The Tripartite Man (Part 3): Spirit – Conscience
In Part II, I covered the spiritual function of Intuition. In this installment, I cover the second of the three functions of the Spirit – that of Conscience.
While intuition is meant to tell us what is true or not, conscience is meant to teach us what is morally right or wrong. The conscience is often poorly understood, but the bible contains quite a bit on the conscience, and makes it clear how and why we are to rely on our conscience.
3.1 An Analogy to Understand Conscience – Pain Receptor for the Soul
Think of the conscience as the spiritual equivalent of physical pain. If you put your feet into hot coals, pain tells you that you are doing something destructive.
In the same way, when we are doing something morally wrong, the pain of conscience tells us that we are hurting ourselves or others.
3.1.1 Our Responses to Pain and the Conscience
If, using the above analogy, your feet are in the fire, you have three choices to make. You can
(a) remove your feet from the fire
(b) grit your teeth and keep them there, or
(c) take pain killer and keep them there.
The sane person would, of course, take action to stop the cause of the pain by removing their feet from the fire.
But with respect to the conscience, we often don’t make such a sane choice. We ought to (a) change our actions, but we often (b) ignore our conscience and keep acting destructively or wrongly. And often, if we cannot bear the pain of conscience, or if our sensitivity to it does not diminish and we can’t get use to it (and we sometimes can, see the Seared Conscience below), we may (c) medicate ourselves to deal with the discomfort of conscience.
3.2 Various Types of Conscience
Briefly, here are the descriptions of the conscience from scripture:
3.2.1 The Abandoned (Inactive) Conscience
If we ignore our conscience, or de-sensitize our conscience to moral wrongs, our conscience will eventually fail to convict us when we are doing something wrong. In our analogy above, our ability to feel the pain of conscience is so diminished that we fail to realize when we are hurting ourselves or others.
Ignoring our conscience can weaken it over time, to the point where its faint voice becomes nearly gone. That is, until some jerk spouting Biblical morality comes by, and immediately, it jumps back into action, enraging us. We may have spent as much time as possible getting away from moralizers in order to keep our conscience inactive.
Eventually, if we continue hardening ourselves to the pangs of conscience, God “gives us over” to our ignored conscience as a form of judgment, a form of punishment Bible scholar John MacArthur calls The Wrath of Abandonment, described twice in Romans 1:
Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness (Romans 1:24a)
For this reason God gave them up to vile passions.(Romans 1:26a)
22.214.171.124 Desensitization – Passive and Active
Desensitizing our conscience can take two forms – passive and active. Passive desensitization happens as our surroundings and culture numb us to things like poverty, violence, or sexual immorality. Few people would argue that this happens in our modern culture, esp. with our hours of passively watching TV.
Active desensitization is when we purposely adopt a justification for something our conscience is telling us is wrong. For example, if we are tired of feeling guilty about having sex outside of marriage, we may adopt a way of thinking that justifies our actions, effectively mis-educating our conscience.
126.96.36.199 A Vivid Analogy for the Abandoned Conscience – Leprosy
As Dr. Paul Brand records in his landmark book (and work) with leprosy patients in Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, when the pain receptors are NOT working, we damage ourselves and don’t even know it. Leprosy victims have walked on broken ankles until they’ve irreversibly damaged themselves, or not felt rats eating their fingers while they slept. And if our consciences are dulled, we may be hurting ourselves and others and not even realizing it.
3.2.2 The Weak (Overactive) Conscience
The term ‘weak’ conscience, as used Biblically, is a little confusing. It does NOT mean that our conscience is inactive or lacks strength, but that it is subject to MANY rules and restrictions, limiting our liberty and convicting us for things that are not bad at all.
It would be like having pain for nor real cause at all – phantom pains, as it were. The religious legalist is the one with the weak conscience, as described in the passages below:
However, there is not in everyone that knowledge; for some, with consciousness of the idol, until now eat it as a thing offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. But food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse. (1 Corinthians 8:7-8)
Therefore,if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations – ‘Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,’ which all concern things which perish with the using – according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh. (Colossians 2:20-23)
Many Christians are victims of this type of conscience, since the tendency to rules-based, Pharisaical religion is the weakness and temptation of all fallen humans and stagnant religious groups. This is one of the reasons the Apostle Paul had to write so many letters about grace to the churches – because the worldly, immature approach to faith is one of outer rules rather than inward faith and transformation.
3.2.3 The Defiled (Guilty) Conscience
Whether or not our consciences are accurate or not, when we disobey our conscience, we feel guilty. Not surprisingly, the Bible says that this is a bad thing for us. See 1 Corinthians 8:7, Titus 1:15.
Returning to our analogy, it’s like having pain and continuing to do the thing that causes it.
3.2.4 The Pure or Good (Obeyed) Conscience
This is the conscience that has been obeyed. See 2 Timothy 1:3, 1 Timothy 1:5, Acts 24:16.
Importantly, Paul lists a good conscience as one of the three goals of Christian teaching for believers
1 Timothy 1:5 (New Living Translation)
The purpose of my instruction is that all believers would be filled with love that comes from a pure heart, a clear conscience, and genuine faith.
3.3 Some Biblical Principles Regarding Conscience
3.3.1 We are all born with a baseline conscience
Not only does God expect us to intuit that He is real by seeing creation, he expects us to realize that there is right and wrong because he has given us a basic conscience – not one that is fully informed or matured, but a basic sense.
We see this basic sense in children who, for purely selfish reasons, recognize the lack of parity when another sibling gets a bigger piece of candy. This simple sense of justice, or the guilt that comes with a lie, are intrinsic, not just learned. Of course, this claim is hotly debated and tested by psychologists, but nevertheless, academicians may never figure it out, and for this discussion, I am content to assume that intrinsic conscience is possible, maybe even probable, and so the biblical teaching on this can’t be rejected out of hand.
Here’s the biblical referent for our having a basic understanding of right and wrong even if we’ve never been exposed to laws and rules:
Romans 2:14-15 (New King James)
For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them)
However, this baseline conscience is neither infallible, nor complete, and can be deformed by mis-training or neglect.
3.3.2 The Training of the Conscience
Essentially, the conscience is our inner reference list of what is right and wrong. Think of it as a copy of the actual list of right and wrong, a list that we must augment and build as part of our development. The more accurate our list is in comparison to what is actually objectively right and wrong, the more successful we will be in the real world – because we will succeed in doing good and avoiding wrong. But if our list is inaccurate, or longer or shorter than it should be, we may be quite UNsuccessful in the real world.
The question is, where is such a list of right and wrongs? Naturally, Christians hold that the Bible is God’s primary guide to us, but the point is not that we are to merely memorize or intellectually understand lists of right and wrong. Real Christian maturity is much more than this.
In fact, we are in general to learn principles, not rules, and we are to allow God to change our emotions and our will, not just our mind, and be in relationship with the Holy Spirit, not just rely on dead rules. Such dead rules are the essence of dead, often judgmental and powerless religion, but not real faith.
188.8.131.52 Training the Conscience with Principles, Not Rules
One classical method of education entails a three step process:
- Memorization - learning basic terms and definitions
- Rules- organizing the basics into a system, learning rules of usage
- Logic - applying the terms and rules to accomplishing certain specific ends
This process is applied across any discipline. For example, in learning languages, the three steps are renamed accordingly:
- Vocabulary - learning and memorizing words
- Grammar - learning how to put words into meaningful sentences
- Rhetoric - learning to communicate ideas using logic
With regards to spirituality and moral development, the same three steps apply. Young children or new Christians may need to merely memorize rules, and the various scriptures that apply. In this arena, the steps may be called
- Memorization - simple scripture meditation
- Systematic Theology - learning systems for organizing theological ideas
- Hermeneutics, Homiletics, Apologetics - These are just three schools of logic and principle used to understand, teach, and defend the faith (respectively).
So the mature conscience is more than just soaking one’s head in the moral laws, though that is a great start. A more mature person moves beyond that to using principles for navigating what is good or not.
184.108.40.206 A Specific Biblical Example of Principles for use by the Conscience – Romans 14
Contrary to some people’s beliefs, while grand moral truths may be listed, as in the Ten Commandments, not every single activity, thought, or situation is described in scripture, nor are all of them simply black or white. Romans 14 contains scriptures that teach us how to navigate moral gray areas. I have exegeted these scriptures in some detail in Navigating Moral Gray Areas, but to summarize the principles one ought to use with regard to conscience, they are:
- Obey our own conscience
- Exercise concern for others
- Don’t judge others if they feel the freedom to do what you feel you can not
However, this is merely an attempt at applying an intellectual learning model to something that is learned more through experience than mere mental learning. This is why there is a second, perhaps more important component to educating the conscience – by learning directly from the Teacher, who not only informs our minds, but molds our hearts.
220.127.116.11 Training the conscience through relationship with God
Because Biblical Christianity focuses on our personal apprehension and experience of God, and his forming work inside of us, training of the conscience is more than an intellectual exercise – in fact, it is NOT primarily about intellect, but about our desires, our will, and learning to hear, cooperate with, and obey what God is doing inside of us. Any attempt at becoming Christian in conscience without this work may be largely superficial, and may turn us into self-righteous, judgmental people.
In one section of sripture, John the Apostle was instructing Christians on how to spot and avoid false teachers. What is especially difficult about this is that often, such teachers are very intelligent, and we may feel like we lack both the experience and knowledge to tell if what they are saying is true.
But John assures us of something very special and important – that since the Spirit of God now dwells IN us, we have God to teach us, and in as much as we obey what God is telling us, we are obeying God, no matter what a teacher says.
I am writing these things to warn you about those who want to lead you astray. But you have received the Holy Spirit, and he lives within you, so you don’t need anyone to teach you what is true. For the Spirit teaches you everything you need to know, and what he teaches is true – it is not a lie. So just as he has taught you, remain in fellowship with Christ. (1 John 2:26-27 NLT)
Of course, this does not mean that we do not learn from teachers, or that our own subjective feelings on what God is ‘saying’ to us is correct – we have to balance our experience with scripture, reason, and tradition (see The Wesleyan Quadrangle). But this DOES indicate that, in the education of our conscience, we should engage the inner process in which God shapes us through the scriptures.
3.3.3 Freedom of Conscience
The Romans 14 passage above, as well as the passage about relying on our own convictions about what God is asking of us, contain a critical Biblical principle regarding conscience – that each of us, right or wrong, is free to obey our own conscience. This principle can be separated into two parts.
18.104.22.168 Freedom from the judgment of others
The essential idea here is that each of us is responsible primarily to God, and not to men.
Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand. One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. (Romans 14:4-5 NKJ)
To balance this idea, of course, is that we ARE to consider criticism from others, as well as rebuke from the scriptures on clear matters. But in lesser matters, we are only responsible to God.
22.214.171.124 Freedom from having to obey every command of the ecclesiastic order
One of the problems that religious people have is that they hear so much teaching, there is no way that they can obey every command, recommendation, or principle that they learn. Yet, many people errantly believe that if they don’t DO everything that they know, they are sinning. This misunderstanding is built on some valid scriptural principles regarding obeying the truth, not least of which is found in James 1:
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. (James 1:22 NKJ)
The operative word here, however, is the word “hear.” Often, when the Bible speaks of hearing, it is not merely talking about auditory stimuli or mere mental apprehension of words and ideas. It is talking of an interaction between the words and the ‘heart.’ In our context, we mean the hearing of the spirit, that is, intuition, conscience, and communion with God.
That is why John in the passage above comforts people that they don’t need to rely on every word that comes out of a teacher’s mouth, not knowing immediately if the teacher is communicating falsehoods. They are to rely on their own inner convictions of what is true, and what God is saying to them.
Naturally, the possibility of self-deception and subjective mistakes here are very real – but as we will see later, the arbiter of such matters, the thing that can and does keep us honest, are the scriptures AND the real work of the Holy Spirit, who is wholly other from us, and can change us and convince us of things that we are doggedly against and self-deceived about.
3.3.4 Obedience To Conscience
One last very important principle of conscience is that of obeying the conscience, even if it is overly restrictive. This may sound counterproductive, even harmful, but scripture teaches that it is MORE harmful to disobey one’s conscience.
126.96.36.199 Obedience Commanded
Interestingly, the scriptures above tell us to obey our conscience even when it is overly strict and perhaps not even reflective of what is actually bad or good.
I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean…. All things indeed are pure, but it is evil for the man who eats with offense….But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin. (Romans 14:14, 20, 23)
188.8.131.52 The Better Remedy – Re-educating the Conscience
Returning to the metaphor of conscience being the soul’s analog to physical pain, there are times when we ignore pain, but not very often. This presents a dilemma for the person who *knows* their conscience is overly strict (‘weak’ in biblical terms), but how does he change it if he is bound to obey it?
The answer is, *first* he must develop new convictions about what is right and wrong by educating his mind with the ‘law of the Spirit of life’ (Romans 8:2) so that he can affirm his freedom from the inside out.
Second, and in practical terms, he still may have slight pings of conscience as he proceeds, but there is a delicate balance between retraining the conscience both inwardly (changing thoughts) and outwardly (changing actions) – if we lean too heavily to one side or the other, we will alternately be waiting for mental perfection before exercising our freedom, or exercise outer freedom before significant inner freedom is established, hurting our selves and our conscience. Let us endeavor to lead with heart change, but not sell short the need to follow through with action as soon as is bearable.
3.4 How then can we trust Conscience?
3.4.1 The Anti-theist’s Mistrust of Conscience
Inaccurate, overactive, and boorish consciences are part of what may influence anti-religionists to discard the concept of conscience altogether. Why rely on something so obviously unreliable, so easily mis-educated, and often abused? Such a thing can hardly be useful in determining what is objectively true, right?
This is where two distinct biblical ideas come into play – those of the authority and vivacity of scripture, and the work of the Holy Spirit upon the conscience.
3.4.2 Scripture’s Aliveness with regard to the Conscience
The good thing about scripture, and truth in general, is that has an enlivening affect which can bring dead or dying consciences back to life.
Hebrews 4:12 (New Living Translation)
For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires.
Even if God has temporarily abandoned us to our own ways as described above, that does not mean that we are forever doomed to be victims of our own sinfulness. At any point in life, we can awaken and call for help.
3.4.3 Using the Law to Awaken Men to their Guilt and Need for Salvation
In fact, the apostle Paul acknowledged both the proper and improper use of the law in Gospel preaching. Unfortunately, we may often have experienced the abuse of the law and therefore errantly rejected its proper use in gospel preaching (see )
1 Timothy 1:5-11 (New Living Translation)
The purpose of my instruction is that all believers would be filled with love that comes from a pure heart, a clear conscience, and genuine faith. But some people have missed this whole point. They have turned away from these things and spend their time in meaningless discussions. They want to be known as teachers of the law of Moses, but they don’t know what they are talking about, even though they speak so confidently.
We know that the law is good when used correctly. For the law was not intended for people who do what is right. It is for people who are lawless and rebellious…
Just because we are ‘saved by grace’ does not mean we no longer preach morality, sin and guilt. In fact, Paul acknowledges the role of the law in his own conversion and sanctification:
Romans 7:7 (New Living Translation)
Well then, am I suggesting that the law of God is sinful? Of course not! In fact, it was the law that showed me my sin. I would never have known that coveting is wrong if the law had not said, “You must not covet.”
In fact, after introducing the gospel in Romans 1:16-17, he begins his detailed explanation of it with two chapters on the universal guilt of all men. Unfortunately, we often must first recognize and be convinced that there is a problem before we desire the solution.
3.4.4 Our Dependence on the Holy Spirit to Grant us Conviction and Faith
The conscience is not just educated by rational thought and enlightenment of the mind with the Biblical truths regarding morality. The central facet of the Christian walk is that our own minds, while useful, are limited, corrupted by sin and the world’s value system, and we are in need of a savior.
In all these things, we are dependent upon God to enlighten us with *spiritual* wisdom, not just bookish understanding – that is, awakening that leads us to real transformation and freedom. It involves a real relationship with the divine, one in which we interact with God’s spirit.
This interaction and dependence are described throughout scripture, including these passages:
Proverbs 20:27 (New King James Version)
The spirit of a man is the lamp of the LORD,
Searching all the inner depths of his heart.
1 John 2:26-27 (New Living Translation)
I am writing these things to warn you about those who want to lead you astray. But you have received the Holy Spirit, and he lives within you, so you don’t need anyone to teach you what is true. For the Spirit teaches you everything you need to know, and what he teaches is true—it is not a lie. So just as he has taught you, remain in fellowship with Christ.
3.5 Cleansing a guilty conscience
Biblically speaking, there is more than one action that needs to be taken in order to cleanse one’s conscience, though you will often hear Christians give the glib advice that ‘you just need to believe that you are forgiven.’ But what do you do if that doesn’t seem to work?
The word ‘penitentiary’ comes from the idea that prisons were meant to produce penitence, or contrition, in those who have done wrong. This is the first step towards real inward change away from doing evil.
The Bible teaches that true sorrow over wrongdoing is a first step prior to seeking forgiveness – not the superficial sorrow of being sorry you got caught, but sorry that you’ve done wrong, hurting yourself and others.
2 Corinthians 7:10 outlines the difference between the false and true penitence this way:
For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.
Here are some attributes of each so that you can tell the difference
Godly sorrow is:
- specific - not a general condemnation, but sorrow over specific deeds or attitudes
- resolvable and actionable- has an obvious course of action to remedy the situation. A specific action or attitude to forsake, specific people to ask forgiveness from, specific actions one can take to repair the damage (sometimes not possible)
Worldly or improper sorrow is:
- general - leads to a general feeling of condemnation and guilt whose origins and reasons are hard to grasp – usually focus on who you are (‘a bad person’) rather than your actions and attitudes (you are a valuable person who has chosen poorly’)
- unresolvable - if the origins are hard to grasp, so are the solutions. Worldly sorrow keeps you feeling bad rather than leading to real changes, eventually leading to your ‘death’, emotionally, spiritually, and even physically.
Real penitence is coupled very closely with the action of repentance – more than just acknowledging one’s guilt in contrition, it involves a resolve to stop the offending action or thought, and to persevere to change one’s actions. See the Apostle Paul’s continued description in 2 Corinthians 7:11 (NLT) -
Just see what this godly sorrow produced in you! Such earnestness, such concern to clear yourselves, such indignation, such alarm, such longing to see me, such zeal, and such a readiness to punish wrong. You showed that you have done everything necessary to make things right.
A zeal to make things right follows godly penitence, and is the second step in clearing a guilty conscience.
Well, that’s plenty on the conscience. We are born with a baseline conscience which needs proper education to mature. It can be misinformed, damaged, ignored, and disobeyed. It can also be educated, obeyed, and cleansed for optimal spiritual and emotional health.
NEXT: The Tripartite Man – Spirit : Communion
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