The great Apostle Paul begins Romans 12 with an appeal. He urges us to take action. He pleads with us. He urges us to do two things. First, He urges us to present our bodies as living sacrifices, and, second, he urges us to not be conformed but rather, to be transformed.
We are going to focus on these two things, but before we do that we must consider the mercies of God. Paul’s plea or urging is based upon these mercies. He says, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God...” (Romans 12:1, ESV)
“Therefore” in this sentence refers back to what has just been said. In chapter 11, concerning the mercy of God, Paul has just said, “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.” (Romans 11:32 ESV)
God worked in such a way as to have mercy on us all.
As Jesus hung suffering on the cross, those who had put Him there stood by mocking. They were saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.” (Matthew 27:42 ESV) On either side of Jesus was a thief who was also being crucified. Matthew tells us that these two also joined in the mocking. Then came a moment when one of the thieves realized the truth of the situation and he said to the other thief, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” (Luke 23:40-41 ESV) This thief realized that his suffering was just. He deserved it, but Jesus did not. He then turned to Jesus and this was the exchange they had:
And he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." And he said to him, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise." (Luke 23:42-43 ESV)
This is a picture of mercy. A man who by his own confession deserved to die for his sins is promised paradise simply because he asked. And what is more, at the very moment he asked, Jesus was suffering to pay the price for that man’s sins. We all deserve to die for our sins, and yet God has mercy on us all.
This mercy is our motivation for service. God can and does command our love. However, He seeks to woo us and draw us to Himself. As 1 John says, “We love him, because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19 KJV)
In view of this overwhelming love and mercy, we are called upon to serve God. Romans 12 and following will discuss our service and Romans 12:1-2 provides the synopsis of that service.
The first thing we are called upon to do is to present our bodies as living sacrifices.
Inherent in the word “sacrifice” is the idea of devotion. For example, a sacrifice on the altar was consumed by fire. Therefore, it was of no use to anyone else. It had been devoted to the Lord, and was therefore not to be used by anyone else. A living sacrifice, therefore, means to live a life devoted to the Lord.
The biggest upshot of this is that we no longer live to please ourselves. This reminds me of the battle with the flesh that is spoken of in Romans 7. If we try to do this by the flesh, we will find that we do the very things that we do not want to do. We must rely on Jesus. Walk according to the Spirit and you will not fulfill the desires to the flesh. (Galatians 5:16)
Not only is the sacrifice said to be living it is said to be “holy and acceptable to God.”
In the Old Testament, the animal that was sacrificed was to be without blemish, perfect. The idea of a holy and acceptable sacrifice implies a sacrifice without sin and impurity. My problem is that I know that I am not without sin. Certainly, on my own, my sacrifice of myself is not acceptable to God. We must not think that by sacrificing ourselves or even by throwing ourselves into the flames we are somehow made acceptable to God. If we do this, we will hear as Jesus Himself promised, “Depart from me; I never knew you.” (Matthew 7:23). We are made perfect in Jesus Christ. The blood of Jesus cleanses us from all unrighteousness. Our sacrifice is holy and acceptable because of Jesus, God’s Son and His sacrifice for us. It is important that we grasp this order of things. We are made holy and acceptable by Jesus Christ first and this is why we, in turn, are able to offer up ourselves as sacrifices.
This sacrifice of ourselves is called our “reasonable service,” or, as the ESV has it, our “spiritual worship.” The word Paul uses for service here is a word that could be translated simply “worship.” It is used in Romans 9:4 to describe the ritual service and worship of the Temple as given to the Jews. Our true, or reasonable, or rational worship is found in devoting our lives completely to the Lord Jesus Christ. While singing songs of praise, praying and reading Scripture are forms of worship, our true worship begins in the heart wholly devoted to the Lord.
This week I read a passage in Ezekiel that brought me up short as it brought home to me how easily I am distracted from purity of devotion to Christ. In Ezekiel 14, the leaders of the Jews in captivity in Babylon came to Ezekiel seeking to hear from the Lord. And, the Lord said, “Son of man, these men have taken their idols into their hearts, and set the stumbling block of their iniquity before their faces. Should I indeed let myself be consulted by them?” (Ezekiel 14:3 ESV) If we have things, including self, in our hearts that we are more devoted to than Jesus, then we are not presenting ourselves as living sacrifices, and need to repent.
Along with presenting ourselves as living sacrifices, we are called upon to not be conformed to this world but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.
Being conformed is a passive thing. We do not have to do anything to be conformed. Wake up in the morning and go to work and the world is busy from start to finish conforming us. We listen to the news. We listen to whatever music is playing. We watch our favorite sitcom. All these things are overwhelmingly shaped by the prince and the power of the air. If we are passive and do nothing, we will be shaped in our thinking in the manner in which the prince and the power of the air wants us to be. Paul’s appeal is in two parts. The first part is to not passively let the conforming process take place.
The second part is to actively participate in the renewal of our minds. We must be intentional about our spirituality, or our minds. Spiritual growth does not just “happen.” What mother would expect her baby to grow if she did not feed it? Yet many of us think we are spiritual giants because we memorized John 3:16. God has given us a whole book, a compilation of 66 books by 44 different authors revealed over almost 1,500 years. And, most of us have barely scratched the surface of knowing what it says. Do not read books about the Bible until you have read the Bible, several times. Maybe I am too harsh. However, we must read the Bible. This is the key to the second part of the two-part appeal. We are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.
The renewal of our minds is a work of the Holy Spirit. My part is to yield to the Holy Spirit and to participate with the Holy Spirit. Intentionally putting God’s word in my heart is the chief way I participate with the Holy Spirit.
Romans 12:2 finishes off by saying, “...that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
This brings us back to the mercies of God. If we present our bodies as living sacrifices and are transformed by the renewing of our minds, we will test or prove what is the will of God. We will be able to discern the will of God. The testing or proving is the actual experience of these things. What is it that we experience? We experience that God is good. His will is good and acceptable and perfect. As Psalms 34:8 tells us, “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!” (Psalms 34:8 ESV)
Will you not taste and see how good the Lord is?