Published during: August 2013

Seek Joy—Where It Lives

There are times when the goals we set ourselves—like writing a blog post about one’s devotions every night—come second to the more important things in our lives. Things like spending time with the people we love, especially when they are facing struggles in their lives. It is easy to allow good goals to supercede the reasons and meaning for those goals. I want to write every day because it is good for me. I want to love my wife well much more than I want to write every night, though, and as such, I spent time with her instead of writing on my normal devotional topic, because she was having a bad day.1

This sort of decision is one that I have learned time and again is at the root of expressing Christ-like love to others, and especially in marriage. We, like Christ, are to die to ourselves and love others by setting aside what would be most immediately pleasurable for us and seeking instead the good of the other—at whatever cost to ourselves. This is not easy; indeed it can be painful and difficult at times to set aside one’s own desires for the good of others.2 But the reward—oh, the reward is far greater than the price we pay.

We see this in Christ’s work for us: he endured the cross, scorning its shame—but not simply because doing so was good on its own merits. Rather, the joy that he expected as the outcome of his doing so was the impetus behind his actions. Lest we think him acting selfishly, his joy is in our salvation and the Father’s glory. As C. S. Lewis points out,3 real joy is always found in seeking the good of others, rather than pursuing our own selfish ends. The joys we find in gratifying our own desires, rather than seeking to bless others, are shallow, pitiful things that fade quickly and are bitter in the end. The joy we find in seeking to put others first—above all, seeking to put God first—is lasting, profound, and sweet even in times of trial or pain.

So when tempted to do your own thing, don’t. Seek the joy God has set before you—the joy that comes in being sanctified, that comes in knowing God as he really is, that comes in finding the beauty and the value of others to be so much better than whatever selfish pursuit you might embrace instead. Die to yourself, lose the world, and gain everything. The alternative is to gain something temporarily, but lose everything in the end. Seek your joy where it is truly to be found: in loving God with all your heart and loving your neighbor—which is to say, that stranger on the side of the road, and also your spouse—as yourself.

  1. I am, instead, snatching out ten minutes just before bed to write this, much less reflective and with not a direct reference to Scripture (still less what I read today) to be found. 
  2. Jaimie, if and when you read this, take note: I am speaking of the troubles that face us all in dying to self. I enjoyed spending time with you tonight, and it was not burdensome to me. 
  3. Somewhere in some book I do not have close at hand at the moment. 

The Great and Humble God

I am writing up reflections on my devotions every day for six weeks. This is one of those posts.

He Saw Yahweh

In Genesis 18, Abraham has just finished following God’s instructions about circumcision. At 100 years old, he circumcised himself, along with his 13-year-old son and all his servants and the other members of his household, to obey this God who had called him from his homeland to a place where he would always be a sojourner, looking forward with hope to the homeland God had promised but which he himself would not inherit. (There is real obedience for you: embrace circumcision so that someone else will get the reward God promises…)

Then, sitting in the shade one hot afternoon, Abraham looks and sees Yahweh,1 standing there as a man he recognizes. At that point, this 100-year-old man (who, granted, lived to be 160 and therefore was probably like a man in his mid to late 50s physically) got up and ran to prepare a feast for his God. There are many interesting things in this passage, but most notable to me tonight was the way Yahweh came to Abraham and interacted with him throughout the passage. That is: he came as a man2 and ate with Abraham and spoke with him. Of course, he spoke prophetically about impossibilities that he was going to bring about; this condescension was not his ceasing to be God but his taking on a form so that Abraham could know him.

So here we have at once two concrete realities that continue to shape the reader’s expectations for what God will do in the future: the promise of a miraculous son born to bring about his promise, and Yahweh himself coming as a man to relate to his people.

Over the Waters

Coming after a series of prayerful Psalms, the 29th is a complete change in tone. Each of the Psalms preceding it are prayers for deliverance from evildoers and from Yahweh’s judgment on one’s own wickedness. Here, though, we have David calling on the heavenly host to ascribe to Yahweh all the glory he is due, and a crescendo of declarations of the power of Yahweh’s voice. This God of glory3 is over all, his voice thundering and shaking even the greatest things on this earth. He is worthy for the heavenly host to ascribe him glory and strength, to be worshipped in the splendor of holiness. He is enthroned in his temple; he sits as king forever.

And this is the God who walked with Abraham, who let Abraham challenge him and his judgments. The Judge of all the earth, whose powerful and majestic voice can cause an earthquake or strip the forest bare, has become one of us.

  1. This passage highlights one more reason why I prefer simply to use God’s self-revealed name: early on, Abraham calls him “lord,” but not “Lord,” which is simply confusing if you’re not paying close attention. 
  2. Apparently pre-incarnate Christ, semi- or pseudo-incarnate, which is curious, but not the point of the passage. 
  3. This relatively innocuous phrase, right in the middle of verse 3, has been one of the most important in my life. Five years ago, reading through the Psalms much as I am right now, the phrase leapt out at me, because I had no idea what it meant to describe Yahweh as the “God of glory.” A month later, my whole theological framework had been turned on its head, from the anthropocentric view that unfortunately characterizes too much evangelical theology, to a radically God-centered view that accords with the Scriptural picture of a God who is working all things for his own sake, and not because of us at all—though how greatly we benefit! 

The best summary I’ve seen from a white guy on the complexity of race relations:

I often feel like we are drowning in the sins of the past. Working at this is like swimming across of river of mud. Every inch of progress is hard-won, and the shore seems far away. When I taught US History, I emphasized that slavery was not only a sin, it was a systematic sin infecting an entire culture, and such sins have a lasting effect.

What does one do for the man who is on the losing end of this cycle? Perhaps he has come to the point in his life where he wants to get things straightened out. Perhaps he realizes that it isn’t all someone else’s fault, and that he needs to take responsibility. We give him the gospel, we try to help him shore up his education in some small way, we try to help him sort out his legal and debt problems, and we point him towards a job.

But when we are done, he still lives in a dying city with low employment and poor churches. He’s still single, often supporting (or not supporting) children. He carries with him a criminal record and a lifetime of learned habits which do him little good. And he’s not getting any younger.

That individual perspective must be remembered. It is true that the weakness of families in the African American community is a huge problem, but what good does it do to wag a finger in that man’s face and say, “You blacks need to be better husbands and fathers!”

—Tom Chantry in a comment (the original article is helpful, as well).

Uncontainable Song

I am writing up reflections on my devotions every day for six weeks. This is one of those posts.

Psalm 28 is not complex poetry, though it is beautiful. David opens with a plea for mercy, asking Yahweh not to destroy him alongside the wicked. He spends some time describing the wicked men he has in mind—men who do evil, who are hypocrites toward their neighbors, who do not regard Yahweh’s works as they should. Then he praises Yahweh for answering that plea. It is not the propositional content in and of itself that gives the psalm its particular value; these ideas are found throughout the Psalms, as well as throughout Scripture. Rather, it is the particular way David put them together, and the particular response for which the psalm calls.

Poetry is designed not merely to communicate content but to move the heart.1 The fear of judgment is heavy in the first section. The second sequence paints a vivid picture of the men David has in mind. I described them above, but the poetry works far better on its own terms:

Do not drag me off with the wicked,
with the workers of evil,
who speak peace with their neighbors
while evil is in their hearts.
Give to them according to their work
and according to the evil of their deeds;
give to them according to the work of their hands;
render them their due reward.
Because they do not regard the works of the Lord
or the work of his hands,
he will tear them down and build them up no more.

David wants nothing to do with these kinds of people, and he wants very much not to be like them. He wants God to judge them, and he yearns not to be judged himself. So when he comes to the second half of the Psalm, we should feel the change. “Do not drag me off with the wicked… he will tear them down and build them up no more. / Blessed be Yahweh!” The sharp transition, the sudden turn from the fearful expectation of judgment toward praising Yahweh, should catch our attention and make us demand an answer.

David supplies us the answer, of course, in beautiful phrases:

For he has heard the voice of my pleas for mercy.
The Lord is my strength and my shield;
in him my heart trusts, and I am helped;
my heart exults,
and with my song I give thanks to him.

The Lord is the strength of his people;
he is the saving refuge of his anointed.

The plea David offered to begin has been answered. Our plea with David has been answered. Yahweh saves. But the response is not simply an acknowledgement of a fact: This is true. David’s response is exulting and singing. Exultation is elation and jubilation. This salvation warrants more than mere recitation of facts or even some degree of happiness. It deserves the kind of excited joy that comes bursting out of the heart in uncontainable song.

Yahweh saves. Hallelujah. Hallelujah!

  1. One of the reasons lots of evangelicals struggle with the Psalms: Americans are, by and large, no longer people are who read much poetry. For most evangelicals, the Psalms are it, in fact. Combine this with our already-strong tendency to treat the Scriptures as a source of propositions, and it’s no wonder we struggle to appreciate the Psalms as poetry. 

You Are The Messiah

I am writing up reflections on my devotions every day for six weeks. This is one of those posts.

Matthew waits until he is some 16 chapters into his text1 to start explicitly saying what the whole book has said implicitly thus far, and what the annunciation at the beginning proclaimed loud and clear: Jesus is the Messiah, the one to whom all the hopes and expectations engendered by the Old Testament pointed. “Who do you say that I am?” he asks. And Peter’s answer, ringing down through the ages, is still breath-taking in its assurance and simple truth: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”2

Most of the sermons I have heard on Matthew 16 focus on Peter—on his statement of the bedrock truth of our faith, or on his need of rebuke just a few verses later, or even on the question of Petrine authority over the church. Not many stop to notice how pivotal this chapter is in the flow of Matthew as a whole. Not many recognize that for the first time, Jesus openly accepts being called the Messiah, and openly proclaims what the Messiah will do—that is, die. Yes, Peter first got it amazingly, remarkably right and then got it equally amazingly, remarkably wrong. But at least as important here is the picture of who the Messiah is and what he is about.

Matthew spent 15 chapters getting here—laying the foundation in Jesus’ teaching, his miraculous healings, and specific fulfillments of some prophecies and “filling up” of others3—so that when Jesus acknowledges Peter’s claim, the reader is not only unsurprised, but delightedly saying, “Yes!” because Jesus’ words and actions to this point confirm everything the prologue declared to be true of him. This is important, in no small part, because then Matthew turns around and hits the reader in the face with the unexpected: Jesus plans to be crucified.

Who plans that? Peter’s confusion is understandable (even if his response was ultimately so wrong that Jesus aligned Peter with Satan for trying to prevent it). No one plans to be crucified. But this Messiah does. Good thing we’re already convinced he’s the Messiah.

And then? Then Jesus tells us that whoever wants to follow him—whoever wants to “come after” him—needs to embrace that same cross. The call to follow this Messiah isn’t a call to immediate glory, and a kingdom of this world. It is a call to self-sacrifice, to lose the world and gain one’s soul. It is a call to live in such a way that when the Son of Man returns with his holy angels in judgment, we will not be ashamed.

As I closed yesterday: Lord come soon!—but in light of his coming, how shall we live? Come and die, he says. Come and die.

  1. Yes, I know, the chapters weren’t in the original. It’s still over halfway through the book. 
  2. Your Bible will say “Christ” almost certainly. It isn’t being used as the titular name here (“Jesus Christ”), though; this is Peter declaring his understanding that Jesus was the hoped-for Jewish Messiah. 
  3. It is helpful, when reading through Matthew, to understand that the word our English Bibles translate as “fulfill” also has an ordinary, non-prophetic meaning of “fill up.” Following G. K. Beale, I actually think it should be translated this way in most of the cases where it appears in Matthew. Many of the otherwise challenging interpretive issues—what does it mean that he fulfilled thus-and-such a passage which isn’t talking about him?—become clear if you understand Matthew to be saying, “He filled this passage up with more meaning than was there before,” rather than “He fulfilled this prophecy that was referring to him [even though it wasn't].” 

One Day, Hopefully Soon

I am writing up reflections on my devotions every day for six weeks. This is one of those posts.

Eschatology is a big word, but it’s an even bigger concept. The things to come —the things we do not yet see fully—are hard to grasp. Not so hard for us, perhaps, as they were for those who came before us. In Genesis 15, Abram1 received a number of promises. None of them were exactly easy to believe: here he was, closing in on a century old, and his always-barren wife in the same category,2 and God promises him a child from his own body. More than that, God promised him descendants that would outnumber the stars, or the sand on the seashore.

That promise has been fulfilled. In fact, it has been fulfilled doubly: first by the nation of Israel, in the course of her long history from Abraham to the time of Christ, and then through those many of us who have been grafted in since then. Just as Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6), so we have been counted righteous as we believe God, and now the number of those from the nations dwarfs even that of the Jews.

There is another promise there that wasn’t fulfilled, though—at least, not all the way. In verses 18–21, God promises Abram that his descendants will inherit a massive territory. Israel never did, though. The Hebrews’ national territory, relatively substantial though it was at its peak, certainly never made it anywhere near the Euphrates on its eastern edge. Some might take this an example of the Bible’s fallibility. I don’t; I take it instead as a picture of things yet to come.

This kind of eschatological situation is common in the Bible. A promise is made, and the fulfillment comes, but only in part, never wholly. Even the Messianic promises, which we often think of as fulfilled in Christ, remain incomplete. They found their first and partial fulfillment in his first coming, just as the promises to Abraham were fulfilled first, partially, in the nation of Israel, and then again more fully in the nations (you and me, unless you’re a Jewish convert), and then finally someday when Jesus returns and the New Jerusalem is here on earth.

It is not a stretch to say that “eschatological hope”—mouthful though the phrase may be—is one of the defining characteristics of Christians. We are the people of “already but not yet” who are incomparably glad of what God has already done and impossibly hopeful about what he will someday do.

The nation of Israel got a taste of what the final fulfillment will be like as Jesus walked among them. Matthew 15 reiterates what Matthew 11 first made clear: Jesus is the one who fulfills the promises of God’s final setting things to rights—the mute speaking, the crippled healthy, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. But they did not see it finished. Jesus did not heal every person on the earth; we still have the mute and crippled and lame and blind among us, and all of us yet will die.

But there will come a day when he comes back, and those promises to Abraham are fulfilled in their entirety at last, and the hopes engendered by a prophet offering healing in the first century in Israel are realized. No more tears, no more sorrow, and we will worship our King and enjoy unbroken fellowship with God and one another in the New Jerusalem.

Hallelujah. Lord, come soon.

  1. Not Abraham yet. That’s still a ways out. 
  2. Has it ever struck you as slightly curious that this old woman was so attractive that Abram kept worrying about her getting taken away from him— apparently rightly given that she gets taken as a concubine twice? 

As Sacrifices: Living, Holy, Pleasing to God

The following paper was prepared for my Greek Syntax and Exegesis class, taught by Dr. Benjamin Merkle. I hope even the non-Greek scholars out there can get at least some profit from it.


Please enjoy the paper in PDF, EPUB3, or Kindle format for more convenient reading!



The faithful Christian must ask every day: “Believing in Christ, how shall I live?” The gospel grounds and shapes the Christian life, but the issue of how best to apply the gospel is often vexing. The interplay between the elements of salvation is sometimes difficult, both intellectually and experientially. The relationship between justification, sanctification, and glorification is complex. The experience of justification and sanctification while awaiting glorification is often painful or perplexing. Knowing, then, how to live day by day—even in a broad ethical sense—can be a major challenge for the believer who is both free from the power of sin and yet forced to confront and reject its alluring promises over and over again.

No less challenging is the question of how to discern God’s will, especially in areas that are morally neutral or ambiguous. Few passages in Scripture speak clearly to the issue, and even the examples that do exist are more often perplexing than illuminating. What exactly were the Urim and Thummim? Should believers cast lots to make decisions? What exactly did the apostles and the church at Jerusalem mean when they wrote, “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” (Acts 15:28)? These are not merely academic matters. Believers must understand how relate to God, one another, and the world if they are to glorify God in their decisions.

As Scripture makes clear, believers cannot begin to tackle these challenges without first understanding what God has done. Only then can one begin to walk out the painful path of sanctification, and only as one grows both in knowledge and in holiness can one begin to discern God’s will in matters of everyday life. Key to understanding these realities is Paul’s thought in Romans, and key to the relationship between them is Romans 12:1–2, where the apostle transitions from theology explained to theology applied, and explains clearly the relationship between the content of the gospel and the believer’s right response to the gospel.


Historical-Cultural Setting

Paul’s letter to the church at Rome is set against the backdrop of Roman rule, addressed to believers living in the center of Roman cultural and military power at or near its height.1 This situation, though not substantially affecting the interpretation of Romans 12:1–2 itself,2 does shed some light on the structure of Paul’s letter and on his choice of practical excurses in the latter section of the epistle. Specifically, the cosmopolitan nature of Rome led two realities to dominate the letter.

The first is the relationship between Jewish and Gentile believers, who seem to have been struggling (at times sinfully) to relate to one another rightly in light of the Messiah’s advent. Given the major emphasis on God’s saving relationship to both Jews and Gentiles throughout the theological consideration earlier in the book, especially in chapters 9–11, Paul’s audience was almost certainly a mix of Jews and Gentiles. The freedom professed by non-Jewish believers in the early Christian community clearly conflicted with Jewish mores drawn from the Mosaic law.3 Much of the hortatory material in the letter is concerned with resolving this conflict.

The second, which set the context for many of those ethnic and cultural conflicts, was the ever-dangerous cultural and spiritual pressure of Roman life in the middle of the first century. In particular, Greco-Roman practices of cultic and familial worship4 (especially the imperial cult and temple)5 form the backdrop and supply the cultural framework for much of the rest of Paul’s instruction following these verses. These practices were antithetical to both Jewish law and Christian doctrine. Thus, Paul’s admonitions here at the very beginning of the hortatory section of the epistle should be understood in light of these realities. When he writes to the “weak” and “strong,” he is accounting for the challenges that confronted newly mixing ethnic groups with radically different cultural and ethical backgrounds. Likewise, when he reappropriates cultic language, he borrows from both Jewish and Gentile understandings, and then reconfigures them.

Literary Setting

The exhortation offered in 12:1–2, although originally addressed to a Roman audience, is remarkably broad in character—so much so that its immediate applicability to all believers is immediately obvious.6 As such, it is far more important to understand the literary context of the passage than the cultural conditions under which the epistle was constructed. The epistle is broken into two major sections, framed by typical epistolary preliminaries and concluding materials.7 The preliminaries, as is characteristic of the Pauline epistles, serve to introduce Paul and his calling. The conclusion of the book is concerned with Paul’s appeal for aid in his upcoming missionary journey to Spain, along with his greetings to the people with whom he was acquainted in the church at Rome.

The first major section (1:16–11:36) is a lengthy expository discourse, in which Paul explains his view of the gospel and defends it at length. He variously addresses questions of individual justification and sanctification, the relationship between the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant of grace instituted by Christ, and the relationship between Jew and Gentile in this new era. Though this section is overwhelmingly explanatory in nature, Paul occasionally punctuates the progression with brief asides into hortatory material—asides to which he returns at great length once he concludes his argument. This treatise-like section of the epistle ends, in typically Pauline fashion, with a doxology (11:33–36).

The second major section (12:1–15:13) consists of a series of hortatory excurses related to the theological points Paul makes in the expository section. The various components of this second discourse are not a set of pareneses connected to the previous discussion and each other only insofar as they each relate generically to the indicatives of the gospel.8 Rather, they build on each other, and each ties back to specific elements in Paul’s explanation of the gospel—especially to the notes he sounded on the relationship between individual salvation and the people of God, and on the relationship between the Jews and Gentiles under the New Covenant. In each case, the indicative aspects of Paul’s gospel lead directly to the imperatives with which he now enjoins the Roman believers.

Within this overall structure, Romans 12:1–2 marks the transition from the first section of the book to the second, and thus from expository to hortatory discourse. As such, it serves as a heading for all of 12:1–15:13, and provides the reader with a gauge for how Paul will proceed. It also emphasing the continuity between explanation and exhortation in Paul’s thought. The imperatives he introduces are not a set of rules separate or distinct from the gospel he preaches. Rather, they flow organically out of it and depend on it, and it necessarily includes them.9

Exegesis of the Passage

Romans 12:1–2 is a straightforward text, evoking a minimum of controversy.10 On the basis of God’s mercies, Paul exhorts the Roman believers to offer themselves as a sacrifice to God. They are to accomplish this self-sacrifice by rejecting the pattern of the world and being transformed by their minds being renewed, until they can rightly discern (and obey) God’s will. This pattern of self-offering for the glory of God then serves as the matrix through which all of Paul’s following exhortations are to be understood. The passage consists of a transitionary (discourse boundary) marker, followed by two major hortatory statements: “present your bodies as a sacrifice” and “do not be conformed… but be transformed.” The use of καί here marks the second clause as subordinate; people present their bodies by means of rejecting the world’s pattern and undergoing the renewal of their minds.11 In the latter case, the statement is a compound construction with ἀλλά connecting the pair as a single unit, so that the first command (“do not be conformed”) and the second (“but be transformed”) must be understood as two halves of the same exhortation.


The first phrase (Παρακαλῶ οὖν ὑμᾶς, ἀδελφοί, “I exhort you therefore, brothers”) clearly indicates a change in topic and the transition from exposition to exhortation. The first-person present use of the word παρακαλέω is common in Paul’s letters and frequently marks the beginning of a new section in his letters.12 Moreover, the word clearly indicates the transition not only from one topic to another, but from one kind of discussion to another: from indicative-heavy exposition to imperative-heavy exhortation. Similarly, the use of the vocative and the doxology that concludes the previous section (11:33–36) are both strong discourse boundary markers. The presence of all three of these makes for an exceptionally strong indication of the change in rhetorical approach at the beginning of chapter 12.13

The word παρακαλέω can mean “comfort,” “beseech,” or “exhort,” depending on the context. In Paul’s fifty-four uses, thirty besides Romans 12:1 are taken to mean “exhort”;14 most commentators agree that the same meaning is in view here.15 Paul is not merely suggesting or recommending, but strongly urging his audience to act in certain ways in response to the gospel. As throughout the letter, Paul addresses his audience in the plural (both the direct object ὑμᾶς and the vocative ἀδελφοί); these commands are to be carried out by each individual as they participate in the life of the congregation.16

The postpostive conjunction οὖν typically carries the meaning “then” or “therefore.” While a few commentators suggest that the word here serves simply as a transition word with no connective force,17 most argue that the word should be taken with its full explanatory force.18 Indeed, given the massive shift in topic and Paul’s careful presentation of topics, each one building on the previous, it is nearly inconceivable that the word does not have its full connective force. Furthermore, the word appears in just the same way as a causal connective elsewhere in Paul’s epistles (Eph. 4:1, Col. 3:1, 1 Thess. 4:1, 2 Thess. 3:6).19 The question is not whether οὖν links the latter section of the letter to an earlier section, but how far in each direction its force proceeds. At the very least, it includes all of chapters 9–11. More likely, given the exhortations that follow and its position at the transition between major sections of the letter, οὖν indicates that Paul views all of 1:16–11:37 as the basis for the entirety of 12:1–15:13.20 As such, each part of Paul’s exhortation flows out of God’s completed work in Christ, rather than resting on human efforts for self-improvement.

The second phrase (διὰ τῶν οἰκτιρμῶν τοῦ θεοῦ, “by the mercies of God”) has been variously taken as modifying either the opening verb (παρακαλῶ, “I exhort”) or the following verb (παραστῆσαι “to present”).21 The former seems more likely: The mercies of God are the grounds for Paul’s exhortation to the Roman believers. Although some commentators have suggested that the mercies of God are the means by which believers are enabled to perform the actions Paul enjoins, or even the agency behind his own actions, it makes more sense to take the phrase as indicating the basis of all Paul’s instructions going forward.22 Indeed, Paul’s reference to “the mercies of God” clearly points back to the previous section of the book, especially 9–11.23 Again, the exhortation is not hanging freely, but is itself a part of the gospel—a part that cannot be removed without doing harm to the gospel itself.

Present your bodies as a sacrifice

Paul now moves to the first of two imperatives, instructing the believers to present (παραστῆσαι) their bodies (σώματα) as a sacrifice (θυσίαν). The sacrifice is to be living, holy, and pleasing to God (ζῶσαν ἁγίαν εὐάρεστον τῷ θεῷ). Almost every word in this sentence is laden with cultic overtones; each was used in Greco-Roman culture and Hellenistic Judaism to refer to the offering of animal sacrifices in the temples.24 However, Paul makes a pair of surprising moves, here. First, he instructs the believers to offer their own bodies as the sacrifice. Unlike the usual cultic practice, Christians do not offer up something else, but their own persons to the worship of God. Paul’s use of σῶμα here probably refers to the whole human person, but in such a way as to emphasize the physicality of human worship, thereby preventing possible misreadings of Paul’s elaboration on the mental aspects of worship in verse 2.25

Second, he qualifies “sacrifice” with three terms26—two of them are typical cultic terms (ἁγίαν, “holy,” and εὐάρεστον τῷ θεῷ, “pleasing to God”27), but the third (ζῶσαν, the first in the sequence) is rather surprising.28 Cultic sacrifices were killed in the act of offering; the Christian sacrifice goes on living, for Christ already accomplished the only death of this strange new cult. The sacrifice that Paul calls believers make is giving themselves—the totality of their embodied existenced—wholly over to worshipping God. As Moo puts it, “In Rom. 12:1… the sacrifice we offer is not some specific form of praise or service, but our ‘bodies’ themselves. It is not only what we can give that God demands; he demands the giver.”29

Nearly all commentators take the final clause in this phrase (τὴν λογικὴν λατρείαν ὑμῶν) as standing in apposition to the entire clause beginning with παραστῆσαι. That is, the whole act of offering oneself to God is the believers’ λογικὴν λατρείαν.30 The best meaning of the phrase λογικὴν λατρείαν is contested, since the semantic range of both terms is broad: λογικός can mean both “rational/reasonable” and “spiritual,” while λατρεία can mean both “service” and “worship.”31 Given the flow of Paul’s argument (particularly noting that he steps almost immediately into a discussion of the transformation of the Christian’s mind), the phrase is best taken as “reasonable worship,” where the worship that a believer offers is doubly fitting. It is an appropriate response to what God has done, and it rightly reflects the rational and volitional nature of humans beings.32 Paul has thus transformed worship from a single, morbid act in the temple to an ongoing, physical and volitional design for all of life.

Aside: On the Tenses and Meanings of παραστῆσαι, συσχηματίζεσθε, and μεταμορφοῦσθε

Many commentators have emphasized the aorist tense of παραστῆσαι, arguing that the tense indicates that believers are to offer themselves up decisively in a once-and-for-all action.33 This view cannot be sustained, however. First, as both Moo and Schreiner comment, nothing in the context suggests such a usage; indeed, the use of two present tense imperatives in the following verse militates at least somewhat against such a reading.34 Second, and more significantly, at no time in the New Testament is παρίστημι used in the present tense outside the indicative, whereas it appears thirteen times in the aorist in non-indicative moods. The act of “presenting” seems to have been telic by nature, and thus defaulted to the aorist tense outside the indicative. In context, then, Paul’s exhortation to the believers to present their bodies as a sacrifice should almost certainly be read as bearing the same ongoing force assigned to the other imperatives. In each case, this ongoing sense the “ongoing” character of these actions is suggested by the context alone.

Not Conformed but Transformed

The second major imperatival phrase, or rather, pair of phrases (μὴ συσχηματίζεσθε… ἀλλὰ μεταμορφοῦσθε… “do not be conformed… but be transformed…”) explains and elaborates on the first.35 How exactly are believers bodies to be presented as this kind of sacrifice? Paul supplies a double answer, noting both what believers must reject (the pattern of the age) and what they must embrace (the renewal of the mind), strongly contrasting the two by splitting them with the “strong adversative” ἀλλά (“but rather”).36 Both commands correspond to profound alterations in a believer’s nature, for although the Messianic age has broken into the present age, the tension between the two ages in which the believer lives remains severe.37 Thus, resisting the daily siren call of the world and living in light of Jesus’ finished work marks a deep change in the depths of a person’s nature.38 No one can offer the reasonable worship owed to God and still be persistently shaped by the age of rebellion against his good authority.

Likewise, to “be transformed” (μεταμορφοῦσθε) is not merely to acquire information and respond at some superficial level, but to experience a radical alteration of one’s mind. Just as human reason was progressively marred by the aftereffects of the Fall as sin increased (Romans 1:18–25), so human reason is progressively restored by the Spirit as holiness increases.39 The latter half of this clause (τῇ ἀνακαινώσει τοῦ νοός, “by the renewal of the mind”) is a fairly straightforward and therefore largely undisputed construction. The transformation to which believers are called to submit comes about by means of renewal (taking τῇ ἀνακαινώσει as an instrumental dative), and it is the mind itself that is the object of renewal (taking τοῦ νοός as an objective genetive). As in Colossians 3:10 and Romans 8:29, the renewal of the human person centers on Jesus Christ, into whose image the believer is being transformed.40

The final major structure in the compound sentence (εἰς τὸ δοκιμάζειν ὑμᾶς τὸ θέλημα τοῦ θεοῦ…, “so that you may be able to discern what is the will of God”) marks the purpose Paul has in mind for the believers’ rejection of this age and transformation by renewal of the mind.41 As sanctification proceeds, Christians come to more fully understand the will of God. Indeed, the transformation produces Christians “whose minds are so thoroughly renewed that [they] know from within, almost instinctively, what [they] are to do to please God in any given situation.”42 The final clause (τὸ ἀγαθὸν καὶ εὐάρεστον καὶ τέλειον) stands in apposition to τὸ θέλημα τοῦ θεοῦ, explaining that Christians discover what the will of God—that is, they discern what is good, pleasing, and perfect.43 The Christian is thus called to resist the world and pursue holiness—both ends in which he is utterly dependent on God—and promised that if he does so, he will know the will of God.


Paul’s exhortation is sufficiently straightforward that, quibbles over shades of meaning aside, the commentators agree on the substance of the passage. The challenge comes in putting into practice Paul’s commands. Submitting the entirety of one’s life as an act of worship to God is no mean task; it requires enormous humility and perseverance. The world, though being transformed by the in-breaking eschatological age, still presses in on the believer with the temptations and demands of the old age. The old, fallen mind that characterized the believer before regeneration fades only slowly. The renewal of the mind is almost never an overnight transformation but instaed a gradual experience along the path of sanctification.

It is no coincidence, then, that Paul spent so much time on the indicatives of the gospel, emphasizing time and again the mercies of God shown to Jew and Gentile alike. Nor is it an accident that his exhortations in 12:3–15:13 all entail the life of the community. The Christian cannot hope to faithfully give himself over as a sacrifice to the glory of God if he does not see how God gave himself as a sacrifice first. Nor can the believer successfully resist the lures of the present age and submit to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit—the desperately needed renewal of the mind that allows the believer to clearly perceive the will of God—apart from the people of God. Every believer must hold fast to the indicatives of the gospel and pursue the imperatives of the gospel arm in arm with his fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.

This hinge in the book of Romans points the way forward for all these commands. God is glorified when believers give their whole selves over to worshipping him—body and mind, rejecting the lies of the world around and submitting to the sanctifying work of the Spirit and so being transformed. And in a surprising turn of events, this (and not any mystical experience) is how one comes to know the will of God.

Sermon Outline

  1. Introduction
    • We all long to know the will of God.
    • The hilarious subtitle of Kevin DeYoung’s book on knowing the will of God: “dreams, visions, fleeces, impressions, open doors, random Bible verses, casting lots, liver shivers, writing in the sky, etc.”
    • God has told us how to know his will, and the answer might be surprising.
  2. By the mercies of God
    • Note Paul’s transition from the whole first section of the book into the second: he has established the indicatives, and now moves into imperatives that flow out of them.
    • What, then, are these “mercies of God” on which Paul bases these exhortations?
      • justification
      • sanctification and glorification
      • grace to every nation
  3. Present yourselves as a sacrifice
    • Bodies: we are physical, and this is a good thing. We offer oiur whole selves, and we cannot give God the worship he deserves without our bodies.
    • Three adjectives: In using these three adjectives of our bodies as sacrifices, Paul takes the language of temple sacrifice (Jewish and pagan alike) and applies it to our whole life.
      • Living
      • Holy
      • Pleasing to God
  4. How?
    • The way we offer ourselves as a sacrifice: both are works of God in which we actively participate.
      1. Do not be conformed to this age. Offer some thoughts on what this may (and may not!) look like, specific to the audience.
      2. Be transformed by the renewal of the mind. Our minds have been corrupted by the Fall and sin (Romans 1) and now the Spirit renews them. It is a gradual process, and one to which we must come over and over again.
    • The result of being transformed: As our minds are made new by the Spirit, in the likeness of Christ (Romans 8:29, Colossians 3:10), we grow to know the will of God. We become people, as Doug Moo puts it, “whose minds are so thoroughly renewed that we know from within, almost instinctively, what we are to do to please God in any given situation.” If you want to know the will of God, pursue holiness!

  1. David Noel Freedman, ed., The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York, New York: Doubleday, 1992), 5:832. 
  2. Paul’s argument and admonition is not specific to the Roman situation but explicitly derived from his preceding exposition of the universally applied gospel. 
  3. Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Moisés Silva (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 1998), 19–23. 
  4. Freedman, ed., The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 5:809–815. 
  5. Freedman, ed., The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 5:806–807. 
  6. This is especially so by contrast with Paul’s other epistles of a similar length, those to the believers at Corinth, where many of the exhortations are notoriously difficult to apply to believers today. 
  7. The epistle defies simple characterization because of its complex structure. It includes elements typical of the personal epistle, of treatises or tracts, and more; see David Noel Freedman, ed., The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York, New York: Doubleday, 1992), 5:819–820. For an exhaustive list of the various rhetorical elements commentators have or suggested Paul employed throughout the letter, see Colin G. Kruse, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012), 11. 
  8. So Ernst Käsemann, Commentary on Romans, trans. and ed. Geoffrey W. Bomiley (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980), 323; contra Karl Barth, A Shorter Commentary on Romans (Richmond, Virginia: John Knox Press, 1959), 151. 
  9. Thomas R. Schreiner helpfully comments, “The imperative always flows from and depends on the indicative. Placing the imperative as foundational is a perversion of the Pauline gospel and effectively cancels out the indicative. The indicative of what God has done in Christ ensures that the imperative will become a reality. And yet the indicative does not cancel out the need for the imperative. The imperative is rightly estimated when rooted in the indicative.” Thomas R. Schreiner, Paul: Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2001), 254. 
  10. So much so that commentators as varied in their approach to the book as a whole as Dunn, Schreiner, and Käsemann all come to strikingly similar conclusions about the passage. 
  11. Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Ned B. Stonehouse, F. F. Bruce, Gordon D. Fee (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 754. 
  12. Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Moisés Silva (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 1998), 264. 
  13. Young, Intermediate Greek: A Linguistic and Exegetical Approach (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994), 253–254. 
  14. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 748 n. 18. 
  15. See e.g. C. E. B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, The International Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, ed. J. A. Emerton, C. E. B. Cranfield, and G. N. Stanton, rev. ed. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark Limited, 1989), 2:597; James D. G. Dunn, Romans 9–16, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 38, eds. David A. Hubbard, Glenn W. Barker, and Ralph P. Martin (Dallas, Texas: Word Books, 1988), 708; Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 748; Cranfield describes the term as beseeching with authority, while Dunn suggests that Paul is not exerting his own authority but rather reinforcing the importance of imperatives that flow out of the gospel. For the view that the word marks only a “simple admonition,” see Käsemann, Commentary on Romans, 326; even more curiously, Barth, A Shorter Commentary on Romans, 149 suggests “comfort.” 
  16. The history of interpretation of Romans has ranged from radically individualistic to radically communitarian; in actuality Paul’s emphasis is always on the individual in the life of the community—the two are never separated from one another. 
  17. Those who take this view are mostly following Käsemann, Commentary on Romans, 326. 
  18. So Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, 2:595–596; Dunn, Romans 9–16, 708; Ben C. Dunson, “Faith in Romans: The Salvation of the Individual or Life in Community?” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 34 no. 1 (2011): 35; D. Edmond Hiebert, “Presentation and Transformation: An Exposition of Romans 12:1–2,” Bibliotheca Sacra 151 (July–September 1994): 310; Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 748; Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), 432; Schreiner, Romans, 639. 
  19. Morris, The Epistle to the Romans, 432. 
  20. So Dunson “Faith in Romans: The Salvation of the Individual or Life in Community?” 35; Ellis W. Diebler, Jr., A Semantic and Structural Analysis of Romans, ed. John Banker (Dallas, Texas: Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1998), 281, 283. For the view that it connects to 9–11 specifically, see Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 748. For the view that it connects to all of 1:16–11:36, but with special emphasis on 9–11, see Schreiner, Romans, 639. 
  21. The infinitive, though technically a verbal noun, has the force of an imperative verb here as the complement in the indirect discourse begun by Paul’s use of παρακαλῶ. 
  22. So Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, 2:596; Diebler, A Structural and Semantic Analysis of Romans, 281; Hiebert, “Presentation and Transformation: An Exposition of Romans 12:1–2,” 312; Schreiner, Romans, 642; John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. F. F. Bruce (1959; repr. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1968), 2:113. Some have taken the phrase as instrumental, indicating that God’s mercies are the actor and Paul the agent; see Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 749; Dunn, Romans 9–16, 709. Käsemann, Commentary on Romans, 326, supplies “in the name of,” taking the phrase almost as an oath. 
  23. Hiebert, “Presentation and Transformation: An Exposition of Romans 12:1–2,” 312; Schreiner, Romans, 639. 
  24. See Kruse, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 462–463; Dunn, Romans 9–16, 708–711; Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 753–754; Schreiner, Romans, 643–644, 646. 
  25. So Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, 2:598; Dunn, Romans 9–16, 709; Käsemann, Commentary on Romans, 327; Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 75–751; Schreiner, Romans, 644, 646–647; contra Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, 2:110–111, who sees Paul as specifically referring to consecation of the body in contrast with his reference to the mind in v. 2. See also N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 3 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 264. 
  26. The tendency among English translations, stemming from the King James’ rendering, to distinguish “living” from “holy, acceptable to God” by placing “living” before “sacrifice” is unfortunate, as nearly all commentators note. Each of the three adjectives stands in simple apposition to θυσίαν; they each describe the kind of sacrifice to be offered. 
  27. Schreiner, Romans, 646. 
  28. Commentators variously take “living” to mean the new life of the believer in Christ (e.g. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, 2:600; Hiebert, “Presentation and Transformation: An Exposition of Romans 12:1–2,” 316) or simply that which, unlike ordinary sacrifices, goes on living (e.g. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 751). Cranfield attempts to tie his reading to Paul’s language earlier in the book, but this is pushing too hard on the word. 
  29. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 327. 
  30. So e.g. Dunn, Romans 9–16, 711; Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 51 n. 36. Schreiner, Romans, 644. Unfortunately, the commentators uniformly assert this point without justification. The syntax is ambigous, although this reading is strongly suggested by the comma that follows τῷ θεῷ. On the basis of syntax alone, it is equally possible that the clause stands in apposition to θυσίαν, in which case it is the sacrifice, rather than the act of offering the sacrifice, that is a “rational worship.” The majority reading is to be preferred, however, because of the semantics of the sentence. To speak of the sacrifice as being “reasonable worship” is difficult to understand; to speak of the act of offering a sacrifice in these terms is much more comprehensible. The majority reading also preserves the semantic connection between the “reasonable” nature of this sacrifice and the mental application of this sacrifice Paul introduces in the next section. 
  31. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 752–753; Morris, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 434 n. 11. 
  32. Barth, A Shorter Commentary on Romans, 150; Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, 2:112; Schreiner, Paul: Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ, 252. 
  33. E.g. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, 2:607; Hiebert, “Presentation and Transformation: An Exposition of Romans 12:1–2,” 314; Robert H. Mounce, Romans, The New American Commentary, vol. 27, eds. E. Ray Clendenen, David S. Dockery, Richard R. Melick, Jr., Paige Patterson, Curtis Vaughan, Linda L. Scott, and Marc A. Jolley (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995), 232. 
  34. See Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 750; and Schreiner, Romans, 643. 
  35. Kruse, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 463–464; Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 754. 
  36. Hiebert, “Presentation and Transformation: An Exposition of Romans 12:1–2,” 320. 
  37. Barth, A Shorter Commentary on Romans, 150–151; Schreiner, Romans, 647; Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 264. 
  38. Following Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, 2:605–607; Dunn, Romans 9–16, 712; Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 755; and contra Diebler, A Semantic and Structural Analysis of Romans, 282; Morris, The Epistle to the Romans, 435; Mounce, Romans, 232. 
  39. Käsemann, Commentary on Romans, 331; Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 264. 
  40. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 264. 
  41. Following Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, 2:609; Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 757 n. 70. Several commentators take εἰς τὸ δοκιμάζειν here as indicating not the purpose of the transformation but its result—see e.g. Hiebert, “Presentation and Transformation: An Exposition of Romans 12:1–2,” 322. Purpose seems more likely, but the difference between purpose and result is quite narrow when speaking of the intended results of future obedience to an exhortation, thus, Schreiner, Romans, 648 has “result… or possibly purpose.” 
  42. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 758. 
  43. Some commentators suggest that this is a series of adjectives modifying τὸ θέλημα τοῦ θεοῦ; see e.g. Kruse, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 467; Diebler, A Semantic and Structural Analysis of Romans, 283; Hiebert, “Presentation and Transformation: An Exposition of Romans 12:1–2,” 323; Schreiner, Romans, 648. This is both syntactically and semantically unlikely, however. The adjectives are grouped under a single article and accordingly are clearly a single syntactical unit. Semantically, it is redundant to note that God’s will is pleasing to him; see Morris, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 436.