“Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.”
— Romans 12:2 (CSB – Read the chapter)
We’ve talked recently about how to counter bad religion with the help of some things James, Jesus’ brother, wrote. Christians often have a reputation that we’ve unfortunately worked hard to earn that all we are concerned about is policing the behavior of the people around us. If we really put into practice what Paul says here, we will go a long ways toward fixing both the perception of ourselves and of our religion.
Over the course of the first eleven, but really just eight, chapters of his letter to the believers in ancient Rome, Paul lays out the basics of the Gospel in glorious fashion. His theological exposition of the Christian faith is arguably the best ever written (it did make the Scriptures after all). But, by the time you get through all of that, the question burning in your heart and mind is one of application: What are we supposed to do about all of this?
Here in chapter twelve, Paul begins to tell us. He starts to apply the truths he lays out in the first part of the letter. He begins in v. 1 by calling believers to give ourselves wholly to God in light of what He has done for us in Jesus Christ. That’s a right and good place to start. Here in v. 2, though, he starts by telling us that we should look differently than the world around us does.
Specifically, he tells us to not be conformed to the pattern of this world. This idea fits well with Jesus’ own prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, recorded in John 17, that His followers be in and not of the world. Well, where does your mind go first when it comes to this call for Jesus followers to look differently?
If I were a betting man, I would make a wager that it went to various examples of how our behavior should mark us out as different. We should do differently than the world around us. We shouldn’t behave like the world behaves. And that’s good. That’s right. We shouldn’t. Our behavior should absolutely mark us out as different. And, Paul spends the rest of the letter talking about our behavior. But that’s not where he goes first. Instead, what does he say here? He says we should be transformed by the renewing of our minds.
In other words, before we give any thought to our behavior, we must first think differently than the world around us thinks. The reason for this is that behavior follows belief. We act based on what we believe to be right and true every single time. If we aren’t thinking rightly as a follower of Jesus, we’ll never behave rightly.
Now, the implications of this observation are vast and profound. Let me offer you one here that has the power to completely transform our cultural reputation. Because behavior follows belief, until people believe the right things, they will never do the right things. When it comes to our efforts to share the Gospel with folks who have not accepted it, their behavior should be among the last things we are concerned with changing.
So often, our evangelism efforts are focused on little more than behavioral adjustment. But if what Paul says here is true (and it is), then our first goal should be helping them change the way they think. Well, changing the way someone thinks requires an entirely different approach than changing what they are doing does. As a matter of fact, what they are doing is not even something we should address until we have started to make real headway toward addressing what they believe that isn’t right.
Imagine with me for a minute a day when Christians are not known first for being judgmental or intolerant toward those whose lifestyles differ from their own, but as people who gladly receive anyone around them just as they are in order to lovingly learn more about them and share truth with them. If we take seriously what Paul says here, this future doesn’t have to be mere wishful thinking. It is an entirely achievable reality.
In doing evangelism with non-Christians, our first job is not to fret over their behavior. It won’t be Christlike because they aren’t following Christ. Their sin should not shock or surprise or even particularly repel us. They are merely behaving in a manner consistent with the beliefs they hold. Our first job is to help them see the truth that ideas have consequences and that the ideas of the Christian worldview have better life consequences than any other ideas out there. What behavioral adjustments they need to make in light of the ideas of the Christian worldview are between them and God. Our job is to love and proclaim truth. The Holy Spirit does the convicting and heart-changing. He does the saving too.
This one shift in approach, if taken, could lead to a revolution in missions that I for one believe is entirely necessary. Let us hold fast to the best ideas available and love like Jesus did. The rest will flow from there.