The Christian Church is a strange thing. It brings together those people who never would otherwise never be in one place. The church has been the church of the master and the church of the slave. It is the church of the wealthy and the impoverished. It is the church of the well-educated and the uneducated. It is the church the sophisticated and the unsophisticated. The drug addict who had spent years on the streets sits with the eminently cautious and respectable. Every ethnicity under heaven is equally welcome and has come under the shelter of the great Lord’s wings.
These people who by nature would have nothing to do together as friends and equals are brought together and told to love one another and confess their sins to one another and to bear one-another’s burdens. No matter who we were before we came in, we are called as equals in salvation:
27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
Galatians 3:27–29. And:
Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.
Colossians 3:11. This is a matter which is beautiful in contemplation, but in practice … in practice, it is often lacking. In the end, we will all praise the Lord in perfect harmony. Rev. 5. But today we are in transition. We move fitfully. We begin well, and fail miserably. We pledge our love and friendship, and then turn with the unkindness which can only be exchanged by those who have been friends and family.
The most foolish of petty distinctions, the least cause for pride, the slimmest of prestige can bring out the worst in human nature. The desire to be esteemed by men, and the desire to get vengeance upon those who hurt us (whether that hurt is real or merely perceived by an excessive pride), are fertile ground for sin to overturn the work of God.
Most of can easily give a catalogue of those who have wronged us, but we are given no instructions to force others to reconcile with us. There is something wrong with so many churches – but we cannot start with the wrongs of others. We must start with ourselves:
Judge not, that you be not judged. 2 For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. 3 Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.
Matthew 7:1–5. Only when we have a clear view of our sin and failure can we go to our brother to remedy the wrong:
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.
Matthew 18:15. How we will make that approach will be considered later in Romans 12. For now, our attention begins ourselves.
To paraphrase Kierkegaard, when we read this text we must realize it is written to us and it is about us: you must think, this is written to me, and is about me. Paul is going to make extraordinary demands upon the church, but he makes these demands upon all those who are in the church so that he can heal the breach which has arisen in Rome.
If we are suffering from a breach in the church, then this chapter gives us instruction on how to heal that breach. If we seek to avoid a breach, then this chapter tell us what we must be if we are to avoid a breach.
The whole begins with the idea: “therefore”.
Romans 12 begins a new section of Romans and is marked by this “therefore.” What has gone before is generally theological propositions: an extended explanation of the power of God to rescue the damned. Paul begins this declaration of God’s good news with the word:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
Romans 1:16. And having begun with the power of God, he ends with praise to the wisdom of God in exercising this power:
33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?”
35 “Or who has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid?”
36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.
Romans 11:33-36. If read this story of God’s salvation and do not end with a burst of praise, then we have not understood it aright.
If we understood what God had done, then what would naturally flow would be the death of sin. (Rom. 8:13, Col. 3:1-7) Our lives would be conformed to Christ. (Col. 3:9-10) We would blossom with the fruit of the Spirit:
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.
Galatians 5:22–26. But notice there in verse 25: Paul having spoken in the most glowing terms of what the Spirit will do in our lives issues a warning
Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.
Why is that necessary? And this is not simply something to do with Galatians alone; nor is it merely Paul. Consider this is Peter’s first epistle:
22 Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, 23 since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; 24 for
“All flesh is like grass
and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers,
and the flower falls,
25 but the word of the Lord remains forever.”
And this word is the good news that was preached to you.
1 Peter 1:22–25. The glorious work of salvation which flows out in love and purity. But Peter immediately issues a command for the believers to not harm one-another:
2 So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. 2 Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—
1 Peter 2:1-2. The apostle proclaims the unspeakable joy of salvation, and then pivots immediately to the believers: stop hurting one-another. Stop your lying. Stop your hypocrisy. Stop you envy. Stop your slander.
The new life in Christ is utterly incompatible with the gossiping, envying, slandering tongues we acquire as standard equipment at our birth:
The wicked are estranged from the womb;
they go astray from birth, speaking lies.
Psalm 58:3. And so that you don’t for a moment think that applies to others and not to you, consider the words of David in his great Psalm of repentance:
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me.
Psalm 51:5. We are brought forth in iniquity. By the sheer grace of God, we are saved. But sadly, we fail to automatically live a life “worthy … of the gospel of Christ.” Phil. 1:27.
The day of salvation is a day of birth. John 3:3. Salvation is a good seed in the good soil. The day of salvation is the beginning, not the perfection. As John Newton was to write to an unknown person on March 18, 1767:
Remember, the growth of a believer is not like a mushroom, but like an oak, which increases slowly indeed but surely. Many suns, showers, and frosts, pass upon it before it comes to perfection; and in winter, when it seems dead, it is gathering strength at the root.
John Newton and Richard Cecil, The Works of John Newton, vol. 2 (London: Hamilton, Adams & Co., 1824), 141.
We will not be effortlessly transformed into that which we are called to be. It will be rough work, flesh killing work. When grown, we will be the perfect rose shimmering with dew in the morning sunlight, pure and undefiled. But today, we are not the rose in bloom, but the seedling breaking through the crust of the earth, and straining toward the light:
Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.
1 John 3:2. Here, in this world, we still need instruction. Adam needed instruction in Paradise; sadly, he refused what he was told. Israel needed instruction when she was rescued in Egypt. And we today need instruction. We will circumstances which will force us to love those who have sinned against us. We will need encouragement. And we will instruction on precisely how to perform this work.
When you come to these words of Romans 12, you be tempted to draw – just like the Israelites drew back when God called them to enter the promised land filled with giants. It is for this reason that the writer of Hebrews, who calls for us to strive for peace and holiness, applies a warning to us:
7 Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says,
“Today, if you hear his voice,
8 do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion,
on the day of testing in the wilderness,
9 where your fathers put me to the test
and saw my works for forty years.
10 Therefore I was provoked with that generation,
and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart;
they have not known my ways.’
11 As I swore in my wrath,
‘They shall not enter my rest.’”
12 Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.
Hebrews 3:7–12. You could think of yourself as an Israelite rescued from Pharoah, called to enter the Promised Land. But here in the “wilderness of this world” (as John Bunyan calls our home), we are in danger. We are freed from the dominion of sin, but not its presence. We are freed from captivity to the madness of sin, but our minds must still be renewed. Are hearts by nature are monsters in rebellion against God, but we have been brought into the household of God and our rebellious hearts must be tamed.
And so Paul in Romans, having unfolded the manifold wisdom of God in salvation now turns to the Romans and calls them to be transformed:
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. 2 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. Since you have been rescued, you are called upon to learn to live in this in this humanity, this new family. The implication of the Gospel is this new life: That is why Paul joins the implication to the doctrine, the application to the knowledge.
But we will not rightly understand this application if we do not have it firmly grounded in the Gospel. We must rehearse a two points which Paul emphasizes in these transitional verses: “the mercies of God,” and “the renewal of your mind.”
We will take those two ideas in reverse order, because we need to understand the nature of the difficulty in rightly understanding and praising the mercies of God. Also, Paul in Romans begins with the trouble of our mind, and then moves himself to the mercy of God.