The Word of God is a terrible thing to misinterpret. Stray but a little from the motto Context is King, and suddenly the homily arises out from one’s own thoughts and what he’s heard before, rather than what God is actually saying. What is worse, Bible version translators sometimes (wittingly or unwittingly) derive or “bend” their translation based on assumptions they’ve learned from others, either because they do not make a point to balance their own theological/interpretational bias or because they wish to be “dynamic” in their style. Romans 12:1-2 is a grand example of such often-misinterpreted passages.
Before continuing, let’s examine the selected verses from a proper translation, then the context will be examined for discussion:
Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. (NASB)
Two lies precipitate from the abuse of this section of Scripture alone, and (more than not) these lies result in a terrible “picture” of God and hopeless Christians.
Lie 1 goes something like this: “do not be conformed to this world,” means don’t look like the world–don’t dress how they dress, etc. Look different. This is part of presenting yourself to God as a living sacrifice and not being ‘pressed into the world’s mould.'”
While it is true that this passage says we should not be pressed into the world’s mould as Christians, it is a far stretch of the context to assert that this lack of conformity equates to or focuses on outward dress. While it is true that we must present our bodies as a living sacrifice to God, the transformation of a Christian comes through the renewing of the mind, so that we can prove (by testing) what the will of God is.
Lie 2, sometimes built upon Lie 1’s bad premise, states: “God has a sovereign, perfect will for your life down to the last detail. If you don’t aim for and actually hit the center of His will in every aspect of your life, then your life will be ruined and irreparable. You’ll never know what God’s perfect will was.”
The young or unlearned Christian finds discouragement and confusion from these misinterpretations, particularly the second lie concerning God’s sovereignty.
Let me just say “God’s sovereignty” does not mean He is in minute control of every micro-manageable thing of everyone’s life like a Divine Puppeteer pulling our proverbial strings, regardless of our personality and choice. Humans clearly have the freedom of choice; and yes, God persuades our beliefs and influences our choices via things such as circumstance, truth, relationships, cause-and-effect consequence and through our study of nature. However, God does NOT plan our every move down to absurd minutia, and he does not have a ‘scripted life’ planned out for you, as it were, in every detailed circumstance–like a theatre play in which you must somehow struggle an entire lifetime long to find all of your lines and settings. God is more interested in the ways (of life) that we take, and the the supernatural details of his grand plan (and how we fit it) are what He takes care of “behind the scenes.”
When theologians say that God is sovereign, they mean that He is powerful enough to weave in and forward his good & Divine plans for individuals and nations, even amid the oceans of human choice and possibility. You can rest that He is at work in—but does not override—the circumstances of your life. God has the ability to redeem into good the evils which happen to us, both on the level of the individual life and on the whole for humanity. He fits, guides & redirects these circumstances and life-impacting events into the supernatural details of His Divine plan for the ages. He also has the ability to open doors of opportunity and shut them, and mankind has no ability to alter God’s ability. In these ways, God is “in control.”
Hopefully, this knowledge takes the “performance-driven” and shame-based weight off of you who fear that you have ruined “God’s perfect will,” (even sounds absurd)… and that God cannot use you anymore, or use you in great ways for His glory. Does God intimately know the path of the righteous? Yes. Even though you may have plans for your life, does God have an ultimate purpose for you that will prevail? Yes. Can God (re)direct your steps? Yes. Will God lead you in all your ways, if you acknowledge Him as your all-wise God? Yes. Does God have good works unique-to-you that he has predetermined for you to accomplish? Yes. (Isaiah 30:21; Job 23:10; Proverbs 3:5-6, 16:9, 19:21; Psalm 37:23).
BUT, do you have to fear destroying God’s perfect plan for your life, if you should falter in faith and godliness at times? No. All the patriarchs of the Old Testament and the Apostles of the New Testament messed up drastically, but God restored them and used them just like he promised them from the beginning. Yes, there were consequences, sometimes severe ones; but none of these destroyed God’s plans.
Just be you in a way that delights in & wishes to honor God by living in His ways of life. If this is true of you, then you will know–at crucial times–when the Lord (who intimately knows the path that you take) is saying, “This is the way, walk in it.”
The Context and the Accurate Interpretation:
Romans, chapter 11, verses 25-36 have to do with New Testament believers not thinking of themselves more highly than they ought, particularly in regards to being better than Israel. The warning is to not be “wise in our own sight” as Christians, because God has a future plan for Israel. The Church is not the end-all, be-all of God’s plan for humanity. No one is better than another when considering Christian vs. Jew, and God is not done with the Jews. In fact, he will use the New Testament (NT) Church to provoke the Jews back to Himself. At the moment, Israel is an enemy of the gospel; but this is well within God’s plan, so that He may one day show them great mercy and reap a greater harvest of souls through Israel’s restoration than the harvest of souls which resulted from Israel’s falling away…. For which, He is to be worshipped and praised; hence, the doxology at the last of Ch. 11).
Then, (Romans 12:1-2) the apostle interjects what is the natural result of one’s realizing God is worthy to be praised and worshipped for His merciful ways. Paul lovingly appeals that, on the basis of God’s magnificence and great wisdom in conducting His future plans for mercy toward Israel by means of the NT Church, the NT believer should dedicate himself (particularly his/her body — as in a sacrifice, yet living) to God’s goal for the believer (i.e. behaviors, or ways of living resulting from attitudes of the heart; see συσχηματίζεσθε).
Here, “conformity” to the world does not refer directly to one’s style of dress or matters of externals (as some teach). It does refer to one’s view of God and others, his attitudes, his motives and according actions — his behaviors toward God and others. If one is conforming to the present age, it means one is going along with the fallen pattern of thinking about life and how to treat God and others (i.e. “better than,” or “get all you can” or “if you’ve got it, flaunt it” or Judgmentalism or “worthy of more honor/position than” or “I must be served, and must not serve,” backbiting, gossip, plotting, “holier than you,” posturing for position, envying, seductive behavior, loving attention and preeminence, immodest behavior, scraping and scrapping for the top, stepping on others, loving titles and glory, selfishness).
The word sometimes translated “world” in Rom. 12:2 is aion (age). In Ancient Greek, the word aion means a “period of time,” and has a nuance of the characteristics of that spiritual age of humanity. The Germans have a word for this too; it is zeitgeist — the spirit (attitude/modus) of the times. Just as scientists classify earth’s geological ages by characteristics (ex. ice age) and just as historians classify periods of time by their social or technological status (ex. stone age, dark ages), God classifies the spiritual ages of humanity. The age we are in currently is commonly called “the Last Days” in the Scriptures. Thus, through Paul, God gives us an authoritative warning/order to not be conformed to the philosophies (secular or religious) of the age in which we live. We have a description of this age, in 2 Tim. 3:1-5.
You should know this, Timothy, that in the last days there will be very difficult times. For people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful. They will consider nothing sacred. They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control. They will be cruel and hate what is good. They will betray their friends, be reckless, be puffed up with pride, and love pleasure rather than God. They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly. Stay away from [“Christians”] like that! (NLT)
So, again, the apostle is admonishing believers not to be conformed to the spirit of this age. For a Christian and the Church, transformation is supposed to happen in regard to inward attitudes and philosophies. On the church level, it could be an incorrect philosophy that has been held by the church out of tradition but that is not biblical (ex. 1 John 4:3). Yes, I believe the most dangerous philosophies which draw the church away from Truth and Life in Christ are actually the ones Paul needed to warn the Romans about in the context of 12:1-2ff. Thinking we are better than or replacing the Jews is such a philosophy. Akin to it are egocentrism, racism, licentiousness, and hierarchy (misunderstandings of “authority” that lead to abuses, church governments / denominations / synods / diocese / etc.). God’s kingdom has always run according to a different philosophy than mankind’s kingdoms (Matt. 20: 25-27; 23:1-11). On the individual level, if one is transforming, then one would be being morphed into the redeemed way of thinking about life and about how to treat God and others. (Esteeming others better and worthy of more honor than one’s self, serving others selflessly, lifting up others, not caring about position or success but caring about caring, etc.)
Simply put, the Christian should be completely and unreservedly committed to becoming the kind of character/person that pleases God–and He wants the Life of Christ in and through us. In short, one must answer the question, “What does God want from my life; what is his plan for my life?” by saying, “God wants me to be morphed into the likeness of his Son, Jesus (Romans 8:29)… and to enjoy my life and relationships and all creation while that transformation is happening.”
Accordingly, God’s “perfect will” is not about struggling to find some exacting, Divinely scripted plan for one’s life, as some preachers erroneously say. That line of teaching leads people to insecurity, never knowing if they are doing God’s perfect will… or else measuring their life by outward actions to prove they are “right with God” and “in His will.” In contradistinction, I like to tell people that God gave them their interests and talents in order for them to discover what wonders, seen and unseen, He has hidden on our universe (Prov. 25:2). Finding God’s will is a matter of following your God-given interests/talents and taking the opportunities that arise (a.k.a. Doors that He opens) as the result of building relationships along the way.
God needs Christians in all walks and stages of life in order to reach others from all walks and stages of life (1 Cor. 7:17-24); and, as you’re going, teach others, make disciples and see them baptized (Matthew 28:18-20). No one has to fear destroying said “plan” by his faults, as if God is surprised by our sins or too short-sighted to have incorporated them into his grace. Rather, God aims higher than wanting to control our Every move or scrambling to prevent our failures along the way. He wants us to surrender our bodies, our attitudes and our philosophies of life to him. God’s “perfect will” is better understood as God’s having an ideal or goal (telos, root of τέλειον) for the sort of people we ought to be as his adopted and Spirit-indwelled children. God’s will for our lives is Christ-likeness, our sanctification — Rom. 8:29, Eph. 4:13, 1 Thess. 4:13. That sort of person is dedicated to God in body and is being renewed by God in mind, because it takes some practice and consideration to find out by “testing” or by “approving/affirming” what is good, acceptable and “ethically mature” or “ethically ideal” (perfect, the standard/goal, τέλειον) in God’s eyes. Why does it take practice and consideration? –because what is ethically mature and ideal to God is far different from the spirit of this age. It can only be done as the result of renewing (lit., new-kind again, ἀνακαινώσει) one’s mind (νοὸς) and by considering your body as a tool, dedicated to God for righteousness (Rom. 6, 8).
In the rest of the context God directs Paul to make application of the truth just discussed. I have summarized and paraphrased them here:
vv.3-8 (reminiscent of Ch. 11:25-36) God admonishes us to not think highly of ourselves within the church. Don’t compare. Though we may differ in spiritual gifts and function in the body of Christ, none is better or higher or wielding more divine rights than another.
vv. 9-13 Just love each other!!! And love each other genuinely–for no other reason than love. Dote on each other, (not with flattery) but with genuine honor/respect. Love God and one another, and so, be zealous, love by rejoicing in hope, love by being patient in trials, love by constantly praying (for each other and God’s will to be done), love by meeting each others needs and having people stay with you (for a meal or a time).
vv.14-21 Love even your “enemies” (presumably the Jews, given context in Ch. 11)…these verses are plain on how to go about loving your enemies or people with whom arises contention (inside or outside the church).