by Peter Ditzel
In Romans 12:2, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul instructed us, “Don’t be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what is the good, well-pleasing, and perfect will of God.” What does he mean when he says to not be conformed to this world? What does he mean by being transformed by the renewing of our minds? Is he writing of a one-time event, or are we to continuously renew our minds? How does this affect the way we are to view and interact with the world around us?
Paul tells us to not “be conformed” but to “be transformed.” I believe that we cannot have the one without the other. These are flip sides of the same coin. We become not conformed to this world because we have been transformed by the renewing of our minds.
“Conformed” in this verse comes from suschēmatizō. It means “to have the same scheme or design or pattern as.” The world thinks and does things a certain way. But that is not to be our way. Instead, we are to be “transformed.” The Greek word ismetamorphoō. It’s the word from which we get “metamorphosis,” the change from one form to another, such as from a caterpillar to a butterfly. Many Bible versions translate this word as “transfigured” in Matthew 17:2 and Mark 9:2 where its refers to Christ’s change to a glorious form. It is not referring to something shallow or figurative. Our transformation is a real change in our thinking patterns from those of the world to those of God. This happens through a “renewing,” an anakainōsis, of our minds (nous, “the intellect”), a change to a new life. We dare not downplay the importance of this change.
In John 3:3, we read that Jesus told Nicodemus, “Most certainly, I tell you, unless one is born anew, he can’t see the Kingdom of God.” A true Christian has, of course, been born into this world just as everyone else. But he or she does not stay physically minded. Christians are born again, born anew, born from above (all of these are possible translations of the Greek that Jesus used in this verse). It is a fundamental, spiritual change brought about by the Holy Spirit that changes one’s mind. It opens our spiritual eyes so that we believe and understand the Gospel and begin to see what God is doing in the world. We perceive His kingdom.
The world around us is largely the result of those who have not been born again, those who live according to the flesh. It is at odds with God’s kingdom:
For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For the mind of the flesh is death, but the mind of the Spirit is life and peace; because the mind of the flesh is hostile towards God; for it is not subject to God’s law, neither indeed can it be. Those who are in the flesh can’t please God. But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if it is so that the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if any man doesn’t have the Spirit of Christ, he is not his. If Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the spirit is alive because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of him who raised up Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised up Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.
Philippians 2:5 speaks of having the mind in us that was in Christ. Titus 3:4-6 also speaks of our regeneration: “But when the kindness of God our Savior and his love toward mankind appeared, not by works of righteousness, which we did ourselves, but according to his mercy, he saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly, through Jesus Christ our Savior.”
What a blessing that God gives us the means to live after the Spirit rather than go grubbing after the flesh. So, why do I daily see evidence of professing Christians returning to the flesh, looking to the world for solutions, putting their trust in human leaders? (Psalm 146:3) It makes me think of Galatians 4:9: “But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, why do you turn back again to the weak and miserable elemental principles, to which you desire to be in bondage all over again?”
We can start off right; we can be born again. Yet, we can, at least temporarily turn back to worldly thinking. It’s not a loss of salvation, but we can lose sight of the kingdom of God. Being born again is the beginning of our transformation, but there is a sense in which we must continue in it. That’s why Paul orders us in Romans 12:2 to be transformed. It is still the work of the Holy Spirit, but we can quench the Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19). Christianity is a daily walk with God.
Peter wanted to walk on the water (Matthew 14:29). “But when he saw that the wind was strong, he was afraid, and beginning to sink, he cried out, saying, ‘Lord, save me!’ Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand, took hold of him, and said to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?'” (verses 30-31). Why did he doubt? He “saw that the wind was strong.” That is, he took his eyes off Christ and put them on the world around him. We can make the same mistake.
Paul’s remedy to the Galatians was, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you won’t fulfill the lust of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16), and, “If we live by the Spirit, let’s also walk by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25). How do we live by the Spirit? By putting His Word in us (Colossians 3:16), by praying at all times (Romans 12:12; Ephesians 6:18), by walking not after the flesh (Romans 8:1), by walking not by sight but by faith (2 Corinthians 5:7), by not letting our heart be troubled but trusting in Him (John 14:1).
The Corruption of This World
Peter speaks of the “the corruption that is in the world” (2 Peter 1:4). Paul tells us that the “mode [schēma] of this world passes away” (1 Corinthians 7:31). Although the world seems substantial, it is only a passing shadow that the carnally minded walk in.
This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardening of their hearts; who having become callous gave themselves up to lust, to work all uncleanness with greediness. But you did not learn Christ that way; if indeed you heard him, and were taught in him, even as truth is in Jesus: that you put away, as concerning your former way of life, the old man, that grows corrupt after the lusts of deceit; and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new man, who in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of truth. Therefore, putting away falsehood, speak truth each one with his neighbor. For we are members of one another.
For Christians to trust in the world is spiritual adultery: “You adulterers and adulteresses, don’t you know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4).
How, then, dare we put our trust in a Republican Party, a Democratic Party, a Conservative Party, a Labour Party, a Socialist Party, a Communist Party, a Liberal Party, a National Party, a Green Party, a Social Democrat Party, or any of their candidates? As I have explained in “Christians, Voting, and Politics,” when we are transformed, although the world doesn’t recognize it, our citizenship truly transfers from this world to heaven.
It’s disturbing how many Christians don’t realize this as the black hole of worldly politics sucks them in. It is so sad that some Christian teachers will go so far as to distort Scripture to support their view that Christians should be politically active.
As just one example that has come to my attention recently, among many that I could cite, popular evangelical pastor and writer, Alistair Begg, recently said, “Our citizenship as believers is ultimately in heaven but presently on earth” (“Alistair Begg on Trump“). There is no Scripture that says or implies this. Begg’s claim gives worldly minded Christians who have taken their eyes off Christ an excuse for faithlessly diverting their attention and resources away from their heavenly calling to become involved in the world’s shell game of politics.
Philippians 3:20 says, “For our citizenship is in heaven, from where we also wait for a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul used a peculiar word for “is” in this verse. Instead of the common esti, he uses huparchonta. It refers to a possession that now exists, is in hand, because of something that has taken place in the past. It is the same word Paul uses in Philippians 2:6 to refer to Jesus Christ existing in the form of God. This word does not refer to “what is not now but will ultimately be.” It refers to what is possessed right now.
Begg should have known this, and he certainly should have carefully examined Philippians 3:20, and the many Scriptures that support it, before warping the Bible to say that our citizenship is only ultimately in heaven but presently on earth. It is this sort of attitude that is making Christianity out to be just another political party in the eyes of the world instead of a light shining in the darkness.
How strange that in this same article, Begg prescribes that we vote, and that we pray that God will save us from ourselves. Why not leave the voting out and just pray? “For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but mighty before God to the throwing down of strongholds” (2 Corinthians 10:4), and, “The insistent prayer of a righteous person is powerfully effective” (James 5:16b).
The next time you see a political debate, think of the conceit, the obsession with arguments, the disputes, the word battles, the envy, the strife, the insulting, the evil suspicions, the “constant friction of people of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain.” What are we to do with such people? Vote for them? No! “Withdraw yourself from such” (1 Timothy 6:4-5).
Remember: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old things have passed away. Behold, all things have become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
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