Recent trends in the church have included the move towards social justice. I believe this is a very important shift in the focus and ministry of the church. From what I have seen though is this movement has been motivated more by perceived needs of the world and the culture’s own move towards causes rather than a desire to honor and glorify God.
In Paul’s conversation with the Roman church, he spends much of his time speaking on doctrine and then moves to how we should relate to each other. But one thing I want us to notice that is very significant is before Paul gets into our role to be merciful, he emphasizes our need to be worshipful.
Before you think that the Christian life has everything to do with being merciful to people, realize that it has everything to do with being worshipful toward God. He tells us in Romans 12:1-2, “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.” Before we give ourselves away in mercy to man, we give ourselves away in worship to God.
This is crucial to see. We must never let the Christian life drift into just a social agenda. I use the word “just” carefully because if God is left out, our mercy will be just a social agenda. We do no one good in the end if we are not worshipping and leading them to worship in the acts of mercy that we do. If our good deeds are not expressing the worth of God, then our deeds are not worship, and in the end will not be merciful. Making people comfortable or helping them feel good on the way to everlasting punishment, without the hope and the design that they see Christ in your good deeds is not mercy. Mercy must aim to glorify Christ. For no one is saved who doesn’t meet and make much of Christ. And not to care about saving is not merciful.
I believe that it is absolutely essential that Paul put worship before mercy and that he defines the Christian life as worshipful before he defines it as merciful. Or to put it more carefully, Paul defines the Christian life as an act of worship so that it can be merciful. If we are not worshipping in our lifestyle—that is, if we are not making much of God’s mercy in Christ in our behavior—we are not giving people what they need most. And that is not merciful. A merciful lifestyle depends on a worshipful lifestyle. Before Paul defines Christian living as merciful, he defines it as worshipful.
So let’s look more closely at what Paul means by a lifestyle of worship. Verse 1: “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.” What is this “spiritual worship”?
First, Paul says it is a presenting of a sacrifice to God. “Present your bodies as a sacrifice . . . to God.” This is the language of worship from the Old Testament. In coming to God the worshipper brought a sheep or a bull or a pigeon and sacrificed it on the altar as an offering to God. There were different kinds of sacrifices but at the heart of it was that sin demanded punishment, and the slain animal represented God’s willingness to accept a substitute so that the worshipper might live and have an ongoing relationship of forgiveness and joy with God.
But all the Old Testament believers knew that the blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sin (Hebrews 10:4). They pointed beyond themselves to Christ, who was the final sacrifice for sin. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 5:7, “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.” That was the final sacrifice for sin, because it was perfect and sufficient for all who believe. Most clearly of all Hebrews 10:12 says, “When Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.” So Christ brought to an end the Old Testament sacrifices for sin. He finished the great work of atonement. His death cannot be improved on. All we have to do now is trust him for that great work. We do not add to it.
So when Paul says that our worship is to present our bodies as a sacrifice he does not mean that we die and atone for our sins. Well, what does he mean? Let’s take the four words he gives and see what each contributes to understanding a lifestyle of daily worship: bodies, living, holy, acceptable to God.
The point here is not to present to God your bodies and not your mind or heart or spirit. He is going to say very clearly in verse two: “Be transformed in the renewal of your mind.” The point is to stress that your body counts. You belong to God soul and body, or you don’t belong to him at all. Your body matters.
Someone might think: Why would God be interested in my body? It’s overweight, or underweight, wrinkled, blotchy, achy, diseased, impulsive, nervous, unattractive, lazy, awkward, disabled, near-sighted, hard-of-hearing, stiff, and brittle. What kind of sacrifice is that? The Old Testament demanded a flawless sheep. I don’t measure up.
That kind of thinking totally misses the point. The sacrifice of our bodies to God is not a sacrifice for sin. That is done already in the sacrifice of Christ. Peter makes this really clear in 1 Peter 2:5 where he says something similar to Romans 12:1: “Offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God”—then he adds these words: “through Jesus Christ.” It’s because of Jesus that our sacrifices to God are acceptable. It is through His perfection, not your perfection.
But that kind of thinking misses the point in another way: The offering of our bodies is done through our actions. In the Bible the body is not significant because of the way it looks, but because of the way it acts. The body is given to us to make visible the beauty of Christ. And Christ, at the hour of His greatest beauty, was repulsive to look at. Isaiah 53:2-3 describes him: “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” The beauty of Christ is the beauty of love, not the beauty of looks. His beauty was the beauty of sacrifice, not skin.
God demands our bodies because He wants models of mercy. God wants visible, lived-out, bodily evidence that our lives are built on His mercy. Just as worshippers in the Old Testament denied themselves some earthly treasure (a sheep, a goat, a bull), and carried their sacrifices to the altar of blood and fire, so we deny ourselves some earthly treasure or ease or comfort, and carry ourselves—our bodies—for Christ’s sake to the places and the relationships and the crises in this world where mercy is needed. It may be your own home, or it may be Senegal.
In the Old Testament, animals were the sacrifice to God. When God wants our lives, He is looking for a living sacrifice. It is a life that is dead to self, but alive for God. A life of visible, lived-out, physical actions of mercy might result in the death of a believer. There have always been martyrs. But that is not mainly what Paul has in mind here. Here he has in mind a lifestyle. Present your bodies a living sacrifice. It is your living that is the act of worship.
Many of you have heard of lifestyle evangelism. Some of you may have taken seminars on it. The premise is having your life reflect your faith. Now I also believe that we need to share our faith too, as Romans 10 tells us. However, how we live, like a picture, is sometimes 1000 times clearer than talking. That being said, as Christians, we need to be living our faith in a positive way. We tend to be characterized by what we don’t do, rather than living how we should – doing the things and living our lives with purpose and freedom.
It might be simple like a smile to a coworker or stranger on the street. It might be more like volunteering at the Mustard Seed or another social justice agency that requires you to get dirty and take risks.
Let every act of your body in living be an act of worship. That is, let every act of your living body be a demonstration that God is your treasure. Let every act of your living body show that Christ is more precious to you than anything else. Let every act of your living body be a death to all that dishonors Christ.
Next is holiness. Probably the best explanation of holy bodies comes from Romans 6:13 where Paul said almost the very same thing he says here, using the very language of “presenting” our bodies to God, only he refers to our bodily “members” and not just our bodies. “Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life [i.e., a living sacrifice], and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.”
To “Present a living holy body to God” means to give all of you – your eyes, your tongue, your hands, and feet – give your body to do righteousness, not sin. That’s what would make a body holy. A body is holy not because of what it looks like, or what shape it’s in, but because of what it does. Is it physical “instrument” for righteousness? Is it the physical instrument of meekness and mercy and peace?
Hebrews 13:16 says, “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” When you do good, in Jesus’ name, with your mouth or your hands or your presence, your body becomes a holy, living sacrifice of worship. A body becomes a holy sacrifice of worship when it is devoted to God’s purposes of righteousness and mercy.
The word holy is a word that is not often used in today’s context. In fact, it is a word that is especially misunderstood among Christians. We are called by God to be set apart, or holy. Why? To honor and glorify God. Be holy as I am holy. That is our call.
Lastly, we are to be acceptable to God. If the sacrifice of our bodily life is holy, then it is acceptable to God. So what do these words add? They add God. They make God explicit. They remind us that the reason holiness matters is because of God. They remind us that all of these words are describing an act of worship and God is the center of worship.
It’s fitting that we end where we began and stress that before Romans 12 is a call to live a merciful life, it is a call to live a worshipful life. Or better: In calling us to live a merciful life (built on the mercy of God in Christ), the aim is that it be a worshipful life. The aim of showing mercy is showing God. The aim of having bodies is to make the glory of God more visible. And he does not shine through our muscles and curves but through our merciful behavior.