb 10:15 And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, Heb 10:16 "This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds," Heb 10:17 then he adds, "I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more." Heb 10:18 Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin. Heb 10:19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, Heb 10:20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, Heb 10:21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, Heb 10:22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Heb 10:23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.

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