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Romans 12

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

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Verse 1

"Therefore" draws a conclusion from all that Paul had presented so far, not just chapters 9-11. This is clear from what he proceeded to say. The charge rises out of humankind’s universal condemnation by God (Romans 3:20), the justification that God has provided freely (Romans 5:1), and the assurance of acceptance that the believing sinner can have (Romans 8:1). Because of all this, it is only reasonable to present our lives to God as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1). In particular, the exhortation to present ourselves to God in Romans 6:13; Romans 6:19 is in view.

Exhortation now replaces instruction. Urging (Gr. parakaleo) lies between commanding and beseeching. It ["I urge you"] is "one of the tenderest expressions in all the Bible." [Note: J. P. McBeth, Exegetical and Practical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, p. 229.] Paul used parakaleo about 50 times in his epistles. Probably he did not command his readers because the attitude with which one presents himself or herself to God is crucial. The apostle did not want his readers to comply because he had commanded them to do so, but because they wanted to because of what God had done for them. Therefore he made his appeal as strong as possible without commanding. He had previously commanded this conduct (Romans 6:13; Romans 6:19).

". . . I BESEECH YOU - What an astonishing word to come from God! From a God against whom we had sinned, and under whose judgment we were! What a word to us, believers,-a race of sinners so lately at enmity with God,-’I beseech you!’" [Note: Newell, p. 447. Cf. Philemon 1:9-10; 2 Corinthians 5:20.]

The phrase "the mercies of God," (NASB) refers to all that Paul revealed in this epistle that God has done for the believer. Paul used the singular "mercy" in the Greek text evidently because of his recent exposition of God’s mercy in Romans 11:30-32. Mercy denotes the quality in God that led Him to deliver us from our sin and misery. It contrasts with grace. Mercy expresses deliverance from condemnation that we deserve, and grace describes the bestowal of blessings that we do not deserve. Paul called us to sacrifice ourselves to God because He has been merciful to us. In pagan religions of Paul’s day the worshippers typically first offered sacrifices to secure the mercy of the gods. That is unnecessary in Christianity because God has taken the initiative.

Hebrew thought viewed the body as the representation of the whole person. Paul was urging the presentation of the whole person, not just the outer shell (cf. Romans 6:13). [Note: Cranfield, 2:598-99; Griffith Thomas, St. Paul’s Epistle . . ., p. 324.] However, the body does stand in antithesis to the mind in Romans 12:2 so the physical body does seem to be what Paul was stressing particularly. [Note: Liddon, p. 228; D. Edmond Hiebert, "Presentation and Transformation: An Exposition of Romans 12:1-2," Bibliotheca Sacra 151:603 (July-September 1994):314.] Jewish priests needed to present themselves without blemish as sacrifices to God before they could serve Him (cf. Malachi 1:8-13). The same is true in Christianity. The believer priest’s whole life needs to be given over to the Lord (cf. Leviticus 1). We need to separate from sin to God. This is the essence of holiness (cf. Romans 6:19). This kind of sacrifice is acceptable to God and pleases Him.

Some scholars claim that the tense of the verb "present" or "offer" (aorist in Greek) presupposes a decisive offering made once-for-all. [Note: E.g., Harrison, p. 127.] Others say that the aorist tense does not carry the once-for-all meaning and that Paul simply meant that we should make this offering, without implying how often. [Note: E.g., Moo, p. 750.] In view of the nature of the commitment that Paul called for it seems that we should make it decisively as often as we desire. What the Christian needs to present is his or her life for service to God. In Israel the whole burnt offering, which represented the entire person of the offerer (Leviticus 1), burned up completely on the altar. The offerer could not reclaim it because it belonged to God. Paul implied that this should also characterize the Christian’s self-sacrifice.

"The sacrifices of the new order do not consist in taking the lives of others, like the ancient animal sacrifices, but in giving one’s own (cf. Hebrews 13:15-16; 1 Peter 2:5)." [Note: Bruce, p. 213.]

"Spiritual service of worship" (NASB) or "reasonable service" (AV) means that the sacrifice should be thoughtful and deliberate. The animals in Jewish sacrifices could not offer themselves this way because they were animals. There are many ways in which we can worship God, but this is the most fundamental and important way. This service of worship should precede all other service of worship or else worship and service are superficial. Two notable examples of this decisive dedication of self are Isaac (Genesis 22) and our Lord Jesus Christ (John 6:38). Both individuals allowed themselves to be bound and offered up as sacrifices.

Verses 1-2

A. Dedication to God 12:1-2

Romans 12:1-2 of chapter 12 deal with the Christian’s most important relationship: his or her relationship to God. These verses are both parallel to the sections to follow that deal with the Christian’s conduct, and they introduce them. Our relationship to God is foundational and governs all our other conduct. Paul had already called for the Christian to present himself or herself to God (Romans 6:13; Romans 6:19). Now he repeated that duty as the Christian’s most imperative obligation. He had also spoken of false worship and corrupted minds (Romans 1:25; Romans 1:28). This exhortation ties into these two former passages especially.

Verses 1-13


In contrasting chapters 1-11 with chapters 12-16 of Romans, perhaps the most important distinction is that the first part deals primarily with God’s actions for humanity, and the last part deals with people’s actions in response to God’s. This is an oversimplification of the book, but the distinction is a valid one. God’s provision contrasts with man’s responsibility to behave in a manner consistent with what God has done, is doing, and will do for him (cf. Ephesians 4:1; Philippians 2:12-13). The first part is more information for belief whereas the last part is more exhortation for action. The first part stresses right relations with God and the last part right relations with other people.

"Doctrine must always precede exhortation since in doctrine the saint is shown his exalted position which makes the exhortation to a holy life, a reasonable one, and in doctrine, the saint is informed as to the resources of grace he possesses with which to obey the exhortations." [Note: Kenneth S. Wuest, Romans in the Greek New Testament for the English Reader, p. 204.]

Essentially this exhortation, which is both positive and negative, deals with behavior within the spheres of life where the believer lives. These areas are his or her relationship to God, to other members of the body of Christ, and to the civil state. There is a general correspondence here with the instruction that God gave the Israelites through Moses for life in Israel. Paul dealt with the same areas of life: moral, religious and civil life. The differences with the Mosaic Code are as striking as the similarities. Romans does not contain all the Law of Christ (Galatians 6:2), but each of the other New Testament books makes its unique contribution to our understanding of God’s will for Christians.

"One of the most striking features of Romans 12:1 to Romans 15:13 is the way in which its various themes resemble teaching that Paul gives elsewhere [cf. Romans 12:1-2 and Ephesians 4:17-24; Romans 12:3-8 and 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4:11-17; Romans 12:9-21 and 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12 and 1 Corinthians 13; Romans 13:8-10 and Galatians 5:13-15; Romans 13:11-14 and 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Romans 14:1 to Romans 15:13 and 1 Corinthians 8-10]." [Note: Moo, p. 745.]

Chapters 12-13 give directions for Christian conduct generally, and Romans 14:1 to Romans 15:13 deals with a specific problem that the Roman Christians faced and which all Christians share.

Verse 2

Romans 12:1 deals with making the commitment and Romans 12:2 with maintaining it.

"The first verse calls for an explicit act; the second commands a resultant lifelong process. These verses are a call for an act of presentation and the resultant duty of transformation." [Note: Hiebert, "Presentation and . . .," p. 312.]

Both activities are important. The present tense in the Greek text of Romans 12:2 indicates our continuing responsibility in contrast to the aorist tense in Romans 12:1 that stresses a decisive act. The "world" (Gr. aion) is the spirit of our age that seeks to exclude God from life (1 John 2:15). The world seeks to "squeeze you into its own mold." [Note: J. B. Phillips’ paraphrase.] The Christian should be continually renewing his or her mind by returning mentally to the decision to dedicate self to God and by reaffirming that decision. This continual rededication to God will result in the transformation of the Christian into Christ’s image (Romans 8:29; cf. Mark 9:2-3). A daily rededication is none too often.

"This re-programming of the mind does not take place overnight but is a lifelong process by which our way of thinking is to resemble more and more the way God wants us to think." [Note: Moo, p. 757.]

The Holy Spirit is the unidentified transformer that Paul set in contrast to the world (Romans 8:9-11; cf. Matthew 17:1-2; 2 Corinthians 3:18; 2 Corinthians 6:17-18; 2 Corinthians 7:1; Colossians 3:9-10; 1 Thessalonians 5:23; Titus 3:5). "Prove" or "test and approve" involves evaluating and choosing to practice what is the will of God instead of what the world recommends (cf. Ephesians 5:8-10). We clarify what God’s will for us is by rededicating ourselves to God often. God’s will sometimes becomes blurred when our commitment to Him wavers (cf. Ephesians 5:8-10; James 1:6-8). However it is always good. Notice that total commitment to the lordship of Jesus Christ is a prerequisite for experiencing God’s will.

Dedication results in discernment that leads to delight in God’s will. The initial dedication and the subsequent reaffirmation both please God (Romans 12:1-2, "acceptable" or "pleasing"; cf. Philippians 4:18; Hebrews 13:16). "Good" means essentially good. "Acceptable" means pleasing to God. "Perfect" means it cannot get any better.

Romans 12:1-2 are extremely important verses for Christians. They express our most important responsibility to God, namely, submitting completely to His lordship over our lives. The popular saying, "God is my co-pilot," does not give God His rightful place. God wants and deserves to be our pilot, not our co-pilot. Christians should make this commitment as close to the moment of their justification as possible. However notice that Paul addressed his appeal to believers, not the unsaved. Dedication to God is a response to the mercy of God that we receive in salvation. It is not a condition for receiving that mercy. It is a voluntary commitment that every Christian should make out of love for the Savior, but it is not one that every Christian does make. It is possible to be a Christian without ever making this commitment since it is voluntary.

"To require from the unsaved a dedication to His lordship for their salvation is to make imperative what is only voluntary for believers (Romans 12:1; 1 Peter 3:15)." [Note: Livingston Blauvelt Jr., "Does the Bible Teach Lordship Salvation?" Bibliotheca Sacra 143:569 (January-March 1986):38.]

Verse 3

Paul began this pericope with a reminder of his apostolic authority. He probably did so because what he was about to say required personal application that would affect the conduct of his readers. The Romans had not met Paul personally so he urged them to receive his teaching humbly. A humble attitude was also important as they evaluated and exercised the individual abilities that God had given each of them (cf. 1 Peter 4:10). Paul had had experiences with Christians, who were proud because of their spiritual gifts, in Corinth where he wrote this epistle (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:14-31; 1 Corinthians 13:4; 1 Corinthians 4:12; 1 Corinthians 4:20).

The main point of this entire paragraph (Romans 12:3-8) is that Christians should not think more highly of ourselves than we should but use sober judgment in evaluating ourselves.

"Humility is the direct effect of consecration, because pride is, and ever has been, the great enemy of true righteousness." [Note: Griffith Thomas, St. Paul’s Epistle . . ., p. 331.]

The faith in view in this verse and in Romans 12:6 seems to refer to one’s ability to view and use his or her gifts as abilities that God has given. It also involves trusting in God to work through us to bring blessing to others. Such a view of oneself in relation to his or her gifts is sound judgment because it is consistent with reality. The "measure of faith" does not refer, then, to how much faith one can muster up but to the amount of faith that God has given each Christian. This amount varies from believer to believer. We can see this in that it is easier for some Christians to trust God than it is for others to do so. Spiritual gifts do not reflect the worth of the person who has them. For example, a person who has gifts that enable him or her to minister effectively to large crowds of people should not conclude that he or she is a superior Christian.

Verses 3-8

1. The diversity of gifts 12:3-8

Verses 3-21

B. Conduct within the church 12:3-21

Every Christian has the same duty toward God, namely, dedication (Romans 12:1-2). Nevertheless the will of God for one Christian will differ from His will for another concerning life and ministry within the body of Christ (Romans 12:3-21).

Verses 4-5

It is important that we remember that we are part of a larger organism. We are not just a group of individuals each doing our own thing. Paul had previously used the body to illustrate the church in 1 Corinthians 12. What he said here recapped the main idea that he expounded more fully there. The body of Christ is a unified organism, and its members are diverse personally and in their functions.

"Your right hand has never yet had a fight with the left: on the contrary, each constantly helps the other!" [Note: Newell, pp. 460-61.]

All the members belong to one another; there is mutuality in the church. As members of one another, we cannot work independently effectively. Each member profits from the contribution of every other member too. This realization should help us avoid becoming proud.

"The point is that each member functions to serve the body, not the body to serve the members." [Note: Witmer, p. 488.]

Verse 6

The gifts that we have are abilities that God gives us by His grace (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:6; Ephesians 4:7; 1 Peter 4:10). They are capacities for His service. [Note: For defense of the view that spiritual gifts are ministries rather than abilities, see Kenneth Berding, "Confusing Word and Concept in ’Spiritual Gifts’: Have We Forgotten James Barr’s Exhortations?" Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 43:1 (March 200):37-51.]

"Spiritual gifts are tools to build with, not toys to play with or weapons to fight with." [Note: Wiersbe, 1:555.]

The list of seven gifts that follows is not exhaustive but only illustrative (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:27-28). Paul’s point here was that it is important that we use our gifts and that we use them in the proper way. All the gifts need using according to the proportion (Gr. analogia) of the faith that God has given us. The faith in view, as in Romans 12:3, is probably the amount of faith God has given us, not what we believe, namely, Christian teaching.

Probably Paul meant prophecy in the sense of communicating revealed truth to exhort, encourage, and comfort (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:3; 1 Corinthians 14:31) and, perhaps, praising God (1 Chronicles 25:1) rather than as predicting or proclaiming new revelation. All the other gifts listed here serve the whole church throughout its history, so probably Paul viewed prophecy this way too. If so, none of the seven gifts listed here are "sign gifts."

Verses 7-8

All the gifts Paul mentioned in Romans 12:6-8 need exercising within the body of Christ for its members’ mutual benefit (cf. Romans 12:5). Obviously other gifts have other purposes. However, Paul was stressing here the need to recognize that the members of the body contribute to the common welfare. In each case he spoke of the way we use these gifts.

"Service" or "serving" (Romans 12:7, Gr. diakonia) probably refers to ministering to the material needs of other believers. [Note: Cranfield, 2:622.] Teaching involves explaining what God has revealed (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:6). It differs from prophesying in that prophesying (from propheteuo, lit. to speak forth) evidently included communicating any word from God, inspired or uninspired (1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4:11). [Note: See John E. Johnson, "The Old Testament Offices as Paradigm for Pastoral Identity," Bibliotheca Sacra 152:606 (April-June 1995):182-200.]

"Exhorts" or "encouraging" translates the Greek word parakalesis (cf. Romans 12:1), sometimes rendered "comfort." All three words are good translations. The context provides the clue to the main idea wherever the word appears. Here exhortation is perhaps best. Whereas teaching appeals to the mind, exhortation (preaching) appeals to the will. "Giving" is capable of broad application within the body. We should practice giving with singleness of heart, namely, freedom from mixed motives (cf. Acts 5:1-11). The idea is not so much giving lavishly as giving single-mindedly, to please the Lord.

Leaders experience temptation simply to enjoy the benefits of their positions rather than really providing leadership by serving. Showing mercy relates to ministering to the sick and specially needy. A cheerful rather than a grudging attitude is an important part of such ministry.

Verse 9

Love is of primary importance (cf. Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:39; 1 Corinthians 13). However it must be sincere (cf. 1 John 4:19-21). This command acts as a heading for this whole list of exhortations.

"Paul is not always talking specifically about love, but he keeps coming back to love as the single most important criterion for approved Christian behavior." [Note: Moo, p. 774.]

The totally committed Christian should hate evil and love what is good, as his or her Lord does, expressing commitment to His attitudes as well as to His actions.

"What God seeks in the believer is not so much a single worthy act as it is a continuing quality of life." [Note: Mounce, p. 237.]

Verses 9-21

2. The necessity of love 12:9-21

Romans 12:9-13 deal with the importance of demonstrating love to fellow believers, and Romans 12:14-21 broaden this responsibility to include wider application to non-believers. Note the similarity with Jesus’ instructions in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).

"From the thought of humility the idea of love naturally follows, for humility will necessarily express itself in affection for those around." [Note: Griffith Thomas, St. Paul’s Epistle . . ., p. 337.]

Love for fellow believers 12:9-13

"Nowhere else in Paul’s writings do we find a more concise collection of ethical injunctions. In these five verses are thirteen exhortations ranging from love of Christians to hospitality for strangers. There are no finite verbs in the paragraph. There are, however, ten participles that serve as imperatives. In the three other clauses (Romans 12:9-11) an imperative must be supplied. Each of the thirteen exhortations could serve as the text for a full-length sermon. What they deal with are basic to effective Christian living." [Note: Mounce, p. 236.]

Verse 10

We need to express love to individual people as well as to ideals (Romans 12:9). Giving recognition and appreciation to those who deserve it is a concrete way of expressing love. "Devoted" (Gr. philostorgoi) suggests family affection (cf. 1 Timothy 5:1-2).

Verse 11

It is natural for Christians to slack off in our diligence in serving the Lord when we have been Christians for some time. Apollos was a model of someone who maintained fervent diligence in his service (Acts 18:24-25; cf. Revelation 3:15-16), as was Paul.

Verse 12

We must never lose sight of our hope of things in the future that God has promised us. This will help us persevere in tribulation (cf. Romans 5:3-4). Prayer is our great resource whenever we feel stress and strain (cf. Philippians 4:6-7). Note the same progression from hope to perseverance to prayer in Romans 8:24-27. We should not just pray, but we should be devoted to prayer (cf. Acts 1:14). [Note: See Dan R. Crawford, compiler, Giving Ourselves to Prayer.] It should have high priority in our lives. Frequent attendance at prayer meetings is one indication of devotion to prayer.

Verse 13

We should never be so self-centered that we fail to reach out to others. Again, God the Father and God the Son are our great examples here.

". . . one is not just to wait and take the stranger in, if he actually presents himself at the door, but to go out and look for those to whom one can show hospitality . . ." [Note: Cranfield, 2:639-40.]

Verse 14

Paul repeated Jesus’ instruction here (Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27-28). To persecute means to pursue. Blessing involves both wishing God’s best on people and praying for them.

"The principle of nonretaliation for personal injury permeates the entire New Testament." [Note: Mounce, p. 239.]

Verse 15

Believers should share the joys and sorrows of their neighbors, especially fellow believers (1 Corinthians 12:26; Philippians 4:14).

Verse 16

The first part of this verse means "Have equal regard for one another" (NEB). Feelings of superiority are neither realistic nor appropriate for those who owe all to God’s grace.

Verse 17

The second exhortation probably means that we should give thought to how we do what is right so our witness may be most effective to believers and unbelievers alike (cf. Colossians 4:5; 1 Timothy 3:7).

Verse 18

Paul strongly advocated being a peacemaker (cf. Matthew 5:9), but he did not promote peace at any price. In some situations, peace might give way to conflict if, for example, the truth is at stake (cf. Galatians 2:11). Notwithstanding the believer should not be the instigator of trouble under normal circumstances. Note Paul’s two qualifiers regarding living at peace in this verse.

Verse 19

If hostility does erupt, the Christian should not retaliate. Rather he or she should trust God to right the wrong (cf. 1 Samuel 24-26). Long ago God promised to take care of His people when others wronged them (Deuteronomy 32:35). We have a responsibility to defend the weak and to pursue justice, but we should not retaliate but trust God when others attack us personally (cf. David).

Verse 20

Instead of doing one’s enemy an unkindness the believer should do him or her positive good (cf. Matthew 5:44). This may result in the antagonist feeling ashamed, acknowledging his error, and even turning to God in repentance.

One interpretation of heaping burning coals on his head is that it figuratively describes doing good that results in the conviction and shame of the enemy. The expression supposedly alludes to the old custom of carrying burning coals in a pan. When one’s fire went out at home, a person would have to go to a neighbor and request hot coals that he or she would then carry home in a pan, typically on the head. Carrying the coals involved some danger, discomfort, and uneasiness for the person carrying them. Nevertheless they were the evidence of the neighbor’s love. Likewise the person who receives good for evil feels uncomfortable because of his neighbor’s love. This guilt may convict the wrongdoer of his or her ways in a gentle manner. [Note: Cf. Griffith Thomas, St. Paul’s Epistle . . ., p. 347.]

A better interpretation, I think, takes the burning coals as a figure of God’s judgment that will come on the enemy if he persists in his antagonism. The figure of "coals of fire" in the Old Testament consistently refers to God’s anger and judgment (cf. 2 Samuel 22:9; 2 Samuel 22:13; Psalms 11:6; Psalms 18:13; Psalms 140:9-10; Proverbs 25:21-22). Thus the meaning appears to be that the Christian can return good for evil with the assurance that God will eventually punish his or her enemy. [Note: See John N. Day, "’Coals of Fire’ in Romans 12:19-20," Bibliotheca Sacra 160:640 (October-December 2003):414-20; John Piper, "Love Your Enemies": Jesus’ Love Command in the Synoptic Gospels and in the Early Christian Paraenesis, p. 115; and Krister Stendahl, "Hate, Non-Retaliation, and Love: 1 QS x, 17-20 and Romans 12:19-20," Harvard Theological Review 55(1962):352. See Witmer, p. 490, for a third view.]

Verse 21

Paul again concluded with a summary. Being overcome by evil means giving in to the temptation to pay back evil for evil. When people do wrong, they expect to receive evil from those they have wronged. When they receive kindness instead, their hard hearts often become softer. The best way to get rid of an enemy is to turn him or her into a friend. [Note: Bruce, p. 218.]

There is a progression in Romans 12:9-21. Paul moved from the Christian’s duty to his fellow believers to action that would affect non-Christians as well. However all that Paul wrote in Romans 12:3-21 is directly applicable to life within the body of Christ. The believer may encounter enemies there as well as in the world.

The general nature of the commands in this pericope illustrates the essentially gracious character of the new covenant Law of Christ (Galatians 6:2) under which Christians now live. Compare this with the legal nature of the commands in the Mosaic Law (cf. Romans 10:4). God gave the Israelites many explicit commands about how they were to behave in a multitude of specific situations. The commands in Romans 12:9-21, as well as in all the New Testament, are much more general and are similar to principles. This is one reason the New Testament writers said the Israelites lived under "law" and we live under "grace."

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Romans 12". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/romans-12.html. 2012.
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