Romans can really be divided into two parts. There’s chapters 1 to 11; and then there’s chapters 12 to 16. In chapters 1 to 11 Paul explains the gospel of the grace of God to sinners like us. And in chapters 12 to 16 Paul outlines for us how we should live as those who have benefitted from God’s grace to sinners. Or as the theologians put it, in chapters 1 to 11 we have the indicatives; and in chapters 12 to 16 we have the imperatives. An indicative is a statement of a fact; and an imperative is a command. So, in chapters 1 to 11 we have the facts about the gospel of the grace of God to sinners like us. And in chapters 12 to 16 we have the things we’re to do, now that we have experienced God’s grace for ourselves.
Before we get into chapter 12, let me summarise chapters 1 to 11 and the gospel of God’s grace to sinners like us.
Chapters 1 and 2 of Romans were about the fact that we’re all sinners who are liable to God’s wrath and curse.
Chapters 3 and 4 were about the fact that we’re justified — pardoned and accepted by God — through faith in Jesus Christ who has paid for our sins by his death on the cross.
Chapters 4 to 8 were about the fact that nothing will prevent the believer from being glorified in the presence of God. Death won’t stop us, because though death came into the world through Adam, life has come into the world through Christ. And sin won’t stop us, because just as Christ died and was raised, so all who are united with him through faith have died with him to sin; and we’re raised with him to live a new life of obedience. And the law won’t stop us, because we’re been released from bondage to the law which condemns in order that we might serve the Lord in the new way of the Spirit. And so, for those who are in Christ, there’s now no condemnation. And nothing will ever separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing at all.
And then, in chapters 9 to 11, Paul turned to consider his fellow Jews. Has God abandoned them and given them up for good since so many of them refuse to believe? Well, Paul’s answer is: Not at all! Not at all, because through the preaching of the gospel, God is enabling not only Gentiles to believe, but also Jews to believe. And whoever believes and calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. And the gospel will continue to be preached, and Christ will continue to call Gentiles and Jews into the church until the full number of Gentiles and Jews — chosen by God before the creation of the world — has come in.
And so you remember? All — Jews and Gentiles — have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, but are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. And all — Jews and Gentiles — have been bound over by God to disobedience so that he may have mercy on Jews and Gentiles.
And therefore Paul closed Romans 1 to 11 with that marvellous doxology:
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out…. To him be the glory forever! Amen.
Paul wants to praise the Lord, we want to praise the Lord, because of all that we have heard in Romans 1 to 11 about the gospel of the grace of God to sinners like us.
And so, what we want to know now is this: how we should live as those who have benefitted from God’s grace to sinners. And that’s what Romans 12 to 16 are about.
Listen then to verse 1:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God — this is your spiritual act of worship.
The word ‘therefore’ tells us that what he’s about to say to us follows on from what he’s written previously. So, he’s saying:
Given everything I’ve said already, therefore this is what you’re to do.
And the phrase ‘in view of God’s mercy’ has a similar force, because what he means is:
Given everything I’ve said already about God’s mercy, this is what you’re to do.
So, what are we to do in view of God’s mercy towards us? Well, we’re to present our bodies as a living sacrifice.
When we hear the word ‘sacrifice’ we tend to think immediately of a sacrifice for sins. The Old Testament worshipper went to the Temple to offer a sacrifice for his sins. He was sorry for what he had done wrong, and wanted God to forgive him. And, of course, those OT sacrifices for sin were to make do until the Lord Jesus came into the world and offered himself as the once-for-all, perfect sacrifice for sins.
However, there were other kinds of sacrifices which signified other things apart from sorrow for and atonement for sins. For instance, there was the grain offering which was brought to the Lord as a gift or tribute to express gratitude to him for his grace and mercy. And there was the fellowship offering, which was also known as the peace offering, when the worshippers would eat a fellowship meal together to celebrate the fact that they have peace with God because of God’s grace and mercy. And those are probably the kind of sacrifices Paul has in mind here: not a sacrifice for sins, but a sacrifice to express our gratitude to God for his kindness to us.
But, of course, when the Old Testament worshipper came to the Temple, they brought a bull or a ram or a sheep or a goat. And the animal was slaughtered before being offered to God. So, the worshipper was offering the Lord a dead sacrifice. But what are we to bring to the Lord? Not a dead sacrifice; not a slaughtered bull or goat; we’re to offer him a living sacrifice. In other words, we’re to offer him ourselves. We’re saying:
Here I am, Lord. In view of your mercy to me, I’m offering you myself; and I’m going to live my life for you.
When I read these verses, I often think of churches where pieces of furniture or parts of the building have little plaques on them. And the plaque says something like this table, or this window, was provided by so-and-so; and is dedicated to the glory of God.
Dedicated to the glory of God. Well, there should be a plaque or a label printed on each one of us, saying:
Dedicated to the glory of God.
Offering ourselves to God as a living sacrifice means we’re going to dedicate our lives to bringing glory and honour to God who has been so merciful to us.
And notice that Paul says that we’re to offer our bodies. Some of the commentators suggest that by using the word ‘body’, Paul simply means the whole person. So, we’re to offer our whole person to God; and every bit of us is to be dedicated to his glory. However, it’s interesting that, back in chapter 8, Paul wrote that we’re to put to death the misdeeds of our body. And at that time I said that he mentions the body because it’s with our bodies that we sin: what we say with our mouths; what we look at with our eyes; what we do with our hands; what we think about with our brains. With our bodies, we sin. But now, in view of God’s mercy towards us, we’re to use our body to bring glory to God.
When the Old Testament worshipper brought his sacrifice to the Temple, it had to be holy and pleasing to God. It had to be holy, which means he’d set it apart for God. And it had to be pleasing to God, which meant it couldn’t be any old animal, but had to be unblemished. And so, we’re to set ourselves apart from the rest of the world and from all those who care nothing for God’s glory and we’re to keep ourselves from sin so that we might honour him.
And when we do this, says Paul, when we offer ourselves to God as living sacrifices, dedicated to his glory, then this is our spiritual act of worship. Now, you’ll see a little footnote in the NIV which suggests the word translated ‘spiritual’ can also be translated ‘reasonable’. The Bible experts aren’t entirely sure how to translate the Greek word Paul used, because it’s not the normal word for ‘spiritual’. But by translating it as ‘spiritual’, the NIV is trying to convey the idea that true service involves our mind and heart. We’re not just going through the motions, but we’re serving the Lord with our whole heart. But the alternative translation — ‘reasonable’ — implies that serving the Lord like this, dedicating ourselves to his service, makes sense. It makes sense in view of his mercy to us. The grateful believer asks:
What can I give the Lord to demonstrate my gratitude?
And the only rational, reasonable, sensible answer is: Give him yourself. Instead of living to please yourself, live to please the one who died for you and was raised again.
Look now at verse 2. Paul writes:
Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.
There’s a negative and a positive here. The negative is:
Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world.
Do not conform to this age.
This age, as opposed to the age to come, is characterised by sin and death. And so, in Galatians 1, Paul calls it ‘the present evil age’. And the Lord Jesus Christ came into the world to rescue us from it. And so, in view of God’s mercy to us, we’re not to conform yourselves to the ways of this present evil age. Or, as one paraphrase puts it:
Don’t let the unbelieving world around you squeeze you into its mould.
Every day we feel the pressure to conform and to do what everyone else is doing. It’s not just teenagers who feel the pressure to conform; we all do. But Paul is teaching us that we mustn’t let the world around us squeeze us into its mould; we’re to resist the pressure to conform and to become like those who don’t believe.
That’s the negative. What the positive? Paul writes:
be transformed by the renewing of your mind
Now, the interesting thing here is that Paul uses what’s called the passive form of the verb. He’s not saying:
This is not, so much, something we do, but it’s something that happens to us; this is something the Lord does in us. You see, whenever we believe in the Lord Jesus, we’re justified, so that we’re pardoned and accepted by God. And we’re adopted into his family, so that we can call him ‘Father’. And at the same time, God gives us his Spirit; and the Holy Spirit begins to work in us to renew us in God’s image. And the Holy Spirit does his work in us through the reading and preaching of God’s word. So, we hear God’s word and all his laws and commandments about how we’re to live our lives as his people; and the Holy Spirit takes God’s word and he makes us more and more willing and able to do what his word says.
And, of course, he works from the inside out. So, as we take in more and more of God’s word, the Holy Spirit uses it to renew our minds and the way we think. He re-programmes us so that, while once we thought one way, and therefore acted one way; now we think in a different way, which causes us to act in a different way. The way we think is renewed; and so, what we say and do is transformed.
And look what Paul says at the end of verse 2. Our minds are being renewed by the Holy Spirit; and therefore we’re now able to discern the will of God. What does Paul mean by the will of God here? Does he mean we’ll be able to discover God’s will and plans concerning the future? Well no. Paul is referring to God’s will for how we should live our lives. He’s talking about the way God wants us to live as his people. In his word, he says to us:
This is my will for my people. I want you to keep my commandments. I want you to keep my laws. I want you to walk in my ways.
And so, the Holy Spirit renews our minds, so that we’re able to discern God’s will. And the word Paul uses here which the NIV translates as ‘discern’ means not only discern, but approve. One person hears God’s commandments, and hates them. Another person hears God’s commandments, and loves them. And this person recognises now that to live my life in this way is good in the sight of God. And this person recognises now that to live my life in this way is acceptable in the sight of God. And the person recognises now that to live my life in this way is perfect in the sight of God. And whoever thinks this way, thinks this way because the Holy Spirit has been renewing his mind, or her mind. And what this person now wants most of all, is to please God by doing his will.
This is only the start of it. This is only the start of what Paul says about our response to God’s mercy. There’s still a long way to go before he gets to the end of his instructions to us. But it’s clear that our response to God’s mercy involves everything. Instead of offering him a dead sacrifice, we’re to offer him ourselves and our whole life. And instead of being conformed to the ways of the world, our whole life and the way we live our life is to be transformed by the renewal of our minds.
And so, we should pray to God day by day to renew our minds and to transform our lives through the reading and preaching of his word so that all of us are able more and more to present our bodies to him as living sacrifices, dedicated to his glory.