Note: These posts are summaries of the messages on Sunday and are put here mainly for the benefit of our regulars who either missed the service, or would appreciate the chance to review the big ideas.
"I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect."
What does God want of you? What does Jesus demand of the world? There are a lot of important questions we have to face in life, but this is far and away the most important of all; figuring out what God wants and how he wants us to live.
When you look around the Church and see all the differences between denominations, the different priorities, the different messages, practices, and lifestyles, the reason those differences exist at all is simply because Christians don’t agree on what God wants. At one extreme you hear an increasingly large wing of the Church preaching a message of prosperity – that God’s most basic desire is to give you whatever you want. This was put across in the somewhat embarrassing video of Victoria Osteen that’s been doing the rounds recently. At another extreme there are Christians who (rightly) believe that God wants us to live radically obedient lives, but who end up placing their confidence in certain acts of obedience. But no matter how radical we become, if we ever think our obedience makes us God’s favourites then we’re just another bunch of Pharisees. Paul was clear that your most sacrificial and exceptional acts of obedience can be empty (see 1 Cor. 13.1–3). And somewhere between these twin poles of self-fulfilment and self-denial there is the ordinary humdrum Christianity of your average Westerner who believes that God has some kind of cosmic checklist; going to church, giving to charity, singing some hymns.
If you asked Paul the question, what does God want of me?, I think his answer would be summed up in this word: everything. That’s essentially what this verse is about. Think about the expressions Paul uses here.
1. He tells us, “present your bodies”. This is undoubtedly a Hebrew way of saying “present your lives” (since the Hebrews did not make a sharp distinction between the body and the rest of you – your body is you). But I think there’s a reason Paul specifically says “bodies” when he could have said something different. Why?
It’s so easy to slip into a form of religion that’s basically restricted to your brain. Sadly, our modern world is still infected with the ideas of the Ancient Greeks who believed the spirit and the mind were superior to the body (just check the comparative salaries of your average white collar and blue collar jobs; or even the fact that there’s a distinction between white and blue collar). That way of thinking can work its way into the church so that real spirituality is intellectual and not practical. Now, even if Jesus preached a strong message about the importance of your inner spirituality, as opposed to outward acts that may be empty, he also preached about the need to let true faith show itself in very practical forms of obedience to God. And when we ask why Paul wrote the letter to the Romans in the first place, part of the answer is that he needed to write page after page of doctrine (ideas) so that the Jewish and Gentile Christians would get along and eat together (practical obedience). So, when Paul says “present your bodies” he wants us to think in terms of whole-life obedience that touches our day-to-day activities.
2. He tells us to present our bodies “as a living sacrifice”. When Paul talks about sacrifices he’s thinking of all the Old Testament laws, and the many sacrifices and offerings that covered every aspect of life: sin, thanksgiving, harvest, birth, guilt, consecration, and so on. That in itself gives us a clue that to offer your life to God means the whole of your life, just as all the sacrifices in the Old Testament covered every area of life. But there’s more. A sacrifice worked in a peculiar way in that the thing you offered was just a portion or representation of the whole. So, if you gave a tenth of your income you were saying to God “The rest is yours too”. If you gave a goat as a sin offering, you were saying “This animal represents my life”. But when Paul tells us to offer our very bodies “as a living sacrifice” we’re not giving a portion or a representation, we’re giving our very selves.
Giving ourselves to God as a “living sacrifice” is about dying and about living. It’s a call to die to your temptations and sins (otherwise there’s no sacrifice involved), but it’s also a call to experience true life (the very thing Jesus offered us, and the meaning of a “living sacrifice”). God is saying: If you lay everything on the altar and hold nothing back then you’ll experience life as it was meant to be lived.
3. Paul says that to give our lives in this way is “your spiritual worship”. Jesus began to redefine what kind of worship God wants when he explained to a Samaritan woman that soon enough it wasn’t going to matter whether where you worshipped (not even the Temple would matter) because God desires worshippers who worship “in Spirit and in truth”. He wasn’t talking about Sunday worship alone and describing the character or flavour of our singing (so this verse doesn't really deal with the way we should sing on Sunday at all). Instead, he was saying that his followers would be people whose entire lives are governed by the Holy Spirit and the truth, and so their whole lives are an act of worship. This means that when Paul tell us to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice... which is your spiritual worship” he’s saying, “God wants your entire life to be an act of devotion on the altar of worship”.
What does that look like in day-to-day life? The answer is in this little phrase “holy and acceptable”. A life of devotion and worship to God is a life of holiness. God didn’t save us in order to whitewash our lives — painting a lick of white paint over a distorted and ruined structure. That may be the way London landlords manage to fool their tenants until the mould starts showing through, but the Gospel is not about God turning a blind eye and leaving us in all our brokenness and mess. It’s about God mending us from the inside by making us holy, and then that holiness touching every part of our lives: thoughts, wallet, speech, eyes, emotions, relationships, ambitions, work, play, worship, study, service, grief, pleasure, all of it.
The problem, we soon realise, is that if God wants my whole life to be holy then I’m in trouble because, try as I may, the one thing I can’t change is myself. How can I make myself “holy and acceptable”?
This is when we have to zoom out and understand this within the letter of Romans as whole. Paul has already told us that our lives are messed up — all of us without exception are sinners (Romans 3.10–11). And he’s told us that it’s only faith in Christ that makes us righteous (Romans 4.5, 7–8). Paul's not about to change his whole message here. Instead, we need to understand it this way: when we’re called to offer our lives to God as sacrifices that are “holy and acceptable” we’re definitely meant to work hard, kill sin, seek to change, but we do so knowing that God has made a project out of us. He’s determined to change us by his power, and he makes us acceptable through Christ. So all of our imperfect efforts are somehow made good and our weak obedience is made acceptable in Jesus.