I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1–2)
As I have thought and prayed about these verses, it seems to me that there are two more very large issues we should deal with before moving on to verse 3. I would like to give a week to each of them.
“The Will of God”
One, which I hope to deal with next week, is the meaning of the term “the will of God.” Verse 2 says that we are to discern what is “the will of God.” It’s a very common phrase and I think that sometimes, when we use it, we may not know what we are talking about. That is not spiritually healthy. If you get into the habit of using religious language without knowing what you mean by it, you will increasingly become an empty shell. And many alien affections move into empty religious minds which have language but little or wrong content.
The term “the will of God” has at least two and possibly three biblical meanings. First, there is the sovereign will of God, that always comes to pass without fail. Second, there is the revealed will of God in the Bible — do not steal, do not lie, do not kill, do not covet — and this will of God often does notcome to pass. And third, there is the path of wisdom and spontaneous godliness — wisdom where we consciously apply the word of God with our renewed minds to complex moral circumstances, and spontaneous godliness where we live most of our lives without conscious reflection on the hundreds of things we say and do all day. Next week we need to sort this out and ask what Paul is referring to in Romans 12:2.
“By the Renewal of Your Mind”
But today I want to focus on the phrase in Romans 12:2, “by the renewal of your mind.” Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” We are perfectly useless as Christ-exalting Christians if all we do is conform to the world around us. And the key to not wasting our lives with this kind of success and prosperity, Paul says, is being transformed. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed.”
That word is used one time in all the gospels, namely, about Jesus on the mountain of transfiguration (the mountain of “transformation” — same word, metemorphōthē): “And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light” (Matthew 17:2; Mark 9:2).
More Than External Transformation
I point this out for one reason: to make the point that the nonconformity to the world does not primarily mean the external avoidance of worldly behaviors. That’s included. But you can avoid all kinds of worldly behaviors and not be transformed. “His face shown like the sun, and his clothes became white as light!” Something like that happens to us spiritually and morally. Mentally, first on the inside, and then, later at the resurrection on the outside. So Jesus says of us, at the resurrection: “Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43).
“We are perfectly useless as Christians if all we do is conform to the world around us.”
Transformation is not switching from the to-do list of the flesh to the to-do list of the law. When Paul replaces the list — the works — of the flesh, he does not replace it with the works of the law, but the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:19–22).
The Christian alternative to immoral behaviors is not a new list of moral behaviors. It is the triumphant power and transformation of the Holy Spirit through faith in Jesus Christ — our Savior, our Lord, our Treasure. “[God] has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6). So transformation is a profound, blood-bought, Spirit-wrought change from the inside out.
Freedom to Be Enslaved to Christ
“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17). “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). You are free in Christ, because when you do from the inside what you love to do, you are free — if what you love to do is what you ought to do. And that’s what transformation means: When you are transformed in Christ you love to do what you ought to do. That’s freedom.
Renewal as an Essential means of Transformation
And in Romans 12:2, Paul now focuses on one essential means of transformation — “the renewal of your mind.” “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Oh, how crucial this is!
- If you long to break loose from conformity to the world,
- If you long to be transformed and new from the inside out,
- If you long to be free from mere duty-driven Christianity and do what you love to do because what you love to do is what you ought to do,
- If you long to offer up your body as a living sacrifice so that your whole life becomes a spiritual act of worship and displays the worth of Christ above the worth of the world, then give yourself with all your might to pursuing this — the renewal of your mind. Because the Bible says, this is the key to transformation. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”
What’s wrong with the human mind? Why does our mind need renewing? And what does this renewal look like? And how can we pursue and enjoy this renewal?
The Problem with Our Minds
There are many who think that the only problem with the human mind is that it doesn’t have access to all the knowledge it needs. So education becomes the great instrument of redemption — personal and social. If people just got more education they would not use their minds to invent elaborate scams, and sophisticated terrorist plots, and complex schemes for embezzling, and fast-talking, mentally nimble radio rudeness. If people just got more education!
The Bible has a far more profound analysis of the problem. In Ephesians 4:23Paul uses a striking phrase to parallel Romans 12:2. He says, “Be renewed in the spirit of your minds.” Now, what in the world is that? “The spirit of your mind.” It means at least this: the human mind is not a sophisticated computer managing data, which it then faithfully presents to the heart for appropriate emotional responses.
The mind has a “spirit.” In other words, our mind has what we call a “mindset.” It doesn’t just have a view, it has a viewpoint. It doesn’t just have the power to perceive and detect; it also has a posture, a demeanor, a bearing, an attitude, a bent. “Be renewed in the spirit of your mind.”
“The problem with our minds is not merely that we are finite, but that we are fallen.”
The problem with our minds is not merely that we are finite, and don’t have all the information. The problem is that our minds are fallen. They have a spirit, a bent, a mindset that is hostile to the absolute supremacy of God. Our minds are bent on not seeing God as infinitely more worthy of praise than we are, or the things we make or achieve.
This is what we saw last week in Romans 1:28, “Since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind.” This is who we are by nature. We do not want to see God as worthy of knowing well and treasuring above all things. You know this is true about yourself because of how little effort you expend to know him, and because of how much effort it takes to make your mind spend any time getting to know God better.
The Bible says we have “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man” (Romans 1:23). And the image in the mirror is the mortal image we worship most.
That’s what’s wrong with our minds. This illumines the relationship between verses 1 and 2 of Romans 12. Verse 1 says that we should present our bodies — that is, our whole active life — as a living sacrifice which is our spiritual service of worship. So the aim of all life is worship. That is, we are to use our bodies — our whole lives — to display the worth of God and all that he is for us in Christ. Now it makes perfect sense when verse 2 says that, in order for that to happen, our minds must be renewed. Why? Because our minds are not by nature God-worshiping minds. They are by nature self-worshiping minds. That is the spirit of our minds.
Two Other Biblical Diagnoses
Now before I turn to the remedy and how we find the renewal of mind God demands, consider two other biblical diagnoses of the problem. Consider the way Peter describes our mind-problem in 1 Peter 1:13–14, “Prepar[e] . . . your minds for action. . . . Do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance.” There is an ignorance of God — a willful suppression of the truth of God (Romans 1:18) — that makes us slaves to many passions and desires that would lose their power if we knew God as we ought (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:5). “The passions of your former ignorance.” Paul calls these passions, “deceitful desires” (Ephesians 4:22).
They are life-ruining, worship-destroying desires, and they get their life and their power from the deceit of our minds. There is a kind of knowledge of God — a renewal of mind — that transforms us because it liberates us from the deceit and the power of alien passions.
The other biblical diagnosis is in Ephesians 4:17–18, “You must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.”
Paul takes us deeper than Peter here. He penetrates beneath the “futile mind” and the “darkened understanding” and the willful “ignorance” and says that it is all rooted in “the hardness of their heart.” Here is the deepest disease, infecting everything else. Our mental suppression of liberating truth is rooted in our hardness of heart. Our hard hearts will not submit to the supremacy of Christ, and therefore our blind minds cannot see the supremacy of Christ (see John 7:17).
The Holy Spirit Renews the Mind
This brings us finally to the remedy and how we obey Romans 12:2, “Be transformed in the renewal of your mind.” First, before we can do anything, a double action of the Holy Spirit is required. And then we join him in these two actions. The reason I say the Holy Spirit is required is because this word “renewal” in Romans 12:2 is only used one other place in all the Greek Bible, namely, Titus 3:5 where Paul says this: “[God] saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.”
There’s the word “renewal” which we’ve seen is so necessary. And it is renewal “of the Holy Spirit.” The Spirit renews the mind. It is first and decisively his work. We are radically dependent on him. Our efforts follow his initiatives and enablings.
The Holy Spirit’s Double Work
Now, what is the double work that he must do to renew our minds so that all of life becomes worship? 2 Corinthians 3:18 sets the stage for the answer:
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
What does the Spirit do to “transform” us into the image of the God-exalting Son of God? He enables us to “behold the glory of the Lord.” This is how the mind is renewed — by steadfastly gazing at the glories of Christ for what they really are.
But to enable us to do that, the Spirit must do a double work. He must work in two directions: from the outside in and from the inside out. He must work from the outside in by exposing the mind to Christ-exalting truth. That is, he must lead us to hear the gospel, to read the Bible, to study Christ-exalting writings of great, spiritual men, and to meditate on the perfections of Christ.
This is exactly what our great enemy does not want us to do according to 2 Corinthians 4:4, “The god of this world [Satan] has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.” Because to see that for what it really is, Paul says, will renew the mind and transform the life and produce unending worship.
“The Spirit renews the mind. It is first and decisively his work.”
And the Spirit must work from the inside out, breaking the hard heart that blinds and corrupts the mind. The Spirit must work from the outside in, through Christ-exalting truth, and from the inside out, through truth-embracing humility. If he only worked from the outside in, by presenting Christ-exalting truth to our minds but not breaking the hard heart and making it humble, then the truth would be despised and rejected. And if he only humbled the hard heart, but put no Christ-exalting truth before the mind, there would be no Christ to embrace and no worship would happen.
What Then Shall We Do?
What then do we do in obedience to Romans 12:2, “Be transformed in the renewal of your mind”? We join the Holy Spirit in his precious and all-important work. We pursue Christ-exalting truth and we pray for truth-embracing humility.
Listen to rich expositions of the “gospel of the glory of Christ.” Read your Bible from cover to cover always in search of the revelation of the glory of Christ. Read and ponder the Bible-saturated, Christ-exalting writings of great, spiritual men and women. And form the habit of meditating on the perfections of Christ. And in it all pray, pray, pray that the Holy Spirit will renew your mind, that you may desire and approve the will of God, so that all of life will become worship to the glory of Christ.
May the mind of Christ, my Savior,
Live in me from day to day,
By His love and power controlling
All I do and say.
May the Word of God dwell richly
In my heart from hour to hour,
So that all may see I triumph
Only through His power.
May the peace of God my Father
Rule my life in everything,
That I may be calm to comfort
Sick and sorrowing.
May the love of Jesus fill me
As the waters fill the sea;
Him exalting, self abasing,
This is victory.
May I run the race before me,
Strong and brave to face the foe,
Looking only unto Jesus
As I onward go.
May His beauty rest upon me,
As I seek the lost to win,
And may they forget the channel,
Seeing only Him.
(Kate B. Wilkinson, “May the Mind of Christ, My Savior”)
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, and most recently Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching as Worship.