Romans 12: Renewal
June 22, 2020
Last week we began our multi-part exploration of Romans 12 by reflecting on Paul’s call to “be transformed” and to focus on the future that was coming upon them. Today’s article emphasizes Paul’s concern about the mind.
Be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Paul was concerned about the mind. More than any other NT writer, Paul calls attention to our minds. Twenty of the 24 references to “mind” (nous) in the NT are by Paul. Twenty-three of the twenty-six references to “thinking” (phroneo) are his as well. Paul was well aware that the patterns of the old age shaped how they thought about everything and that they were already in the process of formation. His call was to a reforming that was so radical it could only be called transformation.
Paul’s connection between “mind” and “formation” is instructive. When we think of “mind,” we tend to think of it as a “container for ideas” which are judged as right or wrong, true or false. There’s something different going on here. He’s not merely admonishing them to hold true ideas (though that is certainly part of it). The mind Paul is concerned about is something that is formed, shaped, and molded. In this case, after a different mold/schema than comes naturally. He wants them to do more than think true ideas. He wants them to be formed by them, to embody them, to have them shape our lives.
This means changing the way they see things, not the least of which is the way they see themselves and others. Of course, seeing isn’t merely looking out and seeing what is there; we all know that we see what we want to see. This calls attention to the fact that seeing involves our desires, values, commitments, hopes, dreams, and fears.
Of particular interest to Paul in Chapter 12 is the way his readers see the different gifts, different vocations, and different contributions they each make to God’s kingdom work. He recognized that in the church there are different gifts and that these gifts were all given by God and had their own part to play in what God was doing. He was also aware that part of the “way of seeing” that is endemic to the “old age” was to perceive some gifts and vocations as more valuable, more important to the Kingdom work than others. It was natural to assign privilege and status to the bearers of these gifts.
The Romans lived in a deeply stratified social world that was very much at odds with the social world envisioned by, or rather embodied by the Kingdom of God brought into being by Jesus. Theirs, like ours, was one that attributed different levels of honor and one’s value and worth was associated with one’s place in the hierarchy. He knew that those hierarchies, often in spite of one’s best intentions, became inherently self-serving and tools to protect the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and powerless to the detriment of everyone involved.
Paul is making it clear that in the kingdom things have changed. Since every believer has the Spirit of Christ dwelling in them, every believer has a part to play in what God is doing in the world. All of them are important; all of them are dependent on each other. The gifts graciously given by God were not given for the benefit of those to whom they were given, but were given to benefit the whole community. Paul was well aware of the temptation to use these good gifts of God selfishly. He addressed it often in his writings, most famously in his letter to the Philippians in Chapter 2:
1”If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2 make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus …” [NRSV]
At the heart of Paul’s teaching is the recognition of the need to be transformed from the self-serving patterns of “this age" to the life-giving patterns of the new age. Paul names this the mind of Christ. He wants his readers, whether in Rome or in Philippi, to be of the same mind as Christ Jesus.
If we were to look, we would see that this theme isn’t limited to Romans and Philippians but can be found over and over in his epistles such as in 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, Galatians, and Colossians. I don’t think it would be overstating the case that it comes up in all of Paul’s writing, and probably in all the New Testament. Resisting the patterns formed in us by the old age and being transformed by the mind of Christ, the patterns of the new age, is a constant and ongoing process. It is a never-ending task.
Looking ahead to next week, we will take a deeper look at patterns, how we are formed by them, and some of the disruption that can happen when they change.