“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.”
One of my favourite classes at university was medical ethics. As is often the case, it was because of the lecturer. He would introduce us to a medical case that raised an ethical issue (e.g. euthanasia), and he would ask us: “What would you have done? Why?” Then he would argue with us. He would debunk our arguments and destabilize our presuppositions, and he always seemed to win in the end. At one level, the experience was satisfying. He wanted us to become thoughtful clinicians who could appreciate the complexity of medical ethics. But at another level, it was dissatisfying. There was no anchor for our ethics. We were cast adrift upon a sea of endless questioning.
We can face a similar problem with Christian ethics—the question of how to live as Christians. The answer isn’t legalism—we have died to the law (Rom 7:6). And the answer isn’t licentiousness—we have died to sin (Rom 6:10-11). But there is a lot of water between those poles. What is the answer? How should we live as Christians? Romans 12:1-2 provides an answer: the why, what and how of Christian living. We’ll take them in turn.
Paul begins with the why, starting with the word ‘therefore’ to summarize his argument so far. Romans 1-11 has been all about “the mercies of God”. For what we deserve is the wrath of God (1:18, 2:5)—we have buried God’s truth, worshipped idols, and embraced sin—all of us, both Jews and Gentiles alike (1:18-3:20). But in his mercy, God sent his Son Jesus as a sacrifice, bearing our punishment (3:21-26). In the mercies of God, we who trust in Jesus are made righteous (3:27-4:25), reconciled to God for eternity (5), freed from the dominion of sin (6-7), indwelt by the Spirit of God (8), all because of the mercy of God in election (9-11). No wonder Paul erupts in praise to God for his mercy (11:33-36)! This is the why of Christian living: because of the mercies of God we respond obediently, in thankfulness.
Now to the what: “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice”. The bar is set high—we are to die for God. “Bodies” means our whole selves. Each descriptor is important. “Living”, because God wants continuous sacrifice; more than a single ministry decision or a one-off financial contribution, God wants 24/7 devotion. “Holy”, because God wants hearts set apart for him, not for religious display (cf. Isa 1:10-17, 58:1-11; Amos 5:21-24; Matt 5:23-24; Mark 12:28-34). “Pleasing” or “acceptable to God’, because this is sacrifice: not suicide but relational—we are adopted children serving for the pleasure of our heavenly Father (Rom 8:14-17). All of this is “rational service.1 The logicalresponse to God—the response of those who understand that God’s Son died for them—is to die for him.2 It is worth reflecting on this point. How are you and I hurting, bleeding, suffering, or going without, in response to God? If we’re not, then we haven’t understood God’s mercy.
What we are to sacrifice is ourselves. But it begins with the mind. This is Paul’s how of Christian sacrifice. He gives two commands—one negative, one positive. Negatively, we are not to conform to this age, what Paul calls elsewhere this “present evil age” (Gal 1:4). This is so hard, because the world applauds those who join in its debauchery (Rom 1:32), but resist we must. Positively, we are to be transformed by the renewal of our minds. This happens through the word of God (Ps 119; 2 Tim 3:16-17), which is the sword of God (Eph 6:17; Heb 4:12). Previously, we didn’t approve of knowledge of God (Rom 1:28). But God’s word transforms our minds so that we approve of his will, recognizing its beauty, warmth and wholeness.
This is Christian ethics: resisting the world, transformed by the Word, we die for God. If the logic escapes us, as it did my ethics lecturer, we don’t know the mercy of God. But what a contrast it is when we respond logically to the mercy of God, as a sinful woman did:
“Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” (Luke 7:47)