August 25, 2020
A New Mind in an Ungodly Generation
Over the past few months Courtney and I have had the experience of seeing Christians we know and love – not in this church, but in churches around the world – drift away from the principles of the gospel. People who once professed Jesus have now embraced worldly philosophies. Some have been caught up in the social gospel.And others have fallen into the blackest of sins – even by the standards of the world – without any signs of repentance or shame.
We’ve seen people make shipwreck of their faith and walk away from Christ into atheism. There’s also a frighteningly casual attitude about the truth of the gospel among so many today.
Following Jesus is a call to finality. If you want to be my disciple, Jesus said, take up the cross and follow me. In the ancient world, when you saw a person walking down the street with a cross over their shoulder, you knew one thing about that person: he wasn’t coming back. He was on a one-way journey. And following Jesus is a one way journey. That’s how Jesus describes true Christianity.It’s a dying life. We are determined to follow Jesus in truth to the very end of the trail.
Following Jesus demands a new kind of thinking. A true Christian must think within a radically new framework of values. If he doesn’t, sooner or later something will come down the pipeline and he will have a spiritual crisis, where he’s torn between two views. Christ or something else? Many people forsake the gospel, while others have a thin glaze of religiosity and follow some other Jesus.
A true Christian learns to see everything in the light of eternity.
“Why do you spend so much time praying?”unbelievers ask. “Why do you fast? Why do you waste your time every day reading that one book? Why do you give your hard earned money to others? Why do you spend so much time labouring for the kingdom? Why do you weep for a broken world? Everybody else is having a whale of a time, living for pleasure, living for self, but you Christians are busily denying yourself and making your lives harder by following that Nazarene.”
All this is stupid, they say. And it is. If this life is all you have, then it is stupid. It is stupid to rigorously follow Jesus and to have a different moral code, to run the risk of losing our jobs because we try to live in fidelity to two-thousand year old words. But, in the light of eternity it isn’t. When seen against the backdrop of trillions of years of eternity, following Jesus with all our heart, and cultivating a new way of thinking about life is in fact the wisest, most sensible and sane thing a man can do.
(Romans 12:1-3) Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’swill is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, says Paul.
The Old Testament sacrifices were bulls and goats and they were offered dead. Bu there Paul talks of the sacrifice of believers who willingly offer themselves to God alive. In the Old Testament, only animals were lawful offerings. But here Paul speaks of the Christian’s own body being offered to God in perpetual holy living.
How does the body become a living sacrifice? John Chrysostom, an early church father, said a Christian’s body is made pure when his eyes are not used to look at evil things; his tongue does not speak filthy words; and his hands do nothing that is lawless. But that is not enough, Chrysostom said. It’s not enough to just avoid evil. A Christian must go further. He must give to God those same eyes and ears, mouths and hands and do those things which are right,good and holy.
I’ve talked with unbelievers about these things before and I’ve had more than a few comment, “Well, that sounds exhausting. I just can’t do that. It’s like slavery. I would never serve your God”. I used to argue with those people. But I’ve stopped arguing. I’m more inclined to simply say, “I know. I know sacrificial service to God sounds like a fate worse than death and you will never do it. And, you know what? Unless God takes out your heart of stone and gives you a heart of flesh, you never will.”
The only way, says Paul that anyone will ever really, honestly desire to live sacrificially in the way that is described here is the man with a whole new set of values. A man needs a new birth and a new vision of life to even want to live a sacrificial life for God.One of the things that has struck me so powerfully as I’ve read through prayers, hymns, and stories of faithful saints preparing this sermon, is how many of them express a burning desire to offer their lives to God. One hymn writer puts it this way, “My soul desires, it yearns to be, A sacrifice, O Lord, for Thee.”
The earthly man who has an earthly mind full of earthly thoughts will never desire this. Ever. We know this because Paul tells us. (Romans 8:6) “The mind governed by the flesh, says Paul, is hostile to God; it does not submit to God's law, and indeed cannot do so”.
Paul goes on to say, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world”.
The world has a pattern, and John tells us it is under the control of the devil. The wrong approach to Christianity, says Paul, is to take on the outward trappings of the world around us and to try to camouflage our Christianity in acceptable fashion, language, and behaviour. One commentator says, “Satan is the god of this world… therefore even surface conformity to a system controlled by such a spirit is fatal to the Christian life”.
Sometimes people ask: why do we have to be such sticklers about what God has said? Is God really so holy that he cares about every little detail? Can’t we just edit the gospel and blend it with the ideas that are going around, so that it’s not quite so offensive? Maybe it’s time to ease up on abortion, and marriage, and the integrity of the gospel, and all of that stuff? We can still be Christians,we can still respect Jesus, but maybe we shouldn’t use certain words so much,like sin, and repentance, and judgement. Maybe we should present the gospel more as a programme for self-help or social justice.
Paul says no. Falling in line with the patterns, trends, and particularly the language of this world is fatal. I’ve been watching a number of pastors – good,solid men – try to tackle on social media the theological tidal wave that’s rocking churches in North America and Europe just now. The biggest problem they have is that many Christians want to take the gospel and coat it with the concepts of a social movement. When the gospel becomes nothing more than a tool to combat poverty, or male privilege, or drug addiction, or climate change, the cross is emptied of its power. The gospel is not a social programme. It produces change. It transforms the world. But it’s change that only comes when people repent and embrace Christ for his sake.
Haven’t we seen the results of this kind of conformity so many times over the last fifty years? Many Christian groups tried to become hip and relevant at some point in the 1970s and are now nearly extinct. Little by little they compromised and watered down the very truth of God itself. They claimed that inwardly you could still be a Christian but that the gospel could be outwardly made more palatable and a little less offensive to sinners. But the true gospel should make us all uncomfortable, because it hits us with truth about ourselves, and about the reality of life.
The Bible tells us that we must never forget that the Christian life is one of escape. If we conform to this unbelieving world and try to make the gospel conform, we are conforming to a dying thing. John tells us that “The world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God lives forever”.
Both Jude and Peter use the city of Sodom as an icon of the world. When Lot and his family were led out of the city of Sodom, something the equivalent of a nuclear explosion goes off behind them, and every man, woman, child, beast and canary were completely vaporised. The scriptures tell us that Abraham looked up and saw thick smoke coming off the land like smoke from a furnace, the same imagery John uses in the Revelation. That’s what it means when the scriptures say that the “world is passing away”. So if we need a reason not to be conformed to this world, there it is.
Paul goes on to say: “be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’swill is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
Paul says the characteristic function of the new mind is able to test what is really good in the eyes of God. It asks the question: in the light of eternity and the holiness of God, am I doing with my life what is good and praiseworthy? Paul’s point here is that what goes on in the mind translates to action. We are what we think. Where the mind goes the body and life will follow. There are many things we can think about, but I’ve got just three that I think help to clarify what is good.
Number 1: Life’s brevity
(Psalm 90:12) “Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom”.
Number our days. Count them up. In the light of how brief life is, am I using the time and resources God has given me to do what is pleasing to him?
God kindly lets us see time passing in the bathroom mirror each morning. My wife found my first grey hairs the other day. It made me think: life passes away like a vapour. Our aging bodies and greying heads reminds us that every single one of us is not on earth to stay.
Modernity tends to insulate us from a great truth. I think it was a truth our grandparents knew far better than we do. It was not so long ago that you could find three generations living under one roof. Grandparents; parents; and children all in one home. That meant that people saw and experienced up close the reality that life ends. They saw when grandma got sick; they saw difficult births; they saw little bodies.
It wasn’t so long ago that there were crippling diseases flying around that nobody even understood. It’s easy to forget with modern medicine just how many diseases there are. How rare it was for people to survive their first five years. On top of that, people’s work was often unavoidably dangerous. Because life was difficult, people felt the fragility of life. But in our time to a great extent we have become wrapped up in cotton, protected by medicine, and it has a tendency to cloud the great truth.
The great truth is this: we are all just a heartbeat from eternity.
When we start testing things in the light of life’s brevity – how should I be living, what should I be doing with my time, it draws us closer to God and gives us more joy and more clarity. It’s not a depressing thought. There’s another translation in the NASB: “So teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom”.
There is the idea that remembering the brevity of life will help us to present to God a heart of wisdom at the end of our days. Because we are looking at life here and now in the light of eternity, and its generating transformation. So we can look forward to the day when we can offer to God a heart full of wisdom; a life that has been productively and wisely lived.
Number 2: Consider ultimate accountability
John says: “Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence,and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small,standing before the throne, and books were opened... and each person was judged according to what they had done.”(Revelation 20:11-13).
According to what they had done.
John saw the great mass of humanity at the end of the age, all assembled for judgement. Small and great. Every pharaoh of Egypt, every maharajah of India,every emperor of Japan; presidents, prime ministers; beggars, tramps, slaves. Every person in the encyclopaedia in flesh and blood. And, of course, my little self standing there too. My day in court. Where I must give an account.
I can honestly say that the times in my life when this thought has been uppermost in my mind have corresponded to times of greatest activity for the kingdom. Not because I fear going to hell, but because I fear standing before Jesus as an unprofitable servant. Thinking on this has been a powerful motivator for me. It gets me out delivering tracts. It gets me to engage with JW’s and atheists. It gives me a desire to evangelise, because I don’t want to be found lacking.
It’sat times when I’ve neglected to consider this that I have become a waster of time. I get sluggish about my Christian service and apathetic and lukewarm when it comes to labouring for Jesus.
The Lord tells the parable of the servants and the talents. He distributes his wealth to three servants and goes away into a far country. After a long time the master returns. He gave them all something to do, each according to their ability. But the third servant had wasted his time, buried his talent in the ground, and all he had to give back was the same sum that he had received. With a mouthful of excuses for his inactivity: “You’re a hard master, I couldn’t please you; there was nothing I could do.”
I sometimes fear that when I stand before Jesus one day I will be found to be the third servant. It’s a good fear to have. I want to be fearful of this, because it keeps me energised and seeking for the kingdom. It helps me to pray that God would push back my horizons. It helps me to test things, because I know one day the Master will judge my Christian service.
Finally, number 3: Love for Jesus –the ultimate test
Paul’s last words in the Epistle to the Ephesians are these:
(Ephesians 6:24) Grace to all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love.
Love for Jesus is the central attribute of the Christian. Paul goes so far as to say that those who do not love Jesus are under a curse.
Love makes people want to please another. Children who love their parents quickly find out what makes their parents happy. Wives who love their husbands submit to them. Husbands who love their wives want to please them, and provide for them, and protect them. The thought of hurting or betraying the one we love produces physical pain.
Love produces so many beautiful, protective characteristics. If there’s one thing about love, it is obedient. I don’t care what it is, there is no burden too heavy, there’s no situation too hard for the one we love. And if we love Jesus– if we take him as it were by the feet in adoration every day – it will make us walk in such a way that we will want to please him, and do what is acceptable and perfect in his sight. Love will make us test all things and we will do only what pleases our Lord and Saviour.
I’ve seen people fall away the faith because they loved something more than Jesus.Some of them are even honest enough to say so. Like Esau, they sold their birthright for a bowl of stew. Like Judas, they sold their Saviour for thirty pieces of silver – social acceptance, a sinful lifestyle, a career, sexual freedom. But an undying love for Jesus will always function as the acid test.No Christ-lover will depart from Christ for something else, for some false doctrine or strange idea. His love will bring him back to Jesus.
I want to finish with the story of one of my personal heroes of the faith: Amy Wilson Carmichael. I have a profound admiration for Amy Carmichael. Few people in the modern world really embody this passage of scripture more than she did. She was an Irish woman who spent 56 years in India as a missionary – she died in 1951. If we need an example of a woman who was a living sacrifice; whose mind was renewed; a life was transformed; who loved Jesus; and tested all things to find out what was good and pleasing to God, we can see it in her.
She wasn’t much of a candidate for the mission field by human standards. She was a small woman, quite frail, suffered from neuralgia which left her body very weak and sore. But God chooses the weak to overturn the strong and at the age of 20,in 1887 Amy heard a sermon at Keswick Convention. It was preached by Hudson Taylor who had founded the China Inland Mission. During the sermon, she fell under great conviction that God was calling her to go. And so she went. Someone once asked what going to the mission field was like and she answered, “It is a chance to die.”
After arriving in India, a woman literally came to her doorstep with a young seven year old girl named Preena. The girl had been sold into temple prostitution by her mother. She had escaped from the temple, been found by the Hindu priests, and as a punishment they branded and burned her palms until they were black. The girl escaped again. This time someone brought her to the Irish missionary.
Amy saw this as God’s answer to her prayers. She took Preena in as her own daughter, and then over five decades of work, she literally pulled dozens of these girls out of temples. She endured enormous opposition from the temple priests. Evil doesn’t go down without a fight. They burned down the mission buildings,started rumours, caused trouble with the authorities. But she laboured on.
Some of the children she rescued are still alive. Whenever they have been interviewed they all say the same thing. “What do they remember about Amy?”They called her “amma”– “mother” – because none of them had a mother worthy of the name. “What do you remember about Amy?” They all say the same thing. “We remember,” they say, “that amma loved us.”
Amy Carmichael wrote down many of her prayers. One of her prayers went like this:
Oh,for a passionate passion for souls.
Oh, for a pity that yearns.
Oh, for the love that loves them to death.
Oh, for the fire that burns.
Here is a woman whose mind is renewed. Her heart is full of love for Jesus, and she’s testing everything in the light of eternity. She had different values and concerns and loves. She’s concerned about souls, and the kingdom, and pleasing her Lord and Saviour. And it produced a living sacrifice. A woman whose lips spoke God’s comfort to others; her hands did his work.
Why did this woman with her feeble body spend 56 years serving foreigners? Why did she pour out her health for others? Why did she raise other people’s children as her own? How was it possible for one person to love so many? Because she had her eyes fixed on Jesus. She loved Jesus with an undying love, and therefore she desired to please him in all things. Love motivated. Love fulfilled. Love propelled.
As the hymn puts it:
Impelled by love I’ll go again,
To seek the lost and dying men,
For in my heart there is a flame,
Of burning love for Jesus name.
God does not call us all to the mission field, but he does call us all to a transformed life.
The transformed life comes from renewing the mind. Not seeking self-glory, not seeking for social approval; or our own ease or comfort, nor looking for more money to spend prodigally upon ourselves, but living in the light of eternity;loving Jesus with all our heart. It will ensure that we do not fail the test,or fall away. It will stop us from conforming to this present evil world. And it will ensure that we will be found faithful even to the end of the trail.
If we live in such a way then as John tells us, we will not need to be ashamed at His appearing.