Unless Otherwise Noted, All Scripture is Taken from the English Standard Version (ESV)
If you’re a believer in the Lord Jesus, then you know instinctively that you don’t belong to this world, but to the one that’s coming. We know this for the same reason that we know we are children of God – the Holy Spirit reveals it to our spirits (Romans 8:16). And if we’ve been born again into God’s family, then we know we’ve been rescued from this present evil world, and transferred into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son.
Why is it then, that so many of us think and act so much like the sinful world around us? Why are so many Christians so much like the unbelievers around them? The main answer is that there’s a disease of earthly-mindedness and spiritual immaturity infecting most Christians in the western world. So how do we know if our thinking is earthly or spiritual? And how can we stop thinking so much like the world, and increasingly think in a spiritual and heavenly way?
If You Think Like the World, then You Belong to the World
The first reason for earthly-mindedness among those who claim to believe in the Lord Jesus is that most of them are fakes. This doesn’t always mean that they’re intentionally pretending to be believers, but the fact is that Scripture often warns of fake faith in the Lord Jesus. And one sure sign that you don’t actually trust Jesus to be your Lord and Savior is that your thinking is earthly.
But what is earthly-mindedness? First of all, it’s thinking that views this world as the source of one’s ultimate satisfaction and purpose. Paul describes such thinking in his letter to the Ephesians, where he urges his audience to stop living like the unbelieving world around them:
“. . . 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. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.” – 4:17b-19
In the case of the Gentiles who lived around the Ephesians, they found their ultimate satisfaction in practicing “sensuality”. The general sense of this word is an obsession with pleasing the physical senses, but the Gentiles did this by practicing “every kind of impurity”, especially sexual impurity. The reason for this is that they lived as if the highest goal in life was to gain as much pleasure as possible, since they had no firm belief in an afterlife determined by one’s behavior here.
Yet this earthly-mindedness isn’t confined to those who claim no allegiance to Christ. Paul warns of professing Christians with this mindset in his letter to the Philippians, encouraging them to follow his example in contrast to the example of others:
“Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.” – 3:17-19
Here, Paul explicitly says that these fake believers focus their thinking on “earthly things”. They show this by the fact that “their god is their belly”, or “appetite”, and that they boast “in their shame”. These characteristics speak of people who live to satisfy their physical appetites, and who rejoice in the shameful way they live.
There is one perfect way of summing up the lifestyle of earthly thinking. Paul details it in his description of the downward spiral of non-Jewish mankind into deeper and deeper depravity, found in Romans 1:21-23, 25:
“For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things . . . they exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”
Paul’s last description in this passage sums up the essence and results of earthly thinking. To focus on the things of this world is to worship the creation rather than the Creator.
The apostle John gives a dire warning to believers in his first letter, where he forbids his audience from loving this world:
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world – the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life – is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. – 1 John 2:15-17
In this passage, John gives us yet a more detailed description of earthly-mindedness. He first calls it “loving the world”. We think most about that which we love most, so to be obsessed with the world is to love the world, and that excludes “the love of the Father”, or for the Father. But John gives three main characteristics of loving the world:
- The desires of the flesh, or sinful human nature.
- The desires of the eyes, or sinful desires that are excited by one’s vision.
- The pride of life, or taking pride in one’s condition, or possessions, in life.
If anyone loves any of these things, then it proves that they love the world, and have no love for God.
So, are you characterized by any of these things? Or are there any professing Christians in your life that demonstrate earthly-mindedness through their practice of sensuality, greediness, or obsession with satisfying their physical appetites, their lust for beautiful things, or with their station or possessions in life? All these things are indicators of someone who sets their mind on earthly things, and isn’t trusting Jesus to satisfy their greatest needs of peace, joy, and God’s forgiveness. The only solution for earthly-mindedness is a belief that this world is merely a corrupted creation of the holy Creator; that I am naturally an evil and condemned part of that creation; and that God sent His Son to become a man, to suffer and die for our evil, and to rise from the dead into heaven as the only representative who will provide me with God’s forgiveness and mercy if I give up on my rebellion and trust in Him to save me from God’s wrath. Please make sure you’re trust is in Jesus to save you from this present evil world, which is passing away.
How Do Believers Think in Earthly Ways?
Having said that the biggest reason for earthly-mindedness among Christians is that most of them are fake Christians, it’s still possible for true believers to think in earthly ways. In the western world, such thinking is a plague among the body of Christ, since most of us have never grown out of an oppressive amount of false beliefs, sinful desires, and wrongly-placed affections. Most true believers in the West think and act with a dangerous likeness to the unbelievers around them. And the reason for this is that they’re so often setting their minds on earthly things, rather than on spiritual things.
So what are some major ways in which immature believers think like the world? I’ve recognized seven that I’ve noticed throughout my Christian life.
- Thinking that we’re meant to have comfortable and/or successful lives in terms of our social status or wealth. In the U.S., this is the American mindset, and part of “the American dream”. Just because you live in a comfortable society doesn’t mean you should live a comfortable life.
- Thinking that raising a family is the best way to please the Lord. To be sure, this is one of the best purposes of a godly husband or wife, but it isn’t the “ideal” Christian life.
- Thinking that retirement is the goal of your work career. The goal of work is to make Christ known through your service of others, not to get by until you have enough money to live on for the last third or quarter of your life.
- Thinking that we have to live the same way, or have the same things, as everyone else in our society. In fact, we ought not to live in the same way as our society, which is anti-Christian.
- By obsessing over, or being devoted to, entertainment. Entertainment isn’t an end in itself, but should be used as an instrument to impart knowledge.
- By obsessing over, or being unnecessarily devoted to, political events, organizations, or causes. Politics can have its place in the Christian life, but it’s only one inferior way of influencing people for good.
- By obsessing over, or being devoted to, sports. Sports can be used to promote one’s health, to develop relationships, and to teach important skills, but they should never be the main passion of a Christian’s life.
How to Think Increasingly Spiritually
Renew Your Mind
Paul gives us the basic instructions for how to grow in our spiritual thinking in many of his letters, but the most important set is found in his letter to the Romans, beginning his long series of exhortations in the last main section of 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 [reasonable] 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 . . .” – Romans 12:1-2a
First of all, we begin to think rightly by relying on “the mercies of God”, or the blessings that He’s richly bestowed on us by saving us, and turning us into His children. We can’t change our thinking simply through our own effort, but only through the gracious power of God that turned us from darkness into light, and changed our minds about God, Jesus, and ourselves.
Second, we must daily make a conscious decision to serve and worship God. This is what Paul means when he commands the Romans to “present [their] bodies as a living sacrifice”. By “bodies”, Paul not only means the physical part of them, but all that they are. And the only way we can do this in a way that God will accept is if we offer ourselves to Him by His mercies. In other words, again, we’re not doing this based on our ability, but on His work for us and in us. And Paul describes this presentation of ourselves as our “reasonable worship”. In other words, by offering ourselves to God in His service and work in this world, we are worshiping Him in the only way that makes sense.
But how do we offer ourselves to God as sacrifices in His service? First, by avoiding conformity to this world. This is an essential prerequisite for having our minds renewed. We must recognize and avoid the spiritual and intellectual influences of this evil world. By “this world”, Paul means the system of beliefs and behaviors that are held and practiced by natural, sinful, humanity under the enslaving power of the devil. As such, it seeks to attack us with its sinful and evil influences, in order to keep us from worshiping and serving God. It does this through our daily experiences of it, which are mainly imparted to us through the people of this world, but also through the media of advertising, the Internet, and entertainment devices. It’s essential that we make every effort to avoid being “conformed”, or “shaped into”, the behaviors and thinking of this evil world.
But we can’t stop there, since our thinking must be changed. That’s why Paul next urges the Romans to be transformed through the renewal of their minds. The word “renewal” speaks of making something new, and in this context, it refers to the restoration, or renovation, of our minds into right thinking and true beliefs. And the only thing that can renew our minds is the truth taught by Scripture, through our faith in it.
Finally, Paul explains that the purpose of the renewal of our minds is so that we will “discern the will of God”, through “testing”. This means that we’ll be able to find out what God’s will is for us and our specific situations, since our thinking has been renewed in such a way that we understand more of who God is, and who we are as His children.
Dwell on Heavenly Things
The second main way that we grow in our spiritual thinking is by intensely focusing our thinking on heavenly things, rather than on earthly things. Paul gives the basis and manner of this discipline in the second half of his letter to the Colossians:
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.
First, Paul describes the basis of our heavenly thinking. When he says, “if”, he means “since”, or “because”, we’ve been raised with Christ, we’re to do what he says. In other words, the main reason we’re to think in a heavenly way is that we’ve been spiritually raised from the dead with Christ, and taken into heaven with Him. This is due to the fact that, when we trusted in Him as our Lord and Savior, we became a part of Him through His Spirit. Now, since we’re “in Him” so as to be a part of Him, God treats us as if we have the same status and position as Him. Because He’s in heaven as a glorified person, so are we. We now live not as inhabitants of this world, but of heaven, and the world that’s going to come.
Hence, we ought to think as if we’re inhabitants of the new, perfect, and sinless kingdom of God that’s coming. That’s why Paul first urges the Colossians to “seek the things that are above”. And what are the things above? The things that belong in heaven, such as righteousness, holiness, truth, justice, love, peace, and joy.
Once we’re seeking heavenly things, then we’re in a position to think about heavenly things. Which is why Paul next commands the Colossians to “set [their] minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth”. To “set” something somewhere is to fix, or land, it there, so to fix our minds on heavenly things is to focus or dwell on them. Paul is saying that we need to devote our thinking to heavenly concepts, ideas, or truths, so that we’re deeply thinking about them on a regular basis. The discipline required for this type of thinking is referred to in the Old Testament as “meditation”. If our hearts are seeking to experience heavenly things, then we’ll naturally want to think about them.
And where are those heavenly things found? Only in the teaching of Scripture. So, in order to set our minds on heavenly things, we must be daily setting our minds on the truths of Scripture.
Off with the Old, On with the New
The next major step and result of our heavenly thinking is to let our new beliefs lead to the ceasing of sin, and the beginning of good behavior. Paul summarizes these disciplines in the part of Ephesians following the one quoted before:
. . . assuming that you have heard about him [Christ] and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. – Ephesians 4:21-24
[this section is from my exposition on these verses from an earlier article, and all Scripture is taken from the American Standard Version]
First, Paul explains how the Ephesians learned Christ:
“. . . if [it] be that ye heard him, and were taught in him, even as truth is in Jesus . . .”
The “if” here would be better translated “since”, since Paul’s not calling into question whether or not the Ephesians heard and were taught in Jesus, but simply reminding them that they were.
First, Paul says that they “heard him”. This doesn’t mean that they audibly heard Jesus speaking to them, but that they heard one of His representatives, speaking on His behalf, speaking to them, and that they understood and believed that Jesus was speaking through that representative. This doesn’t merely mean that they heard the gospel, but that they believed it as well. As Jesus Himself puts it in John 10:27:
“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me . . .”
In fact, Paul has already spoken of Jesus speaking to the Ephesians in Ephesians 2:17:
“. . . he came and preached peace to you that were far off . . .”
What is the peace that Paul is talking about? Peace with God through Christ dying for our sins and rising from the dead.
Second, Paul says that the Ephesians “were taught in” Christ. Not only did they hear His voice in the good news of the gospel, but they were also taught to be a certain way as a result. Paul will explain what that way is in the next verse, but for now he says that they were taught “in” Christ, or taught because they were spiritually united to Christ through faith in the gospel that they heard. Because they were put into Christ, all that is true of His humanness became true of them spiritually, so being taught to be like Him necessarily followed becoming united to Him in spirit.
Finally, Paul ends this antithesis to empty and evil living by emphasizing that what the Ephesians learned, heard, and were taught was truth because “truth is in Jesus”. Now, why does Paul move from using the title “Christ” to the name “Jesus”? Because here he’s emphasizing that what Jesus, as Jesus of Nazareth, taught while on earth, is the basis for all New Testament truth, and that His perfect life on earth is the embodiment of that truth. This is the truth that the Ephesians believe, and ought to embody as well.
So, what were the Ephesians taught when they learned and heard Christ when they became Christians? First, the off-putting of their Godlessness:
“. . . ye did not so learn Christ . . . and were taught in him . . . that ye put away, as concerning your former manner of life, the old man . . .”
The words “put away” would be better translated “lay aside” or “put off”, since Paul is picturing taking off clothes with his Greek. So, what were the Ephesians taught to take off?
First, they were taught to take off “the old man”. The Greek word translated “man” is anthropos, which simply means “human being”. But why does Paul call this person the old person? Because he’s referring to the person that the Ephesians were before they were Christians. Paul gave another description of this old man in Ephesians 2:1-3:
“And ye were dead through your trespasses and sins, wherein ye once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the powers of the air, of the spirit that now worketh in the sons of disobedience; among whom we also all once lived in the lusts of our flesh, doing the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath . . .”
This is the old man that the Ephesians were taught to take off of themselves. But Paul doesn’t say that they were taught to take him himself off of themselves, but “concerning [their] former manner of life”. In other words, it wasn’t their responsibility to take off the old man by themselves, since they couldn’t do it — they were the old man! Rather, the only thing they could do, since they were no longer the old person, was to take off their manner of life. In other words, they were to stop living as if they were the old person still.
So, what were they taught to stop doing?
- walking according to the course of the world
- living in the lusts of their flesh
- fulfilling the desires of their flesh and minds
- thinking worthlessly
- failing to understand reality
- failing to know God lovingly
- hardening their hearts
- giving themselves to sensuality
- practicing uncleanness with greediness
After reminding the Ephesians that they were taught to take off their old way of life, he gives them another reason to continue to do so — the ongoing eradication of it:
“. . . the old man, that [is being corrupted in accordance with] the lusts of deceit . . .”
Not only is the old person whom they once were separated from them as a result of taking him off, but he is “being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit”. The word “corrupted” literally means to “spoil” or “shrivel”, and pictures something wasting away, and becoming more useless than it already is. In the same way, the old person that the Ephesians once were is still becoming more and more corrupted. That is, wherever this old human nature exists, it always tends to get worse.
But why? Paul says “after [or in accordance with] the lusts of deceit”. The word “lusts” literally means strong, urgent, desire, so Paul is referring to the strong, urgent, desires of the old human nature. However, it’s not just those desires in general, but specifically the lusts “of deceit”. What does this mean? The word “of” serves the purpose modifying “lusts”, so that it could be translated “lusts that bring deceit”. And what is “deceit”? It is falsehood, or error — false information which is used to deceive. So, Paul is saying that the increasing corruption of the old person is in accordance with, or as a result of , the deceitful and strong desires of the old, evil, human nature. That is, its deceitful and evil lusts lead to further corruption.
So, Paul reminds the Ephesians that they were taught to take off their old selves’ way of life, in part because he is being corrupted. But they were also taught to do something constructive. First, they were taught to submit to the operating evolution of godliness:
“. . . and that ye be renewed in the spirit of your mind . . .”
After just saying that their old selves were basically being destroyed, Paul now says that they were taught in order to be made new. This isn’t something that they did, but something that the Holy Spirit did to them.
So, what is it? Well, first it’s a renewal. The word renewal is very simple to understand. It has 2 parts — re- and -newal. Literally, it means to “be made new again”.
But what does Paul say was renewed? “The spirit of [their] mind”. What does Paul mean by this, since it’s clear that he doesn’t just mean that their minds were renewed? Well, first we must remember what he means by “mind”. It is that immaterial, or spiritual, part of a person that thinks, understands, believes, and knows things. In other words, it really is the heart of the person. But what is the spirit of the mind? Well, it can’t refer to another immaterial part of a person, since every person is only one in essence.
It might help to think about the way that “spirit” is used in Scripture. The word “spirit” is translated from the Greek word, pneuma, which could also be literally translated “wind”, “air”, or “breath”. It’s also used in the New Testament to refer to God the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity. Often in Scripture, the word “spirit” is used to refer to an animating power which gives life, such as when God blew spirit into the nostrils of Adam, and he became a living being. Also, in many places in the Bible, the Spirit of God is said in some way or another to give life, such as when Jesus said “it is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh profits nothing” in John. Given all these common usages of the word “spirit”, it’s right to see Paul’s use of the word in our passage as referring to an animating, or empowering, principle, which governs the mind. To put it another way, when Paul says “the spirit of your mind”, he’s referring to the direction, or disposition, of the Ephesians’ minds.
Hence, Paul is telling the Ephesians that they were taught in order that the governing principle, or direction, of their minds would be made new, so that they would no longer have futile minds, but useful and fruitful minds that were enlightened, connected to the life of God, acknowledging God, and embracing the gospel.
As a result of this renewal, Paul goes on, the Ephesians were taught to bring about the on-putting of godliness:
“. . . and put on the new man . . .”
Since they had taken off the old person that they once were by leaving their former lifestyles, and since they had had the spirit of their minds renewed, they were taught to put on the new man, or the man that they now were. In fact, just as Paul’s statement that they had taken off the old man by taking off his way of life indicated a once and for all change, so does this one. When they believed the gospel, they did in fact put on the new man, since they had become him.
How do I know that? One reason is that Paul ends this passage by describing the original excellence of this new person:
“. . . that after [the likeness of] God hath been created in righteousness and holiness of truth.”
The reason I said that one way to know that the Ephesians already put on the new man was this statement was because Paul here says that this new man “hath been created”. That is, he exists now, and that is what the Ephesians are — new people.
There are three descriptions of this new person in this statement. First, he has been created “after the likeness of God”. Literally, Paul said that he was created “after God”, but clearly what he meant was that this new man was made in God’s likeness, or image. That is, this new person is like God in His moral character.
And how has this new person been created in God’s likeness? First, “in righteousness”. The word “righteousness” could also be translated “lawfulness” or “justice”, and refers to conformity to Christ’s law for His people, which is to imitate Him and God the Father through love for Them and people. Second, the new person is described as having been created in holiness. The word “holiness” literally means “the character of being set apart”. It could also be called “separateness”, and in this context refers to the new person being set apart for God’s special use, and also being separated from the old, sinful humanity of unbelievers. With “righteousness”, Paul notes the goodness and purity of the new person, and with “holiness”, he describes the utter devotion to God and difference from the rest of humanity that the new person possesses.
Finally, the new person has “been created in righteousness and holiness of truth”. The words “of truth” refer to both the righteousness and holiness, and are in contrast to the “deceit” of “the lusts of deceit”. What Paul is saying is that this righteousness and holiness are in accordance with the truth of God’s Word, and are true, or real, rather than deceitful, as the lusts of the old person are. These qualities can’t deceive anyone, since they are real, and they are real, since they are in accordance with truth.
So, are you increasing in heavenly-mindedness, and therefore in heavenly behavior? What thinking and practices are you going to abandon, and what are you going to work on replacing them with?