Transformed By Grace
Steve Sample was the president of USC, the University of Southern California. He wrote a textbook on leadership, and in that textbook he told this story:
In the spring of 1970, when I was 29, I learned I had won a fellowship from the American Council on Education, which would allow me to serve an administrative internship with Purdue University President Fred Hovde for the 1970–71 academic year. I was elated by the opportunity. Despite having only recently been awarded tenure and promoted to associate professor of electrical engineering at Purdue, I was already leaning toward a career in administration….
Soon after the award was announced, I happened to bump into a colleague, Vern Newhouse, who was a highly respected senior member of the electrical engineering faculty. “So, Sample,” Newhouse said, “I see you’ve won some sort of administrative fellowship in the president’s office.”
“Yes, that’s true,” I said.
“And you’ll be learning how to become an administrator?”
“I suppose so.”
“And then you’ll probably want to be president of a university somewhere down the road?”
“Well, I don’t know. I guess I’ve thought about it now and then,” I said, somewhat disingenuously.
He smiled and said: “Personally, I’ve never had any ambition whatsoever to be an administrator. I am totally inept at managing things…. But I’ve been a careful observer of ambitious men all my life. And here, for what it’s worth, is what I’ve learned: many men want to be president, but very few want to do president.” And with that he wished me well and walked away.[i]
“Many people want to BE president, but very few want to DO president.” The same could be said of following Christ – Many people want to BE Christian, but very few want to DO Christian. We want to be forgiven, but we don’t want to follow Christ. You see,. following Jesus involves both being and doing. When we place our faith in Christ, we are immediately forgiven, our sin – past present, and future – is cleansed because our sinful natures are applied to Christ on the cross and his righteous, holy nature is applied to us. Our identity is immediately changed to “Child of God.” Our citizenship is immediately transferred to the kingdom of Heaven. That’s what it means to BE a Christian. But then there’s this whole business of doing. Following Jesus. I rarely even use the word Christian anymore. But I talk a lot about following Jesus and being a Christ-follower.
Now, here’s the thing we have to remember: the doing, is OUR RESPONSE to God’s grace, it doesn’t earn us God’s grace. But we aren’t robots who have simply been reprogrammed either. God invites us into a relationship of mutual love. Our love isn’t perfect like God’s is, but he wants us to CHOOSE him and he wants us to put effort into our following Jesus. It doesn’t earn us anything. We don’t deserve and can’t earn God’s grace. But we CAN put effort into following Jesus, recognizing that God is involved even there, through the Holy Spirit, guiding us, giving us strength, if we are willing to listen to the guidance and accept and apply the strength. But God WILL NOT override our wills.
Well, beginning in Romans 12, St. Paul turns his attention from what it means to BE a Christian, what it means to BE forgiven and RECEIVE God’s grace in Christ, to what it means to FOLLOW JESUS. He goes from the being to the doing. And for Paul, these aren’t two separate categories. The being and the doing of life in Christ are actually two sides of the same coin. Everything we become and do as we follow Jesus grows out of everything God has done for us in Christ. Look at the first phrase of Romans 12:1.
THEREFORE. That’s a huge word, isn’t it? Not just in size, but in meaning. It points us backward, doesn’t it. It tells us that everything that comes from here on out is built on the foundation of everything that came before – everything that we’ve talked about in our last two sermon series on the book of Romans: Digging Deep from Romans 1-5 and Deep Grace from Romans 6-11. I would have called the first series Deep Sin, because that’s what Paul describes, but no one would have come to church. But Paul begins his letter to the Jewish and Greek Christians in Rome with a long and deep description of the sinfulness and depravity of the human heart. Not just some human hearts. Not just the worst human hearts. EVERY human heart. In fact, Paul considered himself – a Pharisee who tried his best to keep every letter of the Jewish law, and then as an apostle of Jesus – he considered himself the worst of all sinners. In 1 Timothy 1:15, Paul wrote, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”
And that’s what Paul wants us to understand about ourselves as we work through the first several chapters of this letter. He wants us to see ourselves in exactly that way – the foremost of sinners. And then he turns his attention to the depth of God’s amazing grace. Grace that he describes so beautifully in Romans 5:8. “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” On the cross of Christ, our sin and God’s grace come together. And it is on that foundation that the rest of the book of Romans, the “Therefore,” is built. Because of the grace of God, the mercy of God in Christ, DO this. And then he gives us three imperatives. They’re directives. And the sense of the words falls somewhere between urging and a command. He isn’t piling on us a list of do’s and don’ts. He’s simply describing our response to God’s grace and mercy. He’s saying, “This is what it looks like when we accept God’s gift of grace. This is how we respond rightly.”
The first imperative is “PRESENT.” Look at V. 1. We present our BODIES as LIVING SACRIFICES. God doesn’t want dead sacrifices offered on an altar. He wants us. And he doesn’t just mean our physical bodies. What he means is, God wants our lives. He wants the whole person. He’s talking about the way we act. The way we live. Not just our minds and emotions but our wills. Our actions. Our loving response to God’s incredible act of mercy and grace in forgiving us is to offer our very lives as a sacrifice to him, not by dying on an altar, but by living in such a way that God is glorified.
To be holy is to be set apart for God’s special use and God’s special care. Have you ever watched a mechanic use and take care of their tools? Repair shops don’t provide tools, other than lifts and maybe the diagnostic computer. Everything else – the wrenches and sockets and ratchets and pliers and drivers – the things the mechanic uses to fix your car, belong to the mechanic. And each mechanic has his tools in his toolbox at his work station. The tools belong to the mechanic, and are set aside for his use, and his use alone. They’re organized the way he wants them organized, things like that. And then, at the end of the day, he gently wipes them off, cleans them up, and puts them where they belong, so they’re clean and available the next time he needs them. Mechanics invest a ton of money in their tools, and they take good, loving care of them, they treat them gently, so that they last.
When we offer our lives, our very selves, as living and holy sacrifices, it is a pleasing and acceptable sacrifice. It pleases God. It makes God feel good. God loves it when we respond to his incredible sacrifice in that way. In fact, Paul says it’s in this way that we worship God. It is true, authentic, SPIRITUAL worship. Now, Paul isn’t telling us that we don’t need to gather together for corporate worship. The writer of Hebrews says “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (10:25). Paul isn’t telling us NOT to worry about gathering together. He’s telling us that regularly gathering together to worship and encourage one another isn’t all there is to following Jesus. Worship isn’t JUST an hour or so on Sunday. It involves the way we live and use all of our hours. We work, and play, and love, and rest in ways that bring glory to God.
Fred Craddock once said, “To give my life for Christ appears glorious,” he said. “To pour myself out for others … to pay the ultimate price of martyrdom – I’ll do it. I’m ready, Lord, to go out in a blaze of glory.
“We think giving our all to the Lord is like taking a $1,000 bill and laying it on the table – ‘Here’s my life, Lord. I’m giving it all.’
“But the reality for most of us is that he sends us to the bank and has us cash in the $1,000 for quarters. We go through life putting out 25 cents here and 50 cents there. Listen to the neighbor kid’s troubles instead of saying, ‘Get lost.’ Go to a committee meeting. Give up a cup of water to a shaky old man in a nursing home.
“Usually giving our life to Christ isn’t glorious. It’s done in all those little acts of love, 25 cents at a time. It would be easy to go out in a flash of glory; it’s harder to live the Christian life little by little over the long haul.”[ii] In light of God’s mercy, we present our selves as living sacrifices. That’s the first imperative.
The second is telling us something we shouldn’t do. Look at the first phrase of V. 2. In other words, don’t let the world squeeze you into its mold. If our way of living is going to change, is going to be different, the way we think is going to have to change. Our worldview is going to have to change. The lens through which we view everything is going to have to change. Otherwise, we’ll find that we’re living just like everyone else, nothing really different about us at all.
Well, if we aren’t going to conform, we HAVE to do something else. Conforming is the status quo. It’s our default state. If we aren’t going to conform, what do we do? It’s our third imperative, and it’s the second phrase of V. 2. He says “BE TRANSFORMED.” Interesting, isn’t it, that he doesn’t say, “transform yourself”? He says “be transformed.” This isn’t something we do on our own. But it also isn’t something God does in us without our active, knowing involvement. God’s work of grace and our response in gratitude come together to bring about transformation. The Greek word for transformation Paul used is the same word we get our word metamorphosis from. It most commonly describes the transformation that a caterpillar undergoes as it becomes a butterfly. That’s usually what we think of when we think of metamorphosis, isn’t it. Here’s the thing about that kind of transformation though. In some ways, the substance stays the same. The being that was a caterpillar is now a butterfly, but the being itself is the same being. Same thing with an acorn and a mighty oak. The acorn, this little nut, is pushed into the ground and becomes a sapling and then a mighty oak, but it’s the same living thing, acorn to tree. The problem is that most of us are happy staying tiny nuts when God wants us to become mighty trees. We’re happy staying fuzzy worms instead of becoming beautiful butterflies. We’d rather be the worm, the nut. But that isn’t what Christ died for. He didn’t go through the terror and brutality of the cross so that we could stay nuts and worms. He did it so that we could become beautiful butterflies and towering oaks in his kingdom. As you’re transformed, you’re still you. But you’re different. And that’s exactly what Paul is describing here in the first 2 verses of Romans 12.
So we are to BE transformed. We are to ALLOW the transformation to happen. How? By the RENEWING of our MINDS. That’s our response. That’s our “do.” We grow in our relationship with Christ. We study the Word of God. We meditate on it. We sing it. And in the process – and it IS a process, not a one-time event – our worldview is changed. Our minds are changed. And as our minds, our worldview, our thinking, is changed, so are our values and priorities, and when those things change, so does our living.
And when that happens, we are able to discern God’s will. How God wants us to live. We’re able to live in ways that are pleasing to God. We become who God wants us to become, we accomplish what God wants us to accomplish in our lives, and we have a great time doing it! Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Abundant life. Overflowing life. Our hearts are filled not just with transient emotions like happiness, but with lasting states, fruits of the Holy Spirit, like joy and peace and patience and kindness.
In Romans 5:21 Paul says “as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” As human beings, we must submit to something. We are ruled by something. It is either sin and death, or grace and mercy and life. God’s grace doesn’t just save us. And it doesn’t just reign IN us. It reigns OVER us. God’s mercy is a power that exerts a total and all-encompassing claim upon us. That’s what it means to follow Jesus. That’s what it means for him to be our Savior, AND OUR LORD.
Robert Bellah was a sociologist who taught at the University of California at Berkeley, was very interested in the influence of religion on the community. In an interview in Psychology Today he said, “We should not underestimate the significance of the small group of people who have a new vision of a just and gentle world. The quality of a culture may be changed when 2 percent of its people have a new vision.” Did you hear that? A new vision in the hearts and minds of 2 percent of a population can change a culture. The lives of the first Christians bear out that truth.
Commenting on that quote, British pastor John Stott said, “There are many more than 2 percent Christians in your country and mine. Then why aren’t we having more effect? Why aren’t we having more influence? I pray that God will call you to permeate non-Christian society for Christ, to take your stand there uncompromisingly with the value system and moral standards of Jesus.”[iii] Well, God has called you, and me, to exactly that. Christ died for us, so that we might live for him. Let us pray.
[i] Steve Sample, The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2002), pp. 159-160
[ii] Darryl Bell, Maple Grove, Minnesota. Leadership, Vol. 5, no. 4.
[iii] John Stott, “Christians: Salt and Light,” Preaching Today, Tape No. 109.