December 18, 2017

God is Concerned about Externals

Don Johnson

In a recent article, I wrote about the motivations for change that accompany our conversion. There is little doubt that change is part of conversion. After all, the preachers of the Bible call their hearers (and us) to faith and repentance. Repentance is nothing if nothing changes. Biblical Christianity is not a ‘come as you are, stay as you are’ sort of religion — see James 2.14-26.

Besides offering motivations for change, Paul exhorts us to make a specific kind of change in Romans 12.1. His exhortation is very pointed — it involves an entire reorientation of our whole way of life. From our former position of enmity with God (at war with God), Paul exhorts us now to offer our bodies to God as living sacrifices.

I beseech you therefore, brethren… that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice…

He calls this offering “our reasonable service” – the word service being a word used for ritual worship. In other words, those at war with God now are to be offered to God as completely given over to the worship of God, entirely at God’s disposal, with wills completely submitted to the will of the God who has bought us.

We are familiar with these concepts, but let me draw your attention to the word bodies. Why does Paul use this word and not some word like “your whole man” or “your whole self”? Why “bodies”? Doesn’t Paul know that he could be called some kind of legalist for emphasizing the external?

Of course, it is true that Paul means the whole self, he isn’t simply interested in external obedience only. The immediate context (“by the renewing of the mind” Rm 12.2) and Paul’s whole body of work will put that notion to rest. But it is interesting that he chooses to speak of our bodies here in this context.

If we stop to think about the imperatives of the New Testament, we have to acknowledge that God is often very specific about our external behaviour. Consider these imperatives from the following pages of Romans:

  • Romans 12:14 Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not.
  • Romans 12:19 Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath
  • Romans 12:20 Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink
  • Romans 12:21 Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.
  • Romans 13:1 Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers.
  • Romans 13:7 Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.

It is true that some have over-emphasized external standards of behaviour (sometimes with good scriptural basis, sometimes not). This over-emphasis causes some to react in horror and throw off any hint of personal self-discipline as Pharisaical legalism.

Some will react to the kinds of positions we take on current issues here at Proclaim & Defend. When we speak against alcohol consumption (we believe Christians should abstain), we are accused of legalism. When we preach against modern music, or stand against the Charismatic movement, or address current social issues, cultural issues, or take on the modern relaxed standards of dress and behaviour, we are accused of externalism and legalism.

In light of this climate, isn’t it interesting that Paul chooses to use this word, body, here, as the first reaction to the concept of salvation he has so comprehensively explained in Romans 1-11? In the very next breath, he says, “Present your bodies…” Why does he do that?

Prior to salvation, our bodies were yielded up to sin as instruments of unrighteousness. Now, having been born again by the Spirit of God, our bodies are to be yielded up as instruments of righteousness unto God. (Rm 6.13). The apostle knows that he can’t allow for errors here. The sanctified saint must yield his body (and soul and spirit) to God – there is no room for a purely intellectual salvation, a salvation by right doctrine. The logical conclusion (our reasonable service), is to present our bodies as living sacrifices to the God who saved us.

“Before we trusted Christ, we used our body for sinful pleasures and purposes, but now that we belong to Him, we want to use our body for His glory. The Christian’s body is God’s temple (1 Cor. 6:19–20) because the Spirit of God dwells within him (Rom. 8:9). It is our privilege to glorify Christ in our body and magnify Christ in our body (Phil. 1:20–21).”[1]

Sanctification begins with the things our body does. This is no mere ‘spiritual exercise’ where we gain deeper knowledge of doctrine, of the spiritual life, and somehow have no translation into our physical life. Sanctification begins with the things our body does.

It is no wonder that mature Christians speak to immature Christians about their practices as well as their precepts. If there are no spiritual practices, something is faulty with the precepts that are supposed to be their scriptural rationale.

I’d like to address one more idea before leaving this theme. Do you realize that the Lord intends

  • To present to himself the church without any spot (Eph 5.27)
  • To present us blameless to God (Col 1.21)

Clearly, the Lord is involved in getting our externals cleaned up. He intends to present us pure. He will present us pure. But that’s not all.

Paul says that he labors to present men complete in Christ (preaching, warning, teaching) (Col 1.28) In addition, Paul urges Timothy to present himself to God, a workman who needs not be ashamed (2 Tim 2.15)

Sanctification is a project engaged in by the Lord for you; by the Lord’s ministers for you; and by you – as you respond to the urgings God places before you: Holy Spirit, Word of God, ministers of God and your own spiritually awakened conscience.

We need to be right about the externals – we are not looking for some kind of means of gaining grace from God by our good behaviour. But we also must not ignore the fact that God expects our good behaviour. God is concerned about externals.

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

  1. Warren W Wiersbe, Be Right (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1977), 137. []

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