Rethinking Romans 12:1-2 – Hear it Again, Only This Time in Context

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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.

9 Responses

  1. Great post Matt. I’ve done the same thing you suggest. I’ve gravitated towards the pericopes in Romans I thought I already understood, preached them that way, but missed the mark in so doing. Thanks for bringing this to the attention of your readers.

    Jack Reese in The Body Broken gives the most thorough, yet concise, summation of the book of Romans that I have ever read. He does the same with Ephesians as well in that book. Simply amazing when you see it contextually!

  2. Thanks for helping me remember that all of scripture must be read in context. I forgot this so easily most of the time.

    The only thing I would say about spiritual disciplines is that they can be useful in helping us create space in our lives so that God can transform us. You are right to point out that only God can transform us, but I believe that our job is to allow God to work in our lives and spiritual disciplines can help us slow down and quiet our busy lives so that God has something to work with. We must always keep in mind, however, that no action that we do will transform us or save us.

    Thanks for the thoughts!


  3. Matthew,

    Great point! That came out loud in clear in our men’s class discussion tonight. Spiritual disciplines are still important but it makes a difference from which direction we approach them. If we approach them to play the spiritual checkbox game then we miss the point and if we do them as if in and of themselves they will perfect us or transform us we miss the point. I think you are right on the money in that we have to do our best to put ourselves in the right posture for God to use us and that posture is best described as one of submission.

  4. Perhaps a related thought is that, after talking about old Israel in the last three chapters, he now contrasts that with the new people of God – the new Israel, which is itself a living sacrifice. Or to put it another way, the old people of God offered dead animal sacrifices while the new people of God – the church – are offering themselves as a living sacrifice. The old Israel often failed to please God because they turned their offering of sacrifices into a legalistic ritual that was about self-righteousness, and neglected good living built around faith in the God of grace. The new Israel will offer what is pleasing to God when their whole lives are offered in spiritual service built around good living, but always based on the righteousness of Christ which God in his grace grants his people. Understanding this requires changed thinking!

  5. Hello, just wondering if anyone can help. I read and translate Greek but cannot understand how ἀνακαινώσεως can be a noun. I would have thought it should have been a participle or at least an infinitive. How is ‘renewal a noun’ and how does it relate to the previous pres/imp/pass?

    Thank you

    1. Kit,

      This word is only used twice in the New Testament and both times are from Paul. This is the first and the second is in Titus 3:5. In Romans 12:2 it seems to me that it is a noun (dative, singular feminine). I wonder if it is more literally translated “by the renewal” (noun) rather than “renewing” (verb). I looked around to see if any translations used that approach and the only one I noticed that did is the ESV. I guess translators want to give this the effect of an ongoing renewing rather than what sounds like a one time shot of renewal. Hope that helps.

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