Sunday School Notes: Romans 12:2
And do not conform yourselves to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of the mind so you may prove what is the holy and well-pleasing and perfect will of God.
If it seems like we are going at a snail’s pace, let me assure those that weren’t at the study that we had a great time of discussion. There’s a lot in these first few verses, and we didn’t cover everything. Indeed, there are a couple of points I will make in these notes that didn’t come up in our conversation, but I think are interesting nonetheless. We actually made a start on verse 3, but I’ll limit these notes to verse 2, and deal with verse 3 in its entirety next week.
Often, those of us who love to point out things in the original language will lament English’s inability to capture the whole sense of a word or phrase. This time, the Greek is found lacking! In verse 2, most English translations render the Greek “don’t be conformed… be transformed.” Those are perfectly good translations of the Greek verbs, and moreover they create this nice rhyming pair: conformed/transformed. Unfortunately, the Greek doesn’t have this wordplay, and I’m sure if Paul had written in English, he would have loved to have made use of it. So, for once, the English scores over the Greek!
Seriously, though, the concepts Paul is talking about here are critical to Christian life. They were certainly important to the church in Rome, and I think they are foundational both for our daily lives as believers, and for our ministry and interaction with other believers in the church.
You might note that some, if not many, translations say “do not be conformed…” The Greek verb suschêmatizomai is either a passive (“be conformed”) or a middle (“conform oneself”). Which one the translator chooses is a judgment call the translator makes based on context, Paul’s argumentation, and other factors that go beyond the grammar. While I tend to favor the middle voice (as you can see from my translation), I think there is a sense in which this ambiguity is useful: both senses are true. We can both actively conform ourselves to this age, and we can also allow this age to conform us.
We talked about the various ways Christians conform themselves, and allow themselves to be conformed, to “this age”–understanding this to refer to the secular world and secular mindset in which we live. We recognized how hard it is to live lives that please God, as we offer ourselves as living sacrifices, in a world that is hostile to our faith and the God-breathed Scriptures that instruct and renew our minds. One way we see this conformity happening is within the church. The more like our culture the church becomes, the less it is salt and light to our culture. It’s not wrong for the church to seek to identify with the culture, in the sense that we need to understand the thinking and lifestyle of the culture so we can find ways to best reach it with the life-changing gospel of Jesus Christ. But we should never cross the line into emulating our culture, as if a fallen world has something to offer the church that Christ can’t fulfill. When the church clings to Christ and thinks and acts as He would have us, we are a powerful and effective tool in the hands of the Holy Spirit. But when we allow ourselves to become worldly in our thinking, and set aside solid doctrine for man-pleasing psychology, we become useless. If we don’t have the truth of the gospel–the clear proclamation of man’s sin and need of a savior, and the provision of that perfect savior in Christ–then we have nothing to offer the world. We have lost our saltiness, and the ruler of this age is most pleased.
The second verb, metamorphoumai, could also be rendered as either a middle or a passive, but the passive is the more common sense, and it fits the context better. While we can certainly do things that actively aid our transformation, the actual act of being transformed is something that happens to us as we engage in the “renewal of the mind.” We don’t actively transform ourselves in the same way that we can actively conform ourselves to the world.
I think Paul might have in mind the difference he has pointed out before (Romans 2) between the external Judaism that the Jewish Christians thought pleased God and the “internal circumcision” that even Gentiles could experience when they obeyed God–even if they didn’t follow all the rites and rituals of Judaism. We talked about the “spiritual worship” or “reasonable worship” in verse 1, and how this probably refers to worship appropriate for a human being, since humans are the only rational creatures on earth. This worship involves both mind and spirit–the whole person. This, I think, ties in with the transformation Paul is talking of in chapter 2. The inward man is what matters. Certainly, the way one conforms oneself on the outside will affect who one is on the inside, and the kind of person one is on the inside will be expressed externally. However, I think the point is that merely conforming externally to Christianity–i.e., walking the walk–is insufficient. You can stop conforming to the world, but unless there is transformation, then it’s still just empty religion.
We talked about how this “transformation of the mind” can take place. The first thing we noted was that, like conforming to the world, it’s not something that happens overnight, but something that takes place over a period of time. Indeed, the transformation of the mind is something that takes a lifetime, and is not complete until we are in eternity. It’s something we are constantly working on–but not alone. The Holy Spirit, the one who converted us, and the one who alerts us to our need of mind-renewal, gives us the strength and the desire to pursue those things that promote renewal.
In more practical terms, what things promote such renewal? We said that it is primarily being in God’s word: Bible study, devotions, and meditating on Scripture, considering how it might apply to our lives. While private times with God’s word are very important, we must not overlook the role church plays in our spiritual development, and the transforming of the mind. Sunday School groups–like this one, and other offered both at our church and many other churches–can be used by the Lord to draw His people closer to Him as we reflect together on God’s word and share insights and applications. Most importantly, the pulpit ministry–the reason we gather together as a church: to hear God’s word preached to us–is designed and ordained of God to teach and apply God’s word to our thinking and lives. Other “means of grace” within the church include the sacraments (baptism and communion), and even times of fellowship with other believers.
One person in the group made a comparison between spiritual renewal and physical fitness. Every athlete knows that to maintain form, he or she must train regularly. Even those who just enjoy running, for example, know they must run a certain amount every day to stay in shape. If they miss a few days, it’s harder to run after, and they must expend more energy to get back to their former condition. The result of this training is a body that is able to perform on the racetrack, the football field, or whatever that sport might be. Likewise, if we are in God’s word every day, taking time to let it, by the Holy Spirit, transform our minds, we will be ready to face each day with a Godly worldview, and a Scriptural perspective on life that will help us deal with the challenges we face. Neglecting this will leave us unprepared, and even more prone to confusion, and even wandering into sin.
We talked about how people often complain that they “don’t have time” for such Bible study. Yet, we have time to catch our favorite TV show, to check out our favorite blogs, to play a round of golf. It’s not a question of whether we have time, it’s whether we’re willing to make time. And these days, with smart phones and mp3 players, we have less excuse than previous generations. We can play Scripture in the car while going to work; we can pull up Scripture on the phone while standing in line, or in a waiting room. If there’s an internet connection, God’s word is available to us given the large number of web sites that host one or more translations (e.g., http://www.biblegateway.com).
I think we covered quite adequately the importance of having renewed minds. Paul speaks of the purpose of the renewed mind: to “approve” (or “agree with”–the Greek is dokimazô) the will of God. It’s certainly true that the more we know God’s word, the more sure we can be of what God would want us to do in a situation, or how we should think about things. Paul describes God’s will as good, well-pleasing or acceptable (the word is euareston, which he used in verse 1 to describe the kind of living sacrifice we should be), and perfect (Greek: teleion). If we understand these verses to be introducing the admonitions in the rest of the chapter (and, indeed, the rest of this section through chapter 15), then it makes sense that Paul remind his readers that God’s will is good, pleasing to Him, and perfect. In other words, we neglect the coming admonitions to our spiritual detriment.
As I said, we started to get into verse 3, but didn’t have time to really discuss it. We’ll pick up there next week.