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Rule #3: Think Holy Thoughts (8 Rules for Growing in Godliness)

Think Holy Thoughts

The Christian life is one of continually growing in obedience to God, of diligently working out the salvation Christ accomplished on our behalf. This work of sanctification begins at the moment of justification and ends only at the moment of final glorification. Between these moments, we are engaged in what one author has insightfully called “a long obedience in the same direction.” This obedience begins first in our heads and then works itself out into our hearts and hands, for to have renewed desires and renewed actions, we must first have renewed minds.

We are continuing our “8 Rules for Growing in Godliness,” a series of instructions for how to grow in conformity to Jesus Christ. We have seen that God calls us to trust the means of grace for our sanctification and tells us that we must battle hard against worldliness if we are to attain any measure of godliness. Our third rule for growing in godliness is this: Think holy thoughts. As we will see, we must think a particular kind of holy thought if we are to experience great progress in our sanctification.

Unholy Thoughts

In our naturally sinful condition, our thoughts are only ever unholy, only ever opposed to God. It was God’s damning indictment of humanity that “every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). The Apostle Paul, tracing humanity’s slide into ever-deeper depths of depravity, described it this way: “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools…” (Romans 1:21-22). Even the wisest thoughts are foolish when they fail to acknowledge God.

In our natural condition, we are without hope, for “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4). With our minds blinded, we have no desire and no ability to do those things that honor God. To the contrary, we serve our master, the “god of this world,” in continual acts of rebellion.

When God’s light pierces the gloom of our darkened minds, we then begin to understand and believe what is true.

By God’s power, the gospel breaks through our hard hearts with glorious light. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). When God’s light pierces the gloom of our darkened minds, we then begin to understand and believe what is true. Thus, the Christian life is one that first depends on a renewed mind. “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16). As that inner self is renewed over the course of a lifetime, we amass a growing desire to know the will of God and a greater ability to actually do it.

Holy Thoughts

If we are to live holy lives, we must think holy thoughts, for the renewal of a life can progress no further than the renewal of the mind that informs and guides it. There is benefit in thinking all manner of holy thoughts and pondering all that is good and lovely. Paul says, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:2). We are to elevate our minds, to turn them away from lesser things to ponder Christ and what he has done. In another place Paul says, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). In all of life, we are to find delight in pondering what pleases God.

But here we speak of a particular manner and method of holy thought: set aside time in which we deliberately consider our minds, our motives, our desires, our actions, and our sanctification. Guided by the Bible and aided by prayer, we devote time to think over our lives and consider whether they are aligned with a life worthy of the gospel. We ponder Christ and discern whether our lives have been transformed into his image or conformed to the world. It is far too easy for us to slip into complacency, to drift with the same worldliness and apathy that marks the world. This practice of thinking holy thoughts allows us to stop, examine ourselves, and turn our course toward God’s path of holiness and joy.

In Psalm 119, David tells of his commitment to this practice. “When I think on my ways, I turn my feet to your testimonies. I hasten and do not delay to keep your commandments” (Psalm 119:59-60). David is undoubtedly reflecting on times in the past when he had been wandering from the will and ways of God. He may have been purposefully violating God’s commandments and hardened in his sin, or he may have been transgressing God’s will through simple ignorance or careless neglect. Regardless, when he engaged his mind in evaluating his attitudes and actions, he soon saw that he had erred. When he pondered his ways, he came to see the evil of sin and the beauty of obedience.

Having seen his error, David responded without delay. He allowed no complacency, permitted no procrastination. He dealt ruthlessly with his sin, putting it to death immediately so he could come alive to righteousness. And now he tells of his determination to live in this way, to find delight in continually evaluating himself by the light of God’s Word. In another Psalm, he declares his desire that every word he speaks and every thought he thinks will be acceptable to God (Psalm 19:14). Yet he knows for this to happen, he must diligently apply himself to the Word, for only then will he be able to discern his errors, only then will he be freed from the dominion of sin, only then will he be blameless before God (Psalm 19:13-14).

Much of our sin arises and persists because we do not seriously consider our ways.

Much of our sin arises and persists because we do not seriously consider our ways. We do not diligently compare our actions with the Word of God. We do not apply ourselves to thinking holy thoughts. And without such discipline, we continue on in our sin and unholiness. We neglect this practice because our lives are busy, our minds are scattered, and our hearts are burdened with the cares of this world. But this is all the more reason to make time for reflection, for meditation, for self-evaluation.


The Christian is visibly distinguished from the unbeliever in his actions. This is why Peter can say, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12). Yet the Christian is first invisibly distinguished from the unbeliever in his mind, for the desire to do deeds that accomplish good for others and bring glory to God must arise from a transformed mind. Only a mind that has been pierced by God’s light and dazzled by a sight of Christ can desire something so selfless, so noble. The mind’s renewal depends upon the practice of thinking holy thoughts, of deliberately applying the light of God’s Word so it can search our hearts and lives, so it can expose all that is foreign, all that is sinful, all that does not belong. We would do well to make David’s prayer and practice our own: “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Psalm 139:23-24).

The “8 Rules for Growing in Godliness” are drawn from the work of Thomas Watson. Here are the words that inspired this article: “Inure yourselves to holy thoughts: serious meditation represents every thing in its native colour; it shows an evil in sin, and a lustre in grace. By holy thoughts the head grows clearer, and the heart better, Psal. cxix. 59. ‘I thought on my ways, and turned my feet unto thy testimonies.’ Did men step aside a little out of the noise and hurry of business, and spend but half an hour every day in thinking about their souls and eternity, it would produce a wonderful alteration in them, and tend very much to a real and blessed conversion.”

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