Commentary on Romans 12:1-8
At first glance, Paul’s appeal to his audience to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice” for “your spiritual worship” might sound like he is demanding an esoteric or mystical kind of devotion.
But a closer look reveals that Paul calls not for disembodied, but full-bodied worship.
Outlines of the book of Romans often divide the composition into two parts: a theological explanation of the gospel (chapters 1-11) and a series of ethical exhortations (chapters 12-15). This division is warranted, because with 12:1 Paul introduces new style and content as he brings the story of Christ’s redemption to bear on the life of the believer in tangible and practical ways.
At the end of chapter 11, Paul had reflected on God’s mysterious, fixed purpose and great mercies for all people, both Jew and Gentile (11:30-32). In response, he broke into doxology (11:33-36). But, the letter does not end there. Paul picks up language he had used at the end of chapter 11, calling the audience now to respond to God’s great mercies not in doxology, but with a living sacrifice.
In verse 1 Paul exhorts his audience to present their bodies as living sacrifices, “which is your spiritual worship.” In verse 2 he further defines what this means: be transformed by renewing your mind to approve, or discern, God’s perfect will. “Spiritual worship” involves the presentation of the body, accomplished by the renewal of the mind.
Paul develops themes from earlier in the letter. The vivified body and the renewed mind that result from union with Christ (6:1-23; 8:1-13) allow believers to present their bodies, not to sin as instruments of unrighteousness (6:13), but to God as living sacrifices; and to employ a mind fixed not on the flesh, but on the Spirit, in order to discern what kind of deeds are pleasing to God (8:6-9).
The development of these themes is a clue that “spiritual worship” does not refer to a mystical experience. Paul has already used the word “worship” (latreia, verse 1) in 9:4 to refer to the temple service of Israel. He redefines this worship for all God’s people, who respond to God’s mercies not by giving dumb animals but by giving their own bodies as living sacrifices to God.
The term “spiritual” can also be translated as “rational.” In fact, in extra-biblical literature, rational worship is connected with moral behavior. In the context of Romans 12, this makes sense. The full-bodied worship for which Paul calls is a matter of the character of our bodies: we are truly to offer ourselves for service to others.
This point is thrown in sharp relief by comparing 12:1-2 with 1:18-32. There, Gentiles engage in improper worship of creatures rather than proper worship of the Creator (1:23, 25), who dishonor bodies (v. 24), and fail to approve God (1:28, 32). Jews worship no better, because they seek to approve God’s will by the standard of the Law, but fail (2:18).
The trajectory of 1:18-32 is towards a list of anti-social behavior (verses 29-32). That is, the climactic result of wrong worship is broken relationships, not only with God, but also with people. After Paul lays out the gospel he returns to this issue in chapter 12. Now that we understand the gospel of God’s mercies, says Paul, can we respond with proper worship that is manifest in loving relationships?
There are two clues that Paul does not start a new topic in verse 3. First, the word “for” (gar) introduces a reason for what Paul has just written. Second, language and ideas from verses 1-2 repeat, suggesting that Paul continues the themes. Paul has exhorted his audience to be transformed by the renewal of their mind; now they are to use that new mind to think rightly about themselves and each other: “I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think but to think with sober judgment … ”(verse 3). Paul calls for a new way of thinking that takes account of others. Also, Paul has exhorted his audience to present their bodies in 12:1; he now reminds them that they are one body in Christ with many members (verse 4).
Paul describes a representative list of gifts that builds up the body of Christ (the church) based on the presentation of the living bodies of sacrifice. The actions of unity, humility, and love described in verses 3-8 are examples of what it looks like to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice,” or, in terms of verse 2, results of the renewed mind and examples of the good, acceptable, and perfect will of God. As believers use their gifts for the sake of others, they are to act according to the “measure of faith” (metron pistews) that God has given to each one.
Rather than viewing “faith” as a personal commitment that each person is given in different proportions, it makes better sense to view it as “the faith,” that is, the Christian faith. In other words, the “measure of faith” is not a portion but a norm. It is the measuring stick that God has given to every believer to “test and approve” God’s will and our lives. Paul uses this measuring stick in Philippians 2, when he exhorts his audience to act in humility towards one another by following the self-sacrificial example of Christ.
Looking at the first two verses, we might conclude that worship is adequately performed through our corporate liturgy, preaching, and music. These practices are not wrong; but they do not reach far enough. For Paul, worship is full-bodied. It happens in community as we live out our faith by serving one another to build up the body of Christ. The quality of our worship is not measured by what happens on only Sunday mornings, but by what happens when we are together Monday through Saturday.