Nineteenth Sunday of Pentecost,

Series on Romans:

A Living Sacrifice


Scripture reading: Romans 12:1-8.

Sermon text: Romans 12:9-21.

“Now what?”

I once heard the Southern Baptist Convention, the denomination of my birth, described as an “institutionalized revival.” Most Southern Baptist revivals tend to emphasize enthusiastic sermons, conversion experiences, and emotional appeals to renewal. As I look back on the revivals of my youth, I have almost no memories of anyone talking about the answer to the question, “Now what?” How do we live the salvation lifestyle? How do we put the conversion into action in our lives?

St. Paul faced the question when he wrote the book of Romans to the Roman believers in c. A.D. 57. St. Paul described the need for God so endemic in humanity; God’s plan for salvation in the covenants with Abraham and then with the Jews; and Jesus’ fulfillment of the covenant, leading to His crucifixion and resurrection. St. Paul then addressed the place of the Jews in God’s salvation plan. Still, St. Paul needed to answer the question, “Now what?” What difference did salvation make in the believers’ lives? How should believers relate to unbelievers in their lives? Should the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives make a difference in us?

St. Paul began addressing these questions in chapter 12. I love that the Apostle began explaining his answer with a description of an often overlooked facet of salvation in the believer’s life: A renewal of the mind. Forget everything you’ve heard about relying on feelings or emotions; the Holy Spirit demonstrates His presence in our lives through a renewal of our minds. Only then can He begin working to change our mentalities and responses to the trials of life.

St. Paul opened this passage by connecting these thoughts to the previous discussion of God’s choices in history, His mercy, and His compassion: “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.” The word “therefore” connects St. Paul’s current train of thought with his previous words in the book.

St. Paul knew the Roman believers lived in one of the most morally corrupt cities in the Empire. Practically every vice known to humanity existed in Rome, including those most condemned by many today and a few we cannot even imagine in our society. St. Paul knew that since the believers had experienced the mercy of God, they needed to show the effects of that mercy in their lives. They would show the effects by presenting themselves as a “living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.”

The Romans were familiar with sacrifice in religion, but the idea of a “living sacrifice” may have confused them. St. Paul described what he meant with the words “holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” According to St. Paul, our salvation requires us to live holy lives that will meet with God’s acceptance. This requires sacrifice on our parts, because our society (like that of ancient Rome) allows or even encourages us to do things unacceptable to the standards God set in the Old Testament. When you want to know God’s standards, you must turn to the Old Testament, where God clearly defines His expectations for a holy nation.

St. Paul then described how to accomplish this. “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.” When the world tries to set the standards of morality, we must remember that God’s standards alone apply to us. However, we know the difficulty of trying to live contrary to the standards of our society when our culture constantly bombards us with standards contrary to Scripture. We can live holy lives only if we allow the Holy Spirit to “transform” us “by the renewal” of our minds.

The word for “transform” comes from the Greek word for “metamorphosis.” In science, “metamorphosis” refers to the change between life forms in an individual. Insects undergo metamorphosis as they transform from larvae to adult insects. When you look at a larva and then an adult insect, you can clearly tell the difference.

According to St. Paul, the presence of the Holy Spirit will show just as clearly in a person’s life. The new, in-process salvation life will differ from the old, pre-salvation life. We all have heard stories of hardened individuals whose lives changed almost immediately upon their conversion.

I would point out that I’ve also seen evidence of something often overlooked in metamorphosis. Many insects undergo a difficult process of breaking through a hardened shell; others undergo several steps in the process, evidence of a more gradual transition. St. Paul did not describe every little step in a person’s spiritual growth after conversion. For some of us — I’d say the more fortunate ones — conversion leads to an instantaneous change. For many, however, I’ve come to realize that conversion begins a process that will lead to clear evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives. In Christian terminology, we call this “sanctification,” or “setting apart” from what we were as we become who God wants us to become.

If someone experiences the sudden transformation, that person must not think more of himself than of those who undergo a slower process of sanctification. St. Paul recognized the danger of pride for those who considered themselves more spiritually advanced: “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.”

Of all the sins I’ve seen that could threaten to destroy a person spiritually, nothing approaches that of pride. Far too many “mature” believers succumb to the temptation to think their spiritual “maturity” sets them above other believers. Instead, St. Paul cautioned, all believers must temper our spiritual growth with humility.

How important a role does humility play? I see that humility plays a key role in several aspects of the salvation lifestyle.

First, humility helps us recognize the necessity of corporate spiritual growth and worship. “For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again now: There is no such thing as “Lone Ranger” Christianity. We need other believers to encourage us in the times we need help. We also need other believers to strengthen us in our weaknesses. We also need other believers to hold us accountable as we allow the Holy Spirit to transform us into the believers He needs to build the Body of Christ, the Church. Only the most proud can claim they can grow spiritually without the presence of other believers in their lives, both in worship and in fellowship.

Humility also helps us to use our gifts in service to the Church. Humility helps us understand the importance of every gift St. Paul lists in verses 6-8. No one gift excels above any other gift. Every church needs people who will humbly accept God’s call to service as they use their gifts to build the congregation.

Humility also helps us demonstrate genuine, authentic love (v. 9). When we love each other, we’ll help each other avoid temptations and stand against evil in our lives. Each week in our worship, we pray that God will “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” We learn “what is evil” by studying the Scriptures and humbly accepting God’s standards of evil rather than what our society tells us what is evil. We also learn “what is good” through studying the Scriptures and through encouraging each other to hold fast in God’s standards.

St. Paul called on the Romans to “love one another with brotherly affection,” referring to a love shown to those in the family. We often refer to our congregation as our “spiritual family.” These words remind us again of our connection to one another. Humility helps us to obey St. Paul’s next words: “Outdo one another in showing honor.” Only the most humble can honor others without feeling threatened in their own self-confidence.

The rest of the chapter tells us ways to show the Holy Spirit’s presence in us. These verses tell us, in essence, to show qualities rarely seen in unbelievers: Patience, hope, joy, and love. St. Paul had listed these qualities as “fruit of the Spirit” in his letter to the Galatians roughly 9 years earlier. Every quality St. Paul listed here would stand against the societal norms of ancient Rome, especially in avoiding vengeance against those who wronged believers. For centuries, Christians have cared for people both inside and outside the Church in times of trial. Christians have rejoiced with others in triumphs and grieved with others in times of sorrow.

The Church has also demonstrated another quality: Caring for our enemies. Martyrs have gone to their deaths praying for their persecutors, often leading those persecutors to salvation themselves. (See the story of St. Alban for a good example.) In the lifetime of St. Paul himself, the Roman church would undergo its first serious persecution during the reign of Nero. These persecutions would occur periodically until Constantine the Great legalized Christianity in A.D. 313. However, Christians have experienced persecution throughout the history of the Church. Today, believers experience in many parts of the world will meet in secret, knowing their exposure will lead to torture or even death.

You don’t see these qualities in people driven only by emotional fervor. Emotion alone can’t bring people through persecution, drive people to help others at the risk of their own lives, or rejoice with others when we’d rather draw into our own shells and suffer in silence. These qualities come only when we allow the Holy Spirit to renew our minds, changing us from what we were into what God calls us to become.

Today, I encourage you to open your mind to the Holy Spirit, through Bible study, corporate worship, and prayer. Don’t go by your emotions alone; emotions will fail you terribly. Only through participation in the corporate life of the Church can we build the habits that demonstrate to a dying world the life we have through our risen Lord, Jesus Christ.