Understanding the Bible

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(I first heard this phrase used by Dick Lucas, now Emeritus Rector of St Helen's Church, Bishopsgate, in the City of London. The title is his, the article is mine)

For the last 40 years it has been the mood and fashion in evangelical circles to ignore or play-down the role of the mind in spiritual matters. There has been an unhelpful dichotomy between 'head-knowledge' and 'heart knowledge'. It is understandable where this has come from. It is a reaction to formal religion and what has often been seen as dry orthodoxy. Neither of these have appeared to show any 'life'. The diagnosis has been that faith has been only in the head - a matter of mental assent - but not in the heart - where it should stimulate the will to dynamic living and witness. Much of this diagnosis is probably right, but it has led some of us down the wrong path. It has often led to a marked decrease in the desire to read and study the Bible, depending more on subjective experience than on knowing biblical instruction and perspectives.

This mood was so already evident and widespread by 1967, that John Stott felt compelled to give his annual address that year to the IVF Conference on the subject "Your Mind Matters" - a particularly  pointed title for an audience of those who one would have thought to be committed to knowing and thinking.

The fundamental question which has to be faced is 'How are we to live the Christian life?'. The first thing to note is that our 'sanctification' * (the process by which we hope to become more like Christ) is not substitutionary. Our 'justification' * (the declaration of our innocence before God) is the work that Christ did FOR US. He was our substitute; we did nothing towards it; it was substitutionary.   * For further explanation of these two terms, please turn to the 'Doctrine for Everyone' page on this site, where several articles will be helpful - especially No.5 "What is the Gospel".

The Spirit of God works in us to will and to do.

But he does not propose to do the willing and the doing.

But our sanctification is different; God does not do it for us, we have to do it - in the strength He gives, for sure, but we have to do it! So how?

According to Romans 12:1,2 we have to have renewed minds! In v.2 'Do not be conformed' sounds like a command, but the next main phrase 'but be transformed' has a different sense. It is in the passive voice which means that it is not something we do to ourselves. This a reference to the transforming and renewing work of the Holy Spirit in us. But it is also in the imperative voice indicating that we have a vital part to play in it. We must co-operate in that transforming and renewing work by allowing and promoting the work of the Spirit. Let's look at some other verses.

1. Titus 3:5b, 6. Here it describes the main and primary work of renewal by the Spirit as taking place at our justification - in fact v.7 mentions that very same thing. Our rebirth and renewal are spoken of together.

2. 2 Cor.3:18 - the Spirit's sanctifying work  goes on - 'we .... are being transformed..'

3. Phil.2:12,13 - God works in us so that we 'will' (or 'want') to act the way He wants. We must do it!

Let's delve into this more deeply. See first Col.1:21 - we were God's enemies in our minds - that's what it says! Now Eph.4:17 and following - here Paul graphically describes the state of the minds of those who not believe (in the NIV he calls them 'gentiles' meaning heathens or pagans - unbelievers at any rate). He says their minds are futile in their thinking, darkened in their understanding, separated from the life of God, and ignorant. A pretty devastating description! And what does it lead to?  -  ungodly lives - lost all sensitivity, indulging in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more! The mind is wrong, the life is wrong.

'You, however,' says Paul 'did not come to know Christ that way' (RSV: 'did not learn Christ')  Notice the references to the mind - 'know' and 'learn'. V.21 'you were taught with the truth'. Again v.22 you were 'taught'. taught'. Then v.23 'to be made new in the attitude of your 'minds'. It was in the arena of our minds that God worked to show us Jesus Christ. And the state of our minds - 'ignorant' or 'taught' - will work out in our living.

So to achieve godly living our minds have to be right first. Romans 8:5 puts this clearly: 'those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what nature desires ' but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires'. Our work, with the help of God, is to set our minds in the right place.

There are other convincing references. See Phil.1:9-11. What does Paul ask God to fill us with? - hunches, intuition? No, with 'the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding.' .... v.10 ... in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in everyway'. Certainly the issue is that we must live worthily but the set of our minds comes first to that end. And what does Paul want for the Christians in Laodicea (Col.2:2) 'the full riches of complete understanding.'

 Again in urging us to live to please God Paul says 'Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its creator.'

The Scriptures often refer to 'the heart' as referring to the whole person - mind and will and soul. Other times heart and mind are taken together to speak of  total commitment. Moses in Deut. 6:5 'Love the Lord with all your heart.....soul... and strength.' Jesus in Matt. 22:37 'Love the Lord with all your heart ....soul....and mind.' David in Ps.26:2 'examine my heart and my mind'. They go together.

We must agree that the heart must follow the mind. What we want to re-assert is that the heart must not go it alone without the mind! To live differently we must think differently. But also, we can only live the way God wants by our minds being informed and convinced of what God wants ie transformed. In 2 Cor.11:3 Paul expresses the fear that the Corinthian Christians will allow their minds to be led astray from their 'sincere and pure devotion to Christ'. Where the mind wanders, the heart will follow.

Back in Col.1:28 Paul says 'We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom (all operating on the mind), so that we may present everyone perfect (mature) in Christ.'

Now if we are in Christian leadership, surely one of chief aims to bring believers to maturity and to maintain their maturity in Christ. Do not the verses we have examined convince us that we must seek to bring peoples' minds into conformity with what God wants? And where will we find what God wants? In the Scriptures. We must not shirk our responsibility to teach the Scriptures so that we all, teacher and hearers, co-operate with the work of the Spirit in the transforming of minds.

In James 3:13-18 we are shown the contrast between earthly wisdom and heavenly wisdom. 'Who is wise and understanding among you?' It is the nature of the wisdom and understanding - their sources - which define the living results. Many see in v.17 James' version of the fruits of the Spirit of Gal.6:22,23. The Spirit likes wisdom and understanding! James 1:5 'If any of you lacks wisdom let him ask God who gives generously to all.' That God is willing and able to give us wisdom is affirmed by the Bible in its promises: Prov.3:6  'he will make your paths straight.'; commands: Eph.5:17 'Do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord's will is.'; prayers: Col.4:12 'that you may stand firm in all the will of God mature and full assured.'

Psalm 32:8: ' I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you and watch over you.'

So we must allow the Spirit of God to teach us from the Word of God about the Son of God and how to live to please Him.

There is one more aspect of this matter that we must examine before we leave it. For some of those who have abandoned mind in favour of heart, it has led to living by feeling and experience rather than by the instruction of Scripture. Unfortunately, using experience as the test of everything, is the way the world works. The world says that if something works to my benefit or enjoyment, then it is good.  The Christian well-versed in the Bible could never say that. Only what God permits or encourages is good and right. What appears to be 'good' can obscure what is the 'best'.

Those who have embraced the subjective of experience over and against the objective of God's teaching have missed the importance of all that we have been considering. But the crucial point is reached  when the issue of authority becomes confused. For far too many Christians today their authority for living is 'the voice within'. Their subjectivism has become so overwhelming that they have come to regard the teaching of Scripture as insufficient or dry and boring compared with the excitement of subjective experience, which given the complexity of human feelings and mental processes, never fails to produce something new. They have even been known to use 2 Cor.3:6 'for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life' as a warrant for thinking that what (supposedly) the Spirit says within them is superior to what the Scriptures say. This verse is not speaking about this matter at all, but comparing the 'letter' of the OT written law, which, because we cannot keep it perfectly, condemns us, while the Spirit pointing us to Christ (who obeyed the written Law perfectly on our behalf) brings us life.

Our authority for believing and living must always be the teaching of the Word of God. That is true wisdom and understanding.  Where should our eyes be riveted? On the paucity of our own performance as Christians? Where should our hearts and minds be focussed, on the world around us or on our experience, good as it may be? See what God says in Col.3:1-3 ..

'Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.'

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