Referee of the Soul (2)
Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron… 1 Timothy 4.1, 2
The universality of conscience
Everyone experiences the reality of the conscience, the third component of the soul, together with the heart and the mind. We’ve all felt shame, self-justification, remorse, or guilt for some failure or wrongdoing, or, on the contrary, satisfaction over a job well done or vindication for some decision or choice. Secular thinkers may ascribe such feelings only to chemicals and reactions in the brain, but the Christian knows that these are the workings of the conscience, as it brings heart and mind into harmony or discord, according to the situation.
God has given human beings a leg-up on getting their souls into proper working order. He has written, by some spiritual means, the works of His Law on the souls of every person, so that there exists in everyone a sense of things holy and righteous and good (Rom. 2.14, 15; 7.12). That sense is more or less true and complete, depending on the extent to which our mind, heart, and conscience are submitted to God’s Law.
In those who believe in Jesus, God’s Spirit has come to dwell within them and to rewrite God’s Law on their heart, so that love for God and neighbor might flourish (Ezek. 36.26, 27; Matt. 22.34-40).
People do not define such ideas as holiness, righteousness, and goodness the way God does; but they cannot get away from these concepts, from the notion that some things are permissible and valuable, and some things are not. This is part of what it means that human beings are made in the image of God. They have a conscience, and their conscience, regardless of their view of God, harbors a sense of what is good and true and even holy, to which people defer in making decisions and choices in life, even if those terms are filtered through a narcissistic view of the world.
Everyone has a conscience. And everyone’s conscience referees the soul for each person’s view of what is good and true. But not everyone’s conscience functions alike, much less in the way God intends. This is because in many people, their consciences have become seared by the hot iron of unbelief and lies.
The role of the conscience
It is clear from Scripture that God intends the human conscience to harmonize thinking (mind) and desiring (heart) so that the will determines actions of beauty, goodness, and truth as God defines these. But He has also made human beings the responsible caretakers of their souls, those working priorities and values that inform the will and guide thinking and affections into words and deeds.
All of us must take responsibility to receive God’s leg-up on values and priorities – His Law – and direct our souls and lives in accord with His good and perfect will. But people do not, in the main, respond this way. In fact, only as they come to redemption through faith in Jesus Christ do they have the power at work within them to make them willing and able to do what God approves (Phil. 2.13).
People who do not believe in God, or who refuse to submit to His Law, can expect that the inherent ideas of goodness and righteousness, which God has written on their hearts, will be hijacked, redefined, and turned to self-centered purposes in an increasingly narcissistic age. The conscience, apart from saving grace, has no resources to resist the spirit of the age, however that spirit may be blowing. Exposed, over the whole of one’s life, to influences and inputs that blow contrary to the Spirit of God, people’s minds become absorbed in the lie of unbelief, their hearts are hardened against God, and their consciences become seared and calloused against the truth.
And this happens to different people in different ways, thus creating the moral confusion which characterizes our day.
Set of the saw
The conscience is like the set of a saw: If you intend to cut a right angle, you must set the saw to do so. Once that cutting angle has begun to be compromised, the saw will not cut as it should – the soul will never be able to cut a straight path to goodness, beauty, and truth, apart from divine intervention. Left to themselves, without God’s truth and the reinforcement and accountability of a loving spiritual community, people today will experience their consciences going off course, taking them in directions not always to their liking, and leading them to cherish and choose things which, at other times, they may have regarded with less pleasure or importance.
Over time, the conscience, seared with lies and encrusted with false values, will rewrite the meaning of beauty, goodness and truth as many times as is necessary to soothe the conscience and avoid feelings of guilt and shame. The conscience thus seared with the hot iron of lies will drag the mind and heart into the black hole of the spirit of the age, so that the soul functions in harmony with the temper of the times rather than the intentions of God.
Christians are not immune to this tendency. As Paul explains, the conscience can go off course in Christians who refuse to take seriously their responsibility to nurture and guard their conscience as they should, causing them to depart from the faith, if not intentionally, then certainly practically and really.
Which makes it all the more important that we understand the proper workings of the conscience, this referee of the soul, so that we nurture and maintain our consciences in the best working order.
God intends for us to nurture a good conscience, one that functions in accord with His good Law to shape the soul for divine goodness in all our words and deeds. And since this is what God intends for us, it should be what we intend as well.
1. How is it evident that God has “written the works of the Law” on the souls of all people?
2. Meditate on Romans 1.18-32. What happens, over time, to people who resist God and His Law? How does this affect their consciences?
3. What can Christians do to keep their consciences from being drawn off course?
Next steps – Preparation: What would you say are the most influential outside sources for shaping a person’s conscience? How can you make sure those sources are not shaping your conscience in a way other than what God intends?
T. M. Moore
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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.