Emotions and Convictions
What drives us? What motivates us to do something we perceive as “good” or “righteous”? And what attempts to stop us from doing wrong? People most often give an answer something along the lines of “Well it felt right” or “I felt it was wrong.” Feelings, in other words, become our version of “conscience.” If it feels slightly wrong, it must be worth checking twice. And to many, that seems like a perfectly fine way of thinking. Until you take into consideration the possibility of a misinformed conscience. When doing something wrong, the conscience fails to function- to alarm the person of the impending danger- and thus, because there is no “feeling” that what is about to be done is wrong, there is no action to prevent it. The same people who say “You should only do it [whatever “it” may be] if it feels good” are the same ones who are baffled when a murderer has no remorse for killing people, or a rapist only has fond memories of his crimes. They simply cannot come to grips with the existence and function of a misinformed conscience. They blame it on things such as a rough childhood, bad friends and a general lack of a proper upbringing. But even then, when such a thing is believed, it must be then understood that a conscience can be misleading. And with such a realization, fear begins to creep in that, perhaps, not even the conscience can be trusted.
And thus comes the need for something greater. When we realize that even our “inner feelings” of what is right and wrong can be corrupted and malfunction or mislead, we must then see the need for something- or Someone- outside of ourselves to lead us to what is right and wrong. And many do this, to the end that they gather around themselves “teachers in accordance with their own desires,” so as to appease any sense of guilt and make sure that they can do whatever they want according to their lusts, so long as it has public approval. Or they make a god that fits their self-defined meanings of “right and wrong” so as to have a constant rock to hold to that holds to their self-perceived meanings of good and bad, albeit with the option of this god repenting for the sake of their feelings.
But what if good was righteous regardless of how we felt about it? What if bad was bad regardless of whether or not we knew it? Then there could be only one question: “How would we ever know the truth about right and wrong????” And therein lies the purpose of this post. Because, contrary to the beliefs of many, the conscience and the Holy Spirit of God are by no means the same thing, and a misunderstanding of this reality can lead to eternal condemnation…
The Function of the Conscience
A huge outworking of the conscience is seen in the feelings of a person, yes. This is undeniable, especially in light of the observation of why people do what they do. They will avoid something if it feels wrong or dangerous, and will practically leap of a bridge (and in some cases do) if it doesn’t bring any sense of fear or moral inconsistency. We have become so dependent upon our feelings that now we are at a point where, especially in our entertainment, we are told to “trust our feelings” and do what we “feel” is right, regardless of anything to the contrary. It is the basis of marriage, divorce, birth, death, getting a job or quitting a job, and covers pretty much every definition of what it means to do what is “right” in our modern era. The conscience is therefore now defined strictly by the feelings it brings about, and needless to say, it has become more dangerous than it has helpful.
But what is the original purpose of the conscience? Generally speaking, it is designed to lean towards that which is opposite of a presupposed evil. That is to say, when we feel we are going to do something wrong, it is that one thing that most often leans towards the opposite of whatever that action may be. More specifically, it pinpoints the weak spots in our moral justification of any given action and emphasizes it above all else. It makes the contrast of good and evil all the clearer, in an effort to present the person from making a bad decision. This would be a general description from a worldly perspective, but the conscience is more than this. Biblically speaking, the conscience is built into us as a sort of “inner knowledge of God.” It is that which is spoken about in Romans 1, which draws in the majority of its evidence through that which has been made, because there is no greater evidence to the existence of God than the world itself.
And so the conscience is originally designed to prompt guilt whenever we do something that has the possibility of being contrary to the commands of God. Because regardless of any presuppositions, we know we are held accountable to a “morality” before the Creator, whether or not we know exactly what that Law may be. Because the existence of God is not the only thing revealed through creation in Romans 1, but also God’s justice and wrath against those who transgress His Law. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” Professing Christians are quick to believe that everyone has an “inner knowledge of God,” but it is almost always in some positive context, as though this “knowledge” is God trying to tug their heartstrings to lead them to Himself, when in fact it is actually in a condemning context. “For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.” Despite having the existence of God practically declared to their face through all of that which has been made, and despite the guilt that comes with this knowledge when sin is committed, it still fails to result in genuine repentance. Sure, it may bring about a faux-admission, but never a genuine repentance to Jesus Christ. Because that is not what the conscience is designed to do. The conscience is, for the unbeliever, designed specifically for their destruction, in that they are all the more guilty in light of this knowledge of God, because they try all the harder to “suppress the Truth,” and that through their own “lawlessness” or “unrighteousness.” Sure, they know about God- there is no such thing as a true “atheist.” But look what they do with this knowledge? They make “gods” in their own image, or in the form of that which is around them. They make “gods” in the likeness of the very thing that points them in the direction of the true God, thereby making all the clearer their own doom.
The Function of the Spirit
And therein lies the greatest need of all. We are not in need of more “knowledge” within ourselves, because we dismantle any inward attempt to grow fruit of righteousness, because we are innately depraved and outwardly wicked. The knowledge of God’s existence may be within us, yes, but the Truth of God is far from us if we are strictly looking within ourselves. Because our conscience is not God. It is nothing more than a passive acknowledgement of our sinful nature before God, and if misinformed and distracted, can pull us down a path of destruction.
But does God leave us with such a genuinely dead weight of condemnation around our neck? No, on the contrary, He gives us precisely what we lack: the Truth. It is one thing to know about God, it is an entirely different thing to know God. And so God, through Jesus Christ, sent His Spirit. What makes His Spirit any more effective than the conscience? Well, firstly, this is the Spirit of God, the righteous One, and is untainted by sin, and more importantly, He is the Creator and the Judge. He declares His own rightness to men through His Law, and provided the means to be righteous before Himself. And so when He enters a man, it is not some passive thing that just happens, it is much more. It is inevitable change. The conviction is unbearable, and it tears down the soul until there is nothing left but a person in utter need for salvation. Because the Spirit is that of God, not man, and results in both inward change and outward action. It is the rebirth of a soul and the complete change of direction, from sin leading to destruction, to justification leading to righteousness before God.
And so the functions of the Holy Spirit are not based on any past action of man, nor the requirements of society, but instead solely focuses on the righteousness of God and what He requires. It did not bring the Lord into a castle filled with wealth and comfort, but a desert to be tempted by the devil. It did not lead Paul to all men everywhere, but prevented him from going one place to bring the Gospel to another. (See Acts 16:6) Many who claim to be Christians demand that the Spirit reveal Himself through miraculous signs, going so far as to say that if you don’t speak in tongues you do not have the entire Spirit within you. And so the conscience becomes our guide to God, and the Spirit is just some miracle that happens as a result of our innate goodness. At least, these are the beliefs of some…
But nevertheless, the function of the Spirit is not through miracles or wondrous signs from Heaven, as those never saved anyone. Instead, He convicts us of our transgressions against God’s Law, and shows us the need for One greater than ourselves, bringing us to the Lord Jesus, and ultimately, justification before God the Father.
The Difference Between the Two
And so to summarize, what is the difference between the conscience and the Spirit of God? Is there any purpose for the conscience besides condemnation? Absolutely. The conscience not only acknowledges the existence of God, and our guilt before Him, but for the Christian, the conscience is an invaluable asset, because it is used by the Spirit. We should never live by feelings, no, but at the same time, we are not emotionless or feelingless people. For the Christian, when we “feel” something is wrong, we are not simply left to ourselves to decide whether or not it is right or wrong, but are given specific tools with which to live our lives, namely, the Bible and the tools given to understand it. If we second-guess a decision, we are free to pick up the Word of God, which was written by those inspired by the Spirit, and see whether or not such things are good or ill. We must never make a decision based on conscience alone, as Martin Luther acknowledged, clarifying that both “conscience” and “sound reason” would be the only things that would convince him to do that which was contrary to what he had come to believe through his own study of the Word.
Allow me to simplify it: In comparison to the Spirit of God, if left by itself, the conscience is nothing more than a feeling of contradiction. It can be based on accurate information leading to a good choice, or it can be misinformed, and lead to the destruction of the person. The Spirit is far more effective. Because the Spirit is that of God, it doesn’t matter how the person feels. It doesn’t matter what they think, what they do, who contradicts them nor how consistent they are. Unlike the conscience, the Spirit always leads to proper action, and is never contrary to the Word of God. The Spirit can never be misinformed, misguided or unreliable. Whereas we may “feel” an action may be wrong through the conscience, the Spirit will pull us from the evil and force us back to the Word of God, regardless of whether or not we feel something is wrong at first. If we are debating whether or not something is good or bad, and we make a decision simply based on how we feel, we doing nothing more than the unbeliever, acting on what we think to be our conscience and nothing more. How do we know whether the Spirit is at work or not? Simple: Galatians 5. The Spirit always results in “fruit.” He never prompts without action. He never leads in ignorance. He always convicts effectively. While the conscience may convict, the Spirit leads to good works through conviction and the Scriptures. And therein lies the greatest difference between the conscience and the Spirit. One simply convicts, while the other leads. The conscience can go no farther than conviction, while the Spirit never falls short of righteous words and deeds.
Never Confuse the Two
If questioning whether or not we should do something, consider what is leading you to whatever decision you make. Is it merely the conscience? Or is it the Spirit? How do you know? Simple: The Spirit never contradicts Himself. If we, as Christians, believe that the Word of God is just that (the Word of God, inspired by the Spirit of God), then we can easily pick up our Bible to see “whether these things are so. If the choice we want to make is contrary to the Word of God, then you can rest assured, it is wrong.
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law. Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us not become boastful, challenging one another, envying one another. – Galatians 5 (see context)