A Full House
If you have ever shared a room with a messy sibling, you know how important it is for your parents to know who is responsible for what in the room. If the room is messy, you want to make sure you are not blamed. Likewise, in the messy room of decision-making, we should be careful not to hold the Holy Spirit responsible where the conscience has failed. The conscience is fallible, and its standard moldable. The Holy Spirit, in contrast, is always in perfect harmony with God.
Given the close connection between these two in the believer’s life, it is important to understand how the conscience and the Holy Spirit relate to each other. Even though everyone has a conscience, only believers have the indwelling Spirit. And much like a roommate or family member can have a considerable impact on someone under the same roof, the divine residency of the Holy Spirit has a profound influence on the conscience of a believer.
A Transforming Relationship
The conscience is an inner human faculty corrupted by sin and the Fall. And the Holy Spirit is the divine agent God uses to begin His redemptive work in a believer. The Spirit takes someone who is dead in sin and darkened in their understanding (Eph. 4:18) to someone who has life and the eyes of their heart enlightened (Eph. 1:17-18).
This transformation and renewal of our conscience is brought about as the Spirit takes residence in our heart and begins to influence our inner man. Part of this divine influence is explained in 1 Corinthians 2.
“For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? Even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual” (1 Corinthians 2:11-13).
Every conscience forms a standard based on the general revelation it receives. This is the moral compass written on every man’s heart (Rom. 2:14-15). But a believer’s conscience is largely different in the sense that it is a recipient of special revelation – able to understand the things of the Spirit of God.
The Spirit reveals God’s truth, and God’s truth renews our conscience.
As the Spirit educates the believer’s conscience with the things of God, the personal standard formed by the conscience begins to align with the standard of revealed truth. As a result, the renewed inner man becomes increasingly in tune with the will of God.
Question: How can we be confident that we are receiving truth from the Spirit?
An important question arises, though. If the nourishment of God’s Word by the Spirit is the main means through which our conscience is properly trained, then how do we discern whether or not we are indeed being illumined by the Spirit?
Answer: By comparing what we believe the Spirit to be communicating with what God has said in His Word.
This is how we know that something truly is from God – comparing Scripture with Scripture. We take what we believe the Spirit to be teaching us, and force it through the objective, external grid of God’s Word. This is, after all, the way in which the Spirit teaches, “comparing spiritual things with spiritual” (1 Cor. 2:13b).
A level of subjectivity is impossible to avoid when it comes to attributing specific convictions to the Spirit. But Paul is still able to boast on multiple occasions that his conscience is in agreement with godliness (2 Cor. 1:12). More than that, he confidently testified that his conscience was being convicted directly by the Spirit (Rom. 9:1).
A conscience led by the Spirit of God is a conscience captive by the Word of God.
Martin Luther similarly stood confident in the conviction of his conscience, saying, “Unless I am convinced by sacred Scripture, or by evident reason, I cannot recant, for my conscience is held captive by the word of God, and to act against conscience is neither right nor safe.”
This is the confidence that is brought about as a conscience is captive to the Word of God. As the Spirit of God continually impresses the conscience of yielded believers with the purposes of God, which are revealed through the Word of God, believers can boldly live for God, confident that they are pursuing the will of God.