In our last post we laid some groundwork in an effort to demystify the will of God by distinguishing God’s sovereign will from God’s commanded will. Scripture affirms that God has a sovereign plan that cannot be spoiled by any strategy of man, or even by Satan himself. Job acknowledged to God at the end of his horrific journey, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” (Job 42:2) This expression came from a man who was never told why he was required to walk through an unspeakably dark valley. However, Job discovered that God has a sovereign plan even when life seems to be careening out of control and no specific answers are forthcoming. And yet, for the believer, there is every reason to have confidence that God is still on the throne, and that every one of his purposes will be accomplished for his glory and our good.
So, if Paul is not referring to God’s sovereign will, what does he mean when he writes in Romans 12:2 that believers are to test and discern “the will of God?” Well, he is referring to God’s commanded will which speaks to something we can know because it has been revealed in Scripture. We are to bring God’s revelation to bear on the decisions of our lives. This offers strong encouragement for every follower of Christ. The will of God is described in beautiful terms as that which is “good and acceptable and perfect?” This pursuit of God’s will should be something we run to as one of the great assurances in life.
But unfortunately, for many Christians the concept of knowing the will of God is a point of confusion, doubt, and fear. Instead of the principles and precepts of God’s word illuminating the path of their decision-making, many believers grope in darkness living off the husks of their own instincts and spiritual immaturity. This command to discern God’s will should be our life’s quest.
Thank you for reading along for the last few months. I appreciate the words of encouragement that have come from some of you who have kindly read my weekly offerings. These blog posts are a part of a larger writing project that I hope will form a book sometime this summer entitled, “Life on the Altar: The Life We Are Called to Live.” With the next two posts we finish Part One: “Presenting Ourselves to God as Living Sacrifices.” My focus in this opening section has been Romans 12:1,2 which provides a unique picture of the Christian life.
In these verses, the apostle Paul brings us to the altar of sacrifice, not for atonement, but for surrender. This altar is for those who have been transformed by the mercies of God found in Christ. Here, in the spirit of Jesus’ demands of discipleship set forth in the Gospels, we are called to a life of surrender. Paul’s use of sacrificial language is a vivid picture of what it means to follow Jesus.
One of the richest blessings that flows from this “altar life” is the ability to know and do the will of God. Paul closes this exhortation with one of the great outcomes of presenting ourselves to God, namely the ability to “prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” I find in these words a demystifying of God’s will for every believer. By that, I am not wanting to be cavalier or flippant with something as important as knowing and doing God’s will. I am not advocating that we will always know in the clearest terms every specific decision we are to make. We won’t. Neither am I suggesting that God’s will is not mysterious. It most certainly is. However, I do find in this statement of Paul tremendous clarity for the believer to live in confidence of God’s pleasure and direction over their life.
The Apostle Paul in his opening words to the Corinthians defines humanity into two categories, two destinies: “For the word of the cross is folly (foolishness) to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (I Cor. 1:18).” His basis for such a claim was one’s response to the message of the cross, specifically that God was in Christ as the exclusive payment for our sins and the only path to reconciliation with the God. Later in I Corinthians, Paul would summarize the gospel in this way: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures (I Cor. 15:3,4).”
In our reading of the Gospels, we should make return visits to Golgotha and remember that our sin put Him on those beams. Martin Luther once said, “I feel like Jesus only died yesterday,” which was Luther’s reflection on the events of Good Friday long ago. Good Friday is an important time to pause and remember that day in which Jesus hung for six hours, from 9:00 in the morning to 3:00 in the afternoon. For nearly 400 minutes Jesus Christ was suspended between earth and heaven as a once-for-all payment for sins.
John Frame was certainly correct when he wrote, “The Christian life is a rich journey, and it is not easy to describe.”Maybe that is why the New Testament has multiple pictures of what it means to live for Jesus Christ in this world. The Christian life is depicted as a walk (I John 2:6; 3 John 4); a race (1 Corinthians 9:24; Hebrews 12:1-3; 2 Timothy 4:7); a battle (Ephesians 6:10-20; 2 Timothy 4:7); and as we have seen in Romans 12, a living sacrifice.
Transformed and motivated by God’s mercies, believers are to live their lives as an offering to God. This is what we are calling in this series of posts, “Life on the Altar.” This life is not one we would have found or desired on our own…ever. (Romans 3:10-18; Ephesians 2:1-4). This life in Christ begins for believers with the miracle of the “new birth” or “regeneration.” This powerful, transforming work is an act of God’s sovereign grace in which, through the power of the gospel, one repents of their sins and believes in the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul described this wonder of wonders as God delivering us from the domain of darkness and transferring us to the kingdom of his beloved son (Colossians 1:13).
In our last post, we looked at a couple of examples from the Gospels at the power of Jesus to transform lives. Zaccheus was changed from the town cheat to one who was willing to give back fourfold to those he had defrauded (Luke 19:8). To such a response, Jesus declared, “Today salvation has come to this house (Luke 19:9).” The Gerasene demonic was transformed by the power of Christ from a frightening menace to a man at peace, who was found clothed and in his right mind (Mark 5:15). Adding to these the woman at the well in John 4, who had a storied past with a handful of husbands. However, in a mid-day conversation with Jesus, she received the living water he spoke of in salvation. Her witness for Christ spread as she invited others to come and see the one who “told me all that I ever did (John 4:39).” The life-changing encounters found in the Gospels are presented so that we would believe in Christ and follow him all of our days.
The gospel is not a self-help program. Jesus is not a personal life coach to help us on our way to self-improvement. He is the only one qualified to be the all-sufficient Savior for sinners, and His transforming power is our only hope of redemption from the slavery of our sin. Christ is the exclusive mediator who has built the bridge of reconciliation with God and who makes it possible to live a life pleasing to him.
In our last post we focused on how Romans 12:1,2 is vital instruction for closing the “Gospel Gap.” This term describes the disparity in a believer’s life between their biblical/gospel knowledge (what we know) and how he or she lives. Paul’s point in Romans 12 is that life on the altar is presenting ourselves to God which necessarily means a changed life with continual spiritual growth.
Paul commanded believers not to “be conformed to this world (v.2).” To know Jesus Christ in a saving relationship is a call to deliberately resist being pressed into the agenda of this world’s system with its values, goals, philosophies, and judgments. This world system is passing away (I John 2:15-17), and it is in conflict with our rightful pursuit of Christ’s kingdom (Matthew 6:33). Living for this world’s approval is to crawl off the altar and to live off mission.
In contrast, Paul calls believers to “be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” This command fascinates me for a number of reasons. I would like to break this phrase down over the next post or two. The transformation Paul is speaking of refers to the full-orbed miracle of salvation which begins with conversion and includes the ongoing process of being conformed into the image of Christ (Romans 8:29). For the next few moments, let’s take a brief journey and get a reminder of God’s power to save.
Timothy Lane and Paul Trippin their very helpful book, How People Change, introduce their readers to a man and his wife, “Phil” and “Ellie.” Phil was not only familiar with Scripture and systematic theology, but also boasted of an extensive library of biblical commentaries by the “who’s who” of theological writers. Yet, even with this impressive spiritual resume, there was something wrong with Phil’s life. Lane and Tripp wrote, “If you were to turn from Phil’s library and watch the video of his life, you would see a very different man.” (Timothy S. Lane and Paul David Tripp, How People Change. New Growth Press: Greensboro 2008, p. 1)
What did Lane and Tripp mean? Well, Phil gave the appearance that all was in order. “He had the theological dexterity of a gymnast, but he lived like a relational paraplegic.” (Ibid, p. 1)His marriage, while outwardly portraying health, was really on a lifeline because of his harsh and impatient responses to his wife. His relationship with his children was distant at best. He was not satisfied with his job, and one could assume that he was in a constant scrimmage with his boss(es). What was unstable in these areas was also true of church life where he was working on his fourth church in three decades. Despite his outward persona of being a mature believer, his problems siphoned off time and power for meaningful ministry. Love, grace, and joy were not the fruit of Phil’s life.
From the outside, no one would have guessed this disparity in Phil’s life. This seemed to add to Ellie’s frustration with the church. Because no one understood what Phil was really like, Ellie had to fight bitterness when he was asked to lead a Bible Study or take a leadership role. When things began to unravel and they final pursued counseling, “They had given extensive history of their situation, yet there was little or no reference to God. Here was a theological man and his believing wife, yet their life story was utterly godless.” (Ibid, p. 2)
Lane and Tripp called this discrepancy the “Gospel Gap,” which they defined as “a vast gap in our grasp of the gospel. It subverts our identity as Christians and our understanding of the present work of God. This gap undermines every relationship in our lives, every decision we make, and every attempt to minister to others. Yet we live blindly, as if the hole were not there.”(Ibid, p. 2)
I believe Romans 12 provides insight into how the gap is closed between what we know and how we live. The opening verses in this monumental chapter give to us an explanation of the Christian life from different perspectives. In v. 1, we have a graphic picture of our lives given to God as living sacrifices. This offering of ourselves to God captures all of life and is indeed defined as true spiritual worship. In v. 2, we read of a transformation by the mercies of God found in Christ and nurtured by the renewing of our mind. The fruit of such surrender is living and doing the will of God.
How do we truly change? How do we close the Gospel Gap in our lives?
At the beginning of Paul’s letter to the Romans, he defined his ministry as one centered on the proclamation of the gospel. Paul’s life could be summarized as a man who preached one message, Jesus Christ, and him crucified and risen. His preaching was aimed to bring “the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all nations (1:5).” While Paul had never met them, he commended the church at Rome for their faith in Christ which was, “proclaimed in all the world (1:8).”
That is a tremendous testimony! Some churches are known for their pastor, or their music, or the architecture of their buildings. But to be known for your faith communicates their obedience and witness beyond the walls of the church gathering.
Biblical faith, true saving faith, is always evident through an obedient life. Jesus said, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you (Luke 6:46)?”“Faith without works is useless (James 2:20),” wrote the apostle James. To this point, we return Romans 12:1,2 which is one of the great challenges found in the New Testament for the follower of Christ, namely, to present ourselves to God as a living sacrifice and that such a life captures true spiritual worship.
In our last post, we looked at this sacrifice of ourselves, which Paul described as living, holy, and acceptable to God (12:1). This is an encouraging word that through the grace of God found in his son, the Lord Jesus Christ, we are able to live lives that are acceptable and well-pleasing to him. With this sacrifice in mind, Paul closes verse 1 with this phrase, “which is your spiritual worship.”
The phrase requires some work in translation. The two words in the Greek text, logikos and latreia, are translated in various ways: The King James Version reads, “your reasonable service;” The NIV, as well as the ESV, renders it as, “your spiritual worship;” And the NASB captures the original as, “your spiritual service of worship.”
Logikos is the source for the English word “logical,” and it can mean either spiritual or rational. Paul’s message seems to be that presenting ourselves to God as sacrifices really is a reasonable, logical response that makes perfect sense. Indeed, in light of his magnanimous grace, God is worthy of such an offering, and it is the privilege of every believer to present themselves in this way.
Latreia can be translated worship or service, and it is used in describing religious service to God. So, whether we translate this phrase as “reasonable service,” or “spiritual worship,” it seems to capture both ideas: our spiritual worship is also logical and reasonable service.
I think this is helpful in our understanding of Christian worship. True spiritual worship involves our full faculties: our mind, our reason, our bodies, our intellect. The greatest and first commandment, according to Jesus, is to love the Lord your God with all of our being. Jesus affirmed that we were to love God with all of our mind, as well as with our heart, soul, and strength. (Luke 10:27; Deuteronomy 6:5)
This is life on the altar before God, and it encompasses everything. Paul’s statement to the Corinthians captures this obedience of faith, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God (I Corinthians 10:31).” V.D. Verbrugge offers these helpful comments, “To do something for the glory of God means to reflect God’s glory in the way we live. When others look at us and how we live our lives, they should be able to see that the standards we live by are different from those of the pagan world around us. They should be able to see Jesus living in us.”
This truth of living for the glory of God was recovered by the Reformers who saw from Scripture that all of life was to be lived Coram Deo, a Latin phrase that speaks of the presence of God, under the authority of God, and to the glory of God.
Why are we hesitant to live before God in this way? Why do we hold back? Why are we prone to give the scraps of our lives to him who has bestowed to us every spiritual blessing in Christ (Ephesians 1:3)? Perhaps we think we will be ripped off or miss out on something better? Perhaps we are in doubt of God’s promises and so we hedge our losses with blemished offerings? How foolish! For those who walk with God will lack no good thing (Psalm 84:11). We need to recover the heart of David when he said, “I will not offer burnt offerings to the LORD my God that cost me nothing (2 Samuel 24:24).” David spoke these words after his prideful display in ordering the census of Israel which brought with it the Lord’s chastening hand. David was a man whose transgressions are well documented (2 Samuel 11-12; Psalm 51), nevertheless he lived in gratitude for the Lord’s mercies and was determined not to offer God the “leftovers” of his life.
Around Thanksgiving some years ago, radio commentator Paul Harvey shared a true story of a woman and her frozen Thanksgiving turkey. The Butterball Turkey Company set up a telephone hotline to answer consumer questions about preparing holiday turkeys. One woman called to inquire about cooking a turkey that had been in the bottom of her freezer for 23 years. That’s right—23 years. The Butterball representative told her the turkey would probably be safe to eat if the freezer had been kept below zero for the entire 23 years. But the Butterball representative warned her that even if the turkey was safe to eat, the flavor would probably have deteriorated to such a degree that she would not recommend eating it. The caller replied, “That’s what I thought. We’ll give the turkey to our church.”
We give to God what we would never give to others. This text of Romans 12 brings us once again to what God wants most. He wants us, all of us, and it is his prerogative to ask for it. With his usual precision James M. Boice writes, “You will begin to understand the Christian life when you understand that God does not want your money or your time without yourself. You are the one for whom Jesus died. You are the one he loves. So when the Bible speaks of reasonable service, as it does here, it means that you are the one God wants. It is sad if you try to substitute things for that, the greatest gift.”
Christianity is not a religion of meaningless routine and ritual. To follow Jesus Christ is a faith relationship in which we give ourselves to him who has redeemed our lives from destruction and crowned us with lovingkindness and tender mercy (Psalm 103:4). This is true, logical, reasonable worship, and it makes perfect sense!
I will resume our series, Life on the Altar, next week. I have the opportunity to teach a Family Life Conference in the Pensacola area and would appreciate your prayers as I travel today and for my time with the Midway congregation this weekend.
I offer this short post that came from my reading of Joshua this week. In Joshua 21, a powerful summary statement is given as Israel finished the land allotments by tribes: “Not one word of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass (21:45).” This summary is a faith building encouragement, and I am convinced will be the prevailing testimony of God on the last day. Not one promise from the Lord has failed, all has come to pass, just as He said, and just as He promised.
Taking a step back to the first chapter, the book of Joshua begins with a blunt announcement, “Moses my servant is dead!” (Joshua 1:2) There you have it. Israel’s leader for forty years now belongs to the ages.
Moses who escaped genocide as an infant and was rescued from the Nile by Pharaoh’s daughter.
Moses who was reared in Pharaoh’s court and received the best of educations.
Moses who was called at a burning bush to lead Israel out of Egypt.
Moses who confronted Pharaoh with God’s demand to let Israel go which unleashed a series of ten plagues.
Moses who led Israel out-of-slavery, through a parted Red Sea, and onward to border of the Promised Land.
Moses whose communion with God was so intimate that the text said that the Lord would “speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” (Exodus 33:11)
Moses, of whom it was said, “(he) was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth.” (Numbers 12:3)
Moses’ life divided neatly into three forty-year segments. The first forty years he lived as the son of Pharaoh. The second forty he lived in the Midian outback tending sheep as a result of his misplaced anger. And the last forty years were spent shepherding Israel to the border of the Promised Land.
Now in Joshua 1 we find his death announcement, and Joshua was charged with leading Israel into the land of Canaan. While Moses had died, God was still on the throne. When a man of God dies, none of God dies. How comforting that is for those of us living in a dying world! (more…)
The mercies of God found in the Lord Jesus Christ call for the songs of loudest praise, and they also flow from a heart of faith. Early in his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul stated that through the preaching of the gospel the purpose of his ministry was “to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations (Romans 1:5).” This obedience of faith is described in Romans 12 as believers are called to present themselves to God as living sacrifices. This language brings us back to the old covenant sacrificial system, however Paul is challenging with a new picture, not of livestock, but of ourselves. The sacrifice we are to offer to our Savior and King is to be a living, holy, and acceptable sacrifice.
What does this mean? What does such a life look like? For this post, I want to take a look at these descriptors Paul uses to call believers to give themselves to God completely. Good English translations of the Bible strive for accuracy to the original languages along with readability. For example, the English Standard Version (ESV) provides the following translation, “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship (Romans 12:1b).” However, while reading smoothly, this gives the impression that “living sacrifice” is distanced from the adjectives “holy” and “acceptable” when all three actually describe the sacrifice in question. In other words, the text calls us to present our bodies as a living, holy, and acceptable sacrifice.(more…)
Reading the regiment of sacrifices in the books of Leviticus and Numbers can be a tough go. I don’t think anyone is ever tempted to want to return to the “good old days” after reading this section of Scripture. Every year I am reminded of this in my annual Bible reading, but please don’t hear a bad attitude with regard to these Bible books. They are after all, God’s holy word, and they are written “for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” (Romans 15:4)I find myself thanking God as I trek through these tedious details in the books of the Law. With each repetition and requirement, my gratitude is centered on the fact that Christ has fulfilled that old system in substance and with full atonement, realities the Law only symbolized. I am thankful that his once-for-all death purchased redemption in full. No, there will never be another sacrifice than that which is found in Christ alone.
When the Apostle Paul issues the call for believers to present their bodies as “a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship,” (NASB) he was using temple language which takes us to the sacrificial offerings under the old covenant. Paul was not seeking to restart the old sacrificial system, nor was he hinting at a personal payment for one’s sins, which could never be done. The old system has indeed passed away. A point the writer of Hebrews presses as a major theme of the book, “In speaking of a new covenant, he (God) makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.” (Hebrews 8:13)
However, we find in Romans 12 that there still is a New Testament sacrificial system. According to R.C. Sproul, “It is not a sacrifice that we give in order to make an atonement, but a sacrifice that we give because an atonement has been made for us. God does not ask us to bring in our livestock and burn it on the altar; he asks us to give ourselves, to put ourselves alive on the altar. To be a Christian means to live a life of sacrifice, a life of presentation, making a gift of ourselves to God.” The motivation to live such a life is always as an expression of gratitude for God’s mercies found in Christ. He has done salvation’s work, all to him we owe.
J. I. Packer in Rediscovering Holiness writes, “The secular world never understands Christian motivation.” Often Christianity is perceived as purely a quid-pro-quo relationship with God. In other words, Christians are in it for the goodies, the blessings, which motivate them to do what they do. To which we would respond that certainly God’s blessings are given to every believer in Jesus, and that these blessings bring joy to our lives. (John 15:11) In Christ, we have been blessed with “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 1:3) In Jesus Christ, we have entered a relationship with God in which “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.” (I Corinthians 2:9) But with regard to our ultimate motivation, Packer helps clarify, “From the plan of salvation I learn that the true driving force in authentic Christian living is, and ever must be, not the hope of gain, but the heart of gratitude.” Followers of Jesus Christ are to be a people overflowing with gratitude to God for his abundant grace and mercy upon their lives. (more…)