This passage is foundational to any study of transformation. Paul has completed a major theological treatise in Romans 1-11 that is unparalleled in any of his other letters. It is an expansive treatment of salvation, sin, the law, the Spirit, the righteousness of God and justification. Now, Paul challenges his readers to apply all they have learned to their everyday life.
12:1 – “brothers and sisters” – the Greek text only has “brothers” or “brethren” – however, this is an example where the new NIV expresses the meaning in today’s parlance.
“I urge you” – “I beseech you” – this is a strong exhortation from the Apostle to the Roman Christians to consider the theological truths presented and now put them into practice.
“In view of God’s mercy” – in the Greek text, the plural “mercies” is used – Paul is challenging his readers to consider all that God has done for them!
“Offer” – this was the technical term for presenting or offering a sacrifice to the priests.
“Your bodies as a living sacrifice” – this imagery was a powerful one in Paul’s day. We tend to view religion as a gathering of beliefs into a system. The ancient world associated sacrifice with religious expression. As Doug Moo points out, “Ancient people were obsessed with sacrifice. The killing and offering of animals (and occasionally humans) to their gods was the focal point of their worship” (Moo, Romans, p. 395).
Obviously, the sacrifices used in the ancient world were primarily animals – bulls, goats and sheep. The animal was normally slain by a priest and the blood was sprinkled on an altar. Often the carcass of the animal was retained by the priests and was either used as meat for the priests or sold to a local butcher for re-sale in the market. The Jews had laws and acceptable practices to govern an entire sacrificial system. The pagan cults had acceptable practices as well.
The power in Paul’s use of this imagery is his challenge to his readers to offer their own bodies! Paul is not advocating a literal human sacrifice. Rather, he is teaching a valuable lesson about following Christ. Following Jesus involves placing ourselves on an altar each day and sacrificing our desires and our will. We then proceed to live each day in our bodies as living sacrifices to our Lord.
“Holy and pleasing to God” – Certainly in the Jewish sacrificial system, the sacrificial animal had to meet rigorous conditions to be worthy of sacrifice. Paul plays on this truth in his reference to our lives before the Lord. We are to live holy lives that please God. The offering of our lives to God involves the daily decisions of holiness.
“This is your true and proper worship” – the Greek text reads “the reasonable service of you” – and it is translated in various ways into English. For example the New American Standard Bible reads, “which is your spiritual service of worship” (NASB, The Lockman Foundation). Most translations connect the Greek word for “service” to the practice of worship. The NASB is seeking to communicate both service and worship in its translation.
I think the NIV has done a good job of communicating the sense of the Greek text. It is obvious Paul is talking about worship since he uses the imagery of sacrifice. Further, he qualifies our worship (service) with the Greek word, “logikos” (we get our word “logic” from this word) – which some translators translate with “spiritual.” I like the NIV’s take on that word – “true and proper” is how it appears in the NIV. Paul is painting a contrast between dead animals and live Christians. The dead sacrificial animal was not exercising reason in its role in the sacrificial system – but we do! We exercise our logic or our understanding. It is a spiritual exercise for us each day. We make daily decisions that are reasonable, informed and spiritual as we live holy lives before the Lord.
12:2 – Paul realized that believers had to live in the present age. However, for him, everything had changed because of Christ. Believers in Christ were now tied to another reality – a kingdom reality. The “present age” or “this world” represented for him a worldview that was Christ-less and flawed. Believers are aware of the spiritual reality of the Kingdom of God that is eternal in nature. This acknowledgment allows Christians to live in this present age with a connection to the “age to come.” Our loyalties lie in the kingdom. As Paul told the Philippian church, our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20).
“Don’t be conformed . . . Be transformed” – This has to be one of Paul’s most famous statements. Paul challenged his Roman audience to deal with the temptation to “just fit in” head on. This world – the Christ-less age – is a force to be reckoned with. It is powerful. Paul knew that – and it remains true today. The philosophical position and carefree ethic that has no moral underpinning – can present challenges for Christians. Paul’s advice? Don’t be shaped by the values, perspective, philosophy, ethic and mores of a Christ-less society. Our perspective must be rooted in truth.
The answer? An inner transformation. Paul offers a possibility to Christians here in verse 2. We can be changed! We can face the challenges placed on us by cultural forces – because there is a power at work within us. The word “transform” is the Greek word, “meta-morphoó” – we get our word “metamorphosis” from this Greek word.
Paul is describing a process at work within the Christian. We have the power of the Holy Spirit in us. He is changing us. He is shaping us. He is drawing us to the truths of Christ. It is a powerful process that enables us to overcome the desires that connect us to the present age. We can have victory over our sinful impulses and rebellious behaviors. God is a work within us to transform us from the inside out. This is the only answer for us. The force of external laws is not enough to change a person. We need an internal transformation of character and ethic. This is what Christ offers us!
“God’s will” – Once we experience the inner transformational work of Christ, we are then drawn to God’s will. We will demonstrate the will of God in our daily lives. This is only possible through the transformational work of Christ within us.