Dr. John B. MacDonald
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Imagine that you are on a long trek through unfamiliar territory with a very qualified guide. After a few days, you find yourself in a clearing on a hill. You ask your guide, “Can you see our destination from here?” 

In answer, the guide stretches out his arm and points into the distance. 

You turn to look at what he’s pointing at and see nothing but the horizon. 

“What are you pointing at?” 

“Come closer to me, and you’ll see.”

So, you move closer, but you still don’t see what he’s pointing at.

“No, you’ve got to stand right next to me.” 

You get closer still, press the side of your face against his shoulder, and look along the sightline of his outreached arm. 

“Ah, I see it!”

Moving closer 

It is self-evident that chapter 12 of Romans is preceded by 11 chapters – call it context, if you will. Romans 12:1-2 presumes that you have read and wrestled with those preceding 11 chapters. 

The opening chapters layout why humans are in such a bad situation. It’s called sin and comes in a variety of manifestations, including active rebellion and passive indifference toward God and His goodness. 

The next chapters set forth God’s initiative in providing a way out of the ‘bad situation.’ It’s not surprising that this is called salvation, deliverance, or perhaps rescue – not unlike being saved from a cataclysmic disaster. This salvation is offered freely to all, and yet it’s up to you whether you will receive it. This salvation and many other blessings come with believing in, trusting, accepting, receiving, putting your faith in, God and His remedy – the Lord Jesus Christ who:

  • Is the God who has become a human being (incarnation);
  • Died on a cross and was buried (crucifixion); and,
  • Rose from the dead (resurrection). 

It is no surprise that bowing the knee to the Lord Jesus Christ in honest confession and joyful acceptance radically redirects the course of a person’s life, bringing that person into a personal relationship with God in ways unimaginable

As we reach the end of Romans 11, we encounter a doxology – an expression of exuberant praise (11:33-36): 

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!

How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!

“Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?”

“Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?”

For from him and through him and to him are all things.

To him be the glory forever! Amen. 

At this point, the sacred text takes a significant turn (12:1-2 NASB):

Therefore I urge you, brothers [and sisters], by the mercies of God,

to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God,

which is your spiritual service of worship.

And do not be conformed to this world,

but be transformed by the renewing of your mind,

so that you may prove what the will of God is,

that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

“Therefore … by the mercies of God” is a call to move closer to God, based on God’s amazing initiative laid out in those first eleven chapters. Ignore it at your peril. 

You can discover the will of God

Near the end of 12:2, we read: “so that you may prove what the will of God is.” 

Commenting on the word translated “prove” (dokimazō) Bible scholar, John Murray comments (my emphasis):

“To ‘prove’ in this instance is not to test so as to find out whether the will of God is good or bad; it is not to examine (cf. 1 Cor. 11:28; 2 Cor 13:5). It is to approve (cf. Rom. 2:18; Phil. 1:10). But it is this meaning with a distinct shade of thought, namely, to discover, to find out or learn by experience what the will of God is and therefore to learn how approved the will of God is.”

Isn’t that what you want?

Three keys for your discovery

Romans 12:1-2 sets out three keys for discovering the will of God.

Key #1: A surrendered body

The language of Old Testament (OT) ritual sacrifice is used to describe the presenting of our bodies as living sacrifices. What does this mean? 

First, Paul explains that this is “your spiritual act of worship.” The word “spiritual” translates the Greek word logikos, which is not the usual word for spiritual. Perhaps you can discern the similarity between logikos and logic; it carries the idea of reasonable or rational. For any person aware of the “mercies of God” described in Romans 1-11, offering yourself to God is a reasonable (spiritual) response to His “mercies.”

The British athlete and missionary, C. T. Studd (1860-1931), captured something of this “reasonableness” with his statement: 

“If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for Him.”

Second, our “bodies” necessarily mean all of who we are. In normal circumstances, it is difficult to imagine how you could use your body for a particular purpose without engaging the rest of who you. Earlier, Paul wrote (Romans 6:13): 

Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness.

Third, OT sacrifices involved animals that had been presented to God and then ritually slain. A sacrifice is given irrevocably to God – it can’t be taken back. 

Note that Paul refers to a “living sacrifice.” I understand this to mean that, through Jesus Christ, we have died (by virtue of His crucifixion) to our old life, and we are to live (by His resurrection) a new life. This understanding is explained in Romans 6:1-4 and illustrated through the meaning of Christian baptism. 

Fourth, a sacrifice is an event. In the same way, presenting our bodies as living sacrifices to God is an event. That event begins a life-long process of surrender to Christ. With this in mind, click here to read or sing Frances Havergal’s wonderful hymn

Key #2: A separated life

We next meet a negative: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world” which J. B. Phillips renders as “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold.” 

What is the “world”? 

William MacDonald describes the “world,” or literally “age” (aiōn), as: 

“the society or system that [humans have] built in order to make [themselves] happy without God. It is a kingdom that is antagonistic to God.”

This negative imperative makes us aware of the “world’s” pressures to conform to its way of thinking and living – but how do we overcome these pressures? 

Key #3: A transformed mind

Next, we encounter a positive imperative: “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

How we think informs how we behave. But what shapes our thinking? 

I have written elsewhere about this dynamic. I’ll make two constructive recommendations

First, what (or who) we worship shapes our worldview (our way of thinking about the world), which in turn directs our behavior. You can read more about this by clicking here: “We Become What We Worship.”  

Second, what are you allowing to shape your thinking? In this regard, I suggest entering into God’s ‘Story’ by reading or listening to the Bible frequently and intelligently. Click here to access “The Historical Backbone of the Bible.”  

Some concluding thoughts

If you want to discover the will of God for your life, get closer to the God of the will

In some ways, what we learn from Romans 12:1-2 expresses the first and greatest commandment (Matthew 22:37): 

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” 

It also echoes the psalmist’s words (Psalm 37:4): 

Delight yourself in the LORD; and He will give you the desires of your heart.

After all, if you delight yourself in the Lord, the desires of His heart will become the desires of your heart. Why wouldn’t He grant those desires? 

So, engage with God as a 'living sacrifice,' and discover His will

Click here for the first post in this series.

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Photo credit: 63grad on Visual hunt / CC BY-SA

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