A Conscience Captive to the Word of God

August 3, 2011

Conscience is often thought of as the inner voice of reason and morality guiding a person to right action. Whether this is an adequate definition I leave to my readers, but it raises the question of whether the “inner voice” has any accountability to an “outer voice.” It also begs the question of the human capacity for self-deception.

Gordon Smith, in the introduction to his book The Voice of Jesus,[1] asks two provocative questions he thinks every Christian should be able to answer: first, What do you think Jesus is saying to you? and second, How do you know it’s Jesus?

The controversies in the PCUSA require hearing and understanding what God is saying to the church and to us as individuals. The operative word here is “discernment,” which for all practical purposes has replaced the term “decision-making.” The PCUSA on the Myers-Briggs scale has thrown itself way over to the side of “P” (perceiving) and away from “J” (judging or deciding). Perceiving the presence and Word of God with the help of God’s Spirit is of course part of the decision-making process, and reactive knee-jerk decision-making is inappropriate. We need discernment and decision, and not one at the expense of the other. In other words, a good decision comes out of good discernment. And good discernment builds on previous good decisions.

The exercise of one’s conscience, according to the Reformed Tradition, requires both sides of the continuum to be in operation: the perceiving side, in which we listen for and to the Holy Spirit, and the deciding side, in which we choose this day Whom we will serve.  What does each require and how do we keep them in balance?

The perceiving side (discernment) requires us to put aside our stubborn self-will and be open to God’s Word to inform and shape us. It means being in tune with God’s Spirit in everyday life, achieved over time through our engagement with the spiritual disciplines. It is submitting to God, who alone is Lord of the conscience. We check our work, so to speak, by confirming if/that the “inner voice” we are hearing is consistent with God’s Word. Calvin said it succinctly, “The Holy Spirit is recognized in his agreement with Scripture”[2]

The deciding side requires us to commit ourselves to trust God in a matter, once we have arrived at an understanding of what God teaches. This requires faith, in opposition to doubt, which makes a person “double-minded and unstable” (James 8:7f). It means holding fast to the faith passed down to us and setting our minds on Christ. In other words, it means making up our minds and sticking to it in the company of the saints.

In matters of faith and worship our consciences are free from every influence except the Word. In that realm, our consciences “are captive to the Word of God as interpreted in the standards of the church.”

This matter of interpretation is the topic I will take up in tomorrow’s post.


[1] Smith, Gordon T., The Voice of Jesus: Discernment, Prayer, and the Witness of the Spirit (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 10.

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Volume I, Chapter 9, part 2 (ICR,I,9,ii).

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