The Church from the Inside Toward the Outside

The appeals of this chapter are given to the church as a whole and the individual members as they relate to the whole. As a body they are a community that represents on earth the continuance of the life of Christ. The church is still called to suffer, even as Christ suffered, and not to return reviling for reviling. God has given gifts of grace to create both unity and growth in the body of the redeemed and to enable perseverance in godliness. While the church is not of the world, it is, nevertheless, in the world. Not only must the church avoid retaliatory measures, it must learn to appreciate common grace when it is manifest in the non-Christian culture.


I. Romans 12:1, 2 – “By the Mercies of God:” Paul surveys mentally all the mercies that have been displayed in effectual power to bring together the redeemed community—mercy to the circumcised and to the uncircumcised. From his initial discussion of the devastation wrought by sin all the way through the divine plan—involving unsearchable wisdom and power—of redemption according to an eternal purpose, Paul brings salvation to bear on the present life of believers in community.

A. These mercies have been displayed in such a way that each believer should realize that he is not his own for he has been purchased by Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice. Our redeemed lives, as the purchase of blood, no longer are to be used in the service of sin, Satan, this world, or what we might even mistakenly see as neutral self-interest.

B. Paul thus calls on believers by means of a rational contemplation in surveying these mercies to give the entire life as a sacrifice. Had we not been redeemed, we would be our own sin-bearer and the death symbolized by the death of the sacrificial victims would be ours. We are, therefore, already a sacrifice but now, still living, we can reflect the holy, well-pleasing aspect of that unblemished life lived before God, unsusceptible to his wrath.

C. This view of rationally considered worship leads to a transformation of life. Instead of continuing to allow the values of this age press us into its mold, the truth of God rescues us from the present evil age [Galatians 1:4 “this present evil age;” Colossians 1:13 “the kingdom of darkness”]. Such meditation truly transforms the mind, leads to an eschewing of the values of the world, and gives the redeemed person insight more and more into that which is intrinsically good, acceptable, and perfect. In this lies the will of God.


II. Romans 12:3-8 – To accomplish this transformation God has granted to his people gifts of grace. By these they advance the body of Christ in this world in expressing the beauty and transforming power of Christ in his redeeming mercy. The gifts that are given cover a variety of necessary functions for the comprehensive wholeness of the body’s vigorous development.

A. On the basis of God’s gift to him, [“By the grace given to me” (3)] Paul appeals to them.

  1. Paul never flagged in assuming his apostolic authority both for the evangelizing of unreached areas and the maturing of those that are already reached. Romans 15:16-21 he discussed his apostolic calling and gifts for evangelizing the Gentiles. In 16: 25-27 he re-emphasized that his “preaching of Jesus Christ” was made possible by “the revelation of the mystery kept secret since the world began, but now made manifest.” He, therefore, according to apostolic revelation and his personal responsibility for the Gentiles, issued these instructions to them about their gifts, instructing them concerning the context in which each gift should find its maximum usefulness.
  2. None are to assume more for themselves than God has given them. They must think soberly and learn to discern between that which is consistent with the truth and that which is the result of vain ambition. Some might want more influence and a greater display of public ministry than God has assigned them; they must be able to discern that which is spiritual in their desires from that which is self-serving and carnal.

B. 12:4, 5 – These gifts are given, not for the acclamation of any single individual, but for the health and growth of the entire body. This image of the body carries with it a dynamic that Paul finds useful in other places. 1 Corinthians 12 gives an extended discussion of this in relation to the sovereignty of the Spirit. Ephesians 4 carries through the same theme but focuses mor explicitly on the work and will of Christ. Granting of gifts follows necessarily from the completion of Christ’s redemptive work in his ascension. It seems as if God created the human body in the way it is for the express purpose of reflecting the interdependence of all the redeemed on one another and all together on the head. Christ himself, as the Head, sends gifts to the members of the body through the Spirit.

C. 12:5-8 – Each person discerns, through sober judgment, how his gifts are appropriately developed within the context of causing the entire body to grow and mature in spirituality and divine knowledge. Peter joins the chorus in unison with Paul in saying, “As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (1 Peter 4:10). Note that each has received a gift; it is for the god of others; we are stewards of it having received the property of another to be used faithfully and profitably; Each of the various parts of God’s many-hued grace is necessary for the full light of his favor to be expressed in the body.

  1. He should concentrate on the use of that gift and exploit its maximum potential. Recognizing, therefore, the sovereignty of God in the dispensing of these gifts. “Having gifts that differ” indicates that a number of issues need to be addressed in the sanctification of the body, and God has made provision for that. “According to the grace given us, let us use them” indicates that each gift comes from the sovereign disposal of God and each involves at least some element of supernatural endowment for the successful operation of the gift. There may also be natural turn of temperament and natural talents involved in the way God has distributed these gifts. None should be envious of the gift given to another, but zealous, loving and grateful in the execution of what is granted to us.
  2. Paul delineates the spirit in which some of these gifts should be put into practice.
  • Prophecy, that is the reception of special revelation concerning new covenant truths for the instruction of the whole community, must not exceed the bounds of what one knows is received from God. The “analogy, standard, or proportion” of faith according to which one prophesies combines both a subjective and an objective aspect. Its subjective aspect concerns the personal knowledge that a person has of prior revelation and the degree of assurance he has in the certainty of his having received revelation. The objective aspect concerns the nature of conformity to previous revelation, its prophecies, its standards of conduct, its Christ-centeredness. It must never be at odds with those things already revealed and received [See Ephesians 3:4, 5; 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22; 1 Corinthians 14:37-39]. In Deuteronomy 13:1 ff and 18:18-22, Moses gave instructions about true and false prophets. As indicated in Hebrews 1:1-3, Jesus fulfilled Moses words about the prophet to come. He gave the apostles and prophets to the church for the completion of his messianic office of prophet.
  • So with each of the other gifts, Paul is instructing each to find a way to maximize the usefulness of that gift; concentrate on all the manifestations it could have within the body and pursue it with a spirit that reflects the joy of being among the redeemed of God. The one who has the gift of service find his conformity to Christ in being, like Christ, a servant. If one has the gift of teaching, he emulates Christ and glorifies him in the content and spirit of his teaching. If one has the gift of exhortation, he knows that Christ is full of exhortation for his people, both to encourage them to press forward and to comfort them in trial. The one who gives never can outgive Christ “who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from this present evil age” (Galatians 1:4). Nor can the generosity of the Father be surpassed who gave his only-begotten Son. The one who has the gift of leadership should do it in a way that guides the church into greater service to Christ and more efficient use of time and talent. The one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. When Jesus died in the ultimate act of divine mercy, it is said, “who, for the joy set before him, endured the cross while despising its shame.” The shame of the cross in the eyes of men was relegated to nothing in comparison to the joy of pleasing his Father and saving his people. With what joy did our Redeemer go through death and hell to gain us and did it with the joy set before his eyes. In that way the gift of mercy should function.


III. Romans 12:9-13 – While each person exhibits the peculiar traits of his gifts with a zeal and purity that edifies the body, and none seeks to usurp the functions of another’s gifts, some things should be characteristic of all persons in the body.

A. Reciprocal relationships within the body should be true demonstrations of love. The more we understand the love of God in the giving of his Son and as a manifestation of his internal nature, then the more will mutual relations be affected by that knowledge. Let love be genuine, without hypocrisy, without dissimulation.

B. Everything opposed to love will, therefore, be excluded. Our expressions of love will mount to the highest degree of unselfish giving in consideration of the spiritual family relationship. Evil should never engage our affections but must be the object of hate perfected by holiness.

  1. We should show deference and honor to one another in matters of personal interaction and engagement. Brotherly love in the Christian community transcends the kind of love that is powerful and happy in natural relationships. Far beyond sharing common blood relations in family, Christians have been bought with the blood of Christ.
  2. We should manifest zeal for the common cause, fervency in spirit, continual consciousness of our service to Christ in all these issues.
  3. Christian work often is difficult and is contrary to the broader culture, so requires patience under difficult circumstances. One powerful aspect of help as Christians remain steadfast under tribulation is the reality of hope (1 John 3:1-3; Titus 2:12, 13; Romans 8:24, 25)., constancy in prayer.
  4. Times of trial require extra measures of loving assistance and awareness of how the needs of brothers in Christ may be met. How and when to contribute to specific needs and the readiness to show hospitality may be welcome relief to sisters and brothers under trial. All Christians, no matter what their peculiar gift, may cultivate and practice these things.


IV. Romans 12:14-21 – In the way that relationships within the congregation of believers should be manifestation of specific gifts for the edifying of the body and corporate graces that build mutual edification, so the Christian’s relation with those outside the congregation should reflect a merciful, sympathetic disposition. It seems to me that all of these admonitions concern how best to present a witness to the world of the consequences and glory of redemption. Verse 21 in the summary statement, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

A. 12:14 – In a condition of persecution, the Christian must not seek any means of retaliation, but find ways to bless those that are so blind as to harm the good and godly. Christ did this, and as his body in this world, still prior to the time that he will come in judgment, we must continue his attitude of willingness to suffer with the knowledge that out of those that persecute, God intends to make some of them his people. God himself will accomplish the vengeance when the day comes and until then we must consider the ongoing patience of God as salvation, for none of his elect will perish, but he will indeed call them. When they come he will draw them from among those that presently scoff and deride.

  1. The Thessalonian Christians were encouraged by Paul with the reality that the coming judgment of God would bring to light the glory of God in his infliction of perfect justice on those who persecuted them. Also, he would give his chosen ones perfect rest (2 Thessalonians 1:5-10).
  2. Peter indicates that God presently is patient even with those who scoff, deride, insult, and persecute Christians because from that number he is yet to call his elect to repentance. (2 Peter 3:8-15).
  3. Even as stones rained down on Stephen, he prayed for his killers (Acts 7:58-60), among whom was the proud Saul of Tarsus. In God’s own time (Galatians 1:13, 15). Saul was drawn to a saving knowledge of Christ in order that “Christ might show all longsuffering as a pattern to those who are going to believe on him for everlasting life” (1 Timothy 1: 16).

B. 12:15, 16 – We must show complete sympathy with those who suffer trouble that comes to all in common and experience the joys of common humanity. As we are in the world, we must show that we are not haters of those things that give us a common sense of dependence on stability of economy, political justice, etc. We can find joy in living in harmony with others in the world in those things that do not violate God’s commandments, put us into a position of idolatry or immorality, or destroy a robust sense of holiness. Since God has saved us when we were without hope, we must demonstrate compassion toward the lowly and never show a haughty or arrogant spirit toward the downcast of society.

C. 12:17-21 – Within the world of evil and opposition, some remnants of common grace still peek through.

  1. God has not given us the responsibility to take vengeance. He has reserved that for the properly elected officials [the subject he deals with in Romans 13] and for himself in the end [19]. We do not, therefore, need to seek ways to measure how to achieve the most accurate way to even the score with our opponents or persecutors.
  2. We must show that we “respect what is right in the sight of all men” (17). We sow and reap, we buy and sell, we receive wages and pay wages, we depend on good service and seek to give good service for the common good, we admire heroism, virtue, strength and talent wherever it is displayed.
  3. Our goal is to seek to live peaceably with all (18). The picture of mercy under the pressure of unjust opposition (19), of acts of kindness in the face of hostility strikes a chord deep within each person’s humanity as one’s enemies find no reason to justify their aggressive attempts to bring to combustion an attempt to destroy. Coals of fire are heaped on their heads (20).
  4. Though some may be so far gone into hatred that even the return of kindness will only further infuriate them and might result in greater and more intense persecution, the Christian’s commitment to good, rather than evil, is not merely pragmatic.
  • It is an absolute that we gain from our observation of how Christ conducted himself toward his oppressors (John 18:33-38; 1 Peter 2:21-25).
  • It is a response to the redemptive reality that Christ in dying, in submitting himself to his smiters, wrought salvation. “For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die, yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us . . . When we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son” (Romans 5:6-10).
  1. As God’s children, we can be sure that his care is perfect, and when vengeance is ripe for the oppressors of his children, his vengeance will be perfect, multiplied according to their hatred, not only of us, but of his truth, his gospel, his Son, and his glory.


Thus Romans 12 gives a concentrated look at how divine mercy constitutes a new community. It is in the world but not of the world. This community strengthens itself from within by an increasing awareness of the nature of the saving mercies of God, and by the faithful stewardship of grace-gifts for the building up of the body of Christ. This strengthening gives spiritual competence to live in the world and be salt and light as the redeemed community continues to fill up in its body that which remains of the sufferings of Christ (Colossians 1:24).

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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