We have now reached the practical application section of Paul’s letter to the Romans. However, we should note that the practical application only matters because of the theological doctrine found in the first 11 chapters. In other words, all of the instruction for godly living found in this section matters little unless viewed in light of the gospel proclaimed earlier. If God had not saved us through Christ, all the instructions found in this section would do nothing but give us a standard we could not reach. However, given that we can be righteous through faith in Christ (ch. 1-11) we can now offer ourselves to God as living sacrifices (12.1). As Cottrell says, “All doctrine is practical in the sense that it has implications as to how we ought to live; there is nothing more practical than sound theology. Also, all practical or ethical teaching is ultimately grounded in some theological truth such as the nature of God or the nature of man or the nature of salvation.”
Furthermore, we should note that this section completes some thoughts found in the earlier theological section. Recall these statements:
- Romans 1:5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations,
- Romans 6:4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
- Romans 7:6 But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.
How was their faith to obey? How are we to walk in newness of life? How can we now serve in the newness of the Spirit? Practical ways of doing these is what we will study in this section.
While Paul shifts from theology to practice, he retains the line of thinking of the previous chapters. Recall that in Romans 9-11 Paul was addressing God’s plan for his physical kinsmen, while warning his Gentile brethren against being arrogant (see Romans 11.18,20,25). So much of this practical section is aimed at HOW they can refrain from being puffed-up against each other. That is certainly a major theme in chapters 14-15, but note also the admonitions in Romans 12.3,10,16). In a letter that shows God’s love for all (both Jew and Gentile), it is natural that Paul would exhort all (both Jew and Gentile) to love each other.
One final note, you will note throughout this section that commands are given. These are not suggestions, or things that Christians should try to do. No, they are commands. Those who have faith in Christ will aim to obey all that God has revealed in this section. They don’t think doing so earns them God’s favor, rather they are continuing to mold their spirits after God’s Spirit.
Living Sacrifices (12.1-2)
“Therefore” is a key word. It links what’s coming to what’s already occurred. Significantly, chapter 11 concluded with praise and wonder at God’s plan for redeeming both Jew and Gentile. The closing exhortation was, “to Him be the glory forever. Amen.” The practical application that occurs in this section are all part of giving God the glory He deserves (note Romans 11.30-36). “The mercies of God” deserve nothing less than the complete sacrificing of ourselves!
Consider what an anomaly these 1st century Christians were in their society: everyone around them (both Jew and Gentile) offered animal sacrifices to their deities. However, Christians had ceased this cultic practice because Christ was the only sacrifice required (see Hebrews 10.12; etc.). But Paul’s point was that a sacrifice is still required; a complete sacrificing of ourselves. Here again the difference between the various cultic systems of the day and Christians is emphasized: they give of their best to their Gods, but Christians give themselves (see Romans 6.13,22). This is the “rational service” (better rendering than “spiritual worship”) God’s many mercies deserve.
Vs. 2 defines what is meant by “living sacrifice”. True sacrifices to God will not be conformed to this world, but will be transformed as their minds are renewed by what the Spirit has revealed. Furthermore, we see that having our minds renewed isn’t a simple matter of knowing what God says, but “discerning” (or “proving”) that will in our lives through our actions. Note the contrast with Romans 1.28: there we saw that God gave the world over to a “debased mind” which led to all manner of evil conduct. But Christians have had their minds renewed which leads to discerning His will in every area of life.
Sound Judgment Regarding Others… And Self (12.3-8)
Let’s not forget that Paul was dealing with brethren who were tempted to be arrogant toward each other (Romans 11.18,25). These words are aimed directly at them, emphasizing that not only are both Jew and Gentile members of the same body, they are valuable and needed in the body. The exhortation remains relevant as many Christians fall prey to the danger of “comparative religion”, i.e. judging their spirituality in comparison to the failings of others. Doing so leads to overvaluing self and dismissing the worth of others. Paul says there is no place for that in the body of Christ.
His first point is that we are all members of the same body, and no two members of a body serve the same function. So differences in ability are to be expected… and appreciated! Paul’s point in vs. 6 is significant: “having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us…” Any gift we have is a matter of God’s grace. So, there is no room for boasting in front of others. Rather, we should focus on using our gifts, whatever gifts we have, to give glory to the Father by serving the body. After all, we are all “one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (vs. 5).
“the measure of faith that God has assigned” (vs. 3) is a phrase used by some to claim that we can only have faith if God gives it directly to us (i.e. irresistible grace). However, we’ve already seen that faith is possible for all through His word (Romans 10.17). “Faith” here likely stands for one’s progress in the faith. We will see in Romans 14 that there were real differences in where Jew and Gentiles were in their faith. The point here is to not judge others regarding where they are in the faith.
Genuine Love (12.9-13)
At first it seems that this section doesn’t have a common thread, but I think it best to see this entire paragraph as expounding on the concept of “Let love be genuine.” It could be that Paul is speaking of their love for each other, but it seems more likely that he is speaking of their love for God (part of the “living sacrifice”), which certainly involves love of others. Simply put, Paul is calling for true love for God, a love seen in real commitment and action. True love for God does the following:
- It hates evil, wants nothing to do with it (vs. 9)
- It hold fast to anything that is good (vs. 9; cf. Phil. 4.8-9)
- It puts the needs of others first (vs. 10-11,13)
- It keeps its focus on God, even in times of trial and distress (vs. 12)
Being At Peace With All (12.14-21)
A variety of personal relationships are pictured in this passage: outside persecutors, brethren, enemies. God has instructions that should govern each and every relationship. The key thought of this section is found in vs. 18, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Peace depends on two parties, but what God demands of His people is that they strive for peace.
Perhaps the most difficult teaching is found in vss. 19-21, teaching that echoes Jesus’ words in Matthew 5.38-42. Vengeance almost feels natural, but God says that vengeance belongs to Him. Our duty is to mimic His behavior by loving our enemies (see Romans 5.8).
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