Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Sermon on Romans 12:2-3

Transcript of sermon given on 18th February, 2006

And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith.” Rom. 12:2-3

Paul tells his readers to be transformed by the renewing of their minds. Before such a transformation takes place, every person is conformed to the pattern of this world by default. The word for world is ‘age’ in the Greek. In any age, there are various assumptions, modes of thought, unspoken axioms of worldly commonsense, fashions, etc., which run counter to the gospel of Jesus Christ. You do not have to do anything to have your mind conformed to such things, just as you do not have to do anything for your house to get dirty. But it does take effort and constant upkeep for our minds to be transformed to the pattern of Christ. That is something only the Holy Spirit can achieve in us, for a fallen mind can no more transform itself by itself than a car that is out of petrol can fill itself up by itself and then start driving down the road.

Of course, we wonder, if our minds can only be transformed by the Spirit working in us, then what is the point of doing anything about it? I knew a man once in America who took that approach. When I challenged him about areas of sin, he said, “if the Lord wants me to think like that, then he will initiate; He will put the thoughts into my head.” But it doesn’t work like that. Scripture teaches that God is in complete control of everything that happens, and it also teaches that man has free will and responsibility. Scripture teaches it is the Holy Spirit that has the power to renew and transform our minds, yet Paul can confidently tell his readers to go and be transformed by the renewing of their minds, with the implication being that they have the ability to do this or not to.

In our age it is difficult for the mind to be transformed since the mind is often hardly functioning at all. If a car is heading down the road in the wrong direction, it is easier to turn it around and make it drive in the right direction than it would be to get a car to drive in the right direction that cannot even start. Much work must be done on the car that cannot start before it is ready to drive in the right direction: you must check the oil, perhaps add some petrol, maybe even change the battery, and so on. But the car that is driving in the wrong direction just needs to find a suitable place on the side of the road where it can turn around. Similarly, the great challenge of the gospel today is to renew minds that are not working at all – minds that have been amused to death; minds that have been made passive through the endless action of external stimuli; minds that have been lulled into inactivity by the constant stimulation of external activity; minds that would prefer to enjoy entertaining distractions than struggle to think coherently.

In the late 19th century, Charles Spurgeon lamented the way people would not think, and the barrier this created for the gospel.

…thinking. That is a great preparation for coming to Christ just as you are, to be set a-thinking. We have always hope of men when they once begin to think about religion and the things of God. See how the bulk of them hurry on with their eyes tightly shut, rushing fast and yet faster still down to destruction. You cannot make them stop and think. There are thousands of men who would almost sooner be whipped than be made to think. The last thing to which they will ever come of themselves is thoughtfulness. Let me appeal to some here who are still unconverted. Did you ever give the affairs of your soul the benefit of an hour's serious consideration? You have your regular time for stock-taking, those of you who are in business; do you ever take stock of your spiritual estate? I know that you are not such fools as to neglect your ledgers, you cast up your accounts to see whereabouts you are financially; but do you cast up the account between God and your own soul, and look the matter fairly, and squarely in the face? Oh, if we could but bring you to do this, we should feel that you were being prepared for coming to Christ just as you are, for no man will come to Christ while he is utterly careless and thoughtless! Faith is a matter of thought; it requires a mind aroused from slumber, a mind that has taken wing....

So thinking is crucial to the right exercise of faith. Peter told his readers to “gird up the loins of your mind” (1 Pet. 1:13) while Paul, when writing to the Ephesians, used language very similar to the Romans passage, telling them to “be renewed in the spirit of your mind…” (Eph. 4:23)

What does a renewed mind look like? How is a renewed mind different from one that is conformed to the pattern of this world? Beyond the obvious areas, such as the fact that a renewed mind has a conviction of sin and views things through the lens of God’s spirit, the book of Proverbs shows us numerous features of the renewed mind. Let’s read from Proverbs 1:2-7

To know wisdom and instruction, to perceive the words of understanding, to receive the instruction of wisdom, justice, judgement, and equity; to give prudence to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion – a wise man will hear and increase learning, and a man of understanding will attain wise counsel, to understand a proverb and an enigma, the words of the wise and their riddles. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.

The main idea here is not to be simple. To be simple is to be a fool. In a minute we’ll consider what ‘simple’ means in this context, but first let’s just just jump down to verses 20-23 of the same chapter.

"Wisdom calls aloud outside; She raises her voice in the open squares. She cries out in the chief concourses, at the openings of the gates in the city she speaks her words: ‘How long, you simple ones, will you love simplicity? For scorners delight in their scorning, and fools hate knowledge. Turn at my rebuke; surely I will pour out my spirit on you; I will make my words known to you."

This import of these passages are lost on us if we don’t understand what is meant by simplicity. When the Proverbs refers to people who are simple, this is not about people who are uncomplicated, unintelligent or who are not intellectuals. One can be a complicated, intelligent and intellectual yet still be simple in the Proverbial sense. In one of
Steve Hayhow’s lectures he explains that the word ‘simple’ in these verses is really more in the sense of someone who is naïve - someone who is so open-minded that they are gullible to all the influences that work upon the mind. Steve goes on to explain that someone is naïve when they are unaware and unable to evaluate, criticize and be discerning about the things they hear, the things they’re exposed to and the things they see. To be simple is to have one’s mind soak up the assumptions, values and priorities of this world as easily as dry ground soaks up water. “One of the goals of Christian education,” Steve said,

is to stop us from being what we naturally are which is naive and simple. Simplicity and naivety are not virtues in the Christian religion; they are the enemies to wisdom knowledge and understanding. Because, in a sinful world to be a simple person, to be a naive person is to be the person who is taken it; it’s to be the person who is deceived; it’s to be the person who is led astray… The problem today is that many people don’t care about what is happening to us or our culture. And the problem then is that if you don’t care then you don’t notice; and if you don’t notice then you’re naïve; and if you’re naive then you’re open to all kinds of influence, indoctrination and subversion and you won’t even know.

Wisdom is thus partly defined in terms of its antithesis: simplicity. Simplicity is the truest form of ignorance and foolishness, yet exists in many people who think they have good learning. “I would have everybody able to read and write and cipher” Spurgeon once said. “Indeed, I don’t think a man can know too much. But, mark you, the knowing of these things is not education and there are millions of your reading and writing folk who are as ignorant as neighbour Norton’s calf.”

Paul doesn’t stop with the renewing of our minds but continues to its logical consequent. “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” The one thing leads to the other. We must be transformed by the renewing of our minds so that we may then go on and prove what is the good, acceptable and perfect will of God. In this context, prove is obviously referring to what is outworked in our lives. Our lives are to be the proof of the good, acceptable and perfect will of God. This happens when we put into practice the truth that we know in our minds. Theology comes out our fingertips, so if you want to know what a person really believes, don’t listen just to what they say but watch their lives. James wrote about the need to be doers of the word and not just hearers. I think that’s the same kind of thing Paul is driving at here.

The mind is crucial, for we can no more live for Christ without a renewed mind than the CD player can play music without first putting in a CD. But if you want to hear the music, you need to do more than just put the CD into the slot: you also have to hit the play button. Similarly, it’s no good just thinking about our minds being renewed, we need to press play so that what is in our minds can translate into action. The truth that is in our renewed minds must play the music of holiness throughout every aspect of our lives. Quoting again from Spurgeon, “Unless our religion makes us holy, it has not done anything for us that is really worth doing. Unless we hate sin, and love righteousness, our religion is a sham and a lie.”

Putting the same truth in a slightly different way, Thomas Chalmers wrote:

Let us be clear about this: there can be no partial gospel application just as there can be no partial gospel. We do not have the prerogative to take up one thing at a time. It is all or none. The claims of the Christian paidea are all encompassing – they are universal; they are comprehensive…

Let’s move onto verse three now. “For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith.”

If one fails to find, live out and prove the acceptable will of God, then the result will inevitably be thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought, because our own will becomes the centre, the starting point. Having told his readers to bind themselves to the will of God, Paul is not expounding on the result of that: which is humility. Humility is also the result of not being conformed to the pattern of this age. Worldliness usually always results in pride.

We would do well to reflect on some of the ways that the virtue of humility, like the virtue of love, has been misunderstood and twisted out of shape in today’s world. I once had a debate with my father who, under the banner of intellectual humility, refused to commit himself to any position. Julian Rivers refers to “the spurious humility that refuses to be dogmatic about anything and then goes out and does what it likes.” Chesterton complained that

…what we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt -- the Divine Reason. Huxley preached a humility content to learn from Nature. But the new sceptic is so humble that he doubts if he can even learn. Thus we should be wrong if we had said hastily that there is no humility typical of our time. The truth is that there is a real humility typical of our time; but it so happens that it is practically a more poisonous humility than the wildest prostrations of the ascetic. The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping; not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether. At any street corner we may meet a man who utters the frantic and blasphemous statement that he may be wrong. Every day one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one. Of course his view must be the right one, or it is not his view. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table. We are in danger of seeing philosophers who doubt the law of gravity as being a mere fancy of their own. Scoffers of old time were too proud to be convinced; but these are too humble to be convinced. The meek do inherit the earth; but the modern sceptics are too meek even to claim their inheritance.”

And that was even before postmodernism!

Carrying on from Chesterton, I would suggest that the essence of biblical humility is to submit to the authority of God, and that means that when scripture tells us to believe something or to be strong and uncompromising in a certain area, to shy away from that in the name of humility is actually a form of pride.

Humility involves the realization that I am not at the centre. It involves an orientation that is continually aware of one’s own finiteness and frailty. One of the ways we achieve this sense is to become educated, to increase in the kind of wisdom we were reading about from Proverbs. Arthur Quiller Cooch taught that the more educated we are the more humble we should be because we know how much we don’t know. Truly educated people do not take themselves too seriously yet they know when serious things ought to be taken seriously. Cooch wrote

"The more deeply a man explores his subject, the further he will be led to consider the views of those who have studied and thought about it before him. The more conscious he will feel of his own fallibility and the fog of ignorance encompassing us all. He will read on and on and a growing modesty will deter him from seeking such positive assertions as are made by hastier less informed men."

When we explore our subjects, when we read the great authors of Western civilization, we begin to imbibe a worldview that is neither liberal nor conservative. Being liberal or being conservative are simply the effects of not having all of history to draw upon. Conservatives who dogmatically lock into imitating how things were done in the last two hundred years, or liberals who dogmatically lock into imitating how things were done in the last two hundred minutes, are two sides of the same coin. The opposite of both these wrong approaches is confessional approach that relies on the whole of time, using the lens of what is good, right, true and beautiful as the standard of what things should be aspired to. "The first use of good literature,” Chesterton wrote,

"is that it prevents a man from being merely modern. To be merely modern is to condemn oneself to an ultimate narrowness; just as to spend one's earthly money on the newest hat is to condemn oneself to be old-fashioned. The road of the ancient centuries is strewn with dead moderns. Literature, classic and enduring literature, does its best work in reminding us perpetually of the whole round of truth and balancing other and older ideas against the ideas to which we might for a moment be prone."

So by reading widely, or at least by listening to people who are widely read (which is often the best I can do), gives one a sense of perspective, releasing one from the bondage of present fades. This kind of humility-producing education is opposed to two other educational models. On the one hand, there is the pragmatic kind of education that addresses itself only to the areas perceived to be useful for getting on in life. What is defined as useful for getting on in life is the kind of training that leads to a good career or well-paying job. This leads people to think in terms of specialization and to learn only what they need to manage one small area, rather than being able to draw on what is good, true and beautiful in all areas. This approach to education is antithetic to the kind of learning that assists us to follow the apostles injunction not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought. The pragmatic approach never sees the need to walk up to the reservoir of wisdom from throughout the ages and beginning drinking drafts that cause our own puny thoughts and opinions to pail into nothingness next to the great minds of the Western tradition. What is worse is that those who have not availed themselves of this reservoir, begin to believe that their foolishness is wisdom and that they are well-informed because of what they watch on television.

On the other hand, there are other people who let education breed intellectual snobbery, where knowledge is restricted to a privileged intellectual elite, and is intentionally not integrated with the affairs of every day men and women. For this sort of person, learning becomes just as irrelevant to everyday life as in the pragmatic approach. Also, the intellectual snobs are really just as anti-intellectual as the pragmatists, since they want to restrict and limit knowledge to only one segment of society: their own. Rather than wanting to apply the principles of knowledge to every area of life and society, they make knowledge into something obscure, obtuse and detached from everyday life. They want to draw from the reservoirs of wisdom throughout the ages, not so that they can take the water to all who are dying of thirst, not so that they can water the plants of our culture to grow again, but so they can store it in tanks and keep it for their own to look at it and talk about and grow stagnant. They want to gain wisdom but not to practice it. Yet the Bible shows that it is impossible to have the one without the other. Orthodoxy (right belief) without orthopraxy (right practice) will degenerate into either heterodoxy (wrong belief) or idolatry. The way to understand is to do. Jesus said that if anyone would know of His doctrine, whether it came from God, he must practice the will of the father. (John 7:17)

Thus, a renewed mind is a mind that puts its knowledge into practice by proving what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. A renewed mind is ready to soak up knowledge because, not thinking too highly of itself, it is hungry to learn and listen. The more it learns, the more humble the mind becomes, and the more protected it is against that naïve simplicity that conforms automatically to the latest pattern of thought.

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