The reason for the exhortation: the mercies of God.
The Apostle Paul begins with the words, “I appeal to you therefore brothers” (12:1). The word therefore is significant because it grounds the appeal in the content of the previous chapters. In other words, Paul’s appeal only makes sense in light of chapters 1 through 11. The appeal is to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice” to God. What the apostle Paul is calling for is that we should be wholly devoted to God. But what specifically does the therefore point to? In other words, what motivates believers to present their bodies as a living sacrifice? Why would you want to sacrifice your body anyway? What are the reasons?
The point is that unless you are willing to believe the message of the previous chapters, this isn’t going to make much sense. But if you do believe the message of the previous chapters, this is in some sense inevitable. How so?
Take what the apostle says about sin. Sin isn’t just something you’re not supposed to do. It isn’t that forbidden pleasure. Rather, sin is first and foremost “ungodliness” (1:18). In other words, sin is that which puts us in direct opposition to God. Whatever else sin might do for you, it fundamentally puts you at odds with your Creator. And that can never be good. As a result, it is that which causes us to lose sight of wisdom, to make us do foolish and hurtful things and to make an exchange which makes no sense, to replace the Creator with the creature (1:21-22). It causes us to do that which is unnatural and unreasonable. It leads to “a debased mind to do what ought not to be done” (1:28). It is coming short of the glory of God (3:23). It brings on us the wrath of God (1:18). It is that which causes shame (6:21) and whose wages is eternal death (6:23). In other words, if you take God at his word, then sin is nothing to be trifled with. Sin is not something desirable which God keeps from us; rather, sin is something which is awful and which God in his infinite grace and mercy keeps us from, by saving us from its consequences, from its power and penalty and one day from its very presence.
Then take what the apostle says about righteousness. Righteousness is the one thing that we humans, of all things, need, and the one thing which we lack. The righteous God cannot have fellowship with unrighteous people. We are ungodly and therefore unrighteous and as a result God’s wrath is poised to be unleashed upon us, and rightly so. But righteousness in Romans is not just an attribute that defines God and which we lack; righteousness is a gift that God gives freely to sinners (3:21-31). We lost righteousness in Adam and cannot gain it back on our own; but Christ came to redeem us by his death by becoming a propitiation for us, by taking the guilt of our sin upon himself and absorbing God’s wrath in our place. As a result, he is able to justify the ungodly (4:5). We are saved, not by our righteousness but by the righteousness of God, mediated to us through Christ. Through this saving righteousness, we are able to now have acquittal and acceptance before God. And that is the best of news. Whereas sin leads to death, the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Or take what Paul tells us about the life which we have in Christ though his Spirit. This is one of the great themes of chapter 8. Sin brings with it spiritual death. It brings with it bondage to sin. Sin is slavery to the world, to the devil, and to our own passions and lusts. It is a miserable condition. Well does the Shorter Catechism say that the fall of man brought mankind into a condition of sin and misery. But because Christ has given those who are united to him by faith this gift of righteousness, he also gives to them a new life, and new affections to live life in a new direction. The chains with which sin shackled us have been broken. We now walk not in the flesh but in the Spirit. We are able through the Spirit to put to death the sin in our life. What the law could not do – what we could not do in the strength of depraved flesh, we are now able to do by the gracious intervention of God in the life. It’s not merely that God gives us new directions and information so that we can do the right thing. Nor is it that God becomes a new life coach and inspires us to do what we should so that we can have our best life now. Rather, it is that God has given new life to those who were spiritually dead; he has enabled by sheer grace and mercy those who had no strength in themselves. And the life that they now live is not a life lived in their own power but because Christ lives in them through the Spirit. And because of this sin no longer has the dominion over them because they are not under law but under grace (6:14).
All this comes about through the grace and mercy of God. Sin is rebellion against God. We have forfeited any claim upon God’s good gifts. We not only do not deserve his pleasure, but we also justly deserve his wrath. More than this, in our sin we will never on our own reach out for the grace of God. We will willingly sit in the muck and mire that is our sin. “So then it depends not on human will or exertion but on God who shows mercy” (9:18). God, in sovereign grace, has reached down to save sinful men and women. It is a wonderful and surprising act of grace and kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
That is the content that stands behind that word, therefore. What this means is that the exhortation here in this verse is not something which we do in order to gain God’s grace and favor. It is an appeal on the basis of God’s grace and favor, which the apostle points to in that delightful phrase, mercies of God. We are not told to clean up our life in order to gain forgiveness or freedom. Rather, the gospel – the good news of what God has done (not us!) for us in Jesus Christ – is the basis for the appeal here. We are not working toward God’s favor; we are meant to work from it.
Christianity is not a moralistic system. That is, the essence of the Christian message is not that we are to be nice people and good neighbors. The Christian message is not that we need to be better, it is that we need to be made alive, and this is not something we can do for ourselves. People don’t need to clean up their lives; they need to be rescued from themselves by the sovereign and gracious intervention of God in their lives.
A lot of people, even in the church, want to downplay the doctrinal aspects of the Christian message and to unite around its ethical aspects. Now of course there is an ethical aspect to our message – this chapter and the ones which follow bear this out – but what the structure and message of Romans tells us is that the ethics is impossible apart from the gospel. We are not saved by good works, we are saved to good works (Eph. 2:8-10). God does not meet sinners as they try to be better; he meets the ungodly as they embrace by faith Jesus Christ presented to them in the gospel. We don’t primarily need a life coach or a self-help manual – our fundamental and primary need is that of a Savior, and this is what the gospel is all about.
It is only from a position of faith in Christ and having been united to him by the Spirit of God that we are enabled to live a life of godliness. “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Tit. 2:11-12). And this is what the “therefore” implies; that having been saved, we are now in a position in which we can pursue good works and holiness and to start working on those aspects of our lives which are out of sync with God’s will for us.
But there is another thing behind that word “therefore”: it is not only that the gospel enables obedience, but that it also motivates obedience. It gives us reasons to be holy. You see this in the word “reasonable” which unfortunately is translated “spiritual” in verse 1 in the ESV. “Reasonable” is, I think, the best rendering here (cf. KJV). To devote ourselves to God and to his service is the most reasonable thing to do, and the greatest reasons for this are rooted in this amazing mercies of God. Given what sin is and what it does, given the remedy for it in the gospel, and given the grace that stands behind this amazing gift, how can we not want to live for God? How could we do anything but to offer him our lives which belong to him anyway? To claim to have believed in the gospel and then to go on in sin is to give the lie to our profession of faith.
What we are called to do: present our bodies a living sacrifice
As we’ve already noted, the main thing the apostle calls us to do here is to “present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your [reasonable service]” (12:1). “Bodies” here stands for the whole person; note the word “mind” in the next verse. A sacrifice was something, whether an animal or grain or money or whatever that, under the OT ritual, you gave to God. But Paul tells us that we are not simply to give something to God; we are to give ourselves to God. You can also see this in the word “holy.” We are to be set apart for him. And we are to give ourselves wholly to him. Our Lord said something very similar to this when he called upon people to take up their crosses to follow him (cf. Lk 14:27). If we claim to belong to Christ, we must admit that he has a claim on every part of our lives. He has redeemed us, body and soul, and we belong to him. Our lives should reflect that.
He calls them living sacrifices as opposed to the dead sacrifices of the Levitical sacrifices. This points to the spiritual condition of the believer: they are those who are alive in Christ (Rom. 6:11, 13; 8:13). But I think it also points to the fact that this is an ongoing condition which defines us. A dead sacrifice could only be offered once. But a living sacrifice is an ongoing reality which determines who we are and what we are to do. It means that our identity is to be found throughout the entirety of our lives in who we belong to, namely, God.
There is no other way for the Christian. The only acceptable service to God is that which is rendered in the way of a living sacrifice. God will accept no other. If we want to please God, if we want to live a life that pleases him and carries with it his blessing, we must die to ourselves and live for him. “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men” (Rom. 14:17-18). Could it be that I am not experiencing the joy and conscious enjoyment of the blessing of God in my life because I am holding back, because I am giving myself to be satisfied by this present age?
How we do this (negatively): don’t be conformed to the world.
“Do not be conformed to this world” (12:2). The authors of Scripture often use this word “world” to refer to the world under sin and in rebellion against God. So, for example, the apostle John writes, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world – the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life – is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 Jn. 2:15-17). Here the world is characterized by sinful and selfish desires, desires which are in opposition to the things God wants us to love. At the end of his epistle, he will write, “And we know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 Jn. 5:19). So when Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world,” he is referring to the desires and habits and attitudes which characterize those who are enslaved to the devil, whether consciously or unconsciously (cf. Mt. 4:8-9; Eph. 6:12). And as James will put it, those who are friends with the world are the enemies of God (Jam. 4:4). If you want to be devoted to God, you cannot be like the world. You must be different. Your tastes and ambitions and goals must and ought to be different from those who do not know Christ.
Another way to put it is that the world is still in the condition of Romans 1. Those who are “in the world” are under the wrath of God, unthankful and unholy, futile in their thinking and darkened in their hearts, claiming to be wise but in reality are fools. They have made a frightful and irrational exchange – worshipping the creature over the Creator and this is often reflected in the kinds of behaviors which they engage in, behaviors in which they exchange natural relationships for unnatural ones like homosexual and lesbian ones. Then Paul goes on to list the kinds of things which characterize a world in sin: “filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (Rom. 1:29-31). So when Paul says that you should not be conformed to the world, he means that your life should not be characterized by these sorts of things.
Now there are two things to be said here. First, given the power of God in the conversion of the believer, given the new life that is ours in Christ, it is impossible to think that one could be truly born again and yet go on living in conformity to the world. After all, our Lord died to save us from our sin, and that not only means from the penalty of sin but also from the power of sin. Someone who gives themselves habitually and continuously to the world cannot be saved. As the apostle John puts it, those who are born of God cannot go on sinning (1 Jn. 3:9). The grace of God does not leave a person in the condition in which it found them.
But that requires a second thing to be said. Though it is true that God’s grace is powerfully operative in the life of a believer, empowering them to put sin to death and giving them new affections, that does not mean that the believer is never tempted to be conformed to the world. In fact, this is a constant temptation. The clearest proof of this is this very text. It is an exhortation, an appeal, to not be conformed to the world. That appeal would be meaningless if this were not a possibility in the life of a Christian. The reality is that sanctification – the process of becoming more and more Christ-like in our character – is not automatic. We have to work on it. We have to present our bodies as a living a sacrifice. We have to resist the pressure to conform to the world. We have to, as the hymn puts it, take time to be holy. In fact, it is not only not automatic, but also often not easy. That being said, the glory of grace is that it is not impossible and we are empowered by the Spirit to live in increasing conformity to our Lord and his will.
The apostle writes this because he knows that in Christ we can resist the pressure to conform to the world. But he also writes it because he knows that there is this constant pressure to conform to the world, to adopt its attitudes and values and desires and goals and ambitions. The world is not a neutral entity, but an entire culture that is trying to make holiness look more weird and less desirable.
How do we resist such pressure? By remembering the mercies of God and by appropriating the truths of the gospel to every aspect of our lives. We do it by refusing to believe the lie that what the world promises is better than what God promises. We do it by looking to Christ by faith, by living by the Spirit, and by considering ourselves to be dead to sin and alive to God through Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom. 6:11).
How we do this (positively): be transformed by the renewing of your mind.
“But be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (12:2). You don’t devote yourself to God by simply doing this negative thing. You must not only put off, but you must also put on. Paul describes how we devote ourselves to God in this positive sense by the transformation of the mind. It is not just a change in how we behave that is aimed at here; it is a change in how we think and feel. It is a change in our thoughts and affections, in our determinations and desire, in our wills as well as our ways.
The word “transformed” is interesting. It is the same word that is used to describe the transfiguration of our Lord. It was a brief glimpse in which our Lord was transformed into the glory that he had with the Father before the world began. It is the word from which we get “metamorphosis.” We are being changed, says the apostle in another place, from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor. 3:18).
How does this happen? How does this change take place? It happens as we are renewed in the mind. It happens as we behold the face of the Lord in his word. It happens as the truth of God’s word finds its way into our minds and hearts and takes root so that our habits of thinking and feeling are molded into forms which are pleasing to God.
I think it was R. C. Sproul who said that this transformation takes place through education. In other words, as we believe and appropriate and apply the truths of the Bible to our lives. It is so important. You must not think that because you are born again, that holy ways of thinking are going to always prevail. We have to be constantly in the word and let it have its transforming effect upon us. We are not yet without sin, and as a result if we aren’t being transformed by the word of God, we will be conformed to the world. If we don’t let God’s truth change us, the world will. Either God’s word will be in us or the world will be in us.
God does not sanctify us apart from his word (Jn 17:17). Don’t ever think that you can navigate this world on your own. You need to let God speak into your life continually, and the only way to let this happen is though Scripture. Don’t be satisfied by cheap substitutes.
As a result of this, we will be able “by testing” to “discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (12:2). Again, the rubric by which we test things is the word of God in which we find the will of God, which is good and acceptable and perfect. We are drowning in information; but the problem is that so much of that information is just false. Even the so-called experts have conflicting opinions. There is news and then there is fake news. But thank God, his word is perfect. It will equip us for every good work. It will help us to discern God’s will for our lives.
But it all starts with the mercies of God. My friend, do you know something of the mercies of God in your life? I don’t mean whether or not you’ve been educated, or have a good job, or are married to your best friend. I’m talking about the mercies of God which bring us into fellowship with him. Do you have a saving relationship with God? The Bible tells us that the only way this can happen, the only way we can experience the mercies of God by which we are saved, is through Jesus Christ. It is only through his sacrifice for us on the cross that we can meaningfully give ourselves as a living sacrifice to God. His sacrifice for you must precede your sacrifice for God. Has it? If not, come to him, for he calls us to himself, and promises that he will never cast out anyone who comes to him by faith. May God make it so!