Sarah writes in to ask: “Pastor John, what does it mean to ‘take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ?’ (2 Corinthians 10:5). How can I take this command and apply it to my incorrect or sinful thoughts, that I may obey Christ and have joy in Him?”
Taking Thoughts Captive
Well, here is the text. Let’s read it and then we will see if we can figure this out.
Second Corinthians 10:4–5 says, “For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh” — That is, they are not merely human. This is not a mere battle between one philosopher with some human wisdom against another philosopher with a human wisdom — “But [the weapons of our warfare] have divine power to destroy strongholds” — And then he defines this powerful stronghold-destroying activity in two steps.
Verse 5: “[First,] we destroy arguments and every lofty or proud opinion raised against the knowledge of God and [second,] we then take every thought captive.” It’s like when you move in a battle and you destroy the fortress and then you take captives. We take every thought captive to obey Christ.
So Sarah asks how she can approach verse 5, taking every thought captive, and apply it to herself to be more obedient to Christ in her thought life.
The first thing I think that needs to be said is, when we apply this to ourselves, we have to make sure we are in the right place in the text. When Paul says first he is destroying arguments and arrogant opinions against God, and second, that he is taking thoughts or minds captive, we need to realize it is the minds and thoughts of others. He is not talking about taking his own thoughts captive. It is the thoughts of others.
In other words, it’s as is if Paul is saying, “I am visiting these rascals in Corinth who are so boastful in their philosophical prowess that I am going to demolish them not by counter philosophy, but my divine power. I am going to show power and they are going to collapse in their thinking. And then I am going to take their thoughts captive so that they now obey Christ.”
So, Paul is the warrior, and the enemies are those people whose minds and arguments are proud and lifted up against God. And when Paul defeats those minds and arguments in the power of the Holy Spirit, their thoughts and their minds are taken captive, and they become people with the mind of Christ or obedient to Christ.
Right State of Mind
So I think Sarah might be misreading just slightly. I am going to come around and say she is on the right track, but she might be misreading the verse when she asks, “How can I take this command and apply it to my incorrect sinful thoughts?”
It is not a command. It is a statement about what Paul is doing to his opponents. He is demolishing their worldview and then taking their defeated thoughts captive for Christ so that they become right thinkers — obedient in the way they think about Christ.
So verse 5 is not a command to do this work ourselves, but Sarah’s question is still a very good question. There is a way to apply this to ourselves. We just have to get ourselves in the right place, and the place we belong in is the group whose opinions and thoughts Paul is trying to demolish. That is where we belong. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive.
So when John Piper reads that, or when Sarah reads it, I should say or she should say, “Ok, Paul. Here I am. Do your demolishing work on me. Do your captive-taking work on me. Destroy in my mind any false or proud thoughts that I have about God.”
Which really means two things, I think, that Sarah and I and anybody else, any Christian, should do.
1. Submit Your Thoughts to Scrutiny
One, we should listen to Paul and submit all our thoughts and ideas and feelings about God and about life to Paul’s teaching (as God’s apostle) for scrutiny. And if anything is out of sync with Paul’s teaching, we should let it be destroyed.
I have experienced this very painfully. If you put your mind and thoughts really at the disposal of the apostolic teaching and say, “Anything in my thinking that needs to be destroyed, destroy it.” That can utterly undo you.
There have been seasons in my life where I have wept over the dismantling of what felt like really important structures in my brain. So I think that is the first thing we do. We listen to Paul.
We submit everything we think — all of our ideas, all of our worldview, all of our viewpoints to God — and we say, “Paul, let your Word dismantle me if necessary.”
2. Ask the Holy Spirit to Work
And here is the second thing that it means. We should ask the Holy Spirit to work, because Paul said we don’t fight with mere human fleshly arguments. Our ministry has power. So we should expose ourselves to that power.
Paul says, “The weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but have divine power” (2 Corinthians 10:4). In other words, he is tearing down arguments and God-belittling ideas, but he is not doing it merely by argument.
So when I come to the Bible, there is a lot of study I do. I love to study, and I love to assess arguments and figure them out. But I should also be crying out, “Oh, God. I know that mere intellect will not dismantle the deeply rooted errors of my mind so I avail myself. I open myself, to the Holy Spirit, and I seek your face.”
Paul said in Romans 15:18, “For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience.” Now I think that is the same obedience as in 2 Corinthians 10:4–5 when he brings our thoughts into obedience to Christ.
In Romans, he says, “I won’t speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished.” So that is what I am getting at when I say, expose yourself. Lay yourself open to the risen Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit through the words of the apostle Paul so that everything can be dismantled and then your brain, your mind, and your thoughts can be taken captive and everything brought into conformity to Christ.