Sometimes all the terms and phrases that get thrown around in the Christian faith can get confusing. We hear about how the "heart is deceitful" (Jeremiah 17:9), how it's possible to "sear your conscience" (1 Timothy 4:2), and how the Holy Spirit "convicts the world concerning sin" (John 16:8). What does all this mean, and how do we apply these truths to our lives?
First, let's make sure we're on the same page about the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is a part of the trinity of God (Genesis 1:2, 1:26; John 14:16) and does a LOT of things! He glorifies Jesus (John 16:14). He helps humankind and advocates for us (John 15:26, 16:7; John 14:26). He prays for us (Romans 8:26-27). He reminds us of what Jesus teaches (John 16:14; John 14:26; Ephesians 6:17). He gives spiritual gifts to every believer (1 Corinthians 12:7-11). And yes, the Holy Spirit also convicts us of our sin (John 16:8), guiding us away from evil and toward righteousness (John 16:13).
Second, let's define what the Bible means when it speaks of "the heart." The heart is the human storehouse for our needs, wants, and desires. Our hearts can be influenced by outside forces—both physical and spiritual. The Bible warns that the heart isn't always trustworthy as we do have sin within us (Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 3:23). But that doesn't mean that everything contained in our hearts is bad! It means that we must protect our hearts from harmful influences (Proverbs 4:23).
By accepting God's gift of salvation through Jesus Christ and choosing to follow Him, we invite the Holy Spirit into our hearts to empower us and help us choose godliness over sinfulness (John 14:16, 26, 15:26).
Your conscience is the part your heart and mind that has been influenced by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, but it's still all you. It is the part of you that knows and understands your moral compass and what your personal convictions are. When you have weird or unsettling feelings and desires popping up in your heart and mind, your conscience may prod you—telling you that something isn't quite right.
Being familiar with the Bible helps us sharpen our conscience, but even without biblical knowledge, God has designed human beings with a spark of moral compass regardless of their beliefs. Speaking of the Gentiles, Paul said, "They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them" (Romans 2:15). Even an atheist recognizes that murder is inherently wrong; they don't need the Bible to tell them that because God has already "programmed" it in, so to speak.
Conviction of sin comes from the Holy Spirit (John 16:8). The conscience doesn't work quite the same as the Holy Spirit getting a hold of the heart. When our own conscience convicts us, sometimes our human response gets twisted into shame or fear of impending punishment. These things are not from God (Romans 8).
Conviction of sin from the Holy Spirit is direct and creates a hard-edged realization of the hurtfulness of sin and an unwavering determination that "this is not right for me." Conviction from the Holy Spirit leads to avoidance of that sin/temptation or true repentance after sin has been committed.
Whereas the conscience is just sort of a "bad feeling" that can be confused or weak, conviction from the Holy Spirit is more of a slap in the face to get your attention so you can switch directions, moving toward godliness and away from sinfulness.
Speaking of the Corinthian church's grief over something Paul identified they had done wrong but had now learned from, the apostle said, "Now I am glad I sent [my last letter], not because it hurt you, but because the pain caused you to repent and change your ways. It was the kind of sorrow God wants his people to have, so you were not harmed by us in any way. For the kind of sorrow God wants us to experience leads us away from sin and results in salvation. There’s no regret for that kind of sorrow. But worldly sorrow, which lacks repentance, results in spiritual death." (2 Corinthians 7:9-10 NLT).
Pay attention when you get those niggling senses that something is off with a thought, action, or word. Compare it against what the Bible says to sharpen your ability to recognize sin. Be aware of what God expects of us by studying His Word and keeping in regular conversation with Him through prayer. Whether it is your conscience telling to maybe not play that video game or it's the Holy Spirit convicting you against lying to your friend, don't put it off—LISTEN and RESPOND. Allow the Holy Spirit to guide you toward something better that will result in more help than harm.
Your conscience is the part your heart and mind that has been influenced by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, but it's still all you. Being familiar with the Bible helps us sharpen our conscience and tune in to the sense that something isn't right. Conviction of sin from the Holy Spirit is direct and creates a hard-edged realization of the hurtfulness of sin and an unwavering determination that "this is not right for me." Conviction from the Holy Spirit leads to avoidance of that sin/temptation or true repentance after sin. Whereas the conscience is just sort of a "bad feeling" that can be confused or weak, conviction from the Holy Spirit is more of a slap in the face to get your attention so you can switch directions, moving toward godliness and away from sinfulness.
Cat is the web producer and editor of 412teens.org. She loves audiobooks, feeding the people she cares about, and using Christmas lights to illuminate a room. When Catiana is not writing, cooking, or drawing, she enjoys spending time with her two teenage kids, five socially-awkward cats, and her amazing friend-amily.