26 Nov 2018
A Commentary by John Stott
*Therefore I urge you*, Paul begins, probably conveying by the verb *parakaleo* a mixture of entreaty and authority. He then goes on to indicate the people to whom he is addressing his appeal, the ground on which he bases it and what it consists of.
The people the apostle is about to exhort he calls *brothers* (1), and we can hardly doubt that his choice of this word is deliberate. Throughout the letter’s earlier chapters he has been conscience of the tensions between Jews and Gentiles in the Roman church, and in chapters 9-11 he has been describing the roles of Israel and of the nations in the unfolding, historical plan of God. He will revert to them again for the last time in chapters 14-15. But now, as he develops his appeal, the distinction between the olive tree’s natural and grafted branches fades into the background. Now all believers, irrespective of their ethnic origin, are brothers and sisters in the one international family of God and so all have precisely the same vocation to be holy, committed, humble, loving and conscientious people of God.
Secondly, the ground of Paul’s appeal is indicated by his use of the conjunction *therefore* and by his reference to *God’s mercy*, literally his ‘mercies’ in the plural (RSV), a Hebraism for the many and varied manifestations of his mercy. For eleven chapters Paul has been unfolding the mercies of God. Indeed, the gospel is precisely God’s mercy to inexcusable and undeserving sinners, in giving his Son to die for them, in justifying them freely by faith, in sending them his life-giving Spirit, and in making them his children. In particular, the ‘key-word’ of Romans 9-11 is ‘mercy’. For salvation depends ‘not…on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy’ (9:16), and his purpose is ‘to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy’ (9:23). Further, as the disobedient Gentiles ‘have now received mercy’, so too disobedient Israel will ‘now receive mercy’ (11:30f.). ‘For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all’ (11:32).
It is, then, *in view of God’s mercy* (1a) that Paul issues his ethical appeal. He knows – not least from his own experience – that there is no greater incentive to holy living than a contemplation of the mercies of God. F.F.Bruce has written: ‘It was well said by Thomas Erskine of Linlathen that “in the New Testament religion is grace, and ethics is gratitude”. It is not by accident that in Greek one and the same noun (*charis*) does duty for both “grace” and “gratitude”.’ God’s grace far from encouraging and condoning sin, is the spring and foundation of righteous conduct.
Thirdly, having considered the objects and the ground of Paul’s appeal, we note its double nature. It concerns both our bodies and our minds, the presentation of our bodies to God and our transformation by the renewal of our minds. First, our bodies. *I urge you…*, he writes, *to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship* (1b). In order to maintain the sacrificial imagery throughout the sentence, Paul uses five more and less technical terms. He represents us as a priestly people, who, in responsive gratitude for God’s mercy, *offer* or present our bodies as living sacrifices. These are described as both *holy* and *pleasing to God*, which seem to be the moral equivalents to being physically unblemished or without defect, and a fragrant aroma (cf. Lv.1:3, 9). Such an offering is our *spiritual act of worship*. ‘Spiritual’ translates *logikos*, which could mean either ‘reasonable’ (AV) or ‘rational’. If the former is correct then the offering of ourselves to God is seen as the only sensible, logical and appropriate response to him in view of his self-giving mercy. If ‘rational’ is correct, then it is ‘the worship offered by mind and heart’ (REB), spiritual as opposed to ceremonial, ‘an act of intelligent worship’ (JBP), in which our minds are fully engaged. Several commentators illustrate this by a delightful quotation from Epictetus, the first-century Stoic philosopher: ‘If I were a nightingale, I would do what is proper to a nightingale, and if I were a swan, what is proper to a swan. In fact I am *logikos* [sc. a rational being], so I must praise God.’
What, however , is this living sacrifice, this rational, spiritual worship? It is not to be offered in the temple courts or in the church building, but rather in home life and in the marketplace. It is the presentation of our bodies to God. This blunt reference to our bodies was calculated to shock some of Paul’s Greek readers. Brought up on Platonic thought, they will have regarded the body as an embarrassing encumbrance. Their slogan was *soma sema estin* (‘the body is a tomb’), in which the human spirit was imprisoned and from which they longed for its escape. Still today some Christians feel self-conscious about their bodies. The traditional evangelical invitation is that we give our ‘hearts’ to God, not our ‘bodies’. Even some commentators, apparently disconcerted by Paul’s earthy language, suggest an alternative ‘offer your very selves to him’ (REB). But Paul is clear that the presentation of our *bodies* is our *spiritual* act of worship. It is a significant Christian paradox. No worship is pleasing to God which is purely inward, abstract and mystical; it must express itself in concrete acts of service performed by our bodies. Similarly, authentic Christian discipleship will include both the negative ‘mortification’ of our body’s misdeeds (8:13) and the positive ‘presentation’ of its members to God.