Romans 12:2 “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.”
You become a child of God through receiving his Son as your Lord, and then we Christians become your brothers and sisters because we have also accepted him. You have received the mercy of God so that all your sins have been forgiven through Jesus Christ. The slate has been wiped completely clean. That is how Paul defines the favoured people to whom he is writing this letter. But the love that makes us brothers, and the love that shows us such great mercy makes demands on all who’ve been so loved. It touches everything you are and have, your very soul, your life, your all, and that is what Paul is saying in the opening verse of this chapter. “You who are my brothers through the mercy of God are now to present your bodies as a living sacrifice to God.” It’s amazing that God would ever want our bodies. Why should he want my body? I glance at it in the bathroom mirror and it is not a pleasant sight as you get older. It is getting weaker and wobblier. My stomach gets bigger; it snores; it could have a bad heart and constant indigestion and ulcers; it is getting deaf and developing cataracts; it has a foul imagination with a trigger mechanism which clicks by a mere glance.
That God should ask for our bodies is simply astonishing grace, but he actually does. This verse is urging us to present them to him. God is saying, “Bring your body to me. I know all about it. I know more about it than you do. I know all the things you are thinking just now and there are heaps more just under the surface – some things you’ve yet to learn. Please present it to me; your messed up, abused and abusing, sinning and sinned-against body has to be brought to me, and brought to me now.” The apostle is not telling us that when we’re all cleaned up and perfumed and had body modification and have pumped iron and got a tan and are looking like we looked on our wedding day that then we can consider presenting our bodies to God. God never talks to us like that or we’d be done for, never feeling we were ready. He is not telling us to spend time preparing our bodies for offering them to God. He’s not saying, “Straighten out your lives in every way and become perfect, and then they’d be in a suitable state to be offered to God.’ No, it is now: I urge you as those who have received mercy from God, this moment, to do it, just as you are. Not to wait until you feel religious and warm and close to God, but now with all your tensions and difficulties and memories, just the way you are, offer your bodies to the Lord. That is his exhortation, and it is the background of our text in the next verse (v.2); “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.”
1. A CHRISTIAN HAS BOTH POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE ATTITUDES.
You can see the structure of this verse, that Paul is first negative in forbidding something, and then he is positive with a contrasting exhortation. That approach supplies the fascinating tension and dynamic of this text. In fact it reflects the whole scriptural approach to principles of conduct; they must be stated negatively, yet they may not be exclusively negative. There is for every prohibition a corresponding exhortation. You breathe in the oxygen and you breathe out the poison. That is the rhythm of life natural and divine life. You take in the good food and you evacuate the waste products. For example in the ten commandments there are the positives, Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy, and Honour your father and your mother. There are also the negatives, Do not make idols, and Do not take God’s name in vain, and Do not lie and kill and steal . . . Or in the Sermon on the Mount the Lord Jesus exhorts his disciples not to fast like the Pharisees, and not to pray like the Pharisees, and not to give alms like the Pharisees give them. Then Christ is wonderfully positive in exhorting us to love our enemies and do good to those who despitefully use us . . . . Or again you find this negative-positive tension in that chapter on the nature of love in I Corinthians 13. Love does not do certain things; it does not envy, is not proud, is not rude, is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered. Those attitudes are not loving. You don’t behave like that if you are loving, but love isn’t only known by its omissions because it is also magnificently positive. Love is patient, love is kind, love rejoices with the truth, love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres . . . Again, remember that the Thessalonians Christians were people who had (negatively) turned from idols (positively) to serve the living God. So Paul is explaining here what it means to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God and he does so in this tension of prohibition “Don’t do this” and exhortation “Do this.”
The tension of this text is quite particular; it is focused in not being conformed but being transformed. That is the choice facing mankind. Conformity or transformation? The fact that you are in church on a Sunday is itself staggering. Immediately you are sliding off the fence on the good side of transformation. Great. How pleased we are to see you, but don’t keep sliding. Take a stand and get increasingly transformed. Most church attenders are coasting through life. They are arm-raising, singing coasters, alas. Devote your life as a Christian to being changed. I know it is painful, but I urge you to go to a church which won’t simply rearrange your prejudices and stroke your affections each Sunday, but one that will change you. Go for change, and never stop changing. We are here to be changed, negatively and positively. Why did God give the Scriptures? Four things are listed by Paul (2 Tim. 2:16&17); to teach, reprove, correct and instruct. In other words, God gave us the Bible to change us pervasively. Are you up for being reproved and corrected? That is the great commitment you are being asked to make. Don’t settle at the level of the transformation you’ve attained so far. You are coming to church and that, I say, is great, but most church attenders can throw away their birthright as sons of God by cruising. Don’t be like them. Be transformed. Be un-conformed to the world! So this verse has a negative-positive structure, and this verse has a nonconforming-transforming impulse.
So I have said to you first of all that we are negative, we do not conform to this world, and at the same time we are positively being conformed to doing what God says. That is the structure and tension of our verse. Now let’s proceed to consider the content of this verse in more detail.
2. A CHRISTIAN REJECTS THE PATTERN OF THIS WORLD.
“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world” (v.2). That word ‘world’ does not mean this geographical world where we live and breathe, being held onto its surface by the force of gravity. It is not planet earth that we escape from. This verse is not exhorting the church to become astronauts to seek another planet as our home. The word ‘world’ means ‘age.’ We Christian have to live in the age of Queen Elizabeth II, the age of Barack Obama as president of the USA, the age of the world wide web, the age
of a football club being offered a hundred million pounds for a player with his salary being two million pounds a month. It is the age of obsession with games, and Hollywood, and Oscars, and television. It is the age of abortion on demand, the age of full prisons and growing knife crimes, the age of drugs and gambling and alcohol abuse, the age of the collapse of banks, unemployment and worldwide recession. It is the age of unbelief, and the marginalization of God. It is an anti-Christian age in Europe. It is a temporal age, this transient age, this sinful fallen age, with men and women holding up this sad age as the pattern for themselves and for everyone else, wrapped up in this age, enthusiastic about it, consumed by this age alone. “There is nothing else is there?” they say. In absorbs all their plans and calculations and ambitions – this present age. In this age they strive to advance themselves. They are always calculating what they can get out of something. “What’s in it for me?” That’s the spirit of the age. “How can I get this to work for me?” So there is rivalry, and competition, getting ahead of the other person, grabbing what’s mine before someone else gets it, hanging onto it no matter what’s the cost, and always there’s the accompanying unhappiness. You see that in the amount of uppers and downers prescribed, and the drugs illegally bought, the alcohol and nicotine dependence.
They are longing for change, the people of this age, but they don’t know how to effect it and they don’t know where to begin. They all dream of their lives going in a different direction, of winning the lottery and all their dreams coming true. They long for everything to be different, and advertisers know this. That’s why your E-mail inbox is crammed with offers promising that you can lose weight now, make money overnight, learn a new language and become a better lover. I received one the other day that said, “Watch unwanted pounds melt away.” I like that picture. “Watch unwanted sins melt away!” It sounds so easy, such fun. Take this pill or eat this supplement or drink this super-duper energy drink, and presto – those unwanted pounds will just melt away. What could be more delightful? Or those emails (of which I seem to get at least one a day) telling me that the widow of the former president of Nigeria or of a businessman in Kuwait or one who is being spoken for by a solicitor in the Cote D’Ivoire is a Christian and she is dying of cancer and she wants to dispose of £4 million which she is sure I would use for God’s work in helping orphans, but, of course, I can choose how to spend it, and she would like to give it to me. She will gladly send it if only I send her my bank account information. Such a deal. Help a poor widow, and make $2 million for myself. Think what I could do with $2 million.
Having loads of dosh will change you, they think. Change is hard, isn’t it? Go to either of the large book shops in town or on the campus and you’ll see an entire wall of self-help books. Helping people change is big business in our age. But when we get up in the morning and look in the mirror, all we see is the same old person looking back at us, ‘another day older and deeper in debt.’ We want to escape from this age without leaving this age. That’s why we move, change jobs, get a facelift, buy another car, start a new career, get a divorce, find a boyfriend, go to a different church, join a choir, start working out, buy a new outfit, and on and on it goes. It’s not as if those things are wrong in themselves. Sometimes we need to make outward changes. But it’s not the outward stuff that trips us up. It’s the stuff on the inside that we can’t seem to fix. This verse is pleading with us not to pattern our lives on what so many non-Christians are doing with theirs.
Don’t be conformed to the people of our sad and dying age. Don’t make their mistakes. Don’t dream their dreams. Don’t fantasize with their fantasies. Don’t try to escape and run away from reality as they do. Come away from those shadow-lands. Come from the half truths into the light of Jesus Christ. While the world will long to be the leader of the pack; you will pray that you might decrease and that he might increase. While the world will say, “Stand up for yourself,” you will deem every Christian a better person than you are. While the world will advise, “If he hits you then hit him back,” you will turn the other cheek. While the world will dream of servants, chauffeurs, bodyguards, personal trainers and tattooists, you will say, “I came not to be served but to serve others.” While the world will fire up its ambitions, you will say, “I have learned in whatever state I’m in to be content with it.” You refuse to be conformed to the pattern of this world. Christ is my pattern. He has left me an example that I should walk in his steps.
3. A CHRISTIAN IS COMMITTED TO TRANSFORMATION.
God’s positive exhortation to us in this verse is that we be transformed. If you are one of those Christians that Paul is addressing, in other words, one who’s received the mercy of God (and so you are my brother or sister), then you won’t allow any of the commandments that your loving Father has given you to crush you, not even the most demanding of them. Rather you’ll see there’s a promise of enabling and fulfillment which is built into every such commandment. In fact you’ll say to God, “Command me to do whatever you want me to do . . . but you must enable me to do it. Make me become the transformed person you have ordered me to be.” So if God commands us to be transformed you must ask him to show you from the Bible what that entails, and then, cry to him to help you. Then you must go for it, with all your might and mane. Go for it! That is God’s way of sanctification.
Let me give you an equation: U + DH + Z = T. Let me explain that to you. Understanding plus Divine Help plus our Zeal equals Transformation. Remember that this equation is coming to you in a sermon during Sunday worship when you are surrounded by your brothers and sisters. In other words, the framework in which this equation is set is the worshipping fellowship of God’s people. It is not set in the framework of the isolated marathon runner plodding through a bleak countryside, never seeing anyone else, with a blister on his foot and a stitch in his side. I am taking it for granted that because you are here with us all, under the sanctifying word of God and we are studying a letter written to a congregation of God’s people that you are growingly aware that you are not a Christian Lone Ranger, that we are all in this together, and we are all under the demands of U + DH + Z = T. I doubt whether anyone in the world has ever been transformed without being around others who’ve always been there to counsel them to make wise choices week after week. All of us limping Christians have tried what this age has had to offer us, and that drove us to despair. So we have sought the mercy of God, and now we are determined to become transformed people. We have not said, “I’m too old.” We have not said, “It is too late for me.” We have not said, “I am too great a sinner.” We have made up our minds. There is no going back to living like this age. We are going to be transformed, yes we are going to be transformed. We are committed to changing ourselves by divine help. We are going to be transformed and so we are zealously commit
ted to U + DH + Z = T. Let me break this equation down.
Understanding. What does Paul mean by being transformed? Let me tell you this. It is not a matter of Christian students noticing what fashions are popular in the University just now and wearing the very opposite. It is not about hearing what the students are listening to on their Ipods today and then buying something totally different. It is not about being the odd man out. It is not about being cranky. It is not about wearing a bowler hat or crinolines. There are plenty of different people who are not Christians. Transformation is not a matter of doing the opposite of non-Christians. It is this, that we do what Paul says here, we “test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.” We hear the will of God and we put it to the test, and approve of it every single time. In other words we do not theorize about what the will of God might be, we actually test it in daily practice; we do it. We have it in the Bible, and what our whole life consists of is testing and approving God’s will. God says, “Be this sort of husband” and we test and approve his will. Yes that is the only sort of husband any man should be. “Be this sort of employee . . . be this sort of preacher . . . treat your enemy like this . . . forgive those who have hurt you” and that is what we do. We are putting to the test and approving of God’s will day by day. So first we understand what God’s will is for our relationships and activities week by week.
Divine Help. As we do the will of God we are crying mightily to the Lord to assist us. “I can never be the sort of wife and mother I ought to be without help from you, Lord. Fill me with your Spirit, to do what is your good, pleasing and perfect will. Strengthen me! Give me backbone. I need power from on high to live like this. Lord I am such a weakling. Help me!” We must cry mightily to God for his assistance. Paul is going to evangelise and church plant. There is a great effective door open to him but there are many adversaries. They won’t welcome a man in their midst who has presented his body to God as a living sacrifice. That rejection doesn’t stop Paul but it casts him on God for help. “Pray for me!” he says. “Please join me in prayer for the challenge ahead.” So we must pray for one another and ask, “God help my sister now; she is going through such a tough time.” Prayer is simply the articulation of our faith that God is our heavenly Father.
Zeal. We don’t ask God to become the one testing and approving his will. He has no need to test and approve it. He is not the big test pilot in the sky thinking, “I wonder is it a good idea to tell them to love one another and to forgive 70 times 7?” God knows that his will is the best for us. He does not need to put it to the test, but we do! We give ourselves to doing the will of God. Let me tell you of this incident in the life of an acquaintance who one day was standing in a very busy railway station and he had some time to wait for his train. “What am I going to do with my life?” he kept thinking, and as he stood there it dawned on him that there was only one thing he could do with his life. It belonged to God; it had been redeemed by the Son of God, and so he was going to give it all to God. From that moment on he had to do God’s good, pleasing and perfect will. So he instinctively did something quite trivial; he actually made a mark on the floor of that station, and then he stood on top of it. But as he stood there he prayed in his heart this prayer; “Lord, here I am. I am yours. The rest of my life, whatever you want me to do, as your good and perfect will is made known to me, I will do it. The attitudes you want me to have, I’ll make them my own. The truths you give to structure all my life and behaviour I’ll take them as my beliefs. As I hear your word preached week by week, I’ll do whatever you tell us to do. I will think as you tell me to think. I will value what you value, I will live for what you want me to live for. My purpose in life will be your purpose for me. Here I am, Lord. Help me to do with my life what you want.” So there was that private commitment, with eternal heavenly implications, which he was making on the platform of that railway station, and nobody walking around him knew that it was going on except that man and God, but from that time on God began to use him increasingly and in remarkable ways. Hundreds of lives have been changed through that man who once presented himself in a railway station as a living sacrifice, being transformed and doing God’s will, a person who lived like that for the rest of his life.
Transformation. What have I said? U + DH + Z = T. Transformation of the order that Paul is writing about in our text is achieved as we understand more and more, week by week, what is the will of God. Then we pray, “Lord, help me to live this life.” Then we commit ourselves to doing it anywhere, everywhere as we follow him. Then we are being transformed progressively, from one degree of glory to another. As the chorus goes,
Remember now, guilty sinner, that you must receive the mercy of God for past sin, through the blood of Jesus Christ, and so you have to plead “Guilty” before God. You are nowhere without that. You are not on the first rung of the transformation ladder. At the same time consciously you have to come under the Lordship of Christ in salvation and offer your body as a living sacrifice to God, and after that it’s the lifelong commitment to progressive transformation. Remember five things:
D] It can’t happen without your energy and determination.
E] It happens in the framework of being with other Christians who encourage you. “Go on brother! Go on sister!”
4. A CHRISTIAN EXPERIENCES THE RENEWING OF HIS MIND.
Paul has been exhorting them to present their bodies to God, but now he recognizes that the presenting is an inward action, it is an act of the mind. The Christian life is supremely an innner attitude isn’t it? Think of the number of times the Bible refers to this, for example, to the need to love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength. The well springs of love are all internal. Think of Jesus warning the Pharisees that they have washed and cleaned the outside of the cup but inside it is filthy. Who will drink water out of a filthy cup? You often hear the quip, “You’ve got a dirty mind.” There are people who will give a double meaning to any innocent remark, who will snigger and raise their eyebrows and embarrass you. Minds have to be renewed if bodies are going to be offered to God. Think of those great words in Philippians 2, “Let this mind be in you which was als
o in Christ Jesus our Lord” (v.5). Every Christian should aspire to the same attitude as Jesus Christ. He had the mind of a servant; he humbled himself, and made himself of no reputation and came to serve us. Let this mind be in you. Or again you find Paul telling the Ephesians to be “renewed in the spirit of your mind” (Ephs. 4:23). What an interesting phrase it is. What does it mean? It is referring to the capacity of your mind to taste and see the spirit of a thing – a novel, a party, a TV programme, a sermon, a man asking you for money, a prayer, a worship song, a friendship. I think of Charles the retired blacksmith of Builth Wells. He left school at 14 and he is now over a hundred years of age and yet he is in church each Sunday and always gets up and thanks the visiting speaker with pertinent words and he is exhorting the congregation. His wife brightly plays the organ each Sunday. Their minds have been deeply renewed, and so they have lived holy and upright lives for decades. People like that can sense the rottenness of temptation long before others, and they turn away before the least contamination happens. They can taste an opportunity for service and say kindly words before others who would miss the chance.
Mind renewal is a steady spiritual change as to how Christians assess and value things, and that’s why Old Testament Christians prayed, “Open my eyes that I may see”, “Let the eyes of my heart be enlightened,” and “Cause me, O Lord, to taste and see that you are good.” These are all pleas to the Lord that he will give new discernment to approve what is good and beautiful and true and noble and worthy of praise. Imagine going through life never having learned that! Imagine that you gave your enthusiasm and excitement to what is mean and tawdry. Don’t do it! Cry to God that he will renew your mind.
How do you get your mind renewed? You are helped most of all in a gospel church where you have the exposition of the Scriptures on Sundays when you join with other men and women who have received the mercy of God and they also are presenting their bodies to the Lord as their spiritual worship. You come together and you hear once again what the truth is. You won’t get that in the office, or in the school, or in the university. There you’ll get the spirit of the age and that is wrecking the lives of so many, but as you sit under the Bible, and its truths are laid on your heart then the spirit of your mind is renewed. Think of Jesus doing this to the two men on the road to Emmaus and how their minds changed from utter despair to ones burning with hope. Your mind is also renewed in personal and group Bible study, when you sit down with the Word of God. When you are confused and don’t know where you are and where to turn, then it is essential that you renew your mind by reading through a chapter, and thinking it through, and letting its implication sink into your mind. Then you get back to your routine and determine that your life will be in line with the Word of God. The rest of this letter to the Romans describes for us what it means to live with a renewed mind, un-conformed to the spirit of the age. We don’t live by rivalry and jealousy and hatred and short tempers, but by presenting our bodies to God day by day, and renewing our minds. This is the only exciting life, one that overcomes and conquers in the name of Jesus. A life that gives in to sin and temptation week after week, year after year, is a wretched unhappy life.
I don’t know what you’re all going to be doing this week. Some of you have exams and there are all the chores of running a home and a family. We all know that living a Christian life isn’t something that’s done simply in church. It is done wherever you are, but it starts in your minds, with a change in your thinking. You don’t let yourself think like other people around you think. That can only come as you are exposed to the truth as it is in Jesus.
Now, what are you going to do with your life? Will you ever meet a more important question than that? There was a servant who was entrusted something of great value by his master and he was asked to use it, and make it grow and do good with it, but you know what he did? He buried it and kept it just like it was. His master was grieved and angry with him. Are you going to wrap your life up in a napkin of affluence and bury it for forty years of self-indulgence? I warn you that that would be the dullest experience you could have. When you finally get before the throne of God, you’ll find out that you’ve wasted your life. He gave you intelligence, and a spirit that could know him. He set eternity in your heart. He gave you a healthy body with resilience and endurance. What have you done with it? Did you give him back the life you owed? Was there fruit and jewels and blessings that you could bring to him?
What have we learned from these opening words? To say to God, “Lord, here’s my body. I have trouble with it, and I’m sorry, but before any more years have passed I give it to you. Take it. I give it to you for the rest of my life, to be your instrument for whatever you want.” God says, “Yes, I’ll take it.” And then you self-consciously determine to change your whole life in keeping with the body that now belongs to God, you recognize the systematic brainwashing of the world and reject it You constantly renew your thinking in the truth as it is found in Jesus and the Bible, then I tell you that you’ll live a fulfilled life. More than that; our Lord Jesus said, “I have come that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” For every one of his people God makes their lives abundant in service, in satisfaction, in experience, in love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control. Such a life is beyond what you ever dreamed. It will never be dull. There are times when it will be awfully hard as you carry a cross, but it will never be boring. What are you going to do with your life?
For those of you who have never given yourself to God, this is the place. I beg you, brothers, to present your bodies as living sacrifices unto him. Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, and you will prove that God’s will is not only good, but it is pleasing and perfect, as well. Don’t go away just as you came here. Please don’t. Don’t shrug off the impact of these words. Don’t say, “He’s a good preacher,” no, please don’t say that. Don’t go on like a tired rebel, just as you have been living for too long. Present your body to God. Be transformed. Don’t live like the world. It is dying all around us. Be renewed.
25th January 2009 GEOFF THOMAS