Living the Will of God

August 2, 1998 / Romans 12:1-2

According to a story I heard recently, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were on a camping trip. They had retired early but had both awakened around 2 a.m. With a clear, star-studded night sky above them, Holmes asked, "Watson, what do you see?"

"Well," said the doctor, "I see thousands of stars!"

"And what does that mean to you?"

"I suppose it means that we are most fortunate to inhabit Godís great universe as intelligent observers. Although we are small in his eyes, we are blessed with powers of reasoning that permit us to make our way in this world of blind greed and criminal enterprises. And, in the most trivial sense, surely a night so clear and beautiful as this is a portent of another beautiful day for us to enjoy tomorrow, my dear friend. What does it mean to you, Holmes?"

"To me, Watson, it means that ó while we were sleeping ó someone has stolen our tent!"

Similarly, while we fortunate people of the late twentieth century reflect on our educational, scientific, and technological achievements, we may be overlooking the fact that something has been taken from us.

You pick up todayís Tennessean and read front-page headlines about immunity agreements and clothing alleged to be stained with semen. You turn on CNN Headline News and are informed that the latest poll says the majority of Americans couldnít care less about presidential morality ó so long as the economy remains healthy. The idea that a bull-market economy makes basic questions of morality unimportant reduces ethics to a business proposition. Have we really come to that point in American culture?

The tent of objective moral norms by which to frame and judge human conduct has been stolen from this generation. Not only has the tent been stolen but the pegs of objective truth that were necessary to hold it in place have been ripped from the ground. Indeed, press the thought leaders (i.e., spin masters) of our time and place in history and you will hear them explain in condescending tones that there is no "real" ground of history and meaning beneath our feet. There is only the ongoing process of interpretation, no definite or fixed meaning to anything.

Before we speculate on the ethereal meaning of the stars, Dr. Watson, we must pay attention to finding the tent that is missing! There are storms on the horizon. Winter follows summer. People die from exposure, unless they have the essential protection of minimal civility that God has given us in the basic insights into right and wrong that are inherent in human thought and common to diverse cultures across the centuries.

Cultural Pressures on the Church

But this is church, not the congress or general populace. Precisely! And it is the task of the church to call its own to God, truth, and upright behavior. We do not define the values for our culture. We are an alternative culture to the mainstream ó whether first century or twentieth, China or United States. We live under political systems and within economic systems we did not create. We obey laws and pay taxes. We respect the authority of policeman and judge, governor and president. Our goal is not social change or political impact but spiritual integrity within a community of faith.

Then why worry about the latest mess in Washington or pornography on the Internet? Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan has used the phrase "defining deviancy down" to articulate his fear that contemporary culture is being influenced to accept as part of life things we once found repugnant.

Wealthy America has become a culture of whiners. Everybody is a victim, and criminal behavior is simply the inevitable outcome of an unhappy childhood. Because everybody is entitled to be happy, no woman has to stay with an insensitive husband and no man has to provide child support. Because we have discovered our rights and entitlements, thrift, self-discipline, and personal responsibility are no longer valued but scorned.

Market capitalism encourages all of us to be consumers first: Buy it today, enjoy it right now ó and figure out how youíll pay for it later. Simultaneously, the worth of individuals to their companies and employers is diminished by a market that seeks the mobility of both labor and capital for the sake of each quarterís bottom line.

Individual impulses ó particularly sexual impulses ó are teased by music and visual media. They communicate the message that no desire is taboo and that there are no limits on seeking personal gratification. Then Jerry Springer and Rikki Lake cross whatever lines people thought were left to glamorize perversion for the sake of ratings. Meanwhile, young kids are sent to their rooms to watch cartoons and learn about foul-mouthed crudeness from the third-grade students of South Park.

Before Sen. Moynihan called it "defining deviancy down," this was Paulís warning to believers: "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind" (Rom. 12:2a). Or, as Eugene Peterson translates the same verse: "Donít become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking" (The Message). Paul knew the power of a dominant culture to impinge upon the church and to squeeze Christians into its mold.

Right and Wrong

Right and wrong still exist. But the ethical tent over our culture that once generally acknowledged right and wrong has been stolen from us. In its place, we are all told to find our own way, create our own truth, discover our own values. And the most articulate persons pointing to this theft and deception have not been those you might have expected. Because the church has been trivialized and discredited by its moral failures of racism, sexism, and greed, it has no credibility. Because its clergy has been trained at the feet of modernist and post-modernist professors, it has no biblical voice of an authoritative word from God.

Thank God, however, that someone occasionally speaks directly to what is happening in our larger culture. Tel Koppel delivered a commencement address at Stanford University on June 14, 1998, in which he told his audience:

We are at least teetering on the brink of tolerating the unacceptable and focusing the full force of our moral outrage on the trivial. We live in a society that not only tolerates but rewards Jerry Springer and Larry Flynt, while simultaneously removing Huckleberry Finn and Shakespeare from the curricula of some of our schools and universities, lest they offend. We permit the archdeacons of political correctness to twist our language and behavior into parodies of sensitivity, while simultaneously, the language at large, our entertainment and our general behavior have become cruder, coarser and less sensitive than at any time in my memory.

He continued:

I believe that, ultimately, questions of what is right and wrong require the individual to measure himself against absolute standards of ethics and responsibility. Not that any one of us ever completely measures up to those standards; but you can't set your compass, moral or otherwise, by a shifting North Star. Our generation has become so comfortable watching itself being defined according to polls and ratings and surveys, in the Dow or on the NASDAQ, in the outcome of elections or in public propositions or referenda, that we have sunk into a sort of general relativism, in which all issues are determined by majority vote or a public display of the lowest common denominator: We learn, according to the syndicated lesson taught by Jerry Springer, that while all of us are flawed, we who are watching are not nearly as flawed as the poor souls he parades in front of us. Which may, if the lesson is repeated often enough, teach us that, rather than struggling toward an ideal of perfect behavior, we can always console ourselves with the examples of those even weaker than we are.

The Christian Position

"But isnít it wrong to judge other people?" someone asks. "Hasnít that been the great sin of Christians across time ó that we have been so judgmental and narrow-minded?"

The answer to the question "May a Christian ever judge another person?" is the somewhat exasperating answer "It depends." If following Christ means passing no moral or spiritual judgments, we could never judge racism or child molestation evil and do things to oppose and correct them. If following Christ means passing no moral or spiritual judgments, we must condemn our Lord for the judgments he passed against religious hypocrites (Matt. 23:1ff) or for telling some people they were liars (John 8:55).

As a matter of fact, Jesusí fuller statement about judgment is this: "Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment" (John 7:24). Yes, he prohibits judging people by their skin color, nationality, or church membership. But he most certainly does not forbid judgments about fundamental matters of truth and error, right and wrong, praiseworthy behavior and blameworthy actions.

This clarification of the matter of Christian "judgments" is not intended to be a defense of self-righteousness or strident shouting into a television camera or unbelieverís face. It is meant instead to be a call to character based on commitment to Christian truth and discipleship. It is meant as a challenge for people who wear the name of Jesus Christ as our Savior to embrace him as the authentic Lord of our lives.

In order to be clear, let me summarize this lesson with a fuller quotation of a statement already introduced from Scripture: "Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of Godís mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God ó this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what Godís will is ó his good, pleasing and perfect will" (Rom. 12:1-2).

First, embracing a Christian lifestyle is not the means to our salvation but a consequence of it. Paul grounds his exhortation in a great "therefore" which harkens back to the doctrine of justification by grace through faith that has been set forth in the first eleven chapters of Romans. He issues an appeal "in view of Godís mercy" already experienced by his original readers.

Paulís ethical admonitions are therefore not a way to earn Godís favor but rather the way one responds appropriately, in trust and faithfulness, when one has received that favor. Life shaped in the way Paul describes it is therefore grateful response to the God who has delivered us from our slavery to sin. These admonitions are thus not "law" in the sense of requirement we must fulfill if God is to accept us. Paul is not smuggling in the law through the back door, as it were, in his ethical admonitions. The admonitions are not contrary to grace, they are the response to a grace taken seriously enough to shape oneís life accordingly.1

Second, the Christian life is a bodily experience and not some mystical, abstract "giving of oneís heart to Jesus." One of the earliest and most persistent heresies of the Christian faith is one that holds salvation to be of the spirit or inner person and without consequence for the body or outer person. One variety of ancient Gnostic would insist that he could fornicate or dispense violence with his body as he might choose, for it was his spirit that God had redeemed. At the coming of Christ, that Gnostic held, his "pure spirit" would be separated from his "vile body." Nonsense!

Paul made it plain, in his exposure of human depravity in [Rom.] 3:13ff., that it reveals itself through our bodies, in tongues which practise [sic] deceit and lips which spread poison, in mouths which are full of cursing and bitterness, in feet which are swift to shed blood, and in eyes which look away from God. Conversely, Christian sanctity shows itself in the deeds of the body. So we are to offer the different parts of our bodies not to sin as Ďinstruments of wickednessí but to God as Ďinstruments of righteousnessí (6:13, 16, 19). Then our feet will walk in his paths, our lips will speak the truth and spread the gospel, our tongues will bring healing, our hands will lift up those who have fallen, and perform many mundane tasks as well like cooking and cleaning, typing and mending; our arms will embrace the lonely and the unloved, our ears will listen to the cries of the distressed, and our eyes will look humbly and patiently towards God.2

Third, calling people who have been saved by grace to a Christ-honoring lifestyle is only reasonable and sensible. It is certainly not an unjust imposition. When Paul called upright living a "spiritual act of worship" to God, the term he used was logikos. No one has to be a Greek scholar to recognize our English word "logical" in the word. Indeed, logikos denotes something that is reasonable, logical, or rational. Thus for a Christian to give his or her body to God as an instrument of righteousness is "the only sensible, logical and appropriate response to him in view of his self-giving mercy."3

A number of commentaries on this text illustrate this point by quoting a first-century Stoic philosopher names Epictetus: "If I were a nightingale, I would do what is proper to a nightingale, and if I were a swan, what is proper to a swan. In fact I am logikos [a rational being], so I must praise God."4 People who are genuinely born anew will seek out and live within the revealed will of God as a consequence of their reasonable desire to show gratitude to the one who has saved them by his grace.

Fourth, this lifestyle of surrender to the will of God brings one to the point of being "transformed by the renewing of your mind." The indwelling Spirit of God makes oneís heart tender, open, and eager for the Word of God. As that good seed of the kingdom falls on such a heart, it brings forth the abundant fruits of righteousness. The result is a metamorphosis (cf. the Greek verb "be transformed" is from metamorpho_) more spiritually wonderful than the one in nature that turns a clumsy caterpillar into a delicate butterfly.

Fifth, the result of this reoriented and renewed lifestyle is this: "Then you will be able to test and approve what Godís will is ó his good, pleasing and perfect will." The more you do what is right, the more you want to do what is right. The more you want to do what is right, the more difficult it is to understand how you ever lived as you once did ó or to be comfortable with the prevailing culture around you that still finds Godís will oppressive and hateful. When you habitually do things the way God has told us to do them, you suddenly experience the reality of joy. This is not some form of "mystical insight" reserved for the privileged few. It is the practical affirmation of Godís "good, pleasing and perfect will" in the life of someone sincerely committed to following his obvious direction for your life.

Are you confused about how to seek and do the will of God for your life? Are things so complex that you donít have confidence about discerning the fine points of that will? Simply do everything that you know to do that is obviously right and within the divine will, and God will make the necessary next steps obvious in their turn. He will show you his good, pleasing, and perfect will.


The tent of civic virtue is gone. It has been stolen while we slept. Maybe some are correct in saying it never really existed ó except as an ideal. But the church as a counter-culture of truth, uprightness, and integrity exists wherever people receive Godís grace and live out its reasonable demands in gratitude for salvation received.

The conclusion of Ted Koppelís speech at Stanford was designed to call graduating seniors to pursue the high road for their lives. It might also be heard as a challenge to the church in a time of moral bankruptcy:

We will not change what's wrong with our culture through legislation, or by choosing up sides on the basis of personal popularity or party affiliation. We will change it by small acts of courage and kindness; by recognizing, each of us, his or her own obligation to set a proper example.

Aspire to decency. Practice civility toward one another. Admire and emulate ethical behavior wherever you find it. Apply a rigid standard of morality to your lives; and if, periodically, you fail ó as you surely will ó adjust your lives, not the standards.

There's no mystery here. You know what to do. Now go out and do it!


1 Paul Achtemeir, Romans (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985), pp. 199-200.
2 John R. W. Stott, Romans: Godís Good News for the World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), p. 322.
3 Stott, Romans, p. 321.
4 Epictetus, Discourses I. 16. 20f.

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