Renewing the Mind

Intellectual development is the foundation of spiritual growth. Failure in this area undermines the entire enterprise of discipleship. However, it is often the most neglected aspect of Christian sanctification. Even worse, intellectualism is maligned as an obstacle to conversion and spiritual progress. As one preacher said, “An intellectual spirit is deadly.” But this contradicts “the first and greatest commandment” of loving God with all our mind (Matthew 22:37-38). It is impossible for a person to love God with all his mind in a non-mental way.

One of our most urgent tasks is to recover a spirit of biblical intellectualism. Thinking itself is not harmful, but it is the unbiblical content of one’s thinking that is destructive. An intellectual spirit is only deadly to an irrational and mystical mindset. According to Colossians 3:10, “The new self is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.” Peter makes Christian knowledge the foundation of “life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). Then, Paul writes:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:1-2)

Commentators makes a distinction between doctrine and application, or theory and practice, when they say that Romans 12 begins to set forth the practical applications of the doctrinal expositions that came before it. However, there should not be a sharp dichotomy between doctrine and application, especially when referring to biblical knowledge. As with the previous chapters, Romans 12-16 also teach doctrines – only doctrines about different things.

The word “therefore” stresses that these later chapters follow from the previous ones. “God’s mercy” refers to the salvation that he has extended toward his chosen ones. Paul now appeals to the Christians. The proper response to God’s saving grace is to pursue sanctification, part of which is “to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God.” The word “offer” is a technical term for presenting Levitical sacrifices. The difference is that we are to present our own bodies as “living sacrifices,” as opposed to the slain animals of previous times. Our sacrifices carry no redemptive value, but they are our response to what Christ has done.

As Paul explains the redemptive work of Christ and our relation to it, he states, “Count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (v. 11). “Therefore,” he continues, “do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires” (v. 12). Sanctification involves “putting to death the misdeeds of the body” (8:13). The same word translated “offer” appears in verse 13, which says, “Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness.”

As Chrysostom says, “How can the body become a sacrifice? Let the eye look on no evil, and it is a sacrifice. Let the tongue utter nothing base, and it is an offering. Let the hand work no sin, and it is a holocaust.[1] But more, this suffices not, but besides we must actively exert ourselves for good; the hand giving alms, the mouth blessing them that curse us, the ear ever at leisure for listening to God.” To offer our bodies as “instruments of righteousness” is “pleasing to God.”

Paul says that this is a “spiritual act of worship.” These words deserve close attention. They are sometimes misinterpreted, and their significance often left undetected. The word rendered “spiritual” is logikos, which is best translated “rational” instead. Several modern translations have “spiritual” (NIV, NASB, NCV, CEV, ESV), so as to emphasize the idea of spiritual worship “in the sense of being inward as opposed to a matter of external rites.”[2] Some scholars contend that logiken in this verse is almost synonymous to pneumatikos, or “spiritual.” However, the pneuma word group is common in Paul’s writings, whereas logikos occurs only here.[3] This means that Paul intends the meaning that logikos conveys. The best translation is probably “rational service.”[4] The Jerusalem Bible and Ronald Knox emphasize the intellectual nature of Paul’s exhortation: “Worship him, I beg you, in a way that is worthy of thinking beings,” and “This is the worship due from you as rational creatures.” The Latin Vulgate has rationabile.[5]

As Thayer says, the term denotes “the worship which is rendered by the reason or soul.”[6] Wuest offers a more theological interpretation and writes, “Israel preached the gospel through the use of object lessons, the Tabernacle, Priesthood, and Offerings. The Church preaches the same gospel in abstract terms.”[7] As Christians, we render to God not ceremonial worship, but as is consistent with rational beings, intellectual worship – worship that is performed from and by the mind, even when this involves bodily expression.

This is not to say that Old Testament worship was non-intellectual. The ceremonial laws were precise, prescribing procedures for many activities from the sacred to the mundane. However, even then the Old Testament gives great emphasis to the intellect and doctrines, as one may note from the repeated commands to teach, hear, and meditate the words of Scripture.

Jesus declares, “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks” (John 4:23). The fact that New Testament believers worship “in spirit and truth” – both words relating to the intellect – does not mean that those who worshiped under the Old Testament did it in flesh and falsehood! The Old Testament religion was already the most intellectually rigorous among the ancient worldviews.

The New Testament does not teach a different gospel, but it is a superior administration of the Abrahamic covenant. We need to repeat this often, since much of popular preaching makes false distinctions between the two Testaments, with disastrous results. This new administration liberates us from the Old Testament ceremonial practices because Christ has fulfilled them. Now we are free to worship God even more as rational beings; therefore, preaching, studying, and thinking receive preeminence in the process of sanctification.

Contemporary preaching emphasizes the practical and procedural, instead of the doctrinal and theological. It encourages Christians to remain as little children without understanding. The result is that we have several generations that do not know much about the Bible. Romans 12:1 stands against this anti-intellectualism of the modern church.

The fact that we are rational creatures carries some important ramifications. Since the essence of our nature is rationality, a program of spiritual development must treat human beings as rational creatures – it will first deal with the mind, the thoughts of the individuals. So Paul says, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

I took a course on sociobiology in college. The subject presupposes biological evolution and applies it to human thought and culture. From the assumption that human beings are descendants of animals, and are animals, it observes and extends the social behavior of animals to explain human behavior. For example, E. O. Wilson attempts to account for altruism and religion using the theory of evolution.[8]

One of the essay questions on the final exam was, “How has this course changed your view of human nature?” I answered, “Only an idiot would let a 100-level course in undergraduate biology change something as important as his view on human nature. It would be like taking a semester of German or Spanish and then immediately adopting it as one’s primary language.”

Yet such morons abound. With only an elementary understanding of evolutionary theory, and sometimes not even that, they rely on it as one of the most basic principles that control their thinking. In a speech at the American Museum of Natural History, Colin Patterson said, “Can you tell me anything you know about evolution, any one thing that is true? I tried that question on the geology staff at the Field Museum of Natural History and the only answer I got was silence.”[9]

If the public is guilty of believing the scientists without examining the evidence, the scientists are guilty of suppressing evidence contrary to their theories:

It is…right and proper to draw the attention of the non-scientific public to the disagreements about evolution. But some recent remarks of evolutionists show that they think this unreasonable. This situation where scientific men rally to the defense of a doctrine that they are unable to define scientifically, much less demonstrate with scientific rigor, attempting to maintain its credit with the public by suppression of criticism and the elimination of difficulties, is abnormal and undesirable in science.[10]

It is indeed undesirable, but it is common, not abnormal. Scientists are people, and evolutionists are non-Christian people, and non-Christian people are dishonest.

Many Christians, affected by an anti-intellectual secular philosophy, are also ignorant of the major tenets of their faith, and this demonstrates their disobedience. However, evolutionists do not believe in an omnipotent Spirit who converts the fundamental commitments of men so that they may believe the truth and be saved. The Christian worldview can account for those who convert to the faith without a complete understanding, since it is God who sovereignly exercises an irresistible power on the will of man through the gospel. Nevertheless, the Bible commands the diligent study of God’s word to gain a comprehensive grasp of the Christian faith.

Non-Christians, especially since they claim to be so rational, cannot justify a change in fundamental commitments based on an undergraduate course in biology. The ordinary evolutionists cannot offer even one argument showing evidence for the theory and the relevance of the evidence to the theory. They claim to despise dogma, but they accept evolution without any understanding of it. Many of them cannot define or explain the theory of evolution, let alone prove it. Yet they insist that they will believe nothing without evidence. They are liars. As for the scientists who believe in evolution, their thinking is more complicated, but the level of rationality never rises above that of the ordinary fool on the street.

The point I wish to stress is that the final exam implied an agenda to alter or shape the students’ thinking. It shows an intention and expectation that the course would change something so fundamental as their view of human nature. The professor wished to demonstrate some of evolution’s implications for human behavior so that the students would think more consistently with evolutionary theory.

In the words of René Dubos: “Evolutionary concepts are applied also to social institutions and to the arts. Indeed, most political parties, as well as schools of theology, sociology, history, or arts, teach these concepts and make them the basis of their doctrines. Thus, theoretical biology now pervades all of Western culture indirectly through the concept of progressive historical change.”[11] And Julian Huxley writes, “The concept of evolution was soon extended into other than biological fields. Inorganic subjects such as…linguistics, social anthropology, and comparative law and religion, began to be studied from an evolutionary angle, until today we are enabled to see evolution as a universal and all-pervading process.”[12] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin declares that evolution is “a general condition to which all theories, all systems, all hypotheses must bow and which they must satisfy henceforward if they are to be thinkable and true.”[13]

Evolution is a theory of human origins that carries ramifications for subjects outside of biology. Due to its wide acceptance, it has affected secular theories on psychology, education, criminology, and many other areas of study. Huxley believes that evolution is an “all-pervading process.” However, if the theory is false, then the secular theories deduced from it can only be all-pervasive nonsense. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin also says, “[Evolution is] above all verification, as well as being immune from any subsequent contradiction by experience.”[14] It cannot be verified or falsified. This is not very “scientific,” is it? Or is this exactly the way science is done? It is a philosophical principle not derived from, but forcibly imposed upon, empirical data.

Evolution is only one of the many non-Christian theories that seek to deceive and enslave our minds. Non-Christians invent these theories – as numerous and as ludicrous as necessary – in order to eliminate God as the cause and explanation of all human thought and experience.

Regeneration is a radical reconstruction of the intellect and personality after which the person embraces biblical revelation as his first principle. However, he still retains some of the false ideas that he learned before his conversion, and these cause his thoughts and actions to exhibit inconsistencies with his new fundamental commitment. Therefore, sanctification is first an intellectual development, in which we discard unbiblical ideas, such as the theory of evolution and other superstitions, and make our thoughts and actions conform to the word of God.

Paul tells us to throw off the non-Christian intellectual mold, even as the world tries to force us into it: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Stop thinking like non-Christians, and start thinking like Christians.

Following the first part of verse 2 that teaches the renewing of the mind, the second part of the verse says, “Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.” An anti-intellectual spirit stifles Christian thinking, and destroys the ability “to test and approve what God’s will is.” Many people claim they wish to know the will of God, but they misunderstand the very nature of God’s will and how he teaches it to us.

Spiritual transformation entails the rejection of non-Christian thinking, and the acceptance of the Christian worldview, working out its implications for all of thought and life. Then, we will be able to “test and approve” what the will of God is. It is intellectual discernment that leads to an understanding of the will of God. Paul says that we must train ourselves to think like Christians, so that we may test something to see if it is God’s will, and so that we may approve it.

The end of verse 2 is often misinterpreted. Some people want it to suggest that there is a range of possibilities in God’s plan so that even if a person fails to attain God’s perfect will, perhaps he will still remain in his “permissive” will. They take the three adjectives – good, pleasing, and perfect – to indicate increasing proximity to God’s perfect will. However, the adjectives apply equally to the will of God – that is, the will of God is good, pleasing, and perfect.

Christians invented a permissive will in God because they wish to harmonize their false doctrine with the Bible. The disobedient might find some comfort in the theory, since they think that they are at least in God’s permissive will. The interpretation preserves the heresy of human autonomy, the blasphemous notion that God does not always get his way. However, according to the Bible, God does not really “permit” anything, as if the universe can exist and function apart from him. If God does not decree and cause an event, it can never happen. This is true whether we are speaking of the death of a sparrow, or a thought in the human mind.

Romans 12:1-2 prescribes the basic structure that must define any program of Christian development. We must think of ourselves as rational creatures, so that every strategy designed to increase godliness must target our minds. The aim is to remove all unbiblical thinking, and to replace it with biblical doctrines and their implications. Knowledge of God’s word produces intellectual discernment, by which we are able to test every idea and every plan, so that if it passes the test, to approve of it as the way that God would have us follow. Thus an intellectual spirit that pursues God’s word will find life and peace. On the other hand, an anti-intellectual spirit is deadly because it despises the way to knowledge and maturity.

[1] The word means a burnt offering.

[2] C. E. B. Cranfield, Romans: A Shorter Commentary; Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985; p. 295.

[3] Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament); Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1998; p. 645.

[4] Ibid., p. 642.

[5] Bblia Sacra Vulgata: “obsecro itaque vos fratres per misericordiam Dei ut exhibeatis corpora vestra hostiam viventem sanctam Deo placentem rationabile obsequium vestrum”

[6] Joseph H. Thayer, Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament; Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2002 (original: 1896); p. 379.

[7] Kenneth S. Wuest, Romans in the Greek New Testament; Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1955; p. 206.

[8] E. O. Wilson, On Human Nature; Harvard University Press, 1988.

[9] Colin Patterson, “Evolution and Creationism,” New York; November 5, 1981. Dr. Patterson was a senior paleontologist at the British Museum of Natural History.

[10] W. R. Thompson, “Introduction,” Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin; Dutton: Everyman’s Library, 1956; p. xxii. Thompson was Director of the Commonwealth Institute of Biological Control, Ottawa.

[11] René Dubos, “Humanistic Biology,” American Scientist, vol. 53; March, 1965; p. 4-19.

[12] Julian Huxley, “Evolution and Genetics,” in What is Science? edited by J. R. Newman; New York: Simon and Schuster, 1955; p. 256-289.

[13] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man; New York: Harper and Row, 1965; p. 219.

[14] Ibid., p. 2.