The New Mind (Romans 12)
While he was president of Princeton Seminary, Dr. John Mackay was heard to say, “Commitment without reflection is fanaticism in action. But reflection without commitment is the paralysis of all action.”76
These two extremes have always threatened the ongoing ministry of the church of Jesus Christ. There are those who are content to learn doctrine but sense no urgency to put what they know into practice. On the other hand, there are the pragmatists who want to know only what seems to work. They are too busy to reflect upon the principles which underlie their activity. They are something like the young undergraduate from Melbourne, Australia, who was attending a conference in Sweden. When this student learned that a student protest had begun at his own university, he wrung his hands in dismay. “I wish I were back home,” he cried. “I’d have been in it. What’s it all about?”77
There are many Christians today who are up to their necks in activity and ministry, but who unfortunately have little idea what it’s all about. There are some brethren who would encourage us to get away from cold and sterile doctrine and saturate ourselves with experience. There are those Christians who are sincerely and rightly concerned with the poor, the oppressed and the downtrodden of the world, but they have given little or no thought to some basic issues such as the biblical principles relative to cooperation and affiliation with apostolic denominations and organizations in meeting their needs.
As we approach Romans 12, we see that Paul avoids both these extremes. He avoids the extreme of reflection without commitment by challenging every Christian to a life of service. He avoids the danger of activity without reflection by instructing us that the Christian experience is the outgrowth of a transformed mind, a thought-process molded not by the world, but by the Word of God.
Romans 12 begins the last major section of this great epistle. In chapters 1-3a, Paul began by demonstrating every man’s need of a righteousness greater than he can establish by his own works. In chapters 3b-5, Paul proclaims that a God-kind of righteousness has been provided in the Person and work of Jesus Christ. This is a righteousness acceptable to God and available to all men on the basis of faith, and not works. Chapters 6-8 instruct us concerning the necessity of sanctification. Although sanctification is positionally necessary (chapter 6), it is humanly impossible (chapter 7). The solution is to be found in the provision of the Third Person of the Godhead, the Holy Spirit (chapter 8).
In chapters 9-11, Paul has turned his attention to a haunting question, the explanation of Israel’s failure in the light of God’s Old Testament covenant with Abraham and all of the promises of blessing upon Israel. In chapter 9, Paul reminds us that God never promised blessings for every physical descendant of Abraham and that God’s blessings were not based upon national origin or upon works, but on the sovereign choice of God in election. In chapter 10, Israel’s failure is related to her unbelief. She rejected the salvation offered to her by her Messiah, Jesus Christ. In chapter 11 we are comforted by the fact that Israel’s present rejection is neither total (there is a faithful remnant) nor permanent (her restoration follows the ‘times of the Gentiles’). God has used Israel’s rejection to bring Gentiles to salvation, and He will use Gentile belief to bring Jews to faith. So God’s purposes in history are being accomplished in a way totally unexpected and beyond our highest expectations.
The Christian Response to God’s Grace
Chapter 11 ends with a paean of praise to the wisdom and mercy of our God. But words alone are inadequate for the worship of such a God. Our response to the grace of God must extend to the worship of God by our works as well as our words. In verses 1 and 2 of chapter 12, Paul summarizes the acts of worship which the grace of God should inspire in the life of the Christian, the presentation of our physical bodies to God as instruments of righteousness and the transformation of our minds from a mind-set dictated by the world, to that declared by the Word.
Verses 3-8 focus our attention to the use of this renewed mind with respect to our spiritual gifts. The grace of God bestowed to us is also a grace to be bestowed through us by the use of God’s gifts. Verses 9-21 broaden the focus to the renewed mind as it relates to our response to people and life’s circumstances. Here the grace of God is to be reflected in our human relationships.
To return to the big picture for a moment, chapters 1-3a inform us that a God-kind of righteousness is required for salvation. Chapters 3b-5 instruct us that a God-kind of righteousness has been revealed in Jesus Christ. Chapters 6-8 tell us that a God-kind of righteousness can be realized in the Christian life through the power of the Holy Spirit. God’s righteousness is vindicated in chapters 9-11, and in chapters 12-15 the righteousness of God is to be practically reflected in the life of the Christian.
Primary Features of Paul’s Call to Commitment in Romans 12:1-2. Familiarity often breeds contempt and since we have heard the words of Romans 12:1 and 2 so often, we might think we will learn nothing new from them. Because we have time to merely survey the major features of chapter 12 let me draw your attention to several dimensions of Paul’s call to dedication and service.
(1) This call is for dedication and service in response to divine grace. Paul has consistently taught that the distinguishing features of Christianity are grace and faith. The dedication of the Christian is urged ‘because of’ the mercies of God described in previous chapters. It is not ‘in order to’ win God’s favor, but to express our deep gratitude for this grace and submission to His sovereignty. The terms ‘urge,’ ‘therefore’ and ‘mercies’ suggest that here is no demand of the Law, but a beseeching of grace.
(2) Paul’s exhortation encompasses both an initial commitment and subsequent follow-up. Generally speaking, we hear these verses used as an appeal to re-dedicate our lives to Christ. Often, because the appeal is emotional and without a proper doctrinal foundation, the individual is urged to periodically re-dedicate his life to Christ again. The tense of the infinitive ‘to present’ is such that it should be a final and decisive decision, something like the marriage commitment.
While verse one lays stress upon an initial and life-long commitment, verse two emphasizes the continuing obligation of the Christian in the service of worship which we owe God. Just as the marriage commitment needs to be consistently carried out, so our consecration to God must be manifested moment by moment.
(3) The presentation of our minds and bodies to God is preliminary to specific divine guidance. “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). All too often we desire God to submit His plan for our life as a proposal to us, and then we determine whether or not to ratify it. Such cannot be the case, for we see in these verses the principle of dedication before direction. Divine guidance comes as a result of dedication. God does not ‘cast His pearls before swine,’ nor does He reveal His directive will to the uncommitted.
(4) Dedication and service to God are an act of worship.78 Our Lord told the Samaritan woman that God seeks those who will worship Him in spirit and in truth. Paul concluded his defense of the righteousness of God in His dealings with both Jews and Gentiles with a paean of praise and worship. But worship extends beyond praise and adoration to service. I heard of a husband who told his wife that he loved her so much he would die for her. “That won’t be necessary,” she replied, “just pick up that dish towel and help me dry these dishes.” So, also, the service of the Christian is viewed as an act of worship: “I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship” (Romans 12:1).
(5) The presentation of ourselves to God is a sacrificial act. In the Old Testament dispensation, men expressed worship and devotion to God by means of sacrifice. So the presentation of our bodies is couched in sacrificial terminology.79 The nature of our sacrifice is different from that in the past in that it is a ‘living sacrifice’ (verse 1). Although the commitment of our lives to God can be identified with a point in time, our sacrifice is continual. And service to God is truly sacrificial. That is, saying no to our own desires, preferences, and tendencies is a sacrifice. Serving others in preference to ourselves is a sacrifice. The dedication and service Paul pleads for is that which subordinates our own interests to God’s and to other’s. As someone has put it: God first, others second; and self last.
(6) Our dedication involves both mind and body. In the Greek world as in our own, there was a very real need for emphasis upon the need to present our bodies as living and holy instruments to God.80 There was a prevalent view that the body was evil and that the mind was good. Consequently, there was little concern given to the deeds performed in the flesh. But it is not our physical bodies that are totally depraved; it is all our old nature. The new life of the Christian should be manifested through the body.
Thomas Manton, the Puritan minister, who at one time was Oliver Cromwell’s chaplain, likened a disobedient Christian to a child suffering from rickets: “Rickets cause great heads and weak feet. We are not only to dispute of the word, and talk of it, but to keep it. We must neither be all ear, nor all head, nor all tongue, but the feet must be exercised!81
There was in Paul’s day (and is in ours as well) the opposite extreme of mere externalism and ritual where the body was employed without the mind. Paul calls for the dedication of both mind and body to divine service. Our dedication to God is based upon doctrine,82 rationally comprehended and responded to.83 As the NASV marginal note to verse 1 indicates, our dedication is a rational act of worship.
The late Dr. Rufus M. Jones used to tell the story of the man who protested, “Whenever I go to church, I feel like unscrewing my head and placing it under the seat, because in a religious meeting I never have any use for anything above my collar button!”84
As we can see from this text, Christian dedication is not only based upon a mental apprehension of doctrine (eleven chapters of it!), but it is a life-long process of reshaping our entire outlook on life. We are to stop being squeezed into the mold of the world (to use J. B. Phillip’s terminology), and to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Salvation commences the dawn of a new age to come. We have our citizenship changed from an earthly kingdom to a heavenly one. We are now strangers and pilgrims (Philippians 3:20; 1 Peter 2:11; cf. Hebrews 11:13).
This calls for a change of allegiance, a new system of values. As we shall learn from chapter 13, it is no license to cast off the restrictions and regulations of civil government, but it does subject us to a higher law, the law of love.
The dedicated Christian is not one whose actions are shaped by his personal whims and desires, nor does he conform to the values and goals of the world about him. The Christian is one whose life is conformed to the Word of God and whose whole thought process is being re-shaped. Just as at the fall, man’s intellectual facilities were corrupted, so the Christian experience should be a life-long process of restructuring our thinking in conformity to God’s Word and God's Will.