Topic: “sanctification”

The Will of God

I originally posted this in three parts for easier blog-post-style consumption. If you’d prefer it that way, you can find them here: Part I, Part II, and Part III. For your convenience, I’m also making available PDF, Kindle, and ePUB versions—just click below and it will download the selected version.


What is the will of God for my life? How can I know it?

No other question so thoroughly vexes most of the Christians I know. We are persuaded that God has a plan for our lives that we can ascertain, and as such we are responsible to follow it, for two (very good) reasons. First, we want to honor him and we want very much to avoid disobeying the God we love. Second, should we fail to follow God’s revealed will for our lives, we will miss out on the best things he has for us. These two, in combination, make the yearning to know God’s plan profound and urgent, especially when making large decisions. Should I buy this house or stay in my current home? Should I marry this person or should we break up? Should I go to this university or that one, or none at all?

But the will of God in such areas, we soon find, is mysterious. How is it determined—perhaps by a sense of “peace” about the right decision? or by a strong feeling that we ought to follow a particular course of action? or by the idea that springs into our mind, unbidden, as we ponder the circumstances in front of us? or by some other means entirely?

There is, it turns out, an answer. But you’re probably not going to like it. The question, however, is not whether we like something but whether it is what God has said. We must remember, though, that however disorienting it can be to let Scripture upend our ways of thinking, it is always best in the end.

What Scripture doesn’t say

The idea that the Spirit leads us by inner senses of his will has become a shibboleth among evangelical Christians, especially those influenced by the charismatic movement. This is unfortunate, because the idea is completely without foundation in Scripture and is deeply unhelpful to the many Christians who live their lives as though it were true. I’ll repeat that for emphasis: nowhere does Scripture teach that the Holy Spirit gives us wisdom on personal decision-making by means of our inner state—our thoughts or feelings.

Now, let it be clear: This has nothing to do with the question of the Spirit’s indwelling presence, for He indwells and empowers all believers. It has nothing to do with the question of whether charismatic gifts continue or ceased after the death of the apostles, for the charismatic gifts were (and if they continue, are) not inner subjective senses but clear external signs. One can believe the miraculous gifts had all ceased by A.D. 100 and also that the Spirit leads us by subjective nudges, or that the gifts continue today but that the Spirit does not lead us in that way.1

So back to my thesis: God does not lead us by “giving us a peace” about things, or by “giving us a sense of what we ought to do,” or by thoughts or urges randomly popping into our heads. I imagine I have ruffled a few feathers, rocked a few boats, and possibly even stepped on a few toes by saying this. (I have certainly overdone it with the metaphors.) Those of you who disagree with me are thinking of all the times in Scripture that the Holy Spirit led people—and so am I! The question of the hour is not whether God communicates to his people, but how he communicates to his people. The most helpful thing for us to do, then, is to survey the Scriptures and see how God spoke to his people in the past, because Scripture is the baseline for how we expect him to speak to his people in the present.

Old Testament

When he spoke to Adam and Eve, he is physically present and speaks audibly. In his interactions with Cain, the two have a conversation. Every time he interacts with Abraham, the text tells us what God said to Abraham (whether or not Yahweh was visible to him in any given encounter). He speaks to Isaac and Jacob. He appears in dreams and gives interpretations thereof to Joseph. He appears in a flame and speaks audibly to (and indeed converses with) Moses over and over again, culminating in the beginning of the revelation of Scripture itself, which Exodus tells us he wrote with his own finger. He speaks audibly to many of the judges, telling them exactly what he would have them do, and Gideon carries on a discussion with him. The signs that God performs for Gideon with a fleece are the result of a conversation. Samuel was confused because he heard an audible voice and thought it must be the other person in the house, until that person explained that God was speaking to him. Various prophets were filled with the Spirit and preached the word of God to the people (even Saul, the king of Israel, at one point). Daniel, Ezekiel, and Zechariah all experience dreams and visions and both Daniel and Ezekiel interact with angels, but there, too, their experiences were explained to them.

What about the ambiguous and mysterious bits? Throughout 1 and 2 Samuel, David is seen making decisions with the Urim and the Thummim. We do not know what these were, but the results seem to have been clear and unambiguous at the least. In the New Testament, we see the apostles making a decision by drawing lots, trusting God’s providence to orchestrate the right decision. Neither of these seems to be open options among evangelicals: we do not have the Urim and Thummim, and no one I know suggests we make decisions with dice, which would be the modern equivalent of drawing lots. Perhaps most mysterious is God’s means of revelation to the prophets, but as with the other means here, it seems to have been quite clear. None of the prophets ever wondered what their message was (though Jeremiah seems to have been rather unhappy about its contents, and for good reason). Certainly the audiences of the messages knew exactly what God’s will was: he spelled it out for them, often in great detail.

Perhaps most famous of all in this discussion—and the proof text for the view against which I am arguing—is God’s interaction with Elijah at Mount Carmel (1 Kings 19:9–18). Yahweh, the passage tells us, was not in the wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire. After all of them was a “the sound of a low whisper” or “a sound, a thin silence” (19:12). First, notice that the “still, small voice” was not in Elijah’s mind: it was a sound. Second, read the next part of the passage:

And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (19:13)

Then they have a conversation, in which Yahweh comforts Elijah and tells him what he ought to do next. He spoke aloud to Elijah, just as he did to so many others.

In short, the consistent record of the Old Testament is that when God led his people—whether individuals or the whole nation—he did so clearly. The majority of the time, these interactions were audible, though occasionally he used dreams or visions, but always making clear the meaning through someone explaining.

The Will of God in the New Testament

The same patterns established in the Old Testament appear again in the New Testament, though much more broadly applied as of the coming of the Spirit in Acts. Zachariah, Mary, and Joseph all experience angelic visitations with clear messages from God in plain language. John the Baptizer2 preached a God-given message of the coming Messiah in a way that seems to be analogous to the prophecy of the Old Testament prophets. Paul experienced a vision of the risen Lord, who spoke to him directly, and other visions which were explained to him or otherwise had clear meanings. John experienced a revelation which was also explained to him. Many believers in the New Testament were given words from the Lord, and these, too, seem to have been unambiguous and followed the pattern of the prophets of old. The one New Testament prophecy we have directly recorded, in Acts 21, marks someone giving a clear and unambiguous warning to Paul. Above all, Jesus himself came and declared to his followers all the wisdom of God, fulfilling the role of prophet perfectly.

Again, what about the ambiguous or mysterious aspects of New Testament prophetic revelation? In terms of mystery, the Bible does not explain to us the mechanics of the New Testament prophetic gift any more than it does that in the Old Testament. Dreams and visions, when they appear, are explained or understood automatically. Perhaps most ambiguous are two passages in Acts. In Acts 16, Paul and his company were “forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.” What this means is unclear, for this is all the text says.

The other passage worth further consideration occurs in Acts 15, when the Jerusalem council wrote to the Gentile churches about the relationship between Gentiles and Jewish law. In verse 28, their letter includes the phrase, “It has seemed good to the Spirit and to us…” As we read this in the larger context, its meaning becomes clear. The letter has already stated simply “it seemed good to us” (15:25). Luke’s records that “it seemed good to the apostles and elders, with the whole church…” to send out messengers with this letter. He records that James’ position carried the day, a position James explained by saying, “Therefore, my judgment is…” This passage is arguably the strongest justification for the evangelical view today, but I actually think it argues the other way. There is no reference to any “sense” or “feeling” in sight. Rather, they simply listened to what was going on, considered the scriptures, and made a decision that seemed best to them as a group. In other words, the church simply trusted that the Holy Spirit was leading them together into wisdom.

At no time, then, does the New Testament suggest that these interactions between God and man manifested in the form of subjective “senses,” especially a sense of “peace” or strong inner urgings. At best one could argue that this might have been the case in some of the ambiguous instances outlined above. Without any other proof, though, that is a very shaky position, especially given the clear evidence of how God did speak in the New Testament.


Through all of this, one common thread should have become apparent. When God speaks, it is always—without exception!—clear that he has spoken. His leading is always unmistakable and unambiguous (save for the dreams, but someone always has a clear interpretation). Given that we do not endorse several means that were practiced in the Scriptures, I am at a loss as to why we make decisions by means that are never mentioned in the Bible. If we are going to allow Scripture to set the norms by which we relate to God, we must admit that we have no reason to believe that our internal “sense” about things is in any way a message from God. (That does not, by the way, make emotions useless or meaningless; they are in actuality a very useful part of decision-making. They simply are not the voice of God!)

Aside: “I just have a peace about it”

I find it fascinating that two of the most misused Scriptures in the New Testament come almost side by side, both from the book of Philippians. Along with the much-abused “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (4:13) we have Paul’s note that “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (4:7). This is not, however it has been applied, a promise that he will give you a “peace” about the right decision, but a promise that supernatural peace will comfort the believer who prays instead of embracing anxieties and fears. Moreover, this peace is the right of all believers who are walking with Christ—not just those who are making the correct decisions at any given moment. Paul prays this peace for all his churches!

How do we decide, then?

There is one, and only one, passage in the New Testament that explicitly tells us how we will learn to discern the will of God:

I exhort you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God: present your bodies as a sacrifice—living, holy, acceptable to God—as your reasonable worship and do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of the mind, so that you may be able to discern what is will of God: what is good, acceptable, and perfect. (Romans 12:1–2, my translation)

As I have argued in my exegesis of this text, Paul tells us here that the way we grow to know the will of God is by pursuing the transformation of our mind as we grow in holiness. This is harder work than learning to lean on our subjective senses of things, certainly, and it really does not offer us the kind of assurance about day-to-day decisions that so many of us are looking for. It fits with the rest of Scripture’s witness, though, and (as I will argue in a moment) is ultimately a liberating reality.

There are a number of other passages which confirm that the Christian way of making decisions is simpler than we have made it. On the one hand, we have the many examples outlined above. Most notably, the Jerusalem council simply reasoned from the Scriptures and made a decision—and this about an incredibly important decision for the health of the whole church. In his epistle, James rebuked his audience for presuming that their days were theirs to plan, but his counsel was not to look for a sense from God about their course of action. Instead, he enjoined them to simply make their plans humbly: “Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that’” (James 4:15). Similarly, Paul would write of his own plans that he would visit the church at Rome if it was God’s will (Romans 1:15, 15:32).

From this completed picture, we learn a basic pattern for discerning the will of God. First, bow to what he reveals unambiguously. For us, this is both first and finally the Scriptures, where God has declared clearly what he wants us all to know, culminating in the person and work of Jesus Christ. We thus know that God’s will for us is above all to know him and Jesus Christ, whom he sent into the world. This is what the Holy Spirit is doing above all: sanctifying us and bringing us into the knowledge of God. All his gifts to the body are given so that people will know and worship Jesus Christ the Risen Lord.

Second, if God should speak clearly and unambiguously to us, we should listen! I know one person who has claimed to hear God speaking directly to her about circumstances in her life—and as long as the things this person hears accord with Scripture, I would be far more inclined to grant that validity than any subjective sense, because it does accord with how God acted in the Bible! Any such revelation—whether an audible voice, a prophecy given in the church, or a dream or vision which has meaning clearly understood—must be judged against the final authority of Scripture. I would also suggest that, from my survey of Scripture, God usually speaks in that way not simply for the ordinary circumstances of our lives, but when he is accomplishing something specific to salvation history. To bring that down to earth: I think it far more likely that God would speak in that way for direction to the church than for direction to individuals (though I do not rule it out for the latter).

Third as we pursue holiness and live in close community with other believers, we will be able to come to wise decisions about the courses of action we ought to take. If the church at Jerusalem could come to a decision about a complex issue with massive implications for the future of the church in this way, we can make decisions in our own lives this way!

All of this highlights a reality that I find increasingly liberating. God does not mean for us to discover his plan for our lives and then live it out, but rather to discover it by living it out. It is not that he does not care about our jobs, or our families, or our homes, or any of a myriad other decisions we make day to day. Rather, it is first of all that he cares far more that we know and delight in him, and secondly that he is providentially orchestrating all those things to bring us closer to him.

As a result, I do not have to worry day by day whether I am doing the “right” thing. Most of the decisions in my life are morally neutral, and nearly all of the rest are obviously spelled out in Scripture. (For the remaining few, we have ethics classes at the seminary to think through incredibly complex and difficult issues for a reason.) For all those morally neutral decisions, Jaimie and I ask together, “What seems good to us? What will allow us to glorify God most effectively?” We pray for wisdom. We seek counsel from our friends and family, especially those who are believers. We invite input from our pastors and others with whom we are in fellowship at our church. If God spoke to us audibly, or clearly in a dream, we would listen! Above all, we continually seek to “be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds” as Paul enjoins us in Romans, pursuing holiness.

In the end, we make the decision that seems best to us. The bigger the decision, the more time we will spend on all of those steps—but at no point do we worry about “having a peace” about the decision or look for a subjective sense of what to do. We trust that God is good, and in his providence works all things to good, and recognize that he has not revealed his will for our lives to us, but allows us the chance to grow in wisdom and make good decisions. This is incredibly freeing. More importantly, it is in accord with Scripture.

To quote my favorite book on this subjectjust do something. Prayerfully, thoughtfully, in community, while pursuing holiness, yes—but just go do something.

  1. Or that the gifts continue and he leads us that way, or that the gifts ceased and he does not lead us that way. For the record, I am cautiously open to the ongoing practice of the gifts—but this isn’t about that, remember? 
  2. That’s right. Baptizer. 

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. 

The pivotal self-revelation of God in the Old Testament

The following paper was prepared for Dr. Steven McKinion’s Hermeneutics class, with the constraint that it be between 600 and 625 words.1

Exodus 34

The meaning of the text

Moses’ narration of his return to the mountain to make once again tablets is, in many ways, the pivotal self-revelation of God in the Old Testament, from which many other texts derive their language regarding God’s character and aims. Moses structures the text so that, bracketed by his ascent and descent of the mountain, Yahweh reveals himself (vv. 6–7, 10–27), first by explicit statement, then by the shape of his covenant. Read on, intrepid explorer →

Encouragement and Critique: A Resolution

Courtesy of our sin, it is always easier to criticize than to encourage. I was forcefully reminded of this recently when I had a friend look over the draft of a writing project I was working on. He rightly noted that it came off as angry, attacking the same old targets in evangelicalism that have been hammered for years. I scrapped that draft and I’m working on a new one.

I was reminded in another way when Jaimie and I visited my family in Colorado last weekend. I was having a conversation with my youngest sister about her church, and I disagreed with some of the approaches they take. (If you’re curious, this piece on Pillar on the Rock will about sum it up.) As I’ve slowly been learning in my relationship with Jaimie, though, it’s easy to overload people in that sort of discussion – especially when it comes across as attacking our church, an institution rightly near and dear to our hearts. (At least, hopefully our local church is dear to our hearts!)

When we see things amiss in the world – especially things that involve the people or institutions we love most – it is easy to simply jump into a critical mode and assume that people will understand where we’re coming from. This is particularly true when the issue is significant and clear in Scripture. Because we see it clearly, and recognize its importance, we can assume others will be quick to understand the point as well. Read on, intrepid explorer →

Marriage and Depression

When Jaimie and I got married, she had been clinically depressed for at least six months; perhaps even as far back as the beginning of our ten and a half month engagement. (I was aware of this; she was in denial.) Four months after we got back from our honeymoon, she confessed to me that she no longer wanted be alive. The two and a half years since then have been a bumpy road, but by the grace of God we’re still here and doing well. Things are better now—not perfect, but better.

There are some resources out there—not enough, but some—for people walking through depression. There are far fewer for the people walking alongside them: a role that is, in many ways, just as difficult. To watch as a beloved family member—especially a spouse—deals with depression is incredibly painful and difficult. There is an enormous sense of powerlessness and frustration. We are often at a loss for words, for deeds, for any response at all. We desperately want to help, and most often find there is nothing we can do but pray. It is hard, and lonely, and people will sympathize with you even less than they do with your spouse.

So perhaps some of what I learned about walking alongside your spouse when he or she is struggling with depression will help others. Read on, intrepid explorer →

Jesus + Nothing = Everything

From time to time I’ll be writing book responses, like this one – shorter than my formal reviews, and more a quick snapshot of my thoughts in response to the book than a careful dissection of the work.

Tullian Tchividjian’s1 Jesus + Nothing = Everything was, in one sense, a great book. In another, it was just okay. Read on, intrepid explorer →

Deprived of our crutches

Our circumstances do not make us sin. They simply reveal the sin that is already present in our hearts. They give it opportunity, or strip away our social barriers, or decrease our emotional resiliency, and a fuller measure of our wickedness is suddenly on display.

Read on, intrepid explorer →