…If there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.


The Bible has a great deal to say about our thoughts; current evangelicalism has practically nothing to say about them. The reason the Bible says so much is that our thoughts are so vitally important to us. The reason evangelicalism says so little is that we are overreacting from the “thought” cults, which would make our thoughts to be very nearly everything and we counter by making them nothing. Both positions are wrong.

Our voluntary thoughts not only reveal what we are—they predict what we will become. The will can become the servant of the thoughts, and to a large degree even our emotions follow our thinking. Thinking stirs feeling and feeling triggers action. That is the way we are made and we may as well accept it.

Thinking about God and holy things creates a moral climate favorable to the growth of faith and love and humility and reverence. We cannot by our thinking regenerate our hearts, nor take our sins away nor change the leopard’s spots. But we can by Spirit-inspired thinking help to make our minds pure sanctuaries in which God will be pleased to dwell.

The best way to control our thoughts is to offer the mind to God in complete surrender. The Holy Spirit will accept it and take control of it immediately. Then it will be relatively easy to think on spiritual things, especially if we train our thought by long periods of daily prayer, even talking to God inwardly as we work or travel.[1]

Thinking on Godly Virtues

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. (4:8)

The word finally indicates that Paul has arrived at the climax of his teaching on spiritual stability. The principle that he is about to relate is both the summation of all the others and the key to implementing them. The phrase dwell on these things introduces an important truth: spiritual stability is a result of how a person thinks. The imperative form of logizomai (dwell on) makes it a command; proper thinking is not optional in the Christian life. Logizomai means more than just entertaining thoughts; it means “to evaluate,” “to consider,” or “to calculate.” Believers are to consider the qualities Paul lists in this verse and meditate on their implications. The verb form calls for habitual discipline of the mind to set all thoughts on these spiritual virtues.

The Bible leaves no doubt that people’s lives are the product of their thoughts. Proverbs 23:7 declares, “For as he thinks within himself, so he is.” The modern counterpart to that proverb is the computer acronym GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out). Just as a computer’s output is dependent on the information that is input, so people’s actions are the result of their thinking. Jesus expressed that truth in Mark 7:20–23: “That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.”

Paul’s call for biblical thinking is especially relevant in our culture. The focus today is on emotion and pragmatism, and the importance of serious thinking about biblical truth is downplayed. People no longer ask “Is it true?” but “Does it work?” and “How will it make me feel?” Those latter two questions serve as a working definition of truth in our society that rejects the concept of absolute divine truth. Truth is whatever works and produces positive emotions. Sadly, such pragmatism and emotionalism has crept even into theology. The church is often more concerned about whether something will be divisive or offensive than whether it is biblically true.

Such a perspective is far different from the noble Bereans, who searched the Scriptures to see if what Paul said was true, not whether it was divisive or practical (Acts 17:11). Too many people go to church not to think or reason about the truths of Scripture, but to get their weekly spiritual high; to feel that God is still with them. Such people are spiritually unstable because they base their lives on feeling rather than on thinking. Bill Hull writes,

What scares me is the anti-intellectual, anti-critical-thinking philosophy that has spilled over into the Church. This philosophy tends to romanticize the faith, making the local church into an experience center.… Their concept of “church” is that they are spiritual consumers and that the church’s job is to meet their felt needs. (Right Thinking [Colorado Springs, Colo: NavPress, 1985], 66)

John Stott also warned of the danger of Christians living by their feelings: “Indeed, sin has more dangerous effects on our faculty of feeling than on our faculty of thinking, because our opinions are more easily checked and regulated by revealed truth than our experiences” (Your Mind Matters [Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity, 1972], 16).

God commands people to think. He said to rebellious Israel, “Come now, and let us reason together” (Isa. 1:18). Jesus chided the unbelieving Pharisees and Sadducees for demanding a miraculous sign from Him. Instead, He challenged them to think and draw inferences from the evidence they had, just as they did to predict the weather (Matt. 16:1–3). In Luke 12:57 He said to the crowds, “And why do you not even on your own initiative judge what is right?” God gave His revelation in a book, the Bible, and expects people to use their minds to understand its truths.

Careful thinking is the distinctive mark of the Christian faith. James Orr expressed that reality clearly:

If there is a religion in the world which exalts the office of teaching, it is safe to say that it is the religion of Jesus Christ. It has been frequently remarked that in pagan religions the doctrinal element is at a minimum—the chief thing there is the performance of a ritual. But this is precisely where Christianity distinguishes itself from other religions—it does contain doctrine. It comes to men with definite, positive teaching; it claims to be the truth; it bases religion on knowledge, though a knowledge which is only attainable under moral conditions. I do not see how any one can deal fairly with the facts as they lie before us in the Gospels and Epistles, without coming to the conclusion that the New Testament is full of doctrine.… A religion divorced from earnest and lofty thought has always, down the whole history of the Church, tended to become weak, jejune, and unwholesome; while the intellect, deprived of its rights within religion, has sought its satisfaction without, and developed into godless rationalism. (The Christian View of God and the World [New York: Scribner, 1897], 20–21)

Scripture describes the unsaved mind as depraved (Rom. 1:28; 1 Tim. 6:5; 2 Tim. 3:8), focused on the flesh (Rom. 8:5), which leads to spiritual death (Rom. 8:6), hostile to God (Rom. 8:7; Col. 1:21), foolish (1 Cor. 2:14), hardened to spiritual truth (2 Cor. 3:14), blinded by Satan (2 Cor. 4:4), futile (Eph. 4:17), ignorant (Eph. 4:18), and defiled (Titus 1:15).

Because of that, the first element in salvation is a proper mental understanding of the truth of the gospel. Jesus said in Matthew 13:19, “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart.” Romans 10:17 could be translated, “Faith comes from hearing a speech about Christ,” emphasizing again that faith involves thinking (cf. Isa. 1:18). That is why Peter commands believers to always be “ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). J. Gresham Machen observed, “What the Holy Spirit does in the new birth is not to make a man a Christian regardless of the evidence, but on the contrary to clear away the mists from his eyes and enable him to attend to the evidence” (The Christian Faith in the Modern World [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965], 63).

God saves people to be worshipers, and “those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). It is therefore impossible to worship God apart from truth. When Paul visited Athens, the cultural capital of the ancient world, “his spirit was being provoked within him as he was observing the city full of idols” (Acts 17:16). But what disturbed him as much as the blatant idolatry was that he “found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD’ ” (Acts 17:23). Natural minds can see the world and conclude that there is a God. But by human reason it can only be known that He exists, not who He is. To the natural reason He is the “unknown” and the unknowable God. He can only be truly known by supernatural theology, the revelation of Scripture. God will not accept worship based on ignorance. Paul therefore proceeded to explain to the Athenian philosophers who God has revealed Himself to be (Acts 17:24–31).

In sharp contrast to the contemporary definition of faith, biblical faith is not an irrational “leap in the dark.” It is not a mystical encounter with the “wholly other” or the “ground of being.” Nor is it optimism, psychological self-hypnosis, or wishful thinking. True faith is a reasoned response to revealed truth in the Bible, and salvation results from an intelligent response, prompted by the Holy Spirit, to that truth.

In Matthew 6:25–34, Jesus rebuked the disciples for the sin of worry. In a remarkable section of his classic work Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones points out that the disciples’ problem was that they failed to think. Instead, they allowed themselves to be controlled by their circumstances.

Faith, according to our Lord’s teaching in this paragraph, is primarily thinking; and the whole trouble with a man of little faith is that he does not think. He allows circumstances to bludgeon him. That is the real difficulty in life. Life comes to us with a club in its hand and strikes us upon the head, and we become incapable of thought, helpless and defeated. The way to avoid that, according to our Lord, is to think. We must spend more time in studying our Lord’s lessons in observation and deduction. The Bible is full of logic, and we must never think of faith as something purely mystical. We do not just sit down in an armchair and expect marvelous things to happen to us. That is not Christian faith. Christian faith is essentially thinking. Look at the birds, think about them, and draw your deductions. Look at the grass, look at the lilies of the field, consider them.

The trouble with most people, however, is that they will not think. Instead of doing this, they sit down and ask, What is going to happen to me? What can I do? That is the absence of thought; it is surrender, it is defeat. Our Lord, here, is urging us to think, and to think in a Christian manner. That is the very essence of faith. Faith, if you like, can be defined like this: It is a man insisting upon thinking when everything seems determined to bludgeon and knock him down in an intellectual sense. The trouble with the person of little faith is that, instead of controlling his own thought, his thought is being controlled by something else, and, as we put it, he goes round and round in circles. That is the essence of worry.… That is not thought; that is the absence of thought, a failure to think. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971, 2:129–30)

Thinking is essential to saving faith, as well as to sanctifying faith.

Salvation involves the transformation of the mind. In Romans 8:5 Paul writes, “Those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh.” Unsaved, fleshly people have an unsaved, fleshly mind-set. They think as fallen, unredeemed people. On the other hand, “those who are according to the Spirit [set their minds on] the things of the Spirit.” Their renewed minds are focused on spiritual truth. Consequently, “the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace” (Rom. 8:6). The Holy Spirit now controls the mind that before salvation was depraved, ignorant, and blinded by Satan (2 Cor. 4:4). The redeemed mind no longer thinks on the fleshly level, but on the spiritual level.

In 1 Corinthians 1:30 Paul described one of the most amazing realities of salvation: “Christ Jesus … became to us wisdom from God.” Believers’ renewed minds can plunge into the deep thoughts of the eternal God (cf. Ps. 92:5) and never reach the bottom. In 1 Corinthians 2:11–16 Paul expanded on that thought:

For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words. But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one. For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he will instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ.

In contrast to the “natural man [who] does not accept the things of the Spirit of God,” the Holy Spirit grants to believers the ability to “know the things freely given to us by God.” In fact, “we have the mind of Christ”; through the Spirit, believers have knowledge of God that they would otherwise never have had.

Just as the believers’ initial act of saving faith leads to a life of faith, so also the transforming of the mind at salvation initiates a lifelong process of renewing the mind. In Romans 12:2 Paul wrote, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” To the Ephesians he wrote, “Be renewed in the spirit of your mind” (Eph. 4:23). Jesus, answering the question as to which was the greatest commandment of the Law, said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37). Peter also spoke of renewing the mind when he commanded, “Prepare your minds for action” (1 Peter 1:13). Paul called for believers to “set [their] mind[s] on the things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2). More than a dozen times in his epistles Paul asked his readers, “Do you not know?” The apostle expected believers to think and evaluate. Nor is that an exclusively New Testament perspective. In Proverbs 2:1–6 Solomon counseled,

My son, if you will receive my words and treasure my commandments within you, make your ear attentive to wisdom, incline your heart to understanding; for if you cry for discernment, lift your voice for understanding; if you seek her as silver and search for her as for hidden treasures; then you will discern the fear of the Lord and discover the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding.

The psalmist cried out, “Give me understanding, that I may observe Your law and keep it with all my heart” (Ps. 119:34).

Believers must discipline their spiritually sensitive minds to think about right spiritual realities. In this brief list, Paul catalogues eight godly virtues to concentrate on.

The Word of God is the repository of what is true. In His High Priestly Prayer Jesus said to the Father, “Your word is truth” (John 17:17). In Psalm 19:9 David wrote, “The judgments of the Lord are true,” while Psalm 119:151 adds, “All Your commandments are truth.” The Bible is true because the “God of truth” (Ps. 31:5; Isa. 65:16; cf. Eph. 4:21) inspired it. Thinking on whatever is true means reading, analyzing, and meditating on the Word of God. The remaining seven virtuous categories of thought are all based on the truth of God’s Word. All of them are ways to view the truths of Scripture.

Second, believers are to think on whatever is honorable, whatever is noble, dignified, and worthy of respect. Semnos (honorable) comes from a word meaning “to revere,” or “to worship.” In its other New Testament uses, it describes the dignified lifestyle required of deacons (1 Tim. 3:8), deaconesses (1 Tim. 3:11), and older men (Titus 2:2). Believers must not think on what is trivial, temporal, mundane, common, and earthly, but rather on what is heavenly, and so worthy of awe, adoration, and praise. All that is true in God’s Word is honorable.

Third, believers are to think on whatever is right. Dikaios (right) is an adjective, and should be translated “righteous.” It describes whatever is in perfect harmony with God’s eternal, unchanging standards, again as revealed in Scripture. Believers are to think on matters that are consistent with the law of God.

Fourth, believers are to think on whatever is pure. Hagnos (pure) describes what God in Scripture defines as holy, morally clean, and undefiled. In 1 Timothy 5:22 it is translated “free from sin.” Believers are to purify themselves because Jesus Christ is pure (1 John 3:3).

Fifth, believers are to think on whatever is lovely. Prosphilēs (lovely) appears only here in the New Testament. It could be translated “sweet,” “gracious,” “generous,” or “patient.” Believers must focus their thoughts on what the Bible says is pleasing, attractive, and amiable before God.

Sixth, believers are to think on whatever is of good repute. Euphēmos also appears only here in the New Testament. It describes what is highly regarded or well thought of. Believers’ thoughts are elevated by Scripture to fix on the loftiest themes.

In summary, Paul exhorts, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. The key to godly living is godly thinking, as Solomon wisely observed: “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov. 4:23).[2]

Proper Meditation

  1. For the rest—see on 3:1—brothers—see on 1:12—whatever things are true. Many are of the opinion that the apostle is here copying a paragraph from a pagan book on morality or from this or that Manual of Discipline circulated by an Essenic sect. Objections:

(1) The definitely Christian character of this exhortation is clear from the reference to the peace of God which precedes it and the God of peace which follows it.

(2) It is also clear from the fact that the apostle states that these things have been heard and seen in himself. Surely, the Philippians had seen Christian virtues displayed in Paul!

(3) Wherever possible, words used by Paul in any passage should be interpreted in the light of their true parallels in Scripture, especially in Paul’s own letters.

Note the six occurrences of whatever, followed by two instances of any. Believers should exhibit not just this or that trait of Christian character but “all the graces in choral order and festal array” (Johnstone).

The apostle tells the Philippians to meditate on whatever things are true. Truth stands over against falsehood (Eph. 4:25). It has its norm in God (Rom. 3:4), goes hand in hand with goodness, righteousness, and holiness (Eph. 4:24; 5:9) and is climaxed in gospel-truth (Eph. 1:13; 4:21; Col. 1:5, 6). Truth belongs to the armor of the Christian soldier (Eph. 6:14).

Paul adds, whatever things (are) honorable. In his speech and in his entire behavior believers should be dignified, serious. Proper motives, manners, and morals are very important. In an environment then as now characterized by frivolity whatever things are honorable surely merit earnest consideration. See also 1 Tim. 2:2; 3:4; Titus 2:2, 7; 3:8.

So also whatever things (are) just. Having received from God righteousness both of imputation and impartation, believers should think righteous thoughts. They should, in their mind, gratefully meditate on God’s righteous acts (Rev. 15:3), appreciate righteousness in others, and should plan righteous words and deeds. Masters, for example, should take account of what is fair and square in dealing with their servants. They should realize that they, too, have an Employer in heaven (Col. 4:1). In all his planning, let the Christian ask himself, “Is this in harmony with God’s will and law?”

Next, whatever things (are) pure. The Philippians, because of their background and surroundings (both pagan, cf. Eph. 5:8, and antinomian, cf. Phil. 3:18, 19) were being constantly tempted by that which was unchaste. Let them therefore fill their minds with whatever is pure and holy. See also 2 Cor. 11:2; 1 Tim. 5:22; Titus 2:5. Cf. James 3:17; 1 John 3:3. Let them overcome evil with good (Rom. 12:21). A wonderful direction also for the present day!

Whatever things (are) lovely follows immediately. The word lovely, though occurring only in this one instance in the New Testament, is rather common in epitaphs. That which is lovely, amiable, pleasing, breathes love and evokes love. Let believers meditate and take into account all such things.

Whatever things (are) of good report (only occurrence of this adjective in New Testament, but see cognate noun in 2 Cor. 6:8) closes this list of six whatever’s. These things are well-sounding, appealing. Even upon non-Christians they may make a good impression. The main consideration is, however, that in their inner essence they are actually worthy of creating that impression.

Paul summarizes: If (there be) any virtue and if (there be) any praise, be thinking about these things. Nothing that is really worthwhile for believers to ponder and take into consideration is omitted from this summarizing phrase. Anything at all that is a matter of moral and spiritual excellence, so that it is the proper object of praise, is the right pasture for the Christian mind to graze in. Nothing that is of a contrary nature is the right food for his thought. It is hardly necessary to repeat that the virtue of which the apostle speaks is the fruit which grows on the tree of salvation. The trunk of this tree is faith, and its roots are imbedded in the soil of God’s sovereign, saving grace (Eph. 2:8–10; 2 Peter 1:5). To be sure, the believer is not at all blind to the fact that “there remain in man, since the fall, the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the difference between good and evil, and shows some regard for virtue and for good outward behavior” (Canons of Dort III and IV, article 4). In a sense even sinners do good (Luke 6:33), and even publicans love (Matt. 5:46). To deny this, in the interest of this or that theological presupposition, would be to fly in the face of the clear teaching of Scripture and the facts of everyday observation and experience. But surely when Paul told the Philippians to be constantly thinking about anything that is virtuous and worthy of praise, he, great idealist that he was, could not have been satisfied with anything that was less than goodness in the highest, spiritual sense (that which proceeds from faith, is done according to God’s law, and to his glory).[3]

8 Paul moves to a new set of admonitions with to loipon (GK 3370), which, as in 3:1, means “as for the rest” rather than “finally.” One way to fight anxiety is for Christians to focus their minds on virtues—“the real goods of virtue” as opposed to “the false goods of pleasure” (Paul A. Holloway, “Notes and Observations Bona Cogitare: An Epicurean Consolation in Phil 4:8–9,” HTR 91 [1998]: 95). This exhortation for them to consider whatever is true, honorable, and just is without analogy in Paul’s other letters and arises from his desire to restore harmony to the community.

The “whatsoever things” (hosa; NIV, “whatever”) refers to those things learned from the example of Christ and from those who clearly follow Christ’s example (3:17; 4:9). “Whatever is true” is not whatever one’s culture might claim to be true. Truth is measured only by God and requires spiritual discernment. Paul expects his readers to have the moral discernment to make their own right judgments about what exactly constitutes the virtues he lists. “Whatever is noble” (semnos, GK 4948) means what is dignified and above reproach—that which inspires respect from others. “Whatever is right” (dikaios, GK 1465) is something that conforms to custom or law. For Christians, what is “right” is defined by God’s justice, but Paul may also have in view its association with the Greek virtue of establishing order and harmony (see Plato, Republic 4.443 c–e). “Whatever is pure” (hagnos, GK 54) is defined by God’s holiness and is connected to what is chaste. “Whatever is lovely” (prosphilēs, GK 4713) is not simply anything that brings delight and pleasure. The word “pleasing” (or “agreeable,” “amiable”) would fit the context better, and it would apply to the effect of one’s relations on others (cf. Sir 4:7; 20:13). “Whatever is admirable,” or “of good repute” (euphēmia, GK 2367), denotes what is well sounding as opposed to grumbling. It is the right choice of words that reveals deference and respect for others.

Paul shifts the sentence structure abruptly to conditional clauses—“if anything is …” “If anything is excellent” (aretē, GK 746) refers to a virtuous character; the word was used to describe those whose moral uprightness contributed to the common welfare. The Shepherd of Hermas (Sim. 8.10.3), for example, links the word to righteousness, and those who exhibit this virtue are contrasted with those who are double-minded and foment division (Sim. 8.10.2). “If anything is … praiseworthy” (epainos, GK 2047) in a Christian context refers to those things that will bring commendation from God (1 Co 4:5; 1 Pe 1:7). To “think about such things” (tauta logizesthe, GK 3357) requires more than sublime contemplation; it means taking such things into account so that one does them. The verb’s usage in Romans 6:11 (“count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus”) and its alternate expression in the next verse, “do these things” (tauta prassete [GK 4556], Php 4:9; NIV, “put it into practice”), make clear that action is to be involved.[4]

4:8 Now the apostle gives a closing bit of advice concerning the thought life. The Bible everywhere teaches that we can control what we think. It is useless to adopt a defeatist attitude, saying that we simply cannot help it when our minds are filled with unwelcome thoughts. The fact of the matter is that we can help it. The secret lies in positive thinking. It is what is now a well-known principle—the expulsive power of a new affection. A person cannot entertain evil thoughts and thoughts about the Lord Jesus at the same time. If, then, an evil thought should come to him, he should immediately get rid of it by meditating on the Person and work of Christ. The more enlightened psychologists and psychiatrists of the day have come to agree with the Apostle Paul on this matter. They stress the dangers of negative thinking.

You do not have to look very closely to find the Lord Jesus Christ in verse 8. Everything that is true, noble, just, pure, lovely, of good report, virtuous, and praiseworthy is found in Him. Let us look at these virtues one by one: True means not false or unreliable, but genuine and real. Noble means honorable or morally attractive. Just means righteous, both toward God and man. Pure would refer to the high moral character of a person’s life. Lovely has the idea of that which is admirable or agreeable to behold or consider. Of good report has also been translated “of good repute” or “fair sounding.” Virtue, of course, speaks of moral excellence; and praiseworthy, something that deserves to be commended.

In verse 7, Paul had assured the saints that God would garrison their hearts and thoughts in Christ Jesus. But he is not neglectful to remind them that they, too, have a responsibility in the matter. God does not garrison the thought-life of a man who does not want it to be kept pure.[5]

[1] Tozer, A. W., & Smith, G. B. (2015). Evenings with tozer: daily devotional readings. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2001). Philippians (pp. 284–290). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of Philippians (Vol. 5, pp. 198–199). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

[4] Garland, D. E. (2006). Philippians. In T. Longman III (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition) (Vol. 12, pp. 253–254). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[5] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1979). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

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