Referee of the Soul (1)
…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)… Romans 2.14, 15
More than matter
Secular and naturalistic thinkers are determined to reduce everything in life, and especially human life, to some form of mathematical formula or electro-chemical explanation. Their approach to making sense of things is to reduce everything in life to matter and the interactions of matter.
They need to be able to see it, in some fashion, and to be able to analyze, measure, and manipulate it, whatever “it” might be. If they can’t see it, it doesn’t exist.
Because secularists deny the existence of a spiritual realm, they do not accept the reality of such notions as mind, heart, conscience, or soul, except as convenient ways of referencing what are, from their perspective, only material processes or things. All our actions, materialists insist, are the result of physical stimuli and responses, issuing from the brain, as part of a grand deterministic scheme in which human life has no ultimate meaning.
It should not surprise us, therefore, to see the extent to which American culture and society reflect a growing confusion of conscience concerning matters of right and wrong. The goal posts for living with a good conscience have become eminently movable. We kick the ball where we will – we do whatever we like – and then move the goal posts – adjust our conscience – to validate our choices. Thus, when children in public schools are taught, implicitly and explicitly, that there’s no such thing as the soul, and that conscience is simply a handy way of describing certain electro-chemical processes in the brain that govern our preferences, why should they feel responsible for anything but self-gratification?
And they expect deference from everyone around them. Nothing should be permitted that prevents me from knowing maximum gratification, however I define that. The narcissism which increasingly describes this generation’s manner of being-in-the-world bears witness to a steep decline in the sense of personal responsibility and accountability to some ultimate and unchanging measure of truth. Conscience has become unmoored from truth and set adrift in a sea of mere personal preference.
When everything in life is nothing more than some form of matter, all sense of responsibility, meaning, or hope ultimately dissolves. What matters is my matter, no matter what.
The spiritual reality of the soul
The Bible does not hesitate to discuss the soul and its three constituent and interconnected spiritual facets – the mind, the heart, and the conscience. Each of these is a spiritual reality which functions in and through the soul or spirit of every human being. As these three components of the soul work together, they determine our conduct in the world. Thus, for the proper care and feeding of our souls – for achieving and maintaining a strong soul – it’s important that we understand each of these spiritual components, so that we make sure they are operating as God intends in our own lives.
A strong soul requires a well-kept heart, a sound mind, and a good conscience.
The Scriptures teach that people are responsible for what they allow into their mind, heart, and conscience, and for the extent to which they develop and use these as God intends. The Biblical view of human life makes sense because it accurately describes what we observe in and expect of others, and it holds out the hope of personal growth and improvement to all who seek it. The secular, naturalistic view of the human being cannot do so, except as it borrows from the Christian view of human life and denies its own most foundational assumptions.
In the soul, as we shall see, the conscience functions as the repository of priorities, values, default choices, and the will. These are all spiritual phenomena, in every person, but they are no less real for being such. A good conscience serves to engage thinking and feeling – the mind and the heart – with eternal values and convictions, to bring harmony in the soul in line with divine purposes, and to move the will to act for righteousness. Our desire is to have a good conscience, one rooted in the abiding and unchanging truths of God’s Word; but, as with a well-kept heart and a sound mind, having a good conscience requires understanding and work.
If we do not understand the conscience, or fail to nurture and care for it as we should, the conscience remains active, and will absorb whatever values we allow to settle there. We do not want to leave the conscience vulnerable to being shaped by the spirit of the age, so that our priorities and values will be determined, not by the Word of God, but by the secular, naturalistic, materialistic, and narcissistic agenda of the day. Rather, we want to understand and work for a good conscience, one grounded in the Law and Word of God and reflecting the values of Jesus Christ.
Referee of the soul
We are responsible for what harbors in our conscience and for how we bring our conscience to bear on the decisions and actions we take each day. If we ignore the conscience or act as though “conscience” is just a place-marker for whatever values and priorities our deterministic world foists upon us, we will never realize the full benefit of the power of conscience to aid us in loving God and our neighbors.
The conscience is the referee of the soul, maintaining vigilance over our thoughts and affections, and helping the mind and the heart work together with maximum benefit for the progress of Christ’s Kingdom in our lives. Understand the conscience, and care for it accordingly, and you will discover more of the power of faith working by love in your life.
And a good conscience referees the soul from the sure and reliable foundation of the Word of God and of our Lord Jesus Christ, exalted in glory.
1. What do you think people typically mean when they refer to “conscience”? Is this anything like what the Bible teaches?
2. The conscience is the repository of settled values, priorities, convictions, and default choices. Where do these come from?
3. In what sense are people responsible for the content of their conscience? Responsible to whom?
Next steps – Conversation: Talk with a Christian friend about their understanding of the conscience. What’s the source of these views? How do they nurture their consciences in the things of the Lord?
T. M. Moore
All the installments in this “Strong Souls” series are available in PDF by clicking here. Check out our newest feature, Readings from the Celtic Revival (click here).
Our book, Vantage Point, can help you learn to think with the mind of Christ, work for a good conscience, and see the world and your life as He does. Order your free copy by clicking here.
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.