When we read the Old Testament, we see countless examples of sacrifice. All of these sacrifices involved the death of the victim. These sacrifices pointed forward to the coming of Jesus and His sacrifice unto death. But here, Paul calls us to be living sacrifices. What does a living sacrifice look like? Let us examine this text from Romans and find out.
Sometimes it is the smaller words in the text that are most important in coming to a proper understanding in the text. We tend to look at the big words. But in this case, it is the word “therefore” that we should zoom in to. What is this word there for? Some translations don’t even translate this word, but it is there in the Greek text. “Therefore” links this text to what comes before it. What Paul is saying then is because of what I have just concluded, you should “present yourselves as living sacrifices.”
The question of interpretation is how far does the “therefore go back to? Does it go back to the last paragraph of chapter 12 which is Paul bursts out in praiseful worship of what God has done, is it based upon the entirety of Paul’s argument starting in the first chapter? If it is just the preceding paragraph, then it emphasizes the spiritual response we should have to the goodness of God and His unsearchable and sovereign ways. If it goes back to the beginning of the epistle, then the view zooms into the idea of “Because we have been justified by faith in Jesus, let us.…” Of course, it could refer to both.
The interjection “by the mercy (or mercies) of God helps us to understand the scope of the “therefore”. The Greek word for mercy is in the plural; however, it is best to understand this as a plural of majesty. It is not just “mercy” but “great mercy”. What God has done is far more than cut us a little slack. The whole epistle to this point is a demonstration of how great a mercy God has bestowed upon the believer and how this mercy has been demonstrated in the incarnation, atoning death, and resurrection of Jesus. The Epistle has so far demonstrated the totality of human depravity which is a demonstration of how great our need of mercy is. Without this recognition of this need, the doorway for mercy cannot be opened.
Paul has just concluded this need for mercy in Romans 11:32 by saying that it was the purpose of God along to shut the doors to everyone trying to achieve a standing before God based upon human merit. All humanity is locked up in prison together. We cannot underestimate the power of another little word, “all”. The word “all” (panta, in Greek) was the food of philosophers who tried to come to a unity of existence. One tried to sum up all of reality with the words “All is water.” Another philosopher said “allis air”. A third argued that “All is static”. Yet another argued “All is flux”. The only thing the Greeks could agree on was that they could not come to agreement of what “all” encompassed.
The Bible is not a book of philosophy. It is a book about God. The real problem to be solved is not to find the relationship between unity and diversity. The problem is that fallen man is out of sorts with God, and God in his mercy has sent us the means of reconciliation to us in the Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The “all” of Scripture is summed up well by Paul earlier in the epistle in Romans 3:23: “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” The call of God is that “all” are under condemnation and in the need of God’s grace. The summons goes out to “all” to repent and believe the gospel.
Paul ends the first eleven chapters of the spittle with a grand doxology of the greatness and wisdom of God’s ways. In it he cites several Old Testament passages from Deuteronomy, Job, and Isaiah. Human wisdom would never have chosen the way that God did. Humans in their rebellion against God start with themselves and not God and try to work up from there. But we can never rise above ourselves. We can never make or think anything which is greater than ourselves. And as Paul has aptly demonstrated, the fallen condition of humanity is so low that it is impossible for us to save ourselves. We think that we can save ourselves with our technology. We might point to the human achievement of discovering the x-ray, for example. X-ray technology has prolonged the lives of many people. But we must also realize that with the discovery of nuclear secrets that we use the same technology to make atomic bombs.
Instead of marveling over our human achievements which except for the restraining grace of God would lead to the complete destruction of the human race, we should like Paul respond in wonder and praise of the great wisdom of God which is above all human reasoning. God did not need any human help in devising the plan for our salvation. God in His wisdom chose a way that all humans would have regarded as foolish. It goes against the idea of the competition of human merit. Because God chose to lock “all” humanity under sin as a prerequisite to mercy, the ground was made level at the foot of Jesus’ cross. “All”, Paul said, are unbelievers, that is until God’s gift of faith is given that we might believe.
The power of the Gospel and God’s free grace becomes the foundation to Christian conduct. We are all to prone to begin with conduct itself as though Romans begins with chapter 12. It is as the “therefore” isn’t there. If we were to do this, we would be making a capital mistake. It is as though we are in ourselves capable of living the Christian life on our own strength. This would make Christianity no more than a series of teachings on conduct. The faith becomes a list of imperatives. It becomes a set of rules Christians follow without properly examining what being a “Christian” is and how we came to be one. Bypassing the great mercy of God turns people into boasters. If salvation were even the slightest way dependent upon what we do, we would boast about our decision. His salvation were 1 percent us and 99 percent God, we would spend 99 percent of the time boasting about what we did and give God only the one percent lip service.
Paul by his doxology at the end of chapter 11, puts us straight on the matter. It is 100 percent God, and God gets 100 percent of the glory. Once we have clearly understood the “therefore”, we are ready to understand text.
The Christian who realized he or she has chosen entirely by God’s free offer of grace apart from any personal merit is now ready to become this living sacrifice. Even here, this work of sanctification is God’s work in us. We are reminded that it is God who works in us, both to will and to do of His own good pleasure. Sanctification is just as much the work of God in us by the Holy Spirit as justification is the work of God for us in Jesus Christ. From beginning to end, the Christian walk is entirely the work of God’s grace. This is not to say that we are entirely passive in the process. However, it is in response to God’s grace.
It is the will of God to be living sacrifices. The reason is that there can be nothing sacrificial in our deaths. Christ’s death is the only sacrifice of that sort, a sacrifice that the death of animals in the Old Testament only pointed to. Jesus’ sacrifice unto death is the only one needed or that will ever be provided for our sins. We can add nothing to it, nor should we try. This does not mean that Christians do not die for their faith. It is all too painfully obvious that many Christians have been slaughtered for their faith in Jesus even to this day. But there is nothing atoning about our death. At best, our deaths in this matter only point backward to the cross of Jesus like the animal sacrifices pointed forward.
The emphasis on living sacrifices, the Greek being a present participle here, is that our lives are to be continually presented as sacrifices. This is not a one time commitment. This can also be seen in the words of Jesus that tells us we need to take up our cross, every day. This is the sacrifice which God has chosen for us. As the book of Hebrews puts it, we are to offer the sacrifice of praise. Paul has just so admirably shown this in the doxology which he has offered at the end of chapter 11. This is an important component of our worship, which is praise and thanksgiving for who God is and what He has done for and in us.
The sacrifice of praises to God is indeed an important component of worship. But Paul extends worship beyond the mere praise of one’s lips. Here he adds that part of our spiritual worship is to present ourselves before God as living sacrifices in accordance to His perfect will and good pleasure. This means that the sacrifice of the Christian is demonstrated in submission to God’s will, which is the proper response to God’s mercy to us.
Paul, having set the foundation of the grace of God, now comes out with the imperatives. The word for “Be ye transformed” is of the same Greek word for metamorphosis. Metamorphosis is used as a scientific term today to describe how a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. This means that the Christian is something entirely different from what he or she was before. In another place, Paul calls the Christian a “new creation”. The fact there is a strong word for “but” here (Greek alla) gives emphasis to the fact that there is a complete change.
The only question of interpretation is whether this imperative is a passive which describes this imperative as something that God has obligated himself to do in the believer or what is called a middle form which would give the idea of “transform yourselves”. We have already stated that sanctification is the work of God’s grace in us. If this is true, how could we be seen as something we must do? Yet, the idea that we must respond in a personal way here is very strong here because Paul has just told the Romans to stop living in conformity with the world’s schemes or way of doing things. This seems to demand an act of response on the part of the believer. I can’t fully resolve this mystery, but there seems to be a both here. Yes it is the work of God, yet it is also an active response on the part of the believer. It is the believer’s proper and worshipful response to God’s grace in Jesus Christ.
What Paul is saying here is that the life of the Christian is one of perpetual repentance. Paul does not use the word for repentance here (metanoia), but the use of” transformation: and “renewing of your mind” basically say the same thing. When we use “repentance” we usually thing of being sorry for some misconduct. However, the Greek word for repentance involves changing one’s mind on a matter, which is precisely what we have here. The Christian has been transformed by God’s grace, a transformation which is demonstrated by a new way of thinking. The Christian is no longer to think in worldly terms but instead is to focus on the glory of God, which focuses on doing God’s will which is acceptable in His sight.
The Christian faith is more than the expression of emotion or doing “Christian things”. The act of true worship must involve the mind as well. The proper worshipful response to God is with “all” or our mind, as well as with “all” or our heart and “all” of our strength. It seems that the intellectual content of our faith has been neglected and our emotions overemphasized. We have become a church out of balance. We have forgotten where we have come from and have become bogged down in doing “Christian things” without properly understanding why we are doing them. Another mistake that many make is to be entirely passive to the work of God. They have done this deal with God and therefore God has saved them, so they think. These do not feel they need do anything. Neither of these approaches is well pleasing to God. The balanced Christian life is one that knows how merciful God has been to him or her and responds to this grace in the way he or she lives. This is what we must strive for.