Romans 12.1-2: Conformed or Transformed?

A sermon preached at All Saints in Boise, Idaho on 29 December 2013.

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This sermon is an introduction to the last four chapters of Romans. These four chapters are about how faith works itself out in our lives. it answers questions like these: How does our faith become practical? How does the gospel work itself out in love?

A friend of mine, who is a very funny guy and a great theologian, once told me that he’s pretty sure that about half of what he believes is heresy… The only problem is that he didn’t know which half.

 

That was his humorous way of pointing out that he — and all of us really — think things that are untrue. Even at our best, we all believe big things and little things about God, ourselves, and our world that are false, and worse yet we live and love and act on those falsehoods.

 

Where do these untrue thoughts come from? Should we be worried about this? If so, what can we do about it? Is this the kind of problem that can be “fixed”?

 

I hope you can see the problem: We all think things that aren’t true, we even love things that aren’t true, but our best efforts to fix that problem come from the same place. If we have minds and hearts that are broken, then how can we fix our minds and hearts?

 

That is what Rom 12.1-2 is about. But in order to see how this passage answers that question, we have to place it in its context, so let me summarize what comes earlier in the book of Romans. The book of Romans is basically one long answer to the question, how does God save his people?

 

It begins by pointing out the problem, which should be obvious to us: God has made it obvious that he exists, that he is the king of everything, and that we are to worship and follow him. And yet all men everywhere have chosen to ignore these facts, to worship themselves, and to be their own kings.

 

Romans 1 says that everyone suppresses the truth about God. Romans 3 says that no one follows God: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks God.” Instead we seek ourselves, and we expect everyone around us to do the same.

 

The effects of this “I am my own king” attitude have been disastrous. The human race has been torn apart and the world has been filled with liars, thieves, killers, gluttons, tyrants, anger, envy, division, rivalry, abuse, broken marriages, broken homes, broken relationships, broken countries, broken people. We don’t have to look too far to see the effects of rebelling against God and trying to be our own kings because it is in the news and it is all around us.

 

And if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that those effects are in us too. We all lie. We all try to beat the system when we think we can get away with it. We all know that we have been unfaithful and selfish in our relationships. We have all been filled with anger and bitterness.

 

We all know that these attitudes are not just a part-time reality in our lives, but instead they are a part of who we are. We might wish that our fallenness was a minor thing, and we sometimes tell ourselves that we can stop doing that whenever we want to. But the reality is that our brokenness has taken root deep in our soul; it’s a deeper part of who we are than the things we often use to describe ourselves, like our favorite activities or our sense of humor.

 

We like to think that any ugly, unpleasant, unseemly parts of our personalities are not who we are at the core; they’re a minor part of us, off on the periphery of our lives. We tend to think of ourselves like a football team: Maybe our third-string quarterback plays some ugly football, but he doesn’t make the field too much. You should see our starting QB! He looks much better!

 

Or to put it another way, we tend to think of ourselves like a photograph: Sure, maybe the photograph is blurry or distorted way over in the corner where no one would look, but isn’t it a nice photograph everywhere else?

 

But think for a moment of all the people who have known you well, the ones who have seen past your skin and know the real you. How many of them have you treated rudely? How many of them have you hurt with your words? How many of them have you needed to apologize to?

 

And these are the people who really know us, and we really know them. Usually they’re the people we love the most. If we can’t even treat the people we love the most well, then we have a real problem. Romans 3 tells us that we all fall short of God’s expectations for us, and deep down we know that our fallenness effects every part of our lives.

 

So what can we do about our fallenness? How can our brokenness be fixed? The answer to that question starts, appropriately, with what God has done about it. And according to Romans, what God did in response to our sin is very surprising.

 

What would you do to someone who do to someone who had wronged you in the ways that we have wronged God? What if someone stole your identity, your ideas, your possessions, your reputation, kidnapped your family, threw you out on the street, and effectively evicted you from your own life? That is something like how we have treated God. How would you react to that?

 

Well in God’s case, the first thing he does is to rather justly say that he won’t tolerate that for a moment. God pushes back and says, no, I will be the God of the universe and you won’t be. He rejects our rule over him and asserts his rule over us. He will be king, end of story!

 

Only that’s not the end of the story. If someone had wronged us as extensively as we have wronged God, we would not be happy unless that person was banished from our presence forever. We would never want to see them or even hear their name again. But God isn’t content with that. He doesn’t want the story to end there. He would rather take the people who hated him the most and make them the members of his own family.

 

That is what Romans tells us in chapters 3-11. We can have peace with God through faith. By placing our faith in Jesus, the Son of God, our Savior, we can be so united to God and blessed by him that it can be said of us in Romans 8 that nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love for us. Think about that! God’s reaction to those who have so horribly wronged him is that he wants to love them and bring them into his own family.

 

And so he does. After writing about God’s love for sinners like us in the previous 8 chapters of Romans, the Apostle Paul finishes chapter 11 with this exclamation of praise: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord; or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever! Amen.”

 

And then immediately after writing that in chapter 11, St Paul begins chapter 12 with the well-known passage that is our focus this morning.

 

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.

 

There are three things we need to learn from this passage. The first is a warning: Do not be conformed to this world. Our culture — and by that I do not mean 21st Century American culture, but the culture of fallen humanity, at all times and in all places — our culture wants to conform us to something, and St Paul warns us: do not be conformed to this world!

 

Now right away we should clarify that the Apostle Paul does not mean that all culture is bad, and everything about our culture should be avoided. In some ways being conformed to our culture is a good thing; in fact, it’s the way God made us to work as human beings.

 

All the way back at the beginning, God said about Adam: “It is not good for him to be alone.” God created us to live in community with other people. He gave us families and friends and coworkers and co-worshipers. We draw so much of what we know and believe and do from the people around us, and more than anything else, God uses the people in our lives to shape us, to smooth our rough edges and make us more like Jesus.

 

So when the Apostle Paul warns us about being conformed to the world, he doesn’t mean for us to be a rock, a lonely island that decides its own fate in isolation. The very opposite in fact! He wants us to be shaped by the community of people God has given us — especially the church, which is a theme that will come out later as we continue reading through Romans.

 

No, rather than avoiding being influenced by others, the St Paul is calling us to be wise about the forces and ideas that are conforming us. How often do we think about this? How often do we genuinely reflect on how much something or someone is influencing us, and whether that is a good thing?

 

Yes, God made us to be influenced by the people and things around us, but as Christians we know that the world we live in is fallen, and that the people who surround us are as rebellious against God as we are. They want to be the kings of their own lives, so doesn’t it make sense that they would encourage us to do the same? Of course it does! Of course the majority of the encouragement we receive will be to live as rebels against God, to assert our own will over his and live for ourselves. That only makes sense given the fallen world in which we live.

 

And if we’re honest, the truth is that we like that kind of advice. Have you ever noticed how much more work it takes to keep your diet, for example, than it does to break it? We have to exert so much willpower to do the things we should, in whatever area of our lives, but often one little word of encouragement is all it takes to undo it all.

 

We like bad advice because it helps us feel justified when we do bad things. We love it when someone says to us: You were right to get angry and lose your temper at that co-worker! You were justified to cheat on your spouse after all the things they’ve done to you over the years! How can anyone expect you to react well to your kids after the way they’ve acted all day?

 

It’s easy to be conformed to the world. It’s what we naturally do. Until we renew our minds and begin seeing things as God does, the world’s way of doing things is what sounds natural and true and right to us. But where has that gotten us? What has living like we’re our own kings done to us?

 

As I said earlier, we all lie and steal and hate. We are all unfaithful and bitter and unloving. Apart from Jesus, we leave a wake of broken relationships and wasted opportunities, the worst of which is our broken relationship with the God who made us. That is where living like we are our own kings has gotten us.

 

We cannot expect our lives to change while we are still thinking in the same old ways. We need to stop living the kind of rebellious, destructive lives that come naturally to us. We need to stop being conformed to the world and start having a renewed mind before we can expect our lives to change.

 

That is the second thing we need to learn from this passage. The first was that we need to beware of being conformed to the world. The second is that we need to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. This is a famous passage, but does it mean? What is the difference between an unrenewed mind and a renewed one?

 

Verse two gives us the answer: A transformed mind is able to test and discern the will of God, the things that are good and acceptable and perfect. And that is the difference: An unrenewed mind frankly doesn’t care about discerning the will of God.

 

A renewed mind wants to learn what is good and acceptable and perfect. But an unrenewed mind wants to decide what is good and acceptable and perfect. A renewed mind wants God to tell us what is his will. But an unrenewed mind wants to tell God what is my will.

 

I think we see this distinction most clearly when we pray. Sometimes we send God our wish list, and then we get mad when he doesn’t do what we’ve asked him to. Then he humbles us, and we learn to pray, not my will but yours be done.

 

What we’re really talking about here: the real distinction between a conformed mind and a transformed one is the difference between living selfishly versus living for God and others. In Matthew 22 Jesus taught that the two greatest commandments are love God and love your neighbor. Living that way is very hard for us because in our untransformed minds the two greatest commandments go like this: 1) I am to love me, and 2) you are to love me too.

 

But think for a moment about what it would be like if our minds were transformed and renewed so that we could know God’s will and love him and our neighbor. What would our homes and workplaces look like if that was how we lived? How would our relationships with our spouses, children, and friends change?

 

It is obvious that a transformed, selfless, renewed mind creates more loving, joyful, peaceful lives than fallen, selfish minds that are conformed to the ways of our corrupt, broken world.

 

That leads us to the third and most important thing we need to learn from this passage, which is how we can be transformed by the renewing of our minds. In verse 1, St Paul says this whole new way of life begins with worshiping God.

 

When we worship God, we are restoring the right order of things in our lives. All our lives we have been saying to God: you are not the king, I am! But when we worship, we say the opposite: I am not the king, you are. Always remember that being transformed and renewed and living a loving, joyful, peaceful life begins with worship.

 

That is why Sunday worship should be a priority in our lives. That is why we should dive into God’s Word and prayer every day. Not because they are some magic ritual that somehow makes us feel better or makes our day better, but because living a transformed and renewed life always begins with worshiping the one true God. Throw away your idols — starting with yourself — and worship him.

 

And in verse 1 that is exactly how the Apostle Paul says we are to worship God: by presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God. Once we sacrifice ourselves to God as an act of worship, then we will be transformed by the renewing of our minds.

 

But wait a minute, you might be thinking. Wasn’t Jesus the sacrifice? Didn’t he die in our place, like the animals in the Old Testament? Isn’t Jesus the only acceptable sacrifice for sin?

 

That is true, but remember that there were different types of sacrifices in the Old Testament. The main sacrifice was the Sin Offering first mentioned in Lev 4. This is the animal that was killed in the place of the people as an image of how Jesus would die for our sins.

 

But there were other sacrifices too: the Burnt Offering of Lev 1, the Grain Offering of Lev 2, the Peace Offering of Lev 3, and others. These were all offered as a voluntary act of worship, to thank God for his goodness and provision. In the context of Romans, in which St Paul has already written about the work of Jesus on our behalf in the earlier chapters, I think it is clear that he is referring to these other sacrifices in this passage.

 

So Paul’s thinking goes like this: By the work of Jesus, God the Father has provided for our salvation and welcomed we who used to be rival kings into his own royal family. Now because of these mercies of God, offer yourselves as sacrifices to him. Give up your own will and seek to test and discern his will. Let go of your definitions of what is good and acceptable and perfect and live instead by his.

 

We must follow Jesus’s example and worship God by presenting ourselves as living sacrifices to God. Notice how verse 1 mentions the body and verse 2 mentions the mind. God is asking you to give up all of yourself. It seems so counter-intuitive to us, so unnatural, to give up ourselves. But it’s exactly what Jesus said in Mark 8.34-37:

 

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?

 

Let’s be clear about what this will mean. There will be many things we really want to do that we will not do. There will be just as many things that we don’t at all want to do that we will have to do. Offering our whole, entire selves as a living sacrifice is a difficult, life-long project.

 

To be perfectly honest, you are utterly incapable of doing it on your own. No matter how much you swim, you cannot grow gills and learn how to breathe underwater. But we have the God’s promise that he will be with us and that he will help us. And with God all things are possible — even growing gills.

 

In Philippians 2 Paul wrote, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” We are called to strive with fear and trembling, but God has promised to strive with us. We cannot be transformed and renewed without God’s help, but he has promised to help us.

 

And God has promised that it will be worth it. This passage is the apex, the mountain peak, of the Epistle to the Romans. If we look backward at the previous chapters, we see the glorious things that God has done to save us from ourselves. If we look forward at the coming chapters, we see the glorious things that God will do in us and through us as he teaches us to love him and our neighbors.

 

Let me finish with this: To some here today, the idea of self-sacrifice, the idea of giving up being king of my life and worshiping God, is downright nauseating. Maybe you are thinking to yourself, “Who would want to live like that? I’m not done being the captain of my ship.”

 

If that is your response to this passage, let me warn you as Paul did: You are in grave danger! Being conformed to the world’s pattern of self-worship can only end in brokenness. In the end you will destroy everything around you. Don’t do it; turn away from self-worship and worship God.

 

Others here today might receive this passage with joy, but they wonder how all this works in real life. How can I live selflessly, worship God, and love my neighbor? As I said at the beginning, we will spend the next couple months answering that very question. As we look at Romans chs 12-16, it will become clearer how the faith that St Paul wrote about in Romans chs 1-11 expresses itself in love.

 

Everything that comes later will be built on the three ideas we read about today: 1) do not be conformed to the world, 2) but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you can test and discern the will of God. And 3) all of that begins with worshiping him by offering ourselves as living sacrifices.
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