The Motivation for Change

Don Johnson

How many sermons have you heard from Romans 12.1-2? I’ve lost count. Do you wonder why you hear so much preaching from this passage? (And no, I don’t think it is simply because it’s the go-to passage for Bible college chapel services full of young people hungry to know “the will of God for my wife, uh, life.”)

Seriously, the passage is important because it is the pivotal passage in the book of Romans and Romans is the most thorough explanation of the gospel anywhere in Scripture. The pivotal passage in the pivotal book — it draws our attention. The whole argument of the gospel leads up to the opening word, ‘Therefore…’ and the subsequent passages rest on the assumption that the transformation described in Romans12.1-2 has indeed taken place.

Simply put, the gospel demands change. It may be that the believer, when he first comes to Christ, may have no idea of all the changes that God will bring about in his life, but change he will and change he must.

There is, however, in Romans 12.1 a refreshing new approach to change. The Old Testament demanded change. We call this The Law. The New Testament has lots of demands as well. There is plenty of use of the imperative mood in the New Testament, from Jesus and the apostles all. But there is a difference. Romans 12.1 clearly lays out the difference for us. One difference is the difference between exhortation and demand. The other is the difference of motivation. In this article, I’d like to explore the difference of motivation. We may come back to exhortation in a follow-up piece.

Three motivations for change confront us in Romans 12.1. The exhortation is founded on the whole concept of the gospel, so ably expounded for us in Romans 1-11: “Therefore…” The exhortation addresses us in a new relation to one another and to God: “brethren…” And the exhortation appeals to us on the basis of the marvelous expression of the heart of our God: “the mercies of God.” In these three we find more than enough reason to give God everything that we are and have.

Therefore… the natural consequence of the life-giving gospel

We have a lot of talk about the gospel today. The term almost has become repugnant to me, as people use it so frequently, with so little thought. It has become shorthand for a mystical experience of grace, it seems, especially as connected to certain theological perceptions.

Nevertheless, ‘the gospel’ is a lovely word. The good news – Jesus and the apostles preach it to us from the pages of the New Testament. Jesus came to earth to die so that we could experience the blessings of the good news, so that the gospel could be our own source of life. What could be richer and better than this?

The apostle takes the facts of the gospel and weaves a tapestry in Romans 1-11 that literally takes our breath away so that we must join with him to exult in the closing doxology of Rm 11 – “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!” (v. 33). We find ourselves utterly condemned, along with everyone else in the first three chapters. There is no way out, whether we are the most depraved, or whether we are the self-satisfied moralist or religionist – not one of us is righteous before God, all deserve his wrath, the apostle lays out the reality for us and all that is left is for us to shut our mouths (Rm 3.19). But…

But that’s not all. The story does not end with condemnation, we are astonished to learn that there is such a thing as a ‘without-law kind of righteousness’ (Rm 3.21: “But now…”). Now we can be justified by a holy, righteous judge, who judged his Son instead of us and made us righteous through faith in him, granting access to his presence, eliminating the effect of Adam’s fall, heaping upon us grace upon grace.

This gift does not mean that we should be captive to sin any longer, even though we often struggle with it. God has granted us a way to victory through the walk of faith and the power of the Holy Spirit (Rm 6.12-14, 7.25, 8.1-2). Not only that, but God has in the gospel comprehended a plan whereby not only Gentiles, but Jews, even any man who will call upon him will be saved (Rm 10.9, 13). In this way, all men are enabled to come to him (Rm 11.32).

That’s the gospel. You ought to change and you must change if you have put your faith in Jesus Christ. And the first motivation for change is the marvelous work God has done in removing you from the condemnation you so richly deserve and granting you the grace of eternal life and the power of the Spirit to enable you to live a life well pleasing unto him.

Brethren… the new relation to one another and to God

We do use the language of ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ around here. There is a new relationship that came about by virtue of our conversion. It is a relationship that joins men and women who have no other relation in the world (other than common descent from Adam through Noah).

Personally, I’ve known men from around the world who are my brothers in Christ. I had a roommate in college from the Gambia. What a blessed relationship we had, he raised as a Muslim among Muslims, and me, raised in the hodgepodge of cultures that is an Alberta oil town. Another fellow I am knit to in the spirit is a man from Madagascar who walked up to our church one day. He was studying at the local University and found us somehow, joining our fellowship. We have enjoyed the fellowship of Chinese believers, Russians, Mexicans, Philipinos, Grenadans, and more in our local church fellowship. The barriers of our cultures are transcended by the relations we have in Christ.

This new relation as brethren, though is not merely with one another. “Truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.” (1 Jn 1.3). The Lord Jesus calls us his friends (Jn 15.15). This is the language of a new relationship. We were alienated and at war with God, hating his ways, despising his truth, walking in darkness. But now! Light and life in the Lord!

This becomes the grounds of a new way of life. Have you ever stopped to think when contemplating some decision or other, “What will my dad think?” Or, “how will this affect my wife?” Or, “will this cause my kids to think ill of me?” Just as our natural relationships become goads to our human behaviour, our new relations become a motivating factor for our new way of life.

What does God think? How will my actions reflect on Jesus Christ? What impact would this have on the church, on my brothers and sisters who look up to me? These questions ought to come to our minds when we are tempted to be unfaithful. Jesus said of those who would harm his little ones, “it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Mt 18.6). Don’t you think the effect of your life has an impact on your brethren?

Think of men you know who had a Christian testimony, but failed publicly in some way. How did you respond? Did it stagger your faith? Did it make it more difficult for you to live out your Christian life in your community?

Think, then, brethren, of the brotherhood. Paul urges us (“I beseech you”) to do that which God has every right to demand: present our bodies to God as a living (continual, daily) sacrifice. Brothers! We are in a new relation to one another. We owe each other to yield. We owe our Friend and Elder Brother (Jesus Christ) to yield. Let’s yield ourselves to God!

The mercies of God… the marvelous expression of the heart of God

We might think that Paul’s phrase “by the mercies of God” is simply a repetition of the “therefore” of Rm 12.1. That is, we might think that when Paul says “the mercies of God,” he is simply referring again to God’s mercy expressed in the gospel. Certainly the Lord offers us mercy in the gospel, but I think this term refers to something else.

The word ‘mercies’ is sometimes used in combination with the word the kjv translates ‘bowels,’ giving rise to the phase ‘bowels and mercies’ in Phil 2.1 and Col 3.12. It has itself some connection with the Greek idea of the inner organs as the seat of emotions (in English we have an idiom, ‘gut feeling,’ that approximates this idea). The word speaks of a very strong emotional reaction to something. In the Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Everett Harrison says, “Sometimes it is used in LXX [Greek Old Testament] together with the more common eleos, as in Isaiah 63.15 and Hosea 2.19. It denotes that quality in God that moves him to deliver man from his state of sin and misery and therefore underlies his saving activity in Christ.”[1]

As connected with God, this word is used to translate the Hebrew in two expressions of God’s relationship with his people, Israel. The first is a prayer of penitence:

Look down from heaven, and behold from the habitation of thy holiness and of thy glory: where is thy zeal and thy strength, the sounding of thy bowels and of thy mercies toward me? are they restrained? (Isa 63.15)

The second is God’s declaration of restoration:

And I will betroth thee unto me for ever; yea, I will betroth thee unto me in righteousness, and in judgment, and in lovingkindness, and in mercies. (Hos 2.19)

Remember, this is at the conclusion of Hosea’s live parable where he first named his daughter Lo-ruhamah (No Mercy) and then when the relationship with his wife was restored, he renamed her Ruhamah (Mercy! – so much better, don’t you think?)

The point is that the apostle is appealing to us from the very heart of God. Why should you change? Because God, from the depths of his innermost being, groans toward you and for you. “For God so loved the world…”

We are urged to offer ourselves up freely to God because of the great love wherewith he has loved us. Because of who God is more even than what he has done for us.


I am convinced that we all mightily fail in our walk with God. It isn’t a hard thing to preach a convicting message to believers and to get them to flood down an aisle, touched in their consciences because of their inadequacies.

It is a much harder thing, it seems, to build a life consistently yielded to God. Perhaps we aren’t paying enough attention to the biblical motivations? Let’s found our yielding to God’s urging on the manifold glories of the gospel! Let’s persist in our yielding because of the power of the fellowship with God and man we enjoy as brethren! Let’s love God because he first loved us.

Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.

  1. Everett F. Harrison, “Romans,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 10 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976), 127. []