Last week I argued from Philippians 1:9-11 that discernment is of great importance to the believer as an important part of living for the glory of God.
This week my thesis is that as believers give themselves as a sacrifice to God in an act of sacred worship, discernment is an important act that flows out of that holy act. This is Paul’s point in Romans 12:1-2.
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.
Paul’s instruction draws a comparison between the New Testament believer and the Old Testament worship (cf. Heb 13:15-16). “Present” in verse 1 is a technical term referring to offering sacrifices to God. Similarly, our “sacrifice” is to be “holy and acceptable,” echoing passages like Leviticus 1:3-10. That Paul calls it “spiritual worship” also harkens back to the Old Testament liturgy.1
Yet, despite all its similarity, there is a striking contrast between our sacrificing ourselves and the Old Testament rite: we are living sacrifices (cf. 1 Pet 2:25). As we live in our bodies, we do good works grounded in the incredible mercies of God we have graciously tasted. So the worship here is seen in our good works and holy living. At least in the Romans 12:1-2, you cannot claim to worship God in your heart without simultaneous obedience.2 Christians do not “own” themselves; they are the Lord’s, both soul and body.
As Paul continues, he explains how this is done in the second verse. He urges the Christians, as they live as living sacrifices and use their bodies as an act of worship, not to be pushed into the world’s mold. We are not to be “conformed to this world.” The world and its values and its mores should not be an object of desire for us. Our desires should be set on heavenly things, where our Lord Jesus is (cf. Col 3:1-4). By renewing our minds with a desire to the things connected with Jesus Christ, we are transformed or changed, rather than conformed. Instead of being molded into the world’s mold, we are being gradually “transformed” into the image of Christ (cf. 2 Cor 3:18).3 If mind renewal ends up in our being transformed into the image of Christ (a connection I don’t find far-fetched), then it would only follow that Scripture, as the word of Christ, bears an essential role in this.4
To what end should we renew our minds? Mind renewal (which seems to speak of the gracious work of the Spirit whereby believers have the mind of Christ) gives believers the ability to discern what God’s will is for them. I don’t think it’s helpful to think of God’s will in this passage as referring to big questions like “What does God want me to do when I grow up?” (though knowing God’s will with respect to “big questions” would seemingly flow from this principle). Instead, we should think of the “will of God” here as discerning the way we live in the world, determining, as the passage says, “what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
In other words, God wants us to have discernment which proves what is right and wrong.5 Undoubtedly, as the Scriptures are absolutely essential to the mind-renewing process, they have a crucial role in this. But Paul expects us to use the Spirit-wrought mind renewal via the Scriptures to make us ready to prove what is right and what is wrong. As believers give themselves as a sacrifice to God in an act of sacred worship, discernment is an important act that flows out of that holy act. And I believe that if we fail to take seriously this task of proving what God wants us to do when we are faced with life’s various ethical and moral decisions, we are not obeying the command of this passage, and missing a crucial link in our daily living as sacrifices of worship to God.6 It is our responsibility as transformed believers to use our renewed mind to discern between good and evil, and then act accordingly.
- In the original, τὴν λογικὴν λατρείαν. cf. Rom 9:4; Heb 9:1. [↩]
- John Calvin writes, ” It is then the beginning of a right course in good works, when we understand that we are consecrated to the Lord; for it hence follows, that we must cease to live to ourselves, in order that we may devote all the actions of our life to his service.” Later Calvin connects verse 1 with what we call the regulative principle of worship: ” This sentence, I think, was added, that he might more clearly apply and confirm the preceding exhortation, as though he had said, — “Offer yourselves a, sacrifice to God, if ye have it in your heart to serve God: for this is the right way of serving God; from which, if any depart, they are but false worshippers.” If then only God is rightly worshipped, when we observe all things according to what he has prescribed, away then with all those devised modes of worship, which he justly abominates, since he values obedience more than sacrifice. Men are indeed pleased with their own inventions, which have an empty show of wisdom, as Paul says in another place; but we learn here what the celestial Judge declares in opposition to this by the mouth of Paul; for by calling that a reasonable service which he commands, he repudiates as foolish, insipid, and presumptuous, whatever we attempt beyond the rule of his word.” [↩]
- While commenting on this passage, John Gill helpfully directs his readers to seek this transformation through the elements of public worship: “Believers should be desirous of, and pray for, and make use of those means which the Spirit of God owns for this purpose [of transformation through the renewing of your mind], attending to the spiritual exercises of religion, as reading, meditation, prayer, conference, the ministration of the word and ordinances, which is the reverse of conformity to the world: and the end to be attained hereby is.” [↩]
- See John Stott, Romans: God’s Good News for the World (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 1994), 324. I refer to Scripture, not just in one’s private reading and meditation, but as regularly preached in public worship in the congregation of saints. [↩]
- Here’s how Douglas Moo explains it: “But Paul’s vision, to which he calls us, is of Christians whose minds are so thoroughly renewed that we know from within, almost instinctively, what we are to do to please God in any given situation. We need ‘law’ [i.e., ‘the law of Christ’ (Gal. 6:2; 1 Cor. 9:19), which is “Jesus’ own teaching about the will of God, expanded and explicated by his appointed representatives, the apostles”]; but it would be to betray Paul’s call to us in these verses to substitute external commands for the continuing work of mind-renewal that is at the heart of God’s New Covenant work.” The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1996), 758. [↩]
- Charles Hodge: “The design and result then of that great change of which Paul speaks is, that Christians should know, delight in, and practise whatever is good and acceptable to God; compare Eph. 5:10, 17. Phil. 4:8. [↩]