Jay Smith explains, in his summary of Romans, that Paul’s epistle to the Christians in Rome covers numerous subjects, including “salvation, the sovereignty of God, judgment, spiritual growth, and the righteousness of God.”
Romans 12:2 comes at the start of the section on “how to live a holy lifestyle.” What does it mean to renew one’s mind, and how does this contribute to holiness?
Setting the Stage: Knowledge and Wisdom
Directly before Romans 12:2, Paul’s letter to the believers in Rome features a hymn of praise: “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and of the knowledge of God!” (11:33).
Sophia is the Greek word for “wisdom,” which, in the context of Romans 11:33, means “supreme intelligence, such as belongs to God.”
Gnósis or “knowledge” refers to “knowledge gleaned from first-hand (personal) experience, connecting theory to application; "application-knowledge," gained in (by) a direct relationship.”
In other words, Paul advocated for a thoughtful faith gained via a scriptural and relational knowledge of God.
Not only does the believer experience a personal love for God, but there should also be an intellectual component from which to defend one’s belief in Christ to the rest of the world so as to distinguish faith from wishful thinking.
That same reasonableness helps one defend against inward, spiritual doubt. Paul wrote to Timothy, “I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me” (2 Timothy 1:12).
Words like believed, know, and convinced highlight the reasonableness of Paul’s assurance. He was “persuaded of what is trustworthy” because God “persuades the yielded believer to be confident in His preferred-will.”
The Mind of Christ
God does the persuading, but Paul yielded, just as Christ yielded to the Father, and it is only when one has submitted that God sets to work on transforming a believer’s heart and mind together.
We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18).
When Christians trust and obey the Lord, they are doing what Christ did, following his confident example. In 1 Corinthians 2:16, Paul says that we, being followers of Jesus, also possess “the mind of Christ.”
Chris Larson at Ligonier Ministries argues that “the triumphant indicative of the gospel leads to a new life marked by a new pursuit for the mind of Christ. [But] merely imparting information to a human mind is insufficient.”
Paul had been a prideful, intellectual man and had met many other such people whose confidence was based on their intellect. “Paul knew that knowledge divorced from love puffs up. To be sure, the gospel is good news about Jesus. But God’s Word also explains how the sovereign power of the Holy Spirit makes that news effectual in our lives as we repent of sin and believe the truth as it is found in Jesus” (Ibid.).
With the mind of Christ, the believer is inspired towards humility because Christ humbled himself completely. The sinless Savior, who was the perfect example of reasonableness and love, was willing to give up his status in heaven and give up his life.
Jesus’ mind is full of the glory of God, of his love for the Father and for us. His whole life is an example of holiness.
The Opposite Mind
What is the opposite of a renewed mind or of the mind of Christ? At the start of Romans, Paul had described what Larson called “the darkened mind.”
This sort of mind shuts out the truth of God’s revelation. “What can be known about God is evident among them, because God has shown it to them” (1:19).
The consequence was that “God delivered them over in the desires of their hearts” to every sinful behavior (1:24). Instead of worshiping the One true God, they “exchanged the truth of God for a lie” (1:25).
While the mind of Christ pursues truth, the mind of one who rejects him is darkened by lies. God does not come to persuade the individual who has not submitted to him through Jesus. This is the darkness — not that a person lacks knowledge because no one ever knows everything about God or the world.
The darkness is the Father’s absence. Only Christ, who knows the mind of God because he is One with God, will lead a person to the Father. “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
“The darkened mind continually shifts the boundaries of ethical norms and slips further into darkness,” Larson argues. There is no truth, no direction, and no one in charge except the rudderless and deceived individual.
While this might seem like freedom to anyone who thinks Christians are religious zombies, Larson sees the downside for unbelievers: “unbelief clamors for everyone’s approval, enlisting public shaming and legal force in its cause. No one can deny this is happening everywhere. [...] Lost is the truth that men and women are image bearers of God, created in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness.”
Renewal Leads to Transformation: Individual and Corporate
The result of renewal in the Christian’s life is a longing to be holy and to do the Lord’s will. His will leads believers into community because the Christian heart desires what Christ desires — communion with him and with others; serving; sharing the gospel with the lost; building up other Christians.
Knowledge alone does not lead to the heart of Christ and can become self-serving. “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2).
How do we know what love is unless it is lived out in community? Intelligence and love operate together as facets of corporately expressed faith.
Fruit emerges from that rich faith, some of which Paul identified as spiritual gifts, which are described shortly after Romans 12:2. Paul compares the church with a human body, made up of many parts, and its “members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Romans 12:4-5).
Renewal is an individual process, but the implication is that transformation happens within a family or a body of like-minded individuals and benefits the body. Possessing the mind of Christ, the body also “discern[s] what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God” for that body (Romans 12:2).
A renewed mind discerns the way God wants his people to live so that he is glorified, and also helps to build up the gamily of God. Paul exhorted the Roman Christians to live holy lives, different from those of unbelievers.
Jesus said this: “all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Paul said, “Let your reasonableness be known” (Philippians 4:5). Those with the mind of Christ are reasonable, loving, and they stand out from the world in which they live.
What Does This Mean?
Far from advocating a mindless faith determined by gut feelings and wishful thinking, Paul demanded that his followers know Christ.
But a longing to know about God is not enough to save; he wants to be known and loved for who he is right now, in the lives of those who have believed in Christ for salvation.
Peter says in 1 Peter 3:15 to be prepared “to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.”
Sometimes, when we cannot seem to “feel” God, we can know intellectually that he is good, that he is omnipotent and loving, and this knowledge can lead us back to the heart of Christ.
For further reading:
What Does it Mean ‘By the Renewing of Your Mind’?
How Do We Know God’s Will for Our Lives?
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Dilok Klaisataporn
Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.