Biblical Discipleship – The Transforming Life

(May/June 2014 – Volume 20, Issue 3)

Those knowledgeable with the biblical counseling movement, stemming from the ministry of Jay Adams, will be familiar with the put off/put on/renewal-of-the-mind principles relative to progressive sanctification. Drawn from a number of the epistles, especially Ephesians and Colossians, the teaching is that if people desire to change and grow spiritually they need to put off sinful behavior, replace that behavior with godly practices and foster new, biblical ways of thinking. This method, which is rooted in Scripture, seeks to aggressively and directly deal with sin, develop new habits that foster spiritual growth, and acquire a biblical mindset. In contrast, the approach taught within spiritual formation and contemplative spirituality looks to ancient, man-made disciplines and extra biblical experiences rather than the Word of God. In this paper I want to explore the put off/put on/renewal-of-the-mind strategy common within the biblical counseling movement and recommend it as a most valuable means of discipleship.

In general, this approach teaches that when an individual seeks help dealing with actions, attitudes or thinking which has led to various levels of struggle, the counselor will begin by seeking to identify the problem. The difficulty at this point is that often the problem that is presented is not the real problem. For example, a couple may come seeking help because they are having difficulty getting along. They might be looking for some quick and simple techniques for improving their communication skills, or how to handle their finances more efficiently. And while these issues certainly need to be addressed, in the process of talking through all of this it becomes evident that the real problem is not that the couple spends too much or misunderstands each other, but rather it is because one is self-centered and the other is materialistic. The counselor could teach the couple a few communication principles and help them develop a budget, but this will only mask their real sin issues. If, in the process of counseling, this couple comes face-to-face with the reality of their spiritual condition and wants to change, what should they do? The counselor, if he or she is following the paradigm being described, will help this couple to first of all identify sins that are becoming evident. He or she will take them to the Bible and show them how to use it as a mirror to see their sins for what they are (James 1:23-25). They will then seek to “put off” those sins through the power of the Holy Spirit, obedience to Scripture, specific prayer, and the help of fellow believers. But it is never enough to merely attempt to stop sinful behavior; such behavior needs to be replaced by godly practices. Even then, without the renewing of their minds, including a major change in the way they think and process life, little will be accomplished. Put off/put on, without accompanying biblical thought patterns, is little more than psychological behaviorism. An unbeliever can put off a sinful habit and replace it with a healthy one and live a happier, healthier life. But these actions will not cause them to become more Christ-like. According to Romans 12:2, disciples should not be conformed to this world, but are to “be transformed by the renewing of [their] mind.” A fundamental change in the way we think is necessary for spiritual transformation. Otherwise all that has been accomplished is external behavior modification which does not reach the heart. This is not spiritual transformation. Let’s take a closer look below, first by examining two key New Testament texts.

Put Off/Put On/Renewal-of-the-Mind at Work

Ephesians 4:17-32

This portion of Scripture is essential in considering how believers change and grow spiritually. Not only is it full of great theological truth, but it is also extremely practical in nature. It begins with admonishing the child of God to no longer walk as the Gentiles walk, using Gentiles in this context to describe those who are not part of the people of God. A rather ugly description of those outside of the family of God follows: they walk in the futility of their mind; their understanding is darkened; they are excluded from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart; they have become callous so that they give themselves over to sensuality which leads them into every kind of impurity accompanied with greediness. This type of lifestyle is not how believers have been taught to live in the Scriptures (Eph 4:17-21).

At this juncture Paul reminds his readers what they have been taught: that their former life (described above) should be laid aside, along with the old self, or nature, that is corrupt and growing worse. They instead should be renewed in the spirit of their mind and put on the new self, a new nature formed in the likeness of God in all righteousness and holiness of the truth (Eph 4:22-24).

Having now described the put off/put on/renewing-of-the-mind principle, Paul now applies it to a number of practical situations (Eph 4:25-32):

Falsehood (v. 25): People lie for a number of reasons but mostly in order to deceive others to gain some sort of an advantage. Falsehood comes in many forms that are often ignored or excused such as exaggeration, flattery, spinning the truth, and hypocrisy, as well as blatant dishonesty. Since much of our world system operates deceitfully it is easy for believers to be caught up in the duplicity of our society. Scripture calls us to recognize falsehood, of any stripe, for what it is and lay it aside, replacing it with “speak[ing] the truth each one of you with his neighbor.”

Anger (vv. 26-27): When we don’t get what we want or think we need, it is natural for us to get angry, which may show up in the form of frustration, irritation, grumpiness, moodiness, as well as in more obvious forms. Prolonged anger gives the devil an opportunity to gain control of our lives and to ruin relationships as well as dishonor God. Rather than allowing anger to rule we are to make short work of it: “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Paul returns to this subject of anger later in the passage (vv. 31-32) when he speaks of bitterness, wrath, clamor, slander and malice – all anger issues that need to be “put away.” Anger must not be allowed to reign in our lives. It is to be replaced with a triad that is uncommon to our natural selves: kindness, tender-heartedness, and a forgiveness that follows the pattern of how God has forgiven us (v. 32).

Stealing (v. 28): Keeping in mind that Paul is writing to Christians, it is unlikely that many of them would be blatant thieves or robbers. But there are more subtle ways of stealing which are too often found among believers including: laziness on the job, an entitlement mentality in which one looks to others to do what we should do for ourselves; plagiarism, and even slander whereby we rob people of their good name. Here Paul calls on his audience to cease such activities and find work to not only care for their needs but to share with others. Theft, in any form, is not to be tolerated by disciples.

Unwholesome speech (vv. 29-30): Unwholesome is the idea of tearing down something. It is easy for us to harm people with our words, even without meaning to do so. We should endeavor to replace such speech with words that are edifying, or words that build up an individual. Our goal should be to dispense grace with our words rather than belittle or harm others. Verse 30 almost seems out of place in this list, but it is key to our understanding. It reads, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” It is the Holy Spirit that guides and empowers us to put off sinful behaviors and put on godly ones. When we resist Him we grieve Him, even though He has graciously sealed us so that nothing will ever rob us of our final redemption in the presence of God. It is the height of ingratitude and hardness to grieve the One who has done so much for us.

Colossians 3:5-17

The instructions found in Colossians parallel those in Ephesians, but here these principles are approached differently. In Colossians, Paul works from the basis of our position in Christ. In verse three he proclaims that believers “have died and [our] lives are hidden with Christ in God.” The point Paul is driving home is that we are no longer slaves to sin; rather we have a new life grounded in the fact that we are now “in Christ.” If we have died to that which has controlled us in the past and are now alive to the things of Christ, we should live out our position in Christ. This begins with “consider[ing] the members of [our] earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed” (v. 5). In addition we should put aside: “anger, wrath, malice, slander and abusive speech” and stop lying to one another (vv. 8-9). These sins, and others, should be replaced with “a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, bearing with one other,” forgiveness, and love (vv. 12-14). The strength to live this way comes from the peace of Christ which is to rule in the believer’s heart (v. 15), along with the word of Christ which is to richly dwell (to be at home) in our hearts (v. 16), as we do all things in the name of the Lord Jesus with gratefulness (v. 17). Paul is describing a radically transformed way of living that is to be the goal of every Christian. This is not a lifestyle reserved for a handful of “super saints.” Progressively marching toward this type of godly living should be the norm among the people of God. This is what discipleship looks like.

Just as he does in the epistle to the Ephesians, in Colossians Paul applies these principles regarding practical life situations: marriage (3:18-21), work relationships (3:22-4:1), prayer life (4:2-4) and evangelism (4:5-6). Spirituality that does not have an impact on our everyday lives in major ways may have the appearance of piety but is not true discipleship as defined in Scripture.

Renewing of our Minds

Essential to our spiritual transformation, however, and without which no true change and growth is possible, is the renewing of our minds. When we become Christians we are made new creatures, “old things have passed away, behold, new things have come” (2 Cor 5:17). One of the new things that has come is a new mind. Our mind must be distinguished from our brain which will not be renewed until our final redemption (Rom 8:23). By coming to Christ our IQs do not necessarily increase; we don’t go from being a “C” student to the top of the class; we don’t suddenly develop reading skills we never possessed. What we do receive is a new capacity, through the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, to see the glory of Christ (2 Cor 3:17; 4:6), understand the things of God (1 John 2:27), and discern and apply spiritual truth. First Corinthians 2:14-16 reads, “But the natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one. For who has known the mind of the Lord that we should instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ.”

It is not enough, however, to have a new capacity to understand, appreciate and appropriate the things of God; our new mind needs to be informed. Since our minds do not come fully loaded with all theological and biblical truth and insight they must be trained in the ways of God. For this reason the Lord provides teachers to equip the body of Christ for ministry through systematic instruction in the Word (Eph 4:11-12; 2 Tim 3:16-4:5). Personal study of the Scriptures is essential as well (2 Tim 2:15; 1 Pet 2:2). In addition, individual discipleship provided by faithful believers to other faithful believers who will in turn disciple others is of vital importance and is the process described in the New Testament (2 Tim 2:2; cf. Matt 28:19-20).

With this in mind it is no surprise that sandwiched between the putting off various sins and the putting on godly virtues, in both the Ephesians and the Colossians texts we are informed of the need to be renewed in the way we think. In Colossians 3:10 Paul writes, “”And have put on the new self who is being renewed in true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him.” It is a bit clearer in Ephesians 4:23, “And that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind.” To these passages must be added Romans 12:2 which reads, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”

The New Testament makes it abundantly clear that spiritual transformation takes place in the life of the believer as the believer’s mind is renewed so that he/she is thinking increasingly more like Christ. This type of biblical thinking might not be as interesting to some or as trendy as adopting mystical techniques found in the Spiritual Formation Movement or various forms of mysticism. It might not seem as pious as asceticism or even monasticism. But it is the biblical methodology for developing true disciples of Christ. Anything else is purely human-created ideas layered upon the biblical paradigm.

Lest all of this is misunderstood to imply that our spiritual development is dependent solely upon our own efforts, it is important that we recognize that all spiritual growth is ultimately due to the indwelling presence and power of the Holy Spirit. Scripture, prayer and fellowship are means the Spirit uses, but it is the Spirit that empowers. Thomas Schreiner, in his biblical theology book The King in His Beauty, lays all of this out in such a marvelous way that I want to quote from him at length.

The coming of the Spirit represents the arrival of the power of the age to come during the present evil age. There is a close connection between the Spirit and power (Rom 15:13, 19; 1 Cor 2:4). Believers are empowered to live in a way that pleases God if they walk by the Spirit (Gal 5:16; cf. Eph 3:16), are led by the Spirit (Rom 8:14; Gal 5:18), march in step with the Spirit (Gal 5:25), and sow to the Spirit (Gal 6:8). Eschatological tension is evident, for the Spirit battles with the flesh (Gal 5:17; cf. Rom 8:10), but the accent in Paul’s theology is on the power of the Spirit to overcome sin, though sin persists until the day of redemption. There is a progressive change “from one degree of glory to another” from the Spirit (2 Cor 3:18). Those who are indwelt by the Spirit produce “the fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22-23; cf. Rom 8:5-6). Elsewhere Paul says that joy comes from the Holy Spirit (1 Thess 1:6; cf. Rom 14:17), and that love is a work of the Spirit (Rom 15:30; Col 1:8). Believers are liberated from the power of sin and death through the Holy Spirit (Rom 8:2), so that those who have the Spirit fulfill “the requirement of the law” (Rom 8:4). They serve in a new way by virtue of the Holy Spirit (Rom 7:6), for “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6), and as a result those who are indwelt by the Spirit are given the freedom to obey (2 Cor 3:17). They slay by the Spirit “the deeds of the body” (Rom 8:13). Believers do what pleases God as they are filled with the Spirit (Eph 5:18), and the filling probably denotes both the Spirit as the means by which believers obey and the content with which believers are filled. The Spirit also enlightens believers so that they are able to grasp spiritual realities (1 Cor 2:10-16). [1]

The Holy Spirit’s involvement in our lives and in our discipleship cannot be over-emphasized. Without His power we will hopelessly flounder in our efforts to live for the glory of God (cf. Eph 1:19-20; 3:14-21).

The Centrality of Christ

As we consider our spiritual maturation, and especially in relationship to the renewing of our minds, we need to note the centrality of Christ in the New Testament. As the inspired authors of Scripture shape our thinking through the truth of God’s Word they repeatedly and consistently point us in the direction of Christ. Christian living is not mere behavioral modification and the Bible is not simply a how-to or self-help manual. What makes Christians different from all other people is the place of Christ in their lives.

Michael Horton warned, in his disturbing but penetrating book Christless Christianity, that evangelicalism has developed a form of Christian living virtually devoid of Christ. He begins his volume with an illustration from the ministry of Donald Grey Barnhouse, who was asked on his nationwide radio broadcast many years ago what things would look like if Satan really took control of a city. Barnhouse “speculated that if Satan took over Philadelphia, all the bars would be closed, pornography banished, and pristine streets would be filled with tidy pedestrians who smiled at each other. There would be no swearing. The children would say ‘yes, sir’ and ‘no, ma’am,’ and churches would be full every Sunday… where Christ is not preached. [2]

This story well illustrates Horton’s concern as he explains: “I think that the church in America today is so obsessed with being practical, relevant, helpful, successful, and perhaps even well-liked that it nearly mirrors the world itself. Aside from the packaging, there is nothing that cannot be found in most churches today that could not be satisfied by any number of secular programs and self-help groups.” [3] This form of religion practiced by many Christians has been termed “moralistic therapeutic deism;” meaning faith is moralistic in that moral living is stressed, therapeutic in that it is guided by the desire to feel better about ourselves and deistic because God is not really necessary to the system. It is possible to live our Christian lives and create evangelical churches in which Christ is on the periphery and not central to belief and practice. But this is not true biblical Christianity that holds Christ as both preeminent and central.

This understanding of the faith is normative to church age teaching and the epistle to the Colossians is as good as any New Testament book to demonstrate this. Christ is referenced in this little letter of four chapters approximately 77 times and the whole epistle is wrapped around who Christ is and what He has done. Paul speaks of us being “in Christ” (e.g. 1:2, 28) and Christ being in us (e.g. 1:27); all things are created by Him, through Him, and for Him (1:28); we are buried with Christ and raised with Christ (2:12-13); we are to let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts and the word of Christ richly dwell within us (3:15-16). In Paul’s understanding the believer has died and his life is hidden with Christ in God (3:3). As a matter of fact, perhaps the thesis of the epistle, which should be translated directly to our lives as Christians, is summed up perfectly in the next phrase, “When Christ, who is our life…” (3:4). It is not theology as such or moral living in itself or spiritual experience or even eternal salvation. All of these things are vital, but it is Christ who is central; Christ who is our life. In Philippians 1:21 Paul writes, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” It is no wonder that the apostle determined to know nothing among those he ministered to “except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). And because Paul’s theology is saturated with the crucified Christ it is not surprising that his message was brimming with Christ so that he could say, “But we preach Christ crucified,” even though such a message was considered foolish to Gentiles and offensive to Jews (1 Cor 1:23). Why preach a foolish and offensive message? Because to the “called” it is the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:24). As the apostle wrote in Romans 1:16, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…”

Returning to Colossians we can see how all this is fleshed out in the lives of those in the first century church. Paul begins by thanking God for what He has done in the believers’ lives at Colossae as evidenced by their faith in Christ, love for the saints and hope laid up in heaven (1:1-8). Paul is not content, however, with the spiritual advancement of these Christians, urging them on to greater maturity in Christ (1:9-12). He wants to see them full of the knowledge of God’s will, walking in a manner worthy of the Lord, pleasing Him in everything and being strengthened by the Lord’s power. The believer needs to know that he has been rescued by Christ from the domain of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son who has redeemed us and forgiven our sins (1:13-14).

In order to attain this level of life they first must understand the incomparable greatness of Christ which is detailed in 1:13-29. Here they are told both of the identity of the Lord Jesus – He the very image of God, firstborn of all creation – as well as His accomplishments. He is the eternal creator and sustainer of all things, head of His body the church, preeminent over all things, reconciler by means of His blood (1:15-23). In addition, Paul has been commissioned to reveal to the saints a mystery – something not previously known and knowable only through revelation from God. This mystery consists of Christ indwelling His people, both Jews and Gentiles, and drawing them into one body, the church (1:24-2:3).

Yet despite all that Christ is and has provided for His children there is danger lurking ahead. The danger comes in the form of false teachings that will seek to draw the saints away from the centrality of Christ (2:4-23). In general the concern is that the Colossian Christians will be deluded by persuasive arguments (2:4-7). Those arguments come in the form of philosophies and empty deceptions that stem from human wisdom rather than Christ (2:9). At this point Paul cannot resist turning once again to the excellencies of Christ, as if by doing so the Colossians will see the massive contrast between what is found in Christ and what is found in these deceptive influences (2:9-15). For it is in Christ that all the fullness of deity dwells in bodily form (v. 9); it is in Christ that we have been made complete, as He is the head over everything (v. 10); it is in Christ that our body of flesh has been removed (v. 11); it is in Christ that we have received spiritual baptism (v. 12); it is in Christ that we have been forgiven (vv. 13-14); and it is in Christ that our spiritual enemies have been defeated (v. 15). Having completed this overview of what the believer has in Christ, Paul returns to the dangers at hand. They come in three specific forms: legalism (2:16-17), mysticism (2:18-19), and asceticism (2:20-23). These are three philosophical/theological enemies that seek to rob the saints of the life that is theirs in Christ.

In chapter three Paul turns his audience back to what Christ-centered saints should be like. The disciple of Christ is to seek Christ (3:1), set his mind on Christ (3:2), and live for Christ (3:3-4). With this focus on Christ firmly embedded in their thinking, believers are now able to have a vibrant spiritual experience (which has already been described above) that honors and glorifies the name of Christ (3:17) and that translates to every avenue of their lives (3:18-4:6).


Other forms of spirituality, both in biblical times as well as today, may have the appearance of “wisdom in self-made religion” (2:23), but in the end they are mere detours from the real life found in Christ. Like the Colossians, Paul was concerned that the Corinthian church was being led to a spiritual dead-end. He writes, “But I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ” (2 Cor 11:3). Spiritual formation, mysticism, New Age spirituality and a host of other influences draw believers today away from the simplicity of Christ. Our Lord would have us cling tenaciously to Christ Himself, shedding the weights that slow us down and the sins that so easily entangle us, so that we can run the race set before us with endurance, “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith” (Heb 12:1-2).

[1] Thomas R. Schreniner, The King in His Beauty, a Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic: 2013), p. 557.

[2] Michael Horton, Christless Christianity, the Alternative Gospel of the American Church (Grand Rapids: BakerBooks, 2008), p. 15 (emphasis his).

[3] Ibid., pp. 16-17.


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