The Renewed Mind - Romans 12
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Aldrich Ames was responsible for the most serious breach in security in the history of the CIA. For a period of nine years he fed top military secrets to the KGB. Eventually he was caught. In an interview from his prison cell, Ames was asked how he survived the stress of living such a convincing double life. How could he turn over US agents, some of whom he knew personally, to the Russian secret police knowing he was sending them to certain death? This is how he answered: "I tended to put some of these things in separate boxes in my mind, to compartmentalise feelings and thoughts."
The point is, Ames is not unique. This fragmentation of our lives is a mark of the modern mind. But perhaps more disturbingly it has become an increasing feature of the Christian mind, where religious belief is placed in a little box shut off from the rest of life. Not too long ago, George Gallup compiled some very candid admissions from professing Christians in the United States, some of whom confessed to calling in to work as sick when they were not, inflating their CV's and having no compunction in cheating on their income tax. His conclusion? 'There is little difference in ethical views and behaviour of the churched and the unchurched.' Wouldn’t it be interesting to find out what similar surveys might reveal of the situation here in Britain?
Now is it not striking that the apostle Paul pinpoints the renewal of the mind as being the decisive feature in ensuring the difference between Christians and non- Christians?- Romans 12:2. ‘ It is a revolution in thinking which sets the Christian apart in the way they view reality and so live differently and therefore for the Christian there is to be no compartmentalisation. Now tonight I want us to focus on the first two verses of Romans 12 and simply refer to the rest of the chapter to illustrate how these verses work themselves out in the church and in the world, because in fact everything that follows in the rest of the letter is simply an outworking in day to day living of what Paul has to say in these two verses. They may only be a couple of verses in length but they are packed with some of the most powerful and important teaching that Paul ever communicated.Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.’
So what does Paul have to say? Vv1-2. ‘Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship. 2Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will.’
I am sure that you have come across the importance of the word, ‘Therefore’ in Paul’s letters. You always have to ask, What is the ‘therefore there for?’ It is because what he is about to say is a logical follow up to something he has said earlier. ‘Therefore, I appeal to you brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies…’ In other words, everything that I have been saying in the first eleven chapters has been leading up to this point. You have seen how the Gospel message is the power of God leading to salvation. How everyone, sinner and saint, are all in the same boat- its called the Titanic- and is heading towards destruction. But God has mounted the most glorious rescue plan whereby he himself in the person of his Son dies the death we deserve on the cross- while we were yet enemies of God- so the moment we turn to Jesus in faith we are justified- God declares us to be in a right relationship with himself, he looks at us and he sees Jesus, pure, holy, morally radiant and of resplendent beauty because we are united to him. And he what is more sends the Spirit of Jesus to live within us in order to make us more like Jesus and nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Jesus Christ our Lord. God is working his purposes out in bringing people both Jews and non-Jews into his Kingdom and it is all of grace- underserved mercy from beginning to end. And Paul is so blown away by the sovereign, saving work of the one true God that he has to express that emotion in an outburst of 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! 34"Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?" 35"Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?"
Then we get it- ‘Therefore’ in the light of all of this, God’s mercies- present your bodies.’ That is we are to build our lives upon this mercy and as you do that then you will live a life of mercy- you will engage ministries of mercy, your life will be an outflowing of the very thing you have received- mercy "Show mercy with cheerfulness. . . . Let love be genuine. . . . Give to the saints. . . . Bless those who persecute you. . . . Weep with those who weep. . . . Associate with the lowly. . . . Repay no one evil for evil. . . . Never avenge yourselves. . . . If your enemy is hungry feed him.’ The rest of Romans 12. Do you see?
However, it is important that we see what Paul puts first and what comes second. He says in verse 1 ‘ I urge your brothers in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God-this is your spiritual act of worship.’ So before Paul describes our new life in Christ as merciful he pictures it as worshipful. Before we can possibly be merciful to people we must be worshipful to God, in fact the showing of mercy is part of what it means to worship. Let me put it like this: if we were primarily to see the Christian life as merciful then we would drift into seeing Christianity as being merely carrying out a social agenda. Now I say merely because it is pretty evident from the rest of the chapter let alone chapters 13-16, there is a social, caring dimension to Christianity. But I guess the difference can be seen between what Paul is saying and what some Christians today are saying by thinking of a slogan you sometimes hear, attributed to Francis of Assisi- ‘Preach the Gospel at all times and if necessary use words.’ The idea is that we primarily share the Christian message not through proclamation with our lips but through social action by our lives, allowing the actions to speak for themselves. But this poses big problems. First, nowhere in the New Testament is evangelism other than proclamation- by that I don’t mean speaking from a pulpit, but it is telling people about Jesus. If that doesn’t happen then neither has evangelism. But secondly, making people comfortable or helping them feel good on the way to everlasting punishment, without the hope and the desire that they see Christ in our good deeds, is not mercy. Mercy must aim to point people Christ. For no one is saved who doesn't meet Jesus. And not to care about saving is not merciful. Paul defines the Christian life as worship so that it can be merciful. If we are not worshipping in our behaviour—that is, if we are not making much of God's mercy in Christ in and along side our behaviour—we are not giving people what they need most- a saving relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. So a merciful lifestyle, then, depends on a worshipful lifestyle.
So what is a worshipful lifestyle and how is it achieved? Well, let’s unpack a little each of these words which together go to make up a life of worship. First, ‘body’- present your bodies. The point is to stress that your body counts. You belong to God soul and body, or you don't belong to him at all. In other words- your body matters.
Now some of you might think: Why would God be interested in my body? It's overweight, or underweight, wrinkled, blotchy, achy, diseased, impulsive, nervous, unattractive, lazy, awkward, stiff, and brittle. What kind of sacrifice is that? The Old Testament demanded a flawless sheep. I don't measure up. Well, the offering of our bodies is not the offering of our bodily looks but our bodily behaviour. In the Bible the body is not significant because of the way it looks, but because of the way it acts. The body is given to us to make visible the beauty of the Lord Jesus. Now isn’t that a thought?! God doesn't demand our bodies because he wants models for She Magazine. He demands our bodies because he wants models of mercy. Just as worshippers in the Old Testament denied themselves some earthly treasure (a sheep, a goat, a bull), and carried their sacrifices to the altar of blood and fire, so we deny ourselves some earthly treasure or ease or comfort, or career and carry ourselves—our bodies—for Christ's sake to the places and the relationships in this world where mercy is needed-where the Gospel needs to be seen and heard. By definition a sacrifice is costly. It hurts. So Christianity isn’t just about knowing things to be true, but living out lives which are true through our bodies- being models of mercy.
Secondly, they are to be living. It is your living which is to be worshipful. How you relate to your friends with honesty and courtesy. How you approach your work with vigour and integrity. So you are to let every action, every word, every look be something which will show to a watching world that Jesus is number one for you, that he really is precious and worth imitating.
Thirdly they are to be holy. This means set apart, reserved for God which in turn will mean being distinctive. Not ‘holier than thou’ which can be a pain in the neck- but different, holding a different set of priorities and values.
But then Paul adds something else which makes you ask why? -For he talks about this being ‘acceptable to God’. Now surely if we are living lives which are sacrificial and holy then they will be acceptable to God? So what does this add? Well, I think it is this: it is only too possible to be sacrificial, to be distinctive- and for the motivation to be totally wrong. The Pharisees were distinctive. The Pharisees were sacrificial-they probably gave far more money to God’s work that you or I ever will. But, why did they do it? That’s the question. Well, Jesus tells us, ‘They do it in order to be seen by men’- their focus was on themselves- wanting to appear better than the next Pharisees engaging in a kind of religious one upmanship. And we can so easily do the same can’t we?- always looking over the shoulder to see if we get the nod of approval from others in the congregation or from the Vicar. So by saying, ‘approved by God’ can you see what Paul is doing? He is reminding us that the reason holiness matters is because of God. We are reminded that all of these words are describing an act of worship—and God is the centre of worship. We are doing it for him for it is pleasing to him and he is glorified in it. It doesn’t matter two hoots whether Fred Bloggs in the church approves of what we are doing- but it matters an awful lot that God approves-this is what he has saved me for chapters 1-11, so that the God who is glorified supremely in mercy can show mercy to others through me.
So what does that living sacrifice look like? Let me give you a real down to earth example. Several years ago a Christian nurse was working away on her ward doing what she always did in the way she always did it. Then one day a patient called her over and said, ‘I hope you don’t mind me asking, my dear, but there is something different about you, there is something which marks you out from the other nurses who work here.’ She asked him what he meant, ‘ Well’ he replied, ‘ You do seem to take a tremendous amount of care in what you do. You seem so committed. It is especially noticeable when it comes towards the end of your shift. I noticed that most of the other staff are carefully eying the clock, but you don’t seem to be aware of it, you just keep on working. Why?’ Well, then she was able simply and gently explain the difference her Christian faith made to her approach to nursing. That nurse, you see, was a living sacrifice.
So how does this living sacrifice come about? Look at what Paul says-v 2, ‘Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will.’
Now Paul is saying that every single person living on this planet is either being conformed or transformed. The conforming is to the ‘pattern of this world’, that is a world which is in open rebellion against its Maker. It is a rebellion which is characterised by replacing God with self at the centre of all things- human ideas, human values, human aspirations- but humanity twisted by sin. It is summed up by the statement of Protagoras adopted by enlightenment thinkers that ‘Man is the measure of all things.’ By way of contrast the Christian is one who through a transforming of the mind is able to ‘test and approve what God’s will is.’ Now what does that mean? Well, that phrase is a translation of one word in the original ‘dokimazein.’ The idea is acknowledging, proving or approving something. In this case God’s rule. It is another way of saying we will let God be God. Interestingly enough the same word is used by the apostle Paul only once elsewhere at the beginning of Romans in chapter 1:28 where he is speaking about homosexual practice- and this and other practices he puts down to a refusal to acknowledge God as God, that his ways are the best ways for humanity- ‘Since they did not think it worth while to retain the knowledge of God (same word- dokimazein) he gave them over to a depraved mind- that is he simply let them continue thinking along the paths they were already thinking- namely thoughts which excluded God. So can you see what Paul is saying in 12:2? He is saying that we are to have a different way of thinking and that comes by having God in your mind, his values, his will, he purposes shaping and transforming- in contrast to chapter 1 v28 where people wouldn’t have God in their mind. It is by believing the Gospel- God’s self revelation in Jesus and the receiving of the Holy Spirit that the transformation begins to occur. That is how you get from Romans 1 to Romans 12. What you see is that essence of the renewed mind is putting God back where he rightly belongs as the supreme object of value and authority. It begins with seeing things differently with God at the centre of the solar system of our affections and our attitudes and our words, so that glorious, massive, resplendent reality which is God will exercise his gravitational pull on every piece of our lives so that they will come into their proper orbit in relation to one another and stop smashing into one another and ruining everything. Think of it like this- what would happen if our sun lost its place in the solar system? Well then there would be chaos wouldn’t there?- you would have Mars spinning off into endless darkness, Saturn’s rings start to crumble, Mercury might fly right into the Sun and there would be bits of the solar system strewn everywhere. It is only because they are rightly related to the Sun that it works. Now Paul in Romans 1 is saying that morally and spiritually speaking that is what has happened to humankind. God is like the Sun in the solar system of our lives and if he is removed from the centre of our thinking, then our thinking and behaviour get out of control and soon the whole of society begins to collapse and would do so entirely if not for God’s grace. But when a person becomes a Christian, as he or she respond to God’s word- that he is God in his infinite beauty and holiness and in his infinite mass he draws our thoughts to himself- then things start to come together.
And what does that begin to look like? The rest of Romans 12 tells us. You do not think of yourself more highly than you ought- nor more lowly. God has given you gifts which are to be used as expressions of mercy for the benefit of fellow believers in the body of the church-vv3-8. That which supremely characterises God begins to characterise you- v9- love. You honour others before yourself- you want them to make progress, you burn with a holy zeal wanting to serve the Lord in each other. And when you are persecuted for being a living sacrifice-you will bless those who are giving you a hard time-v14. You won’t look down your noses at someone less well off than you- the homeless guy who sells the Big Issue. You will leave all thoughts of revenge with God and try to get on with everyone the best you can-vv17-20, overcoming evil with good-v21. Now that, friends, is what a living sacrifice does, that is what a renewed mind produces. And nothing but the Gospel can produce such a miracle.
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