Commentary on Romans 12:3-8

Notes (NET Translation)

3 For by the grace given to me I say to every one of you not to think more highly of yourself than you ought to think, but to think with sober discernment, as God has distributed to each of you a measure of faith.

The word “for” suggests that this passage provides concrete examples for the transformed way of life mentioned in vv. 1-2.

Paul emphasizes his apostolic authority (“For by the grace given to me I say”). He is passing on authoritative teaching, not mere personal opinion. He realizes his apostolic office is due to God’s grace, not his own accomplishments. This exhortation is for “every one” in the church without exception.

It is wrong . . . to see the material here as just generalized exhortations, with Paul hoping that some will strike the mark. He is talking about an appropriate estimate of oneself. No one should overestimate himself or herself, or esteem himself or herself higher than is necessary. This echoes what Paul has already said specifically to Gentiles in 11.25. The Greco-Roman world used much hyperbolic rhetoric about one’s status and standing and abilities, as on the honorific columns and in the imperial decrees. A sound or sober mind neither over- nor underestimates itself. It is interesting that sober-mindedness was among the virtues Aristotle stressed (Nicomachean Ethics 1117b 13). The essence of the meaning is soundness of mind, discretion, and moderation with regard to things.1

The meaning of “measure of faith” is disputed. One option is that it does not refer to saving faith, but to a kind of faith that gives one a gift (Rom 12:6; 2 Cor 10:13; Eph 4:7-13). Another option is that it refers to the grace common to all believers and from which the gifts stem. A third option is that it refers to a standard, either the gospel or Christ. The believer should judge himself in light of this standard. The following verses indicate the “measure of faith” plays out differently in the lives of different believers.

4 For just as in one body we have many members, and not all the members serve the same function, 5 so we who are many are one body in Christ, and individually we are members who belong to one another.

This counters divisions in a very similar way to the argument in 1 Corinthians 12. If one understands oneself as but one member among many in the body of Christ, then one will not have an overinflated view of oneself. And, further, if one recognizes that there is no gift or function that should be exalted over others, there need be no competition to do particular tasks, for not all persons have the same function in the body.2

Paul’s point is that while members of the church, like the parts of the human body, have different functions, they belong to one another and therefore are to serve and promote the well-being of one another. The apostle gives instructions about how this should be put into practice in relation to seven different gifts (charismata) in the next few verses.3

6 And we have different gifts according to the grace given to us. If the gift is prophecy, that individual must use it in proportion to his faith.

In Greek charismata means “gifts” and charis means “grace”. Here Paul says the gifts are given to us by God (12:3), in Eph 4:7 he says they are given by Christ, and in 1 Cor 12:7-11 he says they are given by the Spirit. Other gifts are mentioned in 1 Cor 12:8-10, 28-30; Eph 4:11. This passage is merely a representative list of gifts.

According to 1 Cor 14:29-33 prophets received revelations and then shared them with the congregation. The congregation was to judge the validity of the prophecy (1 Thess 5:19-22). What is meant by prophesying in proportion (right relationship) to one’s faith? One option is that it means prophecy should not contradict the norms of the Christian faith. A second option is that it means one should prophesy in dependence on God. The act of prophecy only comes about because of the grace of God. The prophet should not try to impress others and go beyond what God has revealed to him.

7 If it is service, he must serve; if it is teaching, he must teach; 8 if it is exhortation, he must exhort; if it is contributing, he must do so with sincerity; if it is leadership, he must do so with diligence; if it is showing mercy, he must do so with cheerfulness.

The believer is to devote himself to his gifts and not try to emulate the gifts of others out of envy. This is not to say that a teacher cannot show mercy, for example, it just means more of his attention should be on study and teaching than someone with other gifts.

Elsewhere in Paul’s letters “service” (diakonia) means giving general assistance to believers (1 Cor 16:15), the financial support provided by Gentiles to the saints in Jerusalem (Rom 15:31; 2 Cor 8:4, 19-20; 9:1, 12-13), and the building up of the body of Christ (Eph 4:11-12). Service/ministering involves organizing and providing for the material needs of the church.

Teaching involves the explanation of the OT, the life of Jesus, and apostolic teaching (the original audience did not have the NT).

The verb translated “exhort” can also mean “encourage”. Positive exhortation and encouragement are closely related so we can take a both/and approach in understanding the term. Exhortation involves stirring someone to live out the truth of the gospel.

Contributing involves giving or sharing. The noun translated “sincerity” (haploteti) can also mean “generosity” or “simplicity”. The one who shares should do so generously and straightforwardly and without any ulterior motives.

The verb meaning “to lead” can also mean “to care for/give aid”. “To lead” is the meaning Paul uses most of the time in his letters (1 Thess 5:12; 1 Tim 3:4-5, 12; 5:17; Titus 3:8, 14). One should lead with diligence/zeal (en spoude).

The Christian who shows mercy imitates the God who shows mercy. Showing mercy cheerfully makes it a ministry of grace to the recipient.

The one who shows mercy must not have a begrudging spirit that communicates to the person on the receiving end that the mercy given is a debt instead of a joy (cf. Prov. 22:8a LXX; Sir. 35:11 [35: 8 LXX]; Philo, Spec. Laws 4.13 §74; T. Job 12.1). The kind of mercy that honors God and shows love to the recipient is filled with joy and finds it a greater blessing to give than to receive (Acts 20:35).4

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, 288 
  2. Witherington III 2004, 289 
  3. Kruse 2014, 470 
  4. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 12840-12843 
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