John Child, GWC lecturer, Christian Doctrine; Ethics; Pastoral Studies
BA (Rhodes), Dip Th (BISA), BD Hons (London), MTh (UNISA).
12:1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform 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. (NIV)
I want to focus on just two verses, Romans 12:1-2, as they are key to understanding Romans 12-16, Paul’s exposition of the Christian life that flows out of the gospel.
Paul’s ‘therefore’ indicates the conclusion of an argument, immediately pointing back to Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11, with its emphasis on mercy (Romans 9:15, 18 & 23 & 11:30-31), but also concluding his whole salvation argument from Romans 1-11. It’s because of God’s mercy and grace to sinners, on the basis of Christ’s atoning death (Romans 3:21-26), that we are to offer our bodies as living sacrifices to God.
While that is true of us individually, Paul actually uses the singular ‘as a living sacrifice’. He could well be thinking of the Roman church as one body collectively offering herself to God. In a sense we do that when we gather together on Sundays to worship God: we praise God as one body in our singing, confess our sins together, and as a congregation pray to the Father, before we listen to the Word preached.
Paul explicitly says we are to offer our bodies to God as living sacrifices. While our ‘bodies’ do stand for ‘ourselves’, the use of ‘bodies’ is significant. Paul affirms the value of our bodies in the context of a Greek worldview which saw the body as evil but the soul good. God created us as bodily beings, as ‘very good’ (Genesis 1:31). Imagine not having bodies. We couldn’t hold a baby in our arms, work with our heads and hands providing for our families and those in need, support gospel ministry and feed the world. As bodily beings we serve God.
We do that by continuously offering our bodies to God as ‘living sacrifices’. ‘Living sacrifices’ is a striking oxymoron (two words next to each other that appear contradictory). People then knew that an animal sacrificed was dead, not living. We are not to kill ourselves but wholly offer our bodies to God as if they were a sacrifice. As Frances Havergal’s 1874 hymn puts it:
Take my hands and let them move
At the impulse of Thy love.
Take my feet and let them be
Swift and beautiful for Thee.
Take my voice and let me sing,
Always, only for my King.
Take my lips and let them be
Filled with messages from Thee.
This, says Paul, is our ‘true and proper worship’. Worship is not just what we do on Sundays. Serving God in the week with our hands, head and heart in all that we do is true worship. We worship God when go out to earn a living, when we raise a family, when we feed the hungry and care for the sick. We were created to reproduce to fill and rule the world under God for God. This is how we normally serve and thereby worship God. Of course, we worship God when we go to church, evangelize, read the Bible and support missionaries. For Paul worship is not just doing ‘church stuff’; it’s doing life as a Christian for God’s glory.
To do life as a Christian we cannot think and behave as the world does, for the world has rejected God and his ways. We need a new mind. That cannot happen overnight. You can’t download a new mind. Renewing the mind is hard work and a lifelong task. Paul speaks of the mind because with our minds we think, make choices and act. We live through our mind. Our minds lead us. As our minds are transformed we begin to think God’s thoughts, to discern his perfect will and, in the power of the Spirit, do God’s will.
Paul doesn’t say here how our minds are renewed. But we know God’s thoughts because he has given us his written Word. As we read the Bible and hear it taught our minds are progressively changed. This too is the work of the Spirit, who inspired the Bible’s words and leads us to those life-changing words. That Word renews our minds and changes our behaviour so that it’s now pleasing to God.
Then we’re able to serve God in the body of Christ, the church, by using our different spiritual gifts to build up the body and serve one another (Romans 12:3-8). We’ll grow in love for one another, doing good, sharing with God’s people in need, practising hospitality, mourning with those who mourn, living in harmony with one another, turning from evil and revenge and doing what is right (Romans 12:9-21).
To sum up: Christian ethics (Romans 12-15), the way we live, is a consequence of the gospel (Romans 1-11), never the other way round. We love and serve God because of the cross, we love our neighbour as ourselves and seek to be like Christ because Christ died for us. Christian ethics is a gospel ethics.