Commentary on Romans 12:1-2

Notes (NET Translation)

1 Therefore I exhort you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a sacrifice — alive, holy, and pleasing to God — which is your reasonable service.

The “therefore” indicates that 12:1-15:13 should be understood in light of chapters 1-11. Chapters 1-11 teach that both Jews and Gentiles are on equal footing before God. Paul is trying to create a united people of God, made up of both Jews and Gentiles. “The Christian faith and praxis which the Roman Christians share in common should distinguish them from others more than their differences divide them from each other.”1 Rom 12:1-15:13 addresses matters that did or could divide Roman Christians.

The reader is to respond to Paul’s exhortations “because of” the mercies of God. The mercies of God are described in the preceding chapters.

It would be incorrect to deduce that exhortations are limited to this part of Romans, for parenesis also punctuates chapters 5-8, especially chapters 6 and 8. Yet it is certainly the case that the exhortation section here is predominant and more sustained than in any earlier section of the letter. The reason for this is doubtless that the indicative of God’s grace and mercy — telling what God has done for sinful humans — must underlie the imperatives outlining one’s duty and obligation to God. Carrying out the imperatives would be an impossibility without the indicative. Indeed, those who strive to fulfill the commands in Rom. 12-15 apart from the gospel enunciated in chapters 1-11 have truncated the Pauline gospel. The indicative is the basis for the imperative, and the latter should never be separated from the former. It is also the case that those who proclaim the gospel without any parenetic element do an injustice to the Pauline gospel, for parenesis is a vital and central element of the Pauline gospel (cf. 1 Thess. 4:1-2). The mercies of God summon us to active effort, but this active effort (if it is based on the indicative of God’s grace) should never be confused with legalism. The energy of God’s grace summons human beings not to passivity but to exertion. But it is an exertion rooted in faith and energized by the power of the Holy Spirit.2

We are to present our bodies, meaning our whole selves, as living sacrifices. Animal sacrifices are no longer required/acceptable.

The sacrificial dimension of the text emerges with clarity when the presentation of the body is described as “a sacrifice, living, holy, and well pleasing to God” (θυσίαν ζῶσαν ἁγίαν εὐάρεστον τῷ θεῷ, thysian zōsan hagian euareston tō theō). Cranfield observes rightly that many English readers gain a wrong impression of the text since some English versions translate the phrase “living sacrifice, holy and well pleasing to God,” which suggests that “living sacrifice” is somehow separable from the adjectives “holy” and “well pleasing” in the Greek text. In fact, all three adjectives (“living,” “holy,” and “well pleasing”) follow θυσίαν, and thus there is no exegetical warrant for isolating the word “living.” Nor is it likely that ζῶσαν is intended to contrast the state of humans with animals since the latter were alive when sacrificed as well. Rather, the word “living” denotes the spiritual state of believers. They are now “alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11, 13; 8:13). It is precisely those who are alive in Christ who are called to give their lives to him as a sacrifice. The terms ἁγίαν and εὐάρεστον have cultic associations as well. The former term denotes the idea that the sacrifice is dedicated to God, while the latter evokes OT notions of sacrifices that are pleasing and fragrant to God.3

Those who have presented their bodies to God as a sacrifice belong no longer to themselves but to God. The offerer no longer has the final say over his behavior. He or she is now God’s property and must behave according to God’s dictates. But God does not want a dead human sacrifice but a living and lively one. He does not want something from us; he wants us.4

This self-offering is our “reasonable” or “logical” worship (cf. 1 Pet. 2.2, 5). Here the Jerusalem Bible is helpful with its paraphrase: “worship worthy of thinking beings.” Worship, that is, reflective of what we know and recognize to be true of God and what God has done. Humans are capable of being rational and recognizing that God is worthy of worship. Paul here is again perhaps drawing on a connection with thought that would be familiar to his Roman audience. Epictetus 1.16.20-21 says: “If I were a nightingale, I should be singing as a nightingale; if a swan as a swan. But as it is I am a rational (logikos) being, therefore I must be singing hymns of praise to God.” Paul is also in some respects close here to Philo, who says “The soul . . . ought to honor God not irrationally nor ignorantly, but with knowledge and reason” (Special Laws 1.209).

But there may be more meaning. As Wright suggests, Paul may mean the worship to which our logic or arguments have been pointing. Paul’s arguments have led to doxology at the end of chs. 8 and 11. Furthermore, oun, the connective “therefore,” means that what Paul says in 12.1 is based on what he has argued previously. It is a conclusion based on the preceding arguments. So he can be saying “in light of what we have argued in chs. 1-11 about the compassion of God, I appeal to you to present yourselves to God in a form and sort of worship toward which our logic or arguments have been pointing.” This does full justice to the connection, especially between the end of ch. 11, with its theme of mercy, and what we find here.5

The word λατρείαν is another cultic term. What is remarkable is that Paul has applied the language of the cult to everyday existence. The worship described does not relate to public assemblies but to the yielding of one’s whole life to God in the concrete reality of everyday existence. Paul’s application of the OT is of immense importance here. Activity and language that focused on the cult in the OT is now extended to embrace every facet of the believer’s existence. Neusner has emphasized how the Pharisees expanded their conception of purity so that it included everyday life. Paul does much the same thing but in a very different way. The worship and sacrifices of the OT can no longer be confined to the cult. The cultic language is spiritualized to include the whole of one’s existence. In Judaism the spiritualization of sacrifices was never understood to replace literal sacrifices and was a necessary condition after A.D. 70, whereas Paul rejected literal sacrifices in principle. We must also see that the term “spiritualize” alone does not do justice to Paul’s reshaping of cultic language. He understands the OT cult as now being fulfilled because the new age is inaugurated. In other words, Paul’s understanding of the cult is fundamentally eschatological. The call to worship (λατρεία) causes the theme of the letter to resurface, for the fundamental sin is the failure to worship (λατρεύειν, latreuein; see 1:25) God. Those who worship God give their entire lives over to him so that he is honored and praised in everything they do.6

Regular meetings together of Christians for praise and mutual edification are appropriate and, indeed, commanded in Scripture. And what happens at these meetings is certainly “worship.” But such special times of corporate worship are only one aspect of the continual worship that each of us is to offer the Lord in the sacrifice of our bodies day by day.7

2 Do not be conformed to this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test and approve what is the will of God — what is good and well-pleasing and perfect.

Rom 12:2 is a continuation of the sentence in 12:1 and so provides a clue as to the kind of worship the believer should perform. Stated negatively, believers are not to be conformed to or guided by the present sinful world (literally, age). Stated positively, believers are to be transformed by the renewing their mind. The present tense of the verb “renewing” suggests that this is an ongoing process.

“The renewing of your mind” is the means by which this transformation takes place. “Mind” translates a word that Paul uses especially to connote a person’s “practical reason,” or “moral consciousness.” Christians are to adjust their way of thinking about everything in accordance with the “newness” of their life in the Spirit (cf. 7:6). This “re-programming” of the mind does not take place overnight but is a lifelong process by which our way of thinking is to resemble more and more the way God wants us to think. In Rom. 1:28 Paul has pointed out that people’s rejection of God has resulted in God’s giving them over to a “worthless” mind: one that is “unqualified” (adokimos) in assessing the truth about God and the world he has made. Now, Paul asserts, the purpose of our being transformed by the renewing of the mind is that this state might be reversed; that we might be able to “approve” (dokimazō) the will of God. “Approving” the will of God means to understand and agree with what God wants of us with a view to putting it into practice. That Paul means here by “the will of God” his moral direction is clear from the way Paul describes it: this will is that which is “good,” “acceptable [to God],” and “perfect.”8

In this context Paul does not explain how the renewal of the mind takes place. However, in Ephesians 4:21-24 he urges his audience: ‘be made new in the attitude of your minds’ in accordance with ‘the truth that is in Jesus’. Linking this with what the apostle says in 2 Corinthians 3:18 and 4:3-4 about believers being transformed as the veil is lifted from their minds to see the glory of Christ in the Scriptures, we may conclude that Paul understood the renewal of the mind to take place as people encountered and embraced the teaching of Scripture. Cranfield correctly notes that what Paul says implies that the mind, ‘so far from being an unfallen element of human nature, needs to be renewed, if it is to be able to recognize and embrace the will of God’.9

Paul describes the will of God as his good, pleasing and perfect will. It is axiomatic that the will of God is both ‘good’ and ‘perfect’, but in what sense and to whom is it ‘pleasing’? Paul employs the word ‘pleasing’ regularly in his letters (12:1, 2; 14:18; 2 Cor 5:9; Eph 5:10; Phil 4:18; Col 3:20; Tit 2:9) to refer to what is pleasing to God; therefore, we conclude that he is using it in this sense here also. He is exhorting his audience, then, to be transformed by the renewing of their minds so that they may practice what is good, perfect, and pleasing to God. Paul certainly made it the aim of his life to be pleasing to God (2 Cor 5:9).10

Bibliography

Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.

Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.


  1. Witherington III 2004, 280 
  2. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 12437-12446 
  3. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 12519-12529 
  4. Witherington III 2004, 284-285 
  5. Witherington III 2004, 285-286 
  6. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 12555-12568 
  7. Moo 1996, 754 
  8. Moo 1996, 756–757 
  9. Kruse 2014, 465 
  10. Kruse 2014, 466 
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