I was reading an article by pastor Afshin Ziafat the other day, and he started his article in this way that really captured my imagination: “If you grew up going to church youth camps, you may remember that kid who would seem to have a spiritual breakthrough every summer, only to go back to his former way of living soon after. No matter what he did, he failed to make lasting progress. Maybe you were that kid. Maybe you feel like that kid today.”
In the article Ziafat goes on to look at Hebrews 5, in which the writer of Hebrews chastises his readers by saying this:
For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. – Heb. 5:11-14
Friends, today I want us to consider the danger of being spiritual babies. People who aren’t only not maturing in faith, but those who don’t really want to. Those who are content to simply attend church, hear a teaching, listen to a podcast, (maybe) read a book but yet who never progress past the point of being a recipient of milk to being the one who feeds others.
I think that our need to mature spiritually is even more pressing when considering the divided and contentious nature of the times in which we live. This should be a chance for the church shine because we are called to be a city on a hill in dark times. A beacon that the rest of the world can look to for hope and truth in dark ages, ready to feed a hungry world with the nourishing milk of the gospel. And, yet, in order for that kind of church to exist, you not only need mature believers standing by, you also need to be distinct from the rest of the world so that you are visible. Because if how you act and what you desire and what you run to in times of crisis is no different than the rest of the world, then you are not a city on a hill.
Today, we come to Romans twelve, which, famously, is a major turning point in the narrative arc of this book. It’s as if Paul has spent 11 chapters diagnosing and revealing and explaining many of the core issues that the church was going through. But, then he gets to Romans 12 and says, “Now, here’s the plan.” Here’s what we do. Here’s how we deal with all of this. Let’s read his words.
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. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, 5 so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. 6 Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; 7 if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; 8 the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.
9 Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.
Three truths that I want you to hold to today as we walk through this text.
- God desires all of you.
- The process of giving God all of you involves intentionally divesting from conformation to the world.
- God has purpose for you in the body.
God Desires All of You
We said a couple of weeks ago that what God most wants from you is the same thing that he has always wanted from his creation, and that is that we would worship him. Now, it’s easy to say that, the problem is that we have been conditioned to think when we hear the word “worship” that what we are primarily talking about what we are doing right now. That worshiping God is about going to church on a Sunday morning, singing songs, listening to a sermon and going home. And, yet, just look at verse one, the notion that worship is simply attending a weekly event clearly would have baffled Paul.
No, in Paul’s view, what Christ has done is such an incredible, unobtainable gift, that giving him anything less that the whole of your life would be unthinkable. Remember, he’s just spent 11 chapters unpacking the fact that we were hopelessly lost in sin, but then God sent a rescuer in the form of his son, Jesus. And, now we’re are offered justification, sanctification, salvation and righteousness all as a free gift through gift. And, this gift is not just for the Jews, no; it’s been made available to the whole world. That’s what’s happened…so, what do we do in response to a God who has given us everything? We give him everything, and Paul says, “that’s what worship is.”
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.
Divesting from Conformation
So, what does it look like for a person to present his or her body as a living sacrifice?
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
So, I think that what is Paul is basically describing here is what Jesus would call repentance. We most often think of repentance in terms of individual sins. Like, I have these recurring sins, and I feel badly about them or shameful about them, and I know I need to stop doing them. But, the individual sins are really only a symptom. It’s what’s presenting on the surface. But the question is, what is the underlying issue?
Years ago I had a cousin who suddenly became very ill and had to go into the hospital. The presenting issues seemed to be gastro-intestinal, so doctors immediately starting treating the symptoms. But things just weren’t getting better. Then they discovered that he seemed to be headed into kidney failure. Now, this was a young healthy person in his late 20s, early 30s. Your kidneys don’t just shut down. So, after some time, many tests, a lot of discomfort, it was discovered the issue was related to his thyroid, which is the kind of mysterious part of the body that seems to control and regulate all kinds of things. Once the actual issue was address, the presenting symptoms went away. If you feel plagued by continual or habitual sin, even though you’ve tried to stop, it could be that you have never really treated the underlying issue.
For Paul, the underlying problem that pretty much all of us are dealing with is the sin nature that we were born with. We were born conformed to the world. We were born desiring the things of this world more than the things of God. But, now, because of Christ, Paul says, you have to divest from conformation to the world and you have to invest in conformation to the kingdom of God. And, that a core facet of investing in the kingdom of God is allowing him to transform you mind.
I don’t think we can overstate the practicality of what Paul is calling us to. Sometimes in Christianity, it can seem as if everything is happening at an uber-spiritual heart level. Yet, Paul is saying, what your mind is set on is going to determine your level of submission to God. So, what are our minds set on? Let’s make a list:
Money, what we don’t have, power, comfort, success, what we want, what others have, hunger, safety, politics, our appearance, sex, security, material possessions, our future, anger, lust, hatred, broken relationships.
For so many of us, the things that consume our thoughts, the things we dwell on, the things we fill the mind with, have nothing to do with the good, perfect and acceptable will of God. Instead, we are consumed by worldliness. We are conformed to worldliness. And, just going to church, just going to BSF, just reading a book, just listening to a podcast does not change our conformation to the world unless we repent, unless we turn from our mental consumption of lesser things and daily, repeatedly set our minds on the things of God rather than those other things.
God Has Purpose for You in the Body
And, we seek to set our minds on the things of God not only because that is what he wants for us, but also because it is what prepares us to live out our calling within the body of Christ, the church.
4 For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, 5 so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. 6 Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; 7 if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; 8 the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.
So, put simply, in order for the body to be healthy and functioning in the way it is supposed to function, all the individual parts need to be healthy and functioning. The problem in so many churches is that, in reality, only a very small part of the body is actually healthy and functioning. What I’ve seen over and over again is that a church will take a text like this, look at their pastor and say, “this is we hired you for.” We hired you to be all of these things for us. When, in reality, the pastor’s job is to help the whole body to become healthier, less conformed to the world and functioning in the way God has designed.
When we first started down this road of planting a church, something that Justin and I believed strongly was that we have to have a plan for helping people move from conformation to the world to being a healthy, functioning part of the body. Now, another word for that process is “discipleship.” Discipleship is all about setting one’s mind on Christ and seeking as a result to learn and emulate him. So, we just looked at the example of Jesus and the way that he made his disciples and put together this basic process:
- Life together in a gospel-centered community
- Biblical teaching
- Personal coaching
- Actualization of calling
Afshin Ziafat says that: “In the Western church, we too often make the mistake that spiritual maturity comes from obtaining more information. We sign up for Bible studies and theological classes to meet this need. While those classes may have much to offer, they don’t necessarily fix the problem of dull hearing. On their own, they don’t move you on to maturity. This is not merely an intellectual or educational issue.
The author (of Hebrews) says the mature are “those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14). The issue isn’t a lack of knowledge but a lack of practice.”
Friends, if we’re seeking to submit the whole of our lives to Christ, then we are talking about a daily endeavor. I’ll leave you with this to consider. From the moment you wake up, what are you ingesting mentally? If you were to meet with a nutritionist, before prescribing a certain diet or plan of action, they might say: “for the next two weeks, I want you to keep a journal of everything you eat.” It’s only then that the nutritionist will prescribe new eating habits. How many of you wake up and immediately grab your phone in the morning? I’m guilty. How many of you read or watch news before anything having to do with Christ? How many of you are going through email long before a page of Scripture is cracked? How many of you can go days with even considering the word of God or spending time in prayer? My challenge to you over the next week is to literally keep a record of what you are ingesting mentally. What are you watching, reading, listening to vs. the presence of the Scriptures, the church, prayer, personal coaching in your life?
I leave you with this simple but powerful statement from Paul to his readers. What if this was your guide to daily life?
Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.