“Finding The Power To Live a New Life: Dicipleship and The Holy Spirit” by THomas A. Tarrants, C.S. Lewis Institute, President Emeritus)

Discipleship And The Holy Spirit

Thomas A. Tarrants, March 4, 2012 (Knowing and Doing, Spring)

In recent issues of Knowing & Doing we have looked at Christ’s call to discipleship and at the cost of discipleship. Understanding and embracing these truths is essential to becoming true disciples of Jesus Christ. But knowing what we must do and even committing ourselves to doing it, though necessary, is not sufficient.

We need power to live out our commitment. And if we lack it we will become discouraged, then disillusioned, then settle into a life of spiritual mediocrity. This has happened to many would-be followers of Jesus over the centuries.

Jesus tells us very clearly that the power to live as his disciple comes from the Holy Spirit. With this assertion, no one who takes the Bible seriously, whether Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox, would disagree.

But, for a variety of reasons, in many churches today there is a lack of clear, in-depth, practical teaching about the person and work of the Holy Spirit in relation to discipleship. As a result, many people struggle in their spiritual lives, and their discipleship is weak and anemic.

In a brief article it is impossible to give a full account of the work of the Spirit in discipleship (the Christian life). What we can do, however, is look at some important truths about the Spirit that will help us faithfully follow Jesus Christ.

Who or What Is the Holy Spirit?

We live in a culture that is significantly influenced by eastern religion, New Age thinking, and other worldviews, all of which can confuse our understanding of the Holy Spirit and his work. As these nonbiblical systems of thought have gained strength over the past fifty years, there has been a corresponding decline in biblical literacy in the culture and the church.

As a result, many in the church today have very little understanding of the Bible and what it teaches about the Holy Spirit. For example, it is not uncommon to hear professing believers refer to the Holy Spirit as “it.” From this and other anecdotal evidence, it appears that many people think of the Spirit as an impersonal force or power like “the Force” in Star Wars. Because of the vague and erroneous ideas that many have about the Spirit, we need to begin by briefly clarifying who the Holy Spirit is.

Although the Holy Spirit is quite prominent in the New Testament, that is not the case in the Old Testament. He was present and active at creation, was active in inspiring the prophets and anointed and empowered various leaders of Israel, including judges and kings.

However, he is not described as empowering the ordinary Israelite living under the Old Covenant. And his Personhood is very much in the background, with his work often (but not always) described in ways that suggest impersonal divine power or agency. This “low profile” and involvement chiefly with the leadership in Israel is a major difference between the Holy Spirit’s work in the Old Testament and New Testament.

The Holy Spirit begins to come out of the shadows so to speak in the New Testament. He first causes the conception of the Messiah, then later anoints and empowers his ministry (Matt. 1:20–21; Luke 1:34–35, 3:21–22). Then at Pentecost he breaks forth in full intensity, launching, empowering, and guiding the church and its mission.

This inaugurates the Age to Come, sometimes called the Age of the Spirit, which was prophesied in Joel 2:28–32 and was announced by Peter at Pentecost. From this time forward, all of God’s people—masters and servants, male and female, old and young—will receive the Spirit, and “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21).1

In the fuller light of Jesus and the church, the Holy Spirit’s personhood and his crucial role in the work of the kingdom and discipleship becomes evident. Jesus speaks most fully about the Holy Spirit in John 14–16. In these chapters, we see that far from being an impersonal force, the Spirit is a person, “another counselor” who takes Jesus’ place when he returns to the Father; the Greek word for another means one of the same kind. The Spirit is a divine person just like Jesus but, unlike Jesus, he has not become incarnate, taking on human nature and a physical body.

Yet the Spirit carries on the work of Christ and makes him personally present to us in this world. (Note the way the Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of Christ in Romans 8:9–11.) In John, Jesus goes on to say that he teaches, brings to remembrance (14:26), bears witness (15:26), convicts (16:8), guides, hears, speaks, and declares the future (16:13).

This picture is further developed in Acts, where we read that the Spirit can be lied to (Acts 5:3–11), speaks (10:19; 11:12; 13:2; 21:11), and confers (“it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” [Acts 15:28]), and forbids (Acts 16:6). And in Paul’s epistles we read, “the Spirit intercedes for us’ (Rom. 8:26), wills/decides (1 Cor. 12:11), can be experienced in fellowship (2 Cor. 13:14), can be grieved (Eph. 4:30), speaks (1 Tim. 4:1), and can be quenched (1 Thess. 5:19). In each instance, these are the actions of a personal being, not an impersonal force.

Clearly, the Holy Spirit is a divine person. And this divine person is the third person of the Trinity, as is evident in a number of other places in the Scriptures, including the baptismal formula of Matthew 28:19, “baptizing them in the name of the father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” and Paul’s benediction, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Cor. 13:14). By including the Holy Spirit with God the Father and Jesus the Son, the authors are making it very clear that the Spirit is also God.

Discovering that the Holy Spirit is not just an impersonal force but a divine person dwelling within them has revolutionized the lives of many believers. If your understanding of the Spirit has been a bit vague, ask God to give you clarity and study the passages above.

What Is the Work of the Holy Spirit?

When we survey the New Testament, we see that Jesus Christ secured our redemption; the Holy Spirit applies that redemption in our lives. Having accomplished all that the Father had given him to do, Jesus returned to heaven and is now seated at the right hand of God the Father from whence he will one day come back to judge mankind and establish his eternal kingdom.

However, he did not leave his people as orphans. Shortly after his ascension, on the Day of Pentecost, Jesus and the Father sent forth the Holy Spirit to establish the church and to carry on all that Jesus had initiated on earth. The Spirit now carries forward the work of Christ by glorifying him and applying all the benefits of his life, death, resurrection, and ascension in the lives of his people and extending his kingdom throughout the earth.

In terms of discipleship, the Holy Spirit, as his name implies, works to make people holy. He brings God’s people to salvation in Christ and then conforms them to his likeness (Rom. 8:29) and sends them out into the world in ministry. This covers the full spectrum of our life in this world.

Some examples of the Spirit’s work include empowering people to preach the gospel message (Acts 1:8; 4:31; 1 Cor. 2:1–5; 1 Thess. 1:4–5); convicting the lost of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8–11); bringing spiritual regeneration or new birth to those who trust Christ (John 3:5–6); incorporating them into the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13); adopting believers into the family of God and assuring them of sonship (Rom. 8:15–16); dwelling within believers (John 14:16–17; Rom. 8:9ff; 1 Cor. 6:19–20; Eph. 5:18; Col. 1:27); giving them a deep knowledge of Christ and his love (Eph. 3:19); illuminating the truth of Scripture (1 Cor. 2:6–13; Eph. 1:16–20); empowering believers to put to death the works of the body/flesh (Rom. 8:13; Gal. 5:16); producing the character of Jesus (fruit of the Spirit) in believers’ lives (Gal. 5:22–23); imparting gifts for ministry (1 Cor. 12:11); guiding in ministry (Acts 13:1–3; 16:6–10), and more.

As we can see, from the time we are first drawn to Christ until the day we are actively engaged in ministry and beyond, the Holy Spirit is at work in us making it happen. In which of these ways are you experiencing the Spirit’s work in your life?

What Is the Holy Spirit’s Work in Discipleship?

As we have seen, the Spirit is involved in every aspect of discipleship from start to finish. John the Baptist proclaimed that the Messiah would “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matt. 3:11). This appears in each of the Gospels as one of the distinctive features of the Messiah’s work. In John’s gospel, we get the fullest picture: Jesus is described as “the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29) and “he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit” (1:33).

The former we see on the cross, the latter on the Day of Pentecost. After his resurrection, Jesus told his disciples that “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you shall be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). This was fulfilled at Pentecost, when the Spirit created from a prayer group of 120 people, a community of empowered disciples that quickly grew to more than three thousand. Their corporate life was so attractive in joy and generosity and so electrifying in signs and wonders that it drew in many more nonbelievers to Christ (Acts 2:42–47).

Through the Spirit’s presence and power, the church grew by leaps and bounds, even in the face of intense persecution. The effects of this mighty movement of the Spirit are seen throughout the book of Acts, as more and more people are swept into the kingdom of God as it spreads through the Roman Empire.

The Spirit created a community of disciples, filling and refilling both the apostles and ordinary believers as circumstances required, empowering them to live boldly and faithfully and to speak God’s word powerfully, expanding the church.

And note: these early believers were disciples of Jesus in the same sense of that word in Luke’s gospel, as evidenced in Luke’s use of the word disciple twenty-eight times in the book of Acts to describe ordinary believers. (Later, when the gospel reached Antioch, the disciples were given the nickname “Christian” [Acts 11:26]—a name that today often no longer means disciple.) Thus the basic New Testament paradigm of the church is a community of Spirit-filled disciples, engaged in advancing the kingdom of God. This is what many congregations need to recover today.

How Do We Experience This Life in the Spirit?

Life in the Holy Spirit begins when the Spirit regenerates us and gives new birth. Prior to that we were dead in sin; afterward we are alive to God and Jesus Christ. Like the blind man whom Jesus healed, we can say, “one thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” (John 9:25).

This conversion may be sudden, as with Paul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1–17), or gradual, like Timothy (2 Tim. 1:5; 3:15), who came to faith through the nurture of his mother and grandmother. It may be dramatic, like Cornelius and his friends and relatives (Acts 10:34–48), or quiet and gentle, like Lydia (Acts 16:14). However, one thing will be true in all cases: the man or woman has come alive to God.

From new birth forward and throughout our life on earth, we are meant to live daily in the fullness of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the key to authentic Christian life—to discipleship—and without his empowerment, teaching, and guidance it is impossible to live faithfully. Is such a life available to us today? Yes, just as much as it was to the first believers. Indeed, Scripture enjoins us to seek it.

How do we live such a life? An important starting point is to “believe everything the Scriptures teach about the Holy Spirit, and expect all that the Scriptures promise from the Holy Spirit.” Summarizing all of that information in a brief article is impossible, but in what follows we will look at several important insights about living in the Spirit that can help significantly. I trust this will inspire each of us to do a careful Bible study about the Holy Spirit on our own or in a group.

Seek to Be Filled with the Holy Spirit

Early in his letter to the believers in Ephesus, the apostle Paul remembers how, “when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, [you] were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit” (Eph. 1:13). Then a couple of chapters later, he says that he is asking God,  “that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:16–19).

This remarkable prayer for a deeper experience of the Spirit and the love of Christ certainly shows that we cannot rest on one experience of the Spirit at conversion. This prayer should be a top concern for every disciple of Jesus, not only for oneself but for others in the church.

Paul has yet more to say to the Ephesians, “do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit” (5:18). The Greek verb for be filled is present tense, plural, passive voice, and imperative mood. In this text, the present imperative is a command to continuous action.

Thus, Paul is commanding (imperative mood) the entire congregation (plural) to “allow yourself (passive voice) to be continuously (present tense) filled with the Holy Spirit.” What does this mean in daily life? It has often been pointed out that when a glass is filled with water there is room for nothing else; the water is in full possession of the glass. It is the same with us and the Spirit; to be filled with the Holy Spirit is to give him full possession of our lives.

In the verses that follow, Paul describes in practical terms how being “filled with the Spirit” is worked out in relationships between husbands and wives, children and parents, slaves and masters.

This verse, too, highlights the fact that we cannot rest on one experience of the Spirit at conversion but need to be filled with the Spirit again and again. Why is once not enough? “Because,” as someone said, “we leak badly.” That is, we yield to sin, which interrupts our fellowship with the Spirit until we confess, repent, and seek to be filled afresh.

Walk in the Spirit

In his letter to the Galatian church, Paul says, “walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (5:16). Here walk is also a present imperative verb, indicating continuous action. The word walk is a figurative term in the New Testament for one’s personal conduct, the way one lives his or her life.

Like the Ephesians, the Galatians had received the Holy Spirit at conversion (3:3). Paul is here exhorting them to continue living in the Spirit’s power and resist the temptation to live under the law and in the flesh.

How this works in daily experience is clarified when he speaks of serving one another through love, which occurs as they are “led by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:18). Here again we have a passive voice in led, meaning they are to allow themselves to be led, directed by the Spirit. They are to yield, surrendering themselves to the Spirit’s moral guidance.

If they do so, they will neither “gratify the desires of the flesh” (5:16) nor live “under the law” (5:18). And the result will be that the Spirit will be able to manifest his indwelling presence in their lives in the form of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (5:22). This is a good description of the character of Jesus, into whose likeness the Spirit is seeking to shape all believers.

But this isn’t just a matter of personal holiness. Each of these characteristics has an interpersonal dimension. Thus, as these disciples walk by the Spirit, their congregational life as a whole will reflect Christ to the watching world.

Do Not Grieve the Holy Spirit

Paul describes the attitudinal and behavioral implications of the new life in the Spirit in several places, including Ephesians 4. In the immediate context of sins of the tongue, he warns the believers in Ephesus: “do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (v. 30). This is a very serious warning, evidenced by Paul’s use of the formal description “the Holy Spirit of God.” Perhaps he was also thinking of Jesus’ words, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:36–37).

In today’s church, many people do not appear to be aware of the seriousness of sins of the tongue or the connection between sinful words and our fellowship with the Spirit. We must always remember that the Holy Spirit is holy and therefore easily offended and grieved by sin. Our unholy words and attitudes cause him to withdraw and distance himself from us. And when he does so, we will have not only a diminished sense of his presence but also a reduction of his power.

This makes us more vulnerable to other, greater sins and temptations. As James 3:6 says, “the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the whole course of life, and set on fire by hell.”

What specific sins does Paul have in mind when he says do not grieve the Spirit? From the context, it is clear that any form of unwholesome or corrupting talk is in view. Gossip, slander, cursing, dirty jokes, lies, critical comments about others are some obvious examples.

Such evil speaking offends God, can corrupt others, and can lead them into the sin of spreading an evil report. And not least, it can trigger a ripple effect that does great damage to those who are the object of our sinful comments.

If we would walk in the Spirit and not grieve him, if we would enjoy close fellowship with him and have his power to overcome sin and grow in Christlikeness, we must bridle our tongue. If we cannot speak well of another, we should remain quiet. And whenever we do speak, we must be careful to “let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29).

In other words, our speech is never to be sinful but always to be gracious and uplifting to those with whom we speak, as befits people of grace and love. If we will discipline our tongues, James 3:2 tells us that we will be able to bridle our whole body. This is a major key to walking in the Spirit. Many of us have sinned with our tongues. It is one of the most common of the “respectable sins” believers regularly commit. But confession and repentance opens the door to restored fellowship with the Holy Spirit.

Grieving the Holy Spirit and impairing our fellowship with him obviously is not limited to the misuse of the tongue. There is a wide range of other sins that have the same effect.

Do Not Quench the Spirit

Quenching the Holy Spirit is quite different from grieving him. In his closing instructions to the believers in Thessalonica, Paul says, “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast to what is good. Abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thess. 5:19–22). The gift of prophetic utterance was among those the Spirit had distributed to believers after Pentecost and was highly commended by Paul (1 Cor. 14:29–33, 39). Those who exercised this gift received messages from God to share with individuals or the congregation (Acts 11:27–29; 21:10–12; 15:31; 21:8–9).

This was not prophecy on the level of that given by the Old Testament prophets (and thus inspired Scripture or doctrine) but was focused on circumstances of personal or church life, as in Acts and 1 Corinthians 14. It is very likely that this is what Paul is addressing in Thessalonica. Today, many in the church around the world believe this gift is still in operation. Others disagree and believe that it was phased out after the canon of Scripture was finalized. However, one’s position on this question does not change the relevance and application of Paul’s exhortation.

The larger point of this passage is that we should not despise any communication which might be from God. Rather, we should test and discern whether it actually is from God. It is our responsibility to discern the teaching of that word to ensure it is correct. We are to be like the Bereans, whom Luke commended: “they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11).

Any message, sermon, lecture, or prophetic utterance must be tested by its agreement with what the Spirit has already said in Scripture, for he is the Spirit of Truth, who inspired the writing of the Scriptures and cannot contradict himself. When Scripture speaks, God speaks. What agrees with Scripture we are to hold fast, embrace, and obey. What does not, we must reject. As we carefully study the Scripture and obey it as God’s direction for our lives, we will grow and mature in Christlikeness.

The life of discipleship is possible only through the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Discipleship, the Christian life, does not work on any other basis. Only as we daily allow him to fill us by consciously yielding ourselves to his presence and direction can we walk as Jesus walked, do the work he has called us to do, and experience transformation into his likeness.

This article has only touched briefly on a few important aspects of the Holy Spirit and his work. There is much more to learn. If you want to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ, a thorough study of what the Bible teaches about the Holy Spirit is essential.

1.  Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version.

Thomas A. Tarrants

Author, President Emeritus, CSLI & CSLI City Director for Washington D.C.

Thomas A. Tarrants, Author, is President Emeritus of the C.S. Lewis Institute. After serving twelve years as president and nine years as vice President, he retired from his position as Vice President for Ministry and Director, Washington Area Fellows Program, with CSLI in June 2019. Tom holds a Masters of Divinity Degree, as well as a Doctor of Ministry Degree in Christian Spirituality. He is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Church Alliance and a member of the Evangelical Theological Society. Going forward, Tom will be spending his time writing, mentoring, consulting and traveling. His life story is told in  Consumed by Hate, Redeemed by Love,  published by Thomas Nelson Publishers. 

COPYRIGHT: This publication is published by C.S. Lewis Institute; 8001 Braddock Road, Suite 301; Springfield, VA 22151. Portions of the publication may be reproduced for noncommercial, local church or ministry use without prior permission. Electronic copies of the PDF files may be duplicated and transmitted via e-mail for personal and church use. Articles may not be modified without prior written permission of the Institute. For questions, contact the Institute: 703.914.5602 or email us.

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“Here, in Far Home”, a worship poem from L.Willows (Sovereign God, A New Day, New Heaven New Earth)

Here in Far Home

Walk with me, linger, in season’s sweet hue,
Throughout life’s fullness, like diamonds in the dew.
Mornings will come, far from this view,
warmed by a Sun that will give us renew.

Stilled by the dawn, silent and hushed,
Our prayers lift upward, like dreams forward rushed.
God of all morrows, Time listens in;
here we walk forward, framed by His Begin.

Walk into His season, walk with me now,
Yet cherish this moment, the one God allows.
Linger to shed His bounty of Love,
here in our far home near Heaven above.

© 2020 Linda Willows

Isaiah 46:9-10- “Remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.”

2 Peter 3:13 -“But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”

Psalm 84:11-“For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favor and honor. No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly.”

“The Renewed Mind and The Holy Spirit”, from John Piper (True Freedom, Christ Exalting Truth)

The Renewed Mind and How to Have It

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 not come 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 17:2Mark 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

This is why the Christian life — though it is utterly submitted (Romans 8:710:3), even enslaved (Romans 6:1822) to the revealed will of God — is described in the New Testament as radically free.

“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 4:23 Paul 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 What Is Saving Faith?