I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying; my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart (Rom9:1-2)
Paul is about to express his deep concerns regarding his fellow Israelites. But before examining that (next post) I want to comment on these opening couple of verses of Romans 9 in which Paul refers to his CONSCIENCE in the context the Holy Spirit. If you have been following these posts, you will have observed that when Paul refers to the spirit it is not always clear whether he means the Holy Spirit or the human spirit (Rom8:16 affirms he acknowledges the existence of both). There is no confusion in this verse since the Holy Spirit is specifically referred to – and that needs to be the case for as far as the conscience is concerned it pertains to the spiritual essence of a man, i.e. that provided to him by God which leaves the body and returns to its Creator at the end of physical life (Eccles12:7). It therefore needs to be distinguished from the Holy Spirit who indwelt the Apostle Paul as He does all true Christians.
Lying against one’s conscience is one thing; lying against the Holy Spirit would be unforgivable as Paul well knew, so we can be assured he meant what he wrote concerning his sorrow for the Jews and his willingness even to be stripped of the privileges he possessed in Christ for their sake. More of that in the next post but Scripture also affirms that the state of the conscience directly affects our relationship with God (Heb9:14). This in turn is linked to whether or not we possess what is usually translated as eternal life (literally age-life). That is not referring to whether or not the soul goes to heaven when one dies but whether or not one can positively relate to God and Jesus Christ now (Jn17:3).
THE BRAIN has long been a mystery to medical science. It is only relatively recently that scientists have come to an understanding of where within the brain matters pertaining to the conscience are processed, believing it to be the lateral frontal pole prefrontal cortex – something which humans possess but no other mammal does. That incidentally is an area of the brain which has been found to be underdeveloped in those who have committed particularly evil crimes. Nevertheless, the issue remains – what is the driving force for that still small inner voice that directs our moral actions? It is the God-given spirit.
Everyone with a functioning conscience possesses an active spirit, but as we will see in a moment not everyone does have a functioning conscience. As Paul considered a few chapters ago, for most there is a moral dichotomy or tension between the inclinations of the bodily senses as processed through the brain on the one hand and the dictates of the conscience on the other (Rom7:23). However, in some people, aptly in this context described by Jude as twice dead (v12) such tensions do not exist – for the desires and instincts of body/brain and that of the soul/spirit being both spiritually dead are united in evil. It is a scary prospect for the individual and everyone they encounter: for the individual because they are to be damned; for everyone else because the twice dead have no working conscience, no empathy and no instinct whatsoever to tell the truth. In view of this they can no longer be said to be fully human, for such moral awareness is a defining feature of those made in God’s image even after the Fall. These individuals are variously depicted in the Bible, e.g. as compassionless “goats” (Mt25), the darnel or tares in Jesus’ parable that were planted by the devil (Mt13); the wicked, godless or those who have departed from the paths of uprightness (OT Wisdom literature); those who go in the way of Cain (Jude11), who as their prototype was described as “ek tou ponerou” (1Jn3:12), i.e. derived from the Evil One. And they are also depicted by Paul as vessels adapted for destruction, born only to be captured and destroyed (later in Romans 9).
There is then a distinct third soteriological category which has been eluded by the churches – such people being lumped together with the bulk of humanity who were not elected to the exclusive Covenants of Promise (Gal4:28, also noting carefully what God says concerning Ishmael in Gen17:20-21). The resultant binary understanding with its calamitous implications to God’s loving nature and providential care together with a denigration of the human spirit has long existed, especially since the Western Church, following Augustine’s lead, rejected a positive role for natural law that the writings of Church historian Eusebius in particular indicate had earlier been understood and accepted (see previous post). I will return to this in a moment for in its anthropological context it pertains to the role of conscience. The mystery of evil, the Evil One and his earthly children are examined in more detail in chapter six of The Little Book of Providence**. God has permitted such a realm of darkness to continue because as I showed a few posts ago, evil and suffering play a constituent role in preparing redeemable humanity and especially God’s elect for the glorious undertakings that await them in the ages to come (Rev2:26-29).
In researching the question of whether the motions of the conscience pertain to a particular part of the brain I encountered some insightful observations from David Langness, a member of the BahaiTeachings.org. He observed that “Moral reasoning and the high-order abstract decisions we make from our conscience relates to our ability to see things from another person’s point of view, understand their emotional state and have empathy for them—all at the same time. This sophisticated, uniquely human and domain-global ability sets us apart from every other creature. The conscience, then, may even transcend the confines of the brain, and extend to the heart and the soul, acting as a universal instrument of perception, understanding and moral choice” [David Langness: PART 10 in the series SANCTITY OF THE HUMAN CONSCIENCE]
Other religions are not devoid of truth or even divine revelation, especially when what was intended to be the focal Assembly of God’s People refuses to listen. I find David Langness’ observation to be absolutely the case. And referring back to the teaching of the Apostle Paul, it is interesting that the role of conscience can be summed up as an inner voice pointing an individual to making those moral decisions that result in them treating their fellow human beings as they would themselves. (Think about it – that is exactly how conscience works, for the actions it abhors are always detrimental to another individual or society as a whole). And it is the same with God’s Law: “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal5:14). This correlation should not be such a surprise given that Paul also affirms that the conscience is the law of God written in the heart (Rom2:15)
However, when in the context of the inner conflict man by nature faces with regard to his fleshly and spiritual components, Paul writes: “Wretched man that I am; who will set me from the body of this death?”, the solution is not the conscience – indeed that exacerbates the conflict in the same way as the written Law increases our awareness of our moral ineptitude. For do not misunderstand me: NATURAL LAW CANNOT SAVE THE SOUL, but those who, unlike the children of the devil, act positively towards it are justified within the Universal Covenant from which Cain defaulted. That is because, as has just been shown, responding positively to conscience invariably results in fulfilling the spirit of God’s Law which is to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. In turn that explains why Jesus affirmed that all who had shown compassion to the needy would be finally accepted into His Kingdom (Mt25 sheep – note religion is not so much as mentioned). For the soul going to heaven when the body dies is not what the Bible (or Paul) means by salvation – it pertains to preparation for glory (Rom8:17). In the meantime: “Who shall set me free from the body of this death?” – Natural law? NO: “I thank God it is through Jesus Christ” (Rom7:25). Only through the indwelling of Christ and the Holy Spirit can one be enabled to “possess one’s own vessel in sanctification and honor” (1Thes4:4) such that “our whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (1Thess5:23). This is what it means to be saved and such ongoing sanctification is necessary for those who are to relate to God in the present and be partnered to His Son through eternity.
The human spirit and its faculty of conscience is not divine in itself but has been provided by One who is. In John Henry Newman’s words it is a “sufficient object of faith” and a “universal revelation” of God’s will for humane living. Those who by their acts of compassion and moral restraint affirm it to be such shall finally be accepted into God’s kingdom regardless of their religious beliefs (cf. Mt25:35-40). They have effectively exercised faith towards God or, at least, such revelation as they have received of Him and His law. And in instinctively showing compassion to the needy they are deemed to have served the Son of Man Himself (v40). However, those who would be SAVED from the moral ineptitude and guilt arising from their degenerate intellectual vessel (Rom7:23) and who shall go on to receive an inheritance with the sanctified (Acts20:32) require not just a working spirit and functioning conscience but the Holy Spirit and that of Christ’s united to their own (1Cor6:17).
I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying; my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit concerning these matters.
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