Bible Commentaries
Romans 12

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

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Romans 12:1 to Romans 15:13

One who is reading Romans for the first time might think the end of chapter 11 a good place to stop. After pursuing this prob­lem of how the Chosen People can possibly be lost, how the "People of the Promise" could miss receiving the promise, after penetrating the problem as far as he can go, Paul breaks out into eloquent yet reverent words of praise to the God of mystery, might—and mercy. He writes "Amen" just as if he were through.

People who have read other letters of Paul’s would know he is not through. For he never finishes a letter without coming down to brass tacks, so to speak, getting down to the particulars of living. The good news about God and his free grace, his mercy that is stronger than sin, is not simply something to be listened to. If all we do is listen, it shows we have not heard with our hearts, only with our ears. If we really hear and believe, then after the "Amen" comes a "therefore." Since these things are so, what then for us? Does the life of faith mean that we always stand like beggars with outstretched hands, taking what mercy God gives, striving only to be nothing that he may be all in all? By no means. God’s love, his grace, the sacrifice of Christ, we have to take with simple humility and thankfulness. It is "bestowed" on us, not produced by us. But Paul has already in chapters 5-8 insisted that justification, the pardoning mercy of God, does not stand alone; it has results in life and the Christian is challenged and commanded to live accordingly. If the reader will glance back at those chapters he will see that the Christian life there is ex­pressed in very general terms, sometimes even mystical: as, for instance, "We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces ... character" (5:3-4); "walk in newness of life" (6:4); "consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God" (6:11); you "have become slaves of righteousness" (6:18); "yield your mem­bers to righteousness for sanctification" (6:19).

Paul now in chapter 12 goes on into particulars. What does all this high language about newness of life, sanctification, and so on, mean in the practical situations of life? Paul had never keen that church in Rome. Its members had not asked him any questions, or brought him any problems to solve. But he knew that in Rome Christians met the same essential problems which they meet everywhere. That is one reason this chapter 12 appeals so strongly to all Christians; just because it is general it speaks to all sorts and conditions of men.

A Note on Status and State

This is a good place to stop and think about the difference between justification and sanctification, and how they are related. In shorter words we can call it the difference between status and state, in the Christian life. A simple illustration will make this clear. Suppose a mother hears the front door bell ring, and when she answers it sees her six-year-old Willie—covered with mud, maybe with a small turtle in his hand. The mother does not in­vite the child in, she gives him a lecture. "Don’t you bring that turtle into the house," she says, "and don’t put your foot inside this clean front door. Go around to the back and leave your clothes on the porch and go right upstairs to the bathroom and wait till I come up and give you a scrubbing."

Now that boy’s status, that is to say his standing, with his mother could not be better. He is her son. She has no intention of disowning him; indeed, she loves him dearly. But his state is deplorable. He is dirty as homemade sin; he is not fit to associ­ate with the family. But because of his status, his mother is con­cerned with his state. A neighbor’s child could be just as dirty and she would do nothing about it. But because Willie is her boy she not only does not like the state he is in, but she does something about it. Let a salesman come to the door in the best possible state —suit pressed, shirt spotless, shaved, and scrubbed to a sanitary polish; she will not let him in front door or back. His state may he good but his status is not.

Now justification is the word we use—taking it from Paul—for the Christian’s status with God. Sanctification is the word—again from Paul but not exclusive with him—for our state. Status we can only accept, as children accept their parents and their par­ents’ love. But state we can and must do something about. Just as the initiative, the suggestion, the push, for that little boy’s bath has to come from his mother, so the initiative for a cleaner state of the Christian’s life comes from God. Yet the little boy is ex­pected to co-operate, and so are we with God.

What has just been said is in line, we believe, with the teaching of the New Testament and with Paul in particular. Yet there are three other views which have been held. One is that our state is something God alone produces: sanctification is a work of the Holy Spirit exclusively. An opposite view is that we alone are re­sponsible for the state we are in, we are responsible for our own spiritual and moral growth: sanctification is the Christian’s work exclusively. A third view is that justification and sanctification are both divine make-believes; that justification is God saying, "Not guilty," when we really are guilty, and sanctification is God say­ing, "Better and better," when we are really growing no better at all. The reader may check all these views with Paul’s teaching.

There is a sense in which, all scholars agree, the Greek words usually translated "holy" and "holiness" refer to consecration or dedication. In this sense, sanctification or dedication is a status as well as a state. But there is also a use of the word "holy" and "holiness" or "sanctification" to mean a state, condition, or process, in which both God and man are active (see, for example, Romans 6:19; 1 Corinthians 6:11; 2 Corinthians 1:12; 2 Corinthians 7:1; Ephesians 1:4; Ephesians 5:26-27; 1 Thessalonians 4:3; 1 Thessalonians 5:23).

If sanctification were God’s work alone, we should be no more than mechanical dolls manufactured and wound up by God. If sanctification were all our own work, then we would not need God in our lives at all. All Christian experience cries "No!" to such thoughts. If sanctification were no more than a legal fiction, then the whole New Testament would no longer make sense. For the New Testament is more than sprinkled with imperatives, com­mands, directives. Surely these are not intended to make Christian goodness nothing better than a pure pretense!

Verses 1-2

The Principle of the Christian Life (12:1-2)

Paul has already written, as we have seen, about the Christian life. But now in chapters 12-14 he brings all he has said into fo­cus. This is not a sort of appendix to the letter, it is a necessary part of it. Christian living is no take-it-or-leave-it extra, it is welded to the gospel. Paul never preached the gospel without speaking of Christian living, and no one can claim to believe the gospel while leaving Christian living on one side.

Paul puts something new into the idea of sacrifice. The Old Testament sacrifices were always something the sacrificer possessed. Now Paul emphasizes sacrificing oneself. Furthermore, Certain sacrifices involved total destruction, or at least the removal of the thing sacrificed from the use of man. Nobody ate a burnt offering, neither God nor man. What was left of the sin offering was never returned to the one who gave it. The one type of ancient sacrifice which was shared by the offerer was the peace offering, something that could be as gay as a church picnic.

True, some of the prophets saw a higher kind of sacrifice, the "broken and contrite heart" (Psalms 51:16-17; Micah 6:8). These Insights were rare, but they lie behind Paul’s radical ideal. The Christians had no altars, and doubtless were criticized by their pagan neighbors for not having them. The Christian’s sacrifice to God is not something that he has; it is rather all that he is. Chris­tian sacrifice is not destruction, it is service; it is being-used. Old-time sacrifice was the offer of something legs than oneself, to be removed from use. The new sacrifice required of Christians is nothing less than oneself, made fit for use, and used.

Note several points here about the Christian life. First, its motive is gratitude for God’s love in Christ, the "mercies" of God. It is not that Paul throws good works down the front steps in chapter 4 and brings them in by the back door in chapter 12. What Paul has thrown out is the idea that by good works we can earn the mercy of God. What he brings in is that by good works we express our gratitude to God who makes it possible for us even to wish to do anything good, and, much more, who gives us power to do it.

Second, the Christian life is not simply a "spiritual" one. If we are not Christian in and with our bodies, we are not Christian. Paul begins with the body, in fact. Why not "present your souls a living sacrifice"? Because unless the body is consecrated, it is not realistic to talk about "spiritual" consecration. One easy way to hypocrisy is to think that if your soul is holy ("if your heart is in the right place") what you do with your body makes no difference. The Bible, taken seriously, keeps man from thinking he is an angel. Angels are pure spirits; man is body and spirit one and inseparable.

Third, Christian life begins in the mind. Paul means more than intellect here; he means the whole inner life of man. But he uses the word which more than any other points to man the thinker.

The transformation of the mind is the base of the process of growing as a Christian. This reminds us of Jesus, who strongly preached repentance. For repentance means precisely this making over, this reorientation of the mind.

Fourth, the Christian life is one which follows the will of God, and this will can be identified in certain ways. To be sure, we can be mistaken about what the will of God is; but we can hardly be mistaken about what that will is not. If something about which we are in doubt is not good, not acceptable (in line with what we do know of God’s will in general), and not perfect (or as near perfection as the situation permits), then it cannot confidently be called God’s will.

Verses 3-21

The Practice of the Christian Life (12:3-15:13)

Individual Christian Living (12:3-21)

What Paul says in detail about the Christian life is so clear, simple, and helpful that a commentator only gets in the way if he tries to gild the lily by making further remarks.

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Romans 12". "Layman's Bible Commentary".