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Application in the Assembly (Romans 12:1-21)

Ninth Bible Class
(Romans 12:1-21)

V. Application or God’s Righteousness at Work (12:1—15:13)

We now come to the last major section of the book, the application of the doctrine set forth in chapters 1-11. This is the standard form of Paul’s writings, doctrine first and then practice—or application. The first part of the application deals with the living out of the Christian life in the assembly of believers, chapter 12.

A. Application in the Assembly (12:1-21)
      1. Spiritual Growth (12:1, 2)

In the Book of Romans as well as in his other writings, the apostle Paul gives a number of instructions for living the spiritual life by the power of the Spirit (the provision of the Spirit introduced here in Romans 8)—be filled with the Spirit, mortify the flesh, yield your members, walk in the Spirit, and many more. Nowhere in his writings is the basic process of doing all this more clearly laid out than in these two verses.

The first verse sets down the principle of one’s relationship to God. In vain one tries to live triumphantly in the midst of secondary relationships unless this primary relationship is established. It is a relationship that begins with the language of dedication—it describes a foundational commitment to the Lord and not a regular spiritual activity. Through this dedication, Paul will explain, the believer is in a position to know the will of God (v. 2).

“I beseech you therefore by the mercies of God.” Both the “therefore” and the “mercies of God” refer us to chapters 1-11. In view of the great plan of redemption unveiled in Romans 1-11, Paul exhorts believers to dedication. The urging is a powerful exhortation; the verb (parakaleo) is used for exhortations and commands, even though the New Testament exhortations do not have the sanctions that one finds in the Old Testament. We are not under Law; nevertheless, there are instructions and exhortations that must be followed if we are to live successfully (as Christians) in this world. (Of course, there often is a great difference between what is considered success in the world and what is success with God—they may overlap, but they may conflict).

How is this initial dedication to be done? We are to present our bodies as “living sacrifices.” The term “sacrifice” belongs to the realm of the dead; the term “living” counters the point. The idea is drawn from the Israelite dedication offering of Leviticus 2: the sacrifice is one of complete surrender of our bodies, our lives, our possessions, and our abilities as a perpetual dedicatory offering to God. As a sacrifice we are dead to the way of this world; as a living sacrifice we are alive to the way of Christ. We are not our own; we have been bought with a price and we belong to him.

It is interesting that the term for sacrifice used here is never used to translate an offering in the Hebrew Old Testament. But it is used of the priest’s service in “standing before the LORD.” Thus, the sacrifice to be offered is not a bloody sacrifice, so the choice of words fits better with the dedication of Leviticus 2. The verb form used is an aorist (point action); in light of the present tenses that follow, there must be a contrast intended—Paul could have used a present tense here too (“present yourselves continually”) but he did not. So his idea is probably that there should be one definite presentation (like “I do” in a marriage—an event and commitment made at a point in time but with continuing implications). There are times to renew such a dedication, but not to repeat it. It follows the atoning sacrifices in Leviticus, and so in the Church the dedication offering—ourselves to God—follows our acceptance and appreciation for his atonement. Because he has redeemed us, what can we give to God as an expression of our eternal gratitude? Our bodies!—as living sacrifices.

The verb means “to present”—not the passive idea of surrender, or even of yield, in this verse. You present it—as you would a gift to a friend. The dedication gift you offer to God is “your body” (not just “yourselves”). The body is the outward form and expression of the inner person; it includes all your talents, abilities, desires, and aspirations—all of it and more are to be given to God.

And Paul says that this is our reasonable service. This is a good translation, although some texts go with “this is your spiritual worship.” It is rational. Physical and spiritual service involves the whole body. Human beings are rational (as opposed to animal sacrifice, where the animal is an irrational victim), and so the human dedicating himself or herself is a reasonable thing to do.

The pattern of this (and the fulfillment of Leviticus 2 because it was the liturgy to be used with that dedication offering) is Psalm 40, which was then fulfilled by Jesus in the New Testament (see Heb. 10). It begins with the acknowledgment: “a body you have prepared for me.” God has made us fit for his service. The talents, abilities, and characteristics we have he gave us. It continues with desire: “here I come to do your will.” If God made us for his service, then our service is to do his will. There is a plan to follow that has been revealed; and he has prepared us for it. The person who is redeemed and filled with gratitude will desire to please God. But God desires us to say it, to him, in the presence of others. And it this dedication necessarily involves direction: “in the volume [scroll] of the book it is prescribed for me.” Dedication without direction is delusion. It has to be directed to do God’s will if it is to be pleasing to him. Every Israelite who dedicated himself or herself to the LORD would use this liturgy. And we too must acknowledge or confess similar things when we make our commitment.

Now Jesus fulfilled this passage in a far greater way. God the Father did prepare a body for his Son, and that body was conceived by the Spirit in the womb of Mary. Jesus did desire to do the will of his Father, more than we every will. He was completely obedient. And, Scripture not only prescribed how as a righteous man he should live, but it spoke of him in prophetic oracles—and these he was to fulfill. Jesus’ dedication and obedience thus fulfills Psalm 40 (and Leviticus 2), and provides us the model for dedication. Like Christ Jesus we are to commit our lives to do God’s will as it is prescribed for us in his word.

One further point that is worth mentioning briefly. The Israelite dedication service of Leviticus 2 involved burning a handful of the gift that was brought on the altar as a memorial. The Hebrew idea of the verb “to remember” or its noun “memorial” involves the proper outworking of what is remembered—it is more than memory; it is acting on what is remembered (like the thief on the cross, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom”). That memorial at the altar reminded God to fulfill what he had promised through the sacrifices of the covenant, but it also reminded the people to fulfill their covenant obligations as the redeemed people. Thus, in the New Covenant Jesus told us to observe Holy Communion “in memory of him.” Every time we have communion, it is an act of faith by which we confirm that we have entered into covenant with God and are awaiting the fulfillment of the promises, and, it is an act of commitment whereby we reaffirm our obligations to serve him as his redeemed people.

So the starting point of spiritual living is this serious dedication to the Lord (I say serious because there are frivolous dedications out of emotional responses and the people making them do not know what it all means). This dedication may come almost immediately when someone comes to faith in Christ; but more often, it comes with the beginning of spiritual growth, as one begins to understand what Romans 1-11 is all about. When believers learn more about Christ, salvation, the covenant responsibilities, the body of Christ, and the mission of the Church in the world, then they are ready to make a heartfelt commitment.

The second verse deals with our relationship to the world. “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world.” By his choice of words, Paul is saying not to take as a mode of living the present, fleeting, fashions of the world, its dominating motives and moods. Here is true biblical separation—the first half of the doctrine of sanctification (“set apart from the world”). Separation from the world is not to be reduced to a few legalistic things; it is wisdom to live untarnished in a world system that is dominated by selfishness, greed, pleasure, and indifference to the needs of others—all of which are directly the opposite of the Christian life. It is that attitude of the world which dominates a person that constitutes worldliness. If what dominates my thinking and manifests itself in all my life is the way the world lives—to the exclusion of God—then I am conformed to the world. If I live, love, and choose as the world does, then I am worldly, and that way of living cannot harmonize with the dedication and sanctification of the spiritual life.

Christians in our country come close to being caught up in the world system. Little things begin to change our way of thinking. For example, people crave a blessing (this is big now), meaning success, wealth, security. But they have forgotten that they must first be a blessing in the world for God to bless them, and God may not bless them with material things. Or, people pray earnestly for illnesses and diseases to be removed, or instead of praying they think they can command them to leave; and it is perfectly understandable that people should want to be free from the pain and suffering. But they have forgotten that when they suffer they are to count it all joy, because it gives them an opportunity to use that suffering for the glory of God, as a witness to the world. They need to add to their prayers that God will change them spiritually and use them. Or, people are told if they give money it is a seed that is planted and God will pay it back and more, that is, the giving is a financial investment that will pay dividends. But they have forgotten that giving to God is simply giving to him what belongs to him, and the giving that pleases him the most is sacrificial giving—that is not a sure business deal. These trends and many more today show that many in the Church have bought into the world’s system of this country, and it is hindering the Church from being a true witness for the Lord and a compassionate help of people in great need.

The counterpoint to this negative side (not being conformed to the world) is the positive: “be transformed” (this is the other side of sanctification, the positive side—set apart to God). Here is the inner change (see Phil. 3:21 and 2 Cor. 3:18), in contrast to the outer conformity to the world. Sanctification is not just being separated from the world (with a list of worldly things that one should not do); it is a positive transformation by which we become more and more like Jesus Christ.

Notice how it is accomplished: “by the renewing of your mind.” We need to recall what Paul had said earlier about the spiritual mind as opposed to the carnal or fleshly mind. One renews the mind by yielding it (and all our members) to the Holy Spirit and studying the Word of God day by day. Then one gains the mind of Christ—the life begins to change from glory to glory as we reflect as in a mirror the glory of the Lord revealed in Scripture (2 Cor. 3:18). Too many Christians rely on personal experiences to get them through the week, perhaps an uplifting service, or a supernatural feeling. They do not study the Word. They are like cars with dead batteries, and any time they are to be useful they have to be jump-started. No. They must be in the Bible constantly so that they can grow. Too many Christians have forgotten that God redeemed the mind as well as the heart; they are to wear the helmet of salvation and renew their minds with the Word.

So the essentials of spiritual growth are: Dedication, Separation (from the world and to God), and Transformation by the Renewing of the Mind.

Once this begins to develop, we will be able to test and approve what the will of God is. “This is the will of God, even your sanctification.” So the rest of these chapters will lay out the application of the spiritual life in a variety of settings and situations.

Kenneth S. Wuest summarizes this verse this way: “And stop assuming an outward expression that does not come from within you and is not representative of what you are in your inner being, but is patterned after this age; but change your outward expression to one that comes from within and is representative of your inner being, by the renewing of your mind, resulting in your putting to the test what is the will of God, the good and well-pleasing, and complete will, and having found that it meets specifications, placing your approval upon it.” We are not to be actors, conforming to this present world system, but to be genuine, because the Spirit of truth is working within us.

      2. The Gifts of the Spirit (12:3-8)

Based on his apostolic ministry (“the grace given to me”) Paul warns us not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought. There is a danger of our thinking too much of our gifts and callings; instead, we have to see ourselves in relation to other believers as part of a body.

This relationship is explained several times in Paul’s letters as the spiritual gifts. Here he describes them in relationship to faith: “God has divided a measure of faith to each one.” This passage is the first place where Paul introduces the Church in terms of a body, as he does in 1 Corinthians 12. The body is the unity; so each member of the body must function as part of the body. Finally, in verse 6, Paul calls them “gifts” (charismata), differing according to the grace that is given to each of us.

A spiritual gift is the special ability that God has given to each of us to use in ministering in and to the body. Or, to put it another way, a spiritual gift is the special use God makes of an individual in certain capacities. Several observations come to mind from the general teaching in Scripture: (1) The spiritual gifts are not offices; they are functions. (2) They are not natural talents (although we sometimes call those gifts), even though they might overlap with natural talents—but they might not. It is all how God uses the person. (3) The spiritual gifts overlap with some biblical exhortations. For example, all Christians are to give, but some have the gift of faith (that is, God uses them more abundantly in these capacities than others). (4) Some spiritual gifts can be cultivated, and others cannot. There are gifts that you can try to see if God will use you in that way; but others where God simply has to break through supernaturally. (5) Some gifts are readily misconstrued, like “miracles” and “healings” (Christians love to describe things as miracles, almost anything that happens unexpectedly); but some of the phenomena here probably comes under the gift of faith because they are answers to prayer. (6) Not everyone has the same gifts. It is wrong to expect people to have certain gifts when they do not have them. (7) Spirituality is not measured by the possession of certain gifts. In fact, sometimes a serious case of pride comes in and destroys the gift, making the person with the powerful gift very unspiritual. And (8) there are far more gifts than the spectacular sign gifts that seem to get so much attention. People seem to think only of the sign gifts and wonders, the tongues, the prophesies, the healing. But what about the gifts of helps, administration, showing compassion, giving? When you discuss spiritual gifts, be sure to have Paul’s list at hand.

There is no place for pride here. The term for the spiritual gifts comes from the same word for “grace.” It is a free gift, a grace. Each member of the body of Christ has at least one spiritual gift, at least one function to perform. Those called to leadership roles in the believing community must have the spiritual gifts that go for those roles—pastor/teacher, faith, administration, and the like.

The most practical advice about the spiritual gifts is this: just get on with your spiritual life, growing in the Lord, and becoming involved in the various aspects of the ministry of the Church that are interesting to you. As you get involved, and as you develop a balanced Christian life, God will begin to use you in certain ways, and draw your heart to certain functions. These will probably focus on your gifts. Then talk about them with spiritual leaders who may be able to discern them and direct you in their development.

Paul lists several gifts here, although in other places he prioritizes them. One is “prophesying” which is a very complicated term. It must be understood in relation to the prophets in the Bible (although we must not confuse the office with the gift). It deals with exhortation, rebuke, and encouragement from the Word of the Lord. Biblical exposition seems to be its clearest manifestation now that the canon is closed, for anything said in a prophecy must harmonize with the revealed Word of God. This was a test of the prophets in Israel (see Deut. 13 and 18). Sometimes the spiritual gift of exhortation or comfort is confused with this one. But Paul says that if this gift works, do it in proportion to your faith. There is some dispute what this means; but the consensus suggests that it is to be related to spiritual growth. Paul never allows the novice or the new-born Christian to teach, be an elder, or to exercise authority over the congregation.

“Serving” is listed as the next spiritual gift—not one of the popular ones when people start seeking their gifts. Here is active service, the practical ministry. You do not need this gift to do it! We are all called to be servants—so serve. Jesus taught that ministry was self-sacrificing service in love. We have already noted that “servant of the LORD” is the highest title and task we can have. We can never be more than a servant. But there are people in the Church who have a special gift for this, that is, God by his grace has used them in this capacity most effectively—they just do it without worrying about it, without complaining, without comparing what others are doing.

The gift of “teaching” is at the heart of the pastoral ministry. The priests and Levites in Israel were the official teachers. They were to explain the Law to the people, be the source of knowledge (Deut. 33 and Mal. 2). In the early Church the saints came together for several purposes, one of which was continuing in the apostolic teaching (Acts 2). This gift makes the Scriptures clear, understandable, and applicable. Again, all Christians are called to be teachers (Heb. 5); but God makes special use of some people in this area, and they are said to have the gift of teacher. A lot of people claim to have this gift, but do not; they have to be carefully dealt with or they could lead the Church astray. They might be very gifted teachers —as the world counts the ability; but if God does not bless them in the teaching of his word, they do not have the spiritual gift.

“Encouraging” is a gift. This is the ministry of comforting those who need comfort. Paul was a teacher; Barnabas was the exhorter and comforter (“son of consolation” is the meaning of the name). See how special this is according to 2 Corinthians 1:3,4.

Here too the Bible makes it clear that we are to comfort and exhort one another. All of us. But God will make special use of some.

“Giving,” or sharing earthly possessions, is another gift. God gives some people the gift of making money and sharing it generously in an unostentatious way. One wonders about the spirituality of the great displays of giving we see so much of in modern fund raising. Giving is a gift of the Spirit; it does not manifest itself with the blowing of trumpets. Those who have the gift give and give again without any real desire for praise, perhaps not even thinking they are doing anything more than others. And everyone is required to give.

“Leadership.” It is interesting to me to see that there is so much concern in this area today. Often when seminaries survey their graduates, they get criticized for not developing in the graduates better leadership skills. That may be a partially valid criticism. It may also be that some of them simply do not have the gift. The movement of the Church requires this spiritual gift; if pastors do not have it, they have to do the best they can, hoping people in the body have it. Everything is to be done decently and in order in the Church. The smooth running of it all requires administration (not authoritative domination—leading).

“Showing mercy” is a spiritual gift. Visiting the sick, counseling the weary, exhorting the weak in the faith—many manifestations of this gift. We are all called to do it; but God uses some most effectively in these capacities. Some people who try to do this and not only do not have the gift but have not learned how to do it should be discouraged from doing it—they cast a spell of gloom over the needy. Find another avenue of service for them.

This is not the whole list (see Eph. 4 and 1 Cor. 12 for supplements). But the point that must come across here in the way they all function is this by Griffith Thomas: “Three great thoughts are emphasized, or at least suggested, in these words: Unity, Diversity, and Harmony.”

      3. Love (12:9-16)

The relationship of the Christian to other believers must be characterized by love. This love is to be genuine; it is not to be with hypocrisy. And as part of the outworking of love, Christians must hate evil and stick to what is good.

There are many spiritual gifts; but the most important principle is that they function in love—not in rivalry, or envy, or divisiveness. Love. After all, “the fruit of the Spirit is love … .” How can one claim his of her function is a gift of the Spirit when there is no manifestation of the fruit of the Spirit? In Corinthians Paul likewise joins the discussion of the gifts (ch. 12) with the discussion of love (ch. 13). Nothing phoney or pretentious can be present if the Spirit is producing the gift. Of course, if it is a natural talent that is well developed, it can be done with pride and with a competitive spirit. But Christian love takes the form of genuinely caring for other people and seeking their highest good—something that the Spirit produces in us.

This point is expanded more in verse 10. We are to have family affection one to another, or as Farrar puts it, “Love the brethren in the faith as though they were brethren in the blood.” But where the teaching gets most difficult is when Paul explains plainly that we are to honor one another above ourselves. Genuinely give others their right weight of authority, importance, and service. We unfortunately spend most of our time clamoring for attention and praise—the highest seats in the synagogue. We have to learn how to be genuinely glad when God blesses and uses others—even more so than he uses us. That is Christian love.

Then follows quite a loaded list of instructions: keep your spiritual fervor in zeal, be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer, share with those in need, and practice hospitality (vv. 11-13). Isn’t it amazing how out of the Pauline instructions we each tend to pick the ones we want to obey. What must be noted here is the principle that love for one another is costly; it is not usually convenient or easy. Moreover, rather than worry about which gifts you have and who is going to recognize and praise you for them, Paul is simply saying here to get on with your spiritual life and service.

To stress the sharing of the faith in the body Paul focuses our attention on human emotions, running the gamut from rejoicing to weeping (vv. 14-16). It is so easy to be professional in Christianity, to safeguard ourselves from too much involvement. That is not living in harmony and love. Part of our problem is pride; we like to have the advantage, to appear more spiritual than others, to speak down to those who mourn, to “disciple” someone else we think inferior to ourselves. These are nothing more than naked power plays, trying to seize authority. Pride and conceit must go; associate with those of lower position. Recall Philippians 2 here: Have this same mind in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God … . And Proverbs 26:12 is worth recalling as well: “Do you see a man wise in his own conceit? There is more hope for a fool than for him.”

      4. Relationship with Unbelievers (12:17-21)

The basic principle is to do what is right and try to leave at peace with everyone. To make this work, Paul says we will have to shun the idea of “getting even” or “taking revenge.” That does not build any kind of relationship; it only brings animosity. If we play the role of God and judge and avenge others, we have overstepped our bounds. Leave that to God. Paul is not saying that we should not stand up for our convictions; but we should not engage in such fleshly tactics as seeking to repay evil with revenge. Leave judgment to God.

Here Paul is drawing upon the Proverbs to show that we should treat even our enemies with great kindness. The image of “burning coals” from Proverbs 25:21,22 probably refers to the pangs of conscience, which is more easily triggered with kindness than with angry hostility.

Throughout Scripture God brings good out of evil. Likewise we who belong to him must seek ways to overcome evil with good—not with more evil.

Related Topics: Bibliology (The Written Word)