When God’s mercy takes hold of us, our minds experience a transformation. For the first time, we see that His ways are best—and when our minds are transformed, our bodies will soon follow. As Alistair Begg shows us through Paul’s challenge to “be transformed by the renewal of your mind,” being entirely committed to Christ begins with not only a new way of living, but also a new way of thinking.
Romans 12:1–8 is our reading this evening, as it was this morning; it’s page 803. There’s just a possibility that we’ve begun a new series in Romans chapter 12, having done Romans chapter 8. And it’d be a rather intriguing way to go through the book of Romans, one chapter at a time. I’m not sure that that’s a plan at all, but I finished this morning and I thought, “Well, we must at least come back to the second verse.” So, let’s read these verses.
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers”—or brothers and sisters—“in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices”—we’re not free to do what we want with our bodies; we must give them to God in their entirety—“holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
“For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.”
Father, we pray for your help as we think on the things of your Word before we gather round the table spread before us. We look away to you, and we wait to hear from you. And we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Well, verse 2 is our study verse for this evening; let me read it to you from the paraphrase of J. B. Phillips. He paraphrases verse 2, “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity.” And once again, I find J. B. Phillips to be helpful. I don’t use him as my study material, but nevertheless, I find that it is a very helpful way in which he often puts things. And it is a very graphic picture, isn’t it? “[Do not] let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould.”
Now, we know from our studies in Romans chapter 8—and if you have a Bible open, and I hope you do, you can just turn back one page in the Bible and you’re probably at chapter 8 of Romans—and we know from Romans 8:7 that “the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.” And in that little paragraph there in Romans 8, beginning in verse 5, Paul is making it clear to the Christians to whom he writes that being a Christian involves an entirely different mindset. It’s just a radical alteration of our view of things. So in verse 5 he says, “Those who live according to the sinful nature”—those who are not Christians—“have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit”—those who are in Christ—“have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind of [the] sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace.”
And so it’s no surprise that, having mentioned the offering up of our bodies as living sacrifices, Paul moves immediately to the matter of the mind. Because unless there is something seriously wrong with us physically, our bodies are in submission to our minds. My left hand is moving now as a result of what is being told from the control tower—the control tower being my mind. And actually, I’m a great fan of control towers at airports; from my smallest days I always wanted to get inside one and find out what was happening. That was at Glasgow Airport, which wasn’t much of a control tower. I haven’t managed into Heathrow or to Chicago or even to Cleveland. I did make it into Hong Kong, in the old airport, and was fascinated and intrigued by what was going on in there, and the tremendous capacity and power that was contained in a relatively small room. And the instructions that were coming from that place were coming in order to prevent chaos and in order to ensure safety. And if anything goes wrong in that place, then the impact will be felt beyond it, and often at great peril.
Now, the analogy is straightforward: the mind is the control tower of our bodies —that what we do with our bodies is in direct relationship to what is happening in our minds. Because it is in our minds that we have the capacity to consider possibilities, it is in our minds that we make decisions, by our mind we adjudicate on our feelings, and with our minds we determine our affections. And so, says Paul, your minds are absolutely crucial in relationship to the notion from this morning of giving our entire being to God. If we think wrongly about things, any exhortation to do such a thing will appear to us to be either outlandish, or peculiarly trivial in the other scheme of things, or whatever it might be. But when our minds are under the jurisdiction of the Spirit of God and the Word of God, then things will inevitably follow as God intends.
Now, his instruction here in verse 2 is very clear and very straightforward. And I have just written down three guides for myself. First of all, I wrote down “do not,” and then I wrote down “be,” and then I wrote down “then.” And it seems to me that that’s exactly you have it there: “Do not,” that’s the first part. “Be transformed,” that’s the second part. “Then you’ll find this out,” that’s the third part. So we will go through them, almost just as briefly as that.
First of all, he says to these folks, “Do not be conformed”—notice—“any longer”—“any longer”—“to the pattern of this world,” or the pattern of this age. That little phrase there, “any longer,” is important because it is pointing out what we noticed this morning: that to be converted is to be brought into an entirely different dimension of life. When a person becomes a Christian, not only do they have a new nature, not only do they have a new status—adopted into God’s family—but they have an entirely new position in the universe! And Paul, as much as anyone in the New Testament, comes back to this again and again and again—that, as we’ve seen before, he lays down what is true of the Christian before he then gives exhortations to the believer always to live in light of what is.
He’s already said that “[you are] to offer your bodies as living sacrifices,” on the basis of the mercy of God—the mercy of God—which they have discovered, in giving to them a righteousness that is not their own, in crediting to them all of the righteousness of Christ, in granting to them an undeserved forgiveness, and so on. And having laid down what is true of them, he then exhorts. When we get that the wrong way round, things go very quickly wrong. Because what we need to realize tonight is who and what we are in Jesus, so that we might then, on the strength of what we have become in Christ, learn to live in the benefits and the blessings of what he asks of us.
So let me just turn you to Colossians, for example, and to Colossians chapter 2. And let me just make this point for you—I won’t belabor it—but in Colossians, we have classic Paul, if you like, in doing this—what we’ve said before—he’s laying down the doctrinal indicatives before he moves to the moral imperatives. In other words, “This is what is true of you; now, this is what God asks of you.” So, for example, in 2:6, “So then, just as you [have] received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him.” You have received Jesus; live in Jesus. Verse 12: “Having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” You have received Jesus, you have been raised with Christ. And so, in 3:1, he then now makes the application: “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.” Now, here we go: “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” Why? Well, because of who you are: “For you died”—the old you is dead—“and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.”
And because you died in Christ and because you were raised with Christ, now you live as those who are under the kingship of Christ. “In royal robes [that we] don’t deserve” we have been covered. And therefore, all that we can legitimately do is bow and acknowledge his majesty. Before ever we come to trust in Christ, such an idea seems like a dreadful external rigamarole or, frankly, a silly idea in its entirety: “What do you mean, ‘the majesty of Christ’? What do you mean, ‘to bow before Christ’? What do you mean, ‘to be raised with Christ’?” and so on. And before we ever come to trust in Christ, all of those things are just terminology; it’s conceptual.
But when you close with the offer of salvation, when you trust in Christ, and you realize that these things are true of you, that you are united with Christ, then you understand why it is that you no longer live as you once lived. And that’s why there is such an incongruity about a profession of faith without the follow-through. That’s like saying, “I’m unreservedly committed to my wife, but I don’t wanna spend time with her, and I’d rather spend time with other people.” Someone says, “No, you’re absolutely wrong. You can’t have it both ways.” If you are unreservedly committed to her, then you spend time exclusively with her. If you are committed to Jesus Christ, then you spend time with Jesus Christ. If Christ is now the sovereign Lord of my life, then my mind is under his sovereign jurisdiction. I’m no longer free to think the way I wanted to think. My mind is being renewed as a result of his grace.
And you can follow this through on your own: 1 Peter 1, Peter says the very same thing when he writes to the folks “who have been chosen by God the Father and sanctified by the Holy Spirit and sprinkled by the blood of Jesus Christ.” What is it he says to them—I just looked for it myself: “Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had”—past tense—“when you lived in ignorance.” In other words, volume 1: “Your mind was depraved, you lived in ignorance, you pleased yourself, you said, ‘I can do what I like with my body, I can do what I want with anyone, I can go wherever I want to go. No one has jurisdiction over me, nobody … tell me what to do or what to believe or how to behave.’ Those are all the things that you said, but you don’t say them anymore.” Why not? “Because of God’s mercy. Because he has made you new in himself.” And in what he writes in 2 Corinthians 4, he says, “We were once blinded by the god of this age.”
So the distinction is an important one, but I think it’s a straightforward one. It’s between this age and the age that is to come. This age—this world—as it is represented by an orientation that is absent God and essentially anti-God, is transient, it is ephemeral, it is passing, it is changing. If you’ve lived any length of time, you know that the view of this in this area of science is now superseded by another, the views of child-raising have been altered and modified, sexual mores have been radically shifted, things that were once absolutely taboo in Western culture have now been turned entirely on their heads, as people submit to the god of this age.
But the Christian doesn’t. The Christian doesn’t. And when Paul follows this line through in Corinthians, he does so, so very clearly. You needn’t turn to it, but let me just give you a flavor of it. He says, “Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age?” Step forward! He says, “[Hasn’t] God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom [didn’t] know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.” And before you become a Christian, you listen to somebody telling you that and say, “That is unbelievable! I can’t believe you believe that stuff!”
When he gets to 2:6, he says, “We … speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing.” And by the time he gets to 3:18, he says, “[Don’t] deceive [yourself]. If any one of you thinks [he’s] wise by the standards of this age, he should become a ‘fool’ so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.”
Now, that doesn’t mean that God looks down on the world and sees scientific invention and the development of thought and everything, and he says, “Oh, that’s all absolutely stupid!” That’s not what’s being said. What he’s saying is that the orientation of man in his depraved mind—although it appears to be so significant and of such dramatic import—in comparison to the wisdom displayed in the foolish message of the cross is absolutely nothing. “Heaven and earth will pass away,” says God, “but my [word] will [not] pass away.”
“So,” says Paul, “because of God’s mercy, I’m asking you to put in your whole life to this project, and you’re never gonna get your body into position—you’re not all gonna get in the bucket, as it were—unless your mind is changed; and God, when he brings you to faith, changes your mind.” And we shouldn’t shy away from the negative here. Some people don’t like this. They don’t like the do nots. “Do not.” “Well, why do we have to have so many do nots?” Well, interestingly, you can just go on and check when you go into chapter 13. But eight out of the Ten Commandments are prohibitions. Eight out of the Ten Commandments are prohibitions. Why? Because we need them.
The contemporary child-rearing principles, it comes to me all the time; I hear people telling me that the one thing they will not tell their children is no. I know a girl who went for a job as a nanny in Santa Barbara, and she got all the way through the process. It was going to be a quite remarkable job, paying a ridiculous amount of money—until she finally met the mother. And when she finally reached the mother in the interview process, the mother said, “There was just one thing I don’t want you ever to do: you must never tell my daughter no.” And so she never got the job. And presumably that little daughter is running around Santa Barbara now, another little monster to be added to the many monsters that are part and parcel of our world.
Okay, from “do not” we go to “be.” Be. “Do not be conformed to the world. Don’t allow the world to squeeze you into its own mould, but rather be re-moulded. Have your minds re-moulded from within—your minds re-moulded from within.” This is straightforward stuff, isn’t it? It’s straightforward. We quoted this morning from Titus 3:[4–]5: “When the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things [we’d] done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” How is your mind renewed? By the power of the Holy Spirit. What is the means that the Holy Spirit uses in the renewal of our minds? The Word of God. So the Spirit of God takes the Word of God in the child of God to make us increasingly like the Son of God. The whole process is that process: that we are being daily conformed to the image of the Lord Jesus Christ—that our minds are being renewed, our lives are being renewed; we’re not all we ought to be, we’re not all we’re going to be, but we’re not what we once were. And the mechanism that God uses is the instruction of the Spirit of God, but not in some subjective way whereby we sit around and conjure up notions, but rather, the objective mechanism that is provided for us is in the truth of the Word of God.
That’s why we began, at least in two of the services this morning, by quoting Psalm 1. It was in my mind in relationship to these things: “Blessed is the man who doesn’t walk”—in negative—“in the counsel of the ungodly or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of the scoffers.” In other words, blessed is the man who doesn’t allow the world to squeeze him “into its own mould.” “But instead he meditates on the law of God day and night. That man will be like a tree planted by rivers of water that brings forth its fruit in its season.” And the renewing work of the Spirit of God is that to which Paul is making mention.
I remember not so long ago having a gentleman in my study, and he had recently professed faith in Jesus Christ, and I was asking him if he’d noticed any changes. And he said, “You know, it’s a remarkable thing.” He said, “I wakened up the other morning—I literally wakened up in the morning—and I realized that, without actually thinking about it, I had completely altered my view on abortion.” That was the thing he said. It was interesting. He said, “To this point in my life, I have always regarded that as the issue of a woman’s choice and so on. But I woke up this morning, and I said to myself, ‘I don’t believe that anymore.’” And he said to me, with amazement in his voice—and he said, “How does that happen?” And I said, “It happens just like this. The Word of God, by the Spirit of God, in the child of God, conforming us to the image of the Son of God.”
That’s why you have the interface of “[Do not be] drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit,” and then, “Speak and sing and do your thing with one another”—that’s Ephesians 5. And then in Colossians 3, you don’t have “Be filled with the Spirit,” but you have “Be filled with the word of God”—“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly”—and then, “Teach and admonish one another and sing the songs and so on.”
I don’t think there’s any question in Paul’s mind that what he’s doing there is making the point. To one he says, “Make sure it’s the Word of God that is in you.” To the other he says, “Make sure it’s the Spirit of God that is in you.” If you’d said to him, “Does that mean the Ephesians are only supposed to be sort of Spirit of God people, and we’re the Word of God people?” he said, “No, no, no, no. I expected you to read both books and think it out. Use your mind, you silly person. There you are. That’s what I told you. Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
And when this begins to happen and the truths of the Scriptures begin to take hold and the wonder of his mercy begins to fuel our thinking, then the pulse of a congregation will be radically different —radically different. So to this we look for God to do—we look for God to do this.
Says [Hiebert], “[The] inward transformation of the [mind] is the only effective preservative against outward conformity with the spirit of the age.” The inward transformation of the mind is the only preservative from outward conformity to the spirit of the age. We’re not going to go on to this now, loved ones, but that is why it matters what we watch. That is why it matters what we read. That is why it matters what we fill our minds with. “All things may be lawful, but not all things are expedient.” And many a person has hampered and hindered their own walk with Christ as a result of allowing themselves freedoms that, while not clearly denied in Scripture, haven’t proved helpful to them at all.
And then, finally, “do not,” instead “be,” and “then.” What will happen? Then we will realize that God’s way is best, and we’ll determine that we’re going to go that way. You’re going to be able to “test [it] and approve” it.
I used to think, when I did this at the first—when I was teaching the Bible—I thought this was a verse about how to find the will of God. It has something to do with how to find the will of God, but I don’t think that’s what he’s saying. He’s saying that when mercy grabs you, when grace transforms you, when your mind is renewed and the Spirit of God is at work within you, then you will say, “God’s way is the best way.” Then you’ll say, “God’s way is the way of pleasure. All his ways are pleasantness, and all his paths are peace.”
When you’re a rebellious teenager, you don’t say that. When you’re a rebellious teenager, you say, “That’s a stupid idea. Why do I have to be that way? Why do I have to come home at that time? Why are you protecting me from all these things?” The answer is, “Because we love you, and because at the moment you’re not savvy enough to understand this. Therefore, we want you to be bold enough and good enough to obey us, in the hope and prayer that eventually you will actually be able to stand up and say, ‘God’s will is absolutely best, and I am going God’s way.’ And you will do so not as a result of our unbelievable constraints but as a result of God’s mercy. And you’ll realize how amazingly good he’s been to you. And you’ll be able to go out and say, ‘As for God, his way is best when it comes to marriage; divorce is a really stinking option. His way is best when it comes to human sexuality; premarital sex is a disaster zone. His way is best when it comes to the issues of our finances—absolute scrupulous honesty. His way is best when it comes to the matters of interpersonal relationships.’”
When will we be able to say that? When, by God’s mercy, we’ve been redeemed; when, by his grace, our minds are renewed in the truth of his Word; when we are filled with God the Holy Spirit, then we will say, “There’s no peace, no joy, no thrill like walking in God’s will.”
And I want to finish with a girl who’s in my mind right now. And she’s been in my mind throughout the day. And I’ve told you about her before, but you have very good “forgeteries,” and so I can easily tell you about her again.
Nineteen seventy-four, I went in the evening with one of my friends and this girl to the Thames Embankment Mission in London. All the street people were more interested in the physical food than they were in the spiritual food that was on offer from my buddy and myself. I won’t take time now to give you the details—many of them humorous—which made perfectly clear to us that there was very little interest on the part of these men and some women that were there. Our preaching was no good, as far as they were concerned.
The only time that they listened was when Mary sang. And Mary was a little girl from Wales. She looked a little bit like Mary Hopkin[s], actually—the girl of “Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end.” And she had a lovely, lilting Welsh voice, and when she sang, the people put down their newspapers and began to listen. And it was a very humbling thing for myself and my colleague: this little slip of a girl—fairly plain, friendly eyes, long blonde hair, crystal clear voice. Wasn’t really a performance that she did; it was more of a sacrifice.
She graduated a year ahead of us. She went to Zimbabwe, and in Zimbabwe she was teaching in a Pentecostal mission school. And in that Pentecostal mission school in ’74—you can research this in Newsweek; just go online and google it—there was a raid by terrorists. They came in, they shot up the school, they killed a number of the children. And the first reports that came out said that there was one young girl who had survived—one young teacher had survived. But by the time the Newsweek article was printed, she had already died. And when her parents got all of her belongings sent home to her, then, from Zimbabwe, there was a cassette tape, as it was then, of her singing with these children and singing in the Shona language. And the song that she had taught them to sing contained the words that I’ve just quoted to you from Philippians 1.
And this is what she sang:
For me to live is Christ, to die is gain,
To hold his hand and to walk his narrow way.
And there is no peace, no joy, no thrill
Like walking in his will;
For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.
See, what Mary Fisher had done was she put her whole self in the thing—all the chips in, all of her education, all of her talent, all of her everything—and she paid the ultimate price. But today I remember her with fondness. I revere her memory. I tell you, not as a means of emotional cajoling but as a twentieth-century example of taking seriously the words of Romans 12:1–2, which undergird the life of the Christian, the future of Parkside, and the unsettling ideas that are increasingly coming to us as a church leadership.
Let us pray:
Gracious God and Father, we thank you for every example that we have in life of those who have blazed a trail before us, who have been prepared to offer up their lives as a living sacrifice. And we pray that you will find us faithful, and we pray that the notions of mercy and of grace, the transforming power of your Word by the Spirit, may increasingly be the flavor, the pulse, the tone, the hallmark of our church family. And we pray that you will give to us a ruthless commitment to seeking to do your will. For we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
 Jarrod Cooper, “King of Kings, Majesty” (1996).
 1 Peter 1:2 (paraphrased).
 1 Peter 1:13–14 (NIV 1984, emphasis added).
 2 Corinthians 4:4 (paraphrased).
 1 Corinthians 1:20–21 (NIV 1984).
 1 Corinthians 2:6 (NIV 1984).
 1 Corinthians 3:18–19 (NIV 1984, emphasis added.)
 Matthew 24:35 (NIV 1984).
 Psalm 1:1–3 (paraphrased).
 Ephesians 5:18 (KJV).
 Ephesians 5:19 (paraphrased).
 Colossians 3:16 (paraphrased).
 D. Edmond Hiebert, “Presentation and Transformation: An Exposition of Romans 12:1–2,” in Vital New Testament Issues: Examining New Testament Passages and Problems, ed. Roy B. Zuck (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1996), 97.
 1 Corinthians 6:12 (paraphrased).
 Proverbs 3:17 (paraphrased).
 Gene Raskin, “Those Were the Days” (1968).
 J. White, “For Me, to Live Is Christ” (1969). Lyrics lightly altered.