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. Romans 12:2 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.”
If you’re like me, there’s a particular fear that you may have about embarking on this new journey together. Some of you have vocalized it; others of you have probably felt it internally. I’d like to tackle it head on this morning.
The mission statement of this church is the Great Commission, given to us by Jesus himself: Make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe all that I have commanded.
We’re here in these Twin Cities on mission. We live in our neighborhoods and we know that there’s pain there. We know that there are hurting people, lonely people, suffering people. We know that there’s brokenness and sadness and guilt. We know that there’s sin and rebellion and wreckage. We know that there’s conflict and injustice. We know that there are real felt needs that people have. And we know that there are real unfelt needs that people need to feel before any healing can happen.
We also know that Jesus Christ is the answer. The gospel of Jesus is the only answer to all of that. It’s the grace of Jesus that meets us in our guilt and our sin. It’s the comfort of Jesus that meets us in our pain and suffering. It’s the compassion of Jesus that meets us in our brokenness. It’s the cross and resurrection of Jesus that overcomes our rebellion. It’s the Spirit of Jesus that breaks down walls between people and brings harmony and peace. It’s the love of Jesus that restores marriages and heals friendships. It’s the joy of Jesus that floods families and rebuilds homes that are shattered by sin and evil.
And we know that Jesus is the only answer, because he’s dealt with our own sin and guilt and pain and rebellion and brokenness and conflict. Our lives are living testimonies of what our gracious God has done for us in the gospel of his Son. So we feel the link between these problems and this solution experientially in our hearts and minds.
And here’s where the fear comes. We feel both sides and then we see that the link between these needs in our neighborhood and this hope in the gospel is us. We’re God’s appointed means for moving this love and joy and peace into this pain and guilt and sin, and we feel absolutely inadequate for it. “Who is sufficient for these things?” We fear that we’re not up to the task, that our feeble efforts to lean into the suffering and sin will come up short. We’re intimidated.
And we’re right. Connecting the hope of the gospel to the needs of our city is an impossible task for mere mortals. So thank God that we have more resources than what we can supply in ourselves. That’s why we worship. And in the next few minutes, I want to help you see how our weekly gathering here as Cities Church is absolutely essential to our fruitful presence in our homes, our neighborhoods, and our city. 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.
The language of “present your bodies as a living sacrifice” obviously comes from the Jewish sacrificial system. At the temple, Jews would present living animals on altars and then sacrifice them to God for the sins of the people. These regular sacrifices all pointed forward to the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus on the cross as the blameless lamb of God who takes away our sins. But here, Paul tells us that the OT sacrificial system doesn’t just point to Jesus; it also points to our worship.
What does Paul mean by worship here? On the one hand, he probably means that all of life is worship. Earlier in Romans 1, Paul tells us that all human beings “worship and serve created things, rather than God.” This service can’t refer mainly to particular days of the week, but instead to a whole life of idolatry. In Hebrews 9:14, the blood of Christ purifies our conscience from dead works so that we can serve the living God. As Christians, we live our whole lives on the altar. Our whole lives are a continual offering of ourselves to the Lord. So I think we should see the presentation of our bodies as an every minute of every day sort of thing.
On the other hand, this worship also often refers to the particular events, particular moments in the life of God’s people, when they would make their offerings in the temple. In Hebrews 9:9 and 8:4-5, this word for worship is used for the offering of gifts and sacrifices to God. In Luke 2, it refers to what Anna the prophetess did night and day in the temple, fasting and praying regularly in God’s presence. Hebrews 12:28 seems to carry this same sense of direct Godwardness: “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe.” It’s most likely that this passage is referring to the corporate worship gathering, where we offer acceptable worship, where we present our bodies, our whole selves to God, as a living sacrifice.
How then to put these two senses of worship together? I think we ought to think in terms of rhythms. Yes, we live all of our lives in God’s presence. All of life is worship. But our gathering on the Lord’s day is a special time when we present ourselves to him in a unique way. Think of this gathering as the heartbeat of this church. The whole point of the heartbeat is to pump blood to the rest of the body. We come here to worship the living God in spirit and in truth, to rise into his presence like the sacrificial smoke, to be holy and acceptable and pleasing in his sight.
If we’re to worship God in a way that’s acceptable, if we’re to present our bodies as living sacrifices, we must do so on the basis of the work of Christ alone. Or, as this passage says, we do so “by the mercies of God.” Romans 12 follows 11 chapters of the most thorough, sustained exposition of the gospel and its implications in all of the Bible. Universal human rebellion and idolatry, the promises of God in the Old Testament, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus for sinners, being found righteous in Christ purely by grace alone, the newness of life that flows from God’s glad approval, the freedom of God’s Spirit, our future hope of resurrection, and the deep surety that God’s word never fails—it is because of these mercies that we present our bodies to God, both in our Lord’s Day worship and in our daily lives.
This is why our worship service is meant to remind us of this gospel, to embody this mercy week in and week out. I already mentioned the first two steps in our worship dance. God initiates by calling us into his presence where we praise and adore him. As sinners, we know that we are unworthy and unable to approach a holy God, so we confess our sins to him and weekly remind ourselves of the promise of God to remove our sins from us. The third step, which is where we are now, is the consecration, where we now stand (or sit) cleansed from sin in the presence of God as we praise him in song and he speaks to us in his word. Our aim in this time is to be set apart for God, to have a deep encounter with his grace so that we eventually leave here transformed. The fourth step, and the fitting capstone to the consecration is communion, where God welcomes us to his table and dines with us. God isn’t a mere drill sergeant barking out orders to us. He’s a chef, a host, who prepares a banquet of rich food for us to enjoy. Thus, our service climaxes in table fellowship, God and sinner reconciled because of the body and blood of Christ. And then finally, the Commission, where God sends us back into our daily lives, cleansed, consecrated, and filled with his fullness, that we might live all of our lives on his altar.
Worship Fuels Mission
Let me conclude this sermon by drawing the connection more tightly between our reasonable, spiritual, and acceptable worship, and our desire to fulfill God’s calling on us as individuals and as a church in these cities. Let me highlight four realities that flow out of our spiritual worship.
Our personal transformation and renewal by the grace of God This is what happens when we encounter God in the gospel. We cease to orient our lives by the world and instead our transformed, changed, from one degree of glory to another. That’s what I hope and pray is happening right now in this service. God is here, God is present, God is changing us.
Spiritual discernment of what’s good and right.
We offer ourselves as acceptable sacrifices, and the result is that we are able to discern what is acceptable and pleasing to God. I think this includes both discernment about how to apply his moral commands, as well as wisdom about how to live faithful, transformed lives in the world. He transforms us so that we can see how he wants us to live, what he wants us to do in our neighborhoods and these cities. What’s more, this discernment happens “by testing.” This is a trial and error process, which means we don’t have to get it right the first time. What we have to do is to offer our bodies, be transformed by his grace, and then act in faith.
Verse 3 is connected to what comes before (“for). And if we’re transformed by mercy as we offer our bodies in worship, one of the things we discern is that we’re not that great. We won’t think more highly of ourselves. We’ll soberly reflect on how God has wired us, where God is stretching us. We’ll have a good sense of our inadequacies. But, unlike the intimidation and fear I mentioned earlier, this humility isn’t paralyzing. We’ve been in God’s presence; we know our weakness. But we also know that he is changing us and equipping us to do what he’s calling us to do.
Live as the body of Christ
The remainder of this passage shows that, after we’ve offered our individual bodies as living sacrifices, we begin to function as one body with many members. Our gifts and callings begin to become evident (there’s discernment again). And the grace of God is with us as we seek to serve or teach or exhort or give, or lead, or show mercy.
The result of this is that, because we worship Jesus, we then fulfill the other two dimensions of our church life. We serve one another within the body, and we seek the good of the Cities. Because we’ve met God in worship, our love can be genuine and sincere for our spouses and children and neighbors. Because we’ve met God in worship, we can hate what God hates and cling to what God loves. We’re knit together in brotherly affection as God’s people. We’re free from sinful rivalry and instead seek to honor each other. We’re freed from laziness. We’re filled with joy about what God plans to do (what GOD plans to do!). We can endure suffering and pain and rejection. We can pray for our neighbors, and meet each other’s needs, and welcome the lonely into our homes. We can celebrate with our neighbors when they’re happy, and we can grieve with them in their pain. Our homes can be marked by peace and harmony and we can extend that harmony to others. We’re even able to love our enemies and to seek their good, because we know that God reigns and he’ll bring his justice in his time.
This is the rhythm of this church. Worship and mission and worship and mission. And we do this together, reliving the gospel together, as our Father in heaven brings his kingdom from heaven to earth.