Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Exegesis on Romans 12:1-8 “The Thrust of Christian Life Practice”

Romans 12:1-8   New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern (also prove) what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

These words reveal the practical theology of Paul’s ministry. They concisely outline much, though not all, of his wider teachings. In the writing this particular epistle, Paul is quite possibly illustrating his fear of losing his life on his journey to deliver funds to the Jesus-believers in Jerusalem owing to the controversy surrounding his ministry.1 And while he does not take the time to deliver as legacy his entire philosophy (it excludes his eschatology, resurrection theory, Christology, and views on the Lord’s Supper 2) he has taken the time to explain the basics of how to operate in the world as a member of Christ’s elite. Paul composed it in a concise enough format that one could surmise an attempt to offer a basic primer for a life in God’s service should his ministry be cut short or derailed.
He declares the physical bodies of Jesus followers to belong to God as a “holy sacrifice” in service to God’s will. He advises mindfulness and personal transformation as the platform for understanding the voice of God coming from within. He expects us to remember that we are all one and to deliver our unique talents in the service of humanity.
There are several words in particular within these lines which offer opportunities for further examination, perhaps even hinting at practical applications of Paul’s exhortation to the Romans to be of service to God.  First, through the renewal—or perhaps more specifically renovation—of the mind which then ultimately gives us the capacity to discern God’s truth for us from within. The still, calm voice which emanates from the divine spark we have each been assigned. We are to represent ourselves to God through the talents we each possess.

    Romans is arguably Paul’s most important existing document. His letter to the Roman people in advance of his first visit there formed the Christological foundations for many of history’s most influential theologians including Augustine, Martin Luther and Karl Barth; people who would ultimately spread their understandings of Paul’s words to untold thousands over the generations.3 It is Paul’s salvific thesis on the workings of God through Christ.
This epistle was likely composed from the Greek city-state of Corinth in the autumn of 57 CE prior to his return to Jerusalem.4 Romans was a public letter to the Roman people. It was Paul’s attempt to clarify under one theological umbrella the various Christian teachings—some of which he considered erroneous—spreading across the city in advance of his intended stopover en route to Spain.
There was unrest between the Jewish and Gentile Jesus-followers in Rome. Among other of Paul’s concerns, Gentiles antagonized the Roman Jesus-believing Jews with the claim that they were equal to them. Jews believed that Gentiles must become circumcised to claim that equality.5 Romans was composed to help settle disputes such as these which fomented unrest in the fledgling fellowships of Christ popping up ahead of Paul in Rome. Christianity was developing in its own ways, without him.
Regarding its literary style, scholars debate on whether Romans was an epistle or a letter, a particular distinction in analysis. To clarify, 20th century German Protestant theologian Gustav Adolf Deissmann describes it this way:
“An Epistle is an artistic literary form, just like the dialogue, the oration, or the drama. It has nothing in common with the letter except its form: apart from that one might venture the paradox that the epistle is the opposite of a real letter. The contents of the epistle are intended for publicity—they aim at interesting “the public.””6
    Through its writing style and breadth of those to whom the composition is directed, it is apparent that Paul was not writing a private letter, but a public document meant to be read aloud to multiple persons for wide effect.

    Earlier in Romans (1:16-17), Paul explains that he is not ashamed of his gospel because it holds power. That power is exemplified in 12:1-8. After outlining the doctrinal character of God in the previous chapters, Paul gets to the practical meat of Christian praxis in what might be considered the penultimate moment of Romans, beginning with chapter 12: deliberate and intentional transformation through faith.
    This passage launches the portion of Romans (chapters 12-15) which outlines the transformative power of the gospels. Through faith we are transformed into servants of God’s will. Contemporary New Testament scholar, Douglas J. Moo, specifies this portion as “the heart of the matter.”7 And indeed we are finally given the tools at this point to make active use of the gospels as principles.
There are a few words which stand out in particular regarding the methods through which this transformation will occur as well as what that transformation is. Namely words like sacrifice, conformed, renewing and prove.
The word sacrifice (θυσίαν) is defined as an offering to God. Today, we look at the word sacrifice and deem it to be indicative of deliberate hardship endured for the sake of a higher goal. And while offering ourselves to God often comes with hardship, the sacrifice itself is less about its implicit difficulty and more about explicit commitment. We offer ourselves to God’s service and in faith believe that any hardships experienced will be companioned by God’s love in exchange for that offering. The word offering is itself value-neutral to suffering, although one could surmise that suffering might be the result of it, but it is not the thrust of the intent to offer ourselves.
Paul’s warning to “not be conformed to this world” is a reminder that the biology, while both constant and real, is not the subject of our desired transformation, it is one of the beneficiaries of it. Taking action based solely on the needs of the physical is to eclipse our view of the divine and negate any potential transformative powers it may hold for us.
At the risk of delving into near-pointless semantics, ἀνακαινώσει means to “make new” leading to the common translation of “renewing.” However, ἀνακαινώσει derives from the word ἀνακαιν which means “restore.”  Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible would seem to agree (while it does also use the word renewing) that the “mind” referred to in Romans 12:2 is not changed in its material substance, but reordered—renovated, if you will—through conversion to God’s desire for us: “Conversion and sanctification are the renewing of the mind; a change, not of the substance, but of the qualities of the soul.”
In Romans 5:12, Paul outlines the fall of Adam as being the moment when sin came into the world. Does he seek to return to that state or to develop a new one using the tools already at hand? To renew, or even restore/reboot ourselves to the earlier version of our sinless state, would not be the same as to renovate it. To renew in this way does not offer “new-ness” as much as it implies “same-as-the-old-ness.” To re-new something is not exactly the same thing as to re-novate, even if it is etymologically similar. It does not have the same nuanced meaning.
    Grammarian Malcom Pemberton explains the difference in usage. “Renovate and renew are very similar, both meaning to ‘make new’, but they are used in different contexts. We renovate things like buildings, old vehicles, canals etc, which are very concrete things.  It is not necessary that the things are particularly old, or indeed broken in some way. It is enough that changes are needed, and those changes may involve change of use.”8 Renewal, by contrast, vaguely implies a return to the past rather than embarking on a new path.
    I believe it is a change of use that Paul is asking of the Romans rather than to simply make new again the mind. Jesus brought something different to the world than had existed before, requiring a different use of the mind than before. A transformation is to “make a thorough or dramatic change in the form, appearance, or character of.”9 This coincides with the view of renovate in place of renew.
    And, finally, prove. In Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers we see “Prove.—As elsewhere, ‘discriminate, and so approve.’ The double process is included: first, of deciding what the will of God is; and, secondly, of choosing and acting upon it.” 10 In the NRSV translation the word discern appears. In various other translations we also see the words test, learn, determine, distinguish, and experience. Prove is most common. But the breadth of other word usage is illuminating for the overall power that we are given to conclude for ourselves the workings of God without intermediary once transformed. We are exhorted to serving at the behest of God, while “not, however, annulling the moral freedom of the believer, but, on the contrary, presupposing it; hence the exhortation: to be transformed.”11
    In Romans 12:1-8 Paul is giving us the keys to self-empowerment through the observance of and practice deriving from the principles of the Gospels themselves. He has first illuminated the process and then identified examples of how individuals may serve based on their own talents and abilities.
    Service is our offering, but hardship is not necessarily required. With God the burden is light (Mat. 11:30). Remember that this physical world is not God Itself, but God’s created gift to us. The world is merely the classroom for the understanding and expression of God’s will. Biology and the physical world is our obstacle course. Observing this is to acquiesce to God’s desire for us to be transformed by our experience. Transformation will naturally result in a deeper ability to awaken ourselves to the fuller experience of the Divine Intention, clarifying our own personal pathway of service to mankind, to which we are all inextricably entangled. A path is illuminated where we operate less from the centerpoint of our own egos and more from the divine spark within each of us.


  1. Romans 15:30-31, and Longnecker, Bruce W. and Todd D. Still. Thinking Through Paul: A Survey of His Life, Letters, and Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014. 167-8
  2. Longnecker, 168
  3. Longnecker, 165
  4. Longnecker, 167
  5. Clarke, Adam. Commentary on the Whole Bible, VI. 1831, 3
  6. A. Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East, 2nd ed, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1927, 218, 220
  7. Moo, Douglas J., The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 748.
  8. Pemberton, Malcom. article “Word(s) of the Day 11 – Renovate and Renew and Restore” website: Malcom’s English Pages, December 8, 2012, (accessed April 2017)
  9. Google definition.* (accessed April 2017)
  10. Ellicott, Charles J. A Bible Commentary for English Readers (8 vols.) Cassell and Company, 1905        
  11. Meyer, Heinrich August Wilhelm, ThD. Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Part IV, vol. 2, Edinburgh: T & T Clarke, 1881, 254

Note: This academic work was an assignment for Dr. Christopher Hoklotubbe for a class entitled: The Letters and Legacy of Paul. Exegesis on Romans 12:1-8 “The Thrust of Christian Life Practice” April 3, 2017

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