The importance of right thinking by the Christian for his progressive sanctification is a recurring theme in the Word of God. Before one can carefully follow instructions given by God, he must know what those instructions are, and in many cases he must also know the reason for the instruction. In addition, it is from the heart of man, the inner part of himself, that all actions flow (Mark 7:20-23); he will never do anything that his heart has not already convinced or allowed him to do. For these reasons, the mind is the critical battleground for the growth in holiness of the believer.
And yet it is not the mere long-term storage space of the mind – the “hard disk drive” – that is the most critical part of the Christian inner man. Rather, it is his meditations, his constant ponderings – the “RAM” – that serve as the most important part.
Knowledge is a crucial foundation, but it is merely a foundation, and should not be confused with thinking, which is what one does with that knowledge moment-by-moment. The Christian must not be content to learn the Word of God and stick in a filing cabinet, but must keep it in his hand, as it were, at every hour of the day. This is the mandate of Scripture in numerous places (Psalm 1, Deut 6:6-9).
Two particular areas in the New Testament are helpful to analyze in order to understand what should be going on in the mind of the Christian who would become ever more like his Lord Jesus Christ. The first of these is…
A Proper View of Yourself
The sixth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans gives one example of the need to have a correct self-conception, namely that of knowing who oneself is in Jesus Christ and actively reckoning that to be the case. Having established in chapters 1-5 the foundation that all men are utterly sinful and that salvation comes by God’s grace alone, Paul responds to a question that could logically arise from such a doctrine of grace: why not sin more so that we get more grace (Rom. 6:1)?
His answer is interesting, for he does not refute the premise that more sin brings more grace. Instead, he focuses on a different reality: the true state of the now-converted Christian. He responds that the Christian has died to sin, and therefore wonders how in the world he could still live in that sin. He then expounds this doctrine in detail, going to great length to remind the Roman Christians they have died to sin, they are freed from bondage, and alive to God in Jesus Christ (Rom. 6:3-10).
Then, on the basis of this reality, Paul gives this instruction: “Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11). He says, in a word, “Think of yourselves as being what you actually are in God’s sight.” When a Christian thinks of himself in relation to sin or to God, he is to think in these terms. Doing so will lead him then to put away sin and to present himself to God for righteousness (Rom. 6:12-14).
Due to the universality of these truth among all Christians, this is a valid response not only to the reason for sin proposed in Romans 6:1, but to any rationalization of sin by a believer. He has died to sin and been raised with Christ; he must act like it! And to act like it he must absolutely reckon it to be the case.
Another example of a right view of self for the Christian is to “remember” certain things about himself. A shining illustration of this is Paul’s instruction for the Ephesian Christians to “remember” their former state before Christ (Eph. 2:11-12). They were lacking any spiritual blessing due to their status as Gentiles, but now in Christ Jesus had been brought near to every spiritual blessing. Paul’s solitary instruction in the first three chapters of the epistle is this: remember where you came from (and, implicitly, how that magnifies the blessing you have now received).
A third example of viewing oneself rightly is to consider others more important than oneself (Phil. 2:3). This is certainly opposed to the natural mindset! Yet it is the example given by the very Son of God Himself, Jesus Christ, when He humbled Himself even unto death (2:5-8). The change in conduct of someone who has this attitude of being less important than everyone else is certain to be substantial.
If the thoughts instructed in these examples are kept in the mind of the believer, from there will flow such actions as obedience, thankfulness, and praise to God as a result of His grace. On the other hand, if he forgets these, the believer will drift from the purposes of living “to the praise of His glory” and of walking in good works prepared by God (Eph. 1:14, 2:10), and his life invariably will be filled with fruitless thoughts and actions leading to unholiness. There is no “neutral ground” in the arena of the mind; one is either sowing to the spirit or sowing to the flesh, and he will indeed reap what he sows (Gal 6:8).
Not all Christian thinking, however, is to be focused upon the self. Though this first area of Christian thinking is necessary, it is not solitary, and possibly not even primary, because the second area is so critical, namely…
Keeping the right content in your mind.
God seeks true worshippers (John 4:23-24) and worship, by its very nature, focuses on giving praise and honor to someone else. Therefore, if a Christian’s thoughts are always focused inward, concerned about himself – no matter how true his analysis may be – his purpose will be missed, as it is to be directed God-ward. What, then, is to be the predominant focus of the Christian mind?
The answer to this question is found near the end of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Having exhorted the Philippians to live in harmony, rejoice in the Lord, and be anxious for nothing (Phil. 4:1-7), he gives them this command: “Finally, brethren, whatever is true…honorable…right…pure…lovely…of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things” (Phil. 4:8).
There are two facets of this instruction: 1) the acceptability of thinking on what is true, etc., and 2) the requirement of keeping these things in mind at all times.
Much is made today about “meditating on the gospel” and “preaching the gospel to yourself” daily. This is a great practice. But it is not merely the gospel per se that is to be meditated upon, but all of God’s word. The Law of Yahweh is specifically mentioned as a source of extreme blessing for the one who meditates upon it (Psalm 1:1-2).
In the New Testament, Christian thinking is also upon the word in general, but is oriented especially towards future glory. Peter tells his suffering readers that, girding up the loins of their mind – gathering every loose thought – they must fix their hope completely on God’s coming grace at Christ’s return (1 Pet. 1:13). This is to be coupled with their obedience and holiness as spiritual children of the Holy One himself (1:14-16).
John continues this theme in his first epistle, telling his readers that the person whose hope is fixed on Christ and his return purifies himself in the same way that Christ is pure (1 John 3:3). Again it is plain how particular thoughts are inextricably linked to a believer’s progressive sanctification.
Paul joins this theme and exhorts the Colossians to think of the right object by setting their mind in heaven and not on the earth (3:1-2). He also ties this in with the believer’s glory in Christ and the need of sanctification (3:3-5).
However, it is not just these thoughts of future glory, but of the word of God as a whole, that are to be the object of the Christian’s mind at all times. Nothing is even comparable as a substitute for it in the area of constant pondering.
Two critical areas of Christian thinking, then, are one’s understanding of his own identity in Christ and his rumination upon the truth of the word of God. As the believer grows in his knowledge of the word, he will be able to think even better, but his pondering of the these things is essential at all stages of the Christian life. When a believer not only knows accurately but constantly thinks accurately, the blessing of a life growing in godliness will be his.