10 Steps to Holiness[i] Two: The Whole Enchilada
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. 2 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.[ii]
Last week we saw how Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all involved in our salvation from start to finish. Salvation is not only being declared right with God by means of our trust into the perfect life and sacrificial death of the risen Jesus, but it’s also our being made to be holy as God is holy. Salvation is from the Lord (Ps. 37:39; 68:20; Jer. 3:23; Phil. 1:28). We cannot trust into Christ without the Holy Spirit breathing life into our dead hearts to give us new affections. He grows those affections in us over time through the Word preached, prayed, sung, and portrayed in the sacraments. And, as we saw last week, through our troubles and trials.
In the New Testament, God’s commandment “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44, 45) now means “Become like Jesus.” Last week, we saw an overview of God’s game plan to make us look more and more like Christ. This week we will look at holiness (sanctification) in terms of how it transforms us. Paul’s letter to the Christians of Rome detailed his application of the Good News about Jesus into personal, social, church and civic life. In each of these areas, Paul urges believers to pursue holiness (to glorify and enjoy God).
To pursue holiness, believers must first present themselves as living sacrifices that are “holy and acceptable to God” (12:1). But Paul isn’t writing a TED Talk on self-improvement. Instead, in these two verses, he gives four important gospel-centered principles about holiness.
HOLINESS FLOWS FROM THE GOSPEL
Last week we read the teachings of Peter, a fisherman with a basic 1st-Century education. This week we hear from Paul, a university-trained theological scholar. Amazingly, they were united in their profound way of thinking about the inherent logic of the Gospel. Both Peter and Paul teach the basic command to be holy is rooted in God’s gracious character.
We can summarize what Peter taught us this way: God’s command to be holy is NOT telling us to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, to try harder to do better. Instead, he encourages us to dive in and swim in the refreshing river of God’s one-way love displayed in Christ Jesus and to live out of the resources he has provided for us in Christ. To use slightly different imagery, holiness requires putting deep roots into gospel soil.
Understanding what the Bible tells us about holiness requires some understanding of two grammatical terms: “indicative” and “imperative.” Divine indicatives are statements about what God does, is doing, or will do. These always come before, and provide the basis for, divine imperatives – statements about what our response should be to the indicatives. The Bible tells us who God is, what he has done, is doing, and will do for us. That teaching is always the basis for our response of trust and obedience. God’s one-way love is the engine that drives our obedience.
When we mistakenly reverse the grammar, we wrongly assume “If I do this then God will do that.” Or we say, “If I do my part then God will respond to me and do his part.” Many Christians have no problem saying we are justified (made right with God) by trust in Christ alone. But we tend to reverse our grammar when it comes to holiness, making the Christian life into a “self-help” program with some bible language sprinkled on top.
But Paul explains in Romans 8:3-4 that God’s Law does NOT have the power to make me holy even though it demands I be holy. Holiness, he writes, is only possible because of what God has done for me in Christ and because of what the Holy Spirit is now doing in me. Our response to God’s imperatives (commands) is to dive into appreciating the one-way love God expresses to us in Christ Jesus and applies to us by the Holy Spirit. Paul never varies in his teaching that devotion to God (holiness, sanctification) is ALWAYS the fruit of God’s setting us apart in and through Christ.
We are devoted to Christ because we understand the significance of his death and resurrection. To quote hymn writer Isaac Watts:
When I survey the wondrous cross, / On which the Prince of Glory died / My richest gain I count but loss, / And pour contempt on all my pride.[iii]
Reversing the grammar of our salvation can make us very rigid in our pursuit of holiness. That was the problem of the Pharisees. Bad Gospel grammar makes us smuggle our sanctification back into our justification. God told Israel the basis of the Mosaic Law was that he had redeemed them from Egyptian slavery. The Pharisees turned the implications of God’s redeeming grace into qualifications for remaining in grace, and even qualifications for “earning” saving grace itself.
When we reverse the order of Gospel logic, our eyes gradually become fixed on our performance rather than on our relationship to God in Christ. Mercy and grace get squeezed into the background and holiness becomes external graceless performance. Obedience becomes its own end. Accomplishment obscures need. Grace remains a part of our theology but it ceases to be a reality in our hearts.
That is why Romans 12:1 emphasizes the word, “therefore”. Consecration and sanctification are rooted in the reality of our justification by grace alone through faith-union with Christ alone. The first 11 chapters of Romans contain 315 verses in the ESV. Of those, only 7 verses tell us what to do; while 308 verses form an exposition of what God has done for us. Paul does set out commands in the later part of the letter, very weighty commands to accompany the heavy theology he taught in the first 11 chapters.
SANCTIFICATION IS EXPRESSED PHYSICALLY
Paul tells us in these two verses that, first, holiness flows from the Gospel. Second, holiness expresses itself in our bodies. Paul says, “present your bodies as a living sacrifice….” Why is Paul so specific about this command? Because we live with and through our bodies. Our bodies carry out our intentions. And our intentions as still-sinful creatures in a sinful world are most often self-interested rather than God-honoring. In our bodies, our sinful tendencies, addictions, and habits exercise their spiritually destructive influence on us.
Our bodies express what is in our hearts. Sin in our thinking, our hearts, manifests itself in our physical actions. Jesus said out of the heart the mouth speaks (Matt. 12:34). He spoke about our eye causing us to sin (Matt. 5:29-30). So, the radical change Christ brings about in our lives will manifest itself in both the way we think and in our bodily actions. Paul’s statement here in Romans isn’t unique. He wrote to the Corinthians, “Don’t you understand the body is for the Lord and the Lord is for the body?” (2 Cor. 6:12-20).
Each day we face the natural choice to think and act out of self-interest. But we can face the day well-armed if the eye, ear, tongue, hand, and foot have already been devoted as a living sacrifice to Jesus – not for the sake of earning more Brownie Points with God (because Jesus paid it all and earned it all for us!), but out of a sense of all that God, in his one-way love, has done to purchase us.
Paul chose his words carefully. So, when he employs sacrificial language in Romans 12:1-2, he is using language that both his Jewish and Gentile readers would understand since both Greco-Roman religions and Judaism involved offering sacrifices, either to the demon-gods or to The God. Sacrifices were common occurrences in Paul’s day. They were deliberate, costly, and even bloody. Paul is saying that holiness requires deliberate action on our parts and the exercise of our will.
This, Paul writes, is the believer’s “rational” or “reasonable worship.” If Christ has purchased us with his own precious life-blood, then it is rational, reasonable to act according to that fact. In other words, Step One (“It’s all about Jesus!”) is rational. Step Two (“See step one!”) is also logical. Since God the Son took a real, physical human body to do the will of the Triune Godhead, Jesus-followers seek to give their minds and bodies over to do God’s will in the power of the Spirit of Christ. What are we sacrificing? We are sacrificing our natural inclinations to act solely in self-interest. We are consciously slaying the natural man’s false doctrine: “It’s all about me.” Human beings were created to glorify God and enjoy him forever (“It’s all about God”). Following Adam’s rebellion, human beings inherited Adam’s sin nature and Adam’s new attitude of worshiping self.
God’s command to Adam and to Israel to “love the Lord your God, and … serve him with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut. 11:13) is completely unnatural to human nature after Adam’s sin. The law we write on our own hearts is, “Follow your heart” or, “If it feels good, do it.” Exalting man to be the measure of all things demeans mankind and destroys man’s true dignity. The Gospel of Christ stands in stark contrast to the doctrine of “It’s all about me.” It calls us to logical, rational worship of the Lord who purchased us body and soul. In such worship, we discover self-forgetfulness and Christ-glorifying consecration.
The third foundation of holiness Paul sets out in these two verses might surprise us. Most of us tend to think in terms of holiness as a long list of behaviors to do and not do. But when we ask Paul the key to how the gospel transforms and sanctifies us, his answer is that holiness happens in our minds: “2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind….”[iv]
Culture and Context
Christians become non-conformists and counter-cultural to the present evil age by the renewing of our minds. The Bible attaches a premium to the mind. Paul always discusses holiness with both a negative and a positive aspect. Negatively, he urges us to not think according to the worldly doctrine, “It’s all about me.” Positively, he urges us to think in terms of “Step One” (“It’s all about Jesus”) through the renewal of our mind.
If we are not deliberately thinking about our culture and our context, we will be conformed to it without ever knowing it. The Bible teaches us of two ages: the present age and the age to come. The present age is dominated by the world, the flesh, and the devil (1 Jn. 2:15-17; Eph. 2:1-4). But Old Testament scriptures promised an age to come – the Kingdom of God – dominated by renewal, resurrection, new life, and new creation (cf. Isa. 65:17-25).
That age to come is at the heart of Paul’s gospel. Jesus’ resurrection as the firstborn from the dead means that God’s new creation has already broken into the present world and the new age has already begun. What was expected at the end of history was inaugurated in the middle of it. Those who belong to Jesus by trusting into his person and work for their salvation begin to share in this new age. So, Paul wrote, “If anyone [is] in Christ, [they enter the] new creation. The old is gone. Look, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17, trans. mine).
Believers have been rescued from this present evil age. We are the ones “on whom the end of the age has come” (1 Cor. 10:11). We can see the sun peaking over the horizon. The full light of noonday has not yet come; but we’re no longer living in the darkness (Eph. 5:8-14). Paul says we need to learn this new way of thinking if we are to be transformed to look more like Jesus. And this is exactly what the propositions of the gospel produces in us: the new way of thinking.
Paul’s command literally reads, “Be being transformed” or “Go on being transformed” (present, imperative, passive). Paul is exhorting us to continue actively engaging in a process in which we are passive. How is that possible? It is possible when we participate in the means God’s uses to transform our minds. The means of transformation is God’s Word, his message of the Good News. As the Bible begins to permeate our minds, it begins to transform our dispositions and recalibrate our affections.
The Apostle Paul wrote letters because he knew God’s word has the power to renew minds and transform lives. As we come to know God’s Son (by God’s Word through God’s Spirit), changes happen in our thinking, feeling, desiring, willing, and living. God’s Word and Spirit work together to renew our minds. That’s why placing our lives under the preaching of God’s word is crucial to believers. That is THE place where we are actively passive as the word is expounded to us, not by us; as we actively listen, it appeals to our minds and penetrates our consciences. You are not “actively passive” in your personal bible study. You are not actively passive in a group study. You are actively passive when the word is preached.
The cumulative impact of the word of God expounded in the context of the worship of God by the people of God is what renews our minds – not immediately, but Sunday by Sunday, month by month, year by year. It takes the whole of your life to give your life wholly to Christ. Our Western culture, by contrast, is an activist one. We can scarcely grasp that our first and greatest need is to be passively active in receiving the word preached in corporate worship. A glance at the vast majority of “Christian” books for sale shows our voracious appetite for the “project of the self” – what we can accomplish and what steps we should take to get it done now. But there is less hunger for knowledge of God in Christ which is life eternal (Jn. 17:4), and still less hunger to submit to the preachers Jesus places over his congregations as they proclaim God’s word.
The final principle in Romans 12:1-2 is the effect of the process: discerning and approving the will of God as “good and acceptable and perfect.”[v] Paul says this effect comes “by testing….” That Greek word rendered “by testing you may discern (or, in most translations, translated simply as “prove”) means to “learn by experience.” The goal of sitting under preaching and teaching, of reading scripture, of personal or group studies, is NOT INFORMATION BUT TRANSFORMATION. If what I learn does not lead me to repentance and humble service of others then my efforts are only self-serving and NOT the good and acceptable and perfect. Producing a congregation whose heads are full of Bible knowledge is not the same thing as producing a congregation whose affections have been captured for the glory of God in Christ Jesus. Only the latter will have a genuine gospel culture.
God isn’t interested in making me a better, smarter me for the sake of me. God is in the business of glorifying himself. I learn by experience as God takes me and smashes me into the wall of his perfect will to show me more and more of my sin and prompt me more and more to repentance and humble reliance upon Christ and all his benefits so that I will glorify him by serving others inside and outside the church.
God leads us by ways we could not have guessed, into situations we never expected, to fulfill purposes we could never have imagined. To my sin nature, God’s will is never good and acceptable because it’s God’s will and not MY will. But as God’s word by the Spirit of God transforms me more and more, doing God’s will brings pleasure (glorifying God and enjoying him forever). Paul knew this because he experienced it.
At the end of the day, the Lord Jesus is not a purveyor of information about himself for the sake of information. He is the lover of our souls who loved us unto death and yet lives to pray for us that we will learn to love him more and more until that day we see him face to face and can finally love God and others with eternal perfection.
One day you really WILL love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and your neighbor as yourself. And, if you are trusting into Christ this morning, you ARE being transformed into a living sacrifice and made more and more into a vital member in this dawn of his inbreaking Kingdom. Jesus is the “whole enchilada” of holiness. And he has been given to you and for you.
So, Paul wrote to the Romans:
28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. [vi]
Notice the grammar? Your holiness is SO certain, it’s in the past tense.
[i] This series, with otherwise-noted sources, is a condensed version of Devoted to God: Blueprints For Sanctification by Sinclair Ferguson. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust (2016).
[iii] Isaac Watts, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. Trinity Hymnal, No 252.