Today’s New Testament lesson (Romans 12:1-8) is among my favorite passages in the Bible. Having spent the bulk of his epistle laying out his understanding of God’s grace and its ability to overcome both our sin and our division, the Apostle Paul now begins to sketch the practical implications of the gospel, and he begins with words that have come to shape my faith journey in profound ways:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:1-2)
So many of my questions, struggles and passions over the years have been spurred by wrestling with the gap between “conforming” and “being transformed.” Like so many other key passages that address the nature of the Christian life, this one highlights the necessary balance between “what we can do” and “what God alone can do.” On the one hand, we are called “to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice.” Our response to God’s mercy compels us to use all that we are and all that we have in ways that serve His purpose (see, for example, the instructions of Romans 12:3-8). But on the other hand, even our best efforts in this regard are incapable of producing within us the Christ-likeness that we seek. We must be transformed. And only as we keep laying our “life offering” before the Father can His Spirit produce the fruit that we were created to bear.
Of course, let’s be honest. It’s no easy thing to keep offering our lives in this way—to keep serving and giving and waiting for God to do the work in us that we so desperately long to have completed. We get tired. We get distracted. And sometimes, we become afraid that God is doing to change our lives in ways far different from what we had planned.
On a student mission team of which I was a part many years ago, we used to ask the question: “Do you know the problem with a ‘living sacrifice’?”
And the answer? “It keeps crawling away from the altar.”
May we find ourselves willing to stay on the altar today. May we (to borrow Eugene Peterson’s translation of this passage) “Take our everyday, ordinary life—our sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for us is the best thing we can do for him.” (The Message)