In Romans 12:2, Paul warns readers not to be conformed to the ways of this world, but rather, to be transformed by God and conformed to the image of Christ. Alistair Begg explains that a Christian’s way of thinking changes as a result of God’s revelation of Himself. Our perspective on the world should be shaped by our view of the Kingdom, resulting in fully committing ourselves to doing God’s will.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Well, we’re in Romans 12:1‒2. Despite the fact that you are such an intelligent group, I didn’t want to trust you with anything more than two verses, so as not to tax you, especially as you get further and further into your term and closer to your exams. But let’s just remind ourselves of what Paul says here in Romans 12:
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers,” or 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.”
Father, what we know not, teach us. What we have not, give us. What we are not, make us. For your Son’s sake we pray. Amen.
Well, we said on Monday morning that we’re thinking about what it means to be “all in”—all in for God—and the call that goes out here at the beginning of Romans 12 might be summarized just as that in itself. And he is urging his readers to make sure that their lives are offered to God as a “living sacrifice,” which he says is “spiritual worship.”
What Paul does is pick up on the Old Testament picture of sacrifice. And as you know from your studies in the Bible, there are many pictures of sacrifice in the Old Testament, but two in particular stand out: the sacrifice that was propitiatory, for the appeasement of the wrath of God by the setting aside of a sacrifice and the shedding of blood; and then, subsequent to that, a sacrifice that was dedicatory, in thanksgiving to God for the acceptance of the sacrifice of propitiation. And Paul picks that up here in these verses, and he says Jesus Christ has offered the propitiatory sacrifice that is ultimately the expression of the mercy of God. And now, he says, “I want you to offer your lives as a dedicatory sacrifice in reaction to, in response to, all that God is to you in the Lord Jesus Christ.” And the sacrifice, unlike a sacrifice that died, is to be a living sacrifice. It is not to be momentary bursts of enthusiasm followed by long periods of chronic inertia, but rather, it is to be a lasting sacrifice. And, he says, this sacrifice makes sense. It is rational, it is logical, and the word that is used here in Greek is just that.
So then, what does it mean to be those who are offering their lives in terms of spiritual worship? Well, let me quote to you from the late professor John Murray. He says this: “We are not ‘spiritual’ in the biblical sense except as the use of our bodies is characterized by conscious, intelligent, consecrated devotion to the service of God.” So the idea of, “I’m a spiritual person, but it doesn’t really affect my body, or it doesn’t affect what I do with my hands or my feet,” you can’t get there from an orthodox understanding of the New Testament. Gnosticism and early heresies sought to contrive that notion and offer it to people, and it remains very attractive even today—somehow or another to separate what I am in terms of the attitudes of my mind and the actions of my limbs from that spiritual part of me. No, in actual fact, says Paul, it is by our bodies that we relate to one another, and it is in the use of our bodies that we express this truth.
Now, we quoted from J. B. Phillips’s paraphrase, and let me give to you the second verse, at least part of it, from Phillips. He goes on to say, “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but [submit to God as he re-moulds] your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good.” So, first of all, don’t, and then, do. “Don’t allow yourselves simply to be squeezed in by the contemporary thinking of your time.”
And what Paul is doing is once again reinforcing truth that he has already taught. I’m quoting now from Romans chapter 8, and this is what he says: “For those who live according to the flesh”—the non-Christian—“set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” Then he says—clearing up for all time the idea that is prevalent as you move around church circles, “Well, I was just in the flesh, and now I’m moving over into the Spirit,” as if it’s a kind of 110/220, AC/DC existence—he says, “That’s not what I’m talking about at all. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of God dwelling in him, then he or she does not belong to God.”
So the distinction that he’s making is the radical distinction that he now says is to mark the child of God. So in other words, Christianity is a mind-altering reality. It changes the way a man or a woman thinks. That’s why you’ll remember, again, from C. S. Lewis: he says on one occasion, “I believe in Christianity as I believe in the rising of the Sun, not simply because I can see it, but because by it I can see everything else.” So that our understanding of the grace and mercy of God in verse 1 reveals itself, then, in this expression in verse 2.
And what Paul says, Peter also says. This is 1 Peter 1:13. He says to the scattered Christians of his day, “Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” And here we go: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, [so] be holy in all [that you do].”
Now, you see, this is, of course, the radical distinction that runs through the very heart of Paul’s theology. And in chapter 1 of Romans, he has laid out this great exchange that has taken place as we in our unrighteousness have turned our backs on God. And this is what he says— chapter 1, speaking of God: “His invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him”—now here we go, listen to this phraseology—“but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” Futility in thinking and the darkening of the human heart.
Having quoted one Scottish theologian, let me quote another one to you. This is Macleod now: “Human thought-processes, human presuppositions and assumptions and human logic are … hostile to God. … The [distortion] of sin, the anti-God bias, has come in at the level of understanding and intellect. [By nature,] we think crookedly. We think in an ungodly way.” Now, if you think about this in relationship to some of the folks that you enjoy reading—although it may be painful for you to read. I read Christopher Hitchens all the time. I have been fascinated by his robust atheism. I’m consciously remembering him in prayer, thinking somehow or another that God will shine into the darkness of such an amazing intellect. But ultimately, the Bible adjudicates on Hitchens, and on all the others, and explains that sin has left no part of the human faculty untouched; and therefore, at the level of the intellect, at the level of human understanding, man thinks wrongly about God and thinks wrongly about himself until God shines into the darkness of that futile thinking the light of the glory of his gospel.
Third Scottish theologian, Milne: “There is … no road from [man’s] intellectual and moral perception to a [genuine] knowledge of God.” There’s a sentence for all you apologists. “There is … no road from [man’s] intellectual and moral perception to a … knowledge of God. The only way to knowledge of God is for God [to freely] place himself within [the realm] of our perception, and [to] renew our fallen understanding. Hence, if we are to know God and have any adequate basis for our Christian understanding and experience, revelation is indispensable.”
And it is that which lies at the very heart of Paul’s theological treatise, all the way through the book of Romans. And so he says, “I don’t want you to go back to the kind of thinking that characterized you when your minds were hostile to God. Don’t allow all of that hostility,” he says, “to squeeze you. Don’t capitulate to that. Don’t play footsie with that. Don’t try to make yourself look smart by just simply kowtowing to all of that hostile thinking. Be prepared. Be robust. Be willing to be all in. Be willing to be thought foolish. For the things of God are actually foolishness to those who are perishing. And the message of the cross is regarded as absolutely ridiculous. Therefore,” he says, “do not allow the world around you just to captivate and squeeze you in that way. But instead, be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” So that the process of God at work within the child of God is always to conform us to the image of his Son. He has predestined us—Romans 8—to be conformed to the image of his Son. That is his eternal purpose. He is in the process of transforming us—2 Corinthians 3—into the image of his Son. That is, if you like, his existential purpose. And one day, he will make us just like his Son. That is, if you like, his eschatological purpose.
And in that process, to that end, our minds are absolutely critical. Critical! That’s why it is a privilege for you folks to be in an institution like this. That is why it is an immense privilege for you to be the recipients of this kind of framework in which to think these things out. And that’s why it’s a privilege for me to come and address you, and to say to you, “Did you not focus on that line, as we sang that second song, ‘Ponder anew’?” “Ponder.” It’s a great word, ponder, isn’t it? The verb to ponder? If you have a cat, you understand ponder. That’s what cats do. I imagine that’s what they do; they don’t do much else, as far as I can tell. And actually, T. S. Eliot says that’s what they do, because, you remember, in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, he says that when you don’t know what a cat’s doing, it’s thinking about its real name. And that is the name that nobody knows, because
The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your [ordinary] games;
You may think at [once] I’m as mad as a hatter
[If] I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
First of all, there’s the name that the family use daily,
Such as [Buster], Augustus, Alonzo or James,
and diddly, diddly, diddly, and then it goes on and on, and he says, “But if you want to know what the cat’s doing, it’s just sitting by the fireplace pondering.” Pondering. And that smug look on its face is because it knows its name, and no one else knows its name. That’s transformed my view of cats entirely. I don’t like them any better, but it gives me a measure of consideration for them.
“Well, ponder,” he says. Ponder. Be transformed as a result of pondering, of thinking—the work of the Spirit of God through the truth of the Word of God to bring us to a knowledge of these things. So that when we think, and we think about the values of the kingdom, we realize that Jesus, when he comes proclaiming the kingdom of God, turns human values upside down. He says, “I know you think you’re smart, but if you want to enter the kingdom of God you must become as a little child. As some of you want to push yourself to the front: if you want to be first,” he says, “then be the servant of all. If you want to save your life, lose it. If you lose your life for my sake, you will find it. It would be better,” he says, “to go into heaven missing one of your hands or one of your eyes than to go into hell with both because you did not abide by the values of the kingdom.”
Now, you say, “Well, okay, that’s fine. But we have to go back out into the realm of our immediate environment here, and beyond that.” Okay. So, let me give you a few things to think about for your homework. If this was a class, then we could talk about it later on—we could have the Q and A—but it isn’t, so I don’t have to worry about it, and neither do you. And there will be no test in the end, at least not from me.
So, if I’m going to be transformed in the renewing of my mind, then I have to have a Christian perspective on the issues of, let’s say, ecology. There’s got to be a Christian way to figure this out in relationship to the doctrine of creation. I’m gonna have to have a perspective, then, on the whole notion of philanthropy. Because if you think about twenty-first-century America, it’s largely categorized by the preoccupation with the ecology that is represented by Al Gore and the philanthropy that is represented by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Well, the Christian has to think about what this means. What does it mean to use money? What does it mean to deal with this world in which God has set us? What does it mean that our world is disintegrating, and yet there’s going to be a new heaven and a new earth? We have to think these things out.
What are we going to do as we think about social and economic theory, transformed by the renewing of my mind? What are we going to do with the Wall Street protests? I don’t know how many of you would like to be in the Wall Street protests; I think some of you probably would. I was looking yesterday at all of the wonderful pictures and signs that people were holding up. Some remarkable signs; I don’t know if you’ve looked at them. But there was a lady there in a green dress, she was just holding up a sign that just said, “I am upset.” And I said to myself, you know, “I’m kinda upset as well! But I don’t know that we’re both upset about the same thing.” And whatever our view of economics might be, we can agree on this: that a person’s life does not consist in the abundance of their possessions. Therefore, our view of economics is influenced by our view of the kingdom. The Christian has something to say about the issues of greed, about the issues of injustice, about the issues of hypocrisy, about the issues of lostness, about the fact of upsetness.
Now, you see, one of the benefits of living a little longer than you’ve lived is that you realize that everything is actually fairly cyclical. Not everything, because eternity is actually linear. But, you know, things go around and round, don’t they? ’Cause I was looking at all these people—all these people really concerned about, you know, the issue—on their iPhones and their laptops, and, you know, it just struck me as, what a wonderful world in which we live. And here we are, and all these dear people are upset, and they’re lost, and because they feel like they’re just another brick in the wall; they’re just another cog in the machinery—whatever it might be.
And then I said to myself, “But, you know, there’s nothing really changed.” I was around in the ’60s. We were doing the same thing in the ’60s. We were into the whole alienation thing. I wonder, are any of you going to see Paul Simon this weekend here in Santa Barbara? Not a living soul. Isn’t that amazing? That the most significant lyricist, arguably, of the second half of the twentieth century is singing in your town, and none of you even know, and you’re not even going. But that’s all right. You’re not just as smart a group as I thought you were.
But when you rediscover Paul Simon, you will discover that he was writing the same songs in the ’60s:
“Kathy, I’m lost,” I said, though I knew she was sleeping,
“I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why,”
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike;
They’ve all [gone] to look for America.
They’re trying to make sense of the whole thing. What do you say to these people? What do you say to my generation, the baby boomers, when you meet us? Miserable old customers, many of us. The oldest of us now turned sixty-five, as of January 1. You meet a sixty-five-year-old person this year? He or she is a baby boomer. What are they marked by? Well, this is what the New York Times said they’re marked by: as of the first of January this year, “Boomers hit another milestone of self-absorption.” And what are we doing? “Living longer, working longer … nursing some disappointment [at] how [my life has] turned out. The self-aware, or self-absorbed, feel less self-fulfilled, and thus are racked with self-pity.” Have a good day!
But this is the world to which we go. And it’s not difficult to see the accuracy of that assessment. Oh, it’s an overstatement, there is no question. But the elements of it are there. Is there a way, then, for somebody who is all in for God—a young person who’s committed to these things—to tackle these challenges?
January 1, in the NYT and in the WSJ—Wall Street Journal—they carried a review of the book by Dreyfus and Kelly that those of you who are in that little house up there, the philosophy department, ought to know. But I’m not going to embarrass you by asking you how many of you have read All Things Shining by Dreyfus and Kelly—because I’ve already embarrassed you asking about Paul Simon, and so far your score is not very good. But in that book, which I purchased as a result of the Wall Street’s review of it, and the New York Times’s, Dreyfus and Kelly have written a book in which they are pointing out that there is a complete collapse of meaning in the twenty-first century, and therefore, individuals are going to have to create their own meaning. Because we can’t construct meaning for ourselves from the ground up, they then say there is in our world a pervasive sadness—that modern life is marked by feelings of indecision and by anxiety. They then go on to say—as philosophy professors at Harvard and Stanford—that nobody actually believes anymore in the notion of eternal truth. Therefore, it is incumbent upon everyone to create their own understanding of the truth. And the subtitle of their book is “Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in Life.”
Now, there is great benefit in reading the Western classics. But it’s a striking notion, isn’t it? That you wake up in the morning, you’re feeling really depressed, so your roommate says, “Well, why don’t we just read a chapter out of Moby Dick? And, you know, the whole of life will open up before us, you know.” What a remarkable idea! Well, there’ll be no downside to it, perhaps. But what they’re actually arguing for is to find moments of transcendent “whoosh”-ness. Transcendent “whoosh”-ness. I leave you to read the book yourself. But, they said, when you find these shining moments, don’t expect them to cohere into any kind of picture that makes sense. They’re all simply atomized encounters, and the best you can do is to catch as many of them as you can as you’re going through.
Well, to the extent that that is any sense a representation of the world into which you are about to go as graduates, don’t you think that it’s going to make a difference for you to be all in for God? And when people say to you, “Why do you think differently?” you’re going to tell them, “Because of the grace of God, because of the mercy of God, because of the love of God, because of the character of God. And because the Bible is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. Because I believe in its sufficiency. Because I believe in the one to whom it introduces me—namely, the Lord Jesus Christ—and that it is in him that life unfolds for me.”
You see, we’re not going out to offer to our friends and neighbors a philosophy to adopt, or a series of external regulations to adhere to, but rather to say to our friends and neighbors, “The God who made the world and everything in it doesn’t live in temples built by hands,” and right through the whole dialogue that ensues in Acts chapter 17. “Then,” says Paul, “if we are prepared to think in this way, then we will discover that God’s will is best, and we will commit ourselves to doing God’s will.”
I began yesterday by saying to you that I didn’t come here to tell you something that you don’t know but to remind you of what you must never forget. Can I ask you: Are you all in? Are you all in? Remember—is it Brutus to Cassius or Cassius to Brutus?—he says, “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to [greatness].” And I’ve discovered that there are moments in my life—that there are times, there are occasions—and these couple of days may just have been, in the providence of God, one of those moments, one of those times for you. If it has been, then I invite you now to bow with me, and we’ll pray. And we’ll ask God to write these two verses in our minds and on our hearts so that we might be all in for him.
Let us pray:
O God our Father, we thank you that you speak to us by the Holy Spirit through your Word, the Bible. And so we pray that we might receive the Scriptures from yourself—that beyond the voice of a mere man we might hear the insistent, gentle, stirring call to present our bodies as a living sacrifice, wholly acceptable to you, a spiritual act of worship—not to be conformed by the thinking of our day but to be transformed by the renewing of our mind, so that we might discover that your will is really the best and that we might commit to doing it. Hear our prayers, and let our cries come unto you. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.
 John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans: The English Text with Introduction, Exposition and Notes (1968; repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 2:112.
 Romans 8:5‒8 (ESV).
 Romans 8:9 (paraphrased).
 C. S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?,” in The Weight of Glory (1949; repr., 2001: New York, HarperOne), 140. Paraphrased.
 Romans 1:20‒21 (ESV).
 Donald Macleod, A Faith to Live By: Understanding Christian Doctrine (Fearn, Great Britain: Christian Focus, 2010), 106.
 Bruce Milne, Know the Truth: A Handbook of Christian Belief, 3rd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2009), 26.
 1 Corinthians 1:18 (paraphrased).
 See Romans 8:29.
 See 2 Corinthians 3:18.
 See 1 John 3:2.
 Joachim Neadner, trans. Catherine Winkworth, “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” (1680/1863).
 T. S. Eliot, “The Naming of Cats” (1939).
 Matthew 18:3 (paraphrased).
 Mark 9:35 (paraphrased). See also Matthew 20:26; Mark 10:44.
 Matthew 16:25 (paraphrased). See also Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24.
 Matthew 5:29–30 (paraphrased). See also Matthew 18:8.
 See Luke 12:15.
 Paul Simon, “America” (1968).
 Dan Barry, “Boomers Hit New Self-Absorption Milestone: Age 65,” New York Times, December 31, 2010, https://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/01/us/01boomers.html.
 Susan Neimann, “What It All Means,” review of All Things Shining, by Hubert Dreyfuss and Sean Dorrance Kelly, New York Times, January 20, 2011, Sunday Book Review, https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/2011/01/23/books/review/Neiman-t.html. Eric Ormsby, “The Gods Return,” review of All Things Shining, by Hubert Dreyfuss and Sean Dorrance Kelly, Wall Street Journal, December 10, 2010, https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704278404576038040647824156.
 See Psalm 119:105.
 Acts 17:24 (paraphrased).
 William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, 4.3.
Copyright © 2022, 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.