by John Ellis
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:1-2
Romans 12:1-2 is one of the more famous passages in the Bible, and it’s one of the more beautiful. Tightly constructed with language that flows off the tongue, this passage is both an epilogue and a prologue. As epilogue, Romans 12:1-2 serves to recap the previous eleven chapters; but, more than just a recap, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Apostle Paul succinctly defines for the readers what God’s saving action means practically in the life of the Believer. God has worked out this great salvation, making a new nation, saving all who put their full hope and faith in the person and work of King Jesus, and that, the Gospel, has great significance for today.
As prologue for the remaining chapters of Romans, the script is somewhat reversed. Paul, preparing to dive into a series of imperatives for the Christian (there are unavoidable ethics wrapped up in being a follower of King Jesus) compels the reader to live out life in the reality that God has mercifully saved them from their sins. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Romans 6:6-7 With Romans 12:1-2 the Apostle Paul is gearing up to let us know what it looks like to live a life freed from sin by God’s grace.
We know, however, that all scripture is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. And though only two verses, and two verses that serve as a bridge between the first eleven chapters and the remaining five chapters in Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, Romans 12:1-2 has all the wealth, beauty, and hope that can be mined from the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and offers us a bird’s eye, yet clear, view of what a life that has been changed by the Gospel looks like. And this change is a result of God’s action.
If you’re like me, the word “therefore” immediately jumps out of the text. For me, it jumps out because every sermon, every book, every Bible study that exists in my memory defined and explained “therefore” when it was included in the text under consideration. In fact, because of that, during my first reading of Romans 12:1-2 in preparation, I dug my heels in and stubbornly decided that I wasn’t going to spend any time on “therefore.” I thought, “it’s not necessary, most everyone has heard ‘therefore’ defined multiple times. They get it.” Well, as you’ve probably already “got,” at some point during my study, my mind was changed. “Therefore” is too important to set aside.
And, it’s too important because it’s the hinge that Paul’s teaching in verses one and two of chapter twelve swings on. Remove that hinge, and Paul’s thoughts in our text become an easily moved door that can be hung on the doorposts of all manner of prooftexting, opening the passage up for entrance into an improper focus on a variety of pet issues. And, when that happens, the faith sustaining and hope building message found in the Holy Spirit inspired verses are obscured.
As it is, that “therefore” firmly connects chapter 12:1-2, as well as the remaining chapters of Romans, to the rich theology, the laying bare of God’s goodness displayed through the Gospel that the Apostle Paul expounds in the first eleven chapters. Let’s look at that “therefore” again. I appeal to you therefore, brothers … appeal “how?” … by the mercies of God. Whatever happens next; however Paul is about to exhort us; it’s unequivocally rooted and flowering out of the mercies of God. And what are God’s mercies that Paul’s referencing? His arguments in Romans chapters one through eleven about how God has accomplished salvation.
In the first two and half chapters, Paul removes any doubt that we humans, all of us, are sinners standing guilty before the throne of God. None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. Romans 3:10-12.
If that was it; if Paul ended Romans with that, Romans 3:10-12 – that we are all sinners who want nothing to do with our Creator; who despise the sovereign rule of our holy and just God; the curse found in Genesis three would never give way to the promise of Genesis three that the seed of the woman would one day crush the head of the serpent. We would be lost.
But, Paul, just a few verses later in chapter three, continues, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because … It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
I would love to continue unpacking, chapter by chapter, the Gospel message of Romans, but I should probably continue with the text. But please know this, if your life is stuck in verses 10-12 of Romans chapter three; if you are a sinner who has not bowed the knee in faith and repentance before the throne of God, placing your entire hope in the person and work of Jesus Christ; King Jesus is extending his nail scarred hands, offering to lift you out of verses 10-12 and bring you into the glorious truth found in verses 23-26 that by His life, death, and resurrection, He has justified all those who place their faith in Him.
Coming back to our text, that “therefore” explicitly tells us that, as the notes in the ESV Study Bible state, “Christians are to give themselves entirely to God because of His saving grace.” The same saving grace that Paul has been teaching through the first eleven chapters of Romans. Brothers and sisters in Christ, as we move forward, hopefully quickly, through the rest of verse one and verse two, allow yourselves to respond joyfully because God has mercifully saved you.
God’s mercies, our salvation is the exact reason why we are to present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is [our] spiritual worship.
Our lives, as Christians, are to be living, breathing demonstrations of God’s mercy to us. God has saved us from our sins, but, as the theologian Douglas Moo points out, “God’s mercy is not a matter of past benefits only, but it continues to exercise its power in and through us.” Any absurd notion that we can somehow pay God back, that we can live life in a way that balances out the ledger of God’s mercies is made even more nonsensical in light of the reality that God’s mercies have not only been heaped on us, but are being heaped, and will continue to be heaped on us for all eternity. There is no way that we can ever pay God back for His mercies.
We should, however, live a life of doxology as a response to God’s mercies. Echoing Paul, our life, our being is to be worship. And not just aspects of our life. Paul wrote “bodIES” for a reason. Well, for two reasons. One, it has application to the Body. The Church is a body made up of members. And every individual church is corporately made up of individuals. We know from I Corinthians 12:12 that all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. We have a responsibility to be loving, serving, and worshipping God together, as one Body. And we can’t do that if we isolate ourselves from each other. If, as members of a Gospel preaching church, we view our responsibilities as limited to specific days or specific aspects of service, we are not worshiping God in view of His all-encompassing, never-ending mercies. For example, and we could highlight many examples, when was the last time you (and I’m included in that “you”) prayed for a fellow member of the Body of Christ that the Holy Spirit has placed you in?
Now, and hold on loosely to that guilt I’ve just covered you with. In this passage, the Holy Spirit demonstrates how those who are in Christ have already been freed from that guilt; Paul’s use of “bodies” also has individual application. Which, to be honest, cannot be separated from the corporate application. Going back to I Corinthians 12, we read in verse 27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. As individuals, we need to recognize that our response to God’s mercies cannot be compartmentalized; God’s mercies lay claim to the entirety of our lives. My cleaning the church bathrooms on Friday should be as much of a doxology to God as my preaching on the Lord’s Day. Whatever plough God has placed our hands on, it is to be done with praise, thanksgiving, and for the glory of God. Whatever plough. And “whatever” means “whatever.” Everything that we do, hanging out with friends, our social media activity, our entertainment options, walking down the sidewalk, everything is to be a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God as a thankful response to God’s mercies. He has saved you, Christian, live thankfully.
Numbers 28 and 29 lists a variety of offerings and sacrifices that God commanded of the Israelites. One of the striking similarities between the sacrifices of Numbers 28 and 29 and Romans 12 is the totality of God’s claim on our lives – the lives of the Old Testament saints and those of us living under the New Covenant. There wasn’t an avenue or moment of the Israelites’ lives that wasn’t centered on sacrifices. However, in Romans 12:1-2, there is a notable difference from the sacrifices of Numbers 28 and 29. And that difference is found in the word “living.” The Old Testament sacrifices were a type pointing forward to the final sacrifice. Jesus Christ has fulfilled everything that the Old Testament sacrifices prefigured. With His life, death, and resurrection, King Jesus perfectly fulfilled the entire law, paid the final price for our sins, and was raised from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit, fully defeating sin and death. God’s mercies have freed us to be living sacrifices pointing back to the person and work of Jesus Christ; who, unlike the Old Testament sacrifices, is now living and reigning. Our lives, our actions do not add anything to our salvation. God, through Jesus Christ, has provided the full price required to vindicate His righteous justice and save us from our sins. Like the Old Testament sacrifices that pointed towards Jesus, our lives should be a constant reference to the mercies of God demonstrated in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
But how are we to be living sacrifices? Some Believers drift towards asceticism and monasticism. Is that how we should be tracking with this? Should we sequester ourselves away from the world? Is the best way to be a living sacrifice found in denying ourselves material things? I mean, Paul does write in verse two, Do not be conformed to this world. But the passage doesn’t mean monasticism; it doesn’t mean denying ourselves material things.
The Greek word that the ESV translates as “world” literally means “this age.” “The word can refer to the ‘world’ in the spatial sense but typically in Paul it has a temporal nuance.” In Romans 12:2 (and in other passages found in his letters), Paul isn’t making a proto-Gnostic statement against the material world; he isn’t claiming that the way to true spirituality is found in denying ourselves material things. What he is referencing is the age that is dominated by the effects of the Fall; in other words, the age we live in.
There are applications for us here, however; we are commanded to not be conformed to this world, and that does mean something. And we don’t have to dive into the rabbit hole of do’s and don’ts in order to extricate application from Paul’s broad imperative that’s an opening salvo to some specifics that he’s going to address over the next few chapters of Romans. What it does mean for us as Christians is that we belong to a Kingdom that runs counter to the concerns and objectives of this world. In fact, going farther, this world’s system, or “age,” is in direct rebellion against the Kingdom of Jesus. The serpent, while defeated, is still at work in a desperate and ultimately futile attempt to usurp the throne of God. I’ve heard several preachers compare it to D-Day. After the Allies secured the beachhead and began pushing into France, the war was over, but the Nazi troops weren’t going down without inflicting as much damage as possible. That historical oversimplification aside, the point stands. Jesus, by His life, death, and resurrection has won the war, but until He returns, until His Second Advent, the serpent and the serpent’s seed can still bite.
And this matters for us, in light of Romans 12:2, because we serve the King of Kings; we serve the seed of the woman who has crushed the head of the serpent. But do our lives reflect that? Or, are our lives characterized by allowing the world, this age, to provide us with our categories and definitions for things like “love,” “justice,” and “goodness?” Are we more concerned with currying favor with our co-workers, next door neighbors, or family members than we are with sharing the good news that King Jesus has conquered sin and death? Are we living as if the world’s priorities take precedent over our King’s priorities? These are the type of questions that we need to prayerfully consider when confronted by Paul’s admonition to not be conformed to the world. Verse two concludes with the assertion that we can discern what is the will of God, which is the positive side of the negative do not be conformed to this world.
Thankfully, we Christians have the Holy Spirit working in our lives.
The Holy Spirit’s Work
And this is further good news for Christians in all of this. If you remember all the way back to my introduction, I said that as a prologue for the remaining five chapters, Romans 12:1-2 kinda reverses the script. Well, one of God’s mercies is the gift of His Spirit. Yes, we are called to live a life that points to the mercies of God, but we are able to do that because of the Holy Spirit’s work, because of God’s mercies. As New Covenant Believers, we are indwelled by the Holy Spirit, and discerning the will of God is a product of the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.
The only thing that can keep us from being conformed to this world is having the mind of Christ. And it’s a continual process. Paul uses the present tense when telling us to be transformed by the renewal of [our] mind. Our transformation, our sanctification is an ongoing process (and it may seem long and slow at times). But it’s an ongoing process that affects the deepest recesses of our being. Being conformed to the world is a transient thing; the world changes. I’m a very young forty years old, and, at the risk of sounding crotchety, the philosophical shifts around us happen so quickly as to boggle my mind. This world, this age, can’t keep track of its own inconsistencies because it’s serving itself and is mired in constantly repeating confusion. In contrast, the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit is a continuous movement towards Christ-likeness. History is headed somewhere, and our sanctification bears that reality out. Being tossed around by the whims and fancies of the world will end in tragedy.
And, if you are a child of God, you can rest assured in the promise that, as Paul wrote to the church at Philippi, He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. So, Christian, approach the Throne of Grace with gladness in the full knowledge that your Father in heaven hears you and has already forgiven your sins. Live life joyfully in the freedom that King Jesus has won for you. As opposed to those in Romans 1:28 whom God has given up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done, be thankful that the Holy Spirit is renewing your mind and empowering you to live a life of grateful sacrifice that points to Jesus.
Allow the wonderful mercies that God has bestowed on you, beginning with who He is, to wash over you and cause you to rejoice in your salvation. Be thankful that God has and is accomplishing for us and through us what we are unable to do in and of ourselves. We serve a kind and gracious God and our lives should reflect that.
 Douglas Moo. The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 749.
 Moo. The Epistle to the Romans. 755.