Text: I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world; but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God (Rom. 12:1, 2).
One of the vivid recollections of my youth is that of watching a baseball game between two teams of unsophisticated teen-age amateurs, who played for fun, but with a tremendous determination to win. When the batter came up for his turn at bat it did not matter what the situation was—how many scores, how many men on bases, how many strikes, balls, outs—he had only one thought; and that was to lose the ball in a grand home run over the backfield fence. And so he would swing at the Hall with all the power he could muster, putting every ounce of his being into the effort. That may not have been good baseball strategy, but it was a magnificent demonstration of aiming for the best.
The Christian who aims for the highest and the best will find in the words of our text a powerful challenge to godly living, a ringing call to higher ground.
(1) Most Christians have never proven “what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God,” but are living on something less than God’s best.
(2) Many are living unhappily on spiritual lowlands only slightly above the level of the unregenerate world, without “the peace of God, which passeth all understanding” (Phil. 4:7), and without that heavenly lift which is the soul of happiness.
(3) Some are trying to be Christians in a mild sort of way, vainly trying to find happiness without holiness. Thus they live their pinched, meagre little lives, and die their little deaths, and are laid in their little graves, without ever experiencing the “abundant life” which is the unceasing concern of the Saviour, who came “that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).
(4) All who seriously aspire to God’s best will find help in the scriptural statement which reveals the way and spells out God’s requirements:
I. Complete Consecration
“… present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.”
1. It is required that we “present” the body, the instrument of every vice and every virtue.
(1) How do we serve our Lord? We serve him with the body—with the eyes seeing what he would have us to see, with the ears hearing what he would have us to hear, with the tongue speaking what he would have us to speak, with the hands doing what he would have us to do, and with the feet going where he would have us to go.
(2) How do we serve sin? Again, it is with the body—with the eyes, the ears, the tongue, the hands, and the feet choosing to engage in that which is repugnant to the Holy Spirit.
(3) How does one pay the penalty for sin? Here too the body is involved. Sin ravages the body as well as the soul. The judgment of God descends upon the body as well as the soul, in time and in eternity. The Bible declares that “there shall be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust” (Acts 24:15). The righteous are “raised incorruptible” (1 Cor. 15:52), with a body “like unto his [Christ’s] glorious body” (Phil. 3:21). About the resurrection body of the wicked we are not expressly told; but there are biblical intimations of a re-identification of the soul with some semblance of its former body.
Jesus repeatedly speaks of the destiny of the doomed in terms of “hell fire,” “outer darkness,” and “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 18:9; 22:13). Somewhat more articulate is his reference to the doomed man in the place of torment pleading for a few drops of water to cool his tongue (Luke 16:24).
Clarence E. Macartney, in his very stimulating book, Preaching without Notes, gives the substance of a dialogue between a lost soul and its resurrection body, in the judgment, as imagined by Samuel Davies, noted preacher of Colonial times. The soul curses the body, and blames the lusts of the body for the soul’s eternal undoing, and cries out against the loathesome prospect of being reunited with the body. The body makes answer, bitterly accusing the soul of having prostituted the body to sin, forbidding the knees to bow before the throne of grace, and overruling every inclination of the eyes and ears to read and hear the Word of Life. In consequence, the body recognizes itself to be the just instrument of the soul’s everlasting punishment, while crying out against the necessity of being bound together by chains which even the pangs of hell and the flames of unquenchable fire cannot dissolve.
2. It is “reasonable” that we “present” the body as a living sacrifice.
(1) It is reasonable on the ground of our redemption. “Ye are not your own … for ye are bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Cor. 6:19, 20). “Ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold … but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Pet. 1:18, 19). On the cross hangs Christ; beneath the cross lies a helpless sinner, “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). What takes place is far more than a blood transfusion which revives the body; it is a transfusion which imparts everlasting life to the soul.
To Him I owe my life and breath,
And all the joys I have;
He makes me triumph over death,
And saves me from the grave.
(2) It is reasonable on the ground of our participation in the life of Christ. A valid, saving faith is based not on imitation of Christ, but on participation in the life of Christ. “We are made partakers of Christ”—not mere imitators (Heb. 3:14). “I am the vine, ye are the branches” (John 15:5). “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). One of the renowned international statesmen of the past century was a rather consistent imitator of Christ; but, according to his own profession, he was not a Christian. He accepted the ethics of Christ, but not the Lordship of Christ. And it is only when Christ becomes our Lord that he becomes the Saviour of the soul and the Guardian of our destiny.
(3) It is reasonable on the ground of our relation to the Holy Spirit. “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you” (1 Cor. 3:16)? This means that your eyes are the eyes of the Holy Spirit; your ears are the ears of the Holy Spirit; your tongue is the tongue of the Holy Spirit; your hands and feet are the hands and feet of the Holy Spirit. When we present ourselves bodily, “a living sacrifice,” there is no conflict between the parts, but perfect co-ordination.
In college days I witnessed an unforgettable demonstration of a so-called split personality. A young woman on the platform with her arms behind her and her back against a curtain, was giving a highly dramatic reading. Behind the curtain stood another young woman, completely out of sight, with her arms extending through the curtain in such a way as to make them appear to belong to the young woman who was in view. While the one was giving her reading, with the utmost vocal and facial expression, the girl from behind was providing the gestures. The result was ludicrous beyond words. But the audience got the message. An uncoordinated Christian is a defeated Christian. There is a better way, and that is total consecration, in the spirit of our text.
This text lays a further requirement upon us:
II. Complete Separation
“Be not conformed to this world.…”
1. Blessed is the man who does not do what the unregenerate world does.
“Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night. And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper” (Ps. 1:1–3).
(1) The happy man in the first Psalm was a non-conformist. It is not indicated what he may have endured, in terms of social pressures, ostracism, and ridicule on the part of the ungodly, the sinners, and the scornful. But it is made clear that he had chosen the better part. His prosperity was God-given. He was reaping the blessings of an ancient promise: “Them that honor me I will honor, saith the Lord” (1 Sam. 2:30).
(2) Daniel, who “purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself” after the manner of the Babylonians (Dan. 1:8), was another non-conformist—a man of character, conviction, and determination. How easy it would have been to fall into prevailing patterns of conduct—“When in Babylon, do as the Babylonians do!” Daniel’s “separated life” was no bed of roses, but by the grace of God he survived all the hazards of non-conformity, in crisis after crisis. He powerfully influenced a succession of four reigning monarchs; and after three-quarters of a century in Babylon he stood taller than ever, before God and man. “Be not conformed to this world”; there is a higher conformity!
(3) The young man in the armed forces today faces testings no less crucial than the testings of Daniel. He can go in clean and come out clean, but only as a non-conformist in his personal life. In the anonymity of a uniform, a thousand miles from home, unknown and without the strengthening presence of parents, pastors, and teachers, the easy way is to be “conformed to this world.” When I wore the uniform I was appalled to find what happened to the morals and integrity of many who at home had been active front-line Christians. But, thank God, there was always a precious minority who carried their convictions and dedication with them and who fortified one another when the going was hard.
2. Blessed is the man who does not know what the unregenerate world knows.
It might surprise us to discover in the Bible a case in which our Lord actually places a premium on ignorance. In the message to the church at Thyatira the Lord notes that the church is tolerating in its midst the filthy sins of Jezebel, and is becoming involved in her guilt. Divine judgment is about to descend, but not upon those “which have not known the depths of Satan” (Rev. 2:24).
Mother Eve was intrigued by the promise of Satan that her knowledge would be increased by eating of the forbidden fruit. And so it was. But how infinitely poorer she was with the consequences of this further knowledge (Gen. 3)! The Prodigal Son learned much through his “riotous living” in the “far country” (Luke 15:11–24). But,
Oh, that I never had gone astray!
Life was all radiant with hope one day;
Now all its treasures I’ve thrown away!
No, the increase of knowledge is not always the way to God’s best. “Be not conformed to this world.”
3. Blessed is the man who lays aside “every weight” as well as “the sin which doth so easily beset us” (Heb. 12:1).
Many who are not readily tempted with outright sin are defeated by these “weights”—these practices and indulgences which may seem harmless in themselves, but which at best tend to muffle or limit one’s Christian testimony, and which may open the way to disaster.
Some years ago, in Newark, New Jersey, the front page of a newspaper carried the startling headline that ducks by the hundreds were drowning in one of the bays in the vicinity. What was the story? Great flocks of these migrating wild ducks were settling down upon the water as usual; but there was a new, unsuspected hazard. From a nearby refinery a large quantity of crude oil had spilled into the bay. The oil itself was not harmful; it was not poisonous; it had no hurtful acid content. But gradually and subtly it matted the feathers together; and before the ducks realized what was happening the icy waters had penetrated to the skin; the bodies became numb with cold, and the ducks perished. “My soul, be on thy guard!”
Along the way to God’s best, there is still another requirement:
III. Complete Transformation
“Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
1. We cannot transform ourselves.
“The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God … neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). However he might strain for vision and discernment, he is helpless until the transforming grace of God shines in. He cannot change himself from a sinner to a saint, or elevate himself to higher ground. But he can open his heart and life to the One who “is able.”
James L. Kraft, the renowned Christian layman, recalls as a great turning point in his life the day that a certain kindly eye doctor came into his life. James was a fourteen-year-old boy, one of a family of eleven children, living on a farm in Canada. In his book, Adventure in Jade, he relates that he had never been able to distinguish objects clearly. His nearsightedness was so acute and so distressing that he assumed everyone on earth suffered continuously from furious headaches, and that all the earth had the blurry image of a boat seen from under water. It happened that the oculist was vacationing in the vicinity, and young James was taking care of his horse and buggy. Noting his extreme nearsightedness, the oculist insisted that the boy go to the city with him to be fitted with a pair of glasses. In that gift of glasses, Kraft gratefully recalls, “he gave me the earth and all that was in it, completely in focus and beautiful beyond anything I could have dreamed.… I cannot think of another act of human kindness in my lifetime which can compare with his.” It was not possible for the boy to transform himself, but it was quite possible for him to be transformed.
2. We cannot have the “fruit of the Spirit” without the Spirit.
“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance” (Gal. 5:22, 23). This nine-fold fruitage grows spontaneously out of the heart that is indwelt by the Holy Spirit. A semblance of these graces might be achieved without the Holy Spirit, but such simulated graces would be rootless and superficial, like flowers pinned on a corpse. It is not in the nature of unregenerate man to bring forth such fruitage with the vitality to endure. At best, what is brought forth is like the sprouting of the seed that fell on stony ground—quick to come up, and quick to wither away when the sun became hot (Matt. 13:20, 21).
3. We cannot have godliness without God. “It is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). There are those who have a “form of godliness” but not “the power thereof” (2 Tim. 3:5). Faith has been defined as “the life of God in the heart of man.” Man is not fully alive until he has that inflow from above. A familiar parting salutation of frontier days was: “I hope you’ll really live until you die.” Perhaps this was meant facetiously, but with the right interpretation it could be a noble and fitting salutation.
4. We cannot have God without Christ. Christ, the Great Reconciler, “hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us … that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross” (Eph. 2:14, 16). But “no man cometh unto the Father but by me” (John 14:6). This fact would account for something that can be seen daily in certain lands of the Near East. The adherents of one particular faith believe in God and in prayer, but emphatically reject the deity of Christ. At appointed times they hasten to the place of prayer, and go through all the ritualistic prostrations as prescribed. But one’s heart goes out in deep sympathy to the many who return with facial expressions no less grim, tense, and distraught than before the prayers. To all appearances, there has been no experience of the mellowing, strengthening, transforming grace of God; and there is not that serenity which is the reward of real prayer communion with the Heavenly Father.
Our text assures us that we can “prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”
But we never can prove the delights of His love
Until all on the altar we lay;
For the favor He shows, and the joy He bestows,
Are for them who will trust and obey.
—Chapter 8, “God’s Best for You,” from Sermons Preached without Notes, by Charles W. Koller (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1964). Used by permission.
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