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.
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.
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 ??? 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 ???? 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 (???????? ??? ????, ???????, “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 ????????? 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 ????????? 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 ???? and the vocative ???????); these commands are to be carried out by each individual as they participate in the life of the congregation.16
The postpostive conjunction ??? 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 ??? 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, ??? 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 (??? ??? ????????? ??? ????, “by the mercies of God”) has been variously taken as modifying either the opening verb (????????, “I exhort”) or the following verb (?????????? “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 (??????????) their bodies (??????) as a sacrifice (??????). The sacrifice is to be living, holy, and pleasing to God (????? ????? ????????? ?? ???). 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 ???? 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 (?????, “holy,” and ????????? ?? ???, “pleasing to God”27), but the third (?????, 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 (??? ??????? ???????? ????) as standing in apposition to the entire clause beginning with ??????????. That is, the whole act of offering oneself to God is the believers’ ??????? ????????.30 The best meaning of the phrase ??????? ???????? is contested, since the semantic range of both terms is broad: ??????? can mean both “rational/reasonable” and “spiritual,” while ??????? 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 ??????????, ??????????????, and ?????????????
Many commentators have emphasized the aorist tense of ??????????, 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 ????????? 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 (?? ??????????????… ???? ?????????????… “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” ???? (“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” (?????????????) 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 (?? ??????????? ??? ????, “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 ?? ??????????? as an instrumental dative), and it is the mind itself that is the object of renewal (taking ??? ???? 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 (??? ?? ?????????? ???? ?? ?????? ??? ????…, “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 (?? ?????? ??? ????????? ??? ???????) stands in apposition to ?? ?????? ??? ????, 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- sanctification and glorification
- grace to every nation
- 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.
- Pleasing to God
- The way we offer ourselves as a sacrifice: both are works of God in which we actively participate.
- Do not be conformed to this age. Offer some thoughts on what this may (and may not!) look like, specific to the audience.
- 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!