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  • Revd J. Andrew Kirk

The Pattern of this World and the Renewing of our Minds


After the apostle Paul has written at length to the church in Rome about “the gospel of God (being) the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes...a righteousness from God...from faith to faith” (Rom. 1:16-17) he turns his attention to living out the practical requirements of God's good news (Rom. 12-16). He ends chapter eleven with a glorious doxology, closed with an emphatic Amen! The following verse, begins with a powerful call to offer ourselves entirely as “living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God”, for in the light of the gospel that is the “logical service” we owe to God who in his mercy has given us the gift of salvation.


The following paragraph draws out the two main consequences of this call to serve and worship God (latreia has both meanings), one negative and one positive command: “do not conform yourselves to this present age (aion), but be transformed by the renewing of your minds”. The purpose of these injunctions is “to test and approve what is God's will, what is good, pleasing and perfect (in God's eyes)”. In other words, the objective of serving and worshipping God is to know how we should then live out the salvation secured by Jesus' atonement for our sin and the new life offered by his resurrection from death (Rom,. 4:25; 6:23).


Knowledge of God's will requires us to refuse to accommodate ourselves “to the pattern of this world” and “to renew our minds”, so that we may be transformed to live in the 'age to come'. The New Testament is quite clear that on this one planet, as it exists today, there are two separate worlds that follow two entirely different assumptions about the meaning of life: “this world” and “the world to come”.


Paul uses different terminology to refer to the same reality. For example, “Do not deceive yourselves. If anyone of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a fool so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight” (1 Cor. 3:18-19). Paul also uses the word kingdom: “for the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17). These words point to how Christians are to live in the light of their new relationship to God: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: the old has passed away, behold the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 5:19-21; Eph. 5:5; Col. 1:13-14.). So, “the world to come” is already here, in part.


This world/age, on the other hand, belongs to the past. It is coming to nothing (1 Cor. 2:6). Paul often uses the metaphor of darkness and light to distinguish the two worlds. In his trial before Agrippa, Paul speaks of the commission he received from Jesus at the time of his conversion, “I am sending you to them (Jews and Gentiles) to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God...” (Acts 26:17-18); “you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light...Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them” (Eph. 5: 8, 11).


The pattern of this world, therefore, belongs to an existence dominated by a fundamental world-view that has exchanged God's truth for a lie. It has turned away from a life centred on the personal, infinite and eternal God and turned in on itself as the only source for explaining “what is good, pleasing and perfect” (Rom. 1:25). This reality is now played out in the moral and cultural life of the Western world.


The present pattern of this world has divided understanding of actual reality into two spheres – the subjective and internal and the objective and external. Today large sections of the Western world have decided that there are no universal, objective criteria for explaining what is true. The latest craze for extreme subjectivism is the Scottish government's declaration that parents can choose to enter on the census form whatever sex they think might conform to their child's immediate feeling. Truth is relegated to the subjective, because this is the only way humans can hold on to their independence and autonomy. Everything else is explained by the exercise of power-games. Ideas and beliefs are the outcome of social/cultural constructions caused apparently by those who wish to impose their philosophies, ideologies or belief systems on others.


The renewing of one's mind means the ability to take a stand outside the current systems of belief (like critical theory), using the reality of God's new creation as the measure of what is ultimately true, good, beautiful, life-creating, peace-making, and so on. It means to be conformed to the pattern of the world that is coming. Paul outlines this in the rest of Romans 12 and elsewhere. The pattern of this world may change, according to whoever has managed to persuade others that they alone have access to what is authentic and valid belief.


The philosopher Richard Rorty, for example, distances himself completely from the belief that the primary function of words is to represent truly an objective state of affairs to which they correspond, outside the human mind, will and emotions. For him there is no other reality beyond the material to which appeal can be made: no universal human nature transcending time and space; no pure practical reason; no will of God.


Rorty promotes a pure pragmatism. Language is to be used as that which works best for a given audience. Beliefs may be true, in so far as they are held for useful ends. What is the ultimate criterion for judging the acceptability of beliefs and actions is whether they promote individual or group desires, the maximisation of pleasure and the minimising of pain. He himself comes to the logical conclusion of his extreme relativism: “when philosophy has finished showing that everything is a social construct, it does not help us to decide which social constructs to retain or replace.” This philosophy would justify Putin's desire to absorb Ukraine into a new Russian empire, because that would please him, or validate, against the physiological facts of the matter, the assertion that a trans-woman is a woman, for that is the man's desire.


What the present world desperately needs are people with minds renewed, so that every thought is captive to the mind of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). This is the way to know and proclaim the truth about the whole of life.


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Revd. Andrew Kirk is a retired Anglican minister. He has been involved on a part-time basis with graduate institutes in Eastern and Western Europe, the United Kingdom, and Canada, both teaching and supervising doctoral students. He has degrees in theology (missiology) from the Universities of London, Cambridge, and Nijmegen. He was a founder/member of the Latin American Theological Fraternity (1970), associate director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (1982-1990), theologian missioner of the Church Mission Society (1982-1990), Dean and head of the Department of Mission, Selly Oak Colleges (1990-1999), and Senior lecturer for the Department of Theology, University of Birmingham (1999-2002).

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