Romans 12:1-2 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.
In one form or another the most common question I’m asked is, “What is God’s will for my life?”. It comes in marriage questions, parenting questions, conflict questions, career questions, sin questions, ministry questions, money questions, work questions, moving questions, etc. But again, the main question is: what would God have me do in this situation.
Overall, that’s led me to two main observations: 1) I’m exceedingly thankful that that’s the main question being asked. It is remarkably encouraging to know that our church is filled with people who genuinely want to know the will of God for their lives; and 2) It’s not very often that I encounter people who have any real measure of confidence in explaining God’s will or in discovering what it is for their situation.
For that reason, I want to share with you a bit about the will of God from Romans 12:1-2 this morning. That is, with the Apostle Paul as our guide, I want to help you all answer a few questions: 1) Who is it that truly wants to know God’s will? 2) What is the nature of God’s will? 3) How can I know God’s will for my life?
To understand what Romans 12:1-2 has to say about those questions, though, we first need to grasp its context.
Romans 1-11 presents the clearest and fullest picture of the gospel (good news) of Jesus Christ in existence. Of it Martin Luther wrote, “[Romans] is really the chief part of the New Testament and the very purest Gospel” (Luther, Commentary on Romans, xiii).
Romans 1-11 tells us of the mind of the Trinity before the foundation of the world. Specifically, it describes the creation of the world, the fall of mankind, the anger of God ignited by sin, the history of God’s redemption culminating in the substitute and sacrificial suffering, death, and resurrection of his only son, Jesus, and the means by which mankind may gain access to the work of Jesus (faith as a gift of God), all on the way to the Apostle’s description of the new heavens and the new earth wherein the faithful receive the fullness of the blessing of God: unbroken, eternal, loving fellowship with the triune God and all the saints of all time.
Along with all of that Romans 1-11 speaks of the fact that this salvation is open to all (Jew and gentile) and that all who receive it are received as sons and daughters of God, brothers and sisters with Jesus, and therein co-heirs with Jesus to all the blessings of God.
The entire order of salvation is taught in these eleven chapters. All of the doctrines of grace are taught in them as well. They truly are a masterpiece of doctrine and theology.
Rightly understood, we’re left wondering what all of this means for real life. That is, given the truthfulness of everything contained in 1-11, what should life look like for those who receive it in faith? Our passage for this morning, 12:1-2, serves in many ways as the transition (that’s what the “therefore” is there for) from the doctrine of the gospel to the implications of the gospel. That is, beginning with chapter 12 Paul focuses on how those who receive the good news ought to live in light of the good news. Again, chapters 12-16 focus on the will of God for those who have placed their faith in Jesus.
With that in the way of context and introduction, let’s consider what 12:1-2 has to say about our three questions.
WHO TRULY WANTS TO KNOW THE WILL OF GOD?
Who truly cares about the will of God? Who really wants to know God’s will? Who is it that genuinely desires to know what God wants for their lives, for their family, for their church, for the world? These may seem like silly questions, but they really are critical for all of us to ask. As I explain why I believe that in light of 1-2 (that they are critical questions), test yourself. Ask yourself how important knowing the will of God truly is for you. Do you want to know all of it or just some of it? Do you want to merely know God’s will, or obey it too? And ask yourself, why do you want to know it or not know it?
As you have undoubtedly encountered in others (and probably in some measure in yourself), the prevailing understanding of what it means to be a Christian is little more than praying a prayer accepting Jesus’ offer of forgiveness, doing your best to be a little less sinful/little more holy than the people in your life who haven’t done that, going to church as much as is “reasonable”, and then going to heaven when you die. That’s what’s being sold and purchased. For the most part it’s being sold because that’s what the consumers are demanding. Conversely, it’s often demanded because those selling it put such shiny wrapping paper on it.
People in that camp (both the buyers and sellers) are not the ones who want to know the will of God. Those are the people who want to know where God’s will lines up with the desires of their flesh so they can find some relief for their troubled consciences while still living their best life now.
So that you know I’m not just being uncharitable, the same man who wrote our passage for this morning also wrote this, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions and will turn away from listening to the truth… (2 Timothy 4:3).
Again, the people described by the Apostle in that passage are not truly interested in knowing the will of God; they are only interested in having their ears itched and their passions justified. Where God’s will is compatible with those things they’re all in. Where it isn’t they’re happy to leave it be. “Jesus appreciators” do not truly want to know the will of God.
Neither do, of course, people of other religions, agnostics, atheists, bored kids, or apathetic adults. The fact is, there is only one group of people in the entire world that truly wants to know the will of God. Who are they? What group is that? To answer that question, consider with me Romans 12:1-2a.
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 …
To be a Christian is not merely to believe in Jesus as a get-out-of-hell-free card, a conscience appeaser, or a cosmic vending machine. It is, Paul wrote, to joyfully surrender all claims on your life. It is to eagerly offer your entire being to God as a living sacrifice. It is to enthusiastically set apart God in your affection and worship. It is to unapologetically renounce everything in this world that sets itself up against or above God. It is to without excuse admit the need to be utterly transformed from the mind of Adam to the mind of God. And it is to humbly, brokenly, and repentantly acknowledge that all of this is only possible by the mercies of God expressed chiefly and decisively in the cross of Jesus Christ. According to this passage, that’s what it means to be a Christian.
And the answer to my question (who truly wants to know the will of God?) is that it is Christians alone who long to know the will of God. We long to know the will of God, not merely out of convenience (like the Jesus appreciators of today), covetousness (like Simon the Magician) or curiosity (like the pagans on Mars Hill), but in the knowledge and deep conviction that in the will of God alone are safety and satisfaction, beauty and blessing, help and healing, forgiveness and freedom, light and life. Knowing the will of God for Christians isn’t primarily an intellectual exercise, it is oxygen and satisfaction. Indeed, an increasing longing for knowledge of the will of God, a heart that loves it, and the strength to obey it are among the most telling marks of genuine conversion.
And so every one of us must ask ourselves: do I truly want to know the will of God? Have I surrendered all claims on the world and all worldly claims on my life? Is it genuinely my aim to know God’s will and live according to it? For those who answer yes, two more questions arise quickly. What, exactly, is the nature of God’s will? And what, exactly, is the will of God? Let’s take those questions in order.
WHAT IS THE NATURE OF GOD’S WILL?
What is the nature of God’s will? Our passage for this morning answers this question in two critical ways: 1) The nature of God’s will is such that understanding it requires transformation, and 2) God’s will is good and acceptable and perfect by nature.
Understanding God’s Will Requires Transformation
In light of the gospel presented in 1-11, in 12:1 Paul pleads with his readers to receive it in faith. Insodoing, as we just saw, he describes the heart of a Christian and the Christian life. Again, a Christian is one who by the mercies of God has been transformed from one who hoped in the things of this world to one who hopes in God. And the Christian life is the process of working out all of the implications of that transformation.
In 12:2 Paul tells his readers that that God has designed the process of transformation such that it happens through the renewing of our minds.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind…
All mankind is born into sin. Part of being born into sin is being born into ignorance concerning spiritual matters. The essential elements of the Gospel, Paul wrote (1 Corinthians 1:18), are foolishness to the unbeliever. The reason people do not accept the gospel of 1-11 is because apart from the mercies of God it sounds nuts to them. Consequently whole other systems of thought are created. Entire, alternative worldviews are constructed to make sense of life as we experience it. Where the truth of God is rejected some other “truth” must take its place.
Thus, when the mercies of God come upon us, causing our eyes and ears to truly see and hear the gospel for the first time, everything about us must change. We have to relearn how to look at the world as it really is. We need to have our minds renewed. When that happens we’ll see that 2+2 is no longer simply 4. Instead, we’ll see that 2+2=4 because an immutable God designed and sustains the world. Marriage is no longer an institution to be tinkered with by people to suit current cultural norms. Instead, marriage is a glorious gift of God designed to provide a visible picture of the invisible gospel. Clothing is no longer merely a means of personal expression, but a reminder of the Fall (Genesis 3:7) and a means of presenting ourselves as ambassadors of Jesus (1 Timothy 2:9). Work is not something to be suffered through 9-5, M-F. It is, instead, part of our very purpose in this world (Genesis 1:26), a way in which we share in the creation of God, a means of demonstrating the power of the gospel (Titus 2:9), and an opportunity to glorify God (Colossians 3:23)…and on and on through every aspect of our existence.
The point is this: when we come to trust in Jesus, our whole lives need to be transformed from Adam’s likeness to Christ’s likeness, and that happens as our minds are renewed; as we learn to understand ourselves and the world as God actually made them. And only when those things happen can we discern the will of God. That’s the essence of the next clause in 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…
As our minds are renewed by the mercies of God causing the Spirit of God to illuminate the Word of God for us, then and only then, can we know God’s will. Again, understanding the will of God for your life requires transformation.
God’s Will is Good and Acceptable and Perfect
The second aspect of the nature of God’s will presented in this passage is that it is good, acceptable (well-pleasing), and perfect.
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.
That it is good means that it is desirable and beneficial. In no way will it mislead or disappoint. That it is acceptable/well-pleasing means that knowing and living consistently with it brings joy to God and the one who receives it. And that it is perfect means that it is complete, containing everything necessary. The will of God accounts for every aspect of our lives; rightly understood, it will never leave us wanting.
For those who have not been transformed by the renewing of their minds, the will of God seems to be anything but these things. It seems harsh, boring, restrictive, out-dated, demeaning, racist, repressive, etc. But again, for those who are being saved, increasingly, it appears as it truly is: good, acceptable, and perfect.
In addition to the two aspects of the nature of the will of God mentioned in this passage, I want to draw your attention to one more aspect of the nature of God’s will: God has chosen to express it in two ways.
God’s Will Is Expressed in Two Ways
Throughout the years, from my perspective, confusion in this area has led to more ungodly choices among those genuinely seeking to know and live in light of God’s will than any other area. Explaining how and why that’s the case is a different sermon or discussion. I mention it simply to help you see how important what I’m about to say really is.
God’s Word teaches us that God has chosen to speak of his will in two different ways: his hidden will and his revealed will. One of the clearest examples of this in the bible occurs in Deuteronomy 29:29, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” This passage explicitly names both wills of God.
God’s hidden will is all that he plans but has chosen not to reveal to his people beforehand—the secret things that belong to the LORD. We see this in passages like Romans 11:33-34, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! 34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” God’s hidden will becomes known to us only as we work through time. That’s the essence of passages like Colossians 1:26 where Paul describes Jesus as “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints.” The vast, vast majority of God’s will is hidden from us. And here’s the key: we are not responsible to know or act on God’s hidden will. In making decisions in life, we are not responsible to make them in light of God’s hidden will.
God’s revealed will, on the other hand, is all that he has chosen to make known to his people—the things that are revealed in the law. It is God’s revealed will that we are responsible for when making decisions. God holds mankind fully responsible to conform to that which he reveals to us. But here’s the key to understanding this aspect of the will of God: The only place God has revealed his will to his people in a binding way is his Word, the bible.
Again, great problems arise when we fail to make this distinction or add to it. And that leads to the last question.
WHAT IS GOD’S WILL FOR MY LIFE?
Finally, and most briefly, with all of that having been laid as a foundation for the answer, what is God’s will for your life? How do you know what God wants you to do at any given moment or as you contemplate the myriad of decisions coming down the pipe? How do you know if you should get married, who to marry, or whether to stay married? How do you know which job to take or if you should stay in the one you have? How do you know which college to attend or whether to attend college at all? How do you know what car to buy, which vacation to take, and which neighborhood to live in? How do you know what God thinks about birth control, if you are ready to have kids, and how many to have? How do you know if a particular attitude or action is pleasing to God? How do you know anything about what God wills for you?
In my experience, for many (most?) who genuinely want to answer these questions in a manner pleasing to God, the answer falls into one of three categories: semi-sanctified common sense, the presence of a peaceful feeling, or a subjective impression of God’s leading after a season of prayer. People who have come to believe that these are the means by which God has chosen to reveal his will to us, or the means by which we discover God’s will, are often very well intentioned. At the same time, however, they are also in a very dangerous place. They are looking for the will of God where it is not bindingly found.
Learning the distinction between the hidden and revealed will of God, and learning that God’s Word is the only place God has chosen to reveal his binding will, was one of the most freeing discoveries I’ve ever made in my Christian life. When I want to know what God wants for or from me I do not need to pray for some subjective feeling or new information. I do not need to comb through the annals of Church history or divine the hidden will of God. I do not need to wait for, as Kevin DeYoung has written, dreams, visions, fleeces, impressions, open doors, random bible verses, casting lots, liver shivers, writing in the sky” or anything else. Instead, there is great freedom in the fact that in his word, God has chosen to reveal to me all that he requires of me.
That is the clear teaching of 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” Scripture makes us competent for every good work.
And yet, God’s Word is not arranged by topic. There is not a marriage section and a parenting section and a work section and a friendship section and a retirement section. Thus, the answer to every question you have concerning the will of God might not be immediately obvious. However, the clear promise of God in his Word is that it contains everything we need to know to please God.
To know God’s will for your life, then, we must be people of the Word. We must read it and study it and pray it and ask the Holy Spirit to illuminate it for us. We must surround ourselves with people who do the same and place ourselves in churches that hold to that conviction.
Thus, when trying to decide how to best honor God in a particular situation, the main question to ask yourself is what passages in the bible speak to the issue. The main question to ask others is what passages they know of that speak to the issue. The main prayers to offer are for the Spirit’s guidance to the right passages and right interpretation of those passages in the bible. And the main resources you need to discern God’s will are the bible and books that help you understand what the bible has to say about the issue.
What is God’s will for your life? You’ll never be able to answer that question for a particular situation if you don’t begin at the beginning. God’s will is that you would glorify him and enjoy him forever (1 Corinthians 10:31). What is God’s will for your life? It is that you would glorify and enjoy him by loving him above all and your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10:27). What is God’s will for your life? It is that your primary expression of love for God would come in the form of joyful, eager surrender to God, placing your faith entirely in Jesus (Romans 12:1-2). What is God’s will for your life? It is that the primary expression of your love for neighbor would be to make disciples of them, wherever they are in the world (Matthew 28:18-20).
Once these things are in place, and once this is the foundation of the story of your life, then you can begin to read God’s word rightly—his good and pleasing and perfect Word—and know the will of God for your clothes and job and relationships and kids and house and everything else. I urge you, therefore, by the mercies of God in Christ to present yourselves entirely to God as his Word calls you to and therein discern the will of God.