Sometimes I get disappointed, even upset, when something turns out to be less than represented. For instance, the local A & W Root Beer drive-in used to serve our root beer in large, iced glasses. The root beer was delicious, but the glass was empty after drinking only two-thirds of the root beer. The glass simply did not hold as much as it should have because of the false bottom.
I have also been disappointed at the local farmers’ market. Vendors display their tomatoes in neatly piled little boxes virtually overflowing with tomatoes. One discovers that all the tomatoes are on top with one tomato underneath propping up the rest. I feel cheated every time I buy their tomatoes.
We need not feel short-changed when studying the text of our lesson. Though there are only two verses in our text, the more we investigate, the more we find Paul is saying in these few words. I remember teaching on these two verses over twenty years ago, one of the first texts I taught after coming to Dallas to attend seminary. In thinking on this text over the years, I have realized that I only began to scratch the surface in that first lesson. Twenty years from now, I am sure I will feel the same about this lesson.
Romans 12:1-2 is the transition to the last major segment of this Epistle to the Romans. The doctrinal foundation for the Christian life has been laid down in the first 11 chapters. Now in chapters 12-15 Paul will spell out some of the ways our faith and doctrine should be demonstrated in our daily lives. These transitional verses introduce us to the attitudes and actions which should set the Christian apart from the world in which he lives.
It is vitally important that we know and understand the doctrines Paul has taught in the first 11 chapters of Romans. But we must recognize they are truths God intends for us to put into practice. We must not file these truths away in the back drawer of our minds; we must live them out in our daily walk in the Spirit. These two verses are a call to commitment, a commitment to be worked out by a whole new way of thinking and behaving. Heed well these words. More importantly, be obedient to them. Let us now look for the commitment called for in these verses, and do as Paul urges to the glory of God and to our good.
I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.
As we seek to understand Paul’s words, consider these important observations to serve as a guide in our study.
(1) Note that those who are addressed are Christians. Paul addresses his words to the “brethren,” those who have come to faith in Jesus Christ, those who have experienced justification by faith.
(2) Paul’s words are a call to action; they are directed toward application. These words challenge the Christian to make a decisive commitment—to take action.
(3) Paul’s call to action is built on the foundation of his teaching in chapters 1-11. The word “therefore” is most significant. The action Paul calls for in the first verse of chapter 12 is the application of Paul’s teaching in chapters 1-11. But it goes even deeper than this. Chapters 1-11 describe the means whereby the actions called for in chapters 12-15 can be carried out. Chapters 1-11 also provide the motivation for doing so. Not until chapter 12 are we equipped and prepared for the application of chapters 1-11.
(4) Paul’s words are those of urging, of exhortation. These words are not a demand but an exhortation. It is clear that every Christian should do that which Paul calls for in our text. But why the Christian acts accordingly is of utmost importance to God. God does not judge men on outward appearances but on the heart (see 1 Samuel 16:7; Luke 16:15; 1 Corinthians 4:5). God is thus very concerned that our actions stem from righteous attitudes and motives. Some obey God out of guilt and others out of greed or self-interest. As we shall soon see, God wants more.
(5) Grace is both the means and the motivation for heeding Paul’s exhortation. Paul’s appeal is based on the “mercies of God,” mercies which have been described in much greater detail in chapters 1-11. Now Paul urges us to act on those mercies. God’s mercy is evident in His eternal plan to save men from their sins, to declare them righteous, and to assure them of the hope of glory. God’s mercy is evident in that He employs man’s disobedience as the occasion for His grace. God’s mercy is seen in divine election which enables Him to bless men apart from their unworthiness and sin. God’s mercy is personified in the person of Jesus Christ, who suffered and died for sinners. God’s mercy is evident in the life of the Christian in whom His Spirit dwells and through whom He is working out His purposes. All of God’s blessings are the result of His grace and the manifestation of His mercy. In His mercy, God has provided for guilty sinners to be delivered from their sins and destined for His glory. The mercies of God enable us to serve God and motivate us to serve out of gratitude.
(6) The goal of the Christian’s action is pleasing God. Paul calls for a “living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God.” The Christian’s goal should be to please God. Many want to push God as far as they can, stopping just short of making Him angry. They are like our children who press us to the very limit but stop short when they see our anger. Pleasing God goes much farther than this. It avoids anything that might not please Him. It searches for ways to please Him.
When I was growing up, I had a golden retriever I had raised from a pup. Occasionally I ran my dog against other breeds. A word of disapproval was the only rebuke my golden retriever needed; this devastated him enough to bring him to the desired obedience. Other breeds needed considerably more persuasion, and they were known as “hard-headed.” Often the owner would thump the dog on the head just to get his attention. God wants us to be like the golden retriever—eager to please Him and sensitive to His approval or disapproval.
(7) Paul’s call to action is a call to worship. Paul’s worship, based upon the mind of God and the mercy of God, began in chapter 11 and is recorded in verses 33-36. Paul calls the Christian to a commitment and to action in chapter 12. To understand, we must see that the service Paul urges us to engage in is the “service of worship.”
The worship Paul calls for is a rational worship as indicated in the marginal note in the New American Standard Bible. It is unfortunate that this rendering was not the first choice of the translators, because I believe it to be the primary thrust of the term.39 This meaning is entirely consistent with the context in which the Christian’s mind has been a prominent subject of discussion. The puffed up mind of the Gentile believer was to be humbled by the grace of God and the infinitely wise mind of God in chapter 11. The Christian’s transformation, discussed in verse 2 of chapter 12, is the result of the “renewing of the mind.” Thinking is the primary activity in verse 3. In fact, all of chapter 12 has to do with the new mindset of the Christian, as a result of the grace of God. As Christian doctrine was taught in chapters 1-11, it was addressed to the mind. Now Paul calls upon the Christian to exercise his mind to conclude that the worship of sacrificial service is the only proper response. Serving God is the logical thing to do. Disobeying God is illogical and irrational, but then so is sin. Never is the Christian called upon to set his mind aside; rather he is to employ his mind, based upon the truth which God has revealed.
The worship Paul calls for is sacrificial. The Old Testament describes several types of offerings. The sacrifice Paul calls for is not a sin offering, for Christ’s death has paid for our sins once for all. The sacrifice called for is a sacrifice of praise. In gratitude for God’s grace, the believer gives up his life and gives it over to God. The sacrifice belongs to God, to be used to His glory as an act of praise and devotion.
(8) The worship Paul calls for is expressed by our service. Our sacrifice is to be a “living sacrifice.” Death is involved. We can only live for God as a living sacrifice because we have first died and been raised to new life in Jesus Christ:
I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me (Galatians 2:20).
Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God (Romans 6:12-13).
The Christian’s life is that life which God has given by His grace. Our response of gratitude must be to give our life back to God as a sacrifice of praise. We do so not by laying on an altar as a dead sacrifice, but by living out our lives selflessly for God. It is a living sacrifice expressed in service. Worship here is seen as a lifestyle.
(9) Paul is calling for a specific decision and commitment, leading to a life of service. The exhortation to “present our bodies as a living sacrifice” is expressed in a way that calls for a decision, a specific commitment.40 Divine revelation requires our response. After 11 chapters of teaching, Paul calls upon us to respond to the mercies of God and to do so by giving our lives to Him as a sacrifice of praise.
As we look at Paul’s words in verse 1, we view them from the perspective of the Old Testament sacrifices. We do so rightly. But when Paul addresses Gentile believers, speaking to them about worship, we must remember what “worship” meant to these former-pagans. Paul’s words here not only compare the Christian’s commitment to serve God to the Old Testament sacrifices, they contrast it with their former lifestyle. Note the contrast evident at the outset of Paul’s teaching to the Corinthians about spiritual gifts and service:
Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware. You know that when you were pagans, you were led astray to the dumb idols, however you were led. Therefore I make known to you, that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus is accursed”; and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:1-3).
Pagan worship was often mindless. In many cases it might be associated with drunkenness and immorality. Such was the case in Corinth, and this heathen heritage was brought into the worship of the church with strong words of rebuke from Paul (see 1 Corinthians 10 and 11). The “worship” of the heathen very much involved the body. Immorality was often part of the heathen worship ritual. Christian worship involved the body too but in exactly the opposite way. The body was not to be employed for self-gratification but in self-sacrifice. The heathen’s worship was pagan and unholy. The sacrifice of the Christian was to be “holy” and “acceptable to God.” The worship of the Christian was to be rational, the reasoned response of a grateful soul to the grace of God. Heathen worship was more a matter of magic where one sought to manipulate the “gods” to bring about one’s good. The worship of God is to be focused on the One who shows mercy and bestows grace on unworthy sinners. God blesses us not because we do everything right, but in spite of our failures.
And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed41 by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.
Romans 12:1 and 2 address the Christian personally and individually. Verse 1 calls upon the Christian to actively choose to become a living sacrifice as an act of worship. In verse 2, Paul speaks of the Christian’s obligation in passive terms. First, the Christian is called upon to serve God. Then, in verse 2, the Christian is called upon to change. More accurately, the Christian is called upon to be changed. The Christian life is not to be lived out as we once lived. The change Paul calls for is one that is brought about in the life of the believer. Let us consider this change as we take note of several characteristics of this text.
First, note that the words of verse 2 are closely linked with what Paul has just said in verse 1. The “and” of verse 2 links this verse with verse 1. Presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice to God should result in the transformation of our lives as called for in verse 2. The offering of ourselves to God is a choice which determines whom we will serve and whom we will follow.
Second, the commitment to offer our lives to God as a sacrifice of thanksgiving is intended to result in a process of change, of transformation. When the gospel is proclaimed, repentance is required. Repentance is a turning around, a change in thinking and behaving. The commitment to serve God as a sacrificial offering is also a commitment to change. This change involves the mind and what will shape our thinking. The Gentile mind is darkened and distorted. It must change:
This I say therefore, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality, for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness. But you did not learn Christ in this way, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth (Ephesians 4:17-24).
The commitment to become a living sacrifice is a commitment to change. It is a commitment to a radical change, a reversal of our thinking and values, of our motives and methods. It is not a minor repair but a tearing down and complete rebuilding. This change is evidenced in the instructions Paul gives in the rest of Romans.42
Third, becoming a living sacrifice is the commitment to BEING changed. It is not we who change ourselves. In the final analysis, our thinking will be shaped by something or someone outside ourselves. In our sin and unbelief, we like to think of ourselves as “free thinkers.” In reality, we are only thinking like Satan and like the fallen world system in which we live. Our culture constantly seeks to shape us. Like teenage children, we think we are expressing our individuality and independence when we differ with God. In reality, we are merely following the world, the flesh, and the devil in rebellion and unbelief. When we give our lives to God, we give ourselves over to His influence and control. When we turn to God in obedience, we turn away from the world’s shaping influence on us. Its influence should diminish, and God’s infinite wisdom, contained in Scripture and conveyed by His Spirit, should begin to transform our thinking and our actions. Giving our lives to God as a living sacrifice is the decision to be shaped and influenced by God and not by our fallen world.
The end result of our sacrificial offering, and of the transformation which results from the renewing of our minds, is proving out the will of God. We should explore just what this means.
We must first determine what Paul means here by the “will of God.” In Christian circles today, the expression normally refers to the “will of God for my life,” “the will which God has for my life.” Knowing God’s will is a popular topic of discussion.
There may be an element of truth in saying that when we surrender our wills and our lives to God, God will then make it clear to us what He wants us to do. Giving ourselves to God as living sacrifices may very well be a prerequisite to knowing God’s will for our life. Nevertheless, I do not think this is the primary thrust of Paul’s words.
The “will of God” to which Paul refers is described as “good,” “perfect,” and “acceptable.” We are tempted to view these terms from a human perspective. The will of God is “good” for me, it is “perfect” for me, it is “acceptable”43 to me. From all that Paul has already taught in Romans, I believe we would have to say this: The “will of God” is the “good” which He has purposed (Romans 8:28), which is “acceptable” to Him, and which is “perfect.” That which is “perfect” is that which is complete. The “will of God” here then encompasses His comprehensive and all-inclusive will for His creation, for time and eternity. If this be the case, the “will of God” is not “the will of God for my life” or “what God wants me to do in specific circumstances,” but the all-encompassing will of God for His creation. The will of God here has a much wider scope than just me and my choices.
Further, the emphasis here is not so much on “discovering” or “knowing” God’s will as it is in doing God’s will or demonstrating His will. Paul tells us that we will “prove” what the “will of God” is rather than “learn” what it is. In other words, we can be assured we will achieve God’s will and that we will be instruments in His hands to play a part in the accomplishing of His great and mysterious purposes.
The term “prove” not only means to prove out, to demonstrate, but to approve (see Luke 14:19; Romans 14:22; 1 Corinthians 16:3; Ephesians 5:10; Philippians 1:10; 1 Thessalonians 2:4). If I understand Paul correctly, he is saying that when we have given ourselves to God as a thank offering and have been transformed by the renewing of our minds, we will not only recognize that God’s will is being worked out in our lives, we will rejoice in this reality. Pharaoh achieved God’s purposes for his life, but he neither recognized it nor rejoiced in it (see Romans 9:17-18, 22-24). Disobedient Israel does not recognize that God’s will is being accomplished through their disobedience, and neither do they rejoice in it. Those who have given themselves to God, and whose minds are increasingly in tune with the mind of God, recognize that He is at work and rejoice in it.
The more I have considered these words of Paul here in Romans 12, the more I see that he has outlined God’s way of reversing the process of mental and moral decay outlined in Romans 1. Read through these verses from Romans 1, and consider them with me in the light of Romans 12, verses 1 and 2:
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures. 24 Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, that their bodies might be dishonored among them. 25 For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. 26 For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error. 28 And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, 29 being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; 32 and, although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them (Romans 1:18-32).
In Romans 1, Paul indicted those to whom God had revealed Himself by means of creation. God revealed something of His character and attributes by the creation which is before us. Men should be able to look at creation and see not only that it was created by a Creator, but that this Creator has a divine nature and eternal power. These invisible attributes are visibly demonstrated in His creation (Romans 1:19-20).
This revelation of God’s nature and power requires man’s response. The only proper response is that of man’s worship and adoration. But instead of falling down before God in worship, men either rejected this revelation or exchanged it for that “knowledge” which suited their own sinful inclinations and desires (Romans 1:18, 21, 23). Instead of worshipping God, men chose to worship the creation. In the final analysis, men began to worship their own images, to worship themselves. Men put God down and elevated themselves to His place of honor and glory and praise (see Romans 1:21-25).
God responded to man’s sin by giving them over to their sin. He gave their minds over to depraved and distorted thinking. They began to think themselves wise, but in reality they were becoming fools. They became futile in their speculative thinking and darkened in their ability to see and to perceive the truth (Romans 1:21, 28).
He also gave men over to their sinful passions. God gave fallen men and women over to their lusts, so that they not only lived in excesses, they even began to practice perversion, that which was unnatural and unholy (Romans 1:26-27). In both mind and body, God gave men over to their sin, to its distortions and perversions.
How could this downward spiral be stopped? How could these adverse effects of sin be reversed? Only through the grace of God, manifested in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. He died in the sinner’s place. He offers men not only forgiveness but also restoration and renewal.
The process by which that renewal takes place is outlined in Romans 12:1 and 2. Beyond the limited scope of the revelation of God in nature (Romans 1:18ff.), and the more extensive revelation of God through the Law (Romans 2), God has now revealed Himself in the person of Jesus Christ (see Hebrews 1:1-3). He has revealed not only our sin but His righteousness. He has offered to all who will believe forgiveness of sins and eternal life. To those whom He has chosen, and who have believed the gospel, He has poured out His mercies.
These mercies are the subject of chapters 1-11 of Romans. On the basis of this great revelation of the kindness and severity of God, Paul has called upon believers in the Lord Jesus to respond in a way appropriate to the revelation we have received. We are to respond in worship. We are to offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God. We are to honor and serve Him. We are to live holy and obedient lives. Those who respond in worship as Paul has urged will enter into the life-long process of renewal and restoration. The grip of this age will loosen, and the process of transformation will begin by the renewing of our minds. As a result, both our bodies and our minds will begin to be conformed to Christ and His image.
The steps Paul urges the believer to take in our text are the steps to renewal and restoration, steps required to reverse the devastation of sin.
Much more could be said about this text, but there is one thing Paul urges us to do. The point of this passage is to urge each Christian to offer himself to God as a thank offering, based upon the mercy and the grace of God which has been poured out on those who believe. Have you trusted in Jesus Christ for salvation? Have you experienced the mercies of God? If so, then have you offered your life to Him, as a sacrifice, for His glory and praise? Just as men are called upon to make a decision concerning salvation, Paul calls on believers to make the decision to worship God by offering our lives to Him, and by this to please Him who has loved us and given Himself for us. I urge you to do this today, because of His manifold mercies.
Here is the road to renewal. We must respond to the grace of God, revealed in Jesus Christ. We must first respond by faith in Jesus as our Savior, our Righteousness. We should also respond to Him in grateful worship, expressed in service. We should fall before Him in grateful, loving service, like the woman who washed the feet of Jesus in Luke 7.
Now one of the Pharisees was requesting Him to dine with him. And He entered the Pharisee’s house, and reclined at the table. And behold, there was a woman in the city who was a sinner; and when she learned that He was reclining at the table in the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster vial of perfume, and standing behind Him at His feet, weeping, she began to wet His feet with her tears, and kept wiping them with the hair of her head, and kissing His feet, and anointing them with the perfume. Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet He would know who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner.” And Jesus answered and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he replied, “Say it, Teacher.” “A certain moneylender had two debtors: one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they were unable to repay, he graciously forgave them both. Which of them therefore will love him more?” Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.” And He said to him, “You have judged correctly.” And turning toward the woman, He said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has wet My feet with her tears, and wiped them with her hair. You gave Me no kiss; but she, since the time I came in, has not ceased to kiss My feet. You did not anoint My head with oil, but she anointed My feet with perfume. For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much, but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And He said to her, “Your sins have been forgiven.” And those who were reclining at the table with Him began to say to themselves, “Who is this man who even forgives sins?” And He said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Luke 7:36-50).
The woman, caught up in the mercy of her Lord, no longer cared what others thought; she was preoccupied with her Savior, expressing her love in that service afforded to her, washing His feet. She is simply demonstrating what Paul is calling every Christian to do.
Here is the road to renewal, both personal and corporate. May we, as individuals and as churches, offer ourselves to the Saviour as an act of grateful worship.
40 When Paul says in Romans 6:13, “do not go on presenting …,” the verb is in the present tense. In Romans 12:2, Paul uses the aorist tense. The inference in our text is that we are called to a specific commitment. That commitment leads to a lifestyle.
41 Note that these two expressions, “conformed” and “transformed,” are both imperatives. They are present imperatives, thus indicating a process. They are passive verbs, indicating that we are being changed by someone or something outside of ourselves.
43 In most instances, when the term “acceptable” is used in the New Testament, it refers to that which is acceptable to God (see 2 Corinthians 5:9; Ephesians 5:18; Philippians 4:18; Colossians 3:20; Hebrews 13:21).