I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.

St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Crucial Role of the Christian Mind in Sanctification


The late Dr. Rufus M. Jones used to tell the story of the man who protested, “Whenever I go to church, I feel like unscrewing my head and placing it under the seat, because in a religious meeting I never have any use for anything above my collar button!”[i] The first clause of Dr. Jones’ statement is indicative of an attitude of an ever increasing number of Christians today. In the second clause, there is also the ring of truth. Few churches today give adequate attention to the development of the Christian mind and its role in the process of sanctification.

Most popular level Christian media, whether it be preaching, radio, books, or counseling, is all too often the case that only the will and/or the emotions of the Christian’s person are being treated. Moralistic messages challenge bad habits and beckon the believer to exercise a thrust of his volition, bring it into conformity with a list of do's and don’ts. In addition to this, due to the rising number of problems caused by emotional disorders, within and without the church, the Bible is wrenched in search of therapeutic solutions for recovering a healthy self-image and addressing felt needs. In spite of the best efforts to produce Christians that are morally reformed and emotionally sound, real Christ likeness and expressive spiritual maturity are sorely lacking in the church at large. Perhaps the number one reason for this is because little progress can be made in the process of sanctification without duly addressing the believer as a whole person, will, emotions, and mind.

Thesis and method

Therefore, the impetus of what follows will be spent demonstrating that the nurture and development of the Christian mind occupies a crucial place in the overall process of sanctification. This conclusion shall be supported by three premises. (1) Because the Fall has epistemological roots, sin pervades the whole person, including the mind. Thus groundwork must first be laid so to correctly establish the problem of the fallen mind. (2) The solution to all sin, and intellectual sin in particular, is regeneration and saving faith in the Lord Jesus. Therefore, there is a definitive beginning in the sanctification of the mind, a noetic regeneration. Finally, (3) two NT texts will be examined to show that the mind is to be in the fore of genuine sanctification. Thus, concluding that the role of the mind in sanctification is a crucial element in the Christian’s overall spiritual growth and holiness.


The Fall and its epistemological roots

The one act of rebellion against the Creator, which brought about all other moral aberration, sin, and death, is rooted Adam and Eve’s intellectual anarchy. The act of eating the forbidden fruit was simply the expression or ratification of sinful reasoning; the head sin preceded the hand sin. In God’s good creation, man was not left without certain epistemological strictures. The ultimate reference point in his creature’s reasoning was to be no less than God’s supernatural, verbal revelation, namely his command forbidding man’s use of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and its entailments (Gen 2:16—17). Hence, Satan was wise enough to set forth his case in a manner which would address man’s entire person, with a concentrated aim at his mind.

Satan’s temptation of Adam and Eve was framed with more or less subtle epistemological challenges. The question posed by Satan in Gen 3:1—“Did God actually say...”—was just enough to cast a cloud of uncertainty in Eve’s mind concerning the perspicuity of God’s declarative right rule over them, his creatures. This first shot at the rationality of Eve’s certainty, concerning her knowledge of God’s moral demands, was the starting point of a rapid descent down the slippery slope of manifest moral rebellion. Satan finishes his work in v.5 by appealing to Eve’s emotions and desires, postulating that God had base motives for depriving them of certain knowledge—namely the “knowledge of good and evil.” Eve then began to covet God in her lust for God-like knowledge when she saw that “the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (v.5). Thus, their sin was largely one of the mind and an attack on the Lordship of God himself; their basis of knowledge, for it gave a different answer to the question, “what is true?” “Eve decided to doubt the veracity of God’s word and conduct an experiment to see whether God spoke truthfully.”[ii]

The holistic pervasiveness and consequential fall out of this sin is aptly summarized by Berkhof: “Sin...influences the intellect, the will, and the affections, in fact the whole man, and finds expression through the body.”[iii] Thus, sin not only exists in the mind of man, but more, the mind itself is the fertile ground from which all sin springs forth to fruition and finally manifest expression (Mt 15:19—20).[iv]

The irrationality of sin

To put it a bit crass, sin is simply stupid. That is to say, all sin is ultimately irrational in nature; it is that which is nonsensical, despite man’s efforts to rationalize it. The Fall provides two fine examples of the irrational essence of sin. First, Satan’s personal rebellion against God; hoping to usurp God from his throne and exalt himself above him, did not make a bit of sense. Secondly, Adam and Eve’s reasoning that they could accrue “knowledge” by means of disobeying God’s revelation made even less sense. These cosmic sins, both of them, were more than mere miscalculations in judgment, they were instead the effect of seeking to exercise the creaturely mind in autonomous independence of their Creator and his revealed knowledge and will.

Because the Fall is archetypical of all sin, and it was in great measure an epistemological issue, it is proper to conclude that all sin is largely rooted in the mind of man working autonomously in its search for real knowledge apart from the omniscient God that created him, and as such, it is an exercise in futility, it is irrationalism. Thus, “on the last day” Grudem concludes, “it will be seen in every case that sin ultimately just does not make sense.”[v]

To summarize, sin’s entrance into the world was founded in the mind of man choosing to operate without referencing God and his Self-revelation. The result of this sin and the inherited sin nature that flows out of it leaves no part of man’s person uncorrupted, so that all sin is at some level intellectual, being exemplified in the archetypical sin of the Fall.

All sin is ultimately irrational. Because the sin condition corrupts the mind of man, man then uses his corrupted cognitive faculties in a way that is irrational and thus in moral opposition to God. This process is then back of all actual sins a person commits. Hence, the sinful state and use of man’s intellect is essentially as much an ethical matter as it is an epistemological one. Therefore, the mind of the Christian must be adequately focused upon throughout the process of sanctification if victory is to be attained. The mind of the sinner must be redeemed and renewed.


Having established, in the preceding section, what theologians often call the noetic element and effect of sin on man’s nature and outworking of this condition in actual sins committed, this section will consider God’s solution to man’s “depraved mind” (Rom 1:28 NASB); noetic regeneration and sanctification. It will, therefore, be necessary to posit a general working definition of sanctification and its binary nature of being both a definitive event (regeneration) and a progressive process throughout the life of the believer (sanctification) and how this applies to the life of the Christian mind.

Working definition

In setting forth a general definition from which to work, that which Berkhof offers is very helpful, he defines sanctification as: “that gracious and continuous operation of the Holy Spirit by which He purifies the sinner, renews his whole nature in the image of God, and enables him to perform good works.”[vi] Berkhof carefully qualifies his definition by delineating it from justification, saying that sanctification differs from justification in as much as sanctification “takes place in the inner life of man,” furthermore; it is a recreative act rather than a legal reckoning, as with justification.[vii]

In light of the thesis of this composition, one element of Berkhof’s remarks is noteworthy. Berkof stated that sanctification “renews the whole nature in the image of God.” But of course this begs the question of what elements constitute the image of God in man? Lightner, following Buswell, argues “that the image of God in man includes or is related to knowledge, righteousness, and holiness.”[viii] Some historic creeds refer to these principle parts as the “renewed image virtues.”[ix] This conclusion is arrived at through what is called the “restoration hermeneutic,” wherein the three elements above are extrapolated from Eph 4:21—24 (“true righteousness/holiness) and Col 3:9—10 (“true knowledge”). These qualities, restored upon saving faith in Christ Jesus, who is the true expression of God’s image (Col 1:15; Heb 1:3, etc.), are then read back into Gen 3 in order to reconstruct the originally good constitution of man as God’s image bearer and what man lost in the Fall.[x] So then, the earlier conclusion that the Fall and man’s sin nature is fundamentally rooted in man’s intellect, reasoning, and understanding, is likewise corroborated by the fact of the restored “knowledge” through Christ.

Through a scriptural survey, Lightner, in his recognition of the role of the mind as a functional quality of God’s image in man, contrasts the mind before and after regeneration: “The unregenerate mind is vain (Eph 4:17), defiled (Tit 1:15), blinded (2 Cor 4:4), darkened (Eph 4:18) and reprobate (Rom 1:28).” Conversely, “the regenerate mind is to be lead captive (2 Cor 10:5); it needs girding (1 Pet 1:13) and renewed (Rom 12:2).”[xi] The mind, therefore, is a preeminent object of sanctification, being an essential part of man’s whole person in which Christ redeems and restores. God the Holy Spirit works both instantly and continuously in purifying the Christian’s mind of inherent sin and sinful reasoning, and transforming his mind into the image of Christ his Creator.

Noetic regeneration

Because the mind is such an integral part of the Christian’s restored nature, the whole of the believer’s mind and cognition must definitively come under the Lordship of Christ at conversion and continue the renewal process throughout his life. This definitive role of the mind in conversion shall be considered first.

The passive side

The work of John Frame is very helpful in regard to the regeneration of the noetic aspect of the sinner. Frame calls the intellectual aspect of regeneration “cognitive rest.”[xii] Pointing to the moment when a sinner no longer struggles against the Scripture’s testimony of the saving Person and work of Jesus Christ, Frame says, “Coming to cognitive rest about Christianity is achieving a ‘godly sense of satisfaction’ with the message of scripture...(and to) accept it willingly.”[xiii] The regeneration of the mind is a Trinitarian work. The Holy Spirit confirms his word in order to bring conviction. Also, the new believer is endowed with “the mind of Christ” and his wisdom. Finally, the scriptures speak of the Father as the teacher of the saving truth of the message.[xiv] These observations help to illustrate the divine work in the sinner’s conversion; it is the quickening of a mind that was once hostile to God and dead to his word. Like sanctification in general, this renewal of the mind or setting apart as holy unto God should be, in one sense, understood as a definitive one time event (e.g., Acts 20:32; I Cor 6:11), yet having ongoing effects. From the human perspective, the regenerative work is passive. It is solely a supernatural work of God on the intellect and will of the sinner. Nevertheless, the mind of man must also play a very proactive role in conversion.

The pro-activity of man in conversion

The activity of the sinner’s mind in his conversion can be summarized in one word—repentance. Repentance, upon which a person’s salvation is contingent, while involving the whole person, has predominately epistemological connotations. The Greek word for repentance, μετάνοια, metanoia, is a compound formed from meta, a word with broad semantic range, however, when in conjunction the root nous, “mind,” meta is best taken to mean “with, around, or change.” Thus, the root meaning of the term repentance is “to change one’s mind” or “to adopt another view” or even “to change one’s feelings.”[xv] Lest a word study would lead to misconstruing the NT meaning as being too cerebral, it must be understood in light of the Hebraic context of the biblical writers who viewed man holistically. For this action will affect a. the emotions, b. the will, and c. the thoughts. It is seldom a function of the intellect alone, but the whole person.

The fullest expression of God’s moral obedience that he commands of man is found in the Shema (Deut 6:5) and Jesus’ reiteration of it, in what is called the Great Command (Lk 10:27; cf. Mk 12:29—30; Mt 22:37). These again reinforce the utter unity of man’s personhood, with God demanding an entire reorientation toward him and total surrender from his creatures, even all their minds.

So then, the non-negotiable action demanded from sinners in the Gospel call is repentance. This, while involving the whole person, is an act that begins in the intellect when the Gospel is clearly articulated and then correctly understood and spiritually appraised by the regenerated sinner. With this new and right understanding of his moral rebellion, his standing before a just and holy God, and his personal plight, the sinner experiences and expresses profound remorse. He turns from his sinful reason and the actions that result from it, to Christ, in whom all wisdom and knowledge is deposited (Col 2:3). Christ’s wisdom and his righteousness then become the “new man’s” controlling presupposition. This is the newly sanctified (set apart as holy) mind—this is “cognitive rest.”

Although there is an immediate, definitive point at which the noetic aspect of a person is “sanctified,” this once-for-all-time event does not, however, magically confer upon the believer “all spiritual wisdom and knowledge” (Col 1:9) in respect to their thinking Christ-like-ly—God’s thought after him. There is also a gradual, ongoing progress. This process will now be taken up.


Noetic sanctification

In this final section two points will be raised and briefly exegetically examined. First, as a case in point, the positive injunction of I Pet 1:13 will be considered; here Peter yokes the believer with the responsibility for the care and nurture of the mind as a preeminent element in sanctification. Second, the circular (or better concentric) nature of the mental—ethical connection will be highlighted from Phil 1:9—11 before finally concluding.

Think holy, as He is holy

The first text that will be considered here is I Pet 1:13. The best and most literal expression of this command is, “Therefore, Gird up the loins of your mind” (v.13a KJV; NKJV). This familiar Hebrew idiom would have evoked in the mind of its original readers the idea of carefully folding up and tucking into the belt the long flowing robes worn by men in antiquity. The robes would obstruct freedom of movement and hindered their being “prepared...for action” (v. 13a ESV; NIV).[xvi] Moreover, the “loins” were the “place where the Hebrews thought the generative power resided.”[xvii] The command, therefore, indicates that the mind, far from being intrinsically good, must “be girded” in order to correctly use its “generative power.”

Peter sandwiches this command between vv. 3—12, wherein he exhorts his readers to contemplate the riches and glories that Jesus’ first Advent brought them. As well, v.13c they are to set their hope fully upon the grace which will be brought to them at Christ’s second Advent. “Therefore,” Peter says, the mind of the Christian “must remain alert” and be “ready and able to think actively to glorify and adorn God’s name, will, and kingdom.”[xviii]

The purpose of this injunction is a life of holiness, sanctification. In vv.14 and 15 Peter creates a contrast between the prohibition of conformity to “former ignorance” and the positive precept to “be holy in all your conduct.” The grounds which Peter bases his argument on here is nothing less than God’s own holy nature (v.16). We see, therefore, that a life progressing in sanctification and holiness is the effect of the Christian’s mind being taken up and actively engaged as a mediating, regenerative power source for the believer’s role in the process.

Sanctification: linear or circular or both?

Of course, the path to holiness is linear or teleological. That is to say, the believer is purposely moving from his originally corrupt state at conversion toward a point of Christ-likeness. However, many passages indicate that the pilgrimage from point A to point Z is to be in some sense circular, or better concentric, where Christ’s character is the plumb-line to which the believer’s mind and experiences in life are gradually drawn closer and closer by means of exercise and engagement. Frame, therefore, would have one to “note the circular relationship between ethical sanctification and Christian understanding.” He further argues that the ability of a believer to progressively augment his “cognitive rest” in the outworking of the Christian life requires growth in holiness—and vise versa—holiness and sanctified conduct are the result of “taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (II Cor 10:5).[xix]

This principle of circularity alluded to in the exposition of I Pet 1:13, is perhaps even more emphatic in Phil 1:9—11 (and its close parallel in Col 1:9f. See also: Rom 12:1—2). In this text the Apostle reveals his prayerful desire for his church with the concentric model described above. The ultimate end of this prayer is purity (v.10b), fruitful righteousness in believers (v.11a), and the “glory and praise of God” (v.11b). Genuine holiness is then the teleological centerline. However, in order for t[xx]hese believers to achieve this high calling in life, Paul explains the process in a concentric fashion, narrowing the circles toward the goal with each phrase.

Paul begins with the summum bonum of Christian virtue, “love,” praying “that” (ίνα, hina; purpose clause) it would “abound more and more” in his reader’s lives. The love here is to be understood as “unrestricted” concerning its object, but not its application as Paul is quick to qualify this love, desirous that it be “in real knowledge and all discernment.”.[xxi] The categorical breadth of “abounding love” is then tightened by “real knowledge” (επιγνωσις, epignosis). Thus, “love must be intelligent and morally discerning, in order to be genuine.”[xxii]

The Christian’s mind and his morality are inseparable here. Moreover, love and full knowledge are brought together in the next circle, being further tightened by Paul adding “all discernment”—the conjoining of “love” and “real knowledge” in practical, authentic, real life application. This word, “discernment” (αισθησις, aisthēsis), occurs nowhere else in the NT nor the LXX, but a relative form is found in Heb 5:14 within a similar context. Thus, Thayer defines it as: perception, not only by the senses but by the intellect; cognition, discernment; of moral discernment in ethical matters.[xxiii] Hebrews 5:14 and Thayer’s analysis help us to see Paul’s progressive constriction and concentration, bring the categories of both mind and morality into a unified force, thrusting toward the goal of holiness. Thus, Paul, in a final circle of means-to-the-end, states, “that you may approve what is excellent,” so as to bring the two domains of the Christian’s epistemology and praxiology to a point of singularity before stating the central goal to which he would have them striving.

Paul earlier used a hina clause to introduce the proposed means through which his prayer would be efficacious in the reader’s lives, so also here, beginning in v.10b Paul states the prayer’s ultimate goal or end: “in order (ίνα, hina) to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ...filled with the fruit of righteousness...to the glory and praise of God” (vv.10b—11 NASB). Thus, we arrive at the centerline of the concentric process, the place of sanctification. The role of the mind in this process is undeniable. For love alone, without real knowledge being sought and exercised simultaneously would render discernment impossible, thus disenabling the believer from proving that which is best or excellent in any circumstance.

Therefore, without a proper balance of godly knowledge and Christ-like reasoning with love-filled motivation, the result of the Christian life is not sanctification; but amorality. This is why, not only in the NT but through the entire Bible, the mind, understanding, cognition, thought—all categories of the intellect—are “generally portrayed as the center of a person’s ethical nature,” thus making the mind central in morality and therefore sanctification.[xxiv]


The role of the mind in sanctification has been demonstrated to be a critical factor in the Christian’s overall sanctification process. Because man’s eternal peril, founded in the Fall, is in great measure epistemological in nature, man’s mind is bent in opposition to God’s Self-attesting revelation. Thus, the corruption of the mind has ontological, epistemological, and above all moral implications. Furthermore, because the cleansing of this sinful nature and the recovery of what was lost in the Fall through faith in Christ Jesus, namely true righteousness, holiness, and knowledge, the mind has a very important place in the regeneration of the sinner; both passively and proactively through repentance.

The one time sanctification that occurs at conversion is nevertheless part of a larger whole. This initial point of “cognitive rest” is to be augmented throughout the life of the believer. The believer’s mind being active and cultivated in this progressive work was seen to be commanded by Peter in I Pet 1:13, where he placed the believer’s mind at the fore of the process. Moreover, Paul, in Phil 1:9—11, praying for a sanctified body, posited mental and moral categories together, and through a concentric narrowing brought them to a concentrated point of singularity. Thus unified, the means of the mind informing the will, being tightened through conscious experience and engagement, the two categories are dissolved bringing about a life of genuine holiness.

As one has said, you aren’t what you think you are; but what you think, you are! Therefore, a sanctified mind leads to sanctified actions; which leads to genuine holiness; which leads to the “glory and praise of God” (Phil 1:11) and as such, the Christian mind has a crucial place in the process of sanctification.

“Now for this reason, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge...For if these qualities are yours and are increasing...you will never stumble...for in this way the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you!” (II Pet 1:5, 8, 10—11 NASB).

[i] Bob Deffinbaugh, The New Mind: an Exposition of Romans 12, (as found at: http://www.bible.org/page.php?page_id=1178).
[ii] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan. 2000), 493.
[iii] Louis Berkhof, A Summary of Christian Doctrine, 9th edition, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust. 1997), 69, emphasis mine.
[iv] For a summary of Pauline hamartiology by L. Morris, adducing this same conclusion, see: Leon Morris, “Sin, Guilt,” pp. 877—81 in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, Gerald F. Hawthorn, Ralph P. Martin, Daniel G. Reid, editors, (Downers Grove IL: Intervarsity Press. 1993), 879. Also see: Westminster Confession of Faith, VI/ii—iii.
[v] Ibid.
[vi] Berkhof, A Summary of Christian Doctrine, 133, emphasis original.
[vii] Ibid.
[viii] Robert Lightner, Evangelical Theology: A Survey and Review, (Grand Rapids: Baker. 1986), 171.
[ix] Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers. 1998), 429.
[x] Ibid.
[xi] Lightner, Evangelical Theology, 170.
[xii] John Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God: A Theology of Lordship, (Phillipsburg—New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing. 1987), 152ff.
[xiii] Ibid., 153.
[xiv] Ibid. Texts concerning the work of the (1) Holy Spirit: Jn 3:3ff; I Cor 2:4, 5, 14: I Thess 1:5; I Jn 2:20f., 27. (2) The Son: Mt 11:25ff; Lk 24:45; I Cor 1:24, 30; 2:16; Phil 2:5; Col 2:3. And (3) the Father: Mt 16:17; 23:8ff; Jn 6:45.
[xv] Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich, editors, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1967), IV: 976.
[xvi] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, (Downers Grove, Ill: Intervarsity Press. 1993), 710.
[xvii] Thayer’s lexical aides (e-Sword Bible softeware).
[xviii] Simon J. Kistemaker, Peter and Jude: New Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Baker. 1987), 58.
[xix] Frame, DKG, 154—55.
[xxi] Kent A. Homer Jr., “Philippians,” pp. 787—811 in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary—Abridged Edition: New Testament, Kenneth L Barker, John R. Kohlenberger III, editors, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Co. 1994), 791.
[xxii] Ibid.
[xxiii] Thayer’s lexical aides (e-Sword Bible softeware).
[xxiv] Gerald Cowen, “Mind,” pp. 1128—29 in Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Butler, Trent C., general editor, (Nashville: Holman Reference. 2003), 1129.

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