Commentary on Romans 12:1-8
While the argument of the letter to the Romans opened with a preoccupation regarding God’s anger (1:18-32), this section of the letter opens with an embrace of God’s mercies.
What are the mercies to which Paul refers? They are:
- Freedom from death (5:12-21)
- Freedom from sin (6:1-23)
- Freedom from a dysfunctional relationship to the law that fosters sin (7:6-25)
- The gift of the Spirit (8:1-17)
- God’s plan to conform believers to the Son (8:29), and
- God’s faithfulness to keep promises, especially those made to Israel (11:25-29).
It’s like Paul is saying at the beginning of Romans 12, “Since God has given such wonderful mercies to us, the least we can do is present our bodies to God!”
What is a living sacrifice? Negatively, we are not to be passively conformed to this world. Instead, positively, we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. With his “renewing minds” phrase, Paul is coming to closure on a minor theme that he has been voicing from the first chapter of the letter until now. This theme is that following the gospel authentically involves thinking in authentic ways about God and one’s own place in God’s world. It involves understanding that:
- Believers in Christ are called to be holy (1:7)
- The truth of God’s eternal power and divine status ought to be continually affirmed by worshiping God rather than any other created thing (1:18-25)
- All people are prone to sin and stand under God’s judgment (2:1-2, 14-16; 3:9-20)
- We cannot “boast,” or take credit for our faith (3:27-28)
- We are to value hardships and live through them in hope, opening ourselves to God’s love expressed through Christ even while experiencing hardships (5:3-11).
Right thinking in this letter includes viewing our baptism as dying alongside Christ (6:6), burying our old selves alongside Christ (6:4) and rising alongside Christ as people who are agents of God’s righteous justice (6:8-18). And right thinking for Paul includes viewing ourselves as recipients of God’s Spirit (8:1-17,26) and beneficiaries of Christ’s intervention for us (8:31-39) rather than as those who have to find it within ourselves to keep God’s moral law (7:7-25).
It’s easy for us to read the first two verses of this chapter and start taking personality inventories for personal growth plans. But after the initial challenge to present our bodies as living sacrifices by deliberately turning from the world’s pull to the renewed thought patterns God has for us (12:1-2), Paul completes his description of how to think by bringing into view what it means to live with other believers (12:3-8). Paul’s first concern for people who would present themselves to God is that these people live as full members of the body of Christ, contributing to the life of the church according to the measure of faith God has given them.
Paul’s gospel does not contain the message of self-esteem that some subcultures promote today. The first challenge Paul offers, probably as a specification of not being conformed to the world, is not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think (12:3). This is not an isolated idea in Romans (see also 11:18, 20b; 12:10b, 16). Paul is asking us to pray and live so that we do not turn ourselves into people God would not have us become.
Instead of thinking of ourselves too highly, we are to think of ourselves according to “the measure of faith that God has assigned” (12:3), which seems to be the general principle behind prophesying “in proportion to faith” (12:6). Is this “measure” or “proportion” something that is the same for all or something that is different for all? Students of Romans differ on this. Given the following context, in which Paul describes different roles within the body of Christ (2:6-8) and differing amounts of faith (14:1, 22-23), however, it is best to read these expressions about faith in verses 3 and 6 as referring to differing amounts and kinds of faith. Paul is challenging readers to live out their faith in ways appropriate to the amount and type of faith that God has gifted to people.
When reading this text, I like to think of how bakers use different amounts and types of flour based on what they are producing–whether it’s cake flour for pastries, self-rising flour for bread or all-purpose flour for cookies.
Similarly, different amounts and types of faith may lead people to different roles.
One person might have the kind of faith that leads her into a career as a missionary, and another may have the sort of faith that leads her to work as a corporate lawyer and use her expertise to serve others as God provides opportunities. Both life models can be appropriate for people in the church.
Paul’s main point about spiritual gifts, mentioned in verse 6, is that God has given us these as members of the body of Christ. So we are to use the particular gift God has given us to help the body function, not to promote ourselves or show how we as one body part are better than others who are another body part.
Do you want to present your body as a living sacrifice and be renewed in your mind as Paul challenges us? Then seek to live out your measure of faith and exercise your gift in a way that best contributes to the body of Christ!