Monday, October 25, 2010

The Importance of Intellect

[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church, titled "The Insufficiency of Intellect". Click on the title to listen to the audio.]

In Mark 12:28-34, we see a scribe coming to Jesus to have his question answered. Discussions about weightier and lighter matters of the law was familiar among teachers of the law. My guess is that if you were a fly on the wall of a first-century coffee shop, you would hear some of these ongoing discussions, sorting through the 613 individual commands and their importance. Jesus' skill in answering difficult questions prompted the scribe's inquiry: Which commandment is the most important of all?

When we get to the end of the story, we find that the scribe's intellectual curiosity was satisfied but his soul was still in need. Jesus said he was "not far from the kingdom of God" (v. 34b), which means he was not in it. Intellectual division and systematization of God's Word, dissecting it to discover the meaning of every jot and tittle, and settling the big questions of theology are insufficient to gain entrance into the kingdom of God. It is only through heeding Jesus' words, 'repent and believe in the gospel' (Mark 1:15), that one will find himself in the kingdom of God rather than near it.

Now, while I believe this is the thrust of the passage, we must take a few minutes to make sure we do not think improperly about the place of intellect. It is true that intellect is insufficient as a means of salvation...mere mental assent to the facts of the gospel does not change a man's heart. It is also true that intellect is insufficient as a means of sanctification...godliness is not measured by the amount of theological material ingested. If that were the case, Ph.D.'s in theology would automatically be the godliest men of all.

With that said, we cannot discount intellect...we cannot dismiss the role of the mind in the life of the Christian. The Scripture does not dismiss it, and we see that in Mark 12, as we are to love God "with all [our] mind" (v. 30). While there are many passages that would help us think about this truth, I want to guide us to two.

First, let's look at Romans 12. Verse 2 reads, "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect." This is the beginning of a large section the practical application of the gospel to daily living (12:3-15:7). Where does daily living for God begin? What is it that will help us to test and live by the will of God? The life of the Christian cannot be properly lived with the constant transformation and renewal of the mind...a process that happens by constant exposure and submission to the Word of God.

If we do not intellectually engage with the text of Scripture, then we will not ultimately find its meaning. We may have feelings about what a passage says, but we will not understand it as God intends. If we fail to understand the Scripture, then our minds will not be renewed, and we will find ourselves more conformed to the world than transformed by the Word. So, we study the Scripture...we work hard to get to the meaning of the text...we pray for the Spirit to teach us and change our minds. The Christian life is not to be governed by our intuition or our ever-changing feelings. Rather, it is to be ruled by God and His Word applied by the Spirit. For this to happen, we cannot 'check our brains' at the door of Bible study.

Paul goes on from this verse to talk about the kind of life produced by a renewed, transformed mind...a mind intellectually engaged with and spiritually changed by the Word of God. This one will be humble and energetically use his gifts to serve others in the body (12:3-8). His relationships with both friends and enemies of the gospel will be changed (12:9-21). His life within society will be distinct and godly (13:1-7). Godliness and obedience to the law will mark his life (13:8-14). Rather than flaunting his spirituality with those who differ from him, he will tolerate differences in secondary matters (14:1-23). Overall, his life will not be self-oriented, but he will aim to please and serve others (15:1-7).

Where does all that start? It starts in the mind...a mind renewed and transformed by the gospel, first of all. However, it is also a mind renewed and transformed daily by the Word of God. The only way God's Word is properly taken in is through some kind of intellectual engagement. All of us are not intellectuals, but each of us must use his/her intellect to passionately pursue understanding of God's Word so that we might seek to apply that knowledge to our lives in the power of the Spirit.

The second passage to which I will point will probably be familiar to you, as well. It is Philippians 4:6-9. Often, we break this passage into two parts, but Paul didn't write it that way. One part flows from the other as the author seeks to instruct the Philippians. The first portion is one that we often quote to ourselves (or others) in the midst of difficult situations: "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus" (v. 6-7). Here, we rightfully find instruction to take all our cares to God, knowing He cares for us and will provide us with peace in the midst of our storms.

The second part of this passage deals with the focus of the mind. Our minds should be on things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, etc. The end result of doing this, Paul says, is that "the peace of God will be with you" (v. 9). While this is a good instruction on its own, I think it's best to see this as a continuation of the first part of the passage. Why? Because "the peace of God" connects both sections. If we seek God in prayer when feeling anxious, we will find the peace of God with us guarding our hearts and minds. If we will focus our minds where God says to, the peace of God will be with us.

Here, we see that the role of the mind is crucial. It is our mind that thinks on the problems that we may face (and sometimes problems we will never face). It is our mind that speculates how things could go terribly wrong, though nothing may have yet gone wrong. It is our mind that often produces hypothetical situations that lead to disaster. It is our mind that takes us to the worst possible scenario. It is this kind of thinking that leads us to anxiety, and Scripture tells us to take that anxiety to God in prayer.

If we stop there, we will quickly be anxious again. As you and I well know, our minds do not stay empty for very long. To paraphrase something R.C. Sproul wrote, when you try to think about 'nothing' you inevitably end up thinking about something. So, how do we avoid that anxiety? How do we keep from stumbling back into unbelief and worry? This is where the intellect comes in yet again.

Paul points us to those things on which our minds should focus. Rather than let our minds go where it wants, we should be training our minds to focus on those things that are true, just, lovely, commendable, etc. If we have not intellectually engaged in studying the Scripture, then "what is true" may change from one day to the next, rather than resting on the revelation of God. If our minds have not been immersed in the Bible, then "what is lovely" will be more determined by our fleeting emotion rather than God's assessment. The battle over anxiety is a battle for the mind, and if we are to win this battle for the mind, we must train our mind through disciplined study of the Scripture...and that takes intellect.

More passages could be examined, but time prohibits. To reiterate the point, intellect alone is insufficient for salvation and sanctification, but intellect is not unimportant. If we are to properly obey God's Word, then we must properly understand God's Word. If we are to properly understand God's Word, then we must use the intellect God has given us to pursue that truth, depending on the Spirit for illumination all along the way.