I cannot tell you how many times I have heard in a sermon or Bible class Romans 12:1-2. I am not certain how many times I have quoted this verse at different times to different people. It is a powerful verse on its own. But it is an even more powerful verse when heard in its original context. In Romans 9-11 Paul was working through God’s plan for Israel and how God had made good on and continues to make good on His promises to the patriarchs. These three chapters are littered with references to God’s grace, mercy, and plan for all people (but especially Israel). In chapter 11, Paul gives the analogy of the Olive tree that has branches of those who put their faith in Christ and how God is merciful to both the branches in the tree but also branches not yet in the tree (whether from a wild olive tree like the Gentiles or branches that had previously been pruned from the tree – apostate Jews who did not believe in Christ as Lord). Paul concludes chapter 11 with a doxology (a word which comes from the combination of two Greek words 1) doxa = glory and 2) logos = word) about the glory of God in all of these things. God is most glorious in terms of his beneficent offer of salvation to all who believe.
Hearing Romans 12:1-2 in light of the preceding verses (context):
In light of all that grace and mercy and in light of the metaphor of the olive tree and God’s gracious acts of pruning and grafting Paul calls them to offer their bodies as a living sacrifice (12:1). I have always viewed this verse pretty much out of context. Romans 11 is hard to understand and who here knows the rest of what Romans 12 is all about? Romans 12:1-2 is typically used as a prooftext for our need for spiritual transformation, to prove that all we do in life is seen by God as worship, or to teach people about total self-sacrifice. But I don’t believe I have ever heard these verses discussed in the context of all Paul has said in Romans 1-11 and how God treats all people with grace and mercy and is striving with great efforts to bring reconciliation to the world (Romans 8). You would have thought the fact that Paul starts this chapter with the word “therefore” might have prompted myself and others to actually take into serious consideration the preceding verses! It is in light of all of these things that we must hear Paul speak these words to us today so that we hear them as Paul intended for them to be heard and not as a proof text to talk solely about spiritual transformation:
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God-this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transfored 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.” – Romans 12:1-2
I am convinced that these verses cannot stand on their own without an understanding of the broader scope of Romans and the road Paul has taken to bring the hearers of this letter to this point. I am also convinced that Paul still does have the example of the olive tree in mind as he pens the verses that follow in Romans 12 as he continues making the same points in Romans 12:3-21 as he did in Romans 11:11-24, namely that God is the gracious yet stern gardener who is pruning his olive tree graciously…therefore the branches ought not think too highly of themselves but instead, must work together in all things to bring unity to their fellow believers.
There is More to Spiritual Transformation Than Meets the Eye:
I really like Cranfield’s translation of Romans 12:2 because I think it makes Paul’s point in a much clearer way than any other translation I have found – “And stop letting yourselves be conformed to this age, but continue to let yourselves be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Here, Cranfield captures the middle voice in Greek of the word that is translated “conformed” and the passive voice of the word “transformed.” Typically, when we think about Romans 12:2 we think of transformation as something we do. But Paul is clear in using the passive voice that this is something that is done to us, by God. We cannot do enough spiritual disciplines to bring about transformation. We cannot pray enough, study enough, or earn our transformation by the sweat of our brow. It must be done to us, by God through his mercy. That sure says a lot that God is willing to transform those, like us, who have a pretty unholy track record! But he does. He does so mercifully and lovingly because in his transformative work in our lives he is bringing to completion in us what he had designed and planned for mankind since the beginning – to create a holy people for himself from among all nations.