Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Way the World Thinks: Meeting the Natural Mind in the Mirror and in the Marketplace

The word “think” is central. Evangelicals are known as people who do things. But to our shame we are not largely known for thinking. So without apology, we are here to think about thinking.

By the time we enter adolescence, we are aware that it is possible to think about thinking. We ought to be a people that never get over thinking about thinking. This is a second-order discipline. It’s complex thinking, the kind of thinking required if we are to measure faithful thinking against unfaithful thinking.

How should we think about thinking as Christians? We must first recognize that there is a crucial distinction between the regenerate mind and the unregenerate mind. Also, we must understand the mind of the age, the mind around us, because we want to communicate the gospel well.

1) Understand the Difference Between the Regenerate and the Unregenerate Mind
We currently live in a postmodern age where some think that the claim to knowledge is merely a political statement. We need some biblical grounding. Let’s look at Romans 1:18-32.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 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.

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

In the opening chapters of Romans, Paul is informing us that this is our story, a story of universal human sinfulness. Romans 1 is fascinating territory. Many evangelicals have turned to this chapter to understand the human predicament, but they typically focus on verses 18-32 to the neglect of verse 16. However, it is important to see that Paul begins his description of the problem with humanity by testifying that the gospel is the power of God (Romans 1:16).

Sinful humanity is involved in a conspiracy: we suppress the truth. We desperately need to know this about human beings, particularly because we don’t like to think of ourselves as suppressors of knowledge. We like to think of ourselves as questing for truth. But the reality is that we are about the project of suppressing the truth.

Paul goes on to say that we suppress the truth in unrighteousness. We are not only truth-deniers. We work out the suppressing conspiracy in a cloud of unrighteousness.

And we’re accountable. This knowledge crisis is not about what people do not know. It’s about what we will not know. The will is the great engine of the intellect. We not only behold truth in the outer world (the creation); we also behold truth in the inner world (our conscience). But our unrighteous wills can make our consciences do what we want them to do.

This suppression plays itself out in futile thinking: “Claiming to be wise, they became fools.” We don’t want to hear that. This futile thinking, then, leads to idolatry: we exchange the glory of God for the glory of the creature.

But that’s not the end. Three times in Romans 1 we see the phrase “gave over.” This is not about God giving empires over to destruction. The tense is in the past. God has given humanity over to futility. When did this happen? It happened in Genesis 3. In the fall of Adam and Eve we see the beginning of the great crisis of knowledge.

The consequences of the fall were enormous and immediate. First, there was death. Then there is the story of human depravity made clear in the early chapters of Genesis.

We often talk about the “noetic effects” of the fall. This refers to knowledge. There are intellectual consequences to sin. Calvin said there were three causes of the noetic effects of sin in our lives:

The fall itself.
Satan wishes to confuse our thinking.
God, for the protection of his own character, judges our minds in such a way that he gives us over to ignorance and falsehood, seen most clearly in idolatry.
What are the effects of the fall on our minds?

First, our reason is now opposed to God. The fallen will produces a fallen reason. This doesn’t mean that unbelievers know nothing. The reason is not destroyed. It is given over to sin. An unregenerate person can know that two plus two equals four. But when it comes to the fundamental issues of meaning, that is where our reason is most corrupted. The unregenerate mind sees the gospel as folly.

What are other effects of the fall?

Faulty perspective
Intellectual fatigue
Failure to draw the right conclusion
Intellectual apathy
Dogmatism / Closemindedness
Intellectual pride
Vain imagination
Partial knowledge
The list could go on, but the point is that all of this is tied to the will. The noetic effects of the fall are devastating. They operate on multiple levels.

2) Understand the Natural Mind
Evangelicals have begun using the word “worldview.” A worldview is a set of beliefs and principles and axioms of thought that allow us to make sense of the world. It is like gravity. We don’t think often about its presence. We simply assume it in our actions.

In understanding the natural mind, I want to speak about the natural mind we are most likely to meet. It is a secular mind. It’s not a fully secularized or irreligious mind, but it’s a secular mind. There are five precepts that govern this mind:

Postmodern anti-realism.
Selective moral relativism.
Therapeutic universalism.
Radical pluralism.
Managerial pragmatism.
Though the natural mind doesn’t change between Genesis 3 and Jesus’ return, it puts on new clothing. Here are several precepts important to understand this mind:

I am who I think I am.
I may do some bad things, but I am not a bad person.
Something is wrong, but it’s not my fault.
Something happened to me.
Morality is a good idea, but it’s relatively relative.
What goes around comes around.
There is not only one way of anything.
God is available as an explanation when needed.
God is available as a helper in case of emergency.
Science or technology will solve most problems.
I may need help, but I can negotiate the terms.
Most people are well-intended, but some people are just mean.
If we do not think about thinking, if we are not intellectual disciples of Jesus Christ, then we will find the natural mind staring us in the face. If we’re going to think rightly, we need to do at least three things:

Avail ourselves constantly of the Word of God.
Avail ourselves constantly of the life of the local church.
Depend constantly upon the corrective power of the Holy Spirit present in our lives to conform us to Scripture.
Keep thinking till Jesus comes.

By John Piper. © Desiring God. Website:

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