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Towards a Biblical Definition of Spiritual Formation: Romans 12:1-2

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Introduction

Somewhat of a modern lexical invention, the term “spiritual formation” refers to a concept that is almost ubiquitous in Scripture. Because the term has only recently become widely used, an important task for scholarship at the present time is to define the topic properly and explain clearly how it should be expressed in a believer’s life. A logical, necessary question which should be asked to begin is, “Where exactly is spiritual formation taught in Scripture?” Answering this question can be difficult. The words “spiritual formation” do not occur in any English Bibles to which I currently have access, but this does not mean that the concept as a whole is invalid. A concept can be taught by a biblical text even if specific terms are absent since many different terms can be used to teach a concept.1 Such is the case with spiritual formation.

In my prior essay on this topic, “Orientation to Spiritual Formation with Special Reference to the New Testament,2 I offered the following as a working definition of spiritual formation:

The short-hand definition I would offer could perhaps be worded as “the intentional transformation of the inner person to the character of Christ.” It is intentional in two ways: It is part of God’s will for the individual believer, and the individual believer makes a conscious choice about it; it is transformation in that it involves definitive, measurable growth in a certain direction; it involves the inner person in that it concerns itself with character, thoughts, intentions, and attitudes more than actions, habits, or behaviors; it has the character of Christ as its goal and standard of measure.

Within the argument of the former essay, this definition was garnered from contemporary works on spiritual formation and then justified by examination of various Scripture passages which deal with the topic in a basic way. In the next phase of my foray into the exegetical basis for spiritual formation I want to advance the argument further by examining passages which touch on the topic quite specifically, both to provide a further basis for the above definition and to augment it properly with appropriate scriptural warrant.

My goal in the present essay is to advance the synthetic definition of spiritual formation which I offered in the prior essay by dealing with Romans 12:1–2, a passage central to the concept:

Therefore I exhort you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a sacrifice – alive, holy, and pleasing to God – which is your reasonable service. Do not be conformed to this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test and approve what is the will of God – what is good and well-pleasing and perfect.3

This passage stands out because of its reference to the concept of “transformation,”4 which is central to my synthetic definition of spiritual formation and to many other definitions of this concept.5 In this essay my goal is to explain the meaning of the passage in its context and then argue how this passage impacts a definition of spiritual formation.6

Background and Context of Romans 12:1–2

Although this comes close to stating the obvious, Romans 12:1–2 begins a major section of the book which runs from the beginning of chapter 12 to 15:13. In this section Paul relates the righteousness of God, his major theme throughout the book, to the conduct of the believer. In prior sections he had dealt with the righteousness of God in salvation (chapters 1–8) and the history of Israel (chapters 9–11). In chapter 12 Paul shifts gears from the grand stages of salvation and history to the smaller stage on which the individual stands.7 These two verses at the beginning of this section become a clarion call which serves as a theme for the rest of this section.8

A few things are worth noting here which help prove this point. First, these verses rely heavily upon potent imagery. Verse 1 is famous for describing the believer as a “living sacrifice,”9 an oxymoron of sorts,10 and how that description should govern the believer’s behavior. Verse 2 presents the believer as the focal point of a struggle between God and this present evil world. By using such imagery at the beginning of this section, Paul creates strong themes which color the rest of the section. Second, because of these images, the verses are somewhat abstract and as such can be understood as quite broad.11 Concerning v. 1, being a “living sacrifice” requires concrete illustration for Paul’s readers to put it into practice; there is nothing that a believer would think of automatically as a fulfillment of this command, so Paul spends a great deal of this larger section clarifying specific actions which embody this broad principle. In a similar vein, in v. 2 Paul states that believers should be transformed so that they can discern God’s will. This command is explained by the phrase “by the renewing of your minds,” but the explanation in itself requires explanation, and Paul spends a good bit of space in the rest of the section doing just that with a variety of concrete topics. Third, there are grammatical indicators which show that Paul intended these verses to be construed as a unit. Verse 1 contains the inferential particle οὖν (here translated “therefore”) to show demarcation from what precedes; verse 1 then is an inference drawn from the prior arguments. Verse 2 begins with καί (“and”),12 which normally shows a connection between various elements; here it is linking the two main sentences in vv. 1–2. In contrast with this connection, v. 3 begins with γάρ (“for”), a particle which routinely notes an explanation, and vv. 3–8 involve a discussion of the proper use of spiritual gifts, a different topic from what is contained in vv. 1–2. So vv. 1–2 constitute a unit within the text, set apart from what precedes and what follows.

Explanation of Romans 12:1–2

Romans 12:1: The Presentation of the Body as Sacrifice

Paul begins Romans 12:1 with a strong encouragement – perhaps even an urging or plea – to the Roman believers to follow a particular course of action: “I exhort you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies, of God to present your bodies . . . .” The Greek word παρακαλέω can refer to a very emotional appeal; in light of the depths of the righteousness of God which Paul has just plumbed in chapters 1–11, and the emotion he shows as he closes his argument in 11:33–36, it would be entirely appropriate to see strong emotion in view here with Paul’s use of the word.13 This emotion is heightened further by Paul’s reference to “the mercies of God.” The Greek word οἰκτιρμός refers generally to the character quality of genuine concern or compassion for another;14 here Paul uses the term to refer to the specific “mercies” which he has expounded concerning God and the believer up to this point in the letter: the salvation and sanctification of the individual through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This word plus the inferential use of οὖν makes clear that Paul bases his exhortation upon the entirety of what the gracious God has mercifully done for the believer,15 with the implication that the believer will be so moved to respond appropriately. All of Paul’s prior argument leads to the exhortations in these two verses, thus the tone is one of emotion and solemnity.16

The specific action which Paul desires is stated in the middle of the sentence: “to present your bodies as a sacrifice.” The Greek word παρίστημι (here translated “present”) can mean “to cause to be present” or more simply “to be present.” In this verse it has a specific nuance related to animal sacrifice due to the use of θυσία (here translated “sacrifice”) with it: “to present as an offering or sacrifice.”17 Paul used this word earlier in the letter in 6:13, 16, and 19, and Paul’s use here in chapter 12 is similar to his use of the term there. In chapter 6 Paul uses the verb παρίστημι with the sense “to present or make available for someone’s use.”18 There he contrasts the two options believers have in front of them regarding their behavior: They can either present themselves to sin, that is, make themselves available to sin to fulfill its purposes, or they can present themselves to God, that is, make themselves available for his use to fulfill his desires. Paul’s use of παρίστημι in chapter 12 alludes to this earlier use (chapter 6 is the only place παρίστημι occurs prior to chapter 12 in the book) and in a sense intensifies it. Because the believer has a choice between serving sin or serving God, and in light of the wonderful mercies of God displayed in salvation, Paul is now vitally concerned to urge the believer to make the right choice. For this reason the believer’s presentation of the self to God is the central command as Paul begins this ethical section.

This allusion to chapter 6 also aids understanding what Paul means by τὰ σώματα ὐμῶν (“your bodies”) in 12:1–2. In 6:12–13 Paul uses σῶμα (“body”) and μέλος (“member”) to refer to practically the same thing: a believer’s physical body, which he describes in essence as a neutral instrument that can be used either for sin or for righteousness. That same idea is in play in Romans 12:1: The believer has to choose how they will use their body in this world. Paul’s plea is that it be used as a sacrifice to God.19

The word θυσία (“offering, sacrifice”) refers to the item which is offered to the Lord in the sacrificial ritual. It is modified by three concepts which describe it further: “present your bodies as a sacrifice – alive, holy, and pleasing to God.” A quick examination of different translations shows that these modifiers have been handled differently. For example, the ESV and NRSV read “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (the HCSB reads “pleasing” instead of “acceptable”; otherwise it is identical). The NIV is similar, reading “offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God.” These translations differ from the one offered above in that they place “living” before the noun. It may not be the intention of these translations to do so, but placing “living” before “sacrifice” ends up conveying meaning slightly different from that which the Greek text presents. Various grammatical issues clarify how these terms modify the noun. Despite the fact that different parts of speech are used here,20 each has the same semantic relation to the noun: They are all adjectival in force. They all have the same adjectival force because they all follow the noun and they have the same structural relationship to the noun.21 In short, they all modify the noun in the same way, and putting “living” in front of the noun confuses this.

The word ζῶσαν is a participle from the verb ζάω (“I live”); it functions here as an adjective, describing a quality of the sacrifice. Not too much should be made of the fact that Paul describes the sacrifice as alive since all animal sacrifices were to be brought still living; this was one of the requirements for an acceptable sacrifice. The description of the sacrifice as “living” is simply in keeping with the imagery Paul has chosen to convey his ideas.22 This participle describes the present spiritual state of the believer, who is now “alive to God in Christ Jesus” according to Romans 6:11, 13.23 The one who is alive to God is now able to respond to him with complete dedication. The word ἅγιος (usually translated “holy”) describes two related concepts. In one sense, the word describes being set apart for God’s service specifically within the sacrificial system. But in order to be set apart, the object had to meet a high standard, so ἅγιος can in some contexts mean “pure” or “perfect.”24 It is very possible that both meanings are in view here; because of the sacrificial imagery the sense may be akin to “set apart for use as a sacrifice,” but if Paul’s emphasis is primarily on the believer’s status as a sacrifice to God, then the latter meaning may be most appropriate. The specific words which mean “pleasing to God” are rather rare in the biblical text. The word εὐάρεστος (here translated “pleasing”) occurs nine times in the New Testament; the related verb ( εὐαρεστέω, “I please”) occurs three times (Hebrews 11:5, 6; 13:16), and the related adverb ( εὐαρέστως, “in a pleasing manner”) occurs once (Hebrews 12:28).25 In all instances but one God is the one who is pleased.26 This word group has the basic meaning “to find acceptance” by someone, but within the New Testament it has very positive connotations because God is routinely the object. To be “pleasing” to God means that God has deemed the object under consideration acceptable in his sight or appropriate according to his standards. With these three modifiers, Paul describes on the one hand the qualities a believer’s life has gained before God because of the gracious salvation he grants and on the other hand the ethical imperative to maintain those same qualities.

The final phrase of v. 1 encapsulates a stirring assessment of the command which Paul has issued, describing it as “your reasonable service.” The noun λατρεία (“service,” or perhaps “worship”) refers to worship of God within the context of a ritual or service; it has specific connotations of the rituals and rites of the sacrificial system which was the means for Israel to worship the Lord. This is entirely in keeping with the imagery Paul has invoked throughout this verse, and it highlights the solemnity and importance of what he is asking his readers to do. The adjectival modifier “reasonable” (from the Greek word λογικός) is a very rare word. This verse is the only place Paul uses it, and the only other place it occurs in the New Testament is in 1 Peter 2:2.27 BDAG defines it as “being carefully thought through”; LSJ lists a number of meanings, the most appropriate of which for this context is “possessed of reason, intellectual.” With this term Paul emphasizes the rational conclusion one would draw about what the believer is to do: In light of all God has done, it is eminently reasonable that the believer offer this service to the Lord, namely, that he give himself to God for his use. A response of anything less simply would not make sense.

A very striking element of this verse which captures the essence of Paul’s point is the expansion of worship from a very limited place in the life of Israel to an all-encompassing application in the life of the believer. The Jewish sacrificial system was very limited in scope; only certain Israelites were allowed to serve over sacrifices which had to be made in certain ways with certain items, and even then only in the Temple. Paul has taken the sanctified element of this worship and applied it to every facet of the believer’s life; worship for the believer now “involves all places and all times.”28 In a sense, the entirety of the believer’s life is now sanctified and on par with the holy offerings made in the prior setting of the cultic worship of Israel, and everything the believer does when done unto the Lord is an act of worship.29 “The true worship which God desires embraces the whole of the Christian’s life from day to day.”30

Romans 12:2: The Renewing of the Mind

In Romans 12:2 Paul continues the strong exhortation which he began in v. 1.31 He moves from using a periphrastic construction (“I exhort you [to do something]”) to the imperative, a more emotionally direct verb form, to encourage his readers to follow a particular course of action. The two ways of issuing a command are largely equivalent, and the end result is still the same: Paul desires that believers act a certain way in light of what God has done for them.

The two phrases which Paul connects in v. 2 are worth understanding well, primarily because Paul makes an implicit contrast between the two. The first phrase is a prohibition which uses the verb συσχηματίζω: “do not be conformed to this present world.” This verb means “to form according to a pattern, conform.” It implies that there is a standard or pattern in view which is the goal of the formation or change. This verb is rare in the New Testament, but it does have strong theological significance. The only other occurrence of this verb is in 1 Peter 1:14, and its use there is quite similar to its use in Romans 12:2. The former text reads, “Like obedient children, do not comply [ συσχηματιζόμενοι] with the evil urges you used to follow in your ignorance.” The parallels between the texts are strong: Each is a prohibition, each indicates the standard or pattern to be avoided, each has extremely negative connotations, and each has the same theological truth behind it, namely, that believers are fundamentally changed and should no longer follow what previously marked them. The basic point behind this verb is that there is a very real danger that believers will act according to a standard which no longer applies to them. Specifically in Romans 12:2, Paul does not want believers to be conformed to “this present world.” In many places the term αἰών (here translated “world”) is neutral, meaning something akin to “period of time.” In other places it refers to what might be construed as a period of history; this use is often translated as “age” in order to imply some type of succession between the different periods.32 Uniformly within the biblical text, the “age” which is contemporary to the authors and presently active is viewed as evil and passing away, in contrast to the coming “age” in which God will reign and evil will be destroyed.33 Paul’s reference here to “this present world” ( τῷ αἰῶνι τούτῳ) connotes everything bad about this age: its opposition to God, its evil nature, its impending doom. On the whole, then, Paul through his prohibition (“do not be conformed to this present world”) desires to keep believers from being corrupted by the world in which they live. To be corrupted in this way would be the antithesis of his command in v. 1 to present oneself to God as a sacrifice of worship and an absolute travesty in light of the mercies of God bestowed upon the believer through salvation in Jesus Christ.

The second phrase of v. 2 is a command which uses the verb μεταμορφόω: “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” This verb occurs four times in the New Testament text. It is used in Matthew 17:2 and Mark 9:2 to refer to Jesus’ transfiguration. In these passages μεταμορφόω is used to describe a physical transformation;34 Jesus was transformed in appearance before the disciples from his human state to a glorious, supernatural radiance.35 The implication of the transfiguration account is that Jesus was transformed so that the essence of his spiritual being was clearly seen in his physical appearance. As such μεταμορφόω in these Gospel passages has a very positive connotation: It describes transformation from a mundane, earthly appearance to a transcendent, heavenly one. One interesting thing to note is that each author makes the general statement about the transformation first and then follows that with a specific statement about a particular aspect of his appearance. This could be taken to mean that the authors of the Gospel accounts had to clarify what was meant by the verb μεταμορφόω in this context: It is a more general term which requires further explanation, in this case about the change of the physical appearance.

Paul uses the term twice in his writings, once in Romans 12:2 and once in 2 Corinthians 3:18.36 The latter use is clearly defined by the context. There Paul speaks of believers being transformed into the same glory possessed by the Lord: “And we all, with unveiled faces reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, which is from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” In the Romans 12 passage, the term is used with no collocations or qualifications which would define it more carefully. The leading statement is a prohibition which in one sense defines the transformation – Paul means for his readers to think of their transformation as opposite in some way to conforming to the world – but this prohibition does not define the transformation completely because it only does so negatively. The use of the noun ἀνακαίνωσις after the verb is a dative of means, explaining how the action of the main verb is to be done, but that does not define the transformation either. The infinitive phrase εἰς τὸ δοκιμάζειν ὑμᾶς τί τὸ θέλημα τοῦ θεοῦ explains the purpose for the main verb, but again it is not a definition of it as such. Paul’s use of μεταμορφόω in Romans appears to be something which would have been understood implicitly by the readers, informed either by their shared background or by the larger context. The implication is certainly that it is an internal transformation due to the use of the term νοῦς, here translated as “mind.” Paul here is not speaking of anything external but rather an internal change contrary to the results the world would attain in the individual. Exactly what this change is remains to be seen.

When examining any particular word, the immediate context is most determinative of meaning. In Romans 12:2 we can say clearly that the verb implies change of some type, and this change is meant to be construed as internal; it does not involve appearance as it did in Jesus’ transfiguration, but rather it involves the mind as it leads to choices made in accordance with the will of God. The passage makes reasonable sense on this basis alone. One can then turn to the other biblical texts where this term occurs for further illumination. First one should look at other places where the same author uses this word; thus 2 Corinthians 3:8 and its emphasis on transformation into glory is especially apropos. This emphasis on glory is confirmed by the uses in Matthew 17:2 and Mark 9:2, which describe Jesus’ glorious transfiguration. So these parallel passages unite to help inform the use of the verb here in Romans, namely, that the verb μεταμορφόω implies transformation of believers into a glorious existence in some way similar to the glory of the Lord.

Following on the heels of this command to “be transformed,” Paul explains the means by which this will occur: “by the renewing of your mind.” The noun ἀνακαίνωσις has two cognate verbs, ἀνακαινόω and ἀνακαινίζω. None of these words are common in the New Testament,37 but they have a fairly unified meaning: “renew” as a verb and “renewal” as a noun.38 The term νοῦς (here translated “mind”) is almost exclusively a Pauline word in the New Testament;39 he uses it to describe the mental faculties specifically, but he also uses it more generally to refer to the entire state of mental and moral being.40 The latter seems to be more the case here. Exactly what he means by this idea, “the renewing of your mind,” especially as it relates to a believer’s broader state of existence, is not entirely clear.41 With “mind” here as a broad term, referring to the entire inner person as opposed to the physical person, a logical conclusion is that the renewal of this part of a person’s being would be multifaceted, involving many aspects of the human personality between which we might discriminate in contemporary language but which Paul has viewed as a whole. By way of example, in contemporary thought we can distinguish between many different aspects of the human personality: thought life, mental habits, general attitudes, spiritual perceptions, prejudices, emotional life, intelligence, etc. Because Paul uses νοῦς broadly here to refer to the entire mental, moral being, all of these would be involved in “the renewal of the mind.” Every facet of the human personality is subject to renewal, and as each facet is renewed it contributes to transformation in line with the will of God.

The remaining part of Romans 12:2 explains the ultimate purpose for the spiritual change Paul has commanded in the first part of the verse. This is the end goal which Paul wants to see in believers’ lives, so it is worth some attention to understand. The grammatical construction present at the beginning of this phrase can refer to purpose or result.42 If Paul intends to convey purpose with this structure, then it would explain the ultimate goal of the transformation which would be part of the intentionality of the believer’s participation in the action. If Paul intends to convey result, then it would explain the natural outcome of the transformation; the believer’s responsibility would be to focus primarily on the transformation which would then naturally lead to this result. It is difficult to choose between the two because they are not disparate in meaning; they both point to the importance of this secondary action relative to the transformation. Purpose is the more likely candidate here primarily because of the tenor of this passage as a whole. Paul is focusing on the believer’s participation in the process of sanctification, as it were, and the “will of God” is meant to be the overarching standard by which the believer functions. For this reason, Paul’s primary focus in this statement is the goal of the transformation, which the believer should constantly keep in view.

The verb δοκιμάζω has two common meanings. It can refer to the process of testing something, as in 1 Thessalonians 5:21: “But examine all things; hold fast to what is good.” With this meaning the term focuses on the action as examination. The verb can also refer to drawing a conclusion about something on the basis of testing, as in Philippians 1:10: Paul prays that the Philippians’ love would abound “so that you can decide what is best.” With this meaning the term focuses on the conclusion as action, but it does not exclude the process of examination. The latter is in view in Romans 12:2 because the entity which needs to be examined and approved is clearly stated: “the will of God.” Paul has in mind a process by which believers examine things in their lives with the desire to approve those which comport with the will of God.

The phrase “will of God” is very important theologically for Paul’s argument; it is what gives his commands importance and weight in the life of the believer. It is not difficult to understand what the words mean. The word θέλημα refers to what one wishes to happen, so the phrase “will of God” means that which God wants to happen.43 The more obvious and difficult question is what this actually is. There is no clarification in this passage as to the exact referent except for the adjectives which follow. These adjectives are all positive qualities describing of the will of God, but Paul’s point in using the adjectives is stronger than simple description. Grammatically he is making an assertion primarily about the nature of the will of God.44 Paul’s point is not simply that God’s will can be described as “good and well-pleasing and perfect”; more emphatically the will of God is good, well-pleasing, and perfect. Important to note at this point is that Paul does not define the will of God with specific referents, for example, in terms of actions. Instead he defines the will of God generally in terms of how it comports with his character and desire.45 The will of God matches his character in quality and pleases him. Paul casts this point generally to make it as widely applicable as possible, but that does not remove the importance of the fact that it is a standard measured by God himself. Only with the work of God in the believer’s life will there be any hope of attaining it.

In the command of v. 2, Paul is pleading for transformation of the believer into a glorious existence which arises out of a renewal of the inner person. This transformation is not an end unto itself; instead its ultimate goal is the believer’s approval of the will of God and by implication the fulfillment of his will in action.

Connection to Spiritual Formation

Based upon the investigation into the meaning of Romans 12:1–2, I now want to move the discussion forward by formulating statements about spiritual formation based upon this text. These two verses are rich and can scarcely be exhausted, either in understanding or application. To be sure, spiritual formation is not the only topic to which they are relevant. One could also mention worship, ethics, Christian living, the will of God, holiness, and others. Spiritual formation is especially apropos for these verses, however, because they speak about intentional change in the inner person to conform to the will of God. This in encapsulated form is the essence of spiritual formation as it is often discussed: a fundamental change in the believer’s character which then creates a fundamental change in the believer’s actions.

What I will offer, then, are statements about spiritual formation which are drawn from the teaching of this passage. These are not meant to be individual definitions of spiritual formation as much as they are meant to be accurate, biblical descriptions of what spiritual formation is in light of Paul’s teaching.

Spiritual formation is a response to God’s grace and mercy.

Paul makes clear in this passage that our spiritual life is a response, not an initial action. Spiritual formation is our human response to God’s grace and mercy as displayed in our salvation. Everything Paul asks of the believer grows out of his desire that they respond to the marvelous salvation which God has graciously bestowed upon them. Paul clearly refers to the entirety of God’s work as the basis for his exhortation: “Therefore I exhort you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God . . . .” Paul sees an undeniable cause-and-effect connection between what God has done for the believer and the believer’s response. His desire is to motivate the believer to respond appropriately with an underlying attitude of awe and thanksgiving.

The importance of this point should not be underestimated, as it is a fundamental theological point of the entire biblical record, invoked over and over again by Paul and other biblical authors as they describe how humanity is to relate to God. As recipients of God’s grace, humanity does not initiate the cycle of our interaction with God or provoke God to bless because we have acted appropriately. Instead we are the blessed recipients of God’s divine actions on our behalf. We are the recipients of his love and tender mercy. Any spiritual action on our part must be recognized as a response to his divine mercy, properly understood on our part as an act of thanks and worship. Any efforts at spiritual formation should arise from a response of thankfulness and worship for God’s grace and mercy already active in our lives, not as a means to force God to bestow grace and mercy upon us.

Spiritual formation is an act of worship.

In these verses Paul describes the human response to God as one of worship. Taking the potent imagery of cultic sacrifice and applying it to the individual, Paul does something extraordinary: He makes the spiritual service of worship encompass the entirety of a believer’s life. There is nothing left out: All of a believer’s life is now sanctified as an offering and appropriately considered “worship.”

The ramifications of this are immense. There is no part of a believer’s life which is too small or insignificant to be sanctified to the Lord and given to him as an act of worship. Attitudes, actions, feelings, habits—all are to be sanctified before the Lord and completely given to him. In many ways this is a primary emphasis of spiritual formation: to help the individual live the entirety of life as worship before the watchful eyes of the Lord. Many believers are quite good at making sure that God is worshiped through their behavior in major aspects of life, such as marriage, parenting, and work responsibilities, but we are not nearly as careful to worship God with the countless little things which constitute our lives.

Spiritual formation begins in the inner person and ultimately involves the entire person.

In Romans 12:1–2 Paul mentions both the body and mind in his exhortation, the body in v. 1 as the sacrifice which believers offer and the mind in v. 2 as the aspect of the human personality which is renewed. Despite the fact that the body is mentioned first, the construction and logic of Paul’s argument makes it clear that the transformation begins inside the person and then affects the actions of the body. In v. 1 the very fact that he urges believers so strongly to follow the course of action he prescribes indicates that he is addressing the will. In a more fundamental way, he is addressing the values believers hold. In order to follow Paul’s exhortation something must happen internally. The believer should value the grace of God as highly as Paul has; the believer should desire to worship God as completely as Paul describes. This change of values then produces a change in behavior as the command is carried out and believers present their bodies and all that they do to God as worship. Verse 2 addresses the same basic internal/external relationship but from a different direction. Here the renewal of the mind serves as the basis for the proper understanding of God’s will which is then determined by the believer and lived out through action.

Spiritual formation counters the sinful power of the world through transformation of the inner person.

Paul is never one to whitewash a difficult truth. In this passage of Scripture he shoots straight with his readers concerning the challenge posed by the world around them. Believers are not in an environment which is conducive to living appropriately in light of the Lord’s revealed will. Instead, everything about the present world works against them to bring them down and enslave them to sin. The world continuously, insidiously seeks to change the believer to fit in. The only way to counter this is through transformation of the inner person. This is the import of v. 2: The renewal of the mind is the means by which the influence of the world will be nullified and the believer will be freed and enabled to live in light of God’s will. This is the primary task of spiritual formation: to transform the inner person so that the believer has the desire and ability to live in light of God’s desires, not the world’s.

Spiritual formation enables the believer to act in accordance with God’s will.

The ultimate goal Paul describes in v. 2 is that the believer would live in light of God’s will, which is good, pleasing to him, and perfect. The specific argument is for the mind to be renewed so the believer can approve appropriately what God would desire with the clear implication that the believer would then live in light of God’s revealed will. One of the most important changes in a believer's life is transformation which enables one to recognize the truth of what Paul asserts about God’s will. So often believers know God’s will but do not do it precisely because they do not believe that God’s will is truly the best path for them. Spiritual formation addresses this disconnection by addressing the will, the emotions, and the attitudes and how those influence behavior. The conviction of spiritual formation, born out by both the testimony of Scripture and the crucible of life experience, is that when the inner person is transformed in the way God desires, the actions of the outer person will very naturally and appropriately follow suit. Thus spiritual formation enables a believer to act in accordance with God’s will by changing the mind first and then the actions next.

Conclusion: A further Revised Definition of spiritual formation

In closing, the investigation of Romans 12:1–2 opens the door for a better understanding of exactly what spiritual formation involves and ultimately what it strives to attain. In light of what has been discussed related to the meaning of the passage, I wish to offer a revised definition of spiritual formation in light of the fresh light thrown on it by Romans 12:1–2: “An act of worship in response to God’s mercy and grace which involves the intentional transformation of the character to be like Christ and the intentional transformation of the actions to conform to God’s will.”


1 This truth is usually stated in a negative form as a problem to avoid in study of the Scriptures: the word-concept fallacy. This fallacy is invoked when a Bible student assumes that they have exhaustively studied a concept when they have instead exhaustively studied a word. A good example of this is the concept of God’s reign over the world as its king. This concept is very common in Scripture, and only sometimes associated with the words “king” or “kingdom.” To exhaustively study this concept, one would need to find passages which contain “king” and “kingdom,” but also “prince,” “ruler,” perhaps “father,” and even “shepherd” in some instances. The primary lesson in terms of method is that to study a concept one must cast a very wide net and filter the results carefully. An excellent text which deals with this and many other common exegetical errors is D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996).

2 The article is available at http://www.bible.org/node/4211.

3 Unless indicated otherwise, all translations are taken from the NET Bible.

4 This is an interesting example of strong consistency among English translations. The translation given here is from the NET Bible, but it is in no way unique in its use of the English verb “transform” to translate the Greek verb μεταμορφόω. A great majority of English translations use this same term, including the KJV, NKJV, NASB, NIV, RSV, NRSV, HCSB, and NLT. Two English translations which do not are S. H. Hooke, ed., The Bible in Basic English (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1949): “but be changed and made new in mind”; and the Douay-Rheims version (“but be reformed in the newness of your mind”).

5 See the prior essay for some works which use this word within a definition of spiritual formation.

6 Worthwhile to state here are two points: (1) I am not yet addressing the issue of practice, as my conviction is that the definition must be accurate from a biblical standpoint before the practice can be addressed. (2) As I stated before, my overarching goal for this and my other essays on spiritual formation is to provide a firm exegetical foundation for the discipline as it is currently practiced in evangelicalism. My prayer is that my investigation will allow Scripture to inform and correct our practice. See my prior essay, “Orientation to Spiritual Formation with Special Reference to the New Testament,” for my initial comments on this need.

7 These divisions are capable of many more legitimate subdivisions, but for the sake of simplicity these will suffice for present purposes.

8 See this argument as well in Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, vol. 6 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 640; C. E. B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, ed. J. A. Emerton and C. E. B. Cranfield, International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975–79), 2:595.

9 This is the translation of the KJV and many other English translations, but for reasons which will be discussed below, it is not the best translation.

10 See the discussion below on the participle ζῶσαν for a short treatment of this point.

11 The argument I would make to support this is based on what I would view as a broad interpretive key for Scripture: The higher the level of abstraction, the more applicable the point made will be to a variety of situations.

12 This word is not translated in the NET Bible for reasons of English style.

13 Paul uses παρακαλέω frequently in his writings (54x), sometimes at key junctures as here (e.g., 2 Corinthians 10:1; Ephesians 4:1; 1 Thessalonians 4:1; 1 Timothy 2:1).

14 οἰκτιρμός is part of a word group with a fairly unified meaning. The verb οἰκτίρω means “to have compassion on someone.” The adjective οἰκτίρμων means “merciful, compassionate.” The nouns οἰκτιρμός, οἰκτίρημα (which occurs 1x in the LXX), and οἰκτιρμοσύνη (which does not occur in biblical Greek and is extremely rare otherwise) mean “mercy, compassion.” This word group is not common in the NT: οἰκτιρμός occurs 5x; οἰκτίρμων 3x; οἰκτίρω 2x. It is much more common in the LXX: οἰκτίρημα occurs 1x; οἰκτιρμός 37x; οἰκτίρμων 17x; οἰκτίρω 37x. This word occurs frequently with reference to God’s compassion or mercy (it is used very frequently in the Psalms, for example).

15 So Cranfield, Romans, 2:595–96.

16 This argument is also reinforced by the semantics of the command. It is reasonable to view παρακαλῶ + an aorist infinitive as equivalent to an aorist imperative, which often carries the force of a very solemn command (see Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996], 720–21).

17 BDAG s.v. παρίστημι 1.d states that this word functions “as a t.t. [technical term] in the language of sacrifice.”

18 See BDAG s.v. παρίστημι 1.a.

19 This is contrasted nicely with the use of the word “mind” in the next verse. Thus these verses together constitute a plea that believers submit their entire person to God for his service.

20 The word ζῶσαν is a participle from the verb ζάω, while the words ἁγίαν and εὐάρεστον are true adjectives.

21 This is indicated both by order relative to the noun (i.e., the question is whether the adjectival modifier precedes or follows the noun) and by the presence or absence of the article. In this instance all three modifiers follow the noun, and the article is nowhere to be found in the construction. The Greek reads θυσίαν ζῶσαν ἁγίαν εὐάρεστον τῷ θεῶ, literally “[present your bodies as a] sacrifice living holy acceptable to God.” Adjectives can be attributive or predicate to a noun; an attributive adjective describes a noun (e.g., “the tall man”) while a predicate adjective asserts something about it (e.g., “the man is tall”). The difference between the attributive and predicate adjective is defined well by A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, 4th ed. (Nashville: Broadman, 1934), 656: “The distinction between the attributive adjective and the predicate adjective lies in just this, that the predicate presents an additional statement, is indeed the main point, while the attributive is an incidental description of the substantive about which the statement is made.” The difference is one of discourse and clause construction: The predicate adjective is the main point, while the attributive adjective is ancillary to the main point.

22 Many people are familiar with the following statement regarding this passage: “The problem with living sacrifices is that they keep crawling off the altar.” Humorous, yes, but almost beside the point as far as Paul is concerned.

23 Schreiner, Romans, 644.

24 See BDAG s.v. ἅγιος 1.a and b.

25 Other related words ( εὐαρεστημα, εὐαρεστήριος, εὐαρεστησις, εὐαρεστητέον, εὐαρεστία, εὐαρεστικός) do not occur in the New Testament.

26 God is explicitly mentioned as the object in Romans 12:1; 14:18; 2 Corinthians 5:9; Ephesians 5:10; Philippians 4:18; Colossians 3:20 (in a prepositional phrase with ἐν); Hebrews 11:5; 12:28; 13:21 (in a prepositional phrase with ἐνώπιον). He is clearly implied in Romans 12:2 and Hebrews 11:6, and in Hebrews 13:16 God is the subject of εὐαρεστέω in the passive. Only in Titus 2:9 is God not in view; there a human master is the one who is pleased.

27 It does not occur at all in the LXX.

28 Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, ed. Gordon D. Fee, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 754.

29 See Schreiner, Romans, 646, for a fuller argument of this point. Some biblical parallels are pertinent here. 1 Corinthians 10:31 reads, “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.” Colossians 3:17 reads, “And whatever you do in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” These verses affirm the basic point of Paul’s argument in Romans 12:1.

30 Cranfield, Romans, 2:601.

31 I have divided the verses into different sections simply to make it easier for the reader to track with my train of thought through this essay.

32 A clear example which illustrates this use is found in Matthew 12:32: “Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven. But whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come [ οὔτε ἐν τούτῳ τῷ αἰῶνι οὔτε ἐν τῷ μέλλοντι].”

33 Some texts which exemplify this use are 1 Corinthians 2:6: “Now we do speak wisdom among the mature, but not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are perishing”; 2 Corinthians 4:4: “among whom the god of this age has blinded the minds of those who do not believe so they would not see the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God”; Galatians 1:4: “who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from this present evil age according to the will of our God and Father.”

34 Interestingly Luke 9:29 does not use this term to describe Jesus’ transfiguration. There it is stated in a more general way: καὶ ἐγένετο ἐν τῷ προσεύχεσθαι αὐτὸν τὸ εἶδος τοῦ προσώπου αὐτοῦ ἕτερον καὶ ὁ ἱματισμὸς αὐτοῦ λευκὸς ἐξαστράπτων; “and it happened that while he was praying, the appearance of his face became different, and his clothes gleamed white as lightning.”

35 This is in keeping with the first definition listed in BDAG s.v. μεταμορφόω: “to change in a manner visible to others, be transfigured.”

36 The use in 2 Corinthians 3:18 will be discussed much more fully in the next essay.

37 ἀνακαινίζω occurs once (Hebrews 6:6), ἀνακαινόω occurs twice (2 Corinthians 4:16; Colossians 3:10), and ἀνακαίνωσις occurs twice (here in Romans 12:2; Titus 3:5). The verb ἀνακαίνιζω also occurs five times in the LXX, where it does not always have a positive connotation: In 1 Maccabees 6:9 “grief” is “renewed” in the sense that it is an emotion that is constantly present, and in Psalm 38:3 (39:2 in the English text) “pain” is “renewed” in that it grows within the individual. In the other three occurrences, though, a positive connotation is clearly present (Psalm 102:5 [103:5 English text]; 103:30 [104:30 English text]; Lamentations 5:21).

38 Titus 3:5 is the other verse where the noun ἀνακαίνωσις occurs; there the Holy Spirit is mentioned specifically as an agent of the renewal: “he saved us not by works of righteousness that we have done but on the basis of his mercy, through the washing of the new birth and the renewing of the Holy Spirit.” Paul does not mention the Holy Spirit in Romans 12:2, but a strong argument can be made that the work of the Holy Spirit is assumed here because of the dependence of chapters 12 and following on the entire argument of chapters 5–8.

39 It only occurs three times outside of Paul’s writings (Luke 24:45; Revelation 13:18; 17:9). Paul uses the word 21x.

40 So BDAG s.v. νοῦς 2.

41 This is an example of the difference between sense and referent. The sense of a word (or expression) is its meaning; the referent is what the word refers to in reality. The question here is, what is the exact process inside the individual which corresponds to “the renewing of the mind”?

42 The construction is εἰς το + infinitive, and this is well attested as both purpose and result. The first question should be what is the difference in meaning between the two ideas; the second question is which Paul intended at this juncture.

43 Clearly τοῦ θεοῦ is a subjective genitive.

44 The phrase which includes the adjectives ( τὸ ἀγαθὸν καὶ εὐάρεστον καὶ τέλειον) can be interpreted either as the adjective in a second attributive construction modifying “the will of God” or as a substantive phrase in apposition to “the will of God.” It is very rare to have three adjectives modifying the noun in second attributive position; for this reason it is more likely that the adjectives are meant to be taken as substantives in apposition to “the will of God.”

45 In other places in the NT God is described both as “good” (Matthew 19:17; Mark 10:18; Luke 18:19) and “perfect” (Matthew 5:48). God himself is clearly the object of “well-pleasing,” meaning that he is the one who is pleased by a particular action.

Related Topics: Spiritual Formation