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. 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 appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God . . .” I appeal to you therefore . . .” That is, I appeal to you on the basis of what has gone before in the first 11 chapters of this letter. I will now call you in chapters 12–16 to a kind of life that is built on something. It doesn’t come out of nowhere. It has roots. This new Christian life is built on chapters 1–11. Build your Christian life on Romans 1–11. Sink your roots here. And your fruit will be Christian fruit.
And he sums up the foundation with the phrase, “the mercies of God.” I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God. . . .” That’s the sum of Romans 1–11: “the mercies of God.” God has been merciful to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because of Christ those who believe in him are justified by faith, and reconciled to God, and have the hope of everlasting joy. There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. “Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died — more than that, who was raised — who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Romans 8:34).
A Life of Mercy
Build your lives on this mercy. Sink your roots in this mercy. And your new life will flow out with mercy. That is, Romans 12 will become a reality in your own life. Romans 12 oozes with mercy. “Show mercy with cheerfulness. . . . Let love be genuine. . . . Give to the saints. . . . Bless those who persecute you. . . . Weep with those who weep. . . . Associate with the lowly. . . . Repay no one evil for evil. . . . Never avenge yourselves. . . . If your enemy is hungry feed him.” Build your lives on mercy and become merciful. 
But First, a Life of Worship
But today we notice something very significant in verse 1: Before Paul describes our new life in Christ as merciful, he describes it as worshipful. Before you think that the Christian life has everything to do with being merciful to people, realize that it has everything to do with being worshipful toward God. “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.” Before we give ourselves away in mercy to man, we give ourselves away in worship to God.
This is crucial to see. We must never let the Christian life drift into a mere social agenda. I use the word “mere” carefully, because if God is left out, our mercy will be mere social agenda. We do no one good in the end if we are not worshiping and leading them to worship in the acts of mercy that we do. If our good deeds are not expressing the worth of God, then our deeds are not worship, and in the end will not be merciful. Making people comfortable or helping them feel good on the way to everlasting punishment, without the hope and the design that they see Christ in your good deeds, is not mercy. Mercy must aim to make much of Christ. For no one is saved who doesn’t meet and make much of Christ. And not to care about saving is not merciful.
Therefore, it is absolutely essential that Paul put worship before mercy and that he define the Christian life as worshipful before he defines it as merciful. Or to put it more carefully, Paul defines the Christian life as worship so that it can be merciful. If we are not worshiping in our behavior — that is, if we are not making much of God’s mercy in Christ in and alongside our behavior — we are not giving people what they need most. And that is not merciful. A merciful lifestyle depends on a worshipful lifestyle. So before Paul defines Christian living as merciful, he defines it as worshipful.
So let’s look more closely at what Paul means by a lifestyle of worship. Verse 1: “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.” What is this “spiritual worship”?
Spiritual Worship: A Presenting of a Sacrifice to God
First, Paul says it is a presenting of a sacrifice to God. “Present your bodies as a sacrifice . . . to God.” This is the language of worship from the Old Testament. In coming to God the worshiper brought a sheep or a bull or a pigeon and sacrificed it on the altar as an offering to God. There were different kinds of sacrifices but at the heart of it was that sin demanded punishment, and the slain animal represented God’s willingness to accept a substitute so that the worshiper might live and have an ongoing relationship of forgiveness and joy with God.
But all the Old Testament believers knew that the blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sin (Hebrews 10:4). They pointed beyond themselves to Christ, who was the final sacrifice for sin. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 5:7, “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.” That was the final sacrifice for sin, because it was perfect and sufficient for all who believe. Most clearly of all Hebrews 10:12 says, “When Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.” So Christ brought to an end the Old Testament sacrifices for sin. He finished the great work of atonement. His death cannot be improved on. All we have to do now is trust him for that great work. We do not add to it.
So when Paul says that our worship is to present our bodies as a sacrifice he does not mean that we die and atone for our sins. Well what does he mean? Let’s take the four words he gives and see what each contributes to understanding a lifestyle of daily worship: bodies, living, holy, acceptable to God.
1. Bodies. “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
The point here is not to present to God your bodies and not your mind or heart or spirit. He is going to say very clearly in verse two: “Be transformed in the renewal of your mind.” The point is to stress that your body counts. You belong to God soul and body, or you don’t belong to him at all. Your body matters.
Someone might think: Why would God be interested in my body? It’s overweight, or underweight, wrinkled, blotchy, achy, diseased, impulsive, nervous, unattractive, lazy, awkward, disabled, near-sighted, hard-of-hearing, stiff, and brittle. What kind of sacrifice is that? The Old Testament demanded a flawless sheep. I don’t measure up.
That kind of thinking totally misses the point. The sacrifice of our bodies to God is not a sacrifice for sin. That is done already in the sacrifice of Christ. Which is why bodies like ours are acceptable. Peter makes this really clear in 1 Peter 2:5 where he says something similar to Romans 12:1: “Offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God” — then he adds these words: “through Jesus Christ.” It’s because of Jesus that our sacrifices to God are acceptable.
So put out of your mind any thought that your body will ever deserve acceptance with God. It won’t. If you are acceptable, it is “through Jesus Christ.” Through his perfection, not your perfection.
But that kind of thinking misses the point in another way: The offering of our bodies is not the offering of our bodily looks but our bodily behavior. In the Bible the body is not significant because of the way it looks, but because of the way it acts. The body is given to us to make visible the beauty of Christ. And Christ, at the hour of his greatest beauty, was repulsive to look at. Isaiah 53:2–3 describes him: “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” The beauty of Christ is the beauty of love, not the beauty of looks. His beauty was the beauty of sacrifice, not skin.
God doesn’t demand our bodies because he wants models for Mademoiselle or Planet Muscle. He demands our bodies because he wants models of mercy. I think we should pray that God’s perspective on our bodies become imbedded deep in our sons and daughters — and in ourselves — as one very powerful antidote to the kinds of eating disorders that plague so many young women, and even now some men today. What God wants from us is a body that does mercy, not the body of Britney Spears or Mr. World.
God wants visible, lived-out, bodily evidence that our lives are built on his mercy. Just as worshipers in the Old Testament denied themselves some earthly treasure (a sheep, a goat, a bull), and carried their sacrifices to the altar of blood and fire, so we deny ourselves some earthly treasure or ease or comfort, and carry ourselves — our bodies — for Christ’s sake to the places and the relationships and the crises in this world where mercy is needed. It may be your own home, or it may be Senegal.
2. Living. “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
A life of visible, lived-out, physical actions of mercy might result in the death of a believer. There have always been martyrs. But that is not mainly what Paul has in mind here. Here he has in mind a lifestyle. Present your bodies a living sacrifice. It is your living that is the act of worship.
Let every act of your body in living be an act of worship. That is, let every act of your living body be a demonstration that God is your treasure. Let every act of your living body show that Christ is more precious to you than anything else. Let every act of your living body be a death to all that dishonors Christ.
3. Holy. “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
Probably the best explanation of holy bodies comes from Romans 6:13 where Paul said almost the very same thing he says here, using the very language of “presenting” our bodies to God, only he refers to our bodily “members” and not just our bodies. “Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life [i.e., a living sacrifice], and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.”
“Present a living holy body to God” means give your members — your eyes, your tongue, your hands and feet — give your body to do righteousness, not sin. That’s what would make a body holy. A body is holy not because of what it looks like, or what shape it’s in, but because of what it does. Is it the physical “instrument” of a hunger for righteousness? Is it the physical instrument of meekness and mercy and peace?
Here are three examples where the body being used as an instrument of righteousness and mercy is called a “sacrifice.” In Philippians 4:18 Paul says, I “have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.” Your work and giving and Epaphroditus’s bringing this gift to me is a sacrifice of worship to God. It shows God’s worth in your heart.
Hebrews 13:15, “Through [Christ] then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.” When the lips join the heart in praise to God, the body becomes a holy, living sacrifice.
Hebrews 13:16, “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” When you do good, in Jesus’s name, with your mouth or your hands or your presence, your body becomes a holy, living sacrifice of worship. A body becomes a holy sacrifice of worship when it is devoted to God’s purposes of righteousness and mercy.
4.Acceptable to God. “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
Does this add anything to the word “holy”? If the sacrifice of our bodily life is holy, then it is acceptable to God. So what do these words add? They add God. They make God explicit. They remind us that the reason holiness matters is because of God. They remind us that all of these words are describing an act of worship — “which is your spiritual worship” — and God is the center of worship.
So it’s fitting that we end where we began and stress that before Romans 12 is a call to live a merciful life, it is a call to live a worshipful life. Or better: In calling us to live a merciful life (built on the mercy of God in Christ), the aim is that it be a worshipful life. The aim of showing mercy is showing God. The aim of having bodies is to make the glory of God more visible. And he does not shine through our muscles and curves, but through our merciful behavior.
I close with two statements from the apostle Paul. First, his own testimony of desire: “It is my eager expectation and hope that . . . Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death” (Philippians 1:20). Second, his exhortation to us from 1 Corinthians 6:19–20: “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”
In other words, “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Show the worth of Christ by the way you use your body. Amen.
 Notice in passing that Paul models for us mercy even as he calls us to mercy in verse 1. First, he uses a gentle and winsome word, “I appeal” instead of “I command.” He says explicitly in Philemon 1:8–9 that the use of the word “appeal” is softer than the word “command” and is an expression of love and mercy. Second, he calls them “brothers” and therefore puts himself down with them under the care and authority of God the Father, rather than over them because of his apostolic authority. So even though his words do carry God’s authority he uses this authority in a gentle and merciful way that models for us what he is about to command from us.