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Life in the body - Romans 12:1-8

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 3rd December 2006.

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Over the last week my mind has begun to ponder the scary and bewildering topic of Christmas presents. It has to be said that I usually leave it till Christmas Eve afternoon. But this year I’ve been planning ahead. But I guess most men find themselves in the same boat, and especially when it comes to buying presents for wives or indeed any female relative or friend. Just what on earth do you buy? It has to be said it is a minefield fraught with danger. Well gentlemen, you’ll be pleased to know that I came across some encouraging words on the internet this week about what not to buy your wife, though I think this is applicable to any female friend. 1. Don’t buy anything that plugs in. Anything that requires electricity is seen as utilitarian. 2. Don’t buy clothing that involves sizes. The chances are one in seven thousand that you will get her size right, and your wife will be offended the other 6999 times. “Do I look like a size 18?” she’ll say. Too small a size doesn’t cut it either: “I haven’t worn a size 8 in 20 years!” 3. Avoid all things useful. The new silver polish advertised to save hundreds of hours is not going to win you any brownie points. 4. Don’t buy anything that involves weight loss or self-improvement. She’ll perceive a six-month membership to a diet centre as a suggestion that’s she’s overweight. 5. Don’t buy jewellery. The jewellery your wife wants, you can’t afford. And the jewellery you can afford, she doesn’t want. 6. Finally, don’t spend too much. “How do you think we’re going to afford that?” she’ll ask. But don’t spend too little. She won’t say anything, but she’ll think, “Is that all I’m worth?”

            Well its gifts and our response that is at the heart of our passage for this evening which comes from Romans 12. But the gift we’ve been given is something so unbelievably generous, so extraordinarily lavish, so utterly underserved, that it leaves us asking how on earth do I response to something so wonderfully gracious and kind? The gift that Paul is talking about is something we’ve been looking at over the last few weeks and it’s something Paul has been explaining in Romans 1-11. For eleven chapters he has shown his readers the depths of their depravity but also the wonder of God’s mercy. For the first few chapters he’s explained how all mankind, and that includes you and me, have turned away from the living and true God to worship what we want. We live lives which are fundamentally lives of rebellion against our creator however politely and nicely we try and do it. Paul says that there is no-one righteous, no-one who does good not even one. And the penalty for our mindset and behaviour is death, not just physical but spiritual, eternal, separation from the source of life for ever, a grim prospect indeed. And if truth be told, were God to cast every one of us into the depths of hell for all eternity, he’d be perfectly just in doing so. For that is what we deserve. And if we fail to see that then we have grasped the awesome holy character of God, not have we understood our sin properly. But wonderfully, God in his mercy and grace has not left us in that position, but has offered us a way out. For when Jesus Christ came to this earth, to live as a perfect man, he died in our place bearing the penalty we deserve. What an extraordinary gift to offer humanity. Friendship with God again, forgiveness, to be declared right in God’s eyes. So how on earth do you respond to a gift like that? Something so unbelievably generous, so extraordinarily lavish, so utterly underserved? Just how do you respond?

            Well Paul’s answer is in Romans 12-16. And you’ll be relieved to know that we are not going to look at the whole section tonight, but just the first eight verses. And Paul says that in the light of the mercies of God, we are to respond in three ways:

1) Total Dedication (V 1)

2) Total Transformation (V 2)

3) Total Participation (Vv 3-8)

1) Total Dedication (V 1)

So first then we are to respond with total dedication. And Paul begins by telling us first of all the basis for our dedication. Verse 1: “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.” Paul explains that the basis for our dedication and response to him is in view of the mercies, or literally, mercies of God. Our response is to be in the light of the mercies of God, in other words all that Paul has explained in Romans 1-11 which we’ve already seen. In the light of all that God has done for you, this is how you are to respond, says Paul. Now it is absolutely crucial to understand a number of things on this point because if we misunderstand this then it will cripple our Christian lives. We must understand most importantly that whatever Paul will tell us about how to live in these verses and the next few chapters, he is not saying that we earn our salvation by our good actions. No whatever the challenges of the following verses, and there are some big ones, they are a response to mercy not a route to mercy. No in view of God’s mercies says Paul. In the light of what has already been achieved for you by the mercy and grace of God this is how you and I are to respond. The fact is we cannot earn God’s goodness and favour. We are thoroughly sinful and corrupt and nothing but the mercy and grace of God can change. So let none of us think that Paul is teaching us that good actions of some sort earn God’s mercy. They do not.

            But perhaps a more common misunderstanding amongst many Christians is to think that in view of God’s mercy, we must somehow pay him back for his mercy by our good deeds, as if we ever could. Sometimes we betray our thinking by our language, we suggests that we owe God a debt which we try and pay off by living his way. But again it’s a misunderstanding of what it means to live in the light of the mercies of God. The fact is we can never repay God for his grace, and even today the debt has been mounting so to speak. The fact that God has kept us for another day is a sheer act of his grace and mercy. And we must not think that our response is in any way some sort of moral repayment to him. Because if we live that way, then we will be crippled by guilt and frustration worrying that we have ever done enough to satisfy him for that day. Sadly for some Christians, God is a stern harsh father who needs to be impressed. But he’s not. There’s no impressing God. Because he has done what is necessary to declare you and me forgiven and to legally declare us children of God. You cannot get more into his good books. Paul has argued all the way through Romans 5 and 6 that the Christian is fundamentally a new person. We have been transferred from the kingdom of death to the kingdom of life. We are God’s people. So live out your new status. That’s the logic. In view of God’s mercy, live the new life. Not in view of God’s mercy, try and live a life of goodness which is half motivated by guilt and half by fear. No the basis of our dedication is the mercies of God- holiness is a response to mercy not a route to mercy; and we are to live as the new people we are by grace, not gripped by guilt and fear that we have done enough to please God today.

            But notice too not only the basis for our dedication, but also the character of our dedication, as Paul goes on in verse 1: “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.” Now in this verse Paul says something quite extraordinary. He says that we are to be living sacrifices, which is a total contradiction in terms. In the OT, the people of God would bring their sacrifices to God and the goat or pigeon or lamb would then be killed. But Paul is saying here that we no longer need to bring those sorts of sacrifices. No the sacrifices we bring are ourselves. Living sacrifices. Our whole bodies, our whole lives are living sacrifices to him. The point is, don’t bring a sacrifice, be one. In view of God’s mercies, offer your bodies as living sacrifices. Nothing is to be held back. Everything is to be given to God in view of his mercies to us. And notice that Paul says in doing so we are holy and pleasing to God. Total dedication and devotion is the holy and godly thing to do and it is pleasing to God. And he goes on “this is your spiritual act of worship.” Now this word spiritual is literally “rational” or “logical”. Paul is telling us that total dedication to God is the rational or logical thing to do. As human beings we were designed by and for God. To live for him is the right thing to do. And it’s what the NT calls worship. True worship is a devotion to God that includes every aspect of our lives. Our whole bodies. It encompasses Sunday mornings and Monday mornings, as well as every other moment in the week. So there is nothing unspiritual about what happens at work on a Wednesday afternoon if you are a Christian. There too you are to be a living sacrifice. 

            You see what Paul is urging us to do in the light of the mercies of God is to be whole hearted. Absolutely nothing is to be held back. How can it be? How can we possibly argue that holding something back from God is a rational and logical thing to do when he has done everything necessary for our salvation. How can it be possible to hold some part of our lives or body back from him when he owns us all? We cannot say to God: “Yes, Lord, I give my all to you, but this relationship, I’m holding on to that if you don’t mind. I know it’s not quite right, but I’m boss there.” “Yes, Lord, I give my all to you, but just give me a break at work won’t you. I mean I don’t want to get embarrassed or rejected by taking a stand for you there.” “Yes, Lord I’ll give you everything, but let me have my bit of fun on the internet. I mean those sites aren’t that bad, are they? They’re not doing me that much harm.” The thing is there is not one part of our lives where Christ’s Lordship does not hold sway. He is Lord. And he demands everything of us, not as some ogre who wants control, but as the loving king who knows best. Half heartedness and compromise are just not options with God. And each one of us will need to think long and hard as to the parts of our lives where we are holding back. And when Christian men and woman take the challenge of Romans 12 seriously, then it is a very powerful witness to the watching world.

            Let me read you something that I came across a while ago. It is a challenge a Communist once threw out to a Christian: “The gospel is a much more powerful weapon for the renewal of society than is our Marxist philosophy, but all the same it is we who will finally beat you.. We communists do not play with words. We are realists, and seeing that we are determined to achieve our object, we know how to obtain the means. Of our salaries and wages we keep only what is strictly necessary, and we give up our free time and part of our holidays. You, however, give only a little time and hardly any money for the spreading of the gospel of Christ. How can anybody believe in the supreme value of this gospel if you do not practice it, if you do not spread it and if you do not sacrifice neither time nor money for it.. ? We believe in our communist message and we are willing to sacrifice everything, even our life. But you people are afraid even to soil your hands.” Well they are strong words aren’t they. And the challenge for us is to ask ourselves whether we take Paul’s words in Romans 12 seriously or not. Because he is saying that in the light of the mercies of God the demand is total dedication.         

2) Total Transformation (V 2)

But then the second challenge from Romans 12 is total transformation. Verse 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 the big question for us is how will this total dedication take place. We know we are sinful and weak. Well that is why Paul goes on to talk about this total transformation. In other words God doesn’t make demands of us without giving us the resources to do what he asks. Now notice that in order for this total transformation to take place in us, there has to be both a negative and a positive process.

            Negatively, Paul says we are not to conform any longer to the pattern of this world. So what does he mean by that? Well “the pattern of this world” is sinful humanity in opposition to God. It’s everything that sets itself up in opposition to God, everything that leads us away from God. It’s everything from attitude to actions. An attitude which says this life is mine and I’ll do what I want with, and actions which live out that credo. Now notice Paul does not say we must withdraw from the world, and hide in tiny Christian cliques not allowing the evils of the world to influence. He says don’t conform to the pattern of this world. In other words we must take a stand to not allow ourselves to be shaped by sinful agendas and practices. One translator famously translated Paul’s words here: “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into it’s own mould.” And that captures something of what Paul is saying. We’re not to be Christian chameleons, changing colour according to our surroundings. We are to be distinctive.

            Now of course peer pressure is very strong. And it takes great courage to go against the flow. A while ago some research was done into peer pressure among teenagers. In one experiment, they showed a class of teenagers a series of cards each with two lines on them. And the class were asked to put up their hands to show which line they thought was shorter. However one poor teenager had a crucial piece of information kept from him. What he didn’t know was that all the others in the class had received a letter asking them to put up their hands for the wrong answer. So the researchers showed the first card; it was obvious to this one teenager which was shorter; he put up his hand for the correct answer; all the others put up their hands for the wrong answer. The one guy thought that was a bit odd, but he was undaunted. Next card, same thing. He put up his hand for the correct answer, everyone else put up theirs for the wrong one. He was a bit more unnerved. Next card, same thing again. By number four, the poor guy began to put up his hand with all the others – even though he knew they were wrong. It takes courage to go against the flow.

            So how do we go against the flow? Well that brings us on to the positive. Verse 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.” “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind,” says Paul. Notice the battle begins in the mind. If you want to change your actions, you have to begin in the mind. And notice too that it is something that God does in us. We are transformed by him as we submit to his Word. That is how the Christian’s mind is transformed. As you and I read God’s word and apply its message to our hearts, so our minds are transformed by God’s Spirit. And then we can “test and approve what God’s will is- his good, perfect and pleasing will.” We can know the right way to live. God’s will in the Bible is for us to be holy. And as we soak our minds in the Scriptures, and allow it take root in our hearts, so our actions will be changed. And we will do what pleases God. And it all begins in the mind.

            So we need to ask ourselves are we allowing the Word of God to transform our minds? You see if we don’t take seriously the Bible’s challenge to be men and women of the Word of God, if we do not immerse ourselves in the Bible, then do not be surprised if your life is shaped more by the world than the Word. Don’t be surprised if the reality is that you are conformed to the pattern of this world, if your mind is being transformed more by the culture of this world. I was given an article recently which was about some research done in churches across the country about how often church members read the Bible. And it made for disturbing reading. Because according to the research, under a third of people attending an evangelical church such as ours will read the Bible once a week or more. So the other two thirds won’t pick up the Bible between Sunday to Sunday. Now yes, we’re busy, yes, there’s lots to do. But if you and I are serious about being totally dedicated as living sacrifices and being totally transformed and not being conformed, then how on earth will that happen, unless we allow the Word of God to be a part of our lives. And it’s not for lack of resources. There are tonnes of resources to help us with our Bible reading. And if you want some, just have a word. And nor I think is it lack of time. For the simple reason is that we can always find time for the things we want to do, and especially watching TV. If you don’t believe me do a simple experiment this week and tot up the amount of TV you watch compared to the time spent reading the Bible. And then ask what are our minds being influenced more by? The world or the word? It’s not that TV is necessarily evil. But the point is we’re filling our minds with what the world thinks and we have no way of filtering what we are watching. We are not thinking Christianly about what we watch if the Word has little or no place in our lives each week.

            So consider some of your favourite TV programmes. What message are they peddling, albeit ever so subtly? The garden, holiday and cooking programmes are advocating a lifestyle which always wants more and slightly above what we already have. It is any wonder many of struggle with materialism. The soaps we watch advocate a certain attitude to relationships and sexuality. Is it any wonder many of us struggle in the area of sex and relationships. The history and science programmes often promote secular thinking by the backdoor which leaves God out of the picture. Is there any wonder our education system is in such a mess when that is the message we are all hearing? Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not necessarily advocating a Scrooge like mentality to all media and entertainment. I’m saying that unless we are being transformed in our minds by the Word of God, then we will be conformed to the pattern of this world. Because like it or not every day we are hearing and seeing message which leave God out of the picture and are urging a mentality and a lifestyle that is ungodly. And as the country sinks further and further into godless secularism, which leaves God on the sidelines and descends into moral anarchy, then we Christians will be sucked down with it if we do not take a stand rooted in the Word of God. We will be squeezed into the world’s mould. And where there is no transformation of the mind as we read and ponder and apply the Bible, then there can be no dedication to God’s service. So will you take up the challenge not be conformed but to be transformed.

3) Total Participation (Vv 3-8)

But there’s one final challenge from Romans 12 about what it means to response to God’s mercies and that is total participation. And we might at first think that this has very little to do with what has gone before. It seems a bit of a gear change. But it’s not. Because living a life of total dedication and total transformation is not a individual thing. We do it as God’s people together. We are a body. And a transformed mind has an impact on the way we view ourselves and one another as God’s people. We are to participate totally in life together as God’s people. And it begins with a right understanding of ourselves in verse 4: “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.” In the light of the glorious grace and mercy of God, pride is totally out of place in a Christian community. We should look at ourselves, says Paul, with sober judgement. We should not think more highly of ourselves than we ought. And then he says that we should consider ourselves “in accordance with the measure of faith given you.” Now this is a verse that is often misunderstood. Because it might seem as if Paul is saying that people have different levels of subjective faith and so we should consider ourselves according to how much faith we have. So if you’ve not got much faith, then you should consider yourself in that light, which would mean you’d not think much of yourself at all! But rather it’s more likely to mean that we should consider ourselves in accordance to the standard of faith given to us. The standard of faith is the good news about Jesus. We should consider ourselves in the light of the gospel, that is. You see by and large people fall into two traps. Either to think too poorly of themselves, in that they think they are rubbish and worthless, unworthy of anyone or anything. Others think too highly of themselves and think they are the bees knees. But in the light of the gospel, and the work of Jesus for us, we must not think too poorly of ourselves because we are dearly loved. We aren’t worthless. Yes, we are unworthy, but we are dearly loved and cherished by Christ. But at the same time we must not think too highly of ourselves. We are to be humble, knowing that we are sinners saved by grace. And you can only have a healthy understanding of yourself when you measure yourself against the standard of the gospel, the faith given to us.

            But notice too that total participation means having a right understanding of others. And that is that everyone has a part to play in the body of Christ, the church. No-one is unimportant and everyone has a role to play. So verse 4: “Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.” Very simply Paul is saying that everyone has gifts that are God given to use within the body of the church. Paul develops the imagery in 1 Corinthians 12 where he asks us to imagine a giant eye or giant ear and says how ridiculous that would be. How could the body smell or talk. No, the point is we need each other. Everyone has a role to play. And Paul mentions some of the gifts in verses 6 and following: “If a man's gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.” His point is not to give an exhaustive list of gifts available but to show that everyone has a role to play. And it may be that you feel a very small fish in a large pond in this church, that you have nothing to offer. Well let me assure you that you do. Your very presence here is a great encouragement, and you will have things to offer the people of God in service of the King. Let no-one here think they have no role.

            Sir Michael Costa was a great orchestral Conductor of the 19th Century. It is said that one day he was conducting a rehearsal in which the orchestra was joined by a great choir. Midway through the session the piccolo player stopped playing. It seemed innocent enough - after all who would miss the tiny piccolo amidst the great mass of instruments blazing away? All of a sudden Sir Michael stopped the entire orchestra and choir. "Stop! Stop! Where's the piccolo? What's happened to the piccolo? I can’t hear the piccolo!" We may sometimes feel like that piccolo player - that we don't have much to offer, that if we stopped our ministry no one would notice anyway. Yet the Great Conductor notices, and he needs us to complete his orchestral masterpiece!

            You see even in a church this size which seems to be running well with lots of things happening, there are still many many jobs to be done, people to be cared for, things to be sorted out. And many many gifts are required to carry forward the work of the gospel in this parish. And everyone has a part to play. The church is not like a cruise liner with most of the people on board sitting in deck chairs playing cards while a few scrabble around frantically trying to do everything. The church is much more like a wartime frigate with every person playing their part. And Paul says that is part of living in the light of the mercies of God is to participate in the body of Christ. It’s just as important as total dedication and total transformation. To be totally committed to his people.

            So how do you respond to the mercies of God? Well every gift demands a response, and tonight offers us a chance to examine our hearts and consider how we are doing living in the light of the mercies of God. Because Paul does not beat around the bush. Instead he says very simply that our response should be one of total dedication, total transformation and total participation.

           

             

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