Not Conformed but Transformed

Life Impact: This lesson encourages you to practice Christianity by consecrating your body to God, living humbly, and doing good to all – both friends and enemies.

Consecrate Yourselves: Romans 12:1-2.

[1]  Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. [2]  And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.   [NASU]

One of the notable features of Paul’s teaching is that he regularly combines doctrine with duty, belief with behavior. He insists both on the practical implications of his theology and on the theological foundations of his ethic. The ground of Paul’s appeal is indicated by his use of the conjunction therefore and by his reference to God’s mercy, literally His mercies in the plural, a Hebraism for the many and varied manifestations of His mercy. For eleven chapters Paul has been unfolding the mercies of God. It is, then, in view of the mercies of God that Paul issues his ethical appeal. There is no greater incentive to holy living than a contemplation of the mercies of God. God’s grace, far from encouraging or condoning sin, is the spring and foundation of righteous conduct. Having considered the objects and the ground of Paul’s appeal, we note its double nature. It concerns both our bodies and our minds, the presentation of our bodies to God and our transformation by the renewal of our minds.

(1) Our bodies. In order to maintain the sacrificial imagery throughout the sentence, Paul uses five more and less technical terms. He represents us as a priestly people, who, in responsive gratitude for God’s mercy, offer or present our bodies as living sacrifices. What, however, is this living sacrifice, this rational, spiritual worship? Paul is clear that the presentation of our bodies is our spiritual act of worship. No worship is pleasing to God which is purely inward, abstract and mystical; it must express itself in concrete acts of service performed by our bodies. Similarly, authentic Christian discipleship will include both the negative ‘mortification’ of our body’s misdeeds [8:13] and the positive ‘presentation’ of its members to God. So we are to offer the different parts of our bodies not to sin as ‘instruments of wickedness’ but to God as ‘instruments of righteousness’ [6:13,16,19].

(2) The second part of Paul’s appeal relates to our transformation according to His will. We are not to be conformed to the prevailing culture, but to be transformed. Both verbs are present passive imperatives and denote the continuing attitudes which we are to retain. We must go on refusing to conform to the world’s ways and go on letting ourselves be transformed according to God’s will. As for the change which takes place in the people of God, which is envisaged in Romans 12:2 and 2 Corinthians 3:18, it is a fundamental transformation of character and conduct, away from the standards of the world and into the image of Christ Himself. These two value systems (this world and God’s will) are incompatible, even in direct collision with one another. The two sets of standards diverge so completely that there is no possibility of compromise. How then does the transformation take place? Be transformed by the renewing of your mind. This is because only a renewed mind can test and approve, that is, discern, appreciate and determine to obey, God’s will. Although Paul does not here tell us how our mind becomes renewed, we know from his other writings that it is by a combination of the Spirit and the Word of God. Certainly regeneration by the Holy Spirit involves the renewal of every part of our humanness, which has been tainted and twisted by the fall, and this includes our mind [1 Cor. 2:14-15; 2 Cor. 5:17]. But in addition, we need the Word of God, which is the Spirit’s sword, and which acts as an objective revelation of God’s will. Here then are the stages of Christian moral transformation: first our mind is renewed by the Word and Spirit of God; then we are able to discern and desire the will of God; and then we are increasingly transformed by it. To sum up, Paul’s appeal is addressed to the people of God, grounded on the mercies of God, and concerned with the will of God. Only a vision of His mercy will inspire us to present our bodies to Him and allow Him to transform us according to His will.

Live Humbly Yet Significantly: Romans 12:3-8.

[3]  For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith. [4]  For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, [5]  so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. [6]  Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly: if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith; [7]  if service, in his serving; or he who teaches, in his teaching; [8]  or he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.   [NASU]

The link between Paul’s general appeal [1-2] and his particular instruction which now follows [3-8] seems to be the place of the mind in Christian discipleship. Our renewed mind, which is capable of discerning and approving God’s will, must also be active in evaluating ourselves, our identity and our gifts. For we need to know who we are, and to have an accurate, balanced and above all sober self-image. The fourfold repetition in the Greek sentence of the verb, ‘to think’, makes the emphasis unmistakable. We are to develop a sober judgment. How? First, by reference to our faith, and secondly by reference to our gifts. The measure of faith may mean a standard by which to measure ourselves. This standard is the same for all Christians, namely saving faith in Christ crucified. Only this gospel of the cross, indeed only Christ Himself in whom God’s judgment and mercy are revealed, can enable us to measure ourselves soberly.

If God’s gospel is the first measure by which we should evaluate ourselves, the second is God’s gifts. In order to enforce this, Paul draws an analogy between the human body and the Christian community. As one body, each member belongs to all the others [5b]. That is, we are dependent on one another, and the one-anotherness of the Christian fellowship is enhanced by the diversity of our gifts. This metaphor of the human body, which Paul develops in different ways in different letters, enables him here to hold together the unity of the church, the plurality of the members and the variety of their gifts. We have different gifts according to the grace given us [6a]. Paul proceeds to give his readers a sample of seven gifts, which he urges them to exercise conscientiously for the common good. He divides them into two categories, which might be called speaking gifts and service gifts. The first charisma Paul mentions here is prophesying, that is, speaking under divine inspiration. The prophet is to make sure that his message does not in any way contradict the Christian faith. Whatever ministry-gift people have been given, they should concentrate on using it. Similarly, teachers should cultivate their teaching gift and develop their teaching ministry. This is arguably the most urgently needed gift in the worldwide church today, as hundreds of thousands of converts are pressing into the churches, but there are few teachers to nurture them in the faith. Four more gifts are included in the next verse. The verb translated exhort [8a] has a wide spectrum of meanings, ranging from encouraging and exhorting to comforting, conciliating or consoling. Next, giving [8b] is to be done generously; with generosity, without grudging, with sincerity, without ulterior motives. Third, leadership [8c] whether in the home or in the church is to be done with diligence. Finally, showing mercy [8d] is to be done cheerfully. To show mercy is to care for anybody who is in need or in distress. All the lists of gifts in the New Testament [Rom. 12; 1 Cor. 12 and Eph. 4:11] agree on three things. First, the source of the gifts is God and His grace. Second, the purpose of the gifts is related to the building up of the body of Christ. Thirdly, all emphasize the variety of the gifts.

Do Good to All: Romans 12:14-21.

[14]  Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. [15]  Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. [16]  Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation. [17]  Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. [18]  If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. [19]  Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, "VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY," says the Lord. [20]  "BUT IF YOUR ENEMY IS HUNGRY, FEED HIM, AND IF HE IS THIRSTY, GIVE HIM A DRINK; FOR IN SO DOING YOU WILL HEAP BURNING COALS ON HIS HEAD." [21]  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.   [NASU]

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse [14]. There is no better way to express our positive wishes for our enemies welfare than to turn them into prayer and into action. Rejoice with those who rejoice; and weep with those who weep [15]. Love never stands aloof from other people’s joys or pains. Love identifies with them, sings with them and suffers with them. Love enters deeply into their experiences and their emotions, their laughter and their tears, and feels solidarity with them, whatever their mood. Be of the same mind toward one another [16a]. Be of the same mind and so live in agreement with one another. Once again we note the fundamental place occupied by our mind. Since Christians have a renewed mind, it should also be a common mind, sharing the same basic convictions and concerns. Do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be conceited [16b]. Few kinds of pride are worse than snobbery. What a comprehensive picture of Christian love Paul gives us! When we are moved by the mercies of God, and when our minds have been renewed to grasp his will, all our relationships become transformed.

The most striking feature of this final paragraph is that it contains four resounding negative imperatives: Do not curse [14]. Never pay back evil for evil [17]. Never take your own revenge [19]. Do not be overcome by evil [21]. All four prohibitions say the same thing in different words. Retaliation and revenge are absolutely forbidden to the followers of Jesus. In personal conduct we are never to get revenge by injuring those who have injured us. The Christian ethic is never purely negative, however, and each of Paul’s four negative imperatives is accompanied by a positive counterpart. Thus, we are not to curse but to bless [14]; we are not to retaliate, but to do what is right and to live at peace [17-18]; we are not to take revenge, but to leave this to God, and meanwhile to serve our enemies [19-20]; and we are not to be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good [21]. To refuse to repay evil is to refuse to inflame a quarrel. But this is not enough. We have also to take the initiative in positive peacemaking. To the negative of his third prohibition, Paul adds two positive counterparts. The first is to leave room for God’s wrath. The word for avenge means punishment. It corresponds to the verb in verse 19, do not take revenge. Similarly, the verb I will repay corresponds to do not repay in verse 17. It is used of God’s judgment. These verbal correspondences between what is written of God and what is forbidden to us make Paul’s point plain. The very two activities which are prohibited to us (retaliation and punishment) are now said to belong to God. The reason the repayment or judging of evil is forbidden to us is not that it is wrong in itself (for evil deserves to be punished and should be), but that it is God’s prerogative, not ours. If the first counterpart to do not take revenge is leave it to the wrath of God, the second is the command to serve our enemy. Our personal responsibility is to love and serve our enemy according to his needs, and genuinely to seek his highest good. The coals of fire this may heap on him are intended to heal, not to hurt, to win, not to alienate, in fact, to shame him into repentance. Thus Paul draws a vital distinction between the duty of private citizens to love and serve the evildoer, and the duty of public servants, as official agents of God’s wrath, to bring him to trial and, if convicted, to punish him. The fourth antithesis of good and evil, which is also a summary of Paul’s argument and the climax of the chapter, is verse 21. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. A stark alternative is set before us; no neutrality, no middle way is envisaged. If we curse [14], repay evil for evil [17] or take revenge [19], then, because all these are evil responses to evil, we have given in to evil, been sucked into its sphere of influence, and been defeated, overcome, even overpowered by it. But if we refuse to retaliate, we can instead take the offensive and practice the positive counterparts to revenge. Then, if we bless our persecutors [14], if we ensure that we are ourselves seen to be doing good [17], if we are active in peacemaking and peacekeeping [18], if we leave all judgment to God [19], and if we love and serve our enemy, and even win him over to a better mind [20], then in these ways we have overcome evil with good. To repay evil for evil is to be overcome by it; to repay good for evil is to overcome evil with good. This is the way of the cross. Such is the masterpiece of love.

Questions for Discussion:

1.          What is the connection between sound, biblical doctrine and Christian behavior that is pleasing to God?

2.          How does the renewing of your mind take place? Why is this necessary before we can prove or discern God’s will?

3.          Throughout his letters, Paul places great emphasis upon the truth that believers are united in Christ. Why is our unity in Christ so important? How does this truth impact the way we treat other believers?

4.          In 12:14-21, list the four negative imperatives that Paul gives us. Now list the four positive counterparts. How are we to overcome evil with good? Focus on one of these negative imperatives this week (e.g. do not take revenge). Seek, by God’s grace, to practice the good thing instead of giving in to the evil thing; to repay evil with good.


The Epistle to the Romans, John Murray, Eerdmans.

The Epistle to the Romans, Leon Morris, Eerdmans.

Romans, John Stott, Intervarsity.

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