As you know, this year we have been working through the book of 1 Corinthians, studying what it means to be the church. When Pastor Bob asked Chase and I to preach this week and next while he is on vacation, we quickly agreed that we wanted to preach a two-week mini-series related in some way to the overall theme of 1 Corinthians, rather than preaching two one-off messages. So, we prayed and planned, and ultimately felt led to Romans 12.
The book of Romans is one of the most profound theological texts ever written. For the first 11 chapters, Paul paints a deep, beautiful, theologically-rich picture of the gospel of Jesus Christ. How appropriate that we would come to this series immediately following Easter. The story of God’s redemption of His people – the story that climaxes in Good Friday and Easter Sunday – is the story of Romans 1-11.
In the first half of Romans, Paul explains that…
- 1:18 – God’s wrath is being poured out against all unrighteousness,
- 3:23 – Every person is wicked and sinful and fails to live up to God’s standards,
- 6:23a – The wages of the sinful, defiant life is death,
- 5:8 – BUT, God demonstrated His love for us in this, that while we were still sinners, His Son Jesus died for us, and
- 10:9 – If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
- 6:23b – To that person, God gives true, abundant and eternal life!
So, whatever else we talk about today, what I’ve said in the last 60 seconds is the most profound truth a human being could ever hear. If it’s new to you or you’ve never given your life to King Jesus, then don’t leave today without talking to me or one of the elders or the person you came with about who Jesus is and what it means to have a relationship with Him.
But Paul didn’t end his letter to the Roman church after chapter 11. Beginning in chapter 12, He turns his attention to instructing followers of Jesus in how to practically live out the truth of the gospel. So, for the next two weeks, as Christ-followers, that’s what we’re going to do as well. For this brief, two-week series, we will be living at the pivot point in the book of Romans – both physically and metaphorically in the two weeks after Easter.
Here’s the question we’ll be tackling together… Given Paul’s powerful theological arguments about sin and redemption and the story of the Gospel in the first half of Romans… What are the very next two things on Paul’s mind? What are the first two foundational steps he sees are required to live out the gospel in the second half of his letter? That’s the question we’ll be answer this and next week from the first few verses of Romans 12.
So pray with me, and we’ll dive in.
Prayer for illumination
Father, we gather together in your name today to hear from you. You know how I have wrestled and struggled with this passage, and how greatly I desire that we would hear from you and you alone. Thank you for your Word which teaches and for your Spirit which interprets and for your servant Paul who was himself the quintessential example of a living sacrifice, even for us and for our sakes thousands of years later.
Open our hearts so that we would hear from you. Make your word clear and alive to us. And quicken us so that we would eagerly submit to you. Clear our minds of the potential distractions each of us has inevitably brought with us to this place, and focus our attention. Make us fully available to you and to your instruction today, and make us doers of the word, not hearers only. Move in power among us, Lord, we pray, in Jesus’ name.
Read the Passage
Alright, open your bibles, if you would please to Romans 12, so you can follow along. Our passage today is just two verses, Romans 12:1-2. Please follow along as I read from the ESV…
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, 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. (Romans 12:1-2)
This is the kind of passage one can read quickly and think something like, “Got it, right. Live sacrificially, and do God’s will. Got it. What’s next?” But if you really stop to think about it, practically every word in here could be unpacked at great length, and I was tempted to do just that. But there just isn’t time. So, if you’ll permit me, especially in v1, I’d like to treat some of the peripheral word studies extremely briefly, then put it all back together to apply it. Everyone good with that?
Okay, here’s the big picture I think God has for us in this text…
God dreams big dreams for His kids. Once you’ve accepted Christ and committed your life to Him, God wants us to learn to dream His dreams after Him.
But what does that really mean and how do we do it? As I read this passage, I see three commands which lead us to a discernment of God’s will for us in this life and the power to realize it – what Paul says is good and acceptable and perfect. So, let’s dive in and let God’s Word shape us on this…
1. Present yourself as a living sacrifice (v1)
God’s mercy empowers us
Right out of the gate, Paul explicitly tells us how we are to receive this command: by the mercies of God. Nerds like me who sit around all day and study language would say that this “communicates instrumentality.” How do we obey Paul’s commands? Specifically by the instrument or means of God’s mercy. Paul is saying that it’s because of God’s grace, that we can do what God commands.
… To bring our entire lives to God
Okay, so we are empowered by God’s mercy to present our bodies as living sacrifices.
Wait, just our bodies? Sometimes Paul does use this term to mean one’s “physical body,” but it actually has a very broad range of meanings. In this instance, I doubt it’s his intention to communicate that we bring our bodies to God, leaving our minds or our wills or our dreams or our stuff or whatever else behind. I think it’s much more likely that this is Paul’s way of demanding that I bring “all of myself” to God.
… As a living sacrifice
“Living sacrifice” is the next term that needs defining. If you’ll bear with me, I’d like to start with “sacrifice” and come back to the “living” part.
a) Sacrifices are bloody – therefore costly.
The first thing I think Paul’s original readers would have been thinking about when Paul used the term “sacrifice” was blood. I suspect that if a Jew living in the first century were to read this letter, it would immediately bring to mind vivid images of the Old Testament sacrificial system. Even the gentiles of that day would have had more exposure to that system than we do. You and I quite literally cannot imagine what Paul’s readers would have effortlessly visualized here.
I think Paul evokes this bloody sacrifice imagery to communicate the cost of coming to God. It would have been very difficult for his original readers to think about all that blood and not feel the weight of the cost of sin and the sacrifices God demanded from them because of it.
b) Sacrifices are permanent – exchanges, not additions.
Secondly, sacrifices are permanent. You can’t sacrifice an animal twice. Once it’s dead, it’s dead. So, for example, let’s say you live in the suburbs of Rome. You have a favorite little pet ewe lamb that you feed leftovers and snuggle with and shear every spring to make another pair of socks.
You cannot take that lamb to the temple and sacrifice it one weekend, and then continue on with business as usual the next day. There’s no way to add “sacrifice” to the list of things you do with your ewe lamb. Either you do all those other things with it, or you sacrifice it. You can’t do both. You cannot add death to life. Sacrifice is therefore a life-for-death exchange, not an addition.
… that is holy and acceptable to God
Next, Paul qualifies the kind of sacrifice God demands from us. We are not called just to present sacrifices, but sacrifices which are “holy and acceptable to God.” Here again, I think Paul’s original readers would have had ready-made images and referents in their minds for what that means, probably better ones than we have. So, let’s unpack that a little.
a) Holy and acceptable sacrifices are without blemish.
In order to be accepted by the Lord, the animal sacrificed had to be “without blemish” (e.g. Lev 1:3). This means a “perfect” lamb or goat or pigeon – one with no perceptible defects. Not the one that was sick and likely to die this winter anyway, not the one who produced the least milk or couldn’t seem to produce offspring. The best lamb, not the worst one. The most productive goat, not the least. Your favorite pigeon, not the one you can’t stand. And sometimes, even the best, most productive, favorite animals didn’t make the “spotless” cut, and then what do you do?
Remember, in those days, people didn’t keep animals as pets or because they were cute or as a hobby – as we do. Clearly. Case in point…
They kept animals for food, to do work, and to provide clothing. The chickens and cows were food. The sheep were both food and clothes. The oxen plowed the fields. Etc.
These animals were the tangible means of survival. They were, quite literally, the terms in which a person’s wealth was measured. Imagine if – instead of 1’s and 0’s in a computer or dollars in a vault somewhere – your entire life savings, all your wealth, was measured in animals out in the barnyard next to your house. Say, for example, that you have 20 sheep, and only 3 of them would be deemed “spotless” by the priests at the temple. Now what? You get 3 rounds of atoning sacrifice, and then things started to get interesting.
Plus, you’re sacrificing a lamb that could have been used to feed your family. And none of that even gets into the various grain offerings or drink offerings or rules about when you could and couldn’t work or had to leave your fields fallow, etc.
Taking all this together, it’s pretty obvious that it was extremely costly to worship God in the Old Testament. Every day they gave up very real, very tangible resources to sacrifice to God, and they religiously observed days and whole seasons of resting and worshipping rather than working and producing. Many of their feasts lasted for weeks at a time. Even beyond the sacrifice of a single animal at the temple, how much food got consumed in a feast that could otherwise have been rationed to last for weeks or even months of everyday meals?! How much work got devoted to those feasts and festivals, rather than in producing more wealth?! How many animals were slaughtered and became food for the priests and burnt offerings rather than dinner for the worshiper’s family?
Bottom line… In no sense was it cheap or easy or casual to worship God and obey His law. Which leads us to another aspect of God-honoring sacrifice…
b) Holy and acceptable sacrifices are made in faith
Sacrifices were only acceptable to God if they were made from a heart of faith. We see that in Abel’s offering, when compared to Cain’s in Gen 4 (c.f. Hebrews 11:4). Abel brought his offering in faith where Cain did not, so his offering was acceptable to God, where Cain’s was not.
And imagine how much faith it took for God’s people to bring their costly offerings to God. It would take a lot of faith to choose to sacrifice a lamb to God to atone for sin when you were running low on lambs with which to feed your family.
And many throughout history have brought sacrifices to God which adhered to the letter of the Levitical law, but did not honor God in their hearts. Can you imagine how easy it would be to bring a perfect lamb to God (rather than having it for dinner) because you had to, not because your heart was in it … and then grumble secretly in your heart or even to your family behind closed doors while you ate ramen noodles for dinner instead of rack of lamb and mint jelly?! Well, the Israelites struggled with that just like we would. Over time many in Israel ended up observing all the right festivals and bringing choice animals for sacrifice, but God was unwilling to accept them because the hearts of the people did not match their actions. They went through the motions, but they didn’t have God’s heart. They did churchy stuff, but they didn’t truly trust God or desire righteousness or seek justice. But God was clear in Isaiah’s day and Paul is clear here: that kind of perfunctory worship is no worship at all.
Bottom line is that it is obedient faith that makes a sacrifice worthy and acceptable.
“Living Sacrifices” and “Spiritual Worship”
And that brings us to the last two terms in v1 which require unpacking: we are to be “living sacrifices” as our “spiritual worship.” You’ve been really patient with me as I’ve dug very briefly into the various terms Paul’s using in this verse, and now I’d like to put all that back together and apply this verse to us in our modern context.
So far we’ve seen in the verse that sacrifices which are holy and acceptable to God are:
- Bloody and permanent
- Exchanges, not additions
- Without blemish
- Extremely costly
- Made in faith
Here’s the question: So what? Why do we care? What does all this language about sacrifice have to do with us today? Didn’t Jesus die to put an end to all this killing animals to temporarily appease God?
Well, yes, but I think there’s more to it than that.
Paul is using this OT imagery to paint a picture of the Christian life. Remember, he’s talking to Christians in this passage. He’s using the picture of “holy and acceptable sacrifice” to define “spiritual worship.” Yes, Jesus paid for our sins once and for all. Yes, we no longer sacrifice animals while we wait for a savior. Yes, there is a new and different covenant that doesn’t involve animal sacrifice.
But worshipping God does require sacrifice! It always has and it always will.
I think it’s easy to mistakenly think that because Jesus paid it all – and He did! – that somehow we should have it easy. But Jesus was very clear that it costs everything to come to God (Matt 10:36-39, 13:44-46).
And that’s what I think Paul is saying in our passage. There’s a huge difference between grace being free to us (beyond our power to earn; Eph 2:8) and grace being cheap in general. There’s a difference between approaching God’s throne with confidence and freedom (Eph 3:12; Heb 4:16) and approaching it casually or carelessly. God is still unfathomably holy and infinitely majestic, and we are NOT. We are still to fear God. Nobody saunters into God’s presence as if it’s no big deal to be there.
One of the key points of this passage, I think, is that the sacrificial nature of worshipping God didn’t end with the OT sacrificial system. It changed, but didn’t end. Jesus specifically said that He did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matt 5:17). It’s easy to mistakenly believe that, because of Jesus’ sacrifice, the daily pouring out of the blood of sheep and goals has simply ceased or been abolished. But I think that’s missing the point. The law isn’t abolished, it’s fulfilled. We can now freely worship God the way we were meant to. But what does that look like? Just what it says in our text: by becoming living sacrifices.
The daily pouring out of the blood of sheep and goats has been transformed into the daily pouring out of our lives in worship to God.
We no longer slaughter animals to atone for sin, but we do put our sin to death. Because Jesus has spilled His blood, no more physical blood needs to be shed, but we give Him our lives in return, metaphorically spilling our blood every single day. And it’s not just sin that we present at God’s altar, it’s our hopes and dreams, our demands and desires, everything we have and everything we are. To worship God the way He deserves to be worshipped, we must bring Jesus everything. He gets our whole lives, and He gets them permanently. We don’t add Him to our lives, we exchange our lives for His. We bring our best, blemish-free offerings, not our leftovers or the parts of our lives we think we can live without. We hand Him the things in our lives we would most love to keep, and we do it in faith and with joy, not under obligation or grumbling at dinner after the fact.
This is spiritual worship. This is the life of a living sacrifice. We don’t die physically, but live on in an ongoing state of exchanging our lives for His.
Everything Belongs to Jesus
For the spiritual worshiper whose life is a living sacrifice, everything belongs to Jesus.
Now that’s somewhat easy to say, but it’s hard to do. Anyone who calls Jesus their savior would agree in theory that we should live sacrificial lives of worship, but that leaves us a ton of wiggle room in trying to apply it personally and specifically to our lives. So, let’s get practical and specific. We could talk about a lot of possible applications, but for the sake of time, let me zero in on two specific points of application which I think are particularly dangerous for us in our culture.
First, I think it’s human nature to zero in on the things we do the best for God and hold them up as examples about which we can feel profoundly spiritual and righteous, and with regard to which everyone else – quite frankly – should a) acknowledge our prowess and b) take it up a notch.
Not just the easy stuff
The life of sacrifice that Jesus calls us to isn’t about finding something God has conquered in our lives and then looking down on someone who still struggles in that area. It’s about loving that person more because you are grateful for the grace that God has given you. It’s about letting their struggles and blind spots serve as evidence and encouragement that you too have struggles and blind spots. And by definition, struggles are hard and blind spots are unseen. Just like they need you to help them with theirs, you need the rest of us to help you with yours. We become living sacrifices and spiritual worshipers when we spend less time judging others and more time being humbled and moved to love and serve them in their areas of weakness. Why? Because everything about our lives belongs to Jesus – not just the things we’re good at giving Him or that cost very little to give Him. He wants everything, even the hard stuff. Considering our strengths to be God’s to use for others’ benefit… Really loving and serving others even when we clearly see their struggles and weaknesses… That’s the hard stuff.
It’s a question of ownership
Being a living sacrifice is about answering the question, “Who owns my life and everything in it?” In large part, the Christian life is a question of ownership.
Take your car as an example. It’s not really your car. Whether you bought it or are leasing it or the bank still owns 90% of it or whatever… In reality, God owns your car and has asked you to temporarily steward it. You are His property manager, and you’re investing God’s resources on His behalf. So, that begs the question, why did God provide you with this car? When you get the next one, will you ask God what kind of car He wants and why? When was the last time you asked Him how He wants you to use His car? What is God’s dream for your car?
Or, what about the house God has given you to live in and expects you to steward for Him? All the same questions apply. You probably have dreams for your house and comfortable ways you live in it, but what is God’s dream for your house? And the rest of your stuff is the same.
What about your job? Whoever your boss is – whether you yourself are the boss or middle management or low person on the totem pole – ultimately, you work for God. Why did God give you that job? What goals has He set for you at work this year? What does God want you to do with your income? How are you learning to do your job the best you possibly can as a means of worshiping Him and proclaiming His Kingdom? How do you declare the truth of the gospel by virtue of the way you do your work? If you make shoes, I hope you make really great shoes. And if you sell those shoes, God expects you to do so at a fair price. If you provide a service, keep smiling and do more than is expected of you … every time, even when you’re tired. It is the Lord Christ you’re serving (Col 3:24)! Can people tell that you’re a Christian by the way you treat your coworkers and customers?
What about the activities your kids are in? Are those God’s dream or your kid’s or yours?
What about hobbies? Or relationships? Or your bank accounts? For what purpose did God give these to you? What are His plans and dreams for them?
Living sacrifices ask these kinds of questions as part of their spiritual worship! It’s hard for all of us. God knows, I do not stand up here as one who has this all mastered. I’m a fellow learner, but I’m a fellow learner who desperately wants all of us to honor God with our whole lives. And seeing God as the owner of our lives and our possessions, even the really hard stuff, is foundational to the Christian life. God does have dreams for our lives, and if we’re going to truly worship Him we need to see Him as the owner of our lives and make His dreams our overriding concern.
Here’s the thing, though… God isn’t the only one out there with dreams for our lives! The human heart is deceitful above all things, and Satan, who is very real, actively has his own designs on us, which we need to discern and resist. So, Paul isn’t done with this foundational passage yet. He has two more commands to help us distinguish God’s voice from all the competing voices.
Let’s keep going and check those out.
(By the way, these are going to come much more quickly now. I promise to have you out by supper tonight. I’d say 6pm at the latest.)
2. Resist the allure of this world (v2a)
Look back at the passage with me. Having expressed God’s expectation that we be living sacrifices, Paul commands us,
Do not be conformed to this world. (Rom 12:2a)
The rather disconcerting truth is that there are only two possibilities in life. Jesus said, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Luke 11:23). We either choose the world and it’s dreams for us or God and His dreams for us. There’s no third option. Even the dreams we would say are “ours” have to come from somewhere.
Consider this… The world is packed absolutely full of tantalizing opportunities for sin and idolatry. They beckon to us every single day … a thousand distracting and destructive voices all calling our names, all selling us their dreams, all promising life but trying to lead us to where it’s extremely dangerous and unprofitable for us to go. Paul is commanding us not to listen to them. There is a shape that resembles Jesus Christ and His Kingdom and His glory, and there is a shape which resembles this world and the evil powers who controls it. And our choices really do influence what we become. The dreams we choose to pursue shape us.
Borrowing from Ghandi:
Your dreams become your choices.
Your choices become your habits.
Your habits become your character.
Your character becomes your destiny.
Think about how easy it is to callously or carelessly forget God and disregard the questions we just talked about. If we do not seek God’s dreams and purposes for that which He graciously brings into our lives, then we are at great risk of receiving them selfishly or idolatrously or just plain foolishly, and investing them in the dreams of a sinful world or a corrupt and deceitful human nature, rather than the God who made and loves us.
In Greek mythology, there was a creature called a “siren.” Those of you who were in my winter elective a few weeks ago already know that I find this image instructive. Sirens were mermaid-like creatures who – according to legend – dressed scantily and sang beautifully and hung out on rocks in dark corners of the ocean, beckoning to passersby. The crew of any ship which inadvertently strayed too close to the sirens’ domain could get mesmerized by their song and dragged off course, into the shallows, where their ship was dashed on the rocks. Once the ship was floundering and unable to escape, the sirens would switch from singing beautifully to tearing their victims apart … and then eat them. A charming tale to be sure. But this is exactly the nature of sin and the kingdom of this world.
B. Sirens are both subtle and seductive
The problem with the sirens is that they’re both subtle and seductive. Most of the ways we can be conformed to the image of this world aren’t nearly as clear and obvious as we’d like. Many of the world’s dreams seem very attractive while they’re singing beautifully to you from a distance, and don’t reveal their true nature until you’re up close, ship sinking, and being attacked by monsters. Like the fruit in the garden of Eden, many things in this world seem like they would fulfill us, or be delightful to the eyes, or be able to make us wise (see Gen 3:6). But in the end they bring pain and death. Life is full of fatally-attractive sirens who must be avoided, even at great cost to our comfort or to the sense that we fit in well in this world.
In fact, I think there are two ways in which this world’s subtlety and Satan’s craftiness are especially threatening to us in our day.
C. There are no acceptable sins
First, our culture, even among faithful bible-believing, church-going Christians, is rife with acceptable sins. We tend to think that it’s “the big sins” that threaten us. And we tend to overlook infractions of God’s law that we’ve somehow become convinced are minor. We have a tendency to think thoughts like, “It’s not like I’ve ever killed anybody” or “It’s not like I’m hurting anybody else” or “At least I’m not as bad as so-and-so”.
In our culture, sins like drug abuse or marital infidelity or bank robbery get all the press, while workaholism, persistent exposure to R-rated media (or worse), and pirating music and movies doesn’t even register. When was the last time we wept and fasted and prayed because we just can’t shake a spirit of unforgiveness or an overly-judgmental attitude or rampant selfishness? There are tons of ways for greed or bitterness or pride or anger to become chronic wasting diseases of the soul, but because we are able to put on happy faces for a few hours on Sunday morning, they go completely undiagnosed, let alone treated. And we have a nearly infinite capacity to rationalize or rename our sin – from “hatred” to “frustration,” from “gossip” to “prayer concern,” from “bitterness” to “mourning,” etc.
These sins may not seem like a big deal, but neither does the siren’s song until you find out that you’re not being serenaded, you’re being invited over for dinner … in the bad way. This is precisely what Paul is warning us against. We cannot allow ourselves to be shaped by subtle, deceptive sin. A life that fits increasingly in the mold of this world – a life increasingly conformed to its image rather than the image of Christ – is at great risk, even of hell. Jesus said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.” (Matt 5:29) Jesus, for one, wasn’t really into subtly.
Even Christians, in our culture, have a tendency to think (whether than can articulate it or not) that, once we “have Jesus,” we don’t need to be careful how we live or watch out for singing merfolk. Not so! In fact, I would ask (and so does Scripture): What does it even mean to “have Jesus” and not obey the commands that Paul is setting before us in this passage? Doesn’t our gratitude for our redemption require a greater concern for holiness, not less? Remember that Paul is talking here to those who claim the name of Christ, and he insists that they live intentionally and resist the world’s seductive allure as a part of their worship to God. That message is no less applicable to us today.
D. If we drift unintentionally, we end up on the rocks
And there’s a second reality which I think gets lost in our culture. Not only is the allure of its sirens subtle… Not only can it pull us unwittingly toward danger… But the scary truth of our fallen world is that the natural current of the water leads to them as well. In other words, you don’t necessarily have to intentionally steer toward the sirens to end up on the rocks. All it takes is carelessness or distraction. If you don’t intentionally set a true course and actively steer away from the danger… If you just let the boat drift… Then you end up on the rocks just as surely as if you had set out to find them. In the journey of life, careless, unintentional drift often arrives at the same destination as willful disobedience.
J.I. Packer puts it this way…
As gardeners know to their cost, weeds choke the growth of healthy flowers. They flourish spontaneously, where seeds carefully sown die almost before they are sprouted. And in the fallen human heart this story is similar. Prejudice, distortions and malicious fantasies luxuriate there, while sober truth has to struggle and struggle hard to get a look in.
–J. I Packer, Taking God Seriously
The weeds grow up easily and naturally, but the flowers must be carefully planted, nurtured, and cared for. They require ongoing investment to ensure that they develop properly. And even then, a real enemy is actively working to sow weeds among the good plants. So it’s guaranteed that if you just throw seed out into the garden and leave it there unattended, after a couple months, you’ll have a garden full of weeds with a few flowers mixed in.
Unattended and unintentional…
- Gardens drift toward weeds,
- Ships drift toward sirens, and
- Christians drift toward conformity to this world.
3. Submit to the Spirit’s transforming work (v2b)
So, how do we keep from being pulled off course? How do we know whose dream we’re living? I suggest that we cannot accurately answer these questions by ourselves. Look back at the passage. Paul gives us the answer…
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.
The best way to chart the right course is to ask a guide who knows the waters and knows where it’s best to sail. The best way to resist the song of the sirens on the high seas is to get a new song in your head and steer well clear of the sirens. The best way to identify God’s dreams is to ask Him what they are.
Paul would say that all this happens when we allow God to transform our minds. We have to learn to adopt God’s dreams and goals for us. We have to learn to identify sinful distractions and misdirection, and walk away. Even the subtle sins. Even sins the world would say are no big deal. Even the ones our flesh finds really attractive. And none of this happens because we clench our fists and try really hard. It’s all the result of the Spirit’s work to transform us. Our role is to submit to what God is already doing.
God’s desire is to prepare us for eternity with Him. He has no interest in our “fitting in” in this world. But He does want us to fit in in heaven. So He is about the difficult, transforming work of making that possible. And while we are on that journey, none of us is qualified on our own to decide what is right and wrong, or on which heading to steer the ship. That’s what got Adam and Eve into trouble in the garden in the first place: they thought they had the authority and the ability to judge. But only God has the right and the knowledge and the perspective to set our course. We simply aren’t qualified. So, unless we allow Him to teach us where to steer the ship, the journey will end badly.
It should come as no surprise to us as living sacrifices that we are being called to resist this world and allow our thinking to be transformed by God’s Spirit. Doesn’t it seem obvious that these are postures that “living sacrifices” and “spiritual worshipers” would take? The question is how we accomplish it.
I submit that God has given us all the tools we need to experience the radical transformation of our thinking, to resist the world’s influence, and to honor God with our whole lives as living sacrifices. The way I see it, there are three tools…
A. God’s Word is a Lamp
First, the Word of God is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Ps 119:105). It is living and active (Heb 4:12), and vital for our training and spiritual development (2 Tim 3:16-17). If we are not actively seeking God’s voice in God’s word, then we position ourselves very poorly to be transformed by it. We don’t get into God’s word every day because we’re supposed to, but because there is no other blueprint for how life is supposed to be lived. Jesus once asked Peter if he wanted to turn back from being His disciple, and Peter answered, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Well, I’d say the same thing to anyone navigating on the seas of this life: To what else would you go, when you have the Scriptures, the words of life, to light your way?
Plus, the Bible isn’t a book, it’s the living word of God. If you were to sit down with God for breakfast this morning across a giant stack of pancakes, He wouldn’t have anything new to say. God is actively speaking to you any time you open this book. And in it, He tells you how to live, and how to steer the ship. But more importantly, in Scripture, God gives us Himself. And He uses His word to transform our minds, and conform us to His image.
See also: Ps 119:105; Heb 4:12; 2 Tim 3:16-17
B. God’s people are a Mirror
Secondly, the People of God are a mirror. Whether it’s the person next to you at church this morning or someone who loved and served God 1,000 years ago, other people help us see who we really are and what God is doing in us. We need to be open about who we are, what we’re feeling, where we struggle, what we fear, when we’re tempted and when we succumb to temptation. We need each other! In fact, I would go so far as to say, and I suspect this is controversial in our highly individualist culture, that you cannot truly understand yourself or God’s Word sitting alone in your basement. You need God’s people to help you see yourself and hear God’s voice.
This is why we want people to be in community groups and life groups, prayer cords and discipleship relationships. These aren’t programs. They aren’t creative ways to take up another couple nights of your week with churchy activities. They are the crucibles in which we work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12-13) … together. They’re the context in which God transforms us. They’re where real spiritual life happens. Don’t miss out on that!
See also: 2 Sam 12:1-15; Eccl 4:9-12; Jas 5:13ff
C. God’s Spirit is a Guide
And lastly, the Spirit of God is our Guide. The Person and work of the Holy Spirit in our lives is topic enough for a dozen sermons. But in brief, it is the Spirit who does the actual work of transformation in our hearts and minds – not from the outside, but from the inside, as He dwells within the person who has given themselves to God. It is the Spirt who uses God’s Word and God’s People to change us and make us more like Jesus. It is the Spirit who interprets what we read in Scripture or how we process sermons like this one. It is the Spirit who helps us to pray, and who prays for us even when we don’t know what to say for ourselves. And it is the Spirit who reveals to us God’s will and His character.
So much of the Christian life is about submitting to and cooperating with the work the Spirit is doing in our hearts and in our world. If you have heard in this message some kind of formula for how you can independently live the Christian life, you’ve misheard. We aren’t given power by God to live independently; on the contrary, the Christian life is about living in increasing dependence on the Spirit. Our goal is to submit, to bow the knee, to become available to what God is already doing in our lives, no matter what it costs. That is precisely what it means to be a living sacrifice, as we carefully avoid the distractions of this world and joyfully welcome God’s transforming work within us.
Indwelled by the Spirit and transformed by His work in us, we develop the capacity to discern God’s will, to know what His dreams are for us. This is how we answer the questions living sacrifices ask! This is how we know what course to set for the ship!
See also: Rom 8:1-11; John 14:15ff; Isa 61
How do I live the way we’ve discussed this morning? By the Word of God and the people of God and the Spirit of God.
So, God has big dreams for your life.
God’s good, acceptable and perfect will for you is to put your faith in His Son, who died for your sin and to reconcile you to God.
He dreams that we would choose life with Him, to give our lives entirely to Him and to acknowledge His ownership of everything we are and have and do. Not a commitment made today that grows fuzzy and fluid over the course of years, but a commitment made every moment of every day until we see Him face-to-face.
He dreams that we would resist the world’s attempts to squeeze us into its mold and submit ourselves to Him as His Spirit transforms us into the image of His Son, which is SO much greater.
The Christian life is an adventure like no other. Accept no substitutes! Don’t let anything get in the way of truly walking with God. Question your assumptions. And put everything on the table when it comes to following Christ. Whatever God calls you to sacrifice for the sake of becoming more like Jesus, I promise – and more importantly, God has promised – it’ll be worth it.
Father, no matter how seriously we study your word or how attentive we are to your commands or how willing we are to obey you, we are powerless to be who you’ve made us to be on our own. Thank you for rescuing us from our rebellion and wickedness, and setting our feet on a Rock. Thank you for giving us a future and a hope. Thank you for your Word and your Church and your Spirit. We stand in awe of your love for us and that you would stoop down to have a plan and purpose and dream for our lives!
Do in us whatever it takes that we might know you and become more like you. Protect us from the temptation and allure of this world and keep us from thoughtless worldliness and careless drift. Empower and transform us that we might be living sacrifices and true worshippers, for the sake of your glory and your kingdom.
Teach us to dream your dreams after you. Transform our minds, Lord, that we might have your heart and you might have ours. We ask all these things in Jesus’ name.
And all God’s people said, “Amen.”