This is Paul’s pattern in several of his letters. He first teaches what God has done for us through Christ. He then tells us what we should do in response to what God has done. This is the pattern in Galatians, where after four chapters explaining our freedom in Christ because we have been justified by faith alone, Paul states in Galatians 5:1,
Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.
The same is true in Ephesians, where Paul has articulated our glorious position in Christ in the first 3 chapters, then in Ephesians 4:1 Paul states:
I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called,
Paul follows the same pattern in his letter to the Romans. After spending 11 chapters magnifying God’s gracious purpose in salvation, he begins in 12:1-2 to call us to live in response to that gracious purpose. This, he says, is our reasonable service.
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. 2 And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.
I. The Basis of Your Service: The Mercies of God, v. 1a.
Paul begins by urging the believers at Rome to present their bodies as living sacrifices to God. This, he says, is their “reasonable service.” But what kind of service is this? And, what makes it so reasonable? The answer to the first question is that the word translated “service” in verse 1 is word related to the service of worship performed at the Old Testament Tabernacle. It is a reference here to the specific act of worship of offering a sacrifice to God. But here, instead of offering an animal, we are told that we should offer our own bodies as a sacrifice to God! Now to the second question, what makes this service so reasonable (since it is called our “reasonable service”)? It is reasonable in light of the mercies of God! In this verse Paul outlines for us the basis of our “reasonable service” to God. The basis is “the mercies of God” by which he beseeches us to present our bodies as living sacrifices.
To what mercies is Paul referring? The answer is seen by Paul’s use of the word “therefore”. Although it is only a conjunction, it serves a very important point in this text. It connects the practical appeals of Romans 12:1 and following with the theological arguments of Romans chapters 1-11. It is on the basis of God’s mercies that we are to present our bodies as living sacrifices. These mercies are the mercies which Paul has expounded over the last 11 chapters. They are the mercies of forgiveness of sins, justification by faith, peace with God, union with Christ, freedom from sin and the law, adoption as sons, possession of the Spirit, election to salvation, no separation from Christ’s love, inclusion of the Gentiles and the future salvation of Israel. In light of all these mercies, Paul urges us to present our bodies as living sacrifices to God.
There is an important lesson to be learned here. Much of today’s preaching places an emphasis on the “how to’s” of Christianity, without an equivalent emphasis on the theology that forms the basis for the practical aspects of Christianity. This is getting the cart before the horse with disastrous results. This is trying to preach Romans 12, before Romans 1-11. The gospel of grace is thereby distorted into a message of moralism and perverted into a religion of legalism. The end result is that God’s truth is not honored, nor are Christians enabled to live the Christian life. Instead, we must first see the glories of God’s grace, before we can properly do our duties as Christians. It is only when the child of God meditates on the manifold mercies of God that he will be enabled by God’s grace to live the Christian life in a practical, God-honoring manner. This is what I mean when I say that the mercies of God are the basis for our service to God!
II. The Nature of Your Service: Total Surrender, v. 1b.
But how is this “reasonable service” based on the mercies of God described? It is described in what must have been shocking terms to the first century reader. The language used by the apostle here is the language of the sacrificial system. Those of us living in the 21st century, who have never had the experience of taking an animal to be thrown on a flaming altar as a sacrifice, can hardly appreciate the significance of what Paul is saying here. He is not saying that we must bring a sacrifice, but that we ourselves must be a sacrifice!
Excursus: But you may say, “I thought all sacrifices ended with the death of Christ on the cross. Was not God satisfied with the one sacrifice for sin forever.” You’re exactly right all sacrifices ended with the death of Christ on the cross! He was, in the words of the author of Hebrews, the “one sacrifice for sin forever”! All sacrifices for sins involving the death of an animal have ended with the death of Christ on the cross. There are, however, sacrifices in the New Covenant. 1 Peter 2:5 states,
You also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
And as Hebrews 13:15 declares,
Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name.
Here, in Romans 12:1, Paul clarifies that he is not talking about a sacrifice that deals with satisfying sin’s penalty by designating this sacrifice as a “living sacrifice,” not one involving death.
What then is Paul saying? He is simply saying that we are to offer all we are as a continual living sacrifice to Him. In other words, God doesn’t just want your heart, He wants all of you! This is the meaning of the “body” in this passage. It is a reference to the totality of our being. It is a “living” sacrifice (which distinguishes it from the OT sacrifices), a “holy” sacrifice (which indicates that like the OT sacrifices it is set apart to God), and it is an “acceptable” sacrifice (which indicates that it is well-pleasing to God). Isaac Watts well expressed this idea in the words to When I Survey the Wondrous Cross when he wrote,
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
III. The Means of Your Service: Renewal of the Mind, v. 2a.
But what does all this language of sacrifice mean? What does Paul mean when he says that we must surrender the whole of our being to God? I believe the first half of verse 2 explains what Paul means by the second half of verse 1. In other words, the means of total surrender is having a renewed mind. Therefore, the surrendering of our whole lives to God begins on the inside (in the way we think) and works its way to the outside (in what we do).
This renewing of the mind involves both a negative and a positive aspect. The negative aspect is that we are not to be “conformed to this world” The positive aspect is that we ware to be “transformed by the renewing of [our mind.” The word “conform” has the idea of being pressed into a mold, an outward conformity to an external form. But the word “transform” has the idea of changing the inward reality.
What is shaping you? The present evil age (which is what the word “world” refers to in this passage) has the ability to “conform” you to its image. Are you mindlessly drinking in from the fount of the world? What kinds of things do you meditate on?
The Word of God has the ability to “transform” you from the inside out. Are you constantly exposing yourself to its teaching. This is the means of total surrender to God: renewal of the mind. Is your mind being renewed by the power of God’s Word on a regular basis?
You are conformed to the world by what you uncritically digest from the world. You are transformed by the renewing of your mind by what you meditatively digest from the Word. Are you reading God’s Word daily? Are you memorizing God’s Word? Are you meditating on God’s Word? Are you reading authors whose writings are permeated by the Word of God? How else do you expect to have your mind renewed?
In this passage, Paul expects that believers will present the whole of their beings to God as a sacrifice to Him based upon His abundant mercies toward them. How much time do you spend meditating on God’s mercies as revealed in His Word? This is both the basis and the means for our service to God! You tell me how you’re spending your time and I’ll tell you what you are being shaped into!
So, find a way of Bible Intake (reading or hearing the Word of God). Commit to Memorization of and Meditation on the Word of God. Then allow the Word of God to make a difference in the way that you think! It’s not enough just to hear and read the Word of God if it doesn’t change our minds!
Let me ask you a question, does your mind ever get changed because of your reading and studying of God’s Word? Or do you merely find confirmation for what you’ve always believed? We must allow the Word to change us as we encounter areas where we are wrong!
IV. The Result of Your Service: Discernment of God’s Will, v. 2b.
What will the end result be of this kind of service to God? The end result will be a mature discernment of God’s will. The word “prove” has the idea of testing and approving. The Christian who commits the whole of His being to God as a sacrificial offering, based on the mercies of God, by renewing His mind through meditation upon God’s Word will gain an increasing ability to recognize God’s will (that which is good; acceptable, i.e. well-pleasing; and perfect). These three adjectives for the will of God: “good”, “acceptable” and “perfect” are not three different levels of God’s will. The will of God is all three of these things at the same time.
This is a level of Christian maturity that few of us (if any) have attained.
According to Ephesians 5:10, believers are to be “Proving what is acceptable unto the Lord.” Romans 12:1-2 tells us how to do this. This has nothing to do with how to find God’s will for your individual life as in: “Who should I marry?, What job should I have?, etc.” Instead it has to do with God’s moral will, i.e., what is pleasing to Him. The believer whose mind is being renewed by God’s Word will be able to identify God’s will in the moral issues of life.
Do you want to be able to discern what is pleasing to God? The Christian’s response is yes. Then, put yourself in the offering plate by changing the way you think through the Word of God. Then, and only then, will you have the ability to discern the will of God properly.