How Your Mind is Shaped by Sin and Reshaped by the Resurrection

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“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9 ESV).[1] This is why “each person is tempted when he is drawn away and enticed by his own evil desire” (Js. 1:14). The noetic effects of the Fall refer to the deceitfulness and sinfulness of the human heart which shapes the impulses, decision making, and lives of God’s image bearers. Dan Strange wrote, “the noetic effects of the Fall are so damaging and debilitating that general revelation, without the clarity and regenerating power of special revelation, is severely limited and certainly is not a stable ground for moral consensus.”[2]

When the inclinations of humanity are considered, fallenness should be expected. John Frame summarized the problem and the solution when he wrote:

Paul in Romans 1 teaches that the unregenerate repress natural revelation and prefer to live lives of sin. The only remedy is special revelation, the gospel. So Calvin taught that nobody can appreciate natural revelation without the “spectacles” of Scripture. There is, therefore, no human activity that can function as God intended by natural revelation alone. We are to do all things to the glory of God in Christ (1 Cor. 10:31), to bring every thought captive to the Lord (2 Cor. 10:5).[3]

 

Christian anthropology expects humanity to have sinful desires. These struggles are the result of the creaturely (imperfect) nature and the further noetic effects of the Fall. The struggle with temptation and sin should be expected. Fallen thoughts and actions are the norm rather than the exception. Those who struggle with same-sex attraction should consider the potential that the same-sex attraction could be a fallen desire rather than one which accords with godliness and the original design of humanity.

Paul declared, “you were dead in your trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). This death was due to individuals living “according to the ways of this world, according to the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit now working in the disobedient” (Eph. 2:2). Paul said that even the redeemed “previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and were by nature children under wrath as the others also were also” (Eph. 2:3 CSB). Paul’s declaration of human depravity is vital for the study of same-sex desires. Even if it were granted that individuals experience same-sex attraction from birth, those attractions are not thus deemed acceptable. Instead, those desires are contrary to the original design made by God and the standards revealed by God in his Scripture. Therefore, same-sex attraction must be a consequence of the Fallen world.

In the Scriptures, same-sex attraction is listed under the general headings of “sexual immorality” and “fleshly desire” (ταῖς ἐπιθυμίαις τῆς σαρκὸς ἡμῶν).[4] The “ἐπιθυμίαις τῆς σαρκὸς” is listed in contrast to the regenerate person described in Ephesians 2:4-22. That new creation in Christ has been made alive with Christ (v. 5), raised with Christ (v. 6), recreated in Christ for good works (v. 10), and brought near to God in Christ (v. 13-16). The inordinate desire is defined as “a desire for something forbidden or simply inordinate, craving, lust.”[5] Same-sex attraction is listed under Paul’s discussion of “godlessness” and “unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18). In Romans 1:24, Paul said: “God delivered them over in the desires of their hearts to sexual impurity, so that their bodies were degraded among themselves” (Rom. 1:24). Then in verse 26 Paul listed homosexuality as a “sexual impurity” that “degraded” under the general heading of “unrighteousness” and “godlessness” found in verse 18. Paul described same-sex attraction among men when he wrote, “The men in the same way also left natural relations with women and were inflamed in their lust for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the appropriate penalty of their error.”

It is important to note that progression and categorization of same-sex attraction in the Scriptures. It is listed as “disgraceful passions” and “unnatural” in Romans 1:26. The Scripture recognized that these were legitimate feelings, but these feelings were sinful and are described as a consequence of the sinful progression as Paul said, “for this reason God delivered them over to disgraceful passions.” Peter described the reversal which is to take place in the heart of the regenerate in 2 Peter 1:4 when he wrote, “By these he has given us very great and precious promises, so that through them you may share in the divine nature, escaping the corruption that is in the world because of evil desire.” This reversal does not remove the struggle with temptation and sin. Peter continued to exhort the Christians to “make every effort to supplement your faith” in verse 5. It is clear, though, that God expects the Christians to recognize sin and turn away from it.

Both Peter and Paul described what is called the noetic effects of sin as they discuss these evil desires. Peter said, “the corruption that is in the world” is “because of evil desire” (2 Pet. 1:4). It is important to note that the evil desire is the cause of the corruption. The evil desire, which is itself corrupt, came before the corrupt actions. Those “evil desires” are to be replaced with the new experience of the Christian who is able to “share in the divine nature” (θείας κοινωνοὶ φύσεως).

A reformation of the heart and mind is needed. This noetic struggle should heighten the value of humility in meaningful discussion.[6] The natural inclination of unregenerate mankind is to suppress the truth of God and replace God’s truth with lies.[7] “In such darkness, we need God’s light to see his Word properly.”[8] This illumination was described by John Murray as “regeneration on its noetic side.”[9] Without the new birth and the new heart, the natural man should be expected to be at ease in sin.

Behaviors which God has forbidden, such as homosexuality, should be expected to be accepted by the natural man. However, those activities which God has forbidden should not be expected or accepted among regenerate followers of Christ. In a similar way, behaviors which are expected and treasured by Christians may not be understood or appreciated by non-Christians.[10] Without the new heart, the renewed mind will never be sought. Jonathan Edwards understood the need for the new heart and described the need for “holy affections” when he wrote: “All will allow that true virtue or holiness has its seat chiefly in the heart, rather than in the head.” This is why Edwards declared that “The things of religion take place in men’s hearts, no further than they are affected with them. The informing of the understanding is all vain, any farther than it affects the heart; or, which is the same thing, has influence on the affections.”[11]

The unregenerate heart of mankind should be expected to be filled with all types of sinful behavior and many devices to excuse and promote the individual’s favorite sins. However, the regenerate heart beats with a new affection for Christ brought about by Christ. “The things of religion” are then able to proceed and flourish in both the mind and heart because of regeneration. The believer will not experience and manifest perfect sanctification. Repentance, the mortification of sin, is a continuous need in the Christian life.[12] This process of sanctification, or the pursuit of holiness, is empowered and directed by the Spirit for God’s glory. Frame described this process as a type of cognitive development so that “our ability to discern doctrinal (and other) truth depends on the overall maturity of our Christian lives.”[13]

The noetic effects of the Fall must be overcome by regeneration and continued sanctification so that the believer will be able to “test all things” and “hold on to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21) and “discern what is pleasing to the Lord” (Eph. 5:10 ESV). The believer must “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” (Rom. 12:2). Frame noted that “This is the opposite from what we usually hear, which (generally speaking) is that we should learn the will of God and then we will be able to become more holy. That advice is true enough, but it also works the other way around: be transformed, and then your renewed mind will be able to discern God’s will.[14]

The renewed mind fosters a renewed understanding of doctrine and the greater understanding of Christian doctrine nurtures the mind to grow in sanctification. So that “ethical renewal is the source of deeper knowledge.”[15] This is why Paul is able to attribute doctrinal unity to spiritual maturity in Philippians 3:15 and 1 Corinthians 2:6. Spiritual maturity is necessary for continued doctrinal understanding. Doctrinal understanding is necessary for spiritual maturity. Through the Spirit’s work, the believer is freed from the noetic effects of the Fall and is in the process of “being ‘persuaded,” or “noetically regenerated and sanctified” and “brought to cognitive rest.” In this way “we are being given a “godly sense of satisfaction.”[16]

         It is through the resurrection of Christ and the Christian’s resurrection in Christ that the minds of men and women are redeemed from sin. This is what Edwards described as “great religious operation on the minds of men”[17] and can only be brought about by God. O’Donovan’s Resurrection and Moral Order demonstrated that “In Christ’s resurrection, creation is restored” and “ethics had a foundation.”[18]  Even though all individuals are born with ungodly inclinations, they are not to follow their sinful desires. The redeemed, and all humanity, should live according to the moral order which best reflects the image of God.

The resurrection shapes Christian morality. First, the Christian’s identity is to be found in Christ when he is added to the body of Christ.[19] In that way Christ becomes the representative of the redeemed. O’Donovan said, “The raising of Christ is representative…in the way that a national leader is representative when he brings about for the whole of his people, whatever it is, war or peace, that he effects on their behalf.”[20] Furthermore, the resurrection of Christ and the union of Christians with Christ’s resurrection demand that they live according to the law of love exemplified in Christ rather than the debased law of nature exemplified by sinful man. O’Donovan defined this new leading code of love as “the principle that confers unifying order both upon the moral field and the character of the moral subject.”[21]

Since the Christian is raised with his representative Christ to a new moral order and bound to live by love because of this new moral order, they can no longer be involved with sinful practices. Instead of being accepted, sinful  practices must be mortified as part of the old man.[22] Paul wrote, “Therefore, put to death what belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desire, and greed, which is idolatry” (Col. 3:5) and “But if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13). These verses were pivotal for John Owen in the monumental work Mortification of Sin.[23] Paul listed “evil desire” or “concupiscence” (KJV) with “sexual immorality, impurity, lust” and other sins which must be put to death or mortified. This shows the reader that regenerate Christians will continue to struggle with sin, but that they cannot be at ease with those sins. Rather, they must mortify them.

              [1] The degree to which the human heart/mind is shaped by the presence of sin has been a source of continual debate between Calvinists, Augustinians, Thomists, Pelagians, and Arminians. The present study is not suited to study the degree to which the human experience is shaped by the presence of sin. Let it be enough to describe the noetic effects of the Fall Biblically. The heart of mankind is now “deceitful,” “desperately sick,” and incomprehensible (Jer. 17:9). This will be the position taken in this paper going forward in this study.

 

            [2] Dan Strange, “Not Ashamed! The Sufficiency of Scripture for Public Theology,” Themelios 36, no. 2 (2011): 248.

            [3] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, A Theology of Lordship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008), 949.

            [4] Kurt Aland et al., Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th Edition. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012), Eph 2:3.

            [5] William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 372.

            [6] Rodney J. Decker exemplified this need for humility when he wrote: “Though I do not consciously hold any beliefs that I believe to be erroneous, I recognize that as a finite being suffering the noetic effects of sin there are flaws in my thinking. It is usually very easy to spot such flaws in others. I just wish that I had such a clear view of myself!” Rodney J. Decker “An Evaluation of the 2011 Edition of the New International Version,” Themelios 36, no. 3 (2011).

            [7] Paul described this struggle in Galatians 5:16-18, “I say then, walk by the Spirit and you will certainly not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is against the Spirit, and the Spirit desires what is against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you don’t do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” To live according to the flesh is to practice “sexual immorality” (Gal. 5:19) and other sins. But to live by the Spirit is to live according to God’s will in purity.

            [8] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God, A Theology of Lordship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010), 308.

            [9] John Murray, “The Attestation of Scripture,” in The Infallible Word, ed. Ned Stonehouse and Paul Woolley (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1946), 51

            [10] Edwards described the Christian’s love for the unseen Christ which held believers through untold troubles when he wrote: “The world was ready to wonder, what strange principle it was, that influenced them to expose themselves to so great sufferings, to forsake the things that were seen, and renounce all that was dear and pleasant, which was the object of sense: they seemed to the men of the world about them, as though they were beside themselves, and to act as though they hated themselves; there was nothing in their view, that could induce them thus to suffer, and support them under, and carry them through such trials. But although there was nothing that was seen, nothing that the world saw, or that the Christians themselves ever saw with their bodily eyes, that thus influenced and supported ’em; yet they had a supernatural principle of love to something unseen; they loved Jesus Christ, for they saw him spiritually, whom the world saw not, and whom they themselves had never seen with bodily eyes.” Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, ed. John E. Smith and Harry S. Stout, Revised edition., vol. 2, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 94.

            [11] Jonathan Edwards, The Great Awakening, 297–298.

            [12] John Frame wrote, “Regeneration does not, however, immediately convey to the believer a sense of cognitive rest about all matters pertaining to the faith. Our basic presuppositional commitment to Christ begins at regeneration, but other commitments develop more gradually, or at least it takes a while for us to become conscious of them. Thus not only is there noetic regeneration, but there is also noetic sanctification (or, put differently, both definitive noetic sanctification and progressive noetic sanctification). There is a radical change when our relationship with Christ first begins and a gradual change thereafter. John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, A Theology of Lordship, 154.

            [13] Ibid., 154.

            [14] Ibid., 154.

            [15] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, A Theology of Lordship, 154.

            [16] Ibid., 156.

            [17] Jonathan Edwards, The Great Awakening, 293.

            [18] O’Donovan Resurrection and Moral Order, xv.

              [19] This is contrary to the claim of those who say that their sexual persuasion is the core of their identity.

 

            [20] Ibid., 15.

            [21] Ibid., 225.

            [22] Christians must be careful to avoid extreme positions in the pursuit of sanctification. “We may under-emphasize our newness in Christ, so that the redemption accomplished for us is negated or trivialized. On the other hand, we may fall prey to an over-realized eschatology that underestimates the continuing presence of sin in the lives of believers.” (Thomas R. Schreiner, “A New Testament Perspective on Homosexuality,” 73).

      [23]From Romans 8:13, Owen argued noted five observations which are helpful for this discussion: “First, A duty prescribed: “Mortify the deeds of the body.’ Secondly, The persons are denoted to whom it is prescribed: “Ye,”—“if ye mortify.” Thirdly, There is in them a promise annexed to that duty: “Ye shall live.” Fourthly, The cause or means of the performance of this duty,—the Spirit: “If ye through the Spirit.” Fifthly, The conditionality of the whole proposition, wherein duty, means, and promise are contained: “If ye,” etc. John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 6 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, n.d.), 5–6.

 

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