I want to further develop how the different aspects of our spirits grow, starting with our conscience. I believe we generally view conscience as a psychological component of our being yet it is rooted in our spirit and is our internal arbiter of right and wrong. Let’s look at what the New Testament teaches us about how our conscience functions.
First, our conscience is our source of conviction as the following scriptures show.
Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. John 8:9 (NKJV)
who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them) Romans 2:15 (NKJV)
I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, Romans 9:1 (NKJV)
Note that the Romans 2:15 reference refers to both believers and unbelievers. In fact the context is showing how all people have the law of God written in their hearts, a spiritual reality. Paul’s point below is that all of us have our conscience built in.
12 For as many as have sinned without law will also perish without law, and as many as have sinned in the law will be judged by the law 13 (for not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified; 14 for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, 15 who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them) 16 in the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel. Romans 2:12-16 (NKJV)
So back to the idea that our conscience can grow and develop; this helps us understand what Paul taught about weaker consciences and leads to the need to differentiate between fellow believers with a weak conscience and legalists who generally seek to control others liberty. Romans 14 is about is about how our conscience functions. The focus in chapter 14 is on those with a weak conscience, implicit is the idea that our conscience can be in different stages at different times. After laying out the issue in chapter 14 Paul provides a conclusion in chapter 15.
1 We then who are strong ought to bear with the scruples of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Romans 15:1 (NKJV)
His point is that we need to be sensitive to the state of the conscience of other believers. With more revelation from, and understanding of scripture, what we experience in our conscience will mature. That is, our minds are renewed by embracing the truth of scripture (Rom. 12:1-2). For example, a regular part of my prayer life is to discern between conviction, the Holy Spirit speaking through my conscience, and condemnation, psychological feelings of guilt that leave me no way out. A truth to apply in this area is in Romans 8.
1 There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. Romans 8:1 (NKJV)
Condemnation is different than guilt, when we have done something wrong if we are walking with Him the Holy Spirit will convict us of sin, however His purpose is to bring us to the place of repentance so that we can have restored fellowship and freedom.
9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:9 (NKJV)
The fruit of repentance is intimacy with Jesus. With condemnation we feel bad but don’t see a way out.
I referenced earlier the importance of distinguishing between a ‘weaker’ fellow believer and a legalist. Someone weak in their faith may not feel free to do things a mature believer can do, Paul’s used the example from his day of meat sacrificed to idols. As they mature things like this should cease to be an issue for believers. A current example in our day is the use of alcohol among Christians. While it is not something I promote, nor think it particularly good for anyone, it is also not something I oppose because the scriptures do not oppose it. At the wedding in Cana Jesus turned water into wine, His first miracle (Jn. 2:1-11). Likely not what we would have planned if we wanted to reveal the Messiah! Yet, as an aside, everything Christianity is about all culminates in a great wedding feast! There was a prophetic message in Jesus first miracle.
The however here is that while scripture allows the use of alcohol it forbids drunkenness, as a quick search or Proverbs would reveal. In this scenario we may choose not to use alcohol around a weak believer so that they are not offended, or we may simply choose to never partake, as I think over time the harms seem to greatly outweigh the benefits. We circumscribe our liberty for their good. If we are unable or unwilling to do that then we need to spiritually mature.
What is the difference between a legalist and a weak believer? In the scenario above a weak believer would be open to teaching and over time would be able to embrace the truth of scripture. A legalist would refuse to consider other points of view and condemn those who do not accept their position. An example for me today is those who deny the current validity of spiritual gifts. Despite the fact that millions of their fellow believers around the world operate in them, some very prominent evangelicals deny the reality of spiritual gifts for today. While they may be free in other areas, in this area they are not. They are not listening to the Holy Spirit speaking via their conscience if they are not allowing their position to be informed by the truth of scripture. In truth they hold to a scripturally and experientially untenable position. In this case it would be wrong to circumscribe our liberty and cease to function in ways the scripture clearly instruct us to function.
So, back to our conscience growing – Paul laid out how it can be hardened.
21 because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Romans 1:21 (NKJV)
17 This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind, 18 having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart; Ephesians 4:17-18 (NKJV) 18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, Romans 1:18 (NKJV)
When we reject light and truth it is as if a veil is placed over our spirits. We become less sensitive to the truth of scripture. This is why Hebrews warns of the danger of drifting from the faith and tells us to daily exhort and encourage one another. Again Paul lays this out well in the passage below.
1 Therefore, since we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we do not lose heart. 2 But we have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness nor handling the word of God deceitfully, but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. 3 But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, 4 whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them. 5 For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your bondservants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 2 Corinthians 4:1-6 (NKJV)
What Paul is teaching in 2 Corinthians 4 is that to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit we need to reject darkness. This includes what we read, watch and discuss. Nothing is without effect and we deceive ourselves if we think we can imbibe darkness and walk in the light. We need to pursue the truth of scripture to have our conscience develop sensitivity to His presence. Let me give John the last word on this matter.
5 This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. 6 If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. 1 John 1:5-7 (NKJV)