Romans 12 presents an interesting quandary for the modern, North American Christian. Verse one presents a command: “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.”
That command receives further detail in the next verse: “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.”
The diligent, serious Christians reads these verses and thinks, I must do something. Yet, as John Street (TMC, head of Biblical Counseling department), explained once, Probably every sermon you have ever heard on this passage is wrong. Not wrong in the sense that it is used to teach a dangerous heresy. Rather wrong in the sense that we miss an important aspect of the passage.
The default of far too many Christians is to read an individualism into the passage which Paul never intended. We read the command “present your bodies as a living sacrifice” and think I, personally and independently, must do something. But consider the matter carefully: Bodies is plural, but the sacrifice is singular. All of you are presenting one sacrifice.
Consider the movement of the passage: Paul commands a living sacrifice. He then explains that we must live differently from the terms of culture; rather, our mind must be transformed. We not think of ourselves more highly than we ought. Why? Because all the individual believers make up one body:
3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.4 For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, 5 so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.
Something rather interesting happens at this point: the next several verses do not contain a finite verb. A general rule of Greek grammar is that a sentence has a finite verb which is the main verb and other verbs which are either participles or infinitives. You could think of this as a main idea with the other verbs as related ideas hanging on the main idea. In fact, we have go to verse 14 and the word “bless” before we get a “normal” sentence.
It is typical to simply break this up into various sentences and infer a finite verb. For example, the translation handbook reads:
In Greek verses 6–8 form one sentence, and it is rather complex. It begins with a participle and there is no main verb in the entire sentence. Although a verb is not present in the Greek, the context makes it clear what verb is implicit: we are to use (RSV “let us use them”; NEB “must be exercised accordingly”).
However, as James Dunn (Word Commentary, Romans) explains, there is a different way to understand the structure which takes into account the actual grammar and the flow of Paul’s argument:
It is almost universally assumed that v 6 begins a new sentence (e.g., neb, Barrett, Michel, Käsemann), with the second halves of the subsequent phrases filled out with imperatival force—so particularly rsv: “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them” (the last four words having been added to the text). This forces the sense too much in one direction (a “somewhat harsh ellipse,” as SH recognize). The sentence reads more naturally as a continuation of the body imagery of vv 4–5 with the meaning of ἀλλήλων μέλη spelled out in terms of different charisms. The point then of the following phrases is that they are a description of the Christian congregation functioning as “one body in Christ” ….
Considered in this way, the nature of the spiritual sacrifice comes into view. The sacrifice is not longer a “me and Jesus” sacrifice of radical individualism (whether the song means precisely that is a different question), but is a sacrificing of oneself in love: this is a passage which introduces an extended discussion on Christian community (see, e.g., 1 Peter 1:21-22, sanctification and being “born again” bring about a radical transformation of brotherly love; Paul’s argument concerning the law is that love fulfills the law, Romans 13:10).
Gore explains that transformation sought by Paul is more than isolated holiness; it is a holiness, a transformation, a sacrifice which brings about a radical transformation of human life together:
And when St. Paul, justifying himself here, as before and later on, by the special divine favour which has made him the apostle of the Gentiles, proceeds to develop his exhortation, it appears that with him, as with St. James, the form in which ‘divine service’ shows itself must be love of the brethren. To be called into the body of Christ—the society which is bound into one by His life and spirit—is to be called to social service, that is, to live a community life, and to cultivate the virtues which make true community life possible and healthy. Of these the first is humility, which in this connexion means the viewing oneself in all things as one truly is, as a part of a whole. Of the faith by which the whole body lives, a share, but only a share, belongs to each member—a certain measure of faith—and he must not strain beyond it. But he is diligently to make the best of his faculty, and do the work for which his special gift qualifies him, in due subordination to the welfare of the whole whether it be inspired preaching, or ordinary teaching, or the distribution of alms, or presidency, or some other form of helping others which is his special function. Besides humility there are other virtues which make the life of a community healthy and happy, and St. Paul enumerates them, as they occur to his mind, in no defined order or completeness. There must be sincerity in love, that is in considering and seeking the real interest of others; there must be the righteous severity which keeps the moral atmosphere free from taint; there must be tenderness of feeling, which makes the community a real family of brothers; and an absence of all self-assertion, or desire for personal prominence; and thorough industry; and spiritual zeal; and devotion to God’s service; and the cheerfulness which Christian hope inspires; and the ready endurance of affliction; and close application to prayer; and a love for giving whenever fellow Christians need; and an eagerness to entertain them when they are travelling—for ‘the community’ embraces, not one church only, but ‘all the churches.’
Nay in a wider sense the community extends itself to all mankind, even those who persecute them.
In short, the spiritual sacrifice is a sacrifice of myself in love of God which leads to love of neighbor.
Volume 2 of the commentary on St. Paul’s
Epistle to the Romans, A Practical Exposition
By Charles Gore, D.D.
Lord Bishop of Worcester
Chaplain to His Majesty the King