Romans 12:1-2 (NLT)
And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.
We are entering a new section of Romans, one where Paul talks extensively about the long-term Christian life—the ongoing post-conversion changes we should all experience.
Yes, we are saved by simple faith, by believing in the proven work Jesus Christ has done on the cross. Our belief is enough to save us. But is there more to do?
Yes, of course there is. We have received a gift so great we cannot fully comprehend it, the gift of eternal life, Paul is saying. If we properly understand the gift, we turn our lives into a giant thank-you note to God.
We give our bodies, conforming our behaviors to his will as closely as possible. We surrender our minds, letting God’s Spirit work in us and change our very thought patterns through prayer and Scripture.
Most of us like the part about God’s grace being freely given, the fact that salvation is a simple matter of belief. But when it comes to thinking about ongoing discipleship—about actual change—well, we’re not always so receptive. The Christian life starts to sound like work.
There’s a term for when we accept the gift but offer no response, no thanks, no real change in our minds and hearts. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian martyred by Adolph Hitler and the Nazis in World War II, called such an attitude “cheap grace.”
“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow upon ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession. … Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
I suppose I could just stop here, hoping to shame us into responding more fully to God’s grace, the way our parents might have guilted us into writing a thank-you note for a nice present we received. I think I can make all of this a little more palatable, however. Perhaps we can even become excited about this new section of Romans.
We are called to give up some attitudes and behaviors when we become Christians. We are not left with a void, however; God replaces the lesser behaviors and thoughts we surrender with even more gifts.
We are being invited to explore the kingdom that is dawning now, even before it is present in full. Like any explorer, we have to sacrifice the stuff that weighs us down if we are going to find something new, something that will change us to the core.*
We do respond to God simply as an act of thanks. We repent of what separates us from him. We pray and search the Scripture to try to understand how to better please our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. God doesn’t just receive our thank-you notes and flip them on the kitchen table with the rest of his mail, however. He gets excited by our response.
God says, “What else can I do for you? It is such a joy to have you a part of my plan! What do you want to know next? What do you want to do next?”
“How can I help you be the best you you can be?”
And God changes you some more. And you see where you used to be and where you are now, and you give more thanks. And God changes you even more!
It is a glorious cycle, one spiraling us toward heaven. Pretty soon, all that stuff we gave up, all that stuff we thought was so important, is simply scattered on the ground far below us, as forgettable as yesterday’s garbage.
If you don’t believe me—well, just try to fulfill Paul’s plea for a time. Six months, a year, something substantial. Make God’s word part of your life. Talk to him in prayer.
And certainly, most certainly, give up those behaviors that you know are not of his will. We have a short word for those behaviors: sin. Stop sinning. Ask God for the strength you need to stop.
Paul is not asking us to suffer. No, not at all. Instead, he’s asking us to live fully. We free ourselves to accept the further gifts to come, the gifts that gild our salvation.
*If you want to explore the backpack metaphor further, John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress” is a good place to start.