The Mind in the Christian Life

This is an excerpt from the booklet, Your Mind Matters: The Place of the Mind in the Christian Life, by John R. W. Stott, originally given as an address at an Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship conference in 1972.


[Based on the material that precedes this passage in the book...] We are now in a position to consider in what ways God expects us to use our minds.  We shall examine in turn Christian worship, Christian faith, Christian holiness, Christian guidance, Christian evangelism, and Christian ministry.

True Worship

The apostle Paul was not content to leave the Athenians in their ignorance.  He proceeded to explain to them the nature and work of the God they ignorantly worshipped.  For he knew that the only worship acceptable to God is intelligent worship, worship "in truth," the worship offered by those who know whom they are worshipping and who love him "with all their mind." ... Israel did not worship God as some distant or abstract deity but as the Lord of nature and of nations, one who had revealed himself in concrete acts, by creating and sustaining his world, and by redeeming and preserving his people.  They had good cause to praise him for his goodness, for his works and for "all his benefits."

To these mighty deeds of God (the creation-God and the covenant-God), Christians add the mightiest deed of all in the birth, life, death and exaltation of Jesus, his gift of the Spirit and his new creation, the church.  Such is the story of the New Testament, and this is why readings from the Old Testament and the New Testament together with a Scripture exposition are an indispensable part of public worship today.  Only as we hear again what God has done are we ready to respond in praise and worship.  This too is why Bible reading and meditation are an essential part of a Christian's private devotion. All Christian worship, public and private, should be an intelligent response to God's self-revelation in his words and works recorded in Scripture.

Faith: Illogical Belief in the Improbable?

First, faith is not credulity. H. L. Mencken, the American anti-supernaturalist critic of Christianity, once said that "faith may be defined as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable."  But Mencken was wrong.  Faith is not credulity.  To be credulous is to be gullible, to be entirely uncritical, undiscerning and even unreasonable in one's beliefs.  But it is a great mistake to suppose that faith and reason are incompatible.  Faith and sight are set in opposition to each other in Scripture, but not faith and reason. On the contrary, true faith is essentially reasonable because it trusts in the character and the promises of God.  A believing Christian is one whose mind reflects and rests on these certitudes.

Secondly, faith is not optimism. This seems to be the confusion made by Norman Vincent Peale... He quotes William James that "the greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind."  So Dr. Peale develops his thesis about positive thinking, which he goes on (mistakenly) to equate with faith... Dr. Peale apparently draws no distinction between faith in God and faith in oneself.  Indeed, he does not seem to be at all concerned about faith's object.  He recommends as part of his "worry-breaking formula" that first thing every morning before we get up we should say out loud "I believe" three times, but he does not tell us in what we are so confidently and repeatedly to affirm our belief.  the last words of his book are simply "so believe and live successfully." But believe what? Believe whom? To Dr. Peale faith is really another word for self-confidence, for a largely ungrounded optimism...

Faith is a reasoning trust, a trust which reckons thoughtfully and confidently upon the trust-worthiness of God...

Dr. Lloyd Jones has given us an excellent New Testament example of this truth while commenting on Matthew 6:30 in his Studies in the Sermon on the Mount: "But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith?"

"Faith according to our Lord's teaching in this paragraph, is primarily thinking; and the whole trouble with a man of little faith is that he does not think.  He allows circumstances to bludgeon him... We must spend more time in studying our Lord's lessons in observation and deduction.  The Bible is full of logic, and we must never think of faith as something purely mystical.  We do not just sit down in an armchair and expect marvelous things to happen to us. That is not Christian faith.  Christian faith is essentially thinking.  Look at the birds, think about them, and draw your deductions.  Look at the grass, look at the lilies of the field, consider them."

"...Faith, if you like, can be defined like this: It is a man insisting upon thinking when everything seems determined to bludgeon and knock him down in an intellectual sense.  The trouble with the person of little faith is that, instead of controlling his own thought, his thought is being controlled by something else, and, as we put it, he goes round and round in circles. That is the essence of worry... That is not thought; that is the absence of thought, a failure to think."

Take the Lord's Supper.  At its simplest it is a visible dramatization of the Savior's death for sinners.  It is a rational reminder of it.  Our minds need to play upon its meaning and grasp the assurance which it offers. Christ himself speaks to us through the bread and the wine.  "I died for you," he says, and as we receive his word it should set our guilty hearts at rest again...

Christian assurance is the "full assurance of faith." And if assurance is the child of faith, faith is the child of knowledge, the sure knowledge of Christ and of the gospel.  As Bishop J.C. Ryle put it: "Half our doubts and fears arise from dim perceptions of the real nature of Christ's Gospel... The root of a happy religion is clear, distinct, well-defined knowledge of Jesus Christ."

The Quest for Holiness

Many secrets of holiness are given us in the pages of the Bible.  Indeed, a major purpose of Scripture is to show God's people how to lead a life that is worthy of him and pleasing to him.  But one of the most neglected aspects of the quest for holiness is the place of the mind, even though Jesus himself put the matter beyond question when he promised "you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." It is by his truth that Christ liberates us from the bondage of sin.  How is this? Wherein lies the liberating power of the truth?

To begin with, we need to have a clear picture of the kind of person God intends us to be.  We must know God's moral law and commandments.  As John Owen expressed it, "That good which the mind cannot discover, the will cannot choose, nor the affections cleave unto."  Therefore, "in Scripture the deceit of the mind is commonly laid down as the principle of all sin."

The best example of this may be found in the earthly life of our Savior.  Three times the devil came to him and enticed him in the wilderness of Judea.  Three times he recognized that the devil's suggestion was evil and contrary to the will of God.  Three times he countered the temptation with the word gegraptai, "it stands written." There was no room for debate or argument.  For Scripture had laid down what was right.  This clear biblical knowledge of God's will is the first secret of a righteous life.

It is not enough to know what we should be, however.  We must go further and set our minds upon it.  The battle is nearly always won in the mind.  It is by the renewal of our mind that our character and behavior become transformed.  So Scripture calls us again and again to mental discipline in this respect.  "Whatever is true," it says, "whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."

Again, "If...you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God.

There is, however, a second kind of mental discipline to which we are summoned in the New Testament.  We are to consider not only what we should be but what by God's grace we already are.  We are constantly to recall what God has done for us and say to ourselves: "God has united me with Christ in his death and resurrection, and thus obliterated my old life and given me an entirely new life in Christ.  He has adopted me into his family and made me his child.  He has put his Holy Spirit within me and so made my body his temple. He has also made me his heir and promised me an eternal destiny with him in heaven. This is what he has done for me and in me.  This is what I am in Christ."

The Christian's Guidance

That God is willing and able to guide his people is a fact.  We know this from Scripture, from its promises (for example, Prov. 3:6, "he will make straight your paths"), from its commands (for example, Eph. 5:17, "do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is") and from its prayers (for example, Col. 4:12, "that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God").

But how do we discover the will of God? Some Christians claim rather glibly, "the Lord told me to do this" or "the Lord called me to do that," as if they had a hot line to heaven and were in direct and continuous telephonic communication with God. I find it hard to believe them.  Others think they get detailed guidance from God through the most fanciful interpretations of Scripture passages which murder the natural sense, violate the context and have no basis in either sound exegesis or common sense.

If we are to discern God's will for us, we should begin by drawing an important distinction between his "general" will and his "particular" will. The "general" will of God may be so called because it is his will for all his people in general at all times, whereas the "particular" will of God may be so called because it is his will for particular people at particular times.  God's general will for us is that we become conformed to the image of his Son. God's particular will, on the other hand, concerns such questions as the choice of a life work and a life partner, and the use of our time, our money and our vacations.

God's general will has been revealed in Scripture... God's particular will, on the other hand, is not to be sought in Scripture, for Scripture does not contradict itself, and it is of the essence of God's particular will that it may be different for different members of his family.  Certainly we shall find in Scripture some general principles to guide us in our particular choices...

Take, as an example, the question of a man and his marriage.  Scripture will guide you in general terms... But Scripture will not tell you whether your wife is to be Jane or June or Joan or Janet!  How then are you to decide this major question?  There is only one possible answer, namely by using the mind and the common sense which God has given you.  Certainly you will pray for God's guidance.  And if you are wise, you will ask the advice of your parents... But ultimately you must make up your mind, trusting that God will guide you through your own mental processes.

Presenting the Gospel

In Romans 10 Paul argues cogently for the necessity of preaching the gospel if people are to become Christians... His argument implies that there must be a solid content in our evangelistic proclamation of Christ.  It is our responsibility to set Jesus Christ forth in the fullness of his divine-human person and saving work so that through this "preaching of Christ" God may arouse faith in the hearer...

Let me invite you to consider the place of the mind in evangelism, and let me supply two reasons from the New Testament for a thoughtful proclamation of the gospel.

The first is taken from the example of the apostles.  Paul summed up his own evangelistic ministry in the simple words "we persuade men."  Now "persuading" is an intellectual exercise. To "persuade" is to  marshal arguments in order to prevail on people to change their mind about something...

The second New Testament evidence that our evangelism should be a reasoned presentation of the gospel is that conversion is not infrequently described in terms of a person's response not to Christ himself but to "the truth." Becoming a Christian is "believing the truth," "obeying the truth," "acknowledging the truth." Paul even describes his Roman readers as having "become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed."  It is plain from these expressions that in preaching Christ the early Christian evangelists were teaching a body of doctrine about Christ...

I pray earnestly that God will raise up today a new generation of Christian apologists or Christian communicators, who will combine an absolute loyalty to the biblical gospel and an unwavering confidence in the power of the Spirit with a deep and sensitive understanding of the contemporary alternatives to the gospel; who will relate the one to the other with freshness, pungency, authority and relevance; and who will use their minds to reach other minds for Christ.

The Ministry and It's Gifts

My sixth and last example of the place of the mind is Christian ministry.  We have to use our mind in every kind of ministry, but especially in the ordained or pastoral ministry of the church... The "ordained" ministry is essentially a "pastoral" ministry, and a "pastoral" ministry is a "teaching" ministry.  Let me elaborate this.  The minister is a pastor, a shepherd, entrusted by Christ the chief shepherd with the care of a part of his flock and charged in particular to feed (that is, teach) them.

The qualifications for the ministry are consistent with its nature.  Every candidate for the pastoral ministry or the presbyterate must posses both the biblical faith and a gift for teaching it.  He must be orthodox. "He must hold firm to the sure word as taught [literally 'according to the didache,' or the apostles' teaching], so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it."  He must also be "an apt teacher."  These are two of his indispensable qualifications.  He must be loyal to the didache and he must be didaktikos, a teacher of the teaching.

This will involve him in study, both in his preparation for the ministry and in his exercise of it.  It is very striking that those who wish to commend themselves in every way as God's ministers must do so, Paul wrote, not only by their patient endurance of hardship, nor only by their purity, forbearance, kindness and love, but also by their knowledge (2 Cor. 6:6).

Acting on Our Knowledge

I have tried to sketch six spheres of Christian living in which the mind plays an essential part -- Christian worship, faith, holiness, guidance, evangelism and ministry.  If these things are impossible without using our minds and acquiring some biblical knowledge, we must also recognize the corollary, that the acquisition of biblical knowledge must lead into these things and enrich our experience of them.  Knowledge carries with it the solemn responsibility to act on the knowledge we have, to translate our knowledge into appropriate behavior.  Let me enlarge on this.

First, knowledge should lead to worship. The true knowledge of God will result not in our being puffed up with conceit at how knowledgeable we are, but in our falling on our faces before God in sheer wonder and crying, "O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how unscrutable his ways!"

Secondly, knowledge should lead to faith. We have already seen that knowledge is the foundation of faith and makes faith reasonable.  "Those who know thy name put their trust in thee," wrote the psalmist...

Thirdly, knowledge should lead to holiness.  We have considered some ways in which our conduct could be transformed if only we knew more clearly both what we should be and what we already are.  But now we have to see how the more our knowledge grows, the greater our responsibility to put it into practice. Psalm 119 is full of aspirations to know God's law. Why? In order the better to obey it...

Fourthly, knowledge should lead to love.  The more we know, the more we should want to share what we know with others and use our knowledge in their service, whether in evangelism or in ministry.  Sometimes, however, our love will restrain our knowledge.  For by itself knowledge can be harsh; it needs the sensitivity which love can give it.  This is what Paul meant when he wrote: "Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up."

Knowledge is indispensable to the Christian life and service.  If we do not use the mind which God has given us, we condemn ourselves to spiritual superficiality and cut ourselves off from many of the riches of God's grace.  At the same time, knowledge is given us to be used , to lead us to higher worship, greater faith, deeper holiness, better service.  What we need is not less knowledge but more knowledge, so long as we act upon it.


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