April 1, 2018
HOW SHALL WE THEN LIVE?
(34 of 44 in a series through Romans)
On that Easter Sunday morning as Jesus walked out of the tomb, rising from the dead, something unexpected happened. I guess you could say many unexpected things happened—a man rising from the dead not being the least of them! But one unexpected element was that the age to come broke into this age in that very moment. Let me explain what I mean by that.
The Bible pictures this time until the coming judgment as one age, and eternity as another age. So, Jesus, for example, can speak of the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit not being forgiven “either in this age or in the age to come” (Matt 12:32). And this present age is thought of as a time of sin, death, and the rule of Satan, so that Paul will refer to Satan as the “god of this age” (2 Cor 4:4)i or can speak of Jesus giving himself for our sins “to deliver us from the present evil age” (Gal 1:4).
The age to come, on the other hand, is a time when we will know the full blessings of eternal life (Mark 10:30), no longer wrestle with sin or death, and will be glorified. We will have bodies that are no longer subject to corruption and death, sin or disease. And with absolute freedom from all sinful temptations, we will perfectly love our God and one another.
So, here’s what happened on that Easter Sunday morning as Jesus rose from the dead. What had been placed in that tomb was a body that had been subject to death and the wear and tear of a world subjected to futility. But when Jesus walked out of that tomb, the physical body he knew was no longer subject to death but immortal, incorruptible, and glorious. All of the sudden, we were getting a glimpse in this present evil age of what will one day be in the age to come. There was a resurrected body, not subject to the fall or pain or death walking around in this age.
And this has implications for us because, as we saw earlier in Romans, when we place our faith in Christ, we’re united with our Lord so that what is true of him is true of us. Therefore, because Jesus was raised from the dead, we too have been raised with him, as Paul says in Romans 6:4, so that we “might walk in newness of life.” In other words, even as Jesus brought a glimpse of the age to come into this present age the moment he walked out of the tomb, so those united with him by faith have been freed and empowered to live lives now that reflect what we’ll live like in the age to come. This is why Paul exhorts us in our text this morning not to be “conformed to this age” (v. 2).ii After all, we don’t have to be conformed to this age; we’ve been raised with Christ. That’s what Romans 12:1-2 is about, and it’s why I thought it’d be an ideal text for us on Easter Sunday.
But what does it look like to live a life that reflects the age to come? What does it look like to live a life that gives people at least a glimpse of what we’re going to live like when Jesus comes back and we spend eternity with him? Well, Paul answers that question for us in the rest of the book of Romans. If you’ve ever studied Paul’s letters, you’ve probably noticed that he’ll often begin a book by laying out doctrine and then transitions in the latter part of the book by providing exhortations for holy living. Now, of course, I only mean that generally. His early sections of his book provide exhortations and his latter sections contain doctrine, but the emphasis of the first half of his books is largely doctrine while the emphasis of the last half is holy living. And that’s what we see here in Romans.
So, through the rest of the book, we’re going to be looking at a number of particular issues that pertain to how we as Christians—who have been raised to walk in newness of life—should live. But all of that begins with a two verse exhortation in Romans 12:1-2 that really serves as a general heading and thesis for everything that comes after it. And basically you could sum these two verses as reminding us why we must live holy lives, what that looks like, how we do it, and what will be the results of it. And that’s what I want us to see today. Let’s begin, then with why we must live holy lives.
Why we must live holy lives – the mercies of God
Paul starts this last section of Romans by writing, “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” (v. 1).
Now, you’ll note that he’s making an appeal or exhortation to the people to do something. I’ve generally described that as living holy lives. But what I want us first to notice is that Paul is building this exhortation on something. First, he writes, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers,” which indicates that this exhortation to do something is based on what he’s just argued. In other words, Paul’s exhortation is built or founded upon what he’s argued in these previous chapters that we’ve looked at over the past thirty-three weeks in Romans.
This means that Paul thinks of holy living coming out of an understanding that—as you think through Romans 1-11—we have all rejected God’s clear revelation, have refused to worship him, and are worthy of judgment. But God, in his gracious mercy sent his Son to live, die, and be raised for us, bearing the punishment for sin so that God might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in the crucified and risen Lord. Therefore, we are saved, not by works, but simply by faith in the finished work of Christ. And it could be no other way because we could never measure up to the standard of righteousness that God demands—perfect obedience to his commands. In fact, he gave us the law, not so that we might try to obey it and achieve righteousness but so that it might reveal to us that our only hope is trusting in Christ and his righteousness for us. Once we do that, the Spirit comes to live within us, changing our desires, freeing us from slavery to sin, and moving our hearts to want to obey Christ. And our Father holds us securely, wanting us to know that he loves us, working all things for our good, and allowing nothing to separate us from his love for us. We can even say that everything he’s done in our lives is to the end of showing us that we are the beloved objects of his mercy and grace.
That’s where Paul wants us to start. He sums up everything I’ve just reviewed for us in these first eleven chapters of Romans as “the mercies of God.” And that phrase, “by the mercies of God,” is probably better translated as “because of the mercies of God.” In other words, Paul envisions holy living not as something we do to try to earn the Lord’s favor but something we do because we’ve already been the recipients of his mercy. Because of the mercies of God we live holy lives.
And, brothers and sisters, this is crucial. I think Paul shows us how crucial this order is by spending eleven chapters laying a foundation of God’s mercies toward us before launching into this last section of exhortations. But I think we can all attest to this truth in our own experience of the world as well. A pursuit of obedience that doesn’t have the gospel, justification by faith alone, the Lord’s delight in us, and the mercies he delights in pouring out on us as its foundation is at best an obedience that will be short-lived. Obedience that tries to earn God’s favor eventually is an obedience that gives up trying. The greatest motivation to holy living is to build it upon the mercies of God that we know we have received by faith in Jesus Christ. And the greatest means of sustained holy living is ensuring that you first understand your standing with the Lord by grace through faith and understand that you are the recipient of the mercies of God. So, that is why we live holy lives—the mercies of God. But what does that look like to live a holy life?
What holy living looks like—giving ourselves wholly to God
We see this as we look at verse 1 again. Paul says, “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.”
Let me note a few things about this exhortation. First, when Paul says to present our bodies, he is not attempting to suggest that we obey the Lord with one aspect of who we are—our bodies. That is, it’s not as if he’s suggesting that we do not obey the Lord with our minds, hearts, or souls, but merely our bodies. Rather, he’s suggesting the exact opposite of that. By saying to present our bodies to the Lord, he’s saying that we need to give our whole selves unto the Lord. Our tendencies are to think that we can serve the Lord merely with our souls or inner selves. So, someone might walk in sexual immorality but suggest that this doesn’t matter because it merely involved their bodies but not their souls or hearts. But Paul is showing that you can’t do that. God demands all of us. So, it isn’t enough to say our hearts are toward the Lord while we use our bodies to walk in sexual immorality, abuse our bodies with eating disorders as we chase a certain body image, harm our bodies during times of depression or struggle, idolize our bodies and show them off through immodesty, or seek to change our bodies to try to alter our gender. God demands that we serve him by committing our whole selves to him—mind, soul, and body.
Second, Paul pictures this in terms of sacrifice like we see in the Old Testament. In the OT, a believer would worship the Lord by bringing an animal and offering it as a sacrifice, shedding the blood of the animal, and killing it as an offering unto the Lord. It would be set apart unto the Lord (i.e. holy) and the Lord demanded the animal meet certain standards of cleanliness so that it would be acceptable.
Paul picks up on this imagery and language in telling us to offer ourselves as holy sacrifices to the Lord. We are to set ourselves apart as holy—that is, devoted to the Lord. We are to be acceptable sacrifices, giving ourselves unto the standards and demands he makes of us. But, instead of offering ourselves as sacrifices that shed blood and die, Paul notes that we are to be living sacrifices. In other words, God does not demand of us that we give our whole selves to him through death but that we give our whole selves to him in living. He demands that we live our whole lives in devotion to him. All of our lives are about him. Everything we do is primarily for him. Every word, thought, and action is about glorifying him. That’s what Paul is appealing to us to do. Offer our whole selves unto God as living, holy, and acceptable sacrifices.
Finally, Paul tells us that this is our only reasonable response to God’s abundant mercies. I say it’s only reasonable because the term translated “spiritual” at the end of verse 1 is better translated “reasonable” or “rational.” Paul uses the term “spiritual” a lot in his writings, but that isn’t the term he’s using here. The term he’s using here is one that means “reasonable.” In other words, Paul is saying that giving ourselves wholly unto the Lord is the only reasonable response for one who has received (and continues to receive) his abundant mercies.
Why would you not give your whole life in commitment to a God who loves you, gave himself for you, and will not let you be separated from his love for you? Why would you pursue rebelling against a God who has met your deepest need, gives his Spirit to you, and delights in you so deeply that he works everything for your good? It’s only reasonable to do everything unto his glory, giving your whole self to him.
So, let me encourage you to turn from any rebellion you may be doing in how you’re dealing with your body. It’s only reasonable. Turn from viewing pornography, put aside the eating disorder, no longer pursue that same-sex relationship, stop the sexual activity with that person you’re not married to, be faithful and walk in line with the gender God made you to be. Your life is his. Give yourself wholly to him today because of the abundant mercies he has shown you.
But perhaps this raises another question, namely, how? How do we give ourselves to the Lord? How do we walk in holiness? So, let’s see what Paul tells us there.
How we live holy lives—by renewing our minds
Paul begins verse 2 by giving us a picture of what he means by presenting ourselves as living sacrifices to the Lord. He says, “Do not be conformed to this world [literally “age”], but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”
Now, you’ll remember how we began our time by thinking about this age and the age to come. And Paul described this time until the return of Christ as the “present evil age” (Gal 1:4) and called Satan the “god of this age” (2 Cor 4:4). He will even describe us before we came to faith in Christ, in Ephesians 2:1-3 as “dead in . . . trespasses and sins, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” What a picture! But that phrase “the course of this world” is literally “the age of this world.”
This age—the time until the return of Christ—is filled with people who follow the devil, have spirits of disobedience at work within them, who are living in the sinful passions of their flesh, carrying out those sinful desires, and are dead in their trespasses and sins. And Paul says that they’re following this age.
Therefore, when Paul says not to be conformed to this age, he’s saying that you and I are going to have to swim against the tide of culture and people and ideas all around us. The voices and movements and ideas of those around us aren’t going to be holding up the wisdom of God and praising his commands. Why would we ever expect that when the spirit of disobedience is at work within them and they’re following the god of this age (to use the imagery the Bible gives us)?
This is why in our own culture, sexual activity outside of marriage is simply an assumption, and to think that is wrong is not only looked on as odd but worthy of mockery. It’s why in our culture the forms of entertainment that are before us not only hold up sinful realities as acceptable but glamorize them. Brothers and sisters, it’s as if we’re in the middle of a river whose current is flowing hard in a direction that is evil, wicked, and will lead to our deaths. And Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this age.”
Instead, we must be “transformed,” Paul says. He wants us to be characterized not by this age but by the age to come. He wants us not to take our cues from everything around us in this age but from the resurrected Christ who walked out of the tomb and gave us a glimpse of the age to come. And Paul tells us that this will require us renewing our minds.
One of the things that we desperately need is the Word of God holding up what is true and good and beautiful and right and glorious. We need the Word of God telling us what is desirable. On her own judgment, Eve saw the fruit of the tree of knowledge and good and evil as a delight to the eyes and desirable to make one wise, but God had spoken otherwise. And she needed to renew her mind in light of what God had said.
That’s us as well. It’s as if God’s Word is a beacon in the middle of a storm or a compass when we’re lost in darkness. It reminds us of what is true and good and beautiful and right, right in the midst of this age. This is why we unapologetically dedicate a decent amount of time every Sunday morning to the reading, teaching, and proclamation of God’s Word. According to 2 Timothy 3:16-17 these are God’s very words, breathed out by him, profitable for teaching us, correcting us, and training us so that we might be competent and equipped for every good work. And that’s why Paul follows up that description of Scripture by saying to Timothy, “Preach the Word.” It’s what calibrates us. The Word is our guide. So, renew your mind to what is true and good and beautiful, again and again and again. Read the Bible. Come and hear the Word taught and preached. Meet in small groups and discuss how we obey the Scripture that was preached. Exhort one another throughout the week to come in line with God’s Word, turning from sin. And do this again and again and again. And as we do so, we will not be conformed to this age, but transformed, becoming more and more like our risen Lord who gloriously walked out of the tomb so that we might have life.
But I want to say more about that, so let me note one more thing, namely, the result of holy living.
The result of holy living—an understanding of God’s perfect will
After telling us to be transformed by the renewal of our minds, Paul adds, “That by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (v. 2). What Paul is telling us is that as we continue to renew our minds to what God has revealed to us as true, good, right, and beautiful, we will find ourselves seeing what God has spoken of as good and see it as such. Over time, we will train our minds and hearts to begin to see what God approves of as good in our own minds as well. In other words, our minds and desires will grow into conformity to the Lord’s will so that we approve of what he has deemed good.
What Paul is describing is actually a complete reversal of what he described in Romans 1. You remember in Romans 1 how Paul described unbelievers as looking at creation, where God has clearly made himself known, and they suppress what they know to be true and refuse to give thanks to God. Consequently, their rebellious hearts lead them to become futile in their thinking, their foolish hearts become darkened, and they begin to live in way and think in ways that are utterly irrational and debased. Here, Paul pictures a renewal of our minds in light of what God has spoken to the point that our minds begin to understand more and more the Lord’s will, our hearts grow in approval of what is good, and we begin to live in ways that are in line with his will so that we begin more and more like Christ. Thus, just as sin leads to greater and greater sin, so our pursuit of being conformed to the image of Christ leads to clearer thinking, more appropriate desires, and lives of holiness that more and more picture the glory of Christ.
Therefore, as we remember today—as we do each Sunday—that Jesus walked out of the tomb and gave us a glimpse of the age to come even in the midst of this present evil age, may we, in response to God’s abundant mercies, walk as a reflection in this age of what will be in the age to come. May the Lord give us grace to pursue holiness so that our light might shine in darkness and lead others to glorify our Father. So let us remember his abundant mercies toward us now as we come to the table. Amen.
The ESV translates this “god of this world,” but the world translated “world” is literally “age.”
Again, the ESV translates this as “world” but the Greek is literally “age.”