What Is Good and Acceptable and Perfect
Thoughts on Romans 12:2
When we were focusing attention on Romans 12:2 you may recall that I did not say much about the last part of the verse. Verse 2 says, “ 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.” I said almost nothing about those last three words: good, acceptable, perfect. So I ask now, What do they tell us?
First, they are not telling us that there are three different things God wills: good things, acceptable things, and perfect things. He is not saying that some things that God wills are good (and not acceptable to God), and other things are acceptable to God (and not good).
In other words, “good” is one way of describing the will of God, and “acceptable” is another way of describing it.
When Paul insists that “good” acts are the will of God, he is making sure that we do not treat Christianity as a mystical religion with no concrete moral demands. He is saying: there is good and evil in the world. God wills the good. Do good things, and you will be doing the will of God. Don’t just have mystical experiences and call yourself a Christian. Ask: What is good? And do it. That is the Christian way of walking in the will of God.
However, that’s risky talk. It sounds moralistic. That is, lots of “moral” people try to do what’s “good,” but are not Christian. There are moral crusades of all kinds that are not grounded in God, let alone Christ. So Paul goes further and adds “acceptable.” He means “acceptable to God.” The same word is used in verse 1 where acceptable is explicitly related to God. (“Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.”)
Therefore, what Paul is doing with this word is defining the “good” as good in relation to God. “By euareston (acceptable) he underlines the fact that the goodness which is in question is no anthropocentric goodness but a goodness determined by the revelation of God’s will, a matter of obedience to God’s commandments” (C.E.B. Cranfield, Romans, vol. 2, p. 610). In other words, it will not do to just say: “the good” is God’s will. Rather we must say: the good is defined by God’s will. That is, the good is what is acceptable—to God. That’s what Paul says.
Then comes the final word which defines the will of God in Romans 12:2, namely, the word, “perfect” (teleion). Could it be anything else? Well, you may have to keep in mind the distinction I made in the sermon from August 22, 2004 (What Is the Will of God and How Do We Know It?) between the sovereign will of God and the revealed will of God. I said that the New Testament speaks, on the one hand, of God’s will as everything that comes to pass under God’s sovereignty, including sinful acts like the murder of Jesus (Acts 4:27-28) and the persecution of Christians (1 Peter 3:17; 4:19). But, on the other hand, it also speaks of the will of God as what God commands, which never includes sin! For example, “This is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thessalonians 4:3). What God commands is his will. And God never commands us to sin.
When Paul says that we should be transformed in the renewal of our minds so that we can discern and do what is the will of God (Romans 12:2), he means the revealed will of God and its proper applications to life. He does not mean: try to figure out God’s sovereign plan and do it. That is God’s secret. We are to do his revealed will and leave the sovereign running of the universe to him.
So let’s go back to the word “perfect.” We should discern and do what is the will of God: what is good and acceptable and perfect. What’s Paul saying? He’s saying: strive to know and do the good, namely what is pleasing to God, namely, what is perfect. It cannot be otherwise. God will not command imperfection. His goal for us is perfection. Indeed, from the beginning to the end of the Bible his demand from us is perfection.
When God said to Adam, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eatof it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17), he did not mean: “if you eat a little bit of it, you won’t die,” or: “if you eat it only once, you won’t die,” or: “if you have a good excuse, you won’t die.” He meant: perfectly obey this command, or you die.
Jesus said, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). And Romans 12:2 says, Be transformed so that you can do what is perfect. Is this not why Paul puts all of Romans 12 under the banner of mercy: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God. . . .” All of Romans 12 is based on the first 11 chapters of Romans. And those chapters are about God’s mercy in Christ. This is what saves us in spite of our imperfection. And Romans 6 and 7 make it plain that this imperfection continues into our Christian lives.
So the command of verse 2 that we do what is “good, acceptable, and perfect” throws us back again on the “mercies of God” in Christ. And this mercy sends us back again to pursue perfect obedience. No one can stand at the cross receiving mercy and be casual about the will of God. The cross impels us with great gratitude and hope and joy to cut off our hands, if we must, to follow Christ. So let us live at the cross for merciful blessing, and let us carry the cross in merciful obedience.