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.”
In the past couple of weeks we’ve uncovered some of the big ideas in these verses. Paul uses this expression “the mercies of God” as a four word summary of the extraordinary gospel he’s been explaining in the previous eleven chapters; that we were pitiful, that God took pity on us, and that we now live under his ownership. A Christian is a person who now lays down their entire being as an act of worship to God. But what does this mean? Three big ideas come out of the second verse.
First, a negative: “Do not be conformed to this world. . .” We live at a time where Christians who talk about ‘sin’ are regarded with real suspicion. The general feeling is that if you speak with a negative voice (as Paul does) you’re ruining the mood, you’re judgemental, and even a dangerous fundamentalist. Instead, our society wants us all to adopt a relaxed attitude and accept whatever goes. It can be embarrassing for us to be portrayed as fundamentalists simply because we think there’s such a thing as sin and its opposite, purity and holiness.
So, how are we going to deal with that in our own hearts to begin with? Let me note just one thing. Paul speaks in an interesting way here; he says “do not conform” or as one interpreter has put it, “do not let the world squeeze you into its mould”. This uncovers a massive contradiction between the way Paul understands sin, and the way society understands sin. The world thinks that being able to do what you want is freedom and that any Christian who tells them that this or that is wrong is limiting that freedom. But Pauls says the very opposite, that the world has a particular way of thinking and we’re all being forced along that route, squeezed into that mould. That’s not freedom, it’s a form of slavery. How do I know this? Here are four questions I’d ask. First, are you able to stop and actually change your life? Second, have you found what you’re looking for? I simply mean that, if doing what you want is freedom, then presumably it needs to get you somewhere; it promises something, so has it delivered? Third, has your conscience left you alone? It seems to me that often, when people feel upset that Christians say certain things are ‘wrong’ the reason they’re upset is simply that a part of them knows it. Fourth, are you sure God’s ok with it?
You see, to believe that sin is freedom is to believe the oldest lie. From the very beginning of the Bible sin is shown to be a lie since it promises what it can’t deliver (freedom, satisfaction, fulfilment, joy, and life). That’s how it makes you conform — because you buy into the lie and then you’re trapped. But a Christian is a person who has seen through the lie. They know there is something we have to turn away from if we want to know real freedom and joy.
He then says, “but be transformed by the renewal of your mind”. This is the positive. There’s something so hopeful about knowing that you can change. That’s the assumption here. I think we all have things in our lives we wish were different. The word Paul uses here for “be transformed” is a lot like our modern word “metamorphosis”. It’s a powerful and hopeful thing that we can grow up, mature, and that our character can develop, sin can be overcome, temptations dealt with, and we become more beautiful and attractive people.
This is a lifelong process. But there are two things to bear in mind.
First, don’t expect too much. It’s possible to get into a level of frustration with yourself that’s unhelpful. We’re not going to attain anything like perfection. One of the greatest enemies of growth in the Christian life is guilt and condemnation, and when you start getting overly frustrated and perfectionistic, you can often slip into a self-defeating slump that damages your relationship with God.
Second, don’t expect too little. When people become Christians they often experience some rapid change — old habits are kicked, character traits are dealt with, and there’s a real, visible change that takes place in their life. But I’ve also noticed that we can sometimes reach an age or stage where we begin to plateau. The passion that was driving growth begins to wain, and you remain the same year after year. This means that the same sins are never really repented of (especially the more subtle ones like greed, pride, selfishness), and there’s no urgency, no grief over sin, no smashing idols, no repentance. That’s a very sad state to be in. But Paul is here talking to everyone — new and old believers.
How do we change? Paul says this change begins in the “mind” and then floods your entire being.
Now, we’re always in danger of making out as though merely learning facts is enough. So, if you went away and chomped up Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology your life would change. I’ve met enough ungodly theologians to know that isn’t true. I’ve also read enough books to know that they don’t have an automatic transforming effect on my own heart. James tells us that we need to be doers of the word (James 1.22). Facts aren’t enough.
But at the same time, you can’t think that transformation is going to happen without a growth in knowledge. The author to the Hebrews rebukes his readers because they’re still eating milk, not solid food (Hebrews 5.12). A Christian is someone who has to be growing in knowledge of God because that is how we change (2 Corinthians 3.18), and that knowledge comes through God’s word. Paul says that Jesus is washing us with his word (Ephesians 5.25-27). That’s why Psalm 1 is so poignant here (Psalm 1.2-3) – the godly person meditates on the word of God.
And what’s this all leading to?
Finally, Paul says that the purpose is “that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Now, this last part might seem a bit random at first. What does exactly does he mean? This word “test” means something like “to prove through experience”. It’s the same word used in Luke 14.19 about a guy buying some new oxen and then wanting to go and examine them — like taking a new car for a test drive. So Paul is something like this: As your life changes and you say no to the world and start obeying God’s word you’ll be able to test out whether God’s will works.
This is vital. Whenever someone is wrestling with the question of what is truth they need to not only ask “does it make sense?” but “is it liveable? does it work in real life?” A lot of ideas about life seem compelling at first, but soon they turn out to be completely unliveable. Consistent atheism is not liveable (since life has no purpose or objective morality). And what Paul is saying — and the testimony of so many Christians — is that God’s way proves to be better than any other. It proves to be good and acceptable and perfect.
That’s not the same thing as saying it’s easy. Paul knew enough about hardship. And that’s not the same thing as saying it’s always happy. Paul knew enough of grief and pain and sadness.
But this is the great truth we need to walk away with: that not only does God save us, from beginning to end, so that we live “by the mercies of God”, but he does it for our good! He wants us to know real life, to walk in his will and discover that it is good, and acceptable, and perfect.