A mind that is filled with what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy will have little time for anxiety-producing, peace-disturbing, joy-destroying thoughts. Alistair Begg explains why we need to think with a Christian mind—in other words, through the lens of Christianity. Properly focusing our minds not only glorifies God but also strengthens our ability to persuade others concerning the truth of the Gospel.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Can I invite you to take your Bibles and turn to Philippians chapter 4? Philippians 4:4:
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put … into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”
You and I, this morning, are what we think about. Our minds form the root of it all. All of our human actions, unless there is something physically or mentally wrong with us, emerge as a result of thought processes. It is in our minds that affections are stirred. It is by our minds that our wills are directed. It is in the mind that we conceive of and produce every action. It is therefore imperative that we learn to think about the right things and that we learn to think in the right way.
Is there a Christian way of thinking? And if so, what is it? A Christian mind is not one that is trained to think only about Christian topics. It is a mind that has learned to think about everything from a Christian perspective. In fact, it is too bad when those who profess Christianity seek to influence others by blustering attempts at persuasion which give the impression of being in themselves pretty mindless. A proper use of our minds not only glorifies God, it also strengthens our ability to be able to persuade others concerning the truth of the gospel. And here on this particular morning, at the start of this academic year, and for some of us the start of our academic careers, we’re introduced by Paul—in what is, for many of us, a familiar section of his letter to the Philippians—introduced to what we might refer to as the power of proper thinking. The power of proper thinking.
Some of us this morning have arrived at this day, and we are anxious. We are beginning already to worry about things. The “peace of God, which passes all understanding” somehow or another never seemed to reach us in the middle of the night, when we awakened thinking just whether we would be able to cope with this particular year of study. And therefore, it is important to recognize that what follows the exhortation to “don’t worry and be happy, rejoice in the Lord and pray about everything”—what follows that is of crucial importance. The temptation is that in expounding Philippians 4 we divorce all these little paragraphs from one another. But in actual fact, if you look at what he says in verse 8, a mind that is filled à la verse 8 will have little time for anxiety-producing, peace-disrupting, joy-destroying thoughts.
And Paul has no problem about being direct. It is very challenging in a culture that has embraced the refrain, “Don’t tell me what to think.” And Paul says, “Let me tell you what to think about.” In verse 8: “I want you to think about such things.” And he mentions a list of six of them. And he seems to decide that rather than extend the list beyond six, he will sum up all the other virtues that he might have included in the words “if there’s anything excellent and if there is anything praiseworthy,” as a great catchall summary phrase—recognizing, of course, that there is much that is excellent and praiseworthy, which is to be the focus of Christian thinking.
When J. B. Phillips paraphrases these verses, he actually reverses the order and begins with verse 8. He says, “If you believe in goodness and if you value the approval of God…” I want to encourage you this morning to make a commitment to excellence. The word here in Greek is arete. It is the most comprehensive Greek term for moral excellence. Moral excellence. And what Paul is saying to his readers is this: “In a world that is full of things that are sordid and shabby, soiled and smutty, the Christian’s preoccupation is to be that which is virtuous and which calls down the approval of God and which deserves the praise of men.”
And the call to think in verse 8 issues in a call to do in verse 9. That is not our concern this morning, but we should remind one another of this: that the Bible is not concerned with mere mental reflection for its own sake. The Christian is not called to sit on a high hill and think blessed thoughts in abstraction from the warp and woof of everyday existence. And your sojourn here in this academic institution is in order that your mind may be thoroughly, Christianly trained, in order that you might then go out to live in that way.
The logic that is attached to it is framed even in the Greek verb, logizomai. “Bring your faculties to bear upon these things,” says Paul. “Groove it in. Make it your continual, habitual action.” The human mind is always going to attach itself to something. It is therefore imperative that we attach it to the right things.
You come to a morning like this and you say, “There is so much to think about, so many things dancing around in my mind. I’ve got all of these classes, all of these challenges. Some I’m more fearful of than others, others I’m looking forward to.” Well, in the midst of all of that, which can so easily produce anxiety, deprive you of peace, stultify your commitment to prayer, you will be aided and abetted in the totality of your academic challenge by thinking along these lines.
Now, in the brief time that is before us, let me point you to them, virtually without elaboration. First of all, he says, “whatever is true.” Whatever is true. Now, in a different context, we would stop on this for a long time. Because the challenge of relativism is striking in our day. Allan Bloom, in a book which is now an old one, The Closing of the American Mind, says, “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely [sure] of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.” Now, clearly that is not the case in an institution such as this. But it behooves us to tackle the issue, so that we have, if you like, one foot firmly grounded in the revelation of God in Scripture, strengthened by our academic studies in a variety of areas, and another foot firmly planted in the culture, which is where we live our lives and the context to which we will return after these few strange years, so that we may be able to speak of that which is true in a world that has given up on the very notion of absolute truth.
Barna, who has done more research in this area than anyone I have found, points out that in 1994, 72 percent of American adults affirmed some kind of relativism. That would be bad enough, were it not for the fact that his research pointed up the fact that 53 percent of those claiming to be born-again Christians and most adults associated with evangelical churches maintained some form of relativistic view. And Paul says, “If you’re going to have your mind trained, you need to think down the line of truth.”
Gene Veith captures the lostness that accompanies this perspective when, in Postmodern Times, he quotes the words of a young woman. She says, “I belong to the Blank Generation. I have no beliefs. I belong to no community, tradition, or anything like that. I’m lost in this vast, vast world. I belong nowhere. I have absolutely no identity.” And any given afternoon, you’ll be maybe sitting next to her on a bus. You may meet her in the park. You may encounter her in the coffee shop. It’s not going to be enough simply to blurt out a few verses. Your mind needs to be trained down the lines of what is true. So when you hear the words of Oasis singing one of their old songs, “And all the roads that lead me there are winding, and all the lights that guide me there are blinding,” you’re able to say, “Aha! No surprise. Let’s talk about what is true.”
Also, “noble.” Noble. It’s a wonderful word, isn’t it? Nobility: that which is majestic and awe-inspiring. It is the opposite of that which is frivolous and trivial. It connotes a gravitas, a seriousness about all things. And if there is one area in which the Christian young person may establish their deportment in our frivolous society, it is by thinking down the lines of that which is noble.
Thirdly, thinking about what is “right”—namely, morally pure and undefiled—in order that this may direct our choices. Not making our decisions on the basis of what is expedient, or convenient, or what provides for us the most immediate gratification, but asking of every decision we make along the journey of our academic career, “What is the right thing to do?” That is always the first question. You may ask what is helpful, what is meaningful, what is experientially gratifying, and so on, but only after you’ve asked the question, “What is the right thing to do?” It will save you in the realm of cheating or plagiarizing, it will save you in the realm of relationships from compromising, if you mark it as a fixed point in your journey: “I will always train my mind in the groove of that which is right.”
Don’t you think that that must somehow or another have been instilled into the life of Joseph? We have no record of it. He looked after the sheep. He was the youngest of the group, the favorite of his dad, snatched away as a result of the malevolence of his brothers and flushed into this amazing experience in Egypt. And when the evil day arrives and he’s confronted by the alluring charms of his boss’s wife, he says, “How … could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” What happened? He simply punched in “the mind,” and he went down: “true, noble, right.” When he punched on “right,” it came up. “First question, Joseph: What is the right thing to do?” And he said, “The right thing to do is to make a run for it.” And he ran for it. In a society that has become increasingly desirous of making decisions on the basis of what is profitable or expedient, the Christian is to stand out by deciding on the basis of what is admirable and noble.
Fourthly, “pure.” A mind that is grooved in the realms of purity. An undefiled approach to our thinking. We won’t be able to avoid everything. If you’re going to read literature, it’s impossible to stand back from the thought forms of an alien world. But the way in which we read it distinguishes us from our friends: recoiling from it rather than rejoicing in it, turning from it with sadness, rebuking every inclination in our own hearts to go down that road. Because we’ve remembered that Paul was so concerned, and that’s why he reminded his young friend Timothy, “Keep yourself pure.” And I’m going to speak to you about purity, I think, this evening. And so I’ll leave it there.
And “lovely.” “Whatever is lovely.” Lovely: prosphile. Concentrate on things that promote brotherly love. This is not talking about looking at architecture or looking at vases or looking at attractive scenery. What Paul is dealing with here is the antidote to friction. Friction is easy to produce. But we are to be those who are pursuing that which is acceptable and pleasing in the realm of grace and peace and blessing and harmony. Now, let me tell you, it’s a very important word, isn’t it? Because in the realm of academics, especially those of us who are motivated, we can find that the seeds of jealousy, enmity, bitterness, rise immediately in our minds when we realize that the grade that we hoped for is not the grade we got, and furthermore, that fellow that we thought was a real no-brains actually came out ahead of the process. On the first day that happens to you, remember that your mind is to be grooved into thinking of what is lovely.
And then, of what is “admirable.” Admirable. Things that are “of good report.” Listening to reports that build up as opposed to that which tears down. Listening to that which encourages rather than that which disappoints. Listening to that which lays into the foundations of our friends and our colleagues on the journey rather than what destroys them.
Now, in this very simple little section, you have from Paul a list that will establish for each of us our motives, our manners, and our morals. Our motives, our manners, and our morals.
Be skeptical about your motives, young people. Doubt yourself before you doubt your friends. If you find yourself saying, “I’m rock-solid on this,” be careful. Because “he who thinks he stands should take heed lest he falls.”
Watch your manners. Take your hats off indoors, fellows. Look people in the eye when they speak to you, everyone. Shake hands with firmness, gentlemen; nobody wants to shake a dead fish. Stand up for ladies. Give up your seat on the shuttle bus at the airport for the elderly. Respond in kindness when you receive a greeting. And as you do, people will say, “He or she must be one of those Philippian 4:8 kids.”
This list will establish your motives, constrain your manners, and guard your morals. I’ll say more about morals later. We’re almost done.
Here is the pasture, then, in which we are to graze. And lest any of us think that this is just some great hortatory call—you know, “Pull yourself up by your straps. There’s a list here. Put them on your mirror, and try one of them every day, and try harder for the rest of your life, and maybe by the time you’ve reached the end of your academic career, you will be there.” No, no. The virtue of which Paul is speaking here—this multifaceted virtue—is the fruit which grows on the tree of salvation. This is not sanctification by self-effort. This is the indwelling power of the Spirit of God bringing the Word of God to us and channeling us in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Here is fruit that grows on the tree of salvation. The trunk of the tree is faith, and its roots are embedded in grace.
If we step back from the canvas for just a moment, if we see the big picture, then we learn this: that if we’re going to enjoy the power of God at work within us, if we’re going to know his peace upholding us, if we’re going to know his presence securing us, then take the whole section that we read. Surround our circumstances in prayer. We can do more than pray after we’ve prayed, but not until. Drill our minds in godly thinking. Subject our lives to the Word of God. And become, in this academic community, a great gallery of living experience.
It’s a call to each of us to live in the realm of the real versus the phony; the serious, not the frivolous; the right, not the convenient; the clean, not the dirty; the loving, not the discordant; the helpful, not the critical. In short, it is a reminder to us that we are supposed to be like Jesus. “Earthly pleasures vainly call me,” says the hymn writer.
I would be like Jesus;
Nothing worldly shall enthrall me;
I would be like Jesus.
Be like Jesus, this my song,
In the home and in the throng;
[And] be like Jesus, all day long!
I would be like Jesus.
And not to take the cornerstone out of all that I’ve said—indeed, to leave it securely where it needs to be—long after human eloquence has been forgotten, and long after mental brilliance has been set aside, the ultimate mark that you and I may leave as a legacy to our children—and if God spares us, to our children’s children—will be the life that is emerged from a mind that has been grooved in that which is true and noble and right and pure and praiseworthy and admirable. May all of your classes and all of your studies help to that end.
 Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 25.
 Walter Truett Anderson, Reality Isn’t What It Used to Be: Theatrical Politics, Ready-to-Wear Religion, Global Myths, Primitive Chic, and Other Wonders of the Postmodern World (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1990), 51, quoted in Gene Edward Veith Jr., Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture, Turning Point (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994), 72.
 Noel Gallagher, “Wonderwall” (1995). Lyrics lightly altered.
 Genesis 39:9 (NIV 1984).
 1 Timothy 5:22 (NIV 1984).
 Philippians 4:8 (KJV).
 1 Corinthians 10:12 (paraphrased).
 James Rowe, “I Would Be Like Jesus” (1911).
Copyright © 2022, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.