Present Your Bodies to God
I am taking a slight detour from Romans 6 today in order to speak from Romans 12 about small groups at Bethlehem. You might say, "That's not a slight detour. That's major." To jump from Romans 6 to Romans 12 is quite a leap. But really it's not. Let me try to show you why.
In Romans 6:13 Paul says, "Do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God." Notice the word "present": Don't "present the members of your body to sin." Notice the word "body": Don't "present the members of your body to sin." And notice whom we are to present our bodies to: "Present your members as instruments of righteousness to God."
Now keep those three words in mind and look at Romans 12:1, "Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God." What does this parallel in terminology mean? It means that what Paul began to do in chapter 6 he is now doing in more practical detail in chapter 12. There is no big leap from chapter 6 to chapter 12. Both of them are about how justified people live and why they don't go on sinning that grace may increase. Chapter 6 emphasizes the deeper, spiritual why, and chapter 12 emphasizes the practical, nitty-gritty, daily how.
Practical, Relational Life
So since today is our annual small group sign-up Sunday, I decided to take this "slight detour" and pick up on the extension of chapter 6 in chapter 12 and talk about the practical relational life of justified sinners. The title is "How Justified Sinners Love Each Other." My aim is to gather up some wonderful fragments of relational Christian life from Romans 12 and call you to live them out in love to each other this year in small groups – as well as all the other ways that you relate to each other.
And when I say "each other" I am thinking not only of those who are already here, or in your circle of acquaintance or even the circle of Christianity. I am thinking also of those who will become part of the "each other" from outside your circle and from outside the faith. The term "each other" in a Christ-like, loving church in a large metropolitan center like the Twin Cities is never static. It is always changing and growing. It is a sign of serious spiritual sickness in this city and this church if your circle of friends is static.
So turn with me to Romans 12. It is filled with relational instructions. If there is one immediate and easy-to-see message in this chapter, it is this: Justified sinners live in relationships and work hard to make those relationships durable and mutually beneficial. So let's soak our minds for a few minutes in this whole chapter to see if God would waken us to get joyfully serious about being part of a small group this year and loving other people the way this chapter teaches.
How Do Justified Sinners Love Each Other?
Start at verse 1: "Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship." There are about six great things worthy of notice in this verse. But let's make sure we see two of them. First, notice the phrase "by the mercies of God." All the practical instruction of this chapter is to be pursued "by the mercies of God." In chapter 6 the point is: Where grace has abounded, you don't sin to make grace abound all the more. You present your bodies to God. Here in chapter 12 the point is: Where mercies have abounded, you don't conform to the world, you present your bodies to God to do his will in relationship with others.
So another way to ask "How do justified sinners love each other?" is to say, "How do people moved and carried by mercy love each other?" What does a "mercy-moved" church look like? So this is foundational. Don't miss it. The whole chapter stands under the phrase, "by the mercies of God." Everything we are called to do in this chapter, we do "by the mercies of God" – by the effect of past mercies and in the hope for future mercies.
True Christians are a mercy-moved, mercy-carried, mercy-shaped people. All our small groups should have this meaning: they are meetings of mercy-molded people. We live by mercy and we minister by mercy. All of us need mercy, and when we get it we share it. "Freely you received, freely give," Jesus said, when he sent his disciples out to minister (Matthew 10:8). We are sinners justified by grace. We have our life because of mercy. And we live by mercy. Friendships molded by mercy. Marriages molded by mercy. Parenting molded by mercy. Civic responsibility molded by mercy. Race relations molded by mercy. Neighborliness molded by mercy. Vocational endeavors molded by mercy. Missions molded by mercy.
What Does That Look Like?
Now what does that look like in relationships? That's what Romans 12 is about.
Jump down to verse 9. I will come back to some of the intervening verses, but look first at verses 9ff. No long commentary on these, just look at them and ask how you are doing and whether God might be wakening you to the joy and rightness of being in a small group this fall.
Verse 9: A life molded by mercy loves without hypocrisy. "Let love be without hypocrisy." If we live by mercy, if our small groups are meetings of mercy-molded people, our relational life will be real, authentic, genuine. No sham, no fraud, no pretense, no posing and posturing, no counterfeit, no duplicity, no deceit. What you see is what you get. Love each other and be real.
We need small groups where people are real and where people are safe. There are two reasons why we put on masks: one is that we have not come to be satisfied in the mercy of God and so we fear what man will think of us. Our inner life is not sustained by the precious all-satisfying mercy of God and so we have to prop ourselves up with the approval of others and that means wearing a mask that they will approve. That's one reason we are hypocritical.
The other reason is that we don't trust people to show us mercy if we are real with our weaknesses and failures. Now, it probably should not matter to us nearly as much as it does what other people think of us – merciful or not. God is for us; who can be against us! But in the real world, we are afraid – right or wrong, that's reality. And we ought to show mercy to each other. Small groups, Sunday School classes, and conversations in the Commons ought to be mercy-molded and safe – no fear of rejection, no fear of gossip, no fear of racism or prejudice.
So when Paul says in verse 9, "Let love be without hypocrisy," he is calling for at least two things. One is that you be satisfied in the mercy of God that you don't need the strokes and approval of others. By the mercies of God, be free from craving approval. The other thing Paul is calling for is that we be so molded by the mercy we have received that we are springloaded to show mercy to others. You might say, we should all be so content in the mercy of God that we don't need mercy from each other. But that is not the way it is. That's not the way God designs the church. Rather we ought to say: let us show each other so much mercy that we all see the reality of God's mercy in each other and become content in him. That's the way God has designed the church. You don't become all that you are supposed to be on your own and then bring that into the church and your small group; instead you come into the church and into the fellowship of justified, mercy-moved sinners and become what you are supposed to be. Then you go out and display that to the world.
We can't spend very long on each of these wonderful exhortations for our relationships. In a few years we will, Lord willing, linger long on these things. But let's get brief glimpses of some of them.
Growing Affection and Honor
Verse 10: "Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor." In our relationships there should be a growing devotion and affection for each other. It can't happen in the same way for two thousand people. There have to be smaller groupings where this can be lived out. "Brotherly love," "devotion" – these are not emotionless actions. They are the growing affection of a good family. Let's draw people into the experience of family. Young, old, married, single, rich, poor, different ethnic backgrounds. Become family for each other. This is what Jesus said would happen for those who follow him – you will have "brothers and sisters and mothers and children" – one hundredfold, if you follow him.
And then there is "honor." Verse 10b: "Give preference to one another in honor." Yes, there should be growing family closeness and affection. But intimacy and affection are not the only good way we relate; there is honor. There is a dignity about every human being created in the image of God that our culture does not know. The most needy person in your small group is to be honored. And if you say, "Ah, but the dignity is so distorted by sin . . ." you are forgetting the heading of the chapter: By the mercies of God I urge you, Honor each other. Mercy covers the defects that have entered into God-given dignity, and treats others with a sense of both intimacy and honor.
Meeting Needs and Being Hospitable
And on and on we could go. Verse 13, "Contribute to the needs of the saints." O let us become practical in our love, and meet each other's needs. My car died Friday night and got towed to a garage. I wanted it at home to work on. On Saturday, six or seven guys who had attended the Desiring God seminar pushed it from Washington Avenue to Sixth Street, until another got a rope to pull it with. That is how justified sinners love. That is what mercy-molded small groups do for each other.
Verse 13b: "Practice hospitality." Can you believe how broad the scope of Paul's concerns are? From the heights and depths of justification and original sin in chapters 1-5 to the common, ordinary, glorious, all-too-rare practice of hospitality. Is your home open? Single people, do you spread a table for friends and couples? Married people, do you watch out for single people, young ones, old ones, middle-aged ones? Do you put on a pot of soup Saturday night so that you can pray for God to lead you to new people on Sunday and ask them over for lunch (with Styrofoam bowls and plastic spoons)?
Returning Good for Evil
Then there is this large emphasis in Romans 12 on not returning evil for evil, but instead blessing those who treat you poorly and doing your best, as much as it depends on you, to live in peace with everybody. Verse 14: "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse." Verse 17: "Never pay back evil for evil to anyone." Verse18: "If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men." Verse 21: "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." Why this emphasis on treating well those who treat us badly? Answer: because that is what mercy means! That is mercy! Whether we are a mercy-molded church will be seen best in how we respond to our adversaries.
Well, you work out the rest of these specifics in Romans 12 of mercy-molded relationships.
I close by going back up to verses 4-5 to notice one thing. "Just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another."
Notice in verse 5 the phrase, "one body in Christ." "In Christ" – what this means is that the union with Christ that made it possible for us to have his righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21) and be justified is the same union that makes it possible for us become one body and be unified. Romans 8:1 says, "There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." So "in Christ" our condemnation is taken away and we are justified. And here Paul says, "We, who are many, are one body in Christ." So "in Christ" we are justified, and "in Christ" we are unified.
Because that's where the mercy is – in Christ. Without him we are all hopeless and undone – unjustified, unacceptable, unsaved, unforgiven, and without him we are without the sweetness of mercy-saturated friendships. No Christ, no righteousness. No Christ, no church. Therefore justified sinners love each other with a God-ordained, Christ-created, mercy-molded togetherness called the church – the body of Christ. And the small groups of the church are meetings of mercy-molded people.
I pray that you will be a part of one.