12:2 Do not be conformed … be transformed by the renewal of your mind. The Christian’s mind-set is to be determined and reshaped by knowledge of the gospel, by the power of the Spirit, and by the concerns of the age to come (8:5–9; 13:11–14), rather than by the passing fashion of this age (2 Cor. 4:18; 1 John 2:17). Only by such sanctifying renewal is the Christian made sufficiently sensitive to “discern” the behavior that is God’s will in each situation.
12:2 this age Refers to the present evil age (see note on Gal 1:4), the time prior to Christ’s return.
renewal of your mind Refers to mental conformity to the truth of God. This renewal results in a transformation in the life of the believer.
perfect will of God Describes the purpose of renewal and transformation. Israel had failed to recognize God’s will and purposes—that He was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ (2 Cor 5:19). Paul provides this instruction so that the Roman believers will not do the same.
12:2 The present evil age still threatens those who belong to Christ, so they must resist its pressure. Their lives are changed as their minds are made new (contrast 1:28), so that they are able to “discern” God’s will. By testing you may discern translates Greek dokimazō, which often has the sense of finding out the worth of something by putting it to use or testing it in actual practice (cf. Luke 14:19; 1 Cor. 3:13; 2 Cor. 8:22; 1 Tim. 3:10).
12:2 do not be conformed. “Conformed” refers to assuming an outward expression that does not reflect what is really inside, a kind of masquerade or act. The word’s form implies that Paul’s readers were already allowing this to happen and must stop. this world. Better translated, “age,” which refers to the system of beliefs, values—or the spirit of the age—at any time current in the world. This sum of contemporary thinking and values forms the moral atmosphere of our world and is always dominated by Satan (cf. 2Co 4:4). transformed. The Gr. word, from which the Eng. word “metamorphosis” comes, connotes a change in outward appearance. Matthew uses the same word to describe the Transfiguration (Mt 17:2). Just as Christ briefly and in a limited way displayed outwardly His inner, divine nature and glory at the Transfiguration, Christians should outwardly manifest their inner, redeemed natures, not once, however, but daily (cf. 2Co 3:18; Eph 5:18). renewing of your mind. That kind of transformation can occur only as the Holy Spirit changes our thinking through consistent study and meditation of Scripture (Ps 119:11; cf. Col 1:28; 3:10, 16; Php 4:8). The renewed mind is one saturated with and controlled by the Word of God. good … acceptable … perfect. Holy living of which God approves. These words borrow from OT sacrificial language and describe a life that is morally and spiritually spotless, just as the sacrificial animals were to be (cf. Lv 22:19–25).
12:2 — 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.
God does not want us to try hard to sin less, but to depend upon His Spirit to be transformed into people who love to please God through willing obedience. That transformation begins with the mind.
12:2 Conformed means “to form” or “mold.” World is the normal word for “age” or “era.” Instead of being molded by the values of this world, the believer should be transformed, that is, changed by the renewing of the mind. Spiritual transformation starts in the mind and heart. A mind dedicated to the world and its concerns will produce a life tossed back and forth by the currents of culture. But a mind dedicated to God’s truth will produce a life that can stand the test of time. We can resist the temptations of our culture by meditating on God’s truth and letting the Holy Spirit guide and shape our thoughts and behaviors.
V 2, while grammatically parallel to v 1, really explains in more detail how this giving of ourselves as sacrifices is to be carried out. What is required is nothing less than a total transformation in world-view. No longer are we to look at life in terms of this world, the realm of sin and death from which we have been transferred by God’s power (see 5:12–21), but in terms of the new realm to which we belong, the realm ruled by righteousness, life and the Spirit. Living in the world, we are nevertheless no longer ‘of the world’ (Jn. 17:15–16). The essence of successful Christian living is the renewing of our minds so that we might be able to approve what God’s will is—that is, to recognize and put into practice God’s will for every situation we face. God has not given to Christians a set of detailed commandments to guide us. He has given us his Spirit, who is working to change our hearts and minds from within, so that our obedience to God might be natural and spontaneous (see 7:6; 8:5–9; Je. 31:31–34; 2 Cor. 3:6–7; Eph. 4:22–24). 
12:2 “do not be conformed” This is a PRESENT PASSIVE IMPERATIVE (or PERFECT MIDDLE) with the NEGATIVE PARTICLE which usually means to stop an act already in process. There is a contrast to v. 2 similar to the one in Phil. 2:6–8, between the outward changing form (schema, 2:8) and the inner unchanging essence (morphe, 2:6–7). Believers are exhorted not to continue to be like the changing, fallen world system (the old age of rebellion) of which they are still physically a part, but to be radically changed into Christlikeness (the new age of the Spirit).
© “to this world” This is literally the term “age.” The Jews saw two ages (cf. Matt. 12:32; Mark 10:30; Luke 20:34–35), the current evil age (cf. Gal. 1:4; 2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 2:2) and the age to come (cf. Matt. 28:20; Heb. 1:3; 1 John 2:15–17). Believers live in the tension-filled time in which these ages have surprisingly been overlapped. Because of the two comings of Christ, believers live in the “already and not yet” tension of the Kingdom of God as both present and yet future.
|SPECIAL TOPIC: THIS AGE AND THE AGE TO COME
The OT prophets viewed the future by an extension of the present. For them the future will be a restoration of geographical Israel. However, even they saw a new day (cf. Isa. 65:17; 66:22). With the continued willful rejection of YHWH by the descendants of Abraham (even after the exile) a new paradigm developed in Jewish intertestamental apocalyptic literature (i.e. 1 Enoch, IV Ezra, II Baruch). These writings begin to distinguish between two ages: a current evil age dominated by Satan, and a coming age of righteousness dominated by the Spirit, and inaugurated by the Messiah (often as a dynamic warrior).
In this area of theology (eschatology) there is an obvious development. Theologians call this “progressive revelation.” The NT affirms this new cosmic reality of two ages (i.e. a temporal dualism):
|Matthew 13:22 & 29
|1 Cor. 1:20; 2:6, 8; 3:18
|2 Cor. 4:4
|Eph. 1:21; 2:1, 7; 6:12
|1 Timothy 6:17
|2 Timothy 4:10
|In NT theology these two Jewish ages have been overlapped because of the unexpected and overlooked predictions of the two comings of the Messiah. The incarnation of Jesus fulfilled the OT prophecies of the inauguration of the new age. However, the OT also saw His coming as Judge and Conqueror, yet He came at first as the Suffering Servant (cf. Isa. 53), humble and meek (cf. Zech. 9:9). He will return in power just as the OT predicted (cf. Rev. 19). This two-stage fulfillment caused the Kingdom to be present (inaugurated), but future (not fully consummated). This is the NT tension of the already, but not yet!
© “be transformed” The grammatical form of this term can be PRESENT MIDDLE IMPERATIVE, “continue to transform yourselves” or PRESENT PASSIVE IMPERATIVE, “continue to be transformed.” This is also true of “conform” in v. 2a. For a similar contrast compare Ezek. 18:31 (human commitment and action) with Ezek 36:26–27 (divine gift). Both are needed!
A form of this same word for “formed” is used of Jesus at the Transfiguration (cf. Matt. 17:2), where His true essence was revealed. This true divine essence (cf. 2 Pet. 1:3–4) is to be formed in every believer (cf. 2 Cor. 3:18; Eph. 4:13).
© “by the renewing of your mind” This is from the Greek root for new in quality (kainos), not new in time (chronos). For the Jews the senses of sight and hearing were the windows of the soul. What one thinks about, one becomes. After salvation, because of the indwelling Spirit, believers have a new perspective (cf. Eph. 4:13, 23; Titus 3:5). This new biblical worldview, along with the indwelling Spirit, is what transforms the mind and lifestyle of new believers. Believers look at reality in a totally different way because their minds have been energized by the Spirit. A new redeemed, Spirit-led mind results in a new lifestyle!
© “that you may prove what the will of God is” This is a PRESENT INFINITIVE. The word (dokimazō) is used with the connotation of “to test with a view toward approval.” See Special Topic at 2:18.
The will of God is that we be saved through Christ (cf. John 6:39–40), and then live like Christ (cf. Rom. 8:28–29; Gal. 4:19, Eph. 1:4; 4:13, 15; 5:17–18). Christian assurance is based on (1) the promises of a trustworthy God; (2) the indwelling Holy Spirit (cf. Rom. 8:14–16); and (3) the believer’s changed and changing life (cf. James & I John); “no fruit, no root” (cf. Matt. 13:1–9, 19–23).
© “what the will of God is” Special Topic: The Will of God
|SPECIAL TOPIC: THE WILL (thelēma) OF GOD
• Jesus came to do the Father’s will (cf. 4:34; 5:30; 6:38)
• to raise up on the last day all whom the Father gave the Son (cf. 6:39)
• that all believe in the Son (cf. 6:29, 40)
• answered prayer related to doing God’s will (cf. 9:31 and 1 John 5:14)
THE SYNOPTIC GOSPELS
• doing God’s will is crucial (cf. 7:21)
• doing God’s will makes one brother and sister with Jesus (cf. Matt. 12:5; Mark 3:35)
• it is not God’s will for any to perish (cf. Matt. 18:14; 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9)
• Calvary was the Father’s will for Jesus (cf. Matt. 26:42; Luke 22:42)
• the maturity and service of all believers (cf. Rom. 12:1–2)
• believers delivered from this evil age (cf. Gal. 1:4)
• God’s will was His redemptive plan (cf. Eph. 1:5, 9, 11)
• believers experiencing and living the Spirit-filled life (cf. Eph. 5:17)
• believers filled with the knowledge of God (cf. Col. 1:9)
• believers made perfect and complete (cf. Col. 4:12)
• believers sanctified (cf. 1 Thess. 4:3)
• believers giving thanks in all things (cf. 1 Thess. 5:18)
• believers doing right (i.e. submitting to civil authorities) and thereby silencing foolish men (cf. 1 Pet. 2:15)
• believers suffering (cf. 1 Pet. 3:17; 4:19)
• believers not living self-centered lives (cf. 1 Pet. 4:2)
• believers abiding forever (cf. 1 John 2:17)
• believers key to answered prayer (cf. 1 John 5:14)
© “that which is good and acceptable and perfect” These represent God’s will for believers after salvation (cf. Phil. 4:4–9). God’s goal for every believer is Christlike maturity now (cf. Matt. 5:48).
© “perfect” This term means “mature, fully equipped to accomplish an assigned task, ripe, complete.” It does not mean “sinless.” It was used of (1) arms and legs that had been broken but were healed and restored to usefulness; (2) fishing nets that had torn but were mended and useful for catching fish again; (3) baby chickens now old enough to go to market as fryers; and (4) ships rigged for sailing.
Ver. 2. And be not conformed to this world.
Conformation and transformation:—1. “World” has various meanings. (1) Time. (2) An age—the Messianio, e.g., as contrasted with the Jewish, or the past as opposed to the present or coming age. (3) A state, as the present in distinction from the future in antagonism with the good. (4) “Worldliness,” a spirit or principle of evil pervading the world. It is this to which we must not be conformed. 2. It is well to define the term in order to avoid two extremes. (1) That which regards the world as a mere abstraction, something incidental to those early Christian ages, but of which nobody is in danger now. (2) That exaggeration which confounds it with almost every transaction of our lives. 3. We must be vigilant against this spirit precisely where it is the most subtle and concealed, e.g., (1) We may say that delight in the visible world is legitimate. “Surely this is not the world against which the apostle warns us.” No; but suppose that nature becomes to us all in all, and cheats us into the belief that there is nothing higher than that which serves our senses. (2) We say indisputably that we ought to love our fellow-men; but what if with this there blends an influence that moves us to defer to their customs, and live merely upon the level of their ideals! (3) Even our religion may be worldly in its spirit. The objects of our faith in another state of existence may be sensuous, and the grounds of our obedience to God mercenary. 4. “The world,” then, is a spirit, that is everywhere around us and within, and the injunction is most needed precisely where this spirit is most likely to be confounded with something that is good and true. Proceeding upon this assumption, let us examine the forms and achievements of our modern civilisation.
- Much of our modern civilisation is a process of conformation. Man is not the master of nature. He learns to control its forces by submitting to its laws. His triumphs of art and mechanism are simply a conformity to nature, not a mastery over it. He mitigates pain and conquers disease by conforming to the laws of health. He has no wand of miracle to supersede law. Civilisation is simply the adjustment of man to the conditions in which he is placed. Now, precisely here we may detect an evil tendency. There is danger lest this habit of conformity fasten us down to a mere worldly level, and saturate all our desires with worldly estimates. On the other hand, the great peculiarity of the Christian method is transformation—not simply obedience to external conditions, but a renewing of the mind. It is a great achievement for man to control new forces without; it is a greater achievement when in the inmost recesses of his being there unfolds a law which forbids all sin, even under the mask of the most splendid gain; when there is awakened a vitality of conscience which inspires him to make only a beneficent application of mighty instruments; when there settles in his soul a sublime patience by which if he cannot conquer pain he can bear it; and when in the midst of all physical terrors he enjoys a spiritual vision which pierces through calamity and looks beyond death.
- Consider some points where the contrasts between the Christian method and the methods of this world are more especially displayed. 1. Observe how largely men are influenced by excitement. There is a vast difference between the noble steamship that holds its way, trambling the waves and challenging the gale, because it has an inward force, and the poor vessel whose iron heart stands still, and that wallows the sport and victim of the relentless sea. But there may be a difference as great between the man who determines his action by reason and conscience and the man who is perpetually driven by the excitements of time and place. How many people depend upon excitements as the aliment of their very being! They are always whirling in the commotion of something new. And thus people lose true independence of thought and life. Opinions and habits go with the tide. These men and women live as others live, think as others think, do as others do. Nay, even religion may become too closely identified with mere excitement. The method of Christianity is not excitement, but incitement. That man is best qualified for the perils, yet not disqualified for the blessings of the world around him who is moved, not by pressure from without, but by principle from within, who in the midst of these changing tendencies holds a purpose, and whose personality does not dissolve in the social atmosphere around him, but who preserves a rocky identity of faith and conviction, a moral loyalty to his own ideal. 2. The power of our modern civilisation is the power of that which is visible and tangible. Present good, immediate success, are its conspicuous results. What vast sovereignty, what subtle temptation, in this possession of the present, in that visible dollar which I make by my compliance compared with the inward blessing which follows my sacrifice; in the concrete fact which I can grasp in my hand compared with the abstraction that only flits in transient vision before my inward eye! Cancel space, outstrip time, bridge oceans with steam, twitch nations together with electric arteries. Now no instructed Christian undervalues concrete facts and interests. The man who starts from great principles is not one who is most apt to overlook the real interests of the world. But he also regards a higher good. He believes that for the real purposes of this life we need something besides steam and telegraph, and currency and ballot-boxes. We need that which delivers man from sensual illusion and the lust of immediate attainment by fixing his eyes upon the glory of spiritual rectitude, the victory of postponement, and the gain of sacrifice. 3. Civilisation produces its most marked effect without. The best thing accomplished by it is adjustment to the world. Its tests and fruits are better outward conditions, a better social state, better houses, lands, and means of communication. Nevertheless, man’s real life is not in outward things. It cannot be changed merely by external agents. In its wants and capacities it is the same as it was six thousand years ago. Strip the man of the nineteenth century of these externals, and how much is he like the man of ages since! With the telescope we see farther, but do we really see more than Abraham at the door of his tent, or Job gazing upon the Pleiades? If we do, whatever of larger vision or substantial good has come to us has come within—in more comprehensive truth, in more consecrated love, in more perfect assurance of final good. And wherever these results are wrought within us we can dispense with much that is merely outward and palpable. The time comes when the world to us will be as nothing. But while it crumbles we shall not fail. We shall perish with no perishing thing, being “not conformed to this world, but transformed by the renewing of the mind.” (E. H. Chapin, D.D.)
Conformed and transformed:—I. The man who is in conformity with this world is not the man who understands it best, or who admires its beauties most; nor can he adapt himself best to all its circumstances. He is too much a slave of the things he sees to look into the meaning of them; too much shut up in the habits of the society into which he is thrown, to have any power of entering into what lies beyond. The word “conformed” implies that he takes his form from the things about him, that they are the mould into which his mind is cast. Now this St. Paul will not for an instant admit to be the form which any man is created to bear. Man is created in the image of God; and the form of his mind is to be derived from Him and not from the things which are put in subjection under Him. The heathen was resisting the conscience which told him that he was God’s offspring, and the very things he saw which testified to the invisible power of God in worshipping and serving the creature more than the Creator. But we who have been redeemed out of this worship are striving far more directly and consciously against this spirit; we are choosing a false way when we admit the world to govern and fashion our minds according to its pleasure, when we submit to receive its image and superscription. That image and superscription will vary in each new age, in each new locality; it is the very nature of the world to be continually changing. That is the reason why it is so ignominious a thing for a man to be conformed to it; he must become merely a creature of to-day; he must be fluctuating, capricious, insincere—a leaf carried about by every gale, floating down every current. How is it possible that such a one can know anything of the will of God, which is fixed and eternal? What signifies it that you give to such a one the Bible and persuade him it is a Divine book? You may persuade him of that as easily as of anything else; if it is the current opinion of course he receives it until the fashion alters, and then he will scoff at it. But while he embraces it what does he gather from it? Just what his worldly spirit wishes to gather and no more.
- The deliverance from all this is transformation, and such transformation, instead of unfitting a man for the world, is that which alone can enable him to live in it, to appreciate the worth of it, to exercise an influence over it. It was this which enabled the prophet to see the trees and the floods breaking forth into singing; which enabled St. Paul to become all things to all men; which enabled St. John to see the kingdom of God and of His Christ emerging out of the kingdoms of this world. For they beheld all things in God’s light, not in the false lights of this world. They saw the world as He had made it, not as men had made it by rebelling against Him. They had received the true form of men, they could therefore use the forms of the world, accommodating themselves readily to Jewish, Greek, Roman customs—never being brought into bondage by any. They were in communion with the eternal, so they could contemplate the great drama of history, not as a succession of shifting scenes, but as a series of events tending to the fulfilment of that will which is seeking good and good only.
III. The process of this transformation is the renewing of the mind. Such a phrase at once suggests the change which takes place when the foliage of spring covers the bare boughs of winter. The substance is not altered, but it is quickened. The alteration is the most wonderful that can be conceived of, but it all passes within. The power once given works secretly, probably amidst many obstructions from sharp winds and keen frosts. Still that beginning contains in it the sure prophecy of final accomplishment. The man will be renewed according to the image of his Creator and Father, because the Spirit of his Creator and Father is working in him. (F. D. Maurice, M.A.)
Conformed and transformed:—If we pour into a mould a quantity of heated metal, that metal as it becomes cool takes the shape of that mould. If we soften a lump of wax, and then press a signet upon it, on its surface is left the impression of the seal. Just so our nature, susceptible at present of being moulded to one character or another, is now undergoing this process. According to the tastes we cultivate, the acts we do, the society we keep, the subjects that engross our interest, we are becoming conformed to the world or to Christ; we are being made into “vessels unto dishonour,” or into “vessels meet for the Master’s use.” The process may be very gradual; but it is not on that account the less fatal and the less sure. Like that insidious disease consumption, the first beginnings of it are hardly perceptible; but though it only destroys life as it were by inches, the raging fever is not in the end more deadly. How many are there who, because they are not raging in the fever-fits of open sin, never dream that they are dying of worldly conformity, and who consider, though the Bible and their consciences sometimes speak to the contrary, that there can be no great harm in living to the world a little, provided that they keep within bounds! But the Word of God says plainly, “Be not conformed to this world.” And if we would fall in with this requirement we must strive to be “transformed by the renewing of our mind.” We all know what a complete change is signified by the word “metamorphosis,” which is the one here used. In describing this process we must go back one step further in the metaphors than in the case to which we before alluded. We must suppose the metal to have been cast into some faulty shape first, and then to have been melted down and re-cast. Just so our hearts, our wills, our tastes, in short our whole “mind” must be first of all softened by God’s Spirit; then we must be transformed into a “vessel made to honour,” and finally “sealed unto the day of redemption.” In vain shall we seek to transform ourselves; we may give up this or that worldly pleasure or worldly pursuit; but unless we really, earnestly, perseveringly seek by prayer the power of God’s Spirit we never shall be “transformed by the renewing of our minds.” (W. H. Etchers, M.A.)
Conformity to the world:—
- What is the world? The mass of unrenewed men as distinguished from the people of God. It is Satan’s kingdom. It has laws and maxims. Its manners and customs are determined by its reigning spirit. It has its consummation, which is perdition.
- What is it to be conformed to the world? 1. To be inwardly like men of the world in the governing principle of our lives, i.e., to have a worldly spirit, a spirit occupied with worldly things, mercenary, earthly. 2. To be so ruled by the world’s maxims that the question is not what is right or wrong, but what is the custom of society. What is the public sentiment? 3. To be indistinguishable from men of the world in our—(1) Objects. (2) Amusements. (3) General conduct.
III. The consequences of this conformity. 1. The destruction of all spirituality. It is impossible to live near to God and yet to be conformed to the world. The Spirit is grieved and quenched. 2. The obliteration of the distinction between the Church and the world, and the consequent enervation of the former. What becomes of Christian profession when Christians are as sordid, gay, and unscrupulous as other men? 3. Identity of doom. They who choose the world will perish with it.
- By what rule are we to determine what is and what is not sinful conformity. This is more a theoretical than a practical difficulty, and will not trouble a man who is filled with the Spirit of Christ and devoted to His service. 1. We must avoid sinful things. 2. With regard to things indifferent. (1) One man should not judge another, but determine for himself what is and is not injurious to his spiritual interests. (2) We should avoid things which are injurious to others though harmless to ourselves. (3) We should shun things innocent in themselves, but which are connected in fact, or in the minds of men with evil, as cards, dancing, the theatre, &c. (4) The same rule as to dress and modes of living does not apply to all persons and places. It depends on usage, rank, &c. There is great danger of becoming pharisaical, and making religion consist in externals. (C. Hodge, D.D.)
Conformity to the world:—
- Be not conformed—1. To its selfishness. 2. To its presumption. 3. To its superstition. 4. To its carnal policy. 5. To its earthly-mindedness.
- This Divine requirement is presented here—1. Negatively “Be not conformed,” &c., in—(1) Affection. (2) Principles or maxims. (3) Conduct. 2. Positively—“But be ye transformed,” &c. True religion does not consist in simply abstaining, avoiding, disliking, &c.; but also in being, doing, delighting, &c. We cannot be unconformed to the world, unless we are in spirit conformed to God. Therefore the only way to be unworldly is to become converted and spiritual (Gal. 5:16, &c.). The Christian is not simply to be unlike the world; he is to be like Christ. (Homilist.)
Conformity to the world:—
- Its nature. 1. By “this world” is meant everything in it which is antagonistic to the truth or to the life of God in the soul of man. You can form a correct estimate of a man’s character by his ruling principles. So you can the spirit of “this world.” Here are some of its maxims—(1) “Everyman for himself”; there is the selfishness that draws in everything to itself, and keeps firm grip of all it has, though the needy be perishing around! (2) “Quietness is best”: there is the cowardice, the selfish prudence of the world which will not stand forth and speak a word for God or man, lest trouble should come upon it! (3) “Honesty is the best policy.” The man who is honest just because it is the best policy would for the same reason have been dishonest! 2. Conformity to this world means the adoption of principles such as these, and practices founded upon them, although there are great differences among men in respect of it.
- Its causes. Apart from its first and great cause, there are secondary causes, e.g.,—1. The proclivity to do as other people do. A child may act thus, but may a man? If so, where is his independence? In the dust. 2. The fear of giving offence. There are people who are so dependent upon the good opinion of others, that to gain it they will forfeit their own respect by doing things which otherwise they would have left undone. They have interests of their own, but they are laughed or frowned out of them; they have opinions of their own, but they modify and explain them away! Many a man may date his destruction from the day he began to be afraid of losing the good opinion of bad men! 3. The inability to stand alone. When any public question is debated, the question is, “What side are the respectable people on?” When a side must be taken, “Which is likely to win?” The “expediency” men are many; the “principle” men are few.
- Its cure. 1. The realising of our own personality and responsibility, refusing to live in the crowd, resolving that by God’s grace we shall live the life He calls upon us to live. 2. The withdrawing of ourselves from under the power of that tendency within us which prevails with us to disobey this command. Sometimes it is of very little use to fight, the only thing is to get away. A young man is beginning to acquire a taste for low pursuits and company: how will you help him to get above them? Not surely by leaving him to fight it out with them, but by creating within him a taste for higher pleasures, and the society of the good. If we would not be conformed to the world, we must rise above it. 3. Transformation by the renewing of the mind. Thus transformed, you will not be conformed: another model will be realised by you in your lives: the world will lose its hold and Christ will be all in all. (P. Rutherford.)
Conformity to the world:—
- In what it consists. In cultivating—1. Its spirit and temper. 2. Its maxims and principles. 3. Its company and conduct.
- How it must be avoided. 1. By the renewing of our minds. 2. By the adoption of other—other—(1) Principles. (2) Rules. (3) Ends.
III. Why it should be avoided. Because this is—1. Good in itself. 2. Acceptable to God. 3. Beneficial to man. (J. Lyth, D.D.)
Conformity to the world: its folly:—A member of his congregation was in the habit of going to the theatre. Mr. Hill went to him and said, “This will never do—a member of my Church in the habit of going to the theatre!” Mr. So-and-so replied that it surely must be a mistake, as he was not in the habit of going there, although it was true he did go now and then for a treat. “Oh!” said Rowland Hill, “then you are a worse hypocrite than ever, sir. Suppose any one spread the report that I ate carrion, and I answered, ‘Well, there is no wrong in that; I don’t eat carrion every day in the week, but I have a dish now and then for a treat!’ Why, you would say, ‘What a nasty, foul, and filthy appetite Rowland Hill has, to have to go to carrion for a treat!’ Religion is the Christian’s truest treat, Christ is his enjoyment.”
Nonconformity to the world:—1. There is no command in Scripture about which there is more debate than this. Are we required to separate ourselves from all who are not Christians, and avoid all employments except those of devotion? This is manifestly impossible. Are we then to abstain from those practices which are common among irreligious persons? Then the question arises, What practices? Where shall we draw the line? Many draw for themselves a line within which they keep; but unfortunately each person draws it differently. To some, this world means profligacy and sin; to others, great luxury; to others, certain fashionable amusements, or dress; to others, the use of secular music, or the reading of light literature. Each believes himself in the right, and blames his neighbours for going beyond or not coming up to the line he has drawn for himself. Each is alternately accuser and accused; while the ungodly consequently declare that it is quite impossible to say what is and what is not worldly. 2. Now all this arises from overlooking the fact that the precepts of the gospel are addressed to our new and inner nature; that they supply principles and motives on which we are to act always, not laws applying to any particular act or set of acts. “Be not conformed to the world” is defined by “Be ye transformed,” &c. It is clear, then, that that conformity is forbidden which interferes with our being transformed. Now that into which we are transformed is the image of God (2 Cor. 3:18). 3. Now, the rule of the renewed man is simple, always applicable—“The one thing I am to seek is conformity to God’s image, and in order to that, constant communion with God; whatever, then, I find to interfere with this, however good it may seem, is the world to me.” Now the application of this rule is matter of personal experience, and it is impossible to draw a line; for what is the world to one person is not the world to another; and the question is not so much where you are as what you are. To lay down a rule for all lives is as difficult as to prescribe a diet for all constitutions. If you ask us whether certain food will agree with you, we answer—That depends upon your constitution; we can only give you the broad rule—eat nothing that you find to disagree with you. So we lay down the broad rule—whatever disagrees with your soul’s health you must avoid. 4. This is a rule which we would plead with worldly people. Christians are often perplexed when asked—Why do you not join in this or that amusement? (1) If they answer—Because they are sinful, they say what they cannot prove. Sin is the transgression of a law, and they can cite no law which expressly forbids such things. And then if we call them sins, we may induce others to consider sins as not much worse than amusements. (2) If they say, we object to these things because they are worldly, then they will be asked, What is the essential difference between the amusement in question, and some other which they hold lawful? (3) Now if in all such cases the Christian would be content to say—I refrain because I find I cannot enjoy it and afterwards have communion with God, he would give an answer which, if not understood, could certainly not be gainsaid. To ask for a law when this reason is given would be as unmeaning as to ask for a law of the land forbidding all imprudence in our diet, or exposure to the weather, or to the risk of infection. We cannot prove these acts to be crimes, but they are dangerous, and all come under the general principle which makes it wrong for a man to injure himself. 5. In this way we should deal with all cavillers on this subject. Worldly men set down the objections of ministers to prejudice or envy. “Of course, clergymen abuse theatres, &c., but where is the harm? Where are they forbidden in Scripture?” We answer this question by another: “What is the state of your soul? Are you the possessor of a spiritual life? If not, then you cannot possibly understand our objection; for we object to these things as injurious to that which you tell us you have not got, namely—life in the soul. To understand a spiritual precept you must be spiritual yourself. 6. But there are those in whom this spiritual life is as the tender blade, or as the just kindling fire, who ask, anxiously, What is the danger? To show this, we will take—(1) The theatre. If we are asked, Is there any sin in a theatrical representation? We answer—There is no more sin in a person presenting to your eyes a certain character than there is in writing a description or painting a picture of it. But what we have to consider is, not the abstract idea of a theatre, but what it practically is. Now not to enlarge upon the evils connected with the stage, to which you give your countenance and aid by attendance and payment for admission: we will admit that these are not essential to the stage, though somehow they are always found connected with it. We are willing to allow all that can be said for it, and will not ask whether, in the course of the play, vice is not often made attractive, and whether the recollection of the pleasure of sin does not outlast the impressions made by the moral at the end, when the vicious characters meet with that punishment which we so rarely see them visited with in real life. We will suppose every play to have its moral, and the audience to be duly impressed with it. Yet we must ask, What character would you be conformed to if you followed out the lessons there taught? Would it be to the image of God? Is the good man of the stage the good man of Scripture? Who would venture to produce upon the stage one in whom was the mind of Christ? Would such a character crowd houses? Men would throng to the playhouse to hear sentiments which they do not care to study in their Bibles, or to witness a display of qualities which, in real life, they hold in contempt. Our objection to the stage, then, is this: it sets up a false and worldly standard of morality; and he who desires to be transformed to the image of God will find here another image set before him. (2) The card table. Is there any sin in moving about pieces of painted pasteboard? Certainly not. And yet it becomes a cause of sin; because, however small the stake, it excites, in however slight a degree, that desire of gain which is of this world. In proof of this note the greater zest with which men enjoy the game when some small stake is played for, “just to give an interest to the game.” And by indulging in this we hinder that renewing of our mind which we should cultivate so carefully. (3) The ball-room. Is there any harm in the act of dancing? No more than in any marching to the sound of music. But is there not temptation there for the indulgence of vanity, frivolity, envy, and evil speaking? We ask whether one renewed in the image of God would find himself a welcome guest there?—whether his spiritual life would be strengthened, and his conformity to Christ increased, by constant attendance?—and whether the guest as he returns is in that frame of mind which best fits him for communion with God? In short, in all these matters we ask you simply to use your own judgment. Try honestly the effect of these amusements upon your own spiritual life; and if you be really renewed in the spirit of your mind, you will find that their atmosphere is injurious to the new life, which you desire to cherish. 7. But we must not forget that the principle may be applied in an opposite direction. There are others who need to be told that what is forbidden is worldliness of heart; viz., those who are sure they do not conform to the world, because they never enter a theatre, &c. Their idea of unworldliness is the abstaining from these things, and a few others, e.g., display in entertainments and equipage. Add to this, becoming members of religious associations, frequenting religious society, and attending a gospel ministry, and their definition of unworldliness is complete. Now it is possible to do all this, and more, and yet still be conformed to the world. Worldliness can no more be excluded by a fence of conventional rules and habits than a fog or a miasma by a high wall: it is in the atmosphere. They avoid the theatre, and eschew fiction: to what purpose, if they are daily acting out the characters they will not see represented, or read depicted? They will not gamble. Are they the better for this, if they indulge the covetous spirit elsewhere? They will not frequent the ball-room. Are they any gainers, if they indulge the same spirit of display, &c., in a quiet party, or in a religious meeting? They will not wear fashionable dresses; to what purpose, if they are secretly as proud of their plain dress? Conclusion: To attack at once the worldliness of the religious and the irreligion of the world, is to risk the displeasure of both. But the world and the fashions of it are passing fast away; a few short years, and we shall all be where the applause or censure of men shall be alike indifferent to us—upon our dying beds. Then the question to be decided shall be, not how far may I go in my enjoyment of the world, or where must I fix a limit to my pleasures, for the world can be enjoyed no longer, and death is fixing the last limits to its pleasures, and there remains but one act more of conformity to the world—that last act in which all flesh conforms itself to the law of dissolution; but this shall be the great question:—Am I fitted for that world which I am about to enter? Am I, or am I not, “transformed in the renewing of my mind”? Ask yourselves this question now, as you must ask it then. (Abp. Magee.) Nonconformity to the world may be seen—
- In the transformation of the worldly virtues. There are graces which are sometimes seen more in the world than in the Church, and here we cannot go wrong in conforming to the world. Yet it is possible for an unworldly spirit to transfigure them. And unless occasionally so transfigured they would be corrupted and lost. One high heroic instance of truth, justice, or courage is worth a hundred lesser cases—the world is startled by it. But remember in proportion to the dignity given by an unworldly spirit to a worldly virtue is the mischief wrought by the absence of worldly virtues in those who call themselves unworldly. They are salt which has lost its savour. There is no greater stumbling-block than want of candour, justice, and generosity in those who profess to be “not of the world.” But the soldier who is more brave because of a higher than earthly courage; the judge who is more scrupulously just because he has before him a higher than earthly tribunal, the men of business who “ply their daily task with busier feet, because their souls a holy strain repeat,” are instances of what the apostle means by being “transfigured through the renewal of our minds.”
- In the exhibition of qualities which are unworldly in themselves. 1. Humility. In pagan times there was no name for this grace. The very word is a new creation of the gospel. Nor does the thing now exist in worldly minds. You may prove this by telling an average man of his faults and watching the result. 2. Independence of the world’s opinion. “With me it is a small thing to be judged of man’s judgment. He that judgeth me is the Lord”—is a true unworldly maxim. It is safe, prudent, to conform to the fashion of the world, to swim with the stream, to desert the sinking vessel, to avoid the stricken deer or howl with the wolves. That is the world’s way; but there is a way which is not the way of the world. The old Christian virtue of chivalry still lingers amongst us—the leaning to the weaker side because it is weaker, the desire to protect the weak and repress the strong, &c., may run to excess, but even Quixotism is refreshing. How invigorating to see men dependent on God, though independent of man, stand up against professional clamour and popular prejudice, to see men resist the tyranny of public opinion which will not hear the other side, and refuse the popular and give the unpopular praise! 3. Purity. 4. Resignation. (Dean Stanley.)
Nonconformity to the world:—
- What are we to understand by the world (1 John 2:16). 1. The lust of the flesh (Tit. 2:12). 2. The lust of the eye (Eccles. 5:11). 3. The pride of life (chap. 1:30).
- What is it not to be conformed to it? 1. Not to approve of it (1 John 2:15). 2. Not to imitate it (1 Pet. 4:4). 3. To use it as if we used it not (1 Cor. 7:30, 31).
III. Why should we not be conformed? 1. We are separated from the world to God (1 Pet. 2:9–12). 2. We have put on Christ. 3. All that is in the world is not of the Father (1 John 2:16), and is contrary to the love of Him (1 John 2:15). 4. The fashion of this world passeth away (1 Cor. 7:31). Conclusion: Conform not to this world. 1. You have higher things to mind (Col. 3:1–3; Phil. 3:20). 2. This world cannot satisfy you (Eccles. 1:8). 3. You must give an account of what you do here. (Bp. Beveridge.)
Nonconformity to the world:—
- Its nature. 1. Not ceremonial. 2. Not civil. 3. But moral. Be not conformed—(1) To the spirit of the world. (2) In your rules of life. (3) In your company. (4) In your practices.
- Some reasons for its prohibition. 1. Duty. 2. Profession. 3. Self-love. 4. Love of your neighbour. 5. The commands of Scripture.
III. How it may be prevented. By—1. The renovation of your natures. 2. The exercise of daily prayer. 3. Guarding against temptation. 4. A constant dependence upon God. (Biblical Museum.)
Nonconformity to the world:—There will arise in the Christian’s course, from time to time, occasions on which he will be in doubt as to some points of his duty in relation to social intercourse and amusements. Well, in such cases he turns to his chart—on that chart (his Bible) though he find not every rock and shoal and quicksand, marked down by name—he finds it laid down plainly and decisively that the whole coast is dangerous, i.e., he finds a general principle, “Be not conformed to this world”—“The friendship of the world is enmity with God.” By whom is the amusement patronised? Are they those who are the votaries of other and less dubious pleasures? Are they those who wear the world’s badge and have its mark stamped on their foreheads? Then let the Christian pause—let him fear to find himself surrounded by crowds of worldlings, drinking with them of the same cup. It must be at best but a suspicious cup that meets tastes which should be opposite—it must be at best a suspicious path in which, even for a moment, the Christian walks hand in hand with the man of this world. Be quite sure the world would not be drinking of that cup, if it were not in some way spiced to their taste. Alas! it is far, far more likely that the Christian should have stepped out of his narrow path, than that the worldling should have forsaken his, to walk, even for a moment, with the Christian. And remember that in such cases there is great need that you watch against self-deception. The remark of Jeremy Taylor is but too true: “Most men choose the sin, if it be once disputed whether it be a sin or no.” Although grace teaches and inclines you to distaste the world, yet corruption remains, and to that corruption sin and the world are but too palatable. See to it, then, that while you are professing to inquire into the lawfulness or unlawfulness of such an action, your mind is not biased beforehand, and you have not a secret desire to find the Word of God on your side—a secret determination to make it out, if possible to be so. Beware, too, of that religion which is anxious to take up its lodging next door to the world. If you are determined to go as far as you can you are not safe—you will very soon be on the other side of the line. And if, after all, a given case seemed doubtful, remember, religion, not the world, is to have the benefit of the doubt. It is better to abstain from mistaken scrupulosity from a hundred lawful things than to run the risk of one unlawful act of conformity to the world, or of throwing one stumbling-block in the way of another. (Canon Miller.)
Nonconformity to the world:—There are two words for world, αἰών and κόσμος. The former regards time, the latter space. Once they are combined (Eph. 2:2), “in accordance with the time-state of this matter-world.” … The direction, therefore, is, “Be not like the men of this world, whose all is the present. Wear not the garb of time: live for eternity.” (Dean Vaughan.)
Nonconformity to the world—inward:—As the mother of pearl fish lives in the sea without receiving a drop of salt water, and as towards the Chelidonian Islands springs of fresh water may be found in the midst of the sea, and as the fire-fly passes through the flames without burning its wings, so a vigorous and resolute soul may live in the world without being infected with any of its humours, may discover sweet springs of piety amidst its salt waters, and fly among the flames of earthly concupiscence without burning the wings of the holy desires of a devout life. (Francis de Sales.)
Nonconformity to the world—outward:—The bird of paradise, which has such a dower of exquisitely beautiful feathers, cannot fly with the wind; if it attempts to do so, the current being much swifter than its flight, so ruffles its plumage as to impede its progress, and finally to terminate it: it is, therefore, compelled to fly against the wind, which keeps its feathers in their place, and thus it gains the place where it would be. So the Christian must not attempt to go with the current of a sinful world: if he does, it will not only hinder, but end his religious progress; but he must go against it, and then every effort of his soul will be upward, heavenward, Godward. (M. Davies, D.D.) The world is fallen human nature acting itself out in the human family; moulding and fashioning the framework of human society in accordance with its own tendencies. It is fallen human nature making the ongoings of human thought, feeling, and action its own. It is the reign or kingdom of the carnal mind, which is enmity against God. Wherever that mind prevails, there is the world. (R. S. Candlish, D.D.)
The world an atmosphere:—It is like the dense atmosphere which on a November day hangs over your vast metropolis, the product of its countless homes and the proof of its vast industrial efforts; and yet the veil which shuts out from it the light of heaven, destroys the colour on its works of art—the dark unwholesome vapour which clogs vitality and undermines health, and from which a Londoner escapes at intervals with a light heart, that he may see the sun, and the trees, and the face of nature as God made them, and feel for a few months what it is to live. Even thus the world hangs like a deadly atmosphere over every single human soul, brooding over it, flapping its wings like the monstrous evil bird in the fable, or penetrating and entering into it like a subtle poison, to sap the springs and sources of its vigour and its life. (Canon Liddon.)
The world, danger of:—As you love your souls, beware of the world: it has slain its thousands and ten thousands. What ruined Lot’s wife?—the world. What ruined Achan?—the world. What ruined Haman?—the world. What ruined Judas?—the world. What ruined Simon Magus?—the world. What ruined Demas?—the world. And “what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”
The world: difficult to define:—The world cannot be clearly marked out as if it were a kingdom on a map, and every year makes it more difficult to draw any line of demarcation or to lay down any hard and fast lines upon the subject, because society is being leavened by Christian principles, the moral conscience of the nation quickened, and a public opinion, on the whole of a healthy character, making itself powerfully felt. And, further, what is the world to one person is not the world to another. The fact that the world cannot be defined as to locality is an advantage, not a disadvantage: for it calls forth from us a constant spirit of inquiry and watchfulness before we enter upon our pursuits, form our connections, or enter into society. The believer should at all times test every relationship into which he is brought, to see whether beneath its possibly plausible and pleasant surface there may not lurk the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. The Christian, too, should examine not only what is without, to see whether the place he is entering is the world, but also what is within himself, and whether he is not converting even what is the kingdom of God into the world by the worldly spirit which he brings with him. We may infect as well as be infected. (C. Neil, M.A.)
The world: spirit of:—The spirit of the world is for ever altering, impalpable; for ever eluding, in fresh forms, your attempts to seize it. In the days of Noah the spirit of the world was violence. In Elijah’s day it was idolatry. In the day of Christ it was power, concentrated and condensed in the government of Rome. In ours, perhaps, it is the love of money. It enters in different proportions into different bosoms; it is found in a different form in contiguous towns, in the fashionable watering-places, and in the commercial city; it is this thing at Athens, and another in Corinth. This is the spirit of the world, a thing in my heart and yours to be struggled against, not so much in the case of others as in the silent battle done within our own souls. (F. W. Robertson, M.A.)
Worldliness: its spirit permanent, its forms changeful:—The world in our days is not a heathen world, as it was in the days of the apostle; but it is not a whit less “the world that lieth in wickedness.” The outward developments are different, but the inward character, principles, and spirit are the very same: changing a few of the mere external circumstances, the apostle’s description of the “world” of his own day is equally applicable to the “world” of ours. There are now, indeed, no idolatrous banquets, no savage gladiatorial conflicts in the blood-stained arena of the amphitheatre, no midnight orgies to some disgraceful deity. The world, perhaps, now, at least the world of the upper classes of society, is not quite so rough, but more polished in its sinfulness; but its scenes of amusement, its theatres, its luxurious tastes and habits, its nightly revels, and too lavish entertainments, partake as essentially of the elements of worldliness as the less advanced indulgences of a ruder age. In its thirst after wealth, in its restless strivings after fame and glory, in its grasping selfishness, in its love of splendour and show, we question whether the world, as it presents itself to the Christian of the nineteenth century wears any materially different aspect from that of the world of the apostle’s days. But, when we speak of worldliness, either as it is developed in business or pleasure, let it not be for a moment supposed that worldliness exists only in these developments: these are only indices or marks of an inward and rooted principle, innate in every man born into this world, and dominant in every man, without exception, who has not been “born again of water and of the Spirit.” (W. H. Etchers, M.A.)
But be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.
Transformation:—This word is used to denote the Lord’s transfiguration, when His body was seen invested with the glory in which He is to appear at His second coming. You will then see Him thus transfigured, and the result will be your own transfiguration (Phil. 3:21). For He is to “change your vile bodies,” &c. But there is a transfiguration in the life that now is (2 Cor. 3:18) also into the image of the Lord; and therefore it is a transformation into glory, but not into the glory that was seen on the Mount, but what was seen in the manger, in the wilderness, in Gethsemane, and on the Cross. Note:—
- The manner of it. Christ was transformed by becoming man; you are to be transformed by becoming new men in Him. The renewing of your mind is your being brought to have the same mind which Christ had. “I come to do Thy will, O God,” is the language of the Son in the very act of taking the new nature; the renewing of your mind is your making that language your own. Note the closeness of the analogy. 1. The agency is the same—the Holy Ghost. It is He alone who can make the Son partaker of your human nature, without making Him to be as fallen man; it is He alone who can make you partakers of the Son’s Divine nature, without making you to be as God. 2. These two operations fit into one another: the one effecting that supernatural birth by which the Son becomes a servant, the other that supernatural birth by which the servants become sons. The one transformation is the cause of the other: not only as being that without which the other could not have been, but also as being the means of the other. It is through your believing and appropriating His transformation, that you are yourselves transformed. For the transformation in either case is a union. His being transformed is His being united by a new creation with you; your being transformed is your being united by a new creation to Him. 3. To the Son Himself His being born of the Spirit brought a new mind. It was a new thing for Him to have the mind of a servant, and to say, “I come to do Thy will, O God.” And it is a new mind in you when, as sons, you say the same. Naturally, self-will is the ruling principle of your mind. Insubordination to God is that “fashion of the world” to which you are not to be conformed. 4. The transformation effected in the case of Christ, when He humbled Himself to do the will of God, was voluntary on His part; otherwise His humiliation and obedience unto death could have had no efficacy. Equally voluntary must be the change on your part: “Be ye.” You must say, with renewed minds, entering into His mind, “I come to do Thy will, O my God.” It is true, that in order to your thus acting, you must be acted upon by the Holy Spirit. But you are not acted upon as inert matter may be acted upon. 5. Note two practical applications. (1) If the transformation in you is thus like the transformation in Him—see to it that it be very complete. It was so in the case of Christ; it must be in yours. He emptied Himself. Do you also empty yourselves. He laid aside His natural position of equality with God. Do you also lay aside your usurped position of seeking to be equal with God. (2) That you may be thus transformed into the image of your Lord—appropriate as available for you your Lord’s transformation into your image. Behold Him transformed for you; and be you, after a corresponding manner, transformed in Him. He becomes a servant, continuing still to be the Son; you become sons in Him, feeling yourselves now, for the first time really, to be servants. He, being the Son, comes to do the will of God as a servant; you, being servants, come to do the will of God as sons.
- The end of this transformation. “That you may prove,” &c. The will of God needs to be proved. It can be known only by trial. Essentially, the will of God is and must be the expression of His nature. But the nature of God far transcends the comprehension of finite minds; and therefore His will may well be expected to be incomprehensible too. But in that formal aspect of it as the assertion of the authority of God, let His will be put to the test of actual trial, and then will its real character as the expression of His nature come out; for while neither God Himself nor His will can be grasped in the speculative understanding, both He and it can be grasped in the obedient and loving heart. But apart from any inquiry into the reason of it, the fact is pregnant with important consequences. For one thing, it partly explains the economy of probation, and tends to show how trial must be both summary and decisive summary, that it may be ascertained once for all whether the authority of God is to be acknowledged or disowned; and decisive, for if His will is acknowledged, the way is opened for proving it as the expression of His nature to be “good and acceptable,” &c.; whereas, if disowned, all opportunity of knowing its real character is hopelessly lost. 1. The probation of man turns upon the willingness of man to put the will of God to the proof. The will of God, as it was announced in paradise, was not such as to command either approbation or consent on the part of our first parents. The command not to eat of the fruit did not obviously commend itself as “good,” &c. Doubtless, if they had kept it, they would have found by experience—(1) That it was in itself “good” as the seal of God’s covenant of life, and as the preparation for the unfolding of His higher providence. (2) Acceptable. Suited to their case and circumstances, deserving of their acceptance, sure to become more and more well-pleasing as they entered more and more into its spirit. (3) Perfect. That thus only could God’s perfection be vindicated—the perfection of His sovereign right to rule; that thus only could the perfection of the creature be wrought out in an onward and upward path of loyalty and love. All this our first parents would have learned concerning the will of God, if only they had consented to prove it; but this they would not do; they passed judgment upon it unproved; they refused to give it a fair trial; they chose rather to make the opposite experiment, and they have left this experiment as their sad legacy to their descendants, so many of whom are now occupied in proving, trying, how they may be best conformed to the world so as to make the most of it; proving, in short, what is the will of this world and this world’s prince. 2. The probation of Christ proceeds upon the very same principle. He is tried as the first Adam was tried, and upon the same issue, namely, His willingness to prove the will of God; and in His case also the will of God may be so presented to His human soul as to appear neither reasonable nor desirable. In such a light, accordingly, Satan tries to put it before Him. The pain, shame, weariness, and blood awaiting Him, the tempter ingeniously contrasts with the shorter road to glory which he would have Him to take. The Second Adam will not, like the first, accept Satan’s representation; He will prove it for Himself; and so He “learns obedience by the things which He suffers.” But He proved it, and in the proving of it He found it to be “good and acceptable and perfect.” He tasted the delight of obedience, as He learned it. 3. It is into this image of Jesus, thus “proving that will of God,” that you are now to be “transformed,” &c. You are to prove God’s will—(1) In what must be the first act of your obedience—namely, your believing on Him whom He has sent. What this will of God is as an expression of His nature you cannot know until you prove it. You must “taste and see” how good the Lord is, &c. You would fain have all made quite clear to you before you surrender yourselves to the gospel call. Nay, you stand aloof, and start objections and difficulties. You do not see how this aspect of the gospel call can be incompatible with that. Nay, try this dipping in the Jordan. It may seem to you an unlikely mode of cure; but at any rate try it. In the embrace of Christ, not while you are standing out in the attitude of rebellion, all difficulties vanish. (2) Then ever after, following on the path of your new obedience, you are to be proving “what is that good,” &c. At every step it will be a trial to you. It may be very hard sometimes to believe that the will of God concerning you is “good, and acceptable,” &c. But give it a full and fair trial; and you will soon find that in the very “keeping of God’s commandments there is great reward.” Conclusion: Mark—1. How opposite are the two habits, namely, being “conformed to this world,” and being “transformed,” &c. There are here two types, of one or other of which you must take the fashion. To be conformed to the world is to take things as they are and make the best of them. The opposite habit is to try things as they should be. 2. How complete the transformation must be if, instead of being conformed to this world, you are to “prove,” &c. You must make full proof of God’s will. But that you cannot do if you yield a forced submission. A son yielding obedience to his father’s will reluctantly, never can be acquainted with its true character and blessedness; but let him throw himself heart and soul into the doing of it, then will he prove it of what sort it is. To have the mind to do so implies a great change, a new creation, a new heart. 3. Now, so long as the fashion of this world lasts, so long as that second transformation which awaits you is postponed, this proving of the will of God must throughout be more or less an effort. But take courage, O child of God! “The fashion of this world passeth away.” You “look for new heavens and a new earth.” The fashion of that new world and the will of God will not be opposed to one another. The proving of the will of God, then, with your whole nature changed into the image of the heavenly, what a joyous exercise of liberty and love will it be! 4. In the meantime, a signal encouragement as motive. The more you prove the fashion of this world, the less you feel it to be “good,” &c. It looks fair at the first, but who that has ever lived long but re-echoes the wise man’s complaint—“All is vanity”? The will of God looks worse at the beginning; but on, on, child of God, and you will find a growing light, encouragement, and joy. “The path of the just is as the shining light, &c.; and in the trial of them you find that “wisdom’s ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.” (R. S. Candlish, D.D.)
- What is it to be transformed? To be new creatures (2 Cor. 5:17). 1. In our judgment concerning—(1) God (Matt. 19:17). (2) Christ (Phil. 1:21; 3:8). (3) The world (Eccles. 1:1, 2). 2. Our thoughts (Psa. 1:2). 3. Consciences (Acts 24:16). 4. Wills (Lam. 3:24). 5. Affections (Col. 3:2). (1) Love and hatred (Matt. 22:37). (2) Desire and abhorrence. (3) Joy and grief (Psa. 42:1, 2). (4) Hope and fear (Psa. 27:1). (5) Anger and meekness (Matt. 11:29). 6. Words (Matt. 12:36). 7. Actions (1 Pet. 1:15, 16). Towards God and men (Acts 24:16).
- Why are we to be transformed. Till transformed—1. We are altogether sinful (Prov. 15:8). 2. We can enjoy no happiness here nor be capable of happiness hereafter (Heb. 12:14; 1 Cor. 2:14).
III. Examine whether you be transformed or no. Look to your heads (2 Cor. 13:5); your hearts (Prov. 4:23); your lives (Matt. 12:33). Note the reasons for this examination. 1. Many are mistaken about it, and think they are renewed, because turned—(1) From one sin to another. (2) From one sect to another. (3) From debauchery to mere morality. 2. This is the most dangerous of all mistakes. 3. If you never examine yourselves, you have the more cause to fear your condition.
- Signs of our being transformed. All our actions proceed—1. From new principles. (1) Obedience to God (1 Sam. 15:22). (2) A desire to please Him (1 Thess. 4:1; Heb. 11:5). 2. After a new manner. (1) Not hypocritically but sincerely (2 Cor. 1:12). (2) Not proudly, but humbly (Luke 17:10). (3) Not interruptedly, but constantly (Luke 1:75). 3. To a new end (1 Cor. 10:31; Matt. 5:16). V. Means. 1. Read the word written (James 1:21). 2. Hear it preached. 3. Meditate upon it. 4. Pray (Psa. 51:10). 5. Receive the sacrament. Conclusion: 1. By renovation you become again as you were created (Gen. 1:26). 2. God Himself will change to you. (1) His anger to love (Isa. 66:2). (2) All His actions to your good (chap. 8:28). 3. If now transformed from the world to God, hereafter you shall be transformed from misery to happiness. (Bp. Beveridge.)
The Christian life a transfiguration:—In the preceding verse the apostle gathers the whole sum of Christian duty into one word. And so in this. As all is to be sacrifice, so all is to be transformation. Mark:—
- Where Paul begins—with an inward renewal 1. He goes deep down, because he had learned in His school who said: “Make the tree good and the fruit good.” To tinker at the outside with a host of red-tape restrictions, and prescriptions, is all waste time and effort. You may wrap a man up in the swaddling bands of specific precepts until you can scarcely see him, and he cannot move, and you have not done a bit of good. The inner man must be dealt with first, and then the outward will come right in due time. Many of the plans for the social and moral renovation of the world are as superficial as a doctor’s treatment would be, who would direct all his attention to curing pimples when the patient is dying of consumption. 2. There has to be a radical change in the middle. “Mind” seems to be equivalent to the thinking faculty, but, possibly, includes the whole inner man. The inner man has got a wrong twist somehow; it needs to be moulded over again. It is held in slavery to the material; it is a mass of affections fixed upon the transient; a predominant self-regard characterises it and its actions. 3. This new creation of the inner man is only possible as the result of the communication of a life from without; the life of Jesus, put into your heart, on condition of your opening the door of your heart by faith, and saying, “Come in, Thou blessed of the Lord.” And He comes in, bearing in His hands a germ of life which will mould and shape our “mind” after His own blessed pattern. 4. That new life, when given, needs to be fostered and cherished. It is only a little spark that has to kindle a great heap of green wood, and to turn it into its own ruddy likeness. We have to keep our two hands round it, for fear it should be blown out by the rough gusts of passion and of circumstance. It is only a little seed that is sown in our hearts; we have to cherish and cultivate it, to water it by our prayers, and to watch over it, lest either the fowls of the air with light wings should carry it away, or the heavy wains of the world’s business and pleasures should crush it to death, or the thorns of earthly desires should spring up and choke it.
- What he expects from the inward change—a life “transfigured,” the same word as is employed in the account of our Lord’s transfiguration. In that event our Lord’s indwelling divinity came up to the surface and became visible. 1. “A transfigured life” suggests—(1) That the inward life will shape the outward conduct and character. Just as truly as the physical life moulds the infant’s limbs, and as every periwinkle shell on the beach is shaped into the convolutions that will fit the inhabitant, by the power of the life that lies within, so the renewed mind will make a fit dwelling for itself. Did you never see goodness making men and women beautiful? Have not there been other faces besides Moses’ that shone as men came down from the Mount of Communion with God? Certain weeds that lie at the bottom of the sea, when their flowering time comes, elongate their stalks and reach the light and float upon the top, and then, when they have flowered, they sink again into the depths. Our Christian life should come up to the surface and open out its flowers there. Does your Christianity do that? It is no use talking about the inward change unless there is the outward transfiguration. (2) That the essential character of our transfiguration is the moulding of us into the likeness of Christ. Christ’s life is in you if you are in Him. And just as every leaf that you take off some plants and stick into a flower-pot will in time become a little plant exactly like the parent from which it was taken, so the Christ-life that is in you will be growing into a copy of its source and origin. The least speck of musk, invisibly taken from a cake of it, and carried away ever so far, will diffuse the same fragrance as the mass from which it came; and the little slice of Christ’s life that is in you and me, will smell as sweet if not as strong as the great life from which it came. 2. But as with the inward renewal so with the outward transfiguration, the life within will not work up to the surface except upon condition of our own honest endeavour. The fact that God’s Spirit is given to us is not a reason for our indolence, but for our work, because it gives us the power by which we can do the thing we desire. What would you think of a man that said, “It is the steam that drives the spindles, so I need not put the belting on”?
III. The ultimate consequence which the apostle regards as certain, from this inward change; unlikeness to the world around. “Be not conformed,” &c. 1. The more we get like Jesus Christ, the more certainly we get unlike the world. For the two theories of life are clean contrary—the one is all limited by time, the other lays hold on the eternal. The one is all for self, the other is all for God. So that likeness and adherence to the one must needs be dead in the teeth of the other. 2. And that contrariety is as real to-day as ever it was. Paul’s “world” was a grim, heathen, persecuting world; our “world” has got christened, and goes to church and chapel, like a respectable gentleman. But for all that it is the world still, and we have to shake our hands free of it. 3. How is the commandment to be obeyed? (1) Well, of course there are large tracts of life where the saint and the sinner have to do the same things, feel the same anxieties, weep the same tears, and smile the same smiles. And yet “there shall be two women grinding at a mill,” the one shall be a Christian, the other not. They push the handle round, and the push that carries the handle round half the circumference of the millstone may be a bit of religious worship, and the push that carries it round the other half may be a bit of serving the world and the flesh and the devil. Two men shall be sitting at the same desk, two boys at the same bench at school, two servants in the same kitchen, and the one shall be serving God and glorifying His name, and the other shall be serving self and Satan. Not the things done, but the motive, makes the difference. (2) And there are a great many things in which not to be “conformed to the world” means to have nothing to do with certain acts and people. Have nothing to do with things which in themselves are unmistakably wrong; nor with things which have got evil inextricably mixed up with them, like the English stage; nor with things which, as experience shows you, are bad for you. This generation of the Church seems to be trying how near it can go to the world. It is a dangerous game, like children trying how far they can stretch out of the nursery window without tumbling into the street; you will go over some day when you miscalculate a little bit. (3) Rather “be ye transfigured,” and then you will find that when the inner mind is changed, many of the things that attracted tempt no more, and many of the people that wanted to have you do not care to have you, for you are a wet blanket to their enjoyments. The great means of becoming unlike the world is becoming like Him, and the great means of becoming like Him is living near Him and drinking in His life and Spirit. 4. And then, “as we have borne the image of the earthly, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly.” But we must begin by opening our hearts to the leaven which shall work onward and outwards till it has changed all. The sun when it shines upon a mirror makes the mirror shine like a little sun. “We all with open face, reflecting as a mirror does the glory of the Lord, shall be changed into the same image.” (A. Maclaren, D.D.)
Transfiguration:—One master word, for the whole Christian life is sacrifice, self-surrender, and that to God. Paul here brackets, with that great conception of the Christian life, another equally dominant and comprehensive. In one aspect, it is self-surrender; in another, it is growing transformation. The inner man, having been consecrated as a prince, by yielding of himself to God, is called upon to manifest inward consecration by outward sacrifice; an inward “renewing of the mind” is regarded as the necessary antecedent of transformation of outward life.
- Note, then, that the foundation of all transformation of character and conduct is laid deep in a renewed mind. Now it is a matter of world-wide experience, verified by each of us in our own cases, if we have ever been honest in the attempt, that the power of self-improvement is limited by very narrow bounds. Any man that has ever tried to cure himself of the most trivial habit which he desires to get rid of, or to alter in the slightest degree the set of some strong taste or current of his being, knows how little he can do, even by the most determined toil. The problem that is set before a man when you tell him to effect self-improvement is something like that which confronted that poor paralytic lying in the porch at the pool: “If you can walk you will be able to get to the pool that will make you able to walk. But you have got to be cured before you can do what you need to do in order to be cured.” Only one Christ presents itself, not as a mere republication of morality, not as merely a new stimulus and motive to do what is right, but as an actual communication to men of a new power to work in them. It is a new gift of a life which will unfold itself after its own nature, as the bud into flower, and the flower into fruit; giving new desires, tastes, directions, and renewing the whole nature. And so, says Paul, the beginning of transformations of character is the renovation in the very centre of the being. Now, I suppose that in my text the word “mind” is not so much employed in the widest sense, including all the affections and will, and the other faculties of our nature, as in the narrower sense of the perceptive power, or that faculty in our nature by which we recognise, and make our own, certain truths. “The renewing of the mind,” then, is only, in such an interpretation, a theological way of putting the simpler English thought, a change of estimates, a new set of views; or, if that word be too shallow, as indeed it is, a new set of convictions. It is profoundly true that “as a man thinketh, so is he.” Our characters are largely made by our estimates of what is good or bad, desirable or undesirable. Why, we all know how often a whole life has been revolutionised by the sudden dawning or rising in its sky of some starry new truth, formerly hidden and undreamed of. If you want to change your characters—and God knows they all need it—change the deep convictions of your mind; and get hold, as living realities, of the great truths of Christ’s gospel. If you and I really believed what we say we believe, that Jesus Christ has died for us, and lives for us, and is ready to pour out upon us the gift of His Divine Spirit, and wills that we should be like Him, and holds out to us the great and wonderful hopes and prospects of an absolutely eternal life of supreme and serene blessedness at His right hand should we be, could we be, the sort of people that most of us are? Truth professed has no transforming power; truth received and fed upon can revolutionise a man’s whole character. Make of your every thought an action; link every action with a thought. Or, to put it more Christian-like, let there be nothing in your creed which is not in your commandments; and let nothing be in your life which is not moulded by these. The beginning of all transformation is the revolutionised conviction of a mind that has accepted the truths of the gospel. II. Well then, secondly, note the transfigured life. The life is to be transfigured. Yet it remains the same, not only in the consciousness of personal identity, but in the main trend and drift of the character. There is nothing in the gospel of Jesus Christ which is meant to obliterate the lines of the strongly marked individuality which each of us receives by nature. Rather the gospel is meant to heighten and deepen these, and to make each man more intensely himself, more thoroughly individual, and unlike anybody else. But whilst the individuality remains, and ought to be heightened by Christian consecration, yet a change should pass over our lives, like the change that passes over the winter landscape when the summer sun draws out the green leaves from the hard black boughs, and flashes a fresh colour over all the brown pastures. Christ in us, if we are true to Him, will make us more ourselves, and yet new creatures in Christ Jesus. And the transformation is to be into His likeness who is the pattern of all perfection. We must be moulded after the same type. There are two types possible for us: this world; Jesus Christ. We have to make our choice. That transformation is no sudden thing, though the revolution which underlies it may be instantaneous. The working out of the new motives, the working in of the new power, is no mere work of a moment. It is a lifelong task till the lump be leavened. And remember, this transformation is no magic change effected whilst men sleep. It is a commandment which we have to brace ourselves to perform. But this positive commandment is only one side of the transfiguration that is to be effected. It is clear enough that if a new likeness is being stamped upon a man, the process may be looked at from the other side; and that in proportion as we become liker Jesus Christ, we shall become more unlike the old type to which we were previously conformed. “This world” here, in my text, is more properly “this age,” which means substantially the same thing as John’s favourite word “world,” viz., the sum total of godless men, and things conceived of as separated from God. Only by this expression the essentially fleeting nature of that type is more distinctly set forth. And although it can only be a word, I want to put in here a very earnest word which the tendencies of this generation do very specially require. It seems to be thought, by a great many people, who call themselves Christians nowadays, that the nearer they can come in life, in ways of looking at things, in estimates of literature, for instance, in customs of society, in politics, in trade, and especially in amusements—the nearer they can come to the unchristian world, the more “broad” and “superior to prejudice” they are. And it seems to be by a great many professing Christians thought to be a great feat to walk as the mules on the Alps do, with one foot over the path and the precipice down below. Keep away from the edge. You are safer there. There is a broad gulf between the man who believes in Jesus Christ and His gospel and the man who does not. And the resulting conducts cannot be the same unless the Christian man is insincere. III. And now, lastly, note the great reward and crown of this transfigured life. The issue of such a life is, to put it into plain English, an increased power of perceiving, instinctively and surely, what it is God’s will that we should do. To know beyond doubt what I ought to do, and knowing, to have no hesitation or reluctance in doing it, seems to me to be heaven upon earth. And the man that has it needs but little more. This, then, is the reward. Each peak we climb opens wider and clearer prospects into the untravelled land before us. (Ibid.)
2. Do not be conformed to this world. This ‘world’ or ‘age’ (aiōn, as in 1 Cor. 1:20; 2:6; 3:18; 2 Cor. 4:4; Gal. 1:4) is distinguished from the age to come (cf. Eph. 1:21). While it is called ‘the present evil age’ (Gal. 1:4), whose ‘god’ blinds the minds of unbelievers (2 Cor. 4:4), yet it is possible for people living temporally in this age to conduct themselves as heirs of the age to come, the age of renewal and resurrection. On them ‘the end of the ages has come’ (1 Cor. 10:11); for them, because they are a ‘new creation’ in Christ, ‘the old has passed away, behold, the new has come’ (2 Cor. 5:17). It is by the power of the indwelling Spirit, the pledge of their inheritance in the world to come, that they can resist the tendency to live according to the standards of ‘this world’.
Be transformed. The same verb (metamorphoō) is rendered ‘transfigured’ in the transfiguration narratives of Matthew 17:1–2 and Mark 9:2. The only other place where it occurs in the New Testament is 2 Corinthians 3:18, of believers being ‘changed’ into the likeness of Christ ‘from one degree of glory to another’ by the operation of ‘the Lord who is the Spirit’—a passage which is a helpful commentary on the present one.
2. And conform ye not to this world, &c. The term world has several significations, but here it means the sentiments and the morals of men; to which, not without cause, he forbids us to conform. For since the whole world lies in wickedness, it behoves us to put off whatever we have of the old man, if we would really put on Christ: and to remove all doubt, he explains what he means, by stating what is of a contrary nature; for he bids us to be transformed into a newness of mind. These kinds of contrast are common in Scripture; and thus a subject is more clearly set forth.
Now attend here, and see what kind of renovation is required from us: It is not that of the flesh only, or of the inferior part of the soul, as the Sorbonists explain this word; but of the mind, which is the most excellent part of us, and to which philosophers ascribe the supremacy; for they call it ἡγεμονικὸν, the leading power; and reason is imagined to be a most wise queen. But Paul pulls her down from her throne, and so reduces her to nothing by teaching us that we must be renewed in mind. For how much soever we may flatter ourselves, that declaration of Christ is still true,—that every man must be born again, who would enter into the kingdom of God; for in mind and heart we are altogether alienated from the righteousness of God.
That ye may prove, &c. Here you have the purpose for which we must put on a new mind,—that bidding adieu to our own counsels and desires, and those of all men, we may be attentive to the only will of God, the knowledge of which is true wisdom. But if the renovation of our mind is necessary, in order that we may prove what is the will of God, it is hence evident how opposed it is to God.
The epithets which are added are intended for the purpose of recommending God’s will, that we may seek to know it with greater alacrity: and in order to constrain our perverseness, it is indeed necessary that the true glory of justice and perfection should be ascribed to the will of God. The world persuades itself that those works which it has devised are good; Paul exclaims, that what is good and right must be ascertained from God’s commandments. The world praises itself, and takes delight in its own inventions; but Paul affirms, that nothing pleases God except what he has commanded. The world, in order to find perfection, slides from the word of God into its own devices; Paul, by fixing perfection in the will of God, shows, that if any one passes over that mark he is deluded by a false imagination.
12:2 be transformed by the renewing of your mind … to test and approve what God’s will is. This verse gives the means and result of commitment to Christ. The means for doing so is not to be conformed (syschēmatizō) to this age but rather to be transformed (metamorphoō) to the age to come (implied) by the renewing (anakainōsis) of the mind. The two verbs are imperatives. While older scholarship distinguished these verbs as outward conformity and inward transformation, recent scholarship rightly rejects such a distinction. Rather, both verbs suggest a total commitment. Thus, Christians should continually reject this age in favor of the age to come. “Renewing” (anakainōsis) is similar to kainos (“new”) with reference to the age to come (2 Cor. 3:6; 5:17; Gal. 6:15; Eph. 2:15; 4:24). The renewed mind is, in effect, the renewed heart of obedience envisioned by the new covenant. The result of being a living sacrifice is that the Christian discovers and does the will of God (12:2b). “Test and approve” translates dokimazō, not in the sense that God needs our approval for his will to be good, but rather that we experience in practice that his will is good. The will of God is worth discovering, for it is good, acceptable, and perfect. God’s will, the ethic of the new covenant, steers the right path between legalism and libertinism. In other words, for the Christian, God’s will is no longer dictated by the Torah but is instead found in Spirit-guided discernment.
2 By using the vague conjunction kai (usually translated “and”; see KJV and NASB), Paul leaves open the exact relationship between vv. 1 and 2 (it is appropriately not directly translated in most English versions). The two verses could be coordinate, issuing two parallel but separate exhortations. But v. 2 is probably subordinate to v. 1, giving the means by which we can carry out the sweeping exhortation of v. 1. We can present our bodies to the Lord as genuinely holy and acceptable sacrifices only if we “do not conform to this world” but “are transformed by the renewing of the mind.”58 The salvation-historical framework that is so basic to the development and expression of Paul’s understanding of the Christian life (see particularly Rom. 5–8) comes to the surface very plainly here. “This world,” or “this age,”60 is the sin-dominated, death-producing realm in which all people, included in Adam’s fall, naturally belong. But it is “to deliver us from the present evil age” that Christ gave himself (Gal. 1:4); and those who belong to Christ have been transferred from the old realm of sin and death into the new realm of righteousness and life. This transfer, while decisive and final, does not isolate us from the influence of the old realm. For while belonging to the new realm, we continue to live, as people still in the body,62 in the old realm. Paul’s command that we “not conform to this world,” then, builds on the theology of Rom. 5–8 (and of Rom. 6 especially) and calls on us to resist the pressure to “be squeezed into the mold” of this world and the “pattern” of behavior that typifies it (see 1 Cor. 7:31).
Because the verb “conform” is in the present tense, many scholars think that Paul wants his readers to “stop conforming” to this world. But Paul’s generally positive attitude toward the Romans’ spirituality (see 15:14) makes this doubtful. Also uncertain is the voice of the verb and its significance. It could be passive—“do not be conformed” (most versions)66—or middle, with a reflexive idea—“do not conform yourselves”—but, perhaps most likely, whether middle or passive in form, it has a simple (“intransitive”) active significance—“do not conform” (NIV).67
The second, positive, imperative in the verse, however, has a clearly passive meaning: “be transformed.” The neat verbal paronomasia found in most English translations (conformed/transformed) is not present in Greek, where verbs from two separate roots are used. Most older commentators and many recent ones are sure that this change in root signifies a change in meaning also. They argue that the verb translated “conform” connotes a superficial resemblance, whereas the verb translated “be transformed”69 refers to an inward and genuine resemblance. As Morris puts it, then, “Paul is looking for a transformation at the deepest level that is infinitely more significant than the conformity to the world’s pattern that is distinctive of so many lives.” However, as Barrett notes, “conformity to this age is no superficial matter.” More important, the lexical basis for the distinction is not solid. Therefore the shift in root probably reflects no difference in meaning; and, somewhat ironically, the use of the same root to translate both verbs in English reflects closely enough the meaning of the Greek terms. The tense of the verb is again present; and in this case the fact that the renewing of the mind is a continuing process justifies us in thinking that Paul uses this tense to stress the need for us to work constantly at our transformation.
“The renewing of your mind” is the means by which this transformation takes place. “Mind” translates a word that Paul uses especially to connote a person’s “practical reason,” or “moral consciousness.” Christians are to adjust their way of thinking about everything in accordance with the “newness” of their life in the Spirit (see 7:6). This “reprogramming” of the mind does not take place overnight but is a lifelong process by which our way of thinking is to resemble more and more the way God wants us to think. As N. T. Wright has put it: “If the ekklēsia of God in Jesus the Messiah, in its unity and holiness, is to constitute as it were its own worldview, to be its own central symbol, it needs to think: to be ‘transformed by the renewal of the mind,’ to think as age-to-come people rather than present-age people.” In Rom. 1:28 Paul has pointed out that people’s rejection of God has resulted in God’s giving them over to a “worthless” mind: one that is “unqualified” (adokimos) in assessing the truth about God and the world he has made. Now, Paul asserts, the purpose of our being transformed by the renewing of the mind is that this state might be reversed; that we might be able to “approve” (dokimazō) the will of God. “Approving” the will of God means to understand and agree with what God wants of us with a view to putting it into practice: “discern-and-do the will of God.” That Paul means here by “the will of God” his moral direction is clear from the way Paul describes it: this will is that which is “good,” “acceptable [to God],” and “perfect.”77
Paul’s teaching about the Christian’s source for finding the moral will of God in v. 2 deserves attention. Paul has made clear earlier in the letter that the Christian no longer is to look to the OT law as a complete and authoritative guide for conduct (see Rom. 5:20; 6:14, 15; 7:4). What, Paul’s first readers and we ourselves today might ask, is to be put in its place? Paul answers: the renewed mind of the believer. Paul’s confidence in the mind of the Christian is the result of his understanding of the work of the Spirit, who is actively working to effect the renewal in thinking that Paul here assumes (see Rom. 8:4–9). And it is important to note that Paul’s confidence in our ability to determine right and wrong is not unbounded. He knows that the renewal of the mind is a process and that as long as we are in these bodies we need some revealed, objective standards against which to measure our behavior.79 Hence Paul makes clear that Christians are not without “law,” but are under “the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2; 1 Cor. 9:21). This law has its heart in Jesus’ own teaching about the will of God, expanded and explicated by his appointed representatives, the apostles. But Paul’s vision, to which he calls us, is of Christians whose minds are so thoroughly renewed that we know from within, almost instinctively, what we are to do to please God in any given situation. We need law; but it would be to betray Paul’s call to us in these verses to substitute external commands for the continuing work of mind-renewal that is at the heart of God’s New Covenant work.
2 The dedicated life is also the transformed life. Whereas v. 1 has called for a decisive commitment, v. 2 deals with the maintenance of that commitment. The stress provided by the present tenses in this verse points to the necessity of continual vigilance, lest the original decision be vitiated or weakened. The threat to Christians comes from “this world,” whose ways and thoughts are so prevalent and powerful. Paul here uses aiōn (GK 172), essentially a time word meaning “age,” but it has much common ground with kosmos (GK 3180), the more usual term for “world.” Christians have been delivered from this “present evil age” (Gal 1:4), which has Satan for its god (2 Co 4:4). They live by the powers of the age to come (Heb 6:5), but their heavenly calling includes residence among sinful people in this world, where they are to show forth the praises of him who called them out of darkness into God’s wonderful light (1 Pe 2:9). They are in the world for witness but not for conformity to that which is a passing phenomenon (1 Co 7:31).
The positive call is complementary to the negative call. That is, with the command to avoid conformity to the pattern of this world comes the command to “be transformed.” (The striking verb is metamorphoō [GK 3565], used of the transfiguration of Jesus [Mk 9:2 par.] and applied to the Christian in 2 Co 3:18.) The two processes are viewed as going on all the time, as the present tenses indicate—a continual renunciation and renewal. Our pattern here is Jesus, who refused conformity to Satan’s solicitations in the temptation but was transformed to the doing of the will of God and to acceptance of the path that led to Calvary. As the mission of Jesus can be summarized in the affirmation that he had come to do the Father’s will (Jn 6:38), so too the service of Christians can be reduced to this simple description. They are in the present age to “live a new life” (6:4), to “live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory” (1 Th 2:12), to “live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (Eph 4:1). But they must “test” what is in accord with the will of God, refusing the norms of conduct employed by the sinful world and reaffirming for themselves the spiritual norms befitting the redeemed. Only from Christ do the redeemed “finally obtain the criteria for that which in the world can be called good, well-pleasing, and perfect” (Stuhlmacher, 189).
Crucial to the process of being transformed is “the renewing of your mind” (tē anakainōsei tou noos, GK 363, 3808)—which seems to indicate the necessity of setting one’s mind on the theological truths of the faith—to the basis of one’s original commitment, reaffirming its necessity and legitimacy in the light of God’s grace. It is by means of this use of the mind that transformation and renewal take place. In this activity, the working of the Holy Spirit should no doubt be recognized (cf. Tit 3:5, where the Holy Spirit is the agent of renewal). It appears from the context that the believer is not viewed as ignorant of the will of God but as needing to avoid blurring its outline by failure to renew the mind continually (cf. Eph 5:8–10). Dedication leads to discernment, and discernment to delight in God’s will. That there is an intimate connection between certifying the will of God and making oneself a living sacrifice is indicated by the use of “pleasing” in each case (cf. Php 4:18; Heb 13:16). For the Christian, the will of God is “good” (agathon, GK 19), “pleasing” (euareston, GK 2298), and “perfect” (teleion, GK 5455).
The Pattern of This Age
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.
Some verses in the Bible are enriched when we read them in several translations, and Romans 12:2 is one of them. In the New International Version the first part of Romans 12:2 says, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world.”
This verse has two key words: world, which in Greek is literally age (aiôn, meaning this present age, in contrast to “the age to come”), and do not conform, which is a compound having at its root the word scheme. So the verse means “Do not let the age in which you live force you into its scheme of thinking and behaving.” This is what some of the translations try to bring out. The New American Catholic Bible says, “Do not conform yourselves to this age.” The Jerusalem Bible says, “Do not model yourselves on the behaviour of the world around you.” The Living Bible reads, “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world.” Best known of all is the paraphrase of J. B. Phillips, which states, “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold.”
The idea in each of these renderings is that the world has its ways of thinking and doing things and is exerting pressure on Christians to conform to them. But instead of being conformed, Christians are to be changed from within to be increasingly like Jesus Christ.
What Is Worldliness?
The first phrase of verse 2 is a warning against worldliness. But as soon as we say worldly we have to stop and make clear what real worldliness is. When I was growing up in a rather fundamentalist church I was taught that worldliness was following such “worldly” pursuits as smoking, drinking, dancing, and playing cards. A Christian girl would say:
I don’t smoke, and I don’t chew,
And I don’t go with boys who do.
That is not what Romans 12:2 is about, however. To think of worldliness only in those terms is to trivialize what is a far more serious and far more subtle problem.
The clue to what is in view here is that in the next phrase Paul urges, as an alternative to being “conformed” to this world, being “transformed by the renewing of your mind.” This means that he is concerned about a way of thinking rather than merely behaving, though right behavior will follow naturally if our thinking is set straight. In other words, the worldliness we are to break away from and repudiate is the world’s “worldview,” what the Germans call Weltanschauung, a systematic way of looking at all things. We are to break out of the world’s way of thinking and instead let our minds be molded by the Word of God.
In our day Christians have not done this very well, and that is the reason why they are so often “worldly” in the other senses too. In fact, it is a sad commentary on our time, verified by surveys, that American Christians in general have mostly the same values and behavior patterns as the world around them.
Secularism: “The Cosmos Is All That Is”
If worldliness is not smoking, drinking, dancing, and playing cards, what is it? If it is a way of thinking, what is a worldly worldview? There is no single word that perfectly describes how the world thinks, but secularism is good for general purposes. It is an umbrella term that covers a number of other “isms,” like humanism, relativism, pragmatism, pluralism, hedonism, and materialism. Secularism, more than any other single word, aptly describes the mental framework and value structure of the people of our time.
The word secular also comes closest to what Paul says when he refers to “the pattern of this world.” Secular is derived from the Latin word saeculum, which means age. And the word found in Paul’s phrase in verse 2 is the exact Greek equivalent. The NIV uses the word world, but the Greek actually says, “Do not be conformed to this age.” In other words, “Do not be ‘secularist’ in your worldview.”
There is a right way to be secular, of course. Christians live in the world and are therefore rightly concerned about the world’s affairs. We have legitimate secular concerns. But secularism (note the “ism”) is more than this. It is a philosophy that does not look beyond this world but instead operates as if this age is all there is.
The best single statement of secularism I know is something Carl Sagan said in the television series Cosmos. He was pictured standing before a spectacular view of the heavens with its many swirling galaxies, saying in a hushed, almost reverential tone of voice, “The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” That is bold-faced secularism. It is bound up entirely by the limits of the material universe, by what we can see and touch and weigh and measure. If we think in terms of our existence here, it means operating within the limits of life on earth. If we are thinking of time, it means disregarding the eternal and thinking only of the now.
We have it expressed in popular advertising slogans like “You only go around once” and Pepsi’s “Now Generation.” These slogans dominate our culture and express an outlook that has become increasingly harmful. If now is the only thing that matters, why should we worry about the national debt, for example? That’s not our problem. Let our children worry about it. Or why should we study hard preparing to do meaningful work later on in life, as long as we can have a good time now? Most important, why should I worry about God or righteousness or sin or judgment or salvation, if now is all that really matters?
R. C. Sproul writes, “For secularism, all life, every human value, every human activity must be understood in light of this present time.… What matters is now and only now. All access to the above and the beyond is blocked. There is no exit from the confines of this present world. The secular is all that we have. We must make our decisions, live our lives, make our plans, all within the closed arena of this time—the here and now.”
Each of us should understand that description instantly, because it is the viewpoint we are surrounded with every single day of our lives and in every conceivable place and circumstance.
Yet that is the outlook to which we must refuse to be conformed. Instead of being conformed to this world, as if that is all there is, we are to see all things as relating to God and to eternity. Here is the contrast, as expressed by Harry Blamires: “To think secularly is to think within a frame of reference bounded by the limits of our life on earth; it is to keep one’s calculations rooted in this-worldly criteria. To think Christianly is to accept all things with the mind as related, directly or indirectly, to man’s eternal destiny as the redeemed and chosen child of God.”
Humanism: “You Will Be Like God”
There is a proper kind of humanism, meaning a proper concern for human beings. Humanitarianism is a better word for it. People who care for other people are humanitarians. But there is also a philosophical humanism, which is a way of looking at people, particularly ourselves, apart from God, and this is wrong and harmful. This is a secular way of looking at them, which is why we so often speak not just of humanism but of “secular humanism.”
The best example of secular humanism I know is in the Book of Daniel. One day Nebuchadnezzar, the great king of Babylon, was on the roof of his palace looking out over his splendid hanging gardens to the prosperous city beyond. He was impressed with his handiwork and said, “Is this not the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?” (Dan. 4:30). It was a statement that everything he saw was “of” him, “by” him, and “for” the glory of his majesty, which is humanism. Humanism says that everything revolves around man and exists for man’s glory.
God would not tolerate this arrogance. So he judged Nebuchadnezzar with insanity, indicating that this is a crazy philosophy. Nebuchadnezzar was then driven out to live with the beasts and acted like a beast until at last he acknowledged that God alone is the true ruler of the universe and that everything exists for his glory rather than ours.
I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever.
His dominion is an eternal dominion.…
He does as he pleases
with the powers of heaven
and the peoples of the earth.
Humanism is opposed to God and hostile to Christianity. This has always been so, but it is especially evident in the public statements of modern humanism: A Humanist Manifesto (1933), Humanist Manifesto II (1973), and The Secularist Humanist Declaration (1980). The first of these, the 1933 document, said, “Traditional theism, especially faith in the prayer-hearing God, assumed to love and care for persons, to hear and understand their prayers, and to be able to do something about them, is an unproved and outmoded faith. Salvationism, based on mere affirmation, still appears as harmful, diverting people with false hopes of heaven hereafter. Reasonable minds look to other means for survival.”
The 1973 Humanist Manifesto II said, “We find insufficient evidence for belief in the existence of a supernatural” and “There is no credible evidence that life survives the death of the body.”5
Humanism leads to a deification of self and, contrary to what it professes, to an utter disregard for other people.
In deifying self, humanism actually deifies nearly everything but God. Several years ago Herbert Schlossberg, one of the project directors for the Fieldstead Institute, wrote a book titled Idols for Destruction, in which he showed how humanism has made a god of history, mammon, nature, power, religion, and, of course, humanity itself. It is brilliantly done.
As far as disregarding other people, well, look at the best-sellers of the 1970s. You will find titles like Winning through Intimidation and Looking Out for Number One. These books say, in a manner utterly consistent with secular humanism, “Forget about other people; look out for yourself; you are what matters.” What emerged in those years is what Thomas Wolfe, the social critic, called the “Me Decade.” And the 1970s gave way to the 1980s, which others have aptly called the “Golden Age of Greed.”
Remember, too, that this is the philosophy (some would say religion) underlying public school education. This is ironic, of course, since humanism is an irrational philosophy. How so? Because it is impossible to establish humanistic or any other values or goals without a transcendent point of reference, and it is precisely that transcendent point that is being repudiated by the humanists. Frighteningly, the irrationalism of humanism is appearing in the chaos of the schools, where students are using guns to kill other students and threaten teachers.
In the fall of 1992 an ABC Prime Time Live television special, featuring Diane Sawyer, reported that in this country one in five students come to school with a handgun somewhat regularly and that there are ten times as many knives in schools as there are guns. This is as true of the suburbs as it is of the inner city. In Wichita, Kansas, which calls itself mid-America, students must pass through metal detectors in order to enter school, and there are still guns and other weapons in the buildings.
For humanism as well as for secularism, the word for Christians is “do not conform any longer.” We remember that the first expression of humanism was not the Humanist Manifesto of 1933 or even the arrogant words of Nebuchadnezzar spoken about six hundred years before Christ, but rather the words of Satan in the Garden of Eden, who told Eve, “You will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5).
Relativism: “A Moral Morass”
While we are talking about humanism we also have to talk briefly about relativism, because if man is the focal point of everything, then there are no absolutes in any area of life and everything is up for grabs. Some years ago Professor Allan Bloom of the University of Chicago wrote a book called The Closing of the American Mind, in which he said on the very first page, “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.”
What that book set out to prove is that education is impossible in such a climate. People can learn skills, of course. You can learn to drive a truck, work a computer, handle financial transactions, and do scores of other things. But real education, which means learning to sift through error to discover what is true, good, and beautiful, is impossible, because the goals of real education—truth, goodness, and beauty—do not exist. And even if they did exist in some far-off metaphysical never-never-land, it would be impossible to find them, because it requires absolutes even to discover absolutes. It requires such absolutes as the laws of logic, for example.
Is it any wonder that with such an underlying destructive philosophy as relativism, not to mention secularism and humanism, America is experiencing what Time magazine called “a moral morass” and “a values vacuum”?
Materialism: “The Material Girl”
The final “ism” to which Christians are not to be conformed is materialism. This takes us back to secularism, since it is a part of it. If “the cosmos is all there is or ever was or ever will be,” as Carl Sagan says, then nothing exists but what is material or measurable, and if there is any value to be found in life, it must be in material terms. Be as healthy as you can. Live as long as you can. Get as rich as you can.
When today’s young people are asked to name their heroes or heroines, what comes out rather quickly is that they have no people they actually look up to except possibly the rich and the famous—people like Michael Jordan and Madonna. And speaking of Madonna, isn’t it interesting that she is referred to most often not as a singer or entertainer or even a sex symbol but as “the material girl.” That is, she represents the material things of this world, clothes (or the lack of them), money, fame, and above all, pleasure. And this is what today’s young people want to be like! They want to be rich and famous and have things and enjoy them. They want to be like Madonna.
The poet T. S. Eliot wrote an epitaph for our materialistic generation:
Here were decent godless people:
Their only monument the asphalt road
And a thousand lost golf balls.
How different the Lord Jesus Christ! He was born into a poor family, was laid in a borrowed manger at his birth, never had a home or a bank account or a family of his own.
He said of himself, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20).
At his trial before Pilate he said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight … My kingdom is from another place” (John 18:36).
When he died he was laid in a borrowed tomb.
If there was ever an individual who operated on the basis of values above and beyond the world in which we live, it was Jesus Christ. He was the polar opposite of “the material girl.” But at the same time no one has ever affected this world for good as much as Jesus. It is into his image that we are to be transformed rather than being forced into the mold of this world’s sinful and destructive “isms.”
No One But Jesus
In the next few studies we are going to explore another aspect of the problem presented by today’s world and begin to look at the solution proposed in Romans 12:2. But I want to close this study by looking ahead one phrase to what Paul says we are to be: not conformed but transformed by the renewing of our minds. There is a deliberate distinction between those two words. Conformity is something that happens to you outwardly. Transformation happens inwardly. The Greek word translated transformed is metamorphoô, from which we get metamorphosis. It is what happens to the lowly caterpillar when it turns into a beautiful butterfly.
This Greek word is found four times in the New Testament: once here, once in 2 Corinthians 3:18 to describe our being transformed into the glorious likeness of Jesus Christ, and twice in the gospels of the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain where he had gone with Peter, James, and John. Those verses say, “There he was transfigured before them” (Matt. 17:2; Mark 9:2). The same word used by Paul to describe our transformation by the renewing of our minds so that we will not be conformed to this world is used by the gospel writers to describe the transfiguration of Jesus from the form of his earthly humiliation to the radiance that Peter, James, and John were privileged to witness for a time.
And that is why Paul writes as he does in 2 Corinthians, saying, “We, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18).
In 2 Corinthians Paul says, “It is happening.” In Romans 12 he says, “Let it happen,” thus putting the responsibility, though not the power to accomplish this necessary transformation, upon us. How does it happen? Through the renewing of our minds; and the way our minds become renewed is by study of the life-giving and renewing Word of God. Without that study we will remain in the world’s mold, unable to think and therefore also unable to act as Christians. With that study, blessed and empowered as it will be by the Holy Spirit, we will begin to take on something of the glorious luster of the Lord Jesus Christ and become increasingly like him.
This Mindless Age
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.
In the last chapter I referred to Harry Blamires, an Englishman who wrote an important Christian book in 1963 titled The Christian Mind: How Should a Christian Think? Blamires was a student of C. S. Lewis. His book’s main thesis, repeated over and over in chapter 1, is that “There is no longer a Christian mind,” meaning that in our time there is no longer a distinctly Christian way of thinking. There is to some extent a Christian ethic and even a somewhat Christian way of life and piety. But there is no distinctly Christian frame of reference, no uniquely Christian worldview, to guide our thinking in distinction from the thought of the secular world around us.
Unfortunately, the situation has not improved over the past thirty years. In fact, it has grown worse. Today, not only is there little or no genuine Christian thinking, there is very little thinking of any kind. The Western world (and perhaps even the world as a whole) is well on its way to becoming what I have frequently called a “mindless society.”
Since Christians are called to mind renewal—our text says, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind”—this cultural mindlessness is a major aspect of the “pattern of this world” that we are to recognize, understand, repudiate, and overcome. We are to be many things as Christians, but we are especially to be thinking people. We are to possess a “Christian mind.”
America Has Been “Vannatized”
There are a number of causes for our present mindlessness—Western materialism, the fast pace of modern life, and philosophical skepticism, to name a few—but I believe that the chief cause is television.
I began to study television as a cultural problem several years ago, and the thing that got me started was a 1987 graduation address at Duke University by Ted Koppel of ABC’s Nightline. Following this address Koppel was frequently quoted by Christian communicators because of something he said about the Ten Commandments. He was deploring the declining moral tone of our country and reminded his predominantly secular audience of the abiding validity of this religious standard. He said that they are Ten Commandments, not “ten suggestions,” and that they “are,” not “were” the standard. But to me the most interesting thing about Koppel’s address was his opening sentence, in which he said that America has been “Vannatized.”
Koppel was referring to Vanna White, the beautiful and extraordinarily popular hostess of the television game show Wheel of Fortune. Vanna White is something of a phenomenon on television. Her actual work is simple. She stands on one side of a large game board that holds blocks representing the letters of words the contestants are supposed to guess. As they guess correctly, Vanna walks across the platform and turns the blocks around to reveal the letters. When she gets to the other side she claps her hands. It is simple work, but Vanna seems to like it. No, “like” is too mild a term, as Koppel notes. Vanna “thrills, rejoices, adores everything she sees.” People respond to her so well that books about her have appeared in bookstores, and she is well up on that magical but elusive list of the most admired people in America.
But here is the interesting thing. Until recently Vanna never said a word on Wheel of Fortune, and Koppel asked how a person who says nothing and who is therefore basically unknown to us can be so popular. That is just the point, he answered. Since we do not know what Vanna White is actually like, she is whatever you want her to be. “Is she a feminist or every male chauvinist’s dream? She is whatever you want her to be. Sister, lover, daughter, friend, never cross, non-threatening, and non-judgmental to a fault.” She is popular because we project our own deep feelings, needs, or fantasies onto the television image.
Koppel does not care very much about Wheel of Fortune’s success, of course. He was analyzing our culture. And his point is that Vanna White’s appeal is the very essence of television and that television forms our way of thinking or, to be more accurate, of not thinking. It has been hailed as the great teaching tool, but that is precisely what it does not do, because it seldom presents anything in enough depth for a person actually to think about it. Instead, it presents thirty-second flashes of events and offers images upon which we are invited to project our own vague feelings.
If all we are talking about is game shows and other forms of television entertainment, none of this would matter very much, except for the amount of time our children spend watching these banal, mind-numbing diversions rather than disciplining their minds by serious study. But if television is really conditioning us not to think, as Koppel and I maintain, then television is a serious intellectual, social, and spiritual problem.
Amusing Ourselves to Death
A more academic study of the negative impact of television on culture has been provided by Neil Postman, a professor of communication arts and sciences at New York University, in a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.
Amusing Ourselves to Death was published in 1985, one year after 1984, the year popularized as the title of George Orwell’s futuristic novel, with its dark vision of a society controlled by fear. In Orwell’s novel Big Brother rules everything with a ruthless iron fist. But Postman reminds us that there was another novel written slightly earlier with an equally chilling but quite different vision of the future: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. In Huxley’s novel there is no need for Big Brother, because in this ominous vision of the future people have come to love their oppression as well as the technologies that strip away their capacities to think:
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.… As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for diversions.”
Obviously, as Postman suggests, the Western cultures have succumbed to the second of these two oppressions, just as the communist countries fell victim to the first.
The first half of Postman’s book is a study of the difference between what he calls “the age of typography” and our present television age, which he calls “the age of show business.” Typography refers to words in print, and it concerns the communication of ideas by newspapers, pamphlets, and books. It is rational and analytic, because that is the way written words work. He writes:
To engage the written word means to follow a line of thought, which requires considerable powers of classifying, inference-making and reasoning. It means to uncover lies, confusions, and over-generalizations, to detect abuses of logic and common sense. It also means to weigh ideas, to compare and contrast assertions, to connect one generalization to another. To accomplish this, one must achieve a certain distance from the words themselves, which is, in fact, encouraged by the isolated and impersonal text. That is why a good reader does not cheer an apt sentence or pause to applaud even an inspired paragraph. Analytic thought is too busy for that, and too detached.
He illustrates the strength of the age of typography by public attention to the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of the mid-eighteen hundreds, which people were capable of hearing, understanding, and forming opinions about, even though they lasted three to seven hours. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries “America was as dominated by the printed word and an oratory based on the printed word as any society we know of,” Postman says. The country could think.
Unfortunately, television does not operate by rational means of communication but by images, as Ted Koppel pointed out, and as a result we are becoming a mindless culture.
News on Television: “Now … This”
A great deal of what Postman develops in his book is reinforcement for what I have been describing as mindlessness. So let me review three specific areas of bad influence, as he sees it.
A chapter in the book that deals with news on television is entitled “Now … This.” That is because these are the words most used on television to link one brief televised news segment—the average news segment on network news programs is only forty-five seconds long—to the next news segment or commercial. What the phrase means is that what one has just seen has no relevance to what one is about to see or, for that matter, to anything. Rational thought requires such connections. It depends on similarities, contradictions, deductions, and the development of probable consequences. It requires time. It is what books and other serious print media give us. But this is precisely what television does not give. It does not give time for thought, and if it does not give time for thought or promote thought, what it essentially amounts to is “diversion.”
Postman says that television gives us “news without consequences, without value, and therefore without essential seriousness; that is to say, news as pure entertainment.” In other words, it is not only mindless, it is teaching us to be mindless, to the point at which we even suppose that our ignorance is great knowledge.
Reach Out and Elect Someone
A second area of bad influence is politics. Postman calls this chapter “Reach Out and Elect Someone.” Ronald Reagan once said, “Politics is just like show business.” But if this is so, then the object of politics on television is not to pursue excellence, clarity, or honesty, or any other generally recognized virtue, but to appear as if you are pursuing these things.
After the 1968 presidential campaign, in which Richard Nixon finally won the White House, a political writer named Joe McGinniss wrote a book titled The Selling of the President 1968. In it he described the strategy of the Nixon advisors who felt that their candidate had lost the 1960 election to John Kennedy because of Kennedy’s better television image. He reports William Gavin, one of Nixon’s chief aids, as advising, “Break away from linear logic: present a barrage of impressions, of attitudes. Break off in mid-sentence and skip to something half a world away.… Reason pushes the viewer back, it assaults him, it demands that he agree or disagree; impression can envelop him, invite him in, without making an intellectual demand.… Get the voters to like the guy, and the battle’s two-thirds won.”
How do campaign managers get their candidates elected today? Not by discussing issues, because that is a sure way to get defeated—any position on any issue, unless it is utterly meaningless, is certain to offend somebody. The way to win elections is to present a pleasant television image and to keep the candidate out of trouble for as long as possible.
That is why Ronald Reagan won in 1980 and even more decisively in 1984. It was not his positions, though they were substantially different from those of his predecessors and were, in my opinion, generally right. There really was “a Reagan revolution.” But this was not why he won. He won because he had a long career in movies and was a master of the television medium. He projected an image of a strong decent man we could trust.
The 1988 presidential election, in which George Bush defeated Michael Dukakis, involved issues about which every intelligent voter should have been carefully informed. Television is supposed to be the medium through which this is done. But a discussion of the issues is precisely what the voters did not get. Where did George Bush and Michael Dukakis differ in their politics? In regard to domestic programs such as Social Security, child care, education, taxes, abortion? In international affairs? The military? Relations with Russia, Eastern Europe, China, Japan? It was only specialists in government who knew the true answers to those questions, not the voters, because those were not the issues of the campaign.
What were the issues then? Actually, there was only one issue, and it was this: Is George Bush a “wimp”? That question was raised because he looked like a wimp on television; he is thin, seems to be frail, and held his head slightly to one side in a way that looked deferential. If the Dukakis camp could encourage voters to think of Bush that way, they would vote for Dukakis, because no one wants a wimp for president. On the other hand, Bush’s task was to convince the voters that he would actually be a strong president, and the strategy of his camp was therefore to wage a strong, aggressive—many said unfair and nasty—campaign against Dukakis.
The media complained! Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, and Peter Jennings were predictably self-righteous and offended. They called it the least substantial, meanest campaign in memory. But how hypocritical! It was mindless, but it was mindless precisely because that is what television demands. It demands images and not thought.
The campaign of 1992 is another example. I said from the beginning that Bill Clinton would win the election, not because he might have a better program for getting this country out of debt or even because the electorate was unhappy with America’s slow rate of economic growth in the previous two years, but because Clinton looks better on television. Clinton is the perfect television candidate, and so he won.
Marshall McLuhan, the television “guru,” was right when he said, “The medium is the message.” The campaign managers have learned that, which is why they organize the kinds of campaigns they do.
I know someone will say, “But Reagan was a decent, strong man.” Or, “George Bush really is a wimp (or ‘is not a wimp’).” Or, “Bill Clinton is the stronger candidate.” But my point is that we do not actually know those things and cannot know them, at least from television, until events perhaps support or fail to support our perceptions. The most serious thing of all perhaps is not that we do not know, but that we think we do know because of television.
Religion as Entertainment
The third area of bad influence is religion. Postman’s chapter on religion is called “Shuffle Off to Bethlehem.” Religion is on television chiefly in an entertainment format. With the possible exception of Billy Graham, who has an international following quite apart from the television medium, and some other teaching pastors such as Charles Stanley and D. James Kennedy, the religious television stars are mostly entertainers. Pat Robertson is a master of ceremonies along the lines of Merv Griffin. Jimmy Swaggart is a piano player and singer as well as having been a vivacious and entertaining speaker. Even televised church services, like those of Jerry Falwell and Robert Schuller, contain their requisite musical numbers and pop testimonies, just like variety shows on secular television. The proper name for them is vaudeville.
Nearly everything that makes religion real is lost in the translation of church to television. The chief loss is a sense of the transcendent. God is missing. Postman says:
Everything that makes religion an historic, profound and sacred human activity is stripped away; there is no ritual, no dogma, no tradition, no theology, and above all, no sense of spiritual transcendence. On these shows, the preacher is tops. God comes out as second banana.…
CBS knows that Walter Cronkite plays better on television than the Milky Way. And Jimmy Swaggart plays better than God. For God exists only in our minds, whereas Swaggart is there, to be seen, admired, adored. Which is why he is the star of the show.… If I am not mistaken, the word for this is blasphemy.
An observer who likes such religious entertainment might object, “Well, what harm is done as long as genuine religion is still to be found in church on Sundays?” I would argue that so pervasive and normalizing is the impact of television that pressures have inevitably come to make church services as irrelevant and entertaining as the tube.
In the vast majority of church services today there are virtually no pastoral prayers, while there is much brainless music, chummy chatter, and abbreviated sermons. Preachers are told to be personable, to relate funny stories, to smile, and above all to stay away from topics that might cause people to become unhappy with the church and leave it. They are to preach to felt needs, not necessarily real needs. This generally means telling people only what they want to hear.
Your Mind Matters
This is the point at which we need to talk about genuine mind renewal for Christians, which is what I will continue with in the next study. But I close here by mentioning a helpful little book by John Stott, the Rector Emeritus of All Souls Church in London, titled Your Mind Matters. It deals with six spheres of Christian living, and it argues that each one is impossible without a proper and energetic use of our minds: Christian worship, Christian faith, Christian holiness, Christian guidance, Christian evangelism, and Christian ministry. We need to think.
Stott argues that “anti-intellectualism … is … part of the fashion of the world and therefore a form of worldliness. To denigrate the mind is to undermine foundational Christian doctrines.” He asks pointedly, “Has God created us rational beings, and shall we deny our humanity which he has given us? Has God spoken to us, and shall we not listen to his words? Has God renewed our mind through Christ, and shall we not think with it? Is God going to judge us by his Word, and shall we not be wise and build our house upon this rock?”
They are important and helpful questions, if you think about them.
Mind Renewal in a Mindless Age: Part 1
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.
In each of the last two studies dealing with what it means to think as a Christian rather than in a worldly or secular way, I have mentioned Harry Blamires, an Englishman who has written two good books on this subject: The Christian Mind: How Should a Christian Think? (1963) and Recovering the Christian Mind: Meeting the Challenge of Secularism (1988). In each of these books Blamires encourages us to reject the world’s thinking and begin to think as Christians. This is what Paul is writing about in our text from Romans 12: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (v. 2). This means that our thinking is not to be determined by the culture of the world around us but rather that we are to have a distinctly different and growing Christian worldview.
But what does it actually mean to have an outlook like that? How are we to experience mind renewal in our exceedingly mindless age?
Thinking Christianly and Thinking Secularly
The one thing this does not mean is what most people probably assume it does, and that is to start thinking mainly about Christian things. We do need to think about Christian subjects, of course. In fact, it is from that base of revealed doctrine and its applications to life that we can begin to think Christianly about other matters. I am going to pursue exactly that line of thought in this study. But to think Christianity itself is not a matter of thinking about Christian subjects as opposed to thinking about secular subjects, as we suppose, but rather to think in a Christian way about everything. It means to have a Christian mind.
This is because, by contrast, it is possible to think in a secular way even about religious things. Take the Lord’s Supper, for instance. For most Christians the Lord’s Supper is probably the most spiritual of all spiritual matters, and yet it is possible to think about even it in a worldly manner. For example, a trustee of the church might be thinking that he forgot to include the cost of the communion elements in the next year’s budget. Another person might be looking at the minister and criticizing his way of handling the elements. “He’s so awkward,” this person might be thinking. Still another person might be reflecting on how good it is for people to have spiritual thoughts or to observe religious ceremonies. “This is good for people,” he might be reflecting. Each of these persons is thinking secularly about the most sacred of Christian practices.
On the other hand, it is possible to think Christianly about even the most mundane matters. Blamires suggests how we might do this at a gasoline station while we are waiting for our tank to be filled with gas. We might be reflecting on how a mechanized world with cars and other machines tends to make God seem unnecessary for people, or how a speeded-up world in which we use our cars to race from one appointment to another makes it difficult to think deeply about or even care for other people. Even further, we might be wondering, do material things like cars serve us, or are we enslaved to them? Do they cause us to covet and therefore break the tenth commandment? How do they impact the environment over which God has made us stewards?
Blamires says, “There is nothing in our experience, however trivial, worldly, or even evil, which cannot be thought about Christianly. There is likewise nothing in our experience, however sacred, which cannot be thought about secularly—considered, that is to say, simply in its relationship to the passing existence of bodies and psyches in a time-locked universe.”
The God Who Is There
So I ask again, Where do we start? How do we begin to think and act as Christians? There is a sense in which we could begin at any point, since truth is a whole and truth in any area will inevitably lead to truth in every other area. But if the dominant philosophy of our day is secularism, which means viewing all of life only in terms of the visible world and in terms of the here and now, then the best of all possible starting places is the doctrine of God, for God alone is above and beyond the world and is eternal. Even more, the doctrine of God is a necessary and inevitable starting place if we are to produce a genuinely Christian response to secularism.
What does that mean for our thinking?
Well, if there is a God, that very fact means that there is literally such a thing as the supernatural. Supernatural means over, above, or in addition to nature. In other words, to go back to Carl Sagan’s popular credo, the cosmos is not all there is or was or ever will be. God is. God exists. He is there, whether we acknowledge it or not, and he stands behind the cosmos. In fact, it is only because there is a God that there is a cosmos, since without God nothing else could possibly have come to be.
If anything exists, there must be an inevitable, self-existent, uncaused first cause that stands behind it.
Several years ago at the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology Professor John H. Gerstner was talking about creation and referred to something his high school physics teacher once said: “The most profound question that has ever been asked by anybody is: Why is there something rather than nothing?”
Gerstner said that he was quite impressed with that at the time. But later, as he sharpened his ability to think, he recognized that it was not a profound question at all. In fact, it was not even a true question. It posed an alternative, something rather than nothing. “But what is nothing?” Gerstner asked. “Nothing” eludes definition. It even defies conception. For as soon as you say, “Nothing is …” nothing ceases to be nothing and becomes something. Gerstner referred to Jonathan Edwards, who is not noted for being funny but who was at least a slight bit humorous on one occasion when he said, “Nothing is what the sleeping rocks dream of.”
So, said Gerstner, “Anyone who thinks he knows what nothing is must have those rocks in his head.”
As soon as you ask, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” the alternative vanishes, you are left with something, and the only possible explanation for that something is “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1), which is what Christianity teaches.
“He is There and He is Not Silent”
The God who exists has revealed himself. This is the doctrine of revelation. Francis Schaeffer titled one of his books He Is There and He Is Not Silent to make this point. God is there, and he has not kept himself hidden from us. He has revealed himself—in nature, in history, and especially in the Scriptures.
In chapter 185 I mentioned four “ism”s that are part of the pattern of this age: secularism, humanism, relativism, and materialism. The doctrine of God is the specific Christian answer to secularism. Revelation is the specific answer to relativism. If God has spoken, then what he has said is truthful and can be trusted absolutely, since God is truthful. This gives us absolutes in an otherwise relative and therefore ultimately chaotic universe.
That God has spoken and that God’s Word to us can be trusted has always been the conviction of the church, at least until relatively modern times. Today the truthfulness of the Bible has been challenged, but with disastrous results. For without a sure word from God all words are equally valid, and Christianity is neither more certain nor more compelling than any other merely human word or philosophy.
But notice this: If God has spoken, there will always be a certain hardness about the Christian faith and Christians. I do not mean that we will be hard on others or insensitive to them. Rather, there will be a certain unyielding quality to our convictions.
For one thing, we will insist upon truth and will not bow to the notion, however strongly it is pressed upon us, that “that’s just your opinion.”
Several years ago when I was flying to Chicago from the West Coast I got into a conversation with the woman seated next to me. We talked about religion, and whenever I made a statement about the gospel she replied, “But that’s just your opinion.” She was out of the relativistic mold.
I hit upon a way of answering her that preserved the hardness of what I was trying to say and yet did it nicely. I said, “You’re right; that is my opinion, but that’s not really what matters. What matters is: Is it true?”
She did not know quite what to say to that. So the conversation went on, and after a while she replied to something else I was saying in the same way: “But that’s just your opinion.”
I said, “You’re right; that is my opinion, but that’s not really what matters. What matters is: Is it true?” This happened about a dozen times, and after a while she began to smile and then laugh as she anticipated my comment coming. When I got home I sent her a copy of Mere Christianity.
Another thing the doctrine of revelation will mean for us is that we will not back down or compromise on moral issues. You know how it is whenever you speak out against some particularly bad act. If people do not say, “But that’s just your opinion,” they are likely to attack you personally, saying things like, “You’d do the same thing if you were in her situation” or “Do you think you’re better than he is?” We must not be put off by such attacks. Our response should be something like this: “Please, I wasn’t talking about what I would do if I were in her shoes. I’m a sinner too. I might have acted much worse. I would probably have failed sooner. I wasn’t talking about that. I was talking about what is right, and I think that is what we need to talk about. None of us is ever going to do better than we are doing unless we talk about it and decide what’s right to do.”
“What the secular mind is ill-equipped to grasp is that the Christian faith leaves Christians with no choice at all on many matters of this kind,” writes Blamires. We are people under God’s authority, and that authority is expressed for us in the Bible.
The West’s Spiritual Exhaustion
Now let’s return to some implications of the doctrine of God. First, if there is a God and if he has made us to have eternal fellowship with him, then we are going to look at failure, suffering, pain, and even death differently than non-Christians do. For the Christian these can never be the greatest of all tragedies. They are bad. Death is an enemy (1 Cor. 15:26). But they are overbalanced by eternal matters.
Second, success and pleasure will not be the greatest of all goods for us. They are good, but they will never compare with salvation from sin or knowing God. Jesus said it clearly: “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” (Matt. 16:26). Or, from the other side, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but who cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28).
That leads to a Christian response to materialism. There are two kinds of materialism, a philosophical materialism like that of doctrinaire communism and a practical materialism that is most characteristic of the West. We have been raised with a false kind of syllogism that says that because we are not communists and communists are materialists, therefore we are not materialists. But that is not necessarily true. Most of us embrace a practical materialism that warps our souls, stunts our spiritual growth, and hinders the advance of the gospel in our time.
The best critique of Western materialism that I know was presented by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the well-known Soviet dissident and writer, in an address given to the graduating class of Harvard University in 1978. Up to that point Solzhenitsyn had been somewhat of an American hero. He had suffered in the Soviet Union’s infamous gulag prison system and had later defected. That’s why he was invited to speak at Harvard. But in this address he was so blunt in his criticism of the West that his popularity vanished almost overnight, and he was almost never heard from, though he continued to write voluminously from a retreat in New England.
Solzhenitsyn’s address was no defense of socialism. Quite the contrary. He celebrated its ideological defeat in Eastern Europe, saying, “It is zero and less than zero.” But he declared, “Should someone ask me whether I would indicate the West such as it is today as a model to my country, frankly I would have to answer negatively.… Through intense suffering our own country has now achieved a spiritual development of such intensity that the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive.” He maintained that “after the suffering of decades of violence and oppression, the human soul longs for things higher, warmer, and purer than those offered by today’s mass living habits, introduced by the revolting invasion of publicity, by TV stupor and by intolerable music.”
According to Solzhenitsyn, the West has pursued physical well-being and the acquiring of material goods to the exclusion of almost everything spiritual.
“We Do Not Mind That We Die”
In 1989 Westerners were astounded by the political changes in Eastern Europe. Country after country repudiated its seventy-two-year communist heritage and replaced its leaders with democratically elected officials. We rejoiced in these changes, and rightly so. But we need to remember two things.
First, while the former communist lands have moved in a more democratic direction, we have moved in the direction of their materialism, living as if the only thing that matters is how many earthly goods we can acquire now. We marveled at the moving scenes of East Germans passing through the openings in the infamous Berlin Wall. We saw them gazing in amazement at the abundance of goods on West Berlin shelves. But what is the good of their being able to come to the West if all they discover here is a spiritual climate vastly inferior to their own?
And that is the second thing we need to remember. Though the American media with its blindness to things spiritual did not acknowledge it, the changes in the Eastern Bloc came about not by anyone’s will, that of Mikhail Gorbachev or any other, but by the spiritual vitality of the people.
The strength of the Polish Solidarity movement, where the breakthrough first came, is that of the Roman Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II was a strong supporter of the people’s faith and dreams.
Faith and spiritual strength also lay behind the changes in East Germany. Conventional wisdom in Germany has it that the turning point was on October 9, 1989, when seventy thousand demonstrators marched in Leipzig. The army was placed on full alert, and under normal circumstances it would have attacked the demonstrators violently. But the protesters’ rallying cry was, “Let them shoot, we will still march.” The army did not attack, and after that the protests grew until the government was overthrown.
In Romania, where President Nicolae Ceauşescu just weeks before had declared that apple trees would bear pears before socialism should be endangered in Romania, the end began in the house of a Protestant pastor whose parishioners surrounded him, declaring that they were willing to die rather than let him be arrested by the state police.
Josef Tson, founder and president of the Romanian Missionary Society, was in Romania just after the death of Ceauşescu and reported the details of the story. The pastor was from the city of Timisoara, and his name was Laszlo Tokes. On Saturday, December 16, 1989, just a few days before Christmas, hundreds and then thousands of people joined the courageous parishioners who had surrounded his house trying to defend him. One was a twenty-four-year-old Baptist church worker who decided to distribute candles to the ever-growing multitude. He lit his candle, and then the others lit theirs. This transformed the protective strategy into a contagious demonstration, and it was the beginning of the revolution. The next day, when the secret police opened fire on the people, the young man was shot in the leg, and the doctors had to amputate it. But on his hospital bed this young man told his pastor, “I lost a leg, but I am happy. I lit the first light.”
The people in Romania do not call the events of December 1989 a national revolution. They say rather, “Call it God’s miracle.” The rallying cry of the masses was “God lives!” That from a former fiercely atheistic country! The people shouted, “Freedom! Freedom! We do not mind that we die!”
Willing to die? Ah, that is the only ultimately valid test of whether one is a practical materialist at heart or whether one believes in something greater and more important than things. Do we? No doubt there are Westerners who are willing to die for things intangible. The people who were willing to die for civil rights during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s are examples. But today the masses of individuals in America no longer share this high standard of commitment and sacrifice. In 1978, during President Jimmy Carter’s abortive attempt to reinstate draft registration for the young, newspapers carried a photograph of a Princeton University student defiantly waving a poster marked with the words: “Nothing is worth dying for.”
“But if nothing is worth dying for, is anything worth living for?” asks Charles Colson, who comments on this photograph in Against the Night: Living in the New Dark Ages. If there is nothing worth living for or dying for, then the chief end of man might as well be cruising the malls, which is the number one activity of today’s teenagers, according to the pollsters.
Solzhenitsyn summarizes our weak thinking at this point when he says of today’s Americans: “Every citizen has been granted the desired freedom and material goods in such quantity and of such quality as to guarantee in theory the achievement of happiness, in the morally inferior sense which has come into being during [these last] decades.… So who should now renounce all this? Why and for what should one risk one’s precious life in defense of common values?”
Christianity has the answer to that, and Christians in past ages have known it. It is to “gain a better resurrection” (Heb. 11:35), which means to do what is right because what is right pleases God and that is what ultimately matters. But those who do it must be thinking Christians.
Mind Renewal in a Mindless Age: Part 2
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.
In the last study I introduced the Christian doctrines of God and revelation as the biblical answer to secularism, humanism, relativism, and materialism, but I did not write about humanism in detail. The answer to humanism is the Christian doctrine of man.
Humanism is the philosophy to which human beings inevitably come if they are secularists. Secularism means eliminating God or anything else that may be transcendent from the universe and focusing instead on only what we can see and measure now. When God is eliminated in this process, man himself is left as the pinnacle of creation and becomes the inadequate and unworthy core for everything. In philosophy we usually trace the beginnings of this outlook to the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Protagoras. Protagoras expressed his viewpoint in Greek words that have given us the better known Latin concept homo mensura, which means “Man, the measure” or, as it is often expressed, “Man is the measure of all things.” The idea is that man is the norm by which everything is to be evaluated. He is the ultimate creature and thus the ultimate authority.
This seems to elevate man, but in practice it does exactly the opposite. It deifies man, but this deification always debases man in the end, turning him into an animal or even less than an animal. Moreover, it causes him to manipulate, ignore, disparage, wound, hate, abuse, and even murder other people.
What’s Wrong with Me?
In the last twenty years something terrible has happened to Americans in the way we relate to other people, and it is due to the twisted humanism about which I have been writing. Prior to that time there was still something of a Christian ethos in this country and people used to care about and help other people. It was the natural thing to do. Today we focus on ourselves and deal with others only for what we can get out of them. This approach is materialistic and utilitarian.
In 1981 a sociologist-pollster, Daniel Yankelovich, published a study of the 1970s titled New Rules: Searching for Self-Fulfillment in a World Turned Upside Down. This book documented a tidal shift in values by which many and eventually most Americans began to seek personal self-fulfillment as the ultimate goal in life rather than operating on the principle that we are here to serve and even sacrifice for others, as Americans for the most part really had done previously. He found that by the late 1970s, 72 percent of Americans spent much time thinking about themselves and their inner lives.2 So pervasive was this change that as early as 1976 Tom Wolfe called the seventies the “Me Decade” and compared it to a third religious awakening.
But isn’t this a good thing? Shouldn’t thinking about ourselves make us happy? If we redirect our energy to fulfilling ourselves and earn as much as we can to indulge even our tiniest desires, shouldn’t we be satisfied with life? No! It doesn’t work that way. It fails on the personal level, and it fails in the area of our relationships with other people also.
In 1978 Margaret Halsey wrote an article for Newsweek magazine titled “What’s Wrong with Me, Me, Me?” Halsey referred to Wolfe’s description of the seventies as the “me” generation, highlighting the belief that “inside every human being, however unprepossessing, there is a glorious, talented and overwhelmingly attractive personality [which] will be revealed in all its splendor if the individual just forgets about courtesy, cooperativeness and consideration for others and proceeds to do exactly what he or she feels like doing.”
The problem, as Halsey pointed out, is not that there are not attractive characteristics in everyone (or at least in most people) but that human nature consists even more basically of “a mess of unruly primitive elements” which spoil the “self-discovery.” These unruly elements need to be overcome, not indulged. And this means that the attractive personalities we seek really are not there to be discovered but rather are natures that need to be developed through choices, hard work, and lasting commitments to others. When we ask “What’s wrong with me?” it is the “me, me, me” that is the problem.
This affects our relationships with other people too, because it makes our world impersonal. Charles Reich in his best-selling book The Greening of America wrote:
Modern living has obliterated place, locality and neighborhood, and given us the anonymous separateness of our existence. The family, the most basic social system, has been ruthlessly stripped to its functional essentials. Friendship has been coated over with a layer of impenetrable artificiality as men strive to live roles designed for them. Protocol, competition, hostility, and fear have replaced the warmth of the circle of affection which might sustain man against a hostile environment.… America [has become] one vast, terrifying anti-community.
The Christian Doctrine of Man
The Christian answer to this is the biblical doctrine of man, which means that if we are to have renewed minds in this area, we need to stop thinking about ourselves and other people as the world does and instead begin operating within a biblical framework.
When we turn to the Bible to see what it has to say about human beings, we find two surprising things. First, we find that man is a uniquely valuable being, far more important than the humanists imagine him to be. But, second, in his fallen condition we also find that he is much worse than the humanists suppose.
Let’s take the fact that human beings are more valuable than humanists imagine first. The Bible teaches this at the very beginning of Genesis when it reports God as saying, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness” (Gen. 1:26). We are then told, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (v. 27).
In ancient times books were copied by hand with rough letters. There was no typesetting, so it was not possible to emphasize one idea over another by such devices as italics, capital letters, boldface, and centered headings. Instead emphasis was made by repetition. For example, when Jesus wanted to stress something as unusually important, he began with the words “verily, verily” or “truly, truly.” We have the same thing in the first chapter of Genesis with the phrases “in our image,” “in his own image,” and “in the image of God.” That idea is repeated three times, which is a way of saying that man being created in God’s image is important. It is what makes man distinct from the animals. He is to value this distinction greatly.
Just a few chapters later in Genesis, the fact that man is made in God’s image is given as the reason why we are not to murder other people and why murderers should be punished by death, since they devalue another individual’s life, taking it lightly: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man” (Gen. 9:6).
Bible students have debated the full meaning of what it means to be made in the image of God for centuries. This is not surprising since being made in God’s image means to be like God and God is above and far beyond us, beyond even our full understanding. Nevertheless, we can know a few things:
- Personality. To be made in God’s image means to possess the attributes of personality, as God himself does, but animals, plants, and matter do not. This involves knowledge, memory, feelings, and a will. Of course, there is a sense in which animals have what we call personalities, meaning that individuals in a species sometimes behave differently than others in the species. But animals do not create. They do not love or worship. Personality, in the sense I am writing about here, is something that links human beings to God but does not link either God or man to the rest of creation.
- Morality. The second characteristic of being made in the image of God is morality, for God is a moral God and those made in his image are made with the capacity to discern between what is right and wrong, between good and evil. This involves the further elements of freedom and responsibility. To be sure, the freedom of human beings is not absolute, as God’s freedom is. We are not free to do all things. We are limited. Nevertheless, our freedom is a true freedom, even when we use it wrongly as Adam and Eve did when they sinned. They lost their original righteousness as a result. But they were still free to sin, and they were free in their sinful state afterward in the sense that they were still able to make right and wrong choices. Moreover, they continued to be responsible for them.
- Spirituality. The third feature of being made in the image of God is spirituality, which means that human beings are able to have fellowship with God. Another way of saying this is to say that “God is spirit” (John 4:24) and that we are also spirits meant for eternal fellowship with him. Nothing can be greater than that for human beings, and the Westminster Shorter Catechism states it well when it says in the answer to the first question: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.”
Perhaps at this point we are beginning to see why secular humanism is so bad and not just a less attractive option than Christianity. Humanism sounds like it is focusing on man and elevating man, but it actually strips away the most valuable parts of human nature. As far as personality goes, it reduces us to mere animal urges, as Sigmund Freud tried to do. Regarding morality, instead of remaining responsible moral agents, which is our glory, we are turned into mere products of our environment or our genetic makeup, as B. F. Skinner asserts. As far as spirituality is concerned, how can we maintain a relationship to God if there is no God and we are made the measure of all things?
To refer again to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in humanism “things higher, warmer, and purer” are drowned out by “today’s mass living habits and TV stupor.” We can make engrossing five-minute TV videos or commercials, but we no longer build cathedrals.
The Doctrine of the Fall
What is the problem, then? If human beings are more important and more valuable than the humanists imagine, why is it that things are so bad? The answer is the Christian doctrine of sin, which tells us that although people are more valuable than secularists imagine, they are in worse trouble than the humanists can admit. We have been made in God’s image, but we have lost that image, which means that we are no longer fully human or as human as God intends us to be. We are fallen creatures.
Here I think of something I wrote about in the first volume of these studies, when I was looking closely at Romans 1. Romans 1 is about human beings falling down a steep slippery slope when they abandon God, and I pointed out that the conceptual framework for this downbound slide is found in Psalm 8. Psalm 8 both begins and ends with the words: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth” (vv. 1, 9). In the middle it talks about the created order. So the beginning and ending teach that everything begins and ends with God, rather than with man, and that if we think clearly we will agree with this.
Then it describes men and women particularly:
When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?
You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You made him ruler over the works of your hands;
you put everything under his feet:
all flocks and herds,
and the beasts of the field.
These verses fix man at a very interesting place in the created order: lower than the angels (“the heavenly beings”) but higher than the animals—somewhere in between. This is what Thomas Aquinas saw when he described man as a mediating being. He is like the angels in that he has a soul. He is like the beasts in that he has a body. The angels have souls but not bodies, while the animals have bodies but not souls.
But here is the point. Although man is a mediating being, created to be somewhere between the angels and the animals, in Psalm 8 he is nevertheless described as being somewhat lower than the angels rather than as being somewhat higher than the beasts, which means that he is destined to look not downward to the beasts, but upward to the angels and beyond them to God and so to become increasingly like him. But if we will not look up, if we reject God, as secularism does, then we will inevitably look downward and so become increasingly like the lower creatures and behave like them. We will become beastlike, which is exactly what is happening in our society. People are acting like animals, and even worse.
Over the last few decades I have noticed that our culture is tending to justify bad human behavior on the ground that we are, after all, just animals. I saw an article in a scientific journal about a certain kind of duck. Two scientists had been observing a family of these ducks, and they reported something in this duck family that they called “gang rape.” I am sure they did not want to excuse this crime among humans by the comparison they were making, but they were suggesting that gang rape among humans is at least understandable given our animal ancestry. The inference comes from the evolutionary, naturalistic worldview they espoused.
A story of a similar nature appeared in the September 6, 1982, issue of Newsweek magazine. It was accompanied by a picture of an adult baboon holding a dead infant baboon, and over this there was a headline that read: “Biologists Say Infanticide Is as Normal as the Sex Drive—And That Most Animals, Including Man, Practice It.” The title is as revealing in its way as Carl Sagan’s “The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” It identifies man as an animal, and it justifies his behavior on the basis of that identification. The sequence of thought goes like this: (1) Man is an animal, (2) Animals kill their offspring, (3) Therefore, it is all right (or at least understandable) that human beings kill their offspring.
The argument is fallacious, of course. Most animals do not kill their offspring. They protect their young and care for them. But even if in a few instances some animals do kill their offspring, this is still not comparable to the crimes of which human beings are capable. In the United States alone we kill over one and a half million babies each year by abortion—usually just for the convenience of the mother. And the number of outright murders is soaring.
The Doctrine of Redemption
My point in these last two studies has been that renewing our minds begins with understanding and applying the great Christian doctrines, and thus far we have at least touched on four of them: the doctrines of God, revelation, man, and the fall. This is a proper starting place for our thinking if we are serious about what Paul is urging upon us in our text from Romans, “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
In the next study I will move on to the final phrase of verse 2 to ponder what it means to “test and approve what God’s will is.” But before I do that I want to mention the doctrine of redemption, without which nothing in either of these last two studies would be complete.
The doctrine of redemption—the fact that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16)—infinitely intensifies everything I have been saying about man being both more valuable than the humanists can imagine as well as also being worse than they can possibly suppose.
The doctrine of redemption intensifies man’s value because it teaches that even in his fallen state, a condition in which he hates God and kills his fellow creatures, man is still so valuable to God that God planned for and carried out the death of his own precious Son to save him. At the same time, this doctrine teaches that man’s state is indescribably dreadful, because it took nothing less than the death of the very Son of God to accomplish it.
I want to close this study by referring again to what I regard as the greatest single piece of writing produced by the great Christian scholar and apologist C. S. Lewis. It was preached as a sermon in the summer of 1941, but it is known to us as an essay called “The Weight of Glory.” Lewis begins by probing for the meaning of glory, recognizing that it is something of the very essence of God that we desire. It is something “no natural happiness will satisfy.”8 At the same time it is also something from which we, in our sinful state, have been shut out. We want it. We sense that we are destined for it. But glory is beyond us—apart from what God has done to save us and make us like himself.
At the end of the essay, Lewis applies this to how we should learn to think about other people. We should understand that they are either going to be brought into glory, which is a supreme and indescribable blessing, or else they are going to be shut out from it—forever. Here he says, “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.… There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
What Lewis is doing in that essay is helping us to develop a Christian mind about other people, and his bottom line is that we will treat others better only if we learn to think of them in these terms.
God’s Good, Pleasing, and Perfect Will
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.
Some time ago the staff of the Bible Study Hour prepared a brochure that compared the world’s thinking and the Bible’s teaching in six important areas: God, man, the Bible, money, sex, and success. The differences were striking, but what impressed me most as I read over the brochure was how right many of the world’s ideas seemed if not considered critically and biblically. We hear the world’s approach given out so often, so attractively, and so persuasively, especially on television, that it’s imperative that we think critically about it.
Here are some of the world’s statements we printed:
“I matter most, and the world exists to serve me. Whatever satisfies me is what’s important.”
“If I earn enough money, I’ll be happy. I need money to provide security for me and my family. Financial security will protect me from hardship.”
“Anything is acceptable as long as it doesn’t hurt another person.”
“Success is the path to fame, wealth, pleasure, and power. Look out for number one.”
How about the Christian way? From the world’s perspective the Christian way does not look attractive or even right. It says such things as:
“God is in control of all things and has a purpose for everything that happens.”
“Man exists to glorify God.”
“Money cannot shield us against heartbreak, failure, sin, disease, or disaster.”
“Success in God’s kingdom means humility and service to others.”
Because we are so much part of the world and so little like Jesus Christ, even Christians find God’s way unappealing. Nevertheless, we are to press on in that way and prove by our lives that the will of God really is good, pleasing, and perfect in all things.
I find it significant that this is where Paul’s statements about being transformed by the renewing of our minds—rather than being conformed to the patterns of this world—end. They end with proving the way of God to be the best way and the will of God to be perfect. This means that action is needed: God is not producing hothouse or ivory-tower Christians. He is forming people who will prove the value of God’s way by conscious choices and deliberate obedience.
This point was expressed well by Robert Candlish, one of the best Scottish exegetes of the last century. He wrote, “The believer’s transformation by the renewing of his mind is not the ultimate end which the Holy Spirit seeks in his regenerating and renovating work. It is the immediate and primary design of that work, in one sense. We are created anew in Christ Jesus. That new creation is what the Holy Spirit first aims at and effects. But ‘we are created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them’ (Eph. 2:10). The essence of a good work is the doing of the will of God. The proving of the will of God, therefore, is a fitting sequel of our ‘being transformed by the renewing of our mind.’ ”
God Has a Will for Each of Us
This last part of Romans 12:1–2 is not difficult to handle because the points are obvious. The first is this: God has a good, pleasing, and perfect will for each of us. Otherwise, how would it be possible for us to test and approve what that will is?
But this requires some explanation. Today when Christians talk about discovering the will of God what they usually have in mind is praying until God somehow discloses a specific direction for their lives—who they should marry, what job they should take, whether they should be missionaries, what house they should buy, and so forth. This is not exactly what proving the will of God means, nor is it what Romans 12:2 is teaching. The will of God is far more important than that.
You may recall that I discussed the matter of knowing the will of God earlier in this series, when I was writing on Romans 8:27, the verse that speaks about the Holy Spirit interceding “for the saints in accordance with God’s will.” I pointed out that Garry Friesen, a professor at Multnomah School of the Bible, and J. Robin Maxson, a pastor from Klamath, Oregon, had written a very good book on that subject entitled Decision Making and the Will of God. They distinguished between three meanings of the word will: first, God’s sovereign will, which is hidden and is not revealed to us except as it unfolds in history; second, God’s moral will, which is revealed in Scripture; and third, God’s specific will for individuals, which is what people are usually thinking about when they speak of searching for or finding God’s will. These authors rightly accepted the first two of these wills, but they disagreed with the idea that God has a specific will for each life and that it is the duty of the individual believer to find that will or “live in the center of it.”
My evaluation of this book was that it is helpful in cutting away many of the hang-ups that have nearly incapacitated some Christians. Its exposure of the weakness of subjective methods of determining guidance is astute. Its stress on the sufficiency of Scripture in all moral matters is essential. My only reservation was that it does not acknowledge that God does indeed have a specific (though usually hidden) will for us or adequately recognize that God does sometimes reveal that will in special situations.
We may not know what that specific will is, and we do not need to be under pressure to “discover” it, fearing that if we miss it, somehow we will be doomed to a life outside the center of God’s will. We are free to make decisions with what light and wisdom we possess.
Nevertheless, we can know that God does have a perfect will for us, that the Holy Spirit is praying for us in accordance with that will, and that this will of God for us will be done—because God has decreed it and because the Holy Spirit is praying for us in this area.
Still, having said all this, I need to add that this is not primarily what Romans 12:2 is talking about when it speaks of God’s will. In this verse will is to be interpreted in its context, and the context indicates that the will of God that we are encouraged to follow is the general will of offering our bodies to God as living sacrifices, refusing to be conformed to the world’s ways, and instead being transformed from within by the renewing of our minds. It is this that we are to pursue and thus find to be good, pleasing, and perfect, though, of course, if we do it, we will also find ourselves working out the details of God’s specific will for our lives.
Good, Pleasing, and Perfect
The second obvious point about the ending of Romans 12:2 is that the will of God is good, pleasing, and perfect. It teaches about the nature of God’s will for us.
- The will of God is good. In a general way the will of God for every Christian is revealed in the Bible. Romans 8 contains a broad expression of this plan: that we might be delivered from God’s judgment upon us for our sin and instead be made increasingly like Jesus Christ. The five specifically highlighted steps of this plan, as presented in verses 29–30, include (1) foreknowledge, (2) predestination, (3) effectual calling, (4) justification, and (5) glorification.
But there are also many specifics. The Ten Commandments contain some of these. It is God’s will that we have no other gods before him, that we do not worship even him by the use of images, that we do not misuse his name, that we remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, that we honor our parents, that we do not murder or commit adultery or steal or give false testimony or covet (Exod. 20). The Lord Jesus Christ amplified upon many of these commandments and added others. It is God’s will that we be holy (1 Thess. 4:3). It is God’s will that we should pray (1 Thess. 5:17). Above all Jesus taught that we are to “love each other” (John 15:12).
These things often do not seem good to us, because we are far from God and are still thinking in the world’s way. Nevertheless, they are good, which we will discover if we will obey God in these areas and put his will into practice. As one of the great Romans commentators, Robert Haldane, says, “The will of God is here distinguished as good, because, however much the mind may be opposed to it and how much soever we may think that it curtails our pleasures and mars our enjoyments, obedience to God conduces to our happiness.”
- The will of God is pleasing. Pleasing to whom? Not to God, of course. That is obvious. Besides, we do not have to prove that God is pleased by his own will, nor could we. When Paul encourages us to prove that God’s will is a pleasing will, he obviously means pleasing to us. That is, if we determine to walk in God’s way, refusing to be conformed to the world and being transformed instead by the renewing of our minds, we will not have to fear that at the end of our lives we will look back and be dissatisfied or bitter, judging our lives to have been an utter waste. On the contrary, we will look back and conclude that our lives were well lived and be satisfied with them.
I was talking with a Christian man whose mother was dying. The mother was not a Christian, and she had become very bitter, although she had not been a bitter person before. She felt that everyone was turning against her, even her children, who actually were trying to help her. This man said to me, “I am convinced that Christians and non-Christians come to the end of their lives very differently. Those who are not Christians feel that they do not deserve to end their lives with failing health and pain, and they think their lives have been wasted. Christians are satisfied with what God has led them through and has done for them. It is better to die as a Christian.”
I think that is exactly right. It is what Paul is saying.
- The will of God is perfect. There are a number of words in the Greek language that are translated by our word perfect. One is akribôs, from which we get our word accurate, meaning correct. Another is katartizô, which means well fitted to a specific end, like a perfect solution to a puzzle. The word in Romans 12:2 is different. It is teleios, which has the thought of something that has attained its full destiny, is complete. It can be used of one who is mature, a mature adult. It is used of Jesus, who became a complete, or perfect, man. It is used of the end of history. In our text it means that those who do the will of God discover that it is not lacking in any respect. There is a satisfying wholeness about it.
To put this in negative form, it means that if we reach the end of our lives and are dissatisfied with them, this will only mean that we have been living in the world’s way and have been conformed to it rather than having been transformed by the renewing of our minds. We will have been living for ourselves rather than for God and others.
We Need to Check It Out
The third obvious point of this verse is that we need to prove by our experience that the will of God is indeed what Paul tells us it is—good, pleasing, and perfect. We need to check it out. It is by checking it out that we will begin to find out what it actually is.
This is the exact opposite of our normal way of thinking. Usually we want God to tell us what his will for us is, and after that we want to be able to decide whether it is good, pleasing, or perfect, and thus whether or not we want to do it. Romans 12:2 tells us that we have to start living in God’s way and that it is only as we do that we will begin to know it in its fullness and learn how good it really is. Robert Candlish says, “The will of God … can be known only by trial.… No one who is partaker of a finite nature and who occupies the position of a subject or servant under the authority of God, under his law, can understand what … the will of God is otherwise than through actual experience. You cannot explain to him beforehand what the will of God is and what are its attributes or characteristics. He must learn this for himself. And he must learn it experimentally. He must prove in his own person and in his own personal history what is … ‘that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.’ ”
God’s Creatures and Probation
One of the most valuable parts of Candlish’s study is the way he follows up on this idea, noting that the idea of proving the will of God experimentally goes a long way toward explaining the Bible’s teaching about probation. This word is derived from the word prove and refers to a trial or test. According to Candlish, every order of free and intelligent being has been called upon to stand trial in the sense that ultimately it was created to prove that the will of God is good, pleasing, and perfect—or, if the creature should reject that will and fail the test, to prove that the contrary will of the world is disappointing and defective. Candlish reminds us of the following biblical examples.
- The angels. We are not told much in the Bible about the trial of the angels, but it is certain that they did stand trial and that some of them failed that trial and so entered into the rebellion led by Satan and passed under the severe judgment of Almighty God.
Candlish speculates that the specific issue of that trial may have been the command to worship the Son of God: “When God brings his firstborn into the world, he says, ‘Let all God’s angels worship him’ ” (Heb. 1:6). But whether or not this was the specific matter the angels of God were to prove good, pleasing, and perfect, it is clear that many did not regard God’s will as such. It is why they rebelled against it. And even those who did adhere to God’s will must have done so not knowing then the full goodness, satisfaction, or perfection of what they were being called upon to do. They have been learning it since by their doing of it; that is, they have been learning it experimentally (cf. Eph. 3:8–11).
- Man in his pristine state. The second case of probation is man in his pristine state. We know a great deal more about this than we do about the trial of the angels, since it concerns us most directly and is revealed to us for that reason. Adam and Eve were required to prove the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God in the matter of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, refusing to eat of it because God had forbidden it to them. We know how this turned out. When weighed against what they considered to be more desirable (“you will be like God, knowing good and evil,” Gen. 3:5), our first parents chose the way of sin, ate of the tree, and paid the price of their transgression.
Candlish argues that if Adam and Eve had kept the will of God, though it did not seem desirable at that stage of their lives, “They would have found by experience that what God announced to them as his will was really in itself, as the seal of his previous covenant of life and as the preparation for the unfolding of his higher providence, fair, reasonable [and] good.… They would have learned experimentally that it was suited to their case and circumstances, deserving of their acceptance, sure to become more and more pleasing as they entered more and more into its spirit and became more and more thoroughly reconciled to the quiet simplicity of submission which it fostered.”
But they did not prove it to be such and therefore brought sin, judgment, and death upon the race.
- The Lord Jesus Christ. The third example is Jesus Christ, who in his incarnate state took it upon himself to prove that God’s will was indeed good, pleasing, and perfect, even though it involved the pain of the cross, which in itself hardly seemed good, pleasing, or even acceptable.
In the garden Jesus prayed that the cross might be taken from him, adding, “Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39). The author of Hebrews says, “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered” (Heb. 5:7–8). In the Book of Philippians Paul speaks of Jesus humbling himself and becoming “obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Phil. 2:8).
Writes Candlish, “It must have been, it often was, with him a struggle—an effort—to do the will of God. It was not easy, it was not pleasant. It was self-denial, self-sacrifice, self-crucifixion throughout. It was repulsive to the highest and holiest instincts of his pure humanity. It laid upon him most oppressive burdens; it brought him into most distressing scenes; it involved him in ceaseless, often thankless toil; it exposed him to all sorts of uncongenial encounters with evil men and evil angels. But he proved it. And in the proving of it, and as he was proving it, he found it to be good and acceptable and perfect.”
- Christians. And what of ourselves, we who confess Jesus Christ to be our Lord and Savior? We are on trial now, and the matter of our probation is whether or not we will embrace the will of God for our lives, turning from the world and its ways, and so prove by the very embracing of that will that it is exactly what God declares it to be when he calls it perfect.
Who is to do that? You are, and you are to do it in the precise earthly circumstances into which God has placed you.
How are you to do it? You are to do it experimentally—that is, by actually putting the revealed will of God to the test.
When are you to do it? Right now and tomorrow and the day after that. You are to do it repeatedly and consistently and faithfully all through your life until the day of your death or until Jesus comes again.
Why are you to do it? Because it is the right thing to do, and because the will of God really is good, pleasing, and perfect.
Candlish says this:
Of the fashion of the world, it may be truly said that the more you try it, the less you find it to be satisfying. It looks well; it looks fair, at first. But who that has lived long has not found it to be vanity at last?
It is altogether otherwise with the will of God. That often looks worst at the beginning. It seems hard and dark. But on! On with you in the proving of it! Prove it patiently, perseveringly, with prayer and pains. And you will get growing clearness, light, enlargement, joy. You will more and more find that “the path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day.” For “wisdom’s ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.” “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and the honeycomb. Moreover by them is thy servant warned; and in keeping of them there is great reward.”
The Mind Must Be Given to God
And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, (12:2a)
The third element of our priestly self-sacrifice is that of offering Him our minds.
It is in the mind that our new nature and our old humanness are intermixed. It is in the mind that we make choices as to whether we will express our new nature in holiness or allow our fleshly humanness to act in unholiness.
Be conformed is from suschēmatizō, which refers to an outward expression that does not reflect what is within. It is used of masquerading, or putting on an act, specifically by following a prescribed pattern or scheme (schēma). It also carries the idea of being transitory, impermanent, and unstable. The negative mē (not) makes the verb prohibitive. The verb itself is passive and imperative, the passive indicating that conformation is something we allow to be done to us, the imperative indicating a command, not a suggestion.
Paul’s gentle but firm command is that we are not to allow ourselves to be conformed to this world. We are not to masquerade as a worldly person, for whatever the reason. J. B. Phillips translates this phrase as “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould.” We must not pattern ourselves or allow ourselves to be patterned after the spirit of the age. We must not become victims of the world. We are to stop allowing ourselves to be fashioned after the present evil age in which we live.
New Testament scholar Kenneth Wuest paraphrased this clause: “Stop assuming an outward expression which is patterned after this world, an expression which does not come from, nor is representative of what you are in your inner being as a regenerated child of God” (Wuest’s Word Studies from the Greek New Testament [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955], 1:206–7).
World translates aiōn, which is better rendered “age,” referring to the present sinful age, the world system now dominated by Satan, “the god of this world (aiōn)” (2 Cor. 4:4). World here represents the sum of the demonic-human philosophy of life. It corresponds to the German zeitgeist (the spirit of the age) and has been well described as “that floating mass of thoughts, opinions, maxims, speculations, hopes, impulses, aims, aspirations, at any time current in the world, which it may be impossible to seize and accurately define, but which constitute a most real and effective power, being the moral, or immoral atmosphere which at every moment of our lives we inhale, again inevitably to exhale” (G. C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973], pp. 217–18).
It is not uncommon for unbelievers to mask themselves as Christians. Unfortunately, it also is not uncommon for Christians to wear the world’s masks. They want to enjoy the world’s entertainment, the world’s fashions, the world’s vocabulary, the world’s music, and many of the world’s attitudes—even when those things clearly do not conform to the standards of God’s Word. That sort of living is wholly unacceptable to God.
The world is an instrument of Satan, and his ungodly influence is pandemic. This is seen in the prideful spirit of rebellion, lies, error, and in the rapid spread of false religions—especially those that promote self and come under the broad umbrella of “New Age.” “We know that we are of God,” John wrote nearly two thousand years ago, “and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). It clearly still does.
Instead, Paul goes on to say, you should rather be transformed. The Greek verb (metamorphoō) connotes change in outward appearance and is the term from which we get the English metamorphosis. Matthew used the word in describing Jesus’ transfiguration. When “He was transfigured [metamorphōtheē] before them; and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light” (Matt. 17:2), Christ’s inner divine nature and glory were, for a brief time and to a limited degree, manifested outwardly. Our inner redeemed nature also is to be manifested outwardly, but as completely and continually as possible, in our daily living.
Like the preceding verb (be conformed), be transformed is a passive imperative. Positively, we are commanded to allow ourselves to be changed outwardly into conformity to our redeemed inner natures. “We all,” Paul assured the Corinthians believers, “with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18). Although we are to aspire to this outward change, it can be accomplished only by the Holy Spirit working in us, by our being “filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18).
The Holy Spirit achieves this transformation by the renewing of the mind, an essential and repeated New Testament theme. The outward transformation is effected by an inner change in the mind, and the Spirit’s means of transforming our minds is the Word. David testified, “Thy word I have treasured in my heart, that I may not sin against Thee” (Ps. 119:11). God’s own Word is the instrument His own Holy Spirit uses to renew our minds, which, in turn, He uses to transform our living.
Paul repeatedly emphasized that truth in his letter to Colossae. As he proclaimed Christ, he was “admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, that we may present every man complete in Christ” (Col. 1:28). By receiving Christ as Lord and Savior, we “have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him” (3:10). Consequently, we are to “let the word of Christ richly dwell within [us], with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in [our] hearts to God” (3:16).
The transformed and renewed mind is the mind saturated with and controlled by the Word of God. It is the mind that spends as little time as possible even with the necessary things of earthly living and as much time as possible with the things of God. It is the mind that is set “on the things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2). Whether good or bad, when anything happens in our lives, our immediate, almost reflexive response should be biblical. During His incarnation, Jesus responded to Satan’s temptations by hurling Scripture back into His adversary’s face (Matt. 4:4, 7, 10). Only the mind that is constantly being renewed by God’s Spirit working through God’s Word is pleasing to God. Only such a mind is able to make our lives “a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is [our] spiritual service of worship.”
The Will Must Be Given to God
that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. (12:2b)
An implied fourth element of presenting ourselves to God as a living, holy, and acceptable sacrifice is that of offering Him our wills, of allowing His Spirit through His Word to conform our wills to the will of God.
The Greek construction makes that you may prove a purpose/result phrase. That is to say, when a believer’s mind is transformed, his thinking ability, moral reasoning, and spiritual understanding are able to properly assess everything, and to accept only what conforms to the will of God. Our lives can prove what the will of God is only by doing those things that are good and acceptable and perfect to Him.
In using euarestos (acceptable), Paul again borrows from Old Testament sacrificial language to describe the kind of holy living that God approves, a “living sacrifice” that is morally and spiritually spotless and without blemish.
Perfect carries the idea of being complete, of something’s being everything it should be. Our wills should desire only what God desires and lead us to do only what He wants us to do in the way He wants us to do it—according to His will and by His power. Our imperfect wills must always be subject to His perfect will.
A transformed mind produces a transformed will, by which we become eager and able, with the Spirit’s help, to lay aside our own plans and to trustingly accept God’s, no matter what the cost. This continued yielding involves the strong desire to know God better and to comprehend and follow His purpose for our lives.
The divine transformation of our minds and wills must be constant. Because we are still continuously tempted through our remaining humanness, our minds and wills must be continuously transformed through God’s Word and by God’s Spirit.
The product of a transformed mind is a life that does the things God has declared to be righteous, fitting, and complete. That is the goal of the supreme act of spiritual worship, and sets the stage for what Paul speaks of next—the ministry of our spiritual gifts.
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