The Inadequacy of the Law
In Romans 7, Paul shares his discovery of what the Law could not do: it could not free from sin. Paul knew that God’s way was the best way, but under the law, he lacked the power to live how God wanted him to live. In fact, Paul says that he didn’t understand why he kept doing what he knew in his mind was wrong. This is the terrible danger of sin: we know what we should do, but we don’t know what we will do.
Simply setting our minds to do what’s right and serve God is not enough.
Paul tried setting his mind against sin and to keep God’s Law, but he discovered that he could not do so in his own strength. He set his mind to do what was right, but simply setting our minds to do what’s right and serve God is not enough. The more a person tries to keep God’s Law in their own strength, the more they find that they’re hopelessly bound by sin. John Stott put it this way: “[Paul’s] problem with the law was with its inadequacy, its helplessness to empower what it required” (cited by Fee).
The Superiority of Christ
However, in Romans 8, Paul writes about what Christ did do: He condemned sin in the flesh. Salvation doesn’t come by setting our minds; salvation comes by placing our faith in Jesus Christ (Keener, The Mind of the Spirit). Those who place their faith in Christ are then enabled to fulfill the righteous requirement of the Law as we walk, not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. What was formerly impossible has now been made possible through the abiding presence of the Spirit within.
What was formerly impossible has now been made possible through the abiding presence of the Spirit within.
While setting our minds could not free us from sin, now as Christians we have been given the presence of the Holy Spirit who empowers us to live God’s way. Once in Christ, one of the keys to living God’s way is setting our minds on the right things.
Two Ways to Live
Paul tells us in Romans 8:7-8 that “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” We are all born with a mind that is set on the flesh. This sinful nature is a perversion of human nature with its natural appetites, not a physical substance added to human nature. We are bent toward ourselves — the idolatry of self. A mind set on the flesh seeks one’s own desires rather than what God desires for our lives.
There are only two ways to live life — either according to the flesh or according to the Spirit. Both ways of living are the result of what one’s mind is set on. The only way to have a mind set on the Spirit is to possess the Spirit within and to allow Him to continually renew your mind. “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Rom. 8:5–6).
The “mindset of the flesh” and the “mindset of the Spirit” are two outlooks that form one’s character.
The “mindset of the flesh” and the “mindset of the Spirit” are two outlooks that form one’s character and are shaped by two different worldviews. One mindset focuses on the matters of God; the other is only oriented around matters involving the self and its desires (Rom. 8:5-6). Charles Talbert explains that a mind set on the Spirit is “an orientation in which God is one’s ultimate concern and one’s enabling power” (cited by Keener). John Stott wrote:
If we are in the flesh we set our mind on the things of the flesh, we walk according to the flesh, and so die. But if we are in the Spirit we set our mind on the things of the Spirit, we walk according to the Spirit, and so live. What we are governs how we think; how we think governs how we behave; and how we behave governs our relation to God — death or life.
It is this life that the indwelling Spirit enables us as believers to live.
When someone becomes a Christian, they begin a process called sanctification. To “sanctify” means to “set apart.” God wants to set us apart as His possession. He requires holiness because He is holy. The problem is that we are born unholy because of original sin. How can we who are unholy, become holy? The good news is that God never makes a promise or a command that He won’t provide the necessary enablement for us to fulfill. He has made it possible for us to be holy as He is holy. But, what does this holiness look like? What does it mean to be holy? We are holy as He is holy by thinking, acting, and feeling as He feels.
We often quote 1 Peter 1:14-16: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’” However, we often overlook the verse that comes right before these three: “Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:13).
God wants his people to be wholly holy — our minds included.
God wants His people to be wholly holy — our minds included. Richard S. Taylor wrote, “Until the mind is harnessed we are not yet obeying the Great Commandment.” Loving God and thinking rightly are connected. Douglas Moo writes, “cultivating a Spirit-led, Spirit-filled disposition of heart and mind is necessary if we are to live in a way that pleases God.” John Piper likewise explains,
The main reason that thinking and loving are connected is that we cannot love God without knowing God; and the way we know God is by the Spirit-enabled use of our minds. So to “love God with all your mind” means engaging all your powers of thought to know God as fully as possible in order to treasure Him for all He is worth. God is not honored by groundless love. In fact, there is no such thing. If we do not know anything about God, there is nothing in our mind to awaken love. If love does not come from knowing God, there is no point calling it love for God.
It is possible for us to feel sincere love for God (“heart”) and use our physical energy for God (“strength”), and yet fail to do the same with the “rudder of the mind.” We feel and do not think. Many people have good intentions, but because they have not allowed God to shape their minds, they fail to use good wisdom.
There is always a balanced tension when it comes to the Christian faith. Some people only emphasize loving God with your heart. We say things like “His heart was in the right place,” and then discount the person’s actions. However, excusing sin due to a lack of knowledge is not an excuse when God has told us things that we ought to know!
There have been many preachers who have minimized education and right thinking and placed all their emphasis on zeal for God. However, zeal for God can lead to damnation if divorced from right thinking about God. In Romans 10 Paul wrote the following about his fellow Israelites:
1 Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. 2 For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. 3 For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. 4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.
They had zeal. By all appearances, it seemed that they loved God with all their hearts and with all their strength. But they didn’t believe the right things, and as a result of their lack of knowledge, they were seeking to earn their salvation, rather than understanding that Christ was the “end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”
Zeal for God can lead to damnation if divorced from right thinking about God.
Paul goes on in Romans 12 to admonish us to be “transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). The Spirit renews our minds as we present ourselves fully and completely to Him. When we are saved, the transformation of our minds begins. When we present our bodies completely and wholly to Him as a living sacrifice, He has full control of who we are. This is a decisive moment, a full surrender of ourselves that sets us free from the mindset that is centered on oneself. We present ourselves to Christ as a living sacrifice, and He transforms us by the renewal of our minds. God enables us to actively think on what we ought to think on because our minds have been renewed. He enables us to direct our minds to their proper end. Dallas Willard wrote:
To bring the mind to dwell intelligently upon God as he is presented in his Word will have the effect of causing us to love God passionately, and this love will in turn bring us to think of God steadily. Thus he will always be before our minds.
What is Your Mind Set on?
However, it is not something that happens by default, even after we have presented ourselves as a living sacrifice. We are in a war, and it’s a war not only for our heart, soul, and strength, but also for our minds:
21 And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled 22 in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight — 23 if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard. (Col. 1:21–23)
This battle will not be won passively. We must, by the empowerment of the Spirit, put to death the deeds of the body and set our minds on the things of the Spirit. How does one overcome the pull of the flesh? How do you overcome the natural propensity or inclination that we are born with, to return to sin? There’s an old riddle that asks: “How do you get all of the air out of a drinking glass?” We could go to the science lab and stay up all night trying to devise an airtight seal for the top of the glass that would allow us to remove all of the air from the jar and leave a vacuum. Or, we could fill it with water, and accomplish the same thing. The simplest way to get all the air out of a glass is by filling it with something else.
What do you spend your time thinking about?
Christ calls us to put to death the deeds of the flesh, to present ourselves as a living sacrifice, to be transformed by the renewal of our minds. Why? So He can fill us with Himself. This is what holiness and entire sanctification is all about. Christ wants to renew our minds and fill us with His presence so we can reflect Him to the world in how we think and live.
The key question is, what is your mind set on? How’s your thought life? What do you spend your time thinking about? Is your mind set on the things of the Spirit or the things of the flesh?