What does it mean to follow Jesus? In the opening verse of Romans 12, Paul urges his readers to present their bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, as an act of spiritual worship. Alistair Begg reminds us that as a response to the mercy of God, the commitment to follow Christ requires all of our being, all of the time. In the same way that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross required all of Him, believers are called to live as those who are sold out to God, holding nothing back.
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“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. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Well, we have sung our prayer to God. We’ve asked for him to speak to us beyond the voice of a mere man—for the Holy Spirit to conduct that divine dialogue that is mysterious and yet actual, when we suddenly realize that we’re not simply listening to somebody who has shown up with some information to provide, but somehow or another, in the mysterious purposes of God, that God has engineered this moment and brought us to this place in order that we might hear from him, the one who is the author of this book.
I haven’t come to tell you things that you are unaware of. I’ve come simply to remind you of something that you must never forget. And in a phrase, it is this: the immense privilege and the essential prerogative of being sold out for God. That really is the emphasis of the call that is here in these opening two verses. And it is what is on my mind as I come to this august student body, representative of so much potential, not only now, in the immediate future, but also as you think of your lives unfolding for you.
And I’ve had in my mind the poem by Oxenham, which I won’t quote in its entirety, lest I forget it. But for those of you who are English majors, you will know Oxenham’s poem:
To every[one] there openeth a way, and [a] ways, and a way,
And the high soul [treads] the high [road],
And the low soul gropes the low.
And in between, on the misty flats, the rest drift to and fro.
And essentially, I am here to say to you: don’t waste your life. It would be a dreadful shame to have had such a wonderful start in this place, and then for people to find you when you become those who are walking under the banner of the alumni that welcomed me here this morning, and you find yourself saying to one another ten, twenty years on, “Well, I guess we were brimful of so many expectations and so much opportunity, such potential. How sad that we find ourselves greeting one another on the misty flats.”
Those who have made an impact for God have always been sold out for him.On one occasion, General Booth of the Salvation Army was asked, “How do you think it is that God has made such use of you, since you are a fairly insignificant figure?” And he replied in this way: “Jesus Christ has all of me.” “Jesus Christ has all of me.”
When J. B. Phillips paraphrased this opening section of Romans 12, he did so in this way: “With eyes wide open to the mercies of God, I beg you, my brothers [and sisters], as an act of intelligent worship, to give him your bodies.” Now, he’s not issuing a generic call to anybody who happens to be within earshot of the letter—anybody who wants to try and “do their best for God,” as it were. Nor is he issuing a call to individuals who are interested, if you like, in going to a higher level or a deeper level of consideration of the things of Jesus. No, this is basic Christianity. And those to whom he writes, living in the Rome of Ignatius, although prior to the time of Ignatius—an empire that stretched at that time from Britain all the way to Arabia (but never managed to capture Scotland)—it is to people living in that empire (“he said with a measure of smugness”; forgive me for that) and it is to people living in that environment that he issues this call.
He’s addressed them at the beginning of the letter—you can check this on your own—he addresses them in chapter 1 as “saints”: “To the saints in Rome,” those who’ve been set apart from sin to God. He addresses them in chapter 6 not only as those who are saints but those who are “slaves”: “No longer,” he says, “slaves anymore to what you once were, but now you have become slaves to righteousness. You have discovered that the greatest freedom you will ever know is in being a bondslave of Jesus Christ—that it is when we lay down the arms of our rebellion that we discover genuine freedom.”
So, the recipients are those. And the tone with which he writes, you will notice, is a pastoral tone: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters.” He’s not giving a suggestion, nor is he actually issuing a command. But his tone is one of entreaty, it’s one of urgency; it’s the kind of pastoral arm around the shoulder from which each of us have benefitted when folks have come around us and said, “Come on, now. Let’s make sure that we’re not missing out on this wonderful opportunity.”
And the basis of his appeal is the mercy of God, or the mercies of God: “I appeal to you therefore, [brother], by the mercies of God.” And when you think about all of that, and you track back through Romans, you realize just what a comprehensive understanding the apostle Paul had of the mercies of God. And of course, if you think about it, it makes sense, doesn’t it? I was reading this morning, and part of my reading this morning was in Acts—in Acts chapter 8. And there, of course, Luke is recording for us the persecution that emerged, at the front of which was Saul of Tarsus, beating people and imprisoning them and chasing them down, all because they named the name of Christ. So that by time he’s beginning to write his letters, he’s prepared to identify himself as the one who was the chief of sinners, as a most untimely addition to the apostolic band, and as someone who understood the mercy of God. So he says, “I appeal to you therefore, on the basis of God’s mercy”—the mercy that finds its absolute apex in the work of Jesus upon the cross.
Now, it’s very important that we notice his approach. And it is an approach that is not unique to Romans, but it runs really through the entirety of the way in which he writes letters. And again, for those of you who are English majors—or wish you were—a little grammar helps. What he does here is in the imperative. He is now in the realm of saying, “Come on! Let’s go.” But you will notice that he never issues the imperative—that is, if you like, moral—without first of all having provided the indicative, which is theological.
So that, for example, before in Colossians 3 he says, “Now you must seek those things which are above,” he precedes that by saying, “Since then you have been raised with Christ”—that’s the doctrinal indicative—“seek those things which are above”—that is the moral, if you like, imperative. And so, what he’s done here is, he’s written all of these chapters as we have them in English as he’s laid out the nature of the redeeming work of Jesus, and now he says to them, “This is what you need to do. This is how you need to walk.” An appeal on the basis of God’s mercy. An appeal to those who’ve come to believe that on the cross Jesus took the punishment that we deserve, that on the cross he provided the forgiveness that we don’t deserve, so that we are marked by a genuine selflessness and a humility—that the Christian living in Rome was to be marked by these evidences of the work of God within their lives, which turned them into individuals who went about their daily routine, the everyday events of life, living under the sunshine of the Father’s love displayed in his mercy in the work of Christ upon the cross.
I know that the Heidelberg Catechism gets a fair amount of mention here, and therefore, let me simply join the pilgrim band in reminding you of question 2 and the answer to question 2. Question 2 of the Heidelberg: “What must you know to live and die in the joy of this comfort?”—that is, the comfort provided in the answer to Heidelberg number 1. “What do you need to know to live and die in the joy of this comfort?” How do you die like Ignatius, in other words? Answer: number one, “how great my sin and misery are,” two, “how I am set free from my [sin] and misery,” and three, “how I am to thank God for such deliverance.” Okay?
So, the recipients are saints and slaves. The tone is not that of suggestion or command but is of entreaty and urgency. And the appeal is on the basis of the mercy of God. The nature of the appeal itself—and we go no further than verse 1 this morning—is “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy … acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship,” or “which is your reasonable spiritual service.” It’s translated differently in a variety of our versions.
What Paul is actually doing here is a form of recapitulation. He is coming back to themes that have already been present in this wonderful symphony of God’s grace. And in chapter 6—as we have it in our English version, at least—he has reminded those who are his readers not to let sin “reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life.” In other words, “Here again is what is true of you; this is the indicative: You have been brought from death to life. If you are in Christ, you are a new creation. Therefore, present your members to God as instruments for righteousness.”
Now, in a sense, this is no further than most of us have experienced when we went to Sunday school as tiny children. And the simplicity of it, the reality of it, the necessity of it, I confess to you, is as real, if not more real, at the age of fifty-nine than it was when I use to sing it at five or nine. Remember the song—perhaps you sang it too:
O, be careful, little feet, where you go,
O, be careful, little feet, where you go;
Because there’s a Father up above,
And He’s looking down in love,
So be careful, little feet, where you go.
And then we went through the whole shooting match: “Be careful, little hands, what you touch. Be careful, little eyes, what you see. Be careful, little ears, what you hear. Be careful, little minds, what you think.” Here I am, fifty-nine years old, singing children’s songs to myself in the car so that I can navigate my way through all the beauty and all the seductiveness of southern California.
I was just with one of the most prominent guys that you would know on the radio here in America within the world of conservative evangelicalism. He’s a couple of years older than me, and I said to him—and I won’t say his name—but I said to him, “So, what’s your big prayer at the moment?
He said, “My big prayer at the moment is this: ‘Lord, do not let me die as a dirty old man.’”
I was completely taken aback by it—till I got in my car, and I thought, “Now there’s a good prayer… for me.”
You see how practical this is? This is gonna take the mercies of God. This is gonna take the transformative power of the Holy Spirit. This is not a call to externalism. Paul, before he came to Christ, said that he was a master of legalistic righteousness. He said, “I was faultless when it came to dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. But then,” he said, “I discovered—I discovered in myself—a covetous heart.”
I’ve often wondered, “A covetous heart, of all things?” He had a covetous heart. I wonder if he didn’t covet the man at whose martyrdom he stood, Stephen. And he said with his bravado, “Throw your coats down here.” And he saw this man lift his face as up to heaven and to declare, in all of his great affirmation of faith, what that great white martyrdom crew was to declare after him. I wonder, did Paul find covetousness in his heart there?
Doesn’t really matter. “But by now,” he says, “it is the mercy of God that has bought me here, and it is God’s mercy that will take you there.” You see, without your body you’ve got no way of relating to anybody else. This morning, it’s your body that’s done it all—whether it’s your mouth or your ears or your eyes, whatever it is. Without our bodies there’s no way to relate to each other. It is by our bodies that we give ourselves. That we give ourselves. Everything we are, all that we have, all that we think or feel, all the influence that we can exert on others, all the differences that we can make in the world—all of it. All of it.
It’s kinda a basketball theme this morning, I suppose, but every dunk to the glory of God. Every behind-the-back pass to the glory of God. Every hundred meters dash to the glory of God. Every scientific experiment to the glory of God. Every business plan written to the glory of God. Every embrace. Every reception of an embrace. All the use of my hands. All of me, all the time, always for God—that’s what he’s saying. He’s saying, “Guys, I want you to be all in. All in.”
When I come to southern California, it makes me think of all kinds of things—and especially down in canyon country. I think I can see places where they shot some of those western movies that I was watching before you were even conceived of in your parents’ heads. Sometimes I watch them now; I make a mistake and buy DVDs, thinking, “Oh, Rawhide, I bet that’s really good, you know? Or The Virginian.” And then it’s some of the worst stuff you’ve ever seen in your life. You can actually see some of the microphones hanging down on the set and everything, and, like, people blowing the wind.
But the one thing I still love—the one thing I still love—are the gambling scenes. Not because I’m a gambler; I actually don’t really understand how to do any of that stuff. I have been to Las Vegas, and I did gamble. I went there with a friend. I got a quarter, I put it in, I pulled the thing, nothing happened, and then I left. So that if anybody ever said, “Have you ever been gambling in Vegas?” I’d have to say, “Yes, I have. Yes, I was there. And I did; I gambled extensively, twenty-five cents’ worth, and it’s gone.”
No, but I love the gambling scenes when the guy with the sawn-off thing and the little bit of drool—the stogie, you know—he sits, and then it all gets kinda sweaty in the room, and the people are perspiring, and it gets very quiet, and somebody’s got a big wad of chips, and apparently they’re all waiting to see what he’s gonna do. And then it just builds. Can you feel it building right there? And then it builds. And then he pushes them into the center. He goes, “I’m all in.” And you’re like, “Whoa, this is a play!” Then that’s when the guy cocks his gun, you know? And it’s just fantastic.
You say, “You need to get a life, man. If you’re watching this stuff at your age, it’s too bad.” But no, you’ve got the picture, haven’t you? All in. All in.
You got all the chips in for God? You got any holdout areas? You see, we’ll come back on Wednesday—a few of us—and we’ll move to what this actually means in hard terms. But what he’s calling for is actually a commitment of life that is a living commitment, that is a lasting commitment, and that is a logical commitment. Actually, the word in Greek is logikos, which gives us our word logos, logical.
But let me finish in this way. Forty-three years ago today, I was in London. Whoo, whoop-de-do, you know? But I was. I was in London, and I remember it perfectly. I was in London, I was in Carnaby Street, and I bought a postcard. And I bought a postcard to send to a girl—a girl that I had met forty-three years ago yesterday. She was wearing a purple dress, she was thirteen years old, and she had very lovely eyes. And if you’re nice, I’ll introduce you to her on Wednesday when she comes with me. But I decided to write a letter to this girl—send her a postcard—in case somebody else jumped in ahead of me, and I figured, if you’re going to invest, you might as well invest when the stock is low. So, “Buy low and sell high”; in this case, “Buy low and don’t ever sell.”
But the fact of the matter is, we began a fledgling correspondence with one another, that we wrote letters to one another, separated by three hundred miles, and then, after a few years, separated by three thousand miles, as we were separated by the Atlantic Ocean. And we used to write ridiculous Valentine’s cards to each other. And you’d put rhymes on them in those days. It’s all so playful now. But I came up with a wonderful one. It went like this: “My love is like a cabbage”—which is immediately endearing. I mean, you can see… “My love is like a cabbage, which, divided into two, the leaves I’ll give to others, but the heart I’ll give to you.”
To which the reply should be, “Not jolly likely.” “Not jolly likely.” For the last thirty-six years of marriage, I have been fiercely concerned to ensure that I don’t share any of the leaves with anyone else other than her, and that she herself is sharing none of those leaves with anyone other than me. I think it’s legitimate for her to ask me to be all in, and vice versa. And after all, when Paul writes of marriage in Ephesians 5, he says, “And what I’m actually talking about is the great mystery of Christ and the church.” Jesus, all in for you on the cross.
Now, how ’bout you? All in for him with the rest of your life? What an immense thought. What a wonderful privilege. How unattractive the “misty flats” sound in that kind of context.
Father, thank you that we have a Bible to which we can turn. Thank you that we can examine the Bible to see if what has been said is actually in it. And I pray that you will accomplish your purposes in each of our lives. Help us never to be a hindrance to each other but a help as we seek to follow Christ—as we step out in the pathway of obedience, linking hands throughout the centuries with Paul himself, with Ignatius, and all the others. And we commend each other and this day to you, in Christ’s name. Amen.
 John Oxenham, “To Every Man There Openeth” (1930).
 Romans 1:7 (paraphrased).
 Romans 6:17‒18 (paraphrased).
 See 1 Timothy 1:15.
 See 1 Corinthians 15:8–9.
 Colossians 3:1 (paraphrased).
 Romans 6:12‒13 (ESV).
 2 Corinthians 5:17 (paraphrased).
 See Romans 7:7.
 Romans 7:8 (paraphrased).
 See Acts 7:54–60.
 Ephesians 5:32 (paraphrased).
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.