Commentary on Romans 12:1-8
The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans is both a countercultural and counter-political document.
It points to the global renaissance of a human family whose identity, frame of perception, and discipleship are based on God’s act of reconciling with humanity, regardless of our vulnerability (Romans 1:18-5:11).
Romans 12:1-8 is a summary and reminder of Romans 1-11, in which the Apostle Paul is writing an apologetic of the presence, work, and callings of God on the entire human family. Readers are called to live a countercultural lifestyle, moving from the life of flesh to a life formed by the Holy Spirit. Thus, writing to those under the Roman Empire, Paul persuades Christian communities living in the imperial center to live not according to the political ideologies of Rome, but rather to live out faith on the basis of what God did in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
While some scholars think Romans is a doctrinal letter, I think of Romans as a call to abandon the sin of individualism and to embrace the cross-cultural Christian life. The life to which Paul calls Christians in Rome, and consequently those in the 21st century, is a life that exhibits the essence of God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Put differently, a holy life is one through which all one says and does is governed by sacrificial living (Romans 12:1; see also Isaiah 6:3; Philippians 2:5-11). To worship the God proclaimed in this letter, and throughout Scripture, is to adopt a stance of humility and self-denial.
In the Scriptures, readers see God’s attraction to humility through whom God calls (for example, Luke 1:46-56). For some, humility is a birthright; for others, humility is a learned disposition. The former is easily discernible among people who live in so-called third-world nations. Christians in the Roman Empire were probably accustomed to the culture of affluence; we can see this in the Apostle Paul’s appeal in verse 1, where he pleads with Christians to present their bodies as instruments of the Holy One.
In third-world countries, humility is often a daily posture. Those who struggle to feed their families, send their kids to school, afford clean water, and maintain a farm see God in their daily vulnerabilities. Alternatively, so-called first-world nations seem to take God for granted, easily becoming blinded by affluence, political smartness, academic achievement, and the striving for the American dream while failing to appreciate God’s provisions of these blessings. Instead of being thankful to God, first-world Christians risk worshiping God’s blessings instead of worshipping God, the source of true life. Hence, the Apostle Paul calls on Christians to metaphorically see the manifestations of God not just in the materialistic world, but in every aspect of their lives. In essence, worship is not just a Sunday adventure, but an everyday sacrificial practice. The way Christians live their lives in today’s world should be one embracing worship both within and outside of the church building. In Romans 12:1, the Apostle Paul seems to raise the following question: Where is God in your living?
In this regard, Paul’s appeal and persuasion points Christian practitioners to what can be called testimonial living. When Christians live out a life of testimony, they become instruments of evangelism, missionary work, and discipleship. Most of what we encounter and read in the Scriptures depicts the lives of faith practitioners transformed by God’s grace and compassionate love. Distinct from a sermon, testimonies function as vehicles by which others hear and perceive God’s work in the lives of people. There is no sacrificial living without a testimony. Notably, the Apostle Paul is not just talking about sacrificial living; he himself is a testimony (see especially Romans 12:1-8). Paul’s life in God is a story, one that must be told throughout global Christianity. We also see models of this sacrificial and testimonial life in the lives of apostles such as Mary Magdalene, who offered her life as “a living sacrifice.” She declares: “I have seen the Lord. He is risen” (John 20:18).
Testimonial experiences lead one on a journey from “conformity to transformation” of one’s living through the mind, heart, and soul (Romans 12:2). Paul is a paradigm of such transformation, as his life was powerfully and dramatically transformed by his encounter with Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). Like Paul’s life, our lives will indeed become aligned with the gospel of Jesus Christ if transformed by our encounter with Jesus on our own Damascus roads. The injunction of the word “therefore” in Romans 12:1 signals a change of direction in the life of one who has had such an encounter with the love of God, as that life becomes consistent with gospel living. Instead of conforming to the ideals of the world, one will take a 180 degree turn toward a life of service and humility in and outside of a Sunday morning service.
With humility comes a loss of pride, arrogance, and ego; these three are cancerous to the church as they give birth to superiority and inferiority complexes. Caught between affluence and Christianity, humanity consciously and unconsciously slides into the dark world of wretchedness, injustice, and the dehumanization of others. Instead of obscuring God in those whom one dehumanizes, transformation will illuminate God’s presence in all human beings. This metamorphosed life, heart, soul, and mind leads to a renewal of consciousness and allows one to be an instrument of God.
God made humans to be partners in transforming the world (Genesis 1-2). In God’s creation, God summons heavenly communities to create a human being in the image of the divine (Genesis 1:24-29). God breathed God’s Spirit only in a human being, giving humanity the responsibility to tend and care for other created entities. From the beginning, God invites humanity into a transformative relationship. Paul’s letter to the Romans, if not all his letters, should be read within this canonical context. Paul was entrusted with a gospel in which human families are called to be transformed in every aspect of their lives: the cultural, ethnic, gender, political, economic, social, and geographical boundaries. This transformation comes to us through grace, as we are saved through our belief in God and in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The power of the gospel to equalize humanity before God becomes the impetus through which we become part of the “body of Christ,” a term Paul uses to describe the church and its members (Romans 12:4-5). Thus, each member’s identity and essence becomes intertwined with the other, regardless of our color, gender, nationality, ethnicity, or race. Our faith in God becomes our common denominator, rather than our affluence, education, status, or upbringing. With God as the source, a transformed life oriented to the Holy Spirit is the engine that drives our growth as a fellowship of believers (Romans 12:5).
In the context of Paul’s theology and practical life applications, remember that transformation and renewal are not one-time events, but an intentional process endeavored through humility, prayer, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and our total surrender to the Trinity. If the body of Christ loses its divine interdependence, it will lose its source of power. Without the power and formation of the Holy Spirit in the life of a Christian, one will not be able to discern God’s purposes in his or her life. In other words, the grace of God and power of the Holy Spirit are indispensable qualities to assist people in their “discernment in what is good, acceptable to God, and perfect” (Romans 12:2).
The good news of Jesus Christ is a corrective to 21st-century individualism because it advocates for the transformation of the entire human family.
Paul employs the image of the church as a human body with several parts working in tandem in its function. Similarly, clergy’s call and work with lay people and others in the world should be done in ways that give holistic health to that body.
We are called to a life that appreciates the diversity of gifts and talents through which the body of Christ can function as God intends. This body functions from a posture of humility when each part is invited to contribute (Romans 12:5-6). Used in the service of building the church, each part will be enriched, appreciated, and honored in his or her magnifying of God. Indeed, one’s gifts find meaning in the giftedness of others, who seek to build the Kingdom of God in today’s world.