In our house, we keep a bottle of Tylenol PM on hand at all times. Or as we like to call it, anesthesia. Headaches, muscle aches, you name it—take the recommended dosage, and I’ll see you in the morning.
Any bodily ailment may be in better shape after a night of restful slumber, but the next morning is different. If I take it too late in the evening, my brain is in a fog the following morning. My memory is shot. I repeat myself. Reactions are slower. I repeat myself.
That’s a result of taking a pain medication. But there are other traits of the human mind that need addressing, as well.
Noetic Effect: noun. The residual effect of sin on the human mind and its ability to understand and know God.
The doctrine of total depravity teaches us that every part of the human—mind, body, and soul—is affected by sin. We are not as evil as we could be, but no part of us goes untouched by the effects of sin. In God’s mercy, he limits the amount of evil on the earth.
But the mind? How has the mind been affected by sin? Are we stupid and just don’t know it? Or are the noetic effects something else entirely?
In Romans 1:28, Paul said, “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done” (ESV).
“Debased” is the Greek word ἀδόκιμος, or adokimos. It generally means that something is unfit and should therefore be rejected or tossed away.
The mind of man has been so affected by sin that it needs to be completely renewed. Paul’s main argument in Romans 1 is that man has actively rejected God, and that has real consequences, both physically and mentally. Physically, we die. Mentally, our minds are dark.
Later in Romans 12:2, Paul said, “Do not be conformed to this world, but 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.”
Paul tells us here explicitly what he hinted at in chapter 1. The mind must be transformed. The unregenerate mind cannot know the will of God. But in seeking to have our minds completely renewed in Christ, we can finally discern the will of God.
Paul establishes that our minds are dark and debased and must be transformed. He describes our minds in different terms elsewhere to help see the real effect of sin.
In Colossians 1:21-23 he said, “And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister” (ESV).
There are two descriptions of the fallen, unregenerate mind here: ἀπαλλοτριόω (alienated) and ἐχθρός (hostile). “Alienated” means to be estranged and not allowed into fellowship. “Hostile” is also translated as “enemy” and even used to describe Satan elsewhere.
And we make so little of sin! Because of wickedness and sin, both our own and other’s, we are estranged from God. We are his enemy.
Apart from being reconciled to God the Father through God the Son, God has cast us out of his presence. But because we are reconciled to God the Father through God the Son, we will be presented holy, blameless, and above reproach (no one will be able to bring a charge against us).
Where does this kind of mind come from? Paul tells us in Ephesians 4:18. “They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart” (ESV).
Here we start to get a glimpse of the effect of sin on the mind. We’ve been told what our minds are—debased, alienated, and hostile. Now, Paul tells us that our understanding itself is darkened. But the effect is the same: we are “alienated from the life of God.”
“Darkened” is σκοτίζω (skotizo). It simply means to be covered over so that what is within is darkened. The metaphor is that our understanding is covered in darkness itself so that it is complete. Why? Because of ignorance and a hard heart toward God.
The remedy for a hard heart toward God is a heart of flesh from God. Only he can do that kind of work. A mind that is debased, alienated, hostile, and darkened doesn’t seek after God. No one does; no not one. Telling someone to love God who naturally can’t is just good advice (and like most good advice goes to waste). But telling someone that God has sought him despite his darkened mind? That’s good news.
The disciples asked Jesus how a man might be saved if it’s easier for a camel to travel through the eye of a sewing needle. Jesus’s response has comforted many who see their darkened minds still struggling to think rightly of God: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26, ESV).
So the human mind is capable is figuring out how to send satellites to Pluto and nanobots into the human body. The mind can formulate poetry like Shakespeare that revolutionizes a whole language. But the mind cannot seek after a God it hates.
“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (Romans 7:24-25).