Becoming a Living Sacrifice (Romans 12:1-8)
Sermon for May 10, 2020
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Greetings New Cut Church and Friends,
This week, we are looking at Romans 12:1-8. In Romans 12, we come to a pivot point in Romans. The emphasis of the first 11 chapters has been what we believe about the gospel. The main purpose in these chapters has been to communicate the fundamental Christian beliefs. Now, in Romans 12, the focus turns to practical Christian living. Romans 12:1-8, the Word of God reads,
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform 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.
For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.
God still wants you to be humble! Last week, in Romans 11, we focused on the theme of humility. Romans 11:20 says, “Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but tremble,” and Romans 11:25 says, “I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in.” Now, Romans 12:3 says, “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.” Humility is a thread that ties together the first 11 chapters of Romans with chapters 12-16 of Romans. In Romans 11, the focus is humility towards different people in the context of God’s awesome plan of redemption. Now, in Romans 12, the focus is humility in Christian service towards others. We will begin with vv. 1-2:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform 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.
These two verses function as the hinge point in Romans. They point back to what Paul has said and transition to what Paul is about to say. They point back to God’s incredible mercy and grace with the people of God, and bring that mercy and grace into practical Christian conduct. The first 11 chapters focus on what God has done. These chapters highlight that a Christian is saved only by grace and not by works. It is God’s decision alone to bring a person to salvation, and salvation is totally dependent on the atoning work of Christ. We sinned, but Jesus did not sin, and Jesus paid for our sins on the cross. He rose again from the dead conquering sin and death. Whoever by God’s grace believes in Christ participates in this victory. The gospel is very much so about what God has done. However, the gospel also has to do with our response. The gospel is not isolated from how we live our lives. The gospel not only frees us from the penalty of sin. It also frees us from the power of sin so that we can walk in newness of life.
Paul starts out v. 12 by writing “therefore.” By doing this, he grounds what he is about to say in everything that he has said previously. The transition is critical. We aren’t saved by God and then go about doing our own works. Rather, the saving grace of God is what undergirds and fuels our Christian service. This grace that we experience to live out the Christian life is not solely a response of gratitude to what God has done. Rather, it is God’s grace that truly empowers us to live the Christina life. Hence, Paul’s exhortation to obedience is also filled with words of grace. He writes, “In view of God’s mercy, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice.” Christian service, presenting one’s self as a living sacrifice, is done in view of God’s mercy.
“In view of God’s mercy” is the NIV translation. It is a fine translation. However, the ESV translation helps us to see with more depth how Christian obedience is saturated with the mercy of the gospel. The ESV says “by the mercies of God.” It is not only in view of God’s grace that we live the Christian life. We are too depraved to think our way into obedience. It is by or through God’s grace that we live the Christian life.
Obedience to Christ through God’s mercy and grace undercuts all arrogance. This obedience undercuts arrogance because no one can claim that he or she did something by his or her own might. If you do something good in obedience to God, you did it because of God’s grace working in you. Apart from God’s gracious favor, you would do nothing good at all. Also, obedience to Christ through God’s mercy undercuts arrogance because it puts a claim on your life. God by his mercy broke you away from the power of sin. Now, God expects you to live in total obedience to him. God calls you away from proudly living for yourself and instead humbly living for God.
Now, humbly living for God is reflected by Paul’s exhortation “to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship.” The exhortation is “to offer,” and what we offer to God is ourselves. You could also say we “present ourselves to God.” The idea is that we put ourselves totally at God’s disposal. When Paul refers to offering our bodies, he likely means the whole person. God has a claim over our whole self: our thoughts, emotions, actions, resources, and physical body. Then Paul instructs you to offer yourself as a sacrifice. The Christians during this time would have had more life experience with the Jewish sacrificial system. In a sacrifice in the Old Testament, a follower of God would have taken something that belonged to them, such as a lamb, and then given to God, acknowledging that what they had was ultimately from God in the first place. Jesus fulfilled the sacrificial system by dying on the cross. Now, Paul instructs you, as a Christian, to offer yourself to God as a sacrifice. This command is obviously figurative, not literal. God is not saying here to take your own life. He is not saying to be a dead sacrifice, but a living one. The exhortation here is to live totally for God through and through.
Eric Liddell was an Olympic runner and gold medalist. He was a Christian and is quoted as saying, “When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.” To run and win the race would have taken a total commitment. No running half speed. No running three quarters speed. He had to run full speed, putting his whole body and focus into the effort. Likewise, when we serve God, we are not to do it halfway. We are not to do it three quarter way. God calls us to give ourselves totally over to him.
Romans 12-16, as the final section of Romans, is often labeled as the section on “Practical Christian Living.” Practical here means everyday living. Romans 12-16 is very practical, and by being very practical, these chapters put a total claim on your life. God is very concerned with your life, not only on Sunday, but Monday through Saturday as well. God is concerned with how you serve in the church. God is concerned with your sincerity. God is concerned with your respect towards other people. God is concerned about how you think, act, and feel. God is concerned with how you interact with people who you are at odds with. God is concerned with how you submit to authorities. He is concerned with every area of your life. God wants you to offer yourself and live for him all the time.
In Philippians 2, Paul instructs us to imitate the example of Christ. This verse enjoins humility, obedience, and sacrifice. In v. 8 he writes, “And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross.” In this verse, we have humility, obedience, and death together. In humility, we are to die to living for ourselves, and live totally for God, offering ourselves as a living sacrifice.
Jesus says to his disciples in Matthew 16:24-25, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” To follow Christ requires dying to living for self, and instead living for Christ. The paradox is that when you lose your life for Christ, you actually find your life. But when you live for yourself, you lose your life.
There was a young lady. We will call her name Tanya. Tanya said that her hesitancy about following Christ was that she would lose herself. She valued being Tanya. In a sense, in order to follow Christ, she did need to lose her life. However, losing her life to follow Christ would actually have made her more Tanya than she would have been. It would have made her more into the person God designed her to be when in harmony with Christ. We are deigned to be in union with Christ. Being a living sacrifice, losing your life to follow Christ does not make you less of who you are. Instead you become more you, walking in harmony with Christ, less tainted by sin. You don’t lose you and your personality. Instead you become more who you are meant to be.
This total commitment to Christ can seem like a lot. It can seem like an unreachable standard. In a way, it is certainly unreachable. To die to our self and be a living sacrifice is contrary to our sin nature. But remember, that Paul’s exhortation is permeated with grace. The exhortation to be a living sacrifice follows 11 chapters that focuses on the gracious work of Christ for the believer. Then as chapter 12 continues, Paul continues to permeate the chapter with words of grace. While we are called to this commitment, we fall short of that commitment. 1 John 1:10 says, “If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.” But then 1 John 2:1 says, “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father – Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.” When you do fall short of offering your whole life to Christ, cast yourself on God’s mercy. If you do sin, you have an advocate, Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.
God’s grace not only forgives us when we fall short, but also helps us to walk anew with God. God has, by his grace, enabled you to be a living sacrifice. Apart from God’s grace, you would have absolutely no ability in the sin nature to do die to self and live to God. However, because of God’s grace, you have been definitively broken from the power of sin and you are no longer enslaved to obey sinful passions. You are no longer enslaved to live for yourself. But you are free to live for God instead. It is this definitive break from sin that enables you to progressively die to sin more and more and live for Christ.
That you are a living sacrifice shows that the process dying to self and living to Christ is a life-long process. After all, you are a living sacrifice, not a dead sacrifice. Every day you must seek to die to self and live to Christ. Whether you are 10 years old, 90 years old, or any age, this continued process of dying to self and living for Christ is something that you should be engaged in. This is where humility comes in. No one has arrived. Everyone who is on the path of walking with Christ on this earth has further to go, more to learn, more to die to self.
What might being a living sacrifice look like? Romans 12-16 give us some examples. Being a living sacrifice means humble service to others in the church. It means sticking with your calling in the body of believers. Being a living sacrifice means weeping with those who weep, in humility seeing someone else’s pain, and having empathy for that person, yet pointing yourself and that person towards hope in Christ. Being a living sacrifice means showing deference and courtesy to others, rather than pride and contempt. Being a living sacrifice means having humility when encountering different viewpoints.
These examples are very practical. They are, for the most part, every day types of situations. There are times, however, that sacrifice can go beyond day to day life. Sometimes, people are in a position that to follow Christ, they need to sacrifice their job or career, or following Christ could mean death itself. When someone faces loss for the sake of following Christ, whether that be their life, or something else, it is never about the loss in of itself. When people are able to lay down their lives for Christ, it is because they are totally committed to living for Christ, to being a living sacrifice. Then they are willing to face loss because they would rather face loss or death than lose Christ. As Paul says in Philippians 1:21 “To live is Christ and to die is gain.” When we practice sacrificial love, we give something up. That’s the point. We may give up our time to serve another person. We may give up our pride to show deference to someone else. We may give up our comfort to do the right thing, even though the right thing is hard to do.
Now how do we offer ourselves as a living sacrifice? We find the answer in v. 2: “Do not conform 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.” In order to follow God sacrificially, first of all, in the negative, requires that there is something that you do not do. In order to follow God, you need to not conform to the pattern of the world. You cannot both follow God and the world. It is one or the other.
Paul says here, “do not conform.” Humans are quick to conform. In the 70’s, there was a study conducted by Stanley Milgram, now referred to as the Milgram Experiment. In the study there was the experimenter, the teacher, and the learner. The teacher was instructed to teach the learner through delivering electric shocks and increasing voltages. No electricity was actually used, and the learner was actually an actor pretending to be shocked. The teacher was actually the one being studied. The point of the experiment was to see how far the teacher would go in delivering high voltages when pressured by the experimenter. The results were surprising. 65 percent of the teachers delivered the final 450 volts. All the teacher delivered at least 300 volts. Those are all potentially lethal voltages. The study concluded that people can be surprisingly quick to conform.
As Christians, we are not to conform to the pattern of this world. Conforming to the world can happen so easily, subtly, and perhaps without awareness. If we are not to conform to the world, then we need to actively conform to something else. Hence v. 2 says, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Rather than conforming to the ways of the world, we need be transformed by God’s truth working renewal in our minds. A couple things about this verse. First, notice that there is an emphasis on the mind. God cares about your mind and the way you think. The controversy of Enlightenment philosophy in the 18th century and Darwinism and evolution in the 19th century led to an anti-intellectual reaction from many Christians that still runs today. But the Scripture differs. Here in Romans 12, it is clear that God wants Christians to have renewed minds. Further, Jesus in the greatest commandment shows the importance of loving God not only with the heart or emotions, but also with the mind. Jesus says in Matthew 22:37, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” God is concerned with the renewal of your mind.
Something else notable in this verse is the passivity of “be transformed.” It is passive, meaning to be acted on, which means there is something doing the acting, an outside source. Paul does not name the source, because the source is obvious. God is the source. Our minds are to be renewed by God’s truth. We are not the standard of truth in the renewal of our minds. God’s truth is the standard. Now, this is where humility comes in. When we make ourselves the standard of truth, then we are acting in pride, rather than humbly accepting and seeking out what God says is true. There are different ways that we make ourselves the standard of truth. One way is through rationalistic thinking. Rationalistic thinking is when we think through a problem, but the only standard is our own thinking. There is no outside source of God’s truth. When this happens, we may think that we are being independent thinkers, but in reality, we just rationalize what we already have a bias towards. This bias is because of depravity and sin. Without the standard of God’s truth we rationalize doing what we proudly want to do, instead of humbling following what God wants us to do.
To say that we do have a bias in our thinking may be contrary to what we have been taught in the past. What is often taught is that good thinking puts all bias aside. The reality though, is that we should have a bias. Jesus Christ died to redeem us. We should have a bias of seeking out God’s truth in how we live our lives. It might seem at first glance that just accepting God’s truth revealed in the Scripture as the standard of truth does not take a lot of work or renewing of the mind. But the opposite is true. Individualistic, rationalistic, self-setting truth is actually simple and does not lead to any transformation of the mind. Imagine taking a school test, and in this test, your own ideas are the sole standard for truth. Wouldn’t that be an easy test. But God calls us to something else. God calls us to a life, not of seeking our own standard for truth and living, but of humbly seeking God’s standard. God call us not to conform to our own will, but to be transformed and to follow God’s will as a living sacrifice.
In regard to the renewal of our minds, the standard of feelings is also important to mention. Just as a person’s thinking can become an independent source of truth apart from God, so can a person’s feelings. When it comes to feelings, how someone feels without regard to any thinking at all can become the standard of truth, the measure of right and wrong. It goes like this: “I feel this way. The way I feel can’t be wrong. So this is how it is going to be.” This can be similar to rationalistic thinking, but instead the first impression sets a standard of truth. Often times when one’s feelings become the standard for judging right and wrong, God is not honored, and people get treated poorly. Feelings are not bad in of themselves. Think about the Psalms. Strong emotions are a part of the life and connection with God. The problem is when we let independent, disconnected from God, thinking or feelings, become the standard for right and wrong, rather than truly seeking out God’s will.
So, we need to present ourselves to God as a living sacrifice and we enter into that process by transformation through the renewal of our minds. Now v. 2 continues and gives more of a picture of what the renewal of our minds and obedience to God’s will looks like. Paul writes after the call to be transformed by the renewal of your minds, “Then you will be able to test what God’s will is.” What does it mean to test what the will of God is? The NLT translation helps to shed some more light on what Paul is saying. The NLT says, “Then you will learn to know God’s will for you.” Instead of “test” the NLT says “learn.” If God’s will is the standard, we need to learn God’s will. But “test” also gives us an idea of what Paul is saying. Now, when I see the word test in this passage, the first thing that I think of is a science experiment, like you test a bunch of things out and see what works to come to a conclusion. That’s not exactly how learning God’s will works. However, somewhat like an experiment, learning God’s will is experiential. Learning God’s will isn’t just book learning. Learning God’s will is actively and prayerfully seeking out his will in his Word and applying that learning to the varied experiences of life.
In the varied experiences of life, when we actively and prayerfully seek out God’s will, then transformation through the renewal of our minds becomes a life-long process. We don’t arrive at some point and are done. Rather, as we face new circumstances, we seek to discern God’s will through his Word. This is not a casual obedience, or a casual reading of God’s Word, or just a short prayer before bed every now and then. This is a serious desire to seek out God’s will and obey God’s will. Now, this call for renewal of our minds does not mean that everyone needs to be a professional Bible scholar. When we continue in vv. 3-8 next week, we will see how we are all called to different areas of service in the church. But the call for renewal of your mind and the call to sacrificially follow God means that you should seriously and thoughtfully, engaging with God’s Word and in prayer, endeavor to follow God through the varied circumstances of your life.
When we give ourselves over fully to God, this is what is pleasing to God. Remember Eric Liddell’s quote: “I feel God’s pleasure when I run.” When Eric Liddell raced, he had to give himself fully over the race. You must give yourself fully over to following God. This whole-hearted devotion to follow God is what is pleasing to God.
Next week we will continue in vv. 3-8.