CONSCIENCE AND NATURAL LAW

A picture depicting conscience, a part of natural law
conscience – an innate spiritual faculty

 I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying. My conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit.  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. Here, Paul refers to his CONSCIENCE in the context the Holy Spirit. When Paul refers to the spirit, does he mean the Holy Spirit or the human spirit? (Rom8:16 affirms he acknowledges the existence of  both). There is no confusion in this verse since it specifically refers to the Holy Spirit. That needs to be the case for conscience pertains to natural law and the spiritual essence of a man. It was provided to him by God.  It leaves the body and returns to its Creator at the end of physical life (Eccles12:7).

The unforgivable sin

Lying against one’s conscience is one thing; lying against the Holy Spirit would be unforgivable as Paul well knew. He meant what he wrote concerning his sorrow for the Jews. He was willing even to be stripped of the privileges he possessed in Christ for their sake. 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. It pertains to whether or not one can positively relate to God and Jesus Christ now (Jn17:3).

The mystery of the brain

THE BRAIN has long been a mystery to medical science. It is only relatively recently that scientists have understood which area of the brain processes matters pertaining to the conscience. They believe 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 is 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.

The human’s 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. 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. 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. They have no empathy and no instinct whatsoever to tell the truth.

Defining the reprobate

In view of the above certain people 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. The bible depicts these individuals as compassionless “goats” (Mt25). Also as the darnel or tares in Jesus’ parable that the devil had planted (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. They are depicted by Paul as vessels adapted for destruction. They are born only to be captured and destroyed (later in Romans 9).

The three soteriological categories

There is then a distinct third soteriological category which has been eluded by the churches. Such people have been lumped together with the bulk of humanity who were not elected to the exclusive Covenants of Promise. [Note Gal4:28 and 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. That is 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.

Langness’s insights into conscience and natural law

In researching this matter 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: to 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. It extends to the heart and the soul. They act as a universal instrument of perception, understanding and moral choice [David Langness: PART 10 in the series SANCTITY OF THE HUMAN CONSCIENCE]

The contribution of other religions

Other religions are not devoid of truth or even divine revelation, especially when the designated 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.

If you think about it, that is exactly how conscience works. The actions it abhors are always detrimental to another individual or society as a whole. It is the same with God’s Law. “One fulfils the entire law by keeping one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal5:14). This correlation should not be such a surprise. For Paul affirms that the conscience testifies to the law of God written in the heart (Rom2:15)

The inner conflict (Rom7)

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 OF ITSELF DOES NOT SAVE THE SOUL.

But those who act positively towards it are justified within the Universal Covenant from which Cain defaulted. That is because responding positively to conscience fulfills the spirit of God’s Law to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. Jesus affirmed that all who show such compassion qualify to enter into His Kingdom (the Mt25 sheep). Note the passage makes no mention of religion.

The context of biblical salvation

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 can one “possess one’s own vessel in sanctification and honor” (1Thes4:4). Then “our whole spirit and soul and body shall be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (1Thess5:23).  This is gospel salvation, for such ongoing sanctification is necessary for those who are to relate to God in the present and partner His Son through eternity.

The conscience IS natural law

The human spirit and its faculty of conscience is not divine in itself. But it has been provided by One who is. In John Henry Newman’s words it is a “sufficient object of faith”; a “universal revelation” of God’s will for humane living. God shall accept those who through their compassion demonstrate such an underlying faith regardless of religious beliefs (cf. Mt25:35-40). They have effectively exercised faith towards God. And in instinctively showing compassion to the needy they serve the Son of Man Himself (v40).

The purpose of salvation

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). That requires 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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Related posts: Conscience & the cosmic Christ  & The role of conscience & Conscience an object of faith