A living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.
I am convinced that anyone who brings up the question of consequences in the Christian life is only a mediocre and common Christian!
I have known some who were interested in the deeper life but began asking questions: “What will it cost me—in terms of time, in money, in effort, in the matter of my friendships?” Others ask of the Lord when He calls them to move forward: “Will it be safe?” This question comes out of our constant bleating about security and our everlasting desire for safety above all else.
A third question that we want Him to answer is: “Will it be convenient?”
What must our Lord think of us if His work and His witness depend upon the security and the safety and the convenience of His people? No element of sacrifice, no bother, no disturbance—so we are not getting anywhere with God!
We have stopped and pitched our tent halfway between the swamp and the peak. We are mediocre Christians.
Lord, I pray for Christians in other countries who face persecution as a routine event. Protect and strengthen them, Father. May many come to know Christ as a result of the testimony of believers who remain faithful to You.
The Body Must Be Given to God
to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. (12:1b)
The second and consequent element of presenting ourselves to God is that of offering Him our bodies. After it is implied that believers have given their souls to God through faith in Jesus Christ, they are specifically called to present their bodies to Him as a living and holy sacrifice.
In the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament), paristēmi (to present) was often used as a technical term for a priest’s placing an offering on the altar. It therefore carried the general idea of surrendering or yielding up. As members of God’s present “holy priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:5), Christians are here exhorted to perform what is essentially a priestly act of worship. Because the verb is in the imperative, the exhortation carries the weight of a command.
The first thing we are commanded to present to God is our bodies. Because our souls belong to God through salvation, He already has the inner man. But He also wants the outer man, in which the inner man dwells.
Our bodies, however, are more than physical shells that house our souls. They are also where our old, unredeemed humanness resides. In fact, our humanness is a part of our bodies, whereas our souls are not. Our bodies incorporate our humanness, our humanness incorporates our flesh, and our flesh incorporates our sin, as Romans 6 and 7 so clearly explain.
Our bodies therefore encompass not only our physical being but also the evil longings of our mind, emotions, and will. “For while we were in the flesh,” Paul informs us, “the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death” (Rom 7:5). Long after he was saved, however, the apostle confessed, “For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind, and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members” (Rom. 7:22–23). In other words, the redeemed soul must reside in a body of flesh that is still the beachhead of sin, a place that can readily be given to unholy thoughts and longings. It is that powerful force within our “mortal bodies” that tempts and lures us to do evil. When they succumb to the impulses of the fleshly mind, our “mortal bodies” again become instruments of sin and unrighteousness.
It is a fearful thing to consider that, if we allow them to, our fallen and unredeemed bodies are still able to thwart the impulses of our redeemed and eternal souls. The body is still the center of sinful desires, emotional depression, and spiritual doubts. Paul gives insight into that sobering reality when he said, “I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:27). In order to maintain a holy life and testimony and to minister effectively, even the great apostle had to exert himself strongly and continually in order to control the human and sinful part of himself that persistently wanted to rule and corrupt his life and his work for the Lord. In Romans 8, we learned that he had to kill the flesh. Paul also said that God had given him a “thorn,” or a stake, on which to impale his otherwise proud flesh (2 Cor. 12:7).
It is helpful to understand that dualistic Greek philosophy still dominated the Roman world in New Testament times. This pagan ideology considered the spirit, or soul, to be inherently good and the body to be inherently evil. And because the body was deemed worthless and would eventually die anyway, what was done to it or with it did not matter. For obvious reasons, that view opened the door to every sort of immorality. Tragically, many believers in the early church, who have many counterparts in the church today, found it easy to fall back into the immoral practices of their former lives, justifying their sin by the false and heretical idea that what the body did could not harm the soul and had no spiritual or eternal significance. Much as in our own day, because immorality was so pervasive, many Christians who did not themselves lead immoral lives became tolerant of sin in fellow believers, thinking it merely was the flesh doing what it naturally did, completely apart from the soul’s influence or responsibility.
Yet Paul clearly taught that the body can be controlled by the redeemed soul. He told the sinful Corinthians that the body is not for immorality, but for the Lord; and the Lord is for the body” (1 Cor. 6:11–13).
Scripture makes clear that God created the body as good (Genesis), and that, despite their continuing corruption by sin, the bodies of redeemed souls will also one day be redeemed and sanctified. Even now, our unredeemed bodies can and should be made slaves to the power of our redeemed souls.
As with our souls, the Lord created our bodies for Himself, and, in this life, He cannot work through us without in some way working through our bodies. If we speak for Him, it must be through our mouths. If we read His Word, it must be with our eyes (or hands for those who are blind). If we hear His Word it must be through our ears. If we go to do His work, we must use our feet, and if we help others in His name, it must be with our hands. And if we think for Him, it must be with our minds, which now reside in our bodies. There can be no sanctification, no holy living, apart from our bodies. That is why Paul prayed, “May the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5:23).
It is because our bodies are yet unredeemed that they must be yielded continually to the Lord. It was also for that reason that Paul warned, “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts” (Rom. 6:12). Paul then gave a positive admonition similar to the one found in our text (12:1), preceded by its negative counterpart: “Do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God” (Rom. 6:13). Under God’s control, our unredeemed bodies can and should become instruments of righteousness.
Paul rhetorically asked the believers at Corinth, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?” (1 Cor. 6:19). In other words, our unredeemed bodies are temporarily the home of God! It is because our bodies are still mortal and sinful that, “having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body” (Rom. 8:23). Our spiritual “citizenship is in heaven,” Paul explained to the Philippians, “from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself” (Phil. 3:20–21).
We cannot prevent the remnants of sin from persisting in our mortal bodies. But we are able, with the Lord’s power, to keep that sin from ruling our bodies. Since we are given a new, Spirit-indwelt nature through Christ, sin cannot reign in our souls. And it should not reign in our bodies (Rom. 8:11). Sin will not reign “if by the Spirit [we] are putting to death the deeds of the body” (Rom. 8:13; cf. 6:16). (For a complete discussion of Romans 6–8, see the Romans 1–8 volume in this commentary series.)
Paul admonishes us, by God’s mercies, to offer our imperfect but useful bodies to the Lord as a living and holy sacrifice. As noted above, Paul uses the language of the Old Testament ritual offerings in the Tabernacle and Temple, the language of the Levitical priesthood. According to the Law, a Jew would bring his offering of an animal to the priest, who would take it, slay it, and place it on the altar in behalf of the person who brought it.
But the sacrifices required by the Law are no longer of any effect, not even symbolic effect, because, “When Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:11–12).
Sacrifices of dead animals are no longer acceptable to God. Because the Lamb of God was sacrificed in their place, the redeemed of the Lord are now to offer themselves, all that they are and have, as living sacrifices. The only acceptable worship under the New Covenant is the offering of oneself to God.
From the very beginning, God’s first and most important requirement for acceptable worship has been a faithful and obedient heart. It was because of his faith, not because of his material offering, that “Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain” (Heb. 11:4). It is because God’s first desire is for a faithful and obedient heart that Samuel rebuked King Saul for not completely destroying the Amalekites and their animals and for allowing the Israelites to sacrifice some of those animals to the Lord at Gilgal. The prophet said, “Has the Lord as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams” (1 Sam. 15:22).
David, Saul’s successor to the throne, understood that truth. When confronted by the prophet Nathan concerning his adultery with Bathsheba, David did not offer an animal sacrifice but rather confessed, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise” (Ps. 51:17). David offered God his repentant heart as a living sacrifice—apart from outward, visible ceremony—and he was forgiven (2 Sam. 12:13).
A helpful illustration of the difference between a dead and a living sacrifice is the story of Abraham and Isaac. Isaac was the son of promise, the only heir through whom God’s covenant with Abraham could be fulfilled. He was miraculously conceived after Sarah, Abraham’s wife, was far past childbearing age. It could only be from Isaac that God’s chosen nation, whose citizens would be as numberless as the stars in the sky and the grains of sand on the seashore (Gen. 15:5; 22:17), could descend. But when Isaac was a young man, probably in his late teens, God commanded Abraham, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you” (Gen. 22:2). Without question or hesitation, Abraham immediately began to obey. After reaching Moriah and having tied Isaac to the altar, Abraham was ready to plunge the knife into his beloved son’s heart.
Had he carried out that sacrifice, Isaac would have been a dead offering, just like the sheep and rams that later would be offered on the Temple altar by the priests of Israel. Abraham would have been a living sacrifice, as it were, saying to God in effect, “I will obey you even if it means that I will live without my son, without my heir, without the hope of your covenant promise being fulfilled.” But Isaac, the son of promise,would have been a dead sacrifice.
Hebrews 11:19 makes clear that Abraham was willing to slay Isaac because he was certain that God could raise him from the dead if necessary to keep His promise. Abraham was willing to commit absolutely everything to God and to trust Him, no matter how great the demand and how devastating the sacrifice, because God would be faithful.
God did not require either father or son to carry out the intended sacrifice. Both men already had offered the real sacrifice that God wanted—their willingness to give to Him everything they held dear.
The living sacrifice we are to offer to the Lord who died for us is the willingness to surrender to Him all our hopes, plans, and everything that is precious to us, all that is humanly important to us, all that we find fulfilling. Like Paul, we should in that sense “die daily” (1 Cor. 15:31), because for us “to live is Christ” (Phil. 1:21). For the sake of his Lord and for the sake of those to whom he ministered, the apostle later testified, “Even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all” (Phil. 2:17).
Because Jesus Christ has already made the only dead sacrifice the New Covenant requires—the only sacrifice that has power to save men from eternal death—all that remains for worshipers today is the presentation of themselves as living sacrifices.
The story is told of a Chinese Christian who was moved with compassion when many of his countrymen were taken to work as coolies in South African mines. In order to be able to witness to his fellow Chinese, this prominent man sold himself to the mining company to work as a coolie for five years. He died there, still a slave, but not until he had won more than 200 men to Christ. He was a living sacrifice in the fullest sense.
In the mid-seventeenth century, a somewhat well-known Englishman was captured by Algerian pirates and made a slave. While a slave, he founded a church. When his brother arranged his release, he refused freedom, having vowed to remain a slave until he died in order to continue serving the church he had founded. Today a plaque in an Algerian church bears his name.
David Livingstone, the renowned and noble missionary to Africa, wrote in his journal,
People talk of the sacrifice I have made in spending so much of my life in Africa. Can that be called sacrifice which is simply paid back as a small part of the great debt owing to our God, which we can never repay? Is that a sacrifice which brings its own reward of healthful activity, the consciousness of doing good, peace of mind, and bright hope of a glorious destiny hereafter?
… Away with such a word, such a view, and such a thought! It is emphatically no sacrifice. Say rather it is a privilege. Anxiety, sickness, suffering or danger now and then, with a foregoing of the common conveniences and charities of this life, may make us pause and cause the spirit to waver and sink; but let this only be for a moment. All these are nothing when compared with the glory which shall hereafter be revealed in and for us. I never made a sacrifice. Of this we ought not talk when we remember the great sacrifice which He made who left His Father’s throne on high to give Himself for us. (Livingstone’s Private Journal: 1851–53, ed.. I. Schapera [London: Chatto & Windus, 1960], pp. 108, 132)
Like Livingstone, Christians who offer a living sacrifice of themselves usually do not consider it to be a sacrifice. And it is not a sacrifice in the common sense of losing something valuable. The only things we entirely give up for God—to be removed and destroyed—are sin and sinful things, which only bring us injury and death. But when we offer God the living sacrifice of ourselves, He does not destroy what we give Him but refines it and purifies it, not only for His glory but for our present and eternal good.
Our living sacrifice also is to be holy. Hagios (holy) has the literal sense of being set apart for a special purpose. In secular and pagan Greek society the word carried no idea of moral or spiritual purity. The manmade gods were as sinful and degraded as the men who made them, and there simply was no need for a word that represented righteousness. Like the Hebrew scholars who translated the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint), Christianity sanctified the term, using it to describe God, godly people, and godly things.
Under the Old Covenant, a sacrificial animal was to be without spot or blemish. That physical purity symbolized the spiritual and moral purity that God required of the offerer himself. Like that worshiper who was to come to God with “clean hands and a pure heart” (Ps. 24:4), the offering of a Christian’s body not only should be a living but also a holy sacrifice.
Through Malachi, the Lord rebuked those who sacrificed animals that were blind and otherwise impaired. “When you present the blind for sacrifice, is it not evil? And when you present the lame and sick, is it not evil? Why not offer it to your governor? Would he be pleased with you? Or would he receive you kindly?” (Mal. 1:8). Those people were willing to give a second-rate offering to the Lord that they would not think of presenting as a gift or tax payment to a government official. They feared men more than God.
Although we have been counted righteous and are being made righteous because of salvation in Jesus Christ, we are not yet perfected in righteousness. It is therefore the Lord’s purpose for His church to “sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she should be holy and blameless” (Eph. 5:25–27). That was also Paul’s purpose for those to whom he ministered. “I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy,” he told the Corinthian Christians; “for I betrothed you to one husband, that to Christ I might present you as a pure virgin” (2 Cor. 11:2).
Sadly, like those in Malachi’s day, many people today are perfectly willing to give God second best, the leftovers that mean little to them—and mean even less to Him.
Only a living and holy sacrifice, the giving of ourselves and the giving of our best, is acceptable to God. Only in that way can we give Him our spiritual service of worship.
Logikos (spiritual) is the term from which we get logic and logical. Our offerings to God are certainly to be spiritual, but that is not what Paul is speaking about at this point. Logikos also can be translated reasonable, as in the King James Version. The apostle is saying that, in light of “the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God” and of His “unsearchable… judgments and unfathomable…ways”; and because “from Him and through Him and to Him are all things” (Rom. 11:33, 36), including His immeasurable “mercies” that we already have received (12:1a), our only reasonable—and by implication, spiritual—service of worship is to present God with all that we are and all that we have.
Service of worship translates the single Greek word latreia, which refers to service of any kind, the context giving it the added meaning of worship. Like paristēmi and hagios (mentioned above), latreia was used in the Greek Old Testament to speak of worshiping God according to the prescribed Levitical ceremonies, and it became part of the priestly, sacrificial language. The priestly service was an integral part of Old Testament worship. The writer of Hebrews uses latreia to describe the “divine worship” (9:6 NASB), or “service of God” (KJV), per-formed by Old Testament priests.
True worship does not consist of elaborate and impressive prayers, intricate liturgy, stained-glass windows, lighted candles, flowing robes, incense, and classical sacred music. It does not require great talent, skill, or leadership ability. Many of those things can be a part of the outward forms of genuine worship, but they are acceptable to God only if the heart and mind of the worshiper is focused on Him. The only spiritual service of worship that honors and pleases God is the sincere, loving, thoughtful, and heartfelt devotion and praise of His children.
During a conference in which I was preaching on the difference between true and false believers, a man came to me with tears running down his cheeks, lamenting, “I believe I’m a sham Christian.” I replied, “Let me ask you something. What is the deepest desire of your heart? What weighs heaviest on your heart? What occupies your mind and thoughts more than anything else?” He answered, “My greatest desire is to give all I am and have to Jesus Christ.” I said, “Friend, that is not the desire of a sham Christian. That is the Spirit-prompted desire of a redeemed soul to become a living sacrifice.”
Dying, We Live
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.
I do not like the word paradox used in reference to Christian teachings, because to most people the word refers to something that is self-contradictory or false. Christianity is not false. But the dictionary also defines paradox as a statement that seems to be contradictory yet may be true in fact, and in that sense there are paradoxes in Christianity. The most obvious is the doctrine of the Trinity. We speak of one God, but we also say that God exists in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. We know the doctrine of the Trinity is true because God has revealed it to be true, but we are foolish if we think we can understand or explain it fully.
One of the great paradoxes of Christianity concerns the Christian life: We must die in order to live. We find this teaching many places in the Bible, particularly in the New Testament, but the basic, foundational statement is by Jesus, who said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it” (Luke 9:23–24).
It was these words that inspired this well-known prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi:
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much
Seek to be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love.
For it is by giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
And it is by dying that we are born to eternal life.
I would not vouch for the theology implied in each of those impassioned sentences, but as a statement of principles governing the Christian life they are helpful.
More important, they are an expression of what Paul sets down at the start of Romans 12 as a first principle for learning to live the Christian life—self-sacrifice. “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.” In Paul’s culture a sacrifice was always an animal that was presented to a priest to be killed. So Paul is saying by this striking metaphor that the Christian life begins by offering ourselves to God for death. The paradox is that by offering ourselves to God we are enabled to live for him.
Therefore, it is by dying that we are enabled to live, period. For as Jesus said, trying to live, if it is living for ourselves, is actually death, while dying to self is actually the way to full living. What should we call this paradox? I call it “life-by-dying” or, as I have titled this study, “Dying, We Live.”
Bought at a Price
This principle is so foundational to the doctrine of the Christian life that we must be very careful to lay it out correctly. After that we will go on to look at (1) the specific nature of this sacrifice, that it is an offering of our bodies presented to God as something holy and pleasing to him and (2) the specific motive for this sacrifice—why we should make it.
The first truth of this foundational teaching is that we are not our own but rather belong to Jesus, if we are truly Christians. Here is the way Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price” (1 Cor. 6:19–20). Again, just a chapter later, he says: “You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men” (1 Cor. 7:23). Then, if we ask what that price is, well, the apostle Peter tells us in his first letter: “You know that it was not with perishable things such as silver and gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect” (1 Peter 1:18–19).
In that passage Peter uses the important word redemption, which means to buy back or to be bought again. It is one of the key words for describing what the Lord Jesus Christ accomplished for us by his death on the cross.
Since redemption refers to buying something or someone, the image is of a slave market in which we who are sinners are being offered to whomever will bid the highest price for us. The world is ready to bid, of course, particularly if we are attractive or in some other way seen as valuable. The world bids the world’s currency.
It bids fame. Some people sell their souls to be famous; they will do almost anything to become well-known.
It bids wealth. Millions think that making money is the most important thing any person can do; they think that money will buy anything.
It bids power. Masses of people are on a power trip. They will wheel and deal and cheat and even trample on others to get to the top of the pyramid. It bids sex. Many have lost nearly everything of value in life for just a moment’s indulgence.
But into the midst of this vast marketplace Jesus comes, and the price he bids to rescue enslaved sinners is his blood. He offers to die for them. God, who controls this auction, says, “Sold to the Lord Jesus Christ for the price of his blood.” As a result we become Jesus’ purchased possession and must live for him rather than ourselves, as Paul and Peter indicate.
The great preacher and biblical theologian John Calvin said rightly and precisely, “We are redeemed by the Lord for the purpose of consecrating ourselves and all our members to him.”
We need to remember that we are in the application section of Romans. Redemption was introduced earlier in the book, in chapter 3 (v. 24). So what we are finding here is an example of the truth that doctrine is practical and that practical material must be doctrinal if it is to be of any help at all. We are dealing with the practical question of “How should we then live?” But the very first thing to be said to explain how we should live is the meaning and implication of redemption. In other words, we cannot have true Christian living without the gospel.
Death to Our Past
Redemption from sin by Christ is not the only doctrine the Christian life of self-sacrifice is built on, however. A second truth is that we have died to the past by becoming new creatures in Christ, if we are truly converted. We studied this teaching in Romans 6, where Paul argued that because we have “died to sin” we are unable to “live in it any longer” (v. 2). Therefore, instead of offering the parts of our bodies “to sin, as instruments of wickedness,” as we used to do, we must instead offer ourselves “to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and … the parts of [our] bodies to him as instruments of righteousness” (Rom. 6:13).
When we studied this passage earlier I pointed out that it does not mean that we have become unresponsive to sin or that we should die to it or that we are dying to it day by day or that we have died to sin’s guilt. The verb die is an aorist, which refers to something that has been done once for all. Here it refers to the change that has come about as a result of our being saved. “We died to sin” means that as a result of our union with Jesus Christ by the work of the Holy Spirit we have become new creatures in Christ so that we can never go back to being what we were. We are to start the Christian life with that knowledge. If we cannot go back, then we must go forward.
Let me review this teaching by summarizing what I wrote in my study of Romans 6:11 in volume 2. Dying to sin does not mean:
- That it is my duty to die to sin.
- That I am commanded to die to sin.
- That I am to consider sin as a dead force within me.
- That I am dead to sin so long as I am gaining mastery over it.
- That sin in me has been eradicated.
- That counting myself dead to sin makes me insensitive to it.
What Paul is saying is that we have already died to sin in the sense that we cannot successfully return to our old lives. Therefore, since that is true, we might as well get on with the task of living for the Lord Jesus Christ. We need to forget about sinning and instead present our bodies as “living sacrifices” to God.
Dying to Live
The third foundational teaching for what it means to live by dying is the paradox itself, namely that it is by dying to our own desires in order to serve Christ that we actually learn to live.
It is not difficult to understand what this means. We understand only too well that dying to self means putting personal desires behind us in order to put the desires of God for us and the needs of other people first. We understand the promise too! If we do this, we will experience a full and rewarding life. We will be happy Christians. The problem is not with our understanding. The problem is that we do not believe it, or at least not in regard to ourselves. We think that if we deny ourselves, we will be miserable. Yet this is nothing less than disbelieving God. It is a failure of faith.
So I ask, Who are you willing to believe? Yourself, as reinforced by the world and its way of thinking? Or Jesus Christ?
I say Jesus specifically because I want to remind you of his teaching from the Sermon on the Mount. He speaks there about how to be happy. Indeed, the word is even stronger than that. It is the powerful word blessed, meaning to be favored by God:
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
We call these statements the Beatitudes, which means the way to happiness or blessing. But this is not the way the world thinks one finds happiness. If a director of one of today’s popular television sitcoms or the editor of a widely circulating fashion magazine were to rewrite the Beatitudes from a contemporary point of view, I suppose they would go like this: “Blessed are the rich, for they can have all they want; blessed are the powerful, for they can control others; blessed are the sexually liberated, for they can fully satisfy themselves; blessed are the famous, because they are envied.” Isn’t that the world’s way, the way even Christians sometimes try to go, rather than the way of sacrifice?
But think it through carefully. The world promises blessings for those who follow these standards. But is this what they find? Do they actually find happiness?
Take for example a person who thinks that the way to happiness is wealth. He sets his heart on earning one hundred thousand dollars. He gets it, but he is not happy. He raises his goal to two hundred thousand dollars. When he gets that he tries to accumulate a million dollars, but still he is not happy. John D. Rockefeller, one of the richest men in the world in his day, was asked on one occasion, “How much money is enough?”
He was honest enough to answer wryly, “Just a little bit more.”
A Texas millionaire once said, “I thought money could buy happiness. I have been miserably disillusioned.”
Another person thinks that he will find happiness through power, so he goes into politics, where he thinks power lies. He runs in a local election and wins. After that he sets his sight on a congressional seat, then on a place in the Senate. If he is talented enough and the circumstances are favorable, he wants to be president. But power never satisfies. One of the world’s great statesmen once told Billy Graham, “I am an old man. Life has lost all meaning. I am ready to take a fateful leap into the unknown.”
Still another person tries the path of sexual liberation. She launches into the swinging singles scene, where the average week consists of “happy hours,” Friday night parties, weekend overnight escapes into the country, and a rapid exchange of partners. But it does not work. Several years ago CBS did a television documentary on the swinging singles lifestyle in southern California, interviewing about half a dozen women who all said essentially the same thing: “We were told that this was the fun way to live, but all the men want to do is get in bed with you. We have had enough of that to last a lifetime.”
Does the world’s “me first” philosophy lead to happiness? Is personal indulgence the answer? You do not have to be a genius to see through that facade. It is an empty promise. Paul calls it “a lie” (Rom. 1:25).
So wake up, Christian. And listen to Paul when he pleads, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Rom. 12:1–2).
God does not lie. His word is utterly reliable. You will find his way to be “good, pleasing, and perfect” if you will bend to it.
The Victim and the Priest
That brings us to the fourth and final foundational truth. The first two concerned what God has done for us in redeeming us and joining us to Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit so that we become new creatures. The third point was the apparent paradox: life by dying. This last point is an urgent appeal for us to offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God. This is not done for us. It is something we must do.
This is the “obedience that comes from faith” that Paul wrote about early in the letter, saying, “Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith” (Rom. 1:5). So again we are back to one of the great doctrinal teachings.
What an interesting mental picture Paul creates for us in Romans 12:1. A sacrifice is something offered to God by a priest. A priest would take a sacrifice offered by a worshiper, carry it to the altar, kill it, pour out the blood, and then burn the victim’s body. In that procedure the priest and the offering were two separate entities. But in this arresting image of what it is to live a genuinely Christian life, Paul shows that the priest and the offering are the same. Furthermore, we are the priests who present the offering, and the offerings we present are our own bodies.
Is there a model for this in Scripture? Of course. It is the model of Jesus himself, for he was both the sacrifice and the priest who made the sacrifice. We have a statement of this in one of our great communion hymns, translated from a sixth-century Latin text by the Scotsman Robert Campbell in 1849:
At the Lamb’s high feast we sing
Praise to our victorious King,
Who hath washed us in the tide
Flowing from his pierced side;
Praise we him whose love divine
Gives his sacred blood for wine,
Gives his body for the feast,
Christ the Victim, Christ the Priest.
Yes, there is an enormous difference between the sacrifice Jesus made for us and our own sacrifices of ourselves. Jesus’ sacrifice was an atoning sacrifice. He died in our place, bearing the punishment of God for our sin so that we might not have to bear it. His death was substitutionary. Our sacrifices are not at all like that. They are not an atonement for sin in any sense. Still, they are like Christ’s sacrifice in that we are the ones who make them and that the sacrifices we offer are ourselves.
Another distinction is that in the Old Testament the priests made different kinds of sacrifices. There were sacrifices for sin, of course; they looked forward to the death of Jesus Christ and explained it as a substitutionary atonement. These were fulfilled by Jesus’ death and are not repeatable. In this sense “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all,” as the author of Hebrews says (Heb. 10:10). But in addition to the sacrifices for sin there were also sacrifices of thanksgiving, offerings by worshipers who simply wanted to thank God for some great blessing or deliverance. It is this kind of a sacrifice that we offer when we offer God ourselves.
Sacrifice is an utterly unpleasant word in our day! No one wants to be a sacrifice. In fact, people do not want to sacrifice even a single little thing. We want to acquire things instead. Nevertheless, this is where the Christian life starts. It is God’s instruction and desire for us, and it is “good, pleasing and perfect” even if it does not seem to be.
Will you trust God that he knows what he is doing? Will you believe him in this as in other matters? If you will believe him, you will do exactly what Paul urges you to do in Romans 12. You will offer your body as a “living sacrifice” to God and thereby prove that his will for you is indeed perfect.
Living Sacrifice: Its Nature
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.
Not long ago I reread parts of CharlesDickens’s wonderful historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities. The cities are Paris and London, of course, and the story is set in the years of the French Revolution when thousands of innocent people were being executed on the guillotine by followers of the revolution. As usual with Dickens’s stories, the plot is complex, but it reaches a never-to-be-forgotten climax when Sydney Carton, the disreputable character in the story, substitutes himself for his friend Charles Darney, who is being held for execution in the Bastille prison. Darney, who has been condemned to die, goes free, and Carton goes to the scaffold for him, saying, “It is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest I go to, than I have ever known.” The tale is so well written that it still moves me to tears every time I read it.
Few things move us to hushed awe so much as a person’s sacrifice of his or her life for someone else. It is the ultimate proof of true love.
We are to sacrifice ourselves for Jesus if we love him. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13), and he did it for us. The sacrifice of Sydney Carton for his friend Darney is only a story, albeit a moving one, but Jesus actually died on the cross for our salvation. Now, because he loved us and gave himself for us, we who love him are likewise to give ourselves to him as “living sacrifices.”
But there is a tremendous difference. As I said in the last study, Jesus died in our place, bearing the punishment of God for our sin so that we would not have to bear it. Our sacrifices are not at all like that. They are not an atonement for sin in any sense. But they are like Christ’s in this at least, that we are the ones who make them and that the sacrifices we make are ourselves. It is what Paul is talking about in Romans 12 when he writes, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship” (Rom. 12:1).
I introduced the matter of sacrifice in the last chapter. In this study I want to explore what exactly is meant by sacrifice, and how we are to do it.
The first point is the obvious one: The sacrifice is to be a living sacrifice rather than a dead one. This was quite a novel idea in Paul’s day, when sacrifices were always killed. The animal was brought to the priest. The sins of the person bringing the sacrifice were confessed over the animal, thereby transferring them to it symbolically. Then the animal was put to death. It was a vivid way of reminding everyone that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23) and that the salvation of sinners is by substitution. In these sacrifices the animal died in place of the worshiper. It died so that he or she might not have to die. But now, with a burst of divinely inspired creativity, Paul reveals that the sacrifices we are to offer are not to be dead but rather living. We are to offer our lives to God so that, as a result, we might “no longer live for [ourselves] but for him who died for [us] and was raised again” (2 Cor. 5:15).
We are to be living sacrifices, yes. But with what life? Certainly not our old sinful lives in which, when we lived in them, we were dead already. Rather, we are to offer our new spiritual lives that have been given to us by Christ.
Robert Smith Candlish was a Scottish pastor who lived over a hundred years ago (1806–73) and who left us some marvelous studies of the Bible. In his study of Romans 12, he reflects on the nature of the life we are to offer God. “What life?” he asks. “Not merely animal life, the life that is common to all sentient and moving creatures; not merely, in addition to that, intelligent life, the life that characterizes all beings capable of thought and voluntary choice; but spiritual life: life in the highest sense; the very life which those on whose behalf the sacrifice of atonement is presented lost, when they fell into that state which makes a sacrifice of atonement necessary.”
What this means, among other things, is that we must be Christians if we are to give ourselves to God as he requires. Other people may give God their money or time or even take up a religious vocation, but only a Christian can give back to God that new spiritual life in Christ that he has first been given. Indeed, it is only because we have been made alive in Christ that we are able to do this or even want to.
Offering Our Bodies
The second thing we need to see about the nature of the sacrifice God requires is that it involves the giving to God of our bodies. Some of the earlier commentators stress that offering our bodies really means offering ourselves, all we are. Calvin wrote, “By bodies he means not only our skin and bones, but the totality of which we are composed.” But although it is true that we are to offer God all we are, most commentators today rightly refuse to pass over the word bodies quite this easily because they recognize how much the Bible stresses the importance of our bodies.
For example, Leon Morris says, “Paul surely expected Christians to offer to God not only their bodies but their whole selves.… But we should bear in mind that the body is very important in the Christian understanding of things. Our bodies may be ‘implements of righteousness’ (6:13) and ‘members of Christ’ (1 Cor. 6:15). The body is a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19); Paul can speak of being ‘holy both in body and in spirit’ (1 Cor. 7:34). He knows that there are possibilities of evil in the body but that in the believer ‘the body of sin’ has been brought to nothing (6:6).”
In a similar manner, Robert Haldane says, “It is of the body that the apostle here speaks, and it is not proper to extract out of his language more than it contains.… This shows the importance of serving God with the body as well as with the soul.”
Paul does not elaborate upon what he means by presenting our bodies to God as living sacrifices in Romans 12, but has already presented this idea in chapter 6. There he said, “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace” (vv. 12–14). Paul is making the same point there, where he first begins to talk about sanctification, that he makes in 12:1—we are to serve God by offering him our bodies.
Sin can control us through our bodies, but it does not need to. So rather than offering our bodies as instruments of sin, we are to offer God our bodies as instruments for doing his will. This concerns specific body parts.
- Our minds. Although we often think of our minds as separate from our bodies, our minds actually are parts of our bodies and the victory we need to achieve begins here. I will not dwell on this here because I will be treating it more fully later when I talk about mind renewal. But I remind you that this is the point at which Paul himself begins in verse 2: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
Have you ever considered that what you do with your mind will determine a great deal of what you will become as a Christian? If you fill your mind only with the products of our secular culture, you will remain secular and sinful. If you fill your head with trashy novels, you will begin to live like the characters you read about. If you do nothing but watch television, you will begin to act like the scoundrels on television. On the other hand, if you feed your mind on the Bible and Christian books, train it by godly conversation, and discipline it to critique what you see and hear by applying biblical truths to the world’s ideas, you will grow in godliness and become increasingly useful to God.
When I wrote on this subject in my earlier study of Romans 6:12–14, I set out a simple goal in this area: “For every secular book you read, make it your goal also to read one good Christian book, a book that can stretch your mind spiritually.”
- Our eyes and ears. The mind is not the only part of our body by which we receive impressions and that must therefore be offered to God as an instrument of righteousness. We also receive impressions through our eyes and ears, and these must be surrendered to God too.
Sociologists tell us that by the age of twenty-one the average young person has been bombarded by three hundred thousand commercial messages, all arguing from the assumption that personal gratification is the dominant goal in life. Television and other modern means of communication put the acquisition of things before godliness; in fact, they never mention godliness at all. How are you going to grow in godliness if you are constantly watching television or reading printed ads or listening to secular radio?
I am not advocating an evangelical monasticism in which we retreat from the culture, though it is far better to retreat from it than perish in it. But somehow the secular input must be counterbalanced by the spiritual. As I wrote earlier, “Another simple goal might be for you to spend as many hours studying your Bible, praying, and going to church as watching television.”
- Our tongues. The tongue is also part of our body, and what we do with it is important either for good or evil. James, the Lord’s brother, wrote, “The tongue is … a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (James 3:5–6). If your tongue is not given to God as an instrument of righteousness in his hands, this will be true of you. You do not need to be a Hitler and plunge the world into armed conflict to do evil with your tongue. A little bit of gossip or slander will suffice.
What you need to do is use your tongue to praise and serve God. For one thing, you should learn how to recite Scripture with it. You probably know the popular songs. Can you not also use your tongue to speak God’s words? And how about worship? You should use your tongue to praise God by means of hymns and other Christian songs. Above all, you should use your tongue to witness to others about the person and work of Christ.
Here is another goal for you if you want to grow in godliness: Use your tongue as much to tell others about Jesus as for idle conversation.
- Our hands and feet. There are several important passages about our hands and feet. In 1 Thessalonians 4:11–12, Paul tells us to work with our hands so that we will be self-supporting and not dependent on anybody: “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.” In Ephesians 4:28 he tells us to work so that we will have something to give to others who are in need: “He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.”
As far as our feet are concerned, in Romans 10 Paul writes of the need others have for the gospel, saying, “How can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’ ” (Rom. 10:14–15).
What do you do with your hands? And where do your feet take you? Do you allow them to take you to where Christ is denied or blasphemed? To where sin is openly practiced? Are you spending most of your free time loitering in the hot singles clubs? You will not grow in godliness there. On the contrary, you will fall from righteous conduct. Let your feet carry you into the company of those who love and serve God. Or, if you go into the world, let it be to serve the world and witness to it in Christ’s name. Use your feet and hands for him.
Here is another goal taken from the earlier study: “For every special secular function you attend, determine to attend a Christian function also. And when you attend a secular function, do so as a witness by word and action for the Lord Jesus Christ.”
The third word Paul uses to indicate the nature of the sacrifices we are to offer God is holy. Any sacrifice must be holy, without spot or blemish and consecrated entirely to God. Anything less is an insult to the great and holy God we serve. How much more must we be holy who have been purchased “not with perishable things such as silver or gold … but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:18–19). Peter wrote, “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy’ ” (1 Peter 1:15–16). The author of Hebrews said, “Without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).
This is the very heart of what we are talking about when we speak of living sacrifices: Holiness is the end of the matter, the point to which the entire Epistle of Romans has been heading. Romans is about salvation. But as someone wise has noted, salvation does not mean that Jesus died to save us in our sins but to save us from them.
Handley C. G. Moule expressed this well: “As we actually approach the rules of holiness now before us, let us once more recollect what we have seen all along in the Epistle, that holiness is the aim and issue of the entire Gospel. It is indeed an ‘evidence of life,’ infinitely weighty in the enquiry whether a man knows God indeed and is on the way to his heaven. But it is much more; it is the expression of life; it is the form and action in which life is intended to come out.… We who believe are ‘chosen’ and ‘ordained’ to ‘bring forth fruit’ (John 15:16), fruit much and lasting.”
I don’t think any subject is more generally neglected among evangelicals in America in our day than holiness. Yet there was a time when holiness was a serious pursuit of anyone who called himself or herself a Christian, and how one lived and who one was inside was important.
England’s J. I. Packer has written a book called Rediscovering Holiness in which he calls attention to this fact: “The Puritans insisted that all life and relationships must become ‘holiness to the Lord.’ John Wesley told the world that God had raised up methodism ‘to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land.’ Phoebe Palmer, Handley Moule, Andrew Murray, Jessie Penn-Lewis, F. B. Meyer, Oswald Chambers, Horatius Bonar, Amy Carmichael, and L. B. Maxwell are only a few of the leading figures in the ‘holiness revival’ that touched all evangelical Christendom between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries.”
But today? Today holiness is largely forgotten as being important for Christians. We do not try to be holy, and we hardly know what holiness means. And we do not look for holiness in others. The great parish minister and revival preacher Robert Murray McCheyne once said, “My people’s greatest need is my personal holiness.” But pulpit committees hardly look for holiness in a new pastor today. They look for a winsome personality, communication skills, administrative ability, and other such things.
As for ourselves, we do not seek out books or tapes on holiness or attend seminars designed to draw us closer to God. We want seminars entitled “How to Be Happy,” “How to Raise Children,” “How to Have a Good Sex Life,” “How to Succeed in Business,” and so on.
Fortunately, this lack has begun to be noticed by some evangelical leaders who are disturbed by it and have begun to address the subject. I commend Packer’s book, as well as a book written several years ago by Jerry Bridges called The Pursuit of Holiness. There is also the older classic by the English Bishop John Charles Ryle by the same title.
Pleasing to God
The final word Paul uses to describe how we should present our bodies to God as living sacrifices is pleasing. If we do what Paul has urged us to do—offer our “bodies as living sacrifices, holy … to God”—then we will also find that what we have done is pleasing and acceptable to him.
That is an amazing thing to me, that God could find anything we might do to be pleasing. But it is so! I notice that the word pleasing occurs twice in this short paragraph. The first time, which is what we are looking at here, it indicates that our offering of ourselves to God pleases God. The second time, at the end of verse 2, it indicates that when we do this we will find God’s will for our lives to be pleasing as well as good and perfect. That God’s will for me should be pleasing, pleasing to me—that I understand. How could it be otherwise if God is all-wise and all-good? He must will what is good for me. But that my offering of myself to him should somehow also please him when I know myself to be sinful and ignorant and half-hearted even in my best efforts—that is astonishing.
But so it is! The Bible tells me that at my best I am to think of myself as an “unworthy” servant (Luke 17:10). But it also says that if I live for Jesus, offering back to him what he has first given to me, then one day I will hear him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant! … Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Matt. 25:21).
Living for Christ may be hard. It always will be in this sinful, God-defying world. I may not understand what good it does either for me or for other people. But that commendation, the praise of the Lord Jesus Christ, will be enough for me. It will make it worthwhile.
Living Sacrifice: Its Motive
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.
What is it that motivates people to be “the best they can be,” as the Army recruitment ads say? There are a number of answers.
One way to motivate people is to challenge them. Dale Carnegie, the author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, tells of a mill manager whose workers were not producing. The owner was named Charles Schwab, and he asked the manager what was wrong. “I have no idea,” the manager said. “I’ve coaxed the men; I’ve pushed them; I’ve sworn and cussed; I’ve threatened them with damnation and being fired. Nothing works. They just won’t produce.”
“How many heats did your shift make today?” Schwab asked.
Without saying anything else, Schwab picked up a piece of chalk and wrote a big number “6” on the floor. Then he walked away.
When the night shift came in they saw the “6” and asked what it meant. “The big boss was here today,” someone said. “He asked how many heats the day shift made, and we told him six. He chalked it on the floor.”
The next morning Schwab walked through the mill again. The night shift had rubbed out the “6” and replaced it with an even bigger “7.” When the day shift reported the next day they saw the “7.” So the night shift thought they were better than the day shift, did they? They’d show them. They pitched in furiously, and before they had left that evening they had rubbed out the “7” and replaced it with a “10.” Schwab had increased production 66 percent in just twenty-four hours simply by throwing down a challenge.
Napoleon said that men are moved by trinkets. He was referring to medals, and he meant that soldiers would risk even death for recognition.
Winston Churchill, the great British statesman and prime minister during the hard days of the Second World War, motivated the British people by his vision of victory and by brilliant speeches. We can remember some of his words today: “blood, toil, tears and sweat,” “victory—victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror; victory however long and hard the road may be,” “their finest hour.”
Moved by Mercy
What is it that motivates Christians to live a Christian life? Or to use Paul’s language in Romans 12:1, what is it that motivates them “to offer [their] bodies as living sacrifices … to God”?
If you and I were as rational as we think we are and sometimes claim to be, we would not need any encouragement to offer our bodies to God as living sacrifices because it would be the most reasonable thing in the world for us to do it. God is our Creator. He has redeemed us from sin by the death of Jesus Christ. He has made us alive in Christ. He loves us and cares for us. It is reasonable to love God and serve him in return. But we are not as rational as that and do need urging, which is why Paul writes as he does in Romans 12. In verse 1 Paul urges us to offer our bodies to God as living sacrifices, and the motivation he provides is God’s mercy: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.”
Romans 12:1 is an amazing verse. It is one of those portions of the Bible that is literally packed with meaning, which is why I have been trying to unpack it carefully in these opening studies.
I began by studying the word therefore, which links the urging of verses 1 and 2 to everything that Paul has already written about in the letter. Next we looked at the idea of sacrifice, finding that in genuine Christianity we live by dying to self, as strange as that may seem. Third, we explored the nature of these sacrifices, seeing that: (1) they are to be living, (2) they involve giving the specific individual parts of our bodies to God for his service, (3) they must be holy, and (4) if they are these things, they will be acceptable to God.
But why should we present our bodies as living sacrifices? The answer is simple: “In view of [or because of] God’s mercy.” In the Greek text the word mercy is plural rather than singular, so the reason for giving ourselves to God is literally because of God’s manifold mercies—that is, because he has been good to us in many ways.
This is entirely different from the way the world looks at things. Assuming that people in today’s world should even get concerned about living righteously—and it is doubtful that very many could—they would probably say, “The reason to live a moral life is because you are going to get in trouble if you don’t.” Or to give secular thinking the greatest possible credit, perhaps they might say, “Because it is good for you.”
That is not what we have here.
In Rediscovering Holiness, J. I. Packer says,
The secular world never understands Christian motivation. Faced with the question of what makes Christians tick, unbelievers maintain that Christianity is practiced only out of self-serving purposes. They see Christians as fearing the consequences of not being Christians (religion as fire insurance), or feeling the need of help and support to achieve their goals (religion as a crutch), or wishing to sustain a social identity (religion as a badge of respectability). No doubt all these motivations can be found among the membership of churches: it would be futile to dispute that. But just as a horse brought into a house is not thereby made human, so a self-seeking motivation brought into the church is not thereby made Christian, nor will holiness ever be the right name for religious routines thus motivated. From the plan of salvation I learn that the true driving force in authentic Christian living is, and ever must be, not the hope of gain, but the heart of gratitude.
That is exactly what Paul is teaching. As John Calvin wrote, “Paul’s entreaty teaches us that men will never worship God with a sincere heart, or be roused to fear and obey him with sufficient zeal, until they properly understand how much they are indebted to his mercy.”
What is Mercy?
This is not the first time we have had to think about mercy in studying Romans. Mercy is one of three words often found together: goodness, grace and mercy. Goodness is the most general term, involving all that emanates from God: his decrees, his creation, his laws, his providences. It extends to the elect and to the nonelect, though not in the same way. God is good, and everything he does is good. Grace denotes favor, particularly toward the undeserving. There is common grace, the kind of favor God shows to all persons in that he sends rain on the just and unjust alike. There is also special, or saving, grace, which is what he shows to those he is saving from their sins. Mercy is an aspect of grace, but the unique quality of mercy is that it is given to the pitiful.
Arthur W. Pink says, “Mercy … denotes the ready inclination of God to relieve the misery of fallen creatures. Thus ‘mercy’ presupposes sin.”
Let me show how this works by three examples.
In the Beginning
The first is Adam. Try to put yourself in Adam’s position at the very beginning of human history and imagine how he must have felt when God came to him in the garden after he and Eve had sinned by eating from the forbidden tree. God had warned Adam about eating, saying, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Gen. 2:16–17). The Hebrew text actually says, “On the day you eat of it you will die.” But Adam and Eve had eaten of it, and now God had come to them to demand an accounting and pronounce judgment.
“Where are you?” God called.
Adam and his wife had hidden among the trees when they heard God coming; they were terrified. God had said that they would die on the day they ate of the forbidden tree. Eve must have expected to die. Adam must have expected to die. “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid,” Adam said.
“Who told you that you were naked?” God asked. “Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”
Adam confessed that he had eaten, though he blamed the woman for getting him to do it.
God addressed the woman. “What is this you have done?”
Eve blamed the serpent (Gen. 3:9–13).
At last God began his judgments, beginning with the serpent:
Cursed are you above all the livestock
and all the wild animals!
You will crawl on your belly
and you will eat dust
all the days of your life.
And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel.
God spoke to Eve next, foretelling pain in childbirth and harsh struggle within the marriage. We call it the battle of the sexes.
Finally, God addressed Adam:
Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat of it
all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.
Imagine yourself in Adam’s place, living through what I have described. God had told Adam and Eve that they would die, but they had not died. There had been judgments, of course, consequences. Sin always has consequences. But they had not been struck down; and, in fact, God had even announced the coming of a Redeemer who one day would crush Satan’s head and undo his work. Even more, God had illustrated the nature of Christ’s atonement by killing animals, the innocent dying for the guilty, and then by clothing Adam and Eve with the animals’ skins. It was a picture of imputed righteousness.
Adam must have been overwhelmed by an awareness of God’s mercy. Adam deserved to die, but instead of killing him, God spared him and promised a Savior instead.
No wonder Adam then named his wife “Eve,” meaning life-giver or mother. It was his way of expressing faith in God’s promise, for God had said that it was from the seed of the woman that the Redeemer would come. The memory of God’s mercy must have kept Adam looking to God in faith and living for God by faith through his long life from that time forward, for Adam lived to be eight hundred years old and was the father of the line of godly patriarchs that extended from him through his third son Seth to Noah.
The Worst of Sinners
My second example is Paul. In his earlier days Paul was called Saul, and he was a fierce opponent of Christianity. He was a Pharisee, the strictest sect of the Jews, and he was zealous for the traditions of his fathers. This led him to participate in the martyrdom of Stephen, and he followed that by arresting and otherwise persecuting many of the early Christians. Having done what he could in Jerusalem, Paul obtained letters to the leaders of the synagogues in Damascus and went there to arrest any Christians he could find and carry them off to Jerusalem for trial and possible execution.
On the way Jesus stopped him. There was a bright light from heaven, and when Saul fell to the ground, blinded by the light, he heard a voice speaking to him. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” the voice replied.
At this point Paul must have had feelings similar to those of Adam when God had appeared to him in the garden of Eden. True, God had not told Paul that he would die if he persecuted Christians. He was persecuting them in ignorance, supposing that he was serving God. But he had been terribly mistaken. He had done great harm, and he had even participated in the killing of Stephen. In that first moment of Paul’s dawning apprehension, when he recognized that it was Jesus of Nazareth who was speaking to him, he must have thought that Jesus had appeared to him to judge him. He certainly deserved it. He must have expected to have been struck down and to die.
Instead Jesus sent him to Damascus, where he was to be told what he should do. When the message came to him by a disciple named Ananias, it was that he was to be God’s “chosen instrument to carry [God’s] name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel” (Acts 9:1–15).
Mercy? I should say it was. Paul never forgot it.
That is why, years later, he could write to his young friend and co-worker Timothy, saying, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life” (1 Tim. 1:15–16). It was because he knew himself to be a sinner saved only by the mercy and grace of God that Paul joyfully gave himself to God as a living sacrifice and worked tirelessly to please him.
A Slave of Slaves
My third example is John Newton. Newton ran away to sea as a young boy and eventually went to Africa to participate in the slave trade. His reason for going, as he later wrote in his autobiography, was that he might “sin his fill.” Sin he did! But the path of sin is downhill, and Newton’s path descended so low that he was eventually reduced to the position of a slave in his master’s African compound. This man dealt in slaves, and when he went off on slaving expeditions Newton fell into the hands of the slave trader’s African wife, who hated white men and vented her venom on Newton. Newton was forced to eat his food off the dusty floor like a dog, and at one point he was actually placed in chains. Sick and emaciated, he nearly died.
Newton escaped from this form of his slavery eventually. But he was still chained to sin and again went to sea transporting slaves from the west coast of Africa to the New World. It was on his return from one of these slave voyages that Newton was wondrously converted.
The ship was overtaken by a fierce storm in the north Atlantic and was nearly sinking. The rigging was destroyed; water was pouring in. The hands tried to seal the many leaks and brace the siding. Newton was sent down into the hold to pump water. He pumped for days, certain that the ship would sink and that he would be taken under with it and be drowned. As he pumped water in the hold of that ship, God brought to Newton’s mind verses he had learned from his mother as a child, and they led to his conversion. When the ship survived the storm and the sailors were again in England, Newton left the slave trade, studied for the Christian ministry, and finally became a great preacher. He even preached before the queen.
What was Newton’s motivation? It was a profound awareness of the grace and mercy of God toward him, a wretched sinner. Newton wrote these words:
Amazing grace—how sweet the sound—
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found—
Was blind, but now I see.
Newton never forgot God’s mercy to him. Once a friend was complaining about someone who was resistant to the gospel and living a life of great sin. “Sometimes I almost despair of that man,” the friend remarked.
“I never did despair of any man since God saved me,” said Newton.
In his most advanced years Newton’s mind began to fail and he had to stop preaching. But when friends came to visit him he frequently remarked, “I am an old man. My mind is almost gone. But I can remember two things: I am a great sinner, and Jesus is a great Savior.” Certainly the mercy of God moved Newton to offer his body as a living sacrifice to God and to seek to please him.
Love So Amazing
Now I come to you. Up to this point I have been asking you to put yourself in the place of Adam, Paul, and John Newton, trying to feel what they must have felt as an awareness of the greatness of the mercy of God swept over them. But if you are a Christian, you should be feeling the same things yourself even without reference to Adam or Paul or other characters.
Ephesians 2 describes your experience. It says that before God revealed his mercy to you, you were “dead in your transgressions and sins” (v. 1). You “followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air” (v. 2) and were “by nature [an object of God’s] wrath” (v. 3). “You were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and [a foreigner] to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world” (v. 12). That was your condition.
But now listen to what God did.
“Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus” (vv. 4–7).
That is the nature of the goodness, love, grace, and mercy of our great God. If you are a Christian, shouldn’t it motivate you to the most complete offer of your body to him as a living sacrifice and to the highest possible level of obedience and service? How can it do otherwise? In my opinion, you can never understand and accurately appreciate what God has done in showing you mercy in Christ without replying wholeheartedly, as did Isaac Watts in his great hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” (1709):
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
Service that Makes Sense
The Greek words of the last phrase of Romans 12:1 are ambiguous and have been translated different ways. For example, there are two different ways the words spiritual act of worship in Romans 12:1 may be understood. The noun translated worship is latreia, which can mean either service or worship. The plural of latreia can even mean rites or duties. The adjective in this important combination of words is logikos, however, which can mean either spiritual or rational, and when it is coupled to the noun two rather different meanings are possible.
One meaning is preserved in the King James Version: “your reasonable service.” The newer translation is “your spiritual worship,” which appears in the New International Version.
What is it? Is it “reasonable service” or “spiritual act of worship”? One answer is that the Greek words may actually embrace both ideas at the same time, spiritual worship being thought of also as rational service. But if I am forced to make a choice, I find myself siding with John Murray, who notes that “reasonable or rational is a more literal rendering.” Logikos has given us the English word logical, which means reasonable or according to reason, and this should also be the preferred meaning, if for no other reason than because in the next verse Paul talks about Christians being transformed by “the renewing of [their] mind[s].”
So Paul really is talking about something reasonable, saying that the living sacrifice that he is urging upon us here is logical.
Even more, the service itself is to be performed reasonably, or with the mind. “The service here in view is worshipful service and the apostle characterizes it as ‘rational’ because it is worship that derives its character as acceptable to God from the fact that it enlists our mind, our reason, our intellect. It is rational in contrast with what is mechanical or automatic.… The lesson to be derived from the term ‘rational’ is that we are not ‘spiritual’ in the biblical sense except as the use of our bodies is characterized by conscious, intelligent, consecrated devotion to the service of God.”
To understand these words well we must comprehend two things. First, we must understand the kind of service that is required. Second, we need to see why such demanding service is so reasonable.
Giving God Ourselves
As far as the first of these two matters is concerned, we have already spent a good bit of time exploring what this kind of service is about. It concerns what Paul calls “sacrifice.” When we were looking at it in detail earlier we saw that it involves three things. First, it must be a living sacrifice. That is, our lives are to be given to God in active, continuing service. Second, it involves the offering of our bodies. In other words, we must give God the use of our minds, eyes, ears, tongues, hands, feet, and other body parts. Third, we must be holy. Moreover, we saw that if we do this, then the sacrifices we make to God will be pleasing to him.
Our problem, of course, is that we do not want to give God ourselves. We will give him things. It is relatively easy to give God money, though even here we are frequently far less than generous. We will even give God a certain amount of our time. We will volunteer for charitable work. But we will not give ourselves. Yet without ourselves these other “gifts” mean nothing to the Almighty.
You will begin to understand the Christian life only when you understand that God does not want your money or your time without yourself. You are the one for whom Jesus died. You are the one he loves. So when the Bible speaks of reasonable service, as it does here, it means that you are the one God wants. It is sad if you try to substitute things for that, the greatest gift.
A wonderful illustration of how we do sometimes substitute things for ourselves is the story of Jacob’s return to his own country as related in Genesis 32. He had cheated his brother Esau out of his father Isaac’s blessing about twenty years before, and he had been forced to run away because his brother was threatening to kill him. Twenty years is a long time. Over those two decades Jacob had gradually forgotten his brother’s threats. But when it came time to go home, which is what this chapter describes, Jacob began to remember the past and grew increasingly fearful of what might happen.
Moving along toward Canaan with Laban behind him and his own country in front of him, Jacob had time to think. He remembered his own disreputable conduct. He recollected Esau’s murderous threats. Every step became more difficult. Finally he came to the brook Jabbok that marked the border of his brother’s territory, looked across to where Esau lived, and was terrified. If he could have gone back, he would have. But there was no way to go except forward.
What was he to do?
The first thing he did was send some servants ahead to see if they could find Esau and perhaps get a feeling for what he was planning to do. They had not gone very far when they ran into Esau, who was actually coming to meet Jacob. Unfortunately, he had four hundred men with him. This was a huge army from Jacob’s point of view, and he could only assume the worst—that Esau was coming to kill him. He thought quickly, then divided his family, servants, and flocks into two groups, reasoning that if Esau attacked one group, the other might escape.
Ah, but what if Jacob was in the group Esau attacked?
On second thought, that didn’t seem to be a very good plan, so he decided to appease his brother with gifts. First he sent him a present of two hundred female goats. He sent a servant along to drive the herd, and he gave the servant these instructions: “When my brother Esau meets you and asks, ‘To whom do you belong, and where are you going, and who owns all these animals in front of you?’ then you are to say, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob. They are a gift to my lord Esau, and he is coming behind us’ ” (Gen. 32:17–18).
After this he sent another group of twenty male goats, and he gave the servant in charge of this flock the same instructions, to say that they belonged to Jacob and were being sent as a gift to Esau, with Jacob to come after them.
Just in case Esau was not satisfied with the goats, Jacob decided to send two hundred ewes, then twenty rams. After this he sent over the rest of his livestock: “thirty female camels with their young, forty cows and ten bulls, and twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys” (v. 15). Each group had its servants in charge, and to each servant he gave the same message. It must have been an amusing picture—all Jacob’s possessions stretched out across the desert going toward Esau.
But there was more. After he had sent the animals Jacob sent his least favored wife Leah with her children ahead of him across the Jabbok, followed by his favored wife Rachel with her children. Then there was the Jabbok. And then there at last, all alone and trembling, was Jacob.
I suppose that if he had known the chorus, he might have been singing “I surrender all.” All the goats, that is. All the sheep. All the camels. All the cows. All the bulls. All the donkeys. He had given up everything, but he had still not given himself. That is what some of us do. We tell God that we will give him some time. We volunteer to help with something around the church. We give him our money. We do not give ourselves.
That night the angel came and wrestled with Jacob to bring him to the point of personal submission, after which this scheming, stiff-necked man was never the same again. When is the angel going to come and wrestle with you? Does he need to?
Why is It Reasonable?
Let’s not wait for the angel. Let’s deal with this matter of sacrificial service to God now. Let’s examine why it is reasonable to serve God sacrificially.
- It is reasonable because of what God has already done for us. We touched on this point in the first of our studies of Romans 12, because it is implied in the word with which Paul begins this final major section of the letter: therefore. Therefore refers back to everything Paul said earlier. He discussed our need as sinners. We are under the wrath of God, on a destructive downhill path and unable to help ourselves. Paul has shown that we are not even inclined to help ourselves. Instead of drawing close to God, who is our only hope, we run away from him, suppressing even the truths about God known from the revelation of himself in nature.
Yet God has not let it go at that. God intervened to save us by the work of Jesus Christ, who died for us, and by the work of the Holy Spirit, who enables us to understand what Jesus has accomplished, repent of our sin, and trust him for our salvation. Then he has also joined us to Jesus Christ to make us different people from what we were before. Paul expounded on that in the letter’s first eleven chapters. So now, when he gets to chapter 12, he says, “Look what God has done. Is it not reasonable to give yourself utterly and sacrificially to a God who has given himself utterly and sacrificially for you?”
Let me make that personal. Are you a believer in Jesus Christ? Are you trusting him for your salvation? Has the Holy Spirit made you alive in Jesus Christ? If he has, what can be more reasonable than to give yourself to him? What is more logical than to serve God wholeheartedly in this way?
- It is reasonable because of what God is continuing to do. The salvation of a Christian is not just a past thing. It is also a present experience, because God is continuing to work in those whom he has brought to faith in Jesus Christ. It is difficult to make changes in our lives, break destructive habits, form new ways of thinking, and please God. But this is exactly what God is doing in us. It is what this text is about. God does not start a thing and abandon it. When God starts something he always brings it to completion. He is doing this with you. Therefore, it is absurd to oppose his purposes. It is futile. The only reasonable thing is to join God and get on with what he is enabling you to do.
- It is reasonable because such service is God’s will for us, and his is a good, pleasing and perfect will. This point anticipates Romans 12:2, which says, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
Christians often get greatly hung up on the idea of discovering what God’s specific will is for their lives. There has been great debate on this, some of which I reviewed earlier in my study of Romans 8. In my judgment, there clearly are specific plans for our lives that God had determined in advance, because he has predetermined all things. The difficulty is that he has not revealed these to us. They are part of the hidden counsels of God, and they are not known by us simply because they are hidden. But although these specific details are not made known, general but very important things are, and the most important of these is that God wants us to be like Jesus Christ.
This is what Romans 8:28–29 says. “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” This is what Romans 12:2 is getting at as well.
Sometimes we also get hung up on the idea that God’s will must be something hard, difficult, or irrational. Paul corrects that error by giving us three adjectives to describe the nature of God’s will.
It is good, he says. God is the master of the understatement. So if God says his will is good, he means good with a capital G. He means that his will for us is the best thing that could possibly be.
God’s will is also acceptable, says Paul. This means acceptable to us, since the fact that God’s will is acceptable to God goes without saying. Do not say that the will of God is hard. Or difficult. Or irrational. If you are thinking along those lines, it is because you have not yet learned to surrender to it. Those who do surrender to God’s will, offering their whole selves as sacrifices to him, find that the will of God is the most acceptable thing there can be.
Finally, Paul argues that the will of God is perfect. No one can say more than that. Our ways are not perfect. They can always be improved upon and often must be corrected. God’s ways are perfect. They can never be made better. So isn’t it the most reasonable thing in the world to serve God and to do so without reservation, with all your heart?
- It is reasonable because God is worthy of our very best efforts. We read in Revelation 4:11:
You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they were created
and have their being.
And again, of Jesus in Revelation 5:9–10:
You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased men for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.
And yet again in Revelation 5:12:
Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!
That is the testimony of the elders, the four living creatures, the angels, and the entire company of the redeemed. It means that God is worthy of all honor, including the very best we have to offer.
Do you believe that?
I think that is the problem. If we did believe it, we would judge it reasonable to live for Jesus now and we would do it. Instead, in many cases we only say, “Jesus is worthy of all honor,” and then go out and fail to live for him. Our actions refute our profession. On the other hand, if you do live for him, giving God all you can ever hope to be, then you are testifying that God truly is a great God and that he is worthy of the best you or anyone else can offer.
- It is reasonable because only spiritual things will last. My last point is that it is reasonable to give everything you have for God because in the final analysis only that which is spiritual will last. Everything else—everything we see and touch and handle—will pass away. Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away” (Matt. 24:35). If that is true of the heavens and the earth, it is certainly true of the small perishable things you and I give so much of our lives for.
Although “the world and its desires pass away,” we are also told that the one who “does the will of God lives forever” (1 John 2:17). And so do his works! The Bible says, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord. … They will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them” (Rev. 14:13). Learning to think this way is part of what it means to think spiritually. It is a start in developing a truly Christian mind.
I close with two illustrations. Jim Elliot wrote as a young missionary, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” He gave his life to God in what he judged to be the most reasonable service, and he gained a spiritual inheritance forever.
Another missionary, William Borden, came from a wealthy privileged family, was a graduate of Yale University, and had the promise of a wonderful and lucrative career before him. But he felt a call to serve God as a missionary in China and left for the field even though his family and friends thought him a fool for going. After a short time away and even before he reached China, Borden contracted a fatal disease and died. He had given up everything to follow Jesus. He died possessing nothing in this world. But Borden of Yale did not regret it. We know this because he left a note as he lay dying that said, “No reserve, no retreat, and no regrets.” Like so many others, he found the service of Christ to be eminently reasonable, and he gained a lasting reward.
 Tozer, A. W. (2015). Mornings with tozer: daily devotional readings. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1991). Romans. Chicago: Moody Press.
 Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans: The New Humanity (Vol. 4, pp. 1491–1521). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.