If you have come through the first eleven chapters and understood the general flow of thought thus far, then you have already passed through the hardest work of the book. And what a blessing it has been, too! What I have been referring to as the “theological” portion of the book of Romans is complete now. We have seen a lot of great content from Paul in these chapters. The large picture of God’s eternal plan of salvation for all mankind has now been laid out before us. It has been a delight to study it thus far.
Now, after so much analytical argument from Paul, we will find some very practical instruction. As you are probably aware, this is the standard pattern for Paul in his epistles. He generally writes a lengthy portion of theological explanation and then follows that with practical instruction.
The main point of our study is to understand the flow of the argument of the book of Romans as a whole, and that is mostly accomplished now. Our purposes do not really call for a lengthy exploration of the practical matters that Paul deals with in the rest of the book. However, we are not going to ignore them entirely either. There is something important still to see for the development of our study, and that is the connection between the practical instruction and the theological arguments that we have already seen.
We might begin by asking the question of whether there even is a connection between these two portions of the book. It seems to me that the obvious presupposition ought to be in favor of a logical connection. Paul is not about to give a whole systematic treatment of all Christian behavior and practice. What, then, is he going to focus upon? How will he decide what to address with the Roman church in the matter of practice?
Well, the same question might have been asked at the beginning of the theological portion of the study. Even though Romans approaches more closely than any other book of the New Testament to the idea of a systematic treatment of doctrine, it is still far from a complete systematic theology of the Christian faith. Why did Paul choose to focus upon the theological themes that he did?
The answer to the question in both cases should obviously be one and the same. Whatever circumstances and motives moved Paul to choose the theological themes that he did must certainly be the same as will determine the content of the practical instruction. Indeed, it would be hard to conceive of an epistle in which there was not some inner principle of unity that tied the whole together, even if the degree of that unity might vary from author to author according to the strictness of his mind in following the central idea.
Does Romans, then, exhibit an inner unity from start to finish? I have presented a basic analysis of the theological portion of the epistle that revolves around the central concept of a universal gospel of salvation by faith for both Jew and Gentile. Though there might be different ways of stating that theme, I believe that the only way to bring the whole of the theological argument into harmony in one basic unifying principle is to recognize this basic focus as the central idea. And one further strong supporting evidence of this fact will prove to be the nature of the practical instruction that flows out of the theological argument.
We will not be too surprised to see that the connection between the first eleven chapters and those that follow is not quite so logically tight as when the content was one lengthy theological argument. We are no longer dealing with the same nature of an extended argument. But that is far from saying that there is no logical connection at all. That is not the case by a long stretch. The basic matters that Paul now will address are all rather closely connected to the matter of Jew and Gentile and the gospel message of salvation for all men as it has now been rightly understood.
From chapter 12 through the first portion of chapter 15, we will see some dealings with specific topics related to the theological question concerning Jew and Gentile. During these discussions of specific topics, mention is not specifically made of Jew or Gentile, but the concepts are nonetheless closely related to important aspects of that theological focus we have seen. However, by the middle of chapter 15, Paul is once again explicitly discussing the matter of Jew and Gentile and shows that the preceding discussion has been assuming a focus upon Jew and Gentile relations in practice.
It is quite insightful to see how consistently Paul focuses upon this central theme of the book from start to finish. The theological portion is no less concerned with it than the practical portion. The introduction of the whole book already began to bring it before our minds, and we will see also that the concluding remarks from Paul to the Romans will not fail to deal with the same topic as well. This consistency throughout the whole is the strongest point of affirmation that we are properly understanding Paul’s main point in the book. Let us now take a brief look at these main practical instructions that Paul gives and see how they continue the discussion of Jew and Gentile relations under the gospel.
The practical instruction of the epistle is introduced to us with the two rich transitional and summary verses that open this chapter:
I exhort you, therefore, brothers, through the compassion of God to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, pleasing to God, your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this age, but rather, be transformed by the renewing of the mind in order for you to test what is the will of God, that which is good and pleasing and perfect. (12:1-2)
These are two of the richest verses of exhortation to be found anywhere in the New Testament, I think. They call upon all Christians to lay down the whole of their lives in response to what God has done for us through His compassionate love towards us. They take in the whole look of the gospel message thus far and call us to the most basic and summary response of entire devotion and service to God. There could hardly be a better call to response to the gospel truth that could be made.
The specific connection that these verses make from what precedes to what follows centers upon this idea of the renewing of the mind. Paul has presented to us a tremendous amount of truth that calls for a whole new manner of thinking. Specifically, he has recently exhorted the Gentiles not “to think high things” about themselves. He has shown how the Jews grew proud and were cut off from salvation, and warns that the same things might indeed take place with anyone in the church who forgets that it is by grace alone and faith that they stand in the favor of God. There has been a great call to humility on account of the gospel truth of salvation, a humility that must extend to all men.
Before this recent call to humility of mind was the call to set the mind on the things of the Spirit rather than the things of the flesh (chapter 8). The one who lives in the flesh thinks according to the flesh, we are told, but the Christian has a new existence and a corresponding new manner of thinking, that which is according to the Spirit. For the Christian, everything has changed in his mind and heart. No longer do we think the same way.
The thrust of the focus here in chapter 12 is along the lines of the humility emphasized in chapter 11. The three chapter section that concludes the theological portion of the epistle has played a vital role in the overall purpose that Paul has. These chapters have brought all men, whether Jew or Gentile, to see their proper position before God. No man of any nation has any basis to think himself in an exalted position over and above those other nations. The Jew has none; the Gentile has none. All men are shut up together under guilt and can only be in a position to receive mercy from God.
This is so vital because it brings us all to a position of humility before God and one another, which is so absolutely essential to the practical mindset and spirit that Paul wishes to teach us within the church. This humility that we saw emphasized in chapter 11 is taken up again as the focus in chapter 12:
For I say through the grace given to me to everyone being among you not to think above, beyond that which is necessary to think, but rather to think in order to be sober minded, to each as God has apportioned a measure of faith. For just as in one body we have many members, but the members do not all have the same practice, thus we, being many, are one body in Christ, but each one members of one another. (12:3-5)
Within the Christian church, there is no room for proud thoughts about ourselves. We ought to be sober minded, reasonable about the reality of who we are and what our position is before God. We must surely, if our mind and heart have truly been affected by the truth of the gospel, see that we have no boast before God at all. This has been a theme throughout the argument of Romans, and here it is brought to important practical application. We must see ourselves together in humility before God and towards one another.
Paul ties this to an important theme that is probably best understood as the unifying concept of this chapter’s exhortations: Unity and peace together. Because of our newly taught humility before God through the gospel, we must certainly learn to be at peace with one another. Whereas in the past, pride might have caused each of us to rise up and boast against one another, we now see the folly of all of that, as nobody has any true boast in himself at all.
Rather than see ourselves as divided into various sects or groups on any basis, such as national pride or privilege, we are called to be one together as a single body in Christ. This is such an important emphasis and so closely tied to the focus upon Jew and Gentile that we have already seen, especially in the preceding chapter. It is well worth remembering how Jew and Gentile were specifically described in chapter 11 as having been brought into one olive tree together. The Jew used to consider the Gentile as a complete outsider, without claim to the privilege of their national honor before God. The Gentile, for his part, often despised the Jew for his national pride. There was a huge wall of separation between the two. Further, once the Christian gospel was brought specifically to the Gentile, there would have been a huge temptation for the Gentile to continue in that contempt of the Jew, especially using the rejection of the Jewish nation by God as a pretext to be prejudiced against even the Jewish Christian. All of the potential barriers must be broken down and removed so that all see themselves as they truly are, equally under the grace of God as redeemed and forgiven sinners.
Thus, there is no room for any divisions of this nature within the Christian church. All men are called to unity with one another in one body. Whatever special honor might be claimed on account of giftings given to particular members of the body must be understood as grace from God, which cannot be a claim for any boasting:
Having different gifts according to the grace given to us… (12:6)
The natural boast that we might make on the basis of the calling of God and the granting of salvation to us has already been removed. Now also removed is the temptation to point to our special gifts as a basis of pride, for those giftings are special graces given to us from God, not originating in ourselves at all. Nobody in the church, whether Jew or Gentile, no individual, has any basis for boasting. Rather, we are to serve one another in humility before God, not thinking highly of ourselves for any reason.
This foundational principle of humility and unity serves as the basis for the many particular commands that fill the rest of this chapter. The variety of commands found might seem a bit unconnected at times without this unifying focus laid out for us at the opening of the chapter:
Let love be without hypocrisy. (12:9)
Be affectionate to one another in brotherly love, leading one another forth in honor… (12:11)
Sharing in the needs of the saints, pursuing hospitality… (12:13)
Bless those persecuting, bless and do not curse. (12:14)
Rejoice with those rejoicing. Weep with those weeping. (12:15)
The same thing thinking unto one another, not thinking high things but rather going together in humility. Do not be wise by yourselves. (12:16)
Giving back evil against evil to no one, considering the good before all men. If possible, that which is from you, making peace with all men, not avenging yourselves, beloved, but rather, give place for wrath…If your enemy hungers, feed him. If he thirsts, give him drink…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (12:17-21)
All of these commands and instructions flow in some way out of the principles of love, peace, unity, and humility. We are called as Christians to see ourselves rightly before God, which is going to change how we relate to all men. Within the church, there must be unity and peace and brotherly love. There must be no pride that leads to divisions. The Jew and Gentile must see each other as brothers. The prosperous must not be ashamed of the lowly. We must be together in loving compassion and empathy one towards the other. Even when there is wrong done to us and persecution against us unjustly, we must learn to love and forgive, showing grace as we have received grace. This is true whether towards those in the church or without.
No doubt, these commands are various and have a number of emphases and focuses, but they all deal with that humble spirit of humility that must characterize us now as Christians. And we ought to try to appreciate the full weight of this matter in light of the temptation to division that would have been so strong among Jew and Gentile especially. We will see in some of the specific issues in the next chapters that there were plenty of opportunities for the Jew and Gentile to have divisions amongst themselves. This was a tremendously large issue in the early Christian church, whatever might be the case in our day concerning the matter. It is not that the instructions of this chapter are to be understood solely in connection with the matter of Jew and Gentile, but this ought to be a large part of our understanding as we realize why Paul turns to this matter of peace and unity amongst Christians. “Let us make peace with all men,” he says, “And let us be one body together in Christ.” Humility in a mind that has been transformed and renewed through the truth of the gospel is the only way to achieve this wholly and properly.