THE HOLY SPIRIT AND CONSCIENCE.
Prof. Whewell, in his "Moral Philosophy," asserts that every human volition expressive of a choice has a moral character which would be perceived by our moral sense were it sufficiently keen. This is a declaration that there are no acts morally indifferent, styled by the Greeks adiaphora, such as the choice of the color of a necktie, the length of an overcoat, or the kind of food I may order for my dinner at a restaurant. Most of us are so morally obtuse as to see no ethical quality in these choices, and are disposed to call him morbid and impractical who finds moral obligations in the selection of shoestrings. But we may be doing injustice to those rare consciences which have attained a more subtle moral discrimination than the multitude who laugh at scruples which they cannot appreciate. For it is possible that culture may impart such an insight into the tendencies of apparent trifles as to discern a disastrous moral outcome in the long run.
Examples of moral sagacity are found in those who first denounce the skating-rink, the baseball team and the students' regatta. If all had been as sharp-sighted as the few, there would not have been so many bitter experiences. If there were an intuitive recognition of poison under all its disguises, nobody but fools would ever touch it. On many subjects there is no such delicate moral intuition in immature and uncultured minds. What safeguard, then, have such persons? Must they all then drink poison in order to find out its deadliness? No. Let the discerning warn the unwary, let the old caution the young, and experience counsel inexperience. Then those who believe may be kept from downfall, for a good moral character is conditioned on faith just as certainly as eternal salvation hinges on a persevering trust in Christ. In the sphere of morals this is the best that can be done for those who have not their external "senses exercised to discern both good and evil." But in the spiritual sphere into which all true believers have been translated, where there are realities too high for the intellect to reach and questions too subtle for so coarse an instrument as conscience to answer, God has provided another umpire perfectly competent for the guidance of the Christian. "Let the peace of Christ arbitrate in your hearts" (Col. iii. 15, Revised Version, margin). "Wherever," says Bishop Lightfoot, England's greatest Pauline expositor, "there is a conflict of motives or impulses or reasons, the peace of Christ must step in and decide which is to prevail." This new arbiter is not peace with Christ, or reconciliation, but a far superior and subsequent experience, "the peace of Christ," the unfathomable ocean of His peace poured by the Holy Spirit into your soul in all the fulness of His incoming and abiding. This peace becomes the paramount consideration where there is an internal conflict. Everything which disturbs this profound rest of soul will be instinctively avoided, and every act that weaves the thinnest veil between you and the face of the adorable Son of God you will instantly shrink from. Thus believers who claim their entire heritage in Christ have an infallible arbiter in a sphere far above that of conscience. St. Paul intended something peculiar by the use of the Greek word for "arbitrate," found nowhere else in the Holy Scriptures, styled by Bengel "a remarkable word."
Modern science constructs balances so delicately poised as to be turned by the weight of a fraction of a hair. The Christian may so far realize the higher possibilities of grace as to be even better equipped for testing human volitions. Let me illustrate. I am invited to be initiated into a popular secret order. Conscience does not object, but the peace of Christ does. A social clubhouse is erected in my town, and I am solicited to join. Conscience discerns no evil there, but the peace of Christ declines to enter where Christ Himself cannot be introduced and be assigned the seat of honor. The question of worldly amusements has for centuries been before the court of conscience, and no final decision has been reached. But it is quickly decided by the arbiter which the gospel has called to the judgment seat, "the peace of Christ." All truly spiritual minds all along down the Christian ages present a consensus of opinion on the deadening spiritual effect of the dance, the card-table and the theatre. Because this consensus has been formulated into a rule of life for the benefit of inexperience, a great outcry has recently been made by some who seem to have forgotten that Christian character consists in something more than good morals, and that its essential principle is spiritual life imparted by the Holy Ghost and sustained by converse with the skies. What all truly spiritual minds have found detrimental to the life of Christ in the soul should be avoided by all who aspire to dwell on what Joseph Cook has recently called "spiritual uplands." There are two classes of Christians. One class asks, "Is this amusement or indulgence forbidden? If it is not, I will embrace it." The other asks, "Is it obstructive of cloudless communion with the Father and the Son through the Paraclete? If it is, I will discard it." The one aims at innocence, the other at spirituality. The party of higher aim, even though it should be in the minority in any church, should prevail. Their standard should become universal. Thus will the unity of the body of Christ be promoted, as is implied in the words of St. Paul: "Let the peace of Christ arbitrate in your hearts, to the which also ye were called in one body."
Paul asserts his love for the Hebrew nation, his "kinsmen according to the flesh," declaring that his conscience was "bearing him witness in the Holy Ghost." This strong asseveration implies an intimate relation between the Spirit and conscience. We may not be able to give a full and accurate statement of this relation. Among the self-evident truths with which the human mind is originally furnished is the distinction between right and wrong. The power to discover this distinction inheres in every sane mind. On questions relating to immutable morality all such minds agree in their decisions. Such questions are few, and theoretical rather than practical. They are not modified by circumstances. They are such as these: Is it right to hate a benefactor? Is it right to punish the innocent? Is it right to reward the guilty? Is it right to intend injustice to a fellow man? Is it right to violate my own sense of right? to dishonor a parent? to commit adultery? There can be but one answer to these questions. They are addressed to the intuitive sense of right and not to the understanding or practical judgment which modifies the decision. But when we ask the question, Is this accused man worthy of punishment? we have now to exercise our judgment and go through a course of reasoning before we can decide, and two perfectly conscientious persons may disagree in their verdict, because we are now in the region of mutable morality. Most of the moral questions in daily life are of this character. It is not enough to know that one man has killed another. I must take into account the circumstances, whether it was in self-defense when attacked by a robber, or a burglar by night was shot in the act of breaking into the dwelling. This sufficiently illustrates mutable morality.
I can but think that the philosophy of Lotze and others is true, that all the self-evident truths are in the last analysis the activity of the immanent God in the human spirit. Hence the moral intuitions, immutable and invariable, are the voice of the divine Spirit immanent in all men, irrespective of regeneration and the gracious indwelling of the Spirit. There is a sense in which the Spirit of God is upholding nature. Men are not conscious of this immanent substratum of their being. But when the Holy Spirit, as a gracious gift, is bestowed upon the believer, he is conscious of His presence within as was Paul. The effect is manifest not so much in the increase of the power of moral discrimination, though it does clarify the moral perceptions, as in the marvelous addition to the power that impels toward righteousness. For the conscience has a threefold power discrimination, impulse toward the right, and, after the act, approval or disapproval, according as the act is right or wrong. The gracious work of the Holy Spirit intensifies each of these functions, the second more manifestly than the first, and the third more than the second.
What effect does the fulness of the Spirit have in the decisions of practical questions in the province of mutable morality? We answer, it does not prevent errors in judgment and fallacies in logic. The Holy Spirit renders no one infallible in such matters. Yet He indirectly helps us by delivering us from the dominance of appetites and passions inimical to clearness of intellect and calmness of judgment. By inspiring in our hearts love to our neighbor as to ourselves, He strongly incites us to do perfect justice to him in our decision of questions involving his rights. Still the best of men and women who love God with all their hearts, and their neighbors as themselves, may go astray in judgment without a loss of love. Hence, in applying their intellects to the construction of systems of theology, some have founded Calvinism with its five points, unconditional election, a limited atonement, irresistible grace, bound will, and the final perseverance of the saints; and others equally devout and scholarly have constructed Arminianism with its universal atonement conditionally applied, the free will, entire sanctification possible before death, and the peril of a total apostasy from the highest state of grace. George Whitefield preached the first of these doctrines and John Wesley the last. Both were filled with the Spirit and were burning as bright candies of the Lord. Both were used by the Spirit to preach the saving truths of the gospel in such a way as to save multitudes of souls.
We do not teach that error is as good as truth in the production of holy character. We believe that in both the doctrines named there is saving truth because Christ is at the centre of both as the object of faith; and salvation consists in a vital union with Him and not in opinions about Him. The maintenance of a good conscience toward God from day to day is essential to the life of faith. The believer must aim at, must be satisfied with, nothing less than this. It is within his reach. Even the Old Testament saints had the witness that they pleased God. By a good conscience we mean an unaccusing conscience, not the assurance that we are exempt from errors in practice arising from misjudgments, but the consciousness that our intentions and aims are unselfish and holy. True spirituality cannot exist unless accompanied by scrupulous conscientiousness, the purpose to do right at any cost. If believers live as they should, they will find as the Christian life progresses, the testimony of conscience and the voice of the Holy Spirit becoming identical. As we have before intimated, the conscience is the activity of the Spirit of God, on the plane of nature, as Creator and Preserver. In regeneration and sanctification the Spirit works on the plane of grace, as the Reconstructer aiming to restore what sin defiled.
It is interesting and instructive to note the relation of the Holy Spirit to conscience in the work of regeneration and sanctification. If man was created to be a temple of God, his spirit must be the holy of holies in which He dwells, and his conscience must be the Ark of the Covenant which carries His law. Sin defiled that sacred ark and rendered it offensive to the holy God. The scheme of redemption must have direct reference to the purification of the conscience. The writer to the Hebrews intimates that Mosaism "did not make him that did the service perfect, as pertaining to the conscience" ix. 9), and he exhorts the believer to "draw near, having his heart sprinkled from an evil (guilty) conscience" (x. 22). The conscience, relieved of guilt through faith in the atonement made by Christ, and ever after prompting to a life of obedience, is the spiritual organ in which the Holy Spirit evermore dwells, keeping watchful guard over the living law in the heart and constantly witnessing to the persevering believer that he is a child of God. Peace, the fruit of the Spirit, can dwell only with a "conscience void of offence." Holiness, the work of the Spirit, is also attested by conscience. "For our glorying is this, the testimony of our conscience that in holiness we behaved ourselves," etc. (II Corinthians i. 12, Revised Version).
This is the place to set up safety guards against the danger of a fanatical conscience, which is sometimes associated with extreme and erroneous views respecting the guidance of the Spirit. We lay down the following principles:
- The Holy Spirit dwelling in the heart does not supersede the activity of our own reason, judgment and moral sense in the decision of practical questions.
- While the Holy Spirit's testimony to the fact of adoption, including pardon, is direct and infallible when corroborated by the fruit of the Spirit, His guidance in the conduct of life is not designed to be sole and infallible, but in connection with the inspired Word, our own common sense, divine Providences and the godly judgment of Christian people.
- No guidance is of the Holy Spirit which collides with the Bible inspired by the Spirit. In such collision the Holy Scriptures must be followed in preference to the supposed leading of the Spirit.
- The Holy Spirit, so named because it is His office to create and conserve holiness, never leads into sin, nor to doctrines which belittle sin by denying its exceeding sinfulness and its desert of eternal punishment, or by weakening the motives to repentance.
- It being the office of the Spirit to glorify Christ, no teaching that disparages His divinity as the only Saviour can come from the Spirit.
- It being the work of the Spirit to regenerate and to sanctify, the declaration of any substitute for the new birth and holiness cannot be approved by the Spirit of truth, much less can be inspired by Him.
- In practical matters, the province of mutable morality, where fallible intellectual processes are involved and erroneous conclusions are possible, it is a species of fanaticism to ascribe such conclusion to the Holy Spirit.
- There are two classes of people with whom pastors of churches have difficulty. The first consists of those who consider conscience as infallible beyond the sphere of motives, dispositions and principles, and insist on infallibility in all practical questions, the realm of mutable ethics. They demand that the decisions of the intellect in respect to all moral subjects should be regarded as always right and clothed with the authority of intuitive judgments. Just here is found a fruitful source of most dangerous self-deception and of fanaticism in its various forms and degrees.
The second class includes those who make an analogous mistake in respect to the Holy Spirit. They insist that His infallibility, evinced in His direct witness to adoption, be carried into all questions of every-day life, questions involving intellectual research and the practical reason.
These erroneous claims respecting conscience and the Holy Spirit put these two classes beyond the reach of argument, persuasion and advice. If members of the church, they inevitably become dictatorial, censorious and schismatic.