"The Renewing of Your Mind"

Romans 12:1-2 and Research in Brain/Mind Science, Part 2

Whatever you remember from Part 1 of our topic, you recall because there has been changes in your brain.  Your brain stores information by making small anatomical changes in the structure of its bio-electronic memory banks.  Your mind, the "software," retrieves information from the "hardware" of your brain.  You will likely recall that scientific research shows your brain is capable of re-patterning itself, in Paul's terms "renewing" itself.  Barring major illness, your brain/mind complex learns and takes on new information as long as you live.  Though we may not think of ourselves as always learning in the sense of going to school, our brains are constantly taking on new memories.  Research shows the easiest things to remember are: 1) things we do regularly and repeatedly, and 2) things that are surprising and unique.  The former speaks to the value of regular Bible reading, memorization of Scripture, worship and fellowship.  The second speaks to our engagement in special events and openness to forming new relationships with people who need the gospel.

Romans 12:1-2 in Context of the Universal Problem of Sin

God and Paul both know the potential of our minds to be renewed. Paul could write with confidence to the Christians in Roman that they should be "renewed by the transforming of your mind" (Romans 12:2). Paul begins and ends his letter saying he wanted the Romans respond to the gospel of Jesus' death, burial and resurrection by the "obedience of faith" (Romans 1:5; 16:26). Serious problems among the people, however, threatened this response that would lead to lives of faith and Christ-like character. Problems in the multi-cultural city of Rome included idolatry, sexual aberrations, selfishness, self-righteousness, criticism, greed, envy, murder, arrogance, deceit and lack of love (Romans 1 and 2). Serious spiritual problems included pride and misunderstanding both the Law of Moses and the meaning of baptism into Christ. There was division between races and problems between strong and weak consciences. In summary, Paul identified the universal problem of sin in his day and ours. The Romans were being conformed to the image of the world instead of the image of Christ (Romans 12:1; 8:29).

Culture's Mould and the "Plastic Paradox"

In concert with Paul's exhortation that Christians "not be conformed to this world," researchers observe that culture significantly affects brain development, in our day as in Paul's.    The  malleability (flexibility) of the brain/mind complex is a two-edged sword.  Norman Doidge writes: "Culture is not just produced by the brain; it is also by definition a series of activities that shape the mind."  In a world where minds are bombarded by information, we experience what Doidge describes as the "plastic paradox."  While our brains are resourceful and flexible, they are susceptible to unhealthy external influences which mould them to practice harmful habits that can be difficult to re-pattern.  Doidge confirms Paul: the mind can be moulded for good or bad, into the world view of the age or of God.

Young people are most vulnerable to the negative side of this cultural mind/brain shaping, especially when combined with poor physical nutrition.  Media have  powerful effects on the developing brains of young children.  Media can shorten their attention spans, slow language uptake, hamper social skills, reduce the ability to defer gratification and solve complex problems, and encourage responses based more on fear and emotion than on reason, a faculty that Paul strongly asserts is essential to grasping and doing God's will.

A Scenic Vantage Point

Romans 12:1-2 is like a scenic mountain outlook.  From its vantage point we can look back and clearly see the foundation of chapters one to eleven where God explains His universal answer to the universal problem of sin through the gospel.   We look ahead through Romans 12:1-2 as a gateway and theme statement for all of Paul's practical instructions in 12:1-15:13 signifying how believers should live in a way that shows their love and dedication to God and one another in response to Christ's death and resurrection.

The Power of the Gospel in Renewal

Fortunately for the Romans and for everyone alive today, Paul invested eleven chapters in explaining that the gospel of Jesus' death, burial and resurrection is God's merciful universal offer of salvation to answer the universal problem of sin.  In 12:2 Paul then calls for a response to God's gracious saving gospel through voluntary sacrifice and transformation of the Christian's whole being under the direction of a renewed mind "set on the Spirit" (8:6b).  It is this transformation of mind through voluntary cooperation with the power of the gospel and the Spirit that makes obedience to Paul's practical exhortations possible.

Looking from our vantage point back to the beginning of his letter, Paul's theme statement of Romans 1:16-17 reveals the source of power from God for the transformation of the Roman church and all Christians: "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.  For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘but the righteous man shall live by faith.'"  The gospel is the power of God for the transformation of Jews and Gentiles from alienation to salvation, from unrighteousness to righteousness, from unbelief to continuous obedient faith.

The Power of God's Spirit in Renewal

In Romans 7 Paul shows how difficult it is to conquer sin by our own power.  In Romans 8 he reveals that the Spirit makes us God's possession in Christ, gives life to our bodies, helps us in our prayers and gives us power to live in ways that please God.   Scripture says that "God is light" (1 John 1:5b) and His kingdom is about the power of the Spirit (Romans 14:17; 1 Corinthians 4:20).  Physicists have discovered that matter is ultimately made up of energy.  This energy behaves in accordance with the information in specific laws and principles.  Thus at the core of the universe is consistent information, the wisdom that governs life.  This wisdom comes from God and pre-dates the universe which runs on its principles: "The LORD by wisdom founded the earth; By understanding He established the heavens (Prov. 3:19).  Wisdom says of itself in the company of God, "When He established the heavens, I was there" (Prov. 8:27).  God is present throughout His universe by His Spirit.  He is free to move anywhere and operate in and upon His universe and the minds of cooperative men and women in accordance with His will.  Since God, in His wisdom, created mankind in His image, with mind, it is imminently reasonable and in line with Paul's teaching that the Spirit of God is one of His primary agents in the renewal of the human mind (Romans 12:2b) and "the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit" (Titus 3:5). God's thoughts become the Christian's thoughts, His will become ours.

Conclusion: The Process and Results of Renewal

Renewal begins with hearing and understanding the gospel as God's universal answer to the universal problem of sin. Then through repenting and dying to sin, being immersed into Christ, rising alive by the power of his Spirit within, Christians walk in newness of life, living in harmony with the people of God.  In Christ, minds are drawn out of the world's mould, away from ephemeral passing things, to the eternal things of God.  God resumes His rightful place at the centre of our lives. When we are baptized into Christ we receive His Spirit and begin our sanctification: being transformed by the renewal of our mind, becoming holy like Him.  Renewal is a life-long process. The internal work of God in Christians prepares us to move from life in time to life in eternity: "He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus" (Philippians 1:6).

Renewal comes from the work of the Spirit and the cooperative submissive will and active response of the Christian setting the mind on the things of the Spirit (Romans 8 and 12), thinking about what is good (Philippians 4:8), and living accordingly. When Christians do God's will, He provides feedback confirming that the wisdom of His teaching comes from heaven (John 7:17).

The Word of God is one of the Spirit's most incisive tools in the mind's renewal (Romans 15:5, 13).  It can shape the contents of our thought world.  Renewal occurs as the mind absorbs, assimilates and metabolizes the Word of God (Romans 10; 15); "the washing of water with the Word" (Ephesians 5:26) is a direct sanctifying action of Christ.  The worldly thoughts of the mind/brain complex become overwritten and outnumbered by the higher, beautiful, and more satisfying Word of God.  God's wisdom that permeates the universe becomes the wisdom that guides the Christian's mind.  The "plastic paradox" shows why the Word of God must be so strong and forceful to restructure deeply engrained habits and patterns of thought.   Countering the pressures of the information age requires vigilance to re-pattern the mind with good thoughts.  In the body of Christ, the Spirit works powerfully through the Word in preaching to exhort, convict, encourage, and uplift.

In light of God's mercy, Christians offer themselves to God as living sacrifices to serve him using the gifts he gives (12:1-8).  The renewal of the mind leads to an understanding of the will of God (12:2) and voluntary self-conscious humility (12:3).  It is no coincidence that Paul goes on immediately to show that the Spirit gives the will and gifts of power that enable Christians to serve others through speaking for God (prophecy), ministry to one another, teaching, encouraging exhortation, giving, leading and showing mercy (Romans 12:6-8).  Paul proceeds to show how Christians guided by the Spirit are tender-hearted toward one another, diligent, fervent, rejoicing in hope, patient in sufferings, continuing steadfastly in prayer, and contributing to one another's needs (12:10-13).  Within this God-centred view of the world, Christians seek harmony with their spiritual family and all men "so far as it depends on you" (12:18).  Confident of their own salvation and freedom from condemnation (8:1), Christians are at liberty to seek the good of all men, including their enemies (12:19-20).  The renewed mind allows Christians to respond appropriately to governing authorities and love those with differing opinions (ch. 13-14-15:13).  A profound paradigm shift occurs for those in individualistic western cultures: renewed minds allow Christians to see themselves as part of a group vs. just individuals, as members of a body, members of one another, with minds and lives being transformed into the image of Christ.

Paul Birston

October 2010©

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