The Mercies of God

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."

Romans 12.1–2

In these verses the Apostle Paul hits the bullseye of Christian living. They're from the book of Romans, arguably the most influential piece of literature in history, and these verses come at a pivotal moment as the entire letter moves from teaching, ideas, doctrine, and into the practical implications for day-to-day living. Every Christian ought to sit up and take note as Paul grabs you by the lapel with the most urgent language – I appeal, urge, beg you brothers...

The first line hits the target in terms of what it means to live a gospel-centred life. This term, 'gospel-centred', has become increasingly common as a self-description of churches. But as with any term, there's always the danger of it becoming cheapened and damaged by misuse. If you go to a church where 'gospel-centred' means 'anything goes', you've entered a church that has really abandoned the gospel. But equally, if you enter a church where 'gospel-centred' means 'feel judged by your shortcomings' then the same is true – that church has forgotten the true gospel.

A gospel-centred life is a life that is powerfully motivated by God's forgiving grace, but compelled towards radical obedience. As Paul puts it, "I appeal... by the mercies of God, to present..." There's a call to action – something you have to do as a demonstration of your genuine faith in God – but it's built on the facts of the gospel and of God's mercy.

And so, this phrase "the mercies of God" is foundational to the way a Christian understands their life. It's the reality that defines everything. It implies three enormous truths.

The first is that we were in need of mercy and pity. The brutally honest and realistic assessment of humanity put across in the Bible is that we are utterly pitiful. It's not to say that we don't have amazing God-given abilities and an inherent beauty and value to our lives, but that the whole thing, the entirety of our being, is pervaded by the darkness of sin. That makes us pitiful. And I don't mean pitiful in the sense of pitying an innocent victim. We are pitiful because, even though we're responsible and accountable for all our wrongdoing, we are desperately sad cases.

Why? Because sin is a big lie. It promises so much, but for many they've "wandered in desert wastes, finding no way to a city to dwell in; hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted within them" (Psalm 107.4–5). Sin offers pleasure and freedom but instead leaves many have found that they have "sat in darkness and in the shadow of death, prisoners in affliction and in irons, for they had rebelled against the words of God, and spurned the counsel of the Most High" (Psalm 107.10–11).

You can see the degrading and spiralling effects of sin in some lives more obviously than in others – the drunkard, the addict, and so on. But even those who seem to have it together are in the end pitifully empty and will die with nothing.

But the second great truth is this: that God took pity on us. He didn't have to (if he did, it wouldn't be mercy). And he's not begrudging (as though he had to be persuaded to show us mercy... but persuaded by who?) The Bible shows us that God loved us before we were born, that he willingly sent Jesus for us to be the sacrifice for our sins, and that the gift of Jesus is the ultimate proof of his affection and love and mercy.

This leads us to the third big truth -- the logic that underpins what Paul is saying -- that we are now forever indebted to God and owned by him. Paul often describes himself as a slave of Christ. He recognised that his life did not belong to himself but rather to Jesus. And yet this is not the harsh slavery of fear and dread and compulsion to do what you don't want to do. Instead, it's the slavery to God's will that is, in fact, true freedom. If only people understood this great fact: that freedom is not doing whatever the hell you feel like, as though your every whim and desire is a good thing to be indulged and given in to. Instead, that's slavery to your own weakness and lust; it's slavery to sin. True freedom is experiencing the joy of obeying Jesus, your designer and creator who made you for purpose.

This is what Paul is saying: I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God. I appeal to you to understand what God's mercy has done. I appeal to you to turn your life over to the God who took pity on you. I appeal to you to surrender and experience the profound joy of obedience because God has made you his own.