Romans 12 is one of my favorite chapters in the Scriptures, I could devote a whole month of blogging everyday to this chapter and still only scratch the surface of its brilliance and wisdom.
My first sermon was based on the first two verses of this chapter. Donnie Gentry, currently the senior pastor of New Hope UBC in Camden MI, and I tag-teamed on a sermon. We were to split a thirty minute time slot, he would preach first and I second. We met a week in advance to work on our sermons (mind you, the very first sermon I had ever prepared...a little bit more pressure then a speech given in English class). We didn't get much work done. So we decided to wait till the next Saturday to prepare the sermon...how hard could it be to pull together a fifteen minute exposition of God's divine Word by which people come to salvation? Ten hours just wasn't enough time for us amateurs. Needless to say, we'll never forget our first sermon...the memory keeps us very humble.
But I'm still enamoured with this two verses. I spent quite a few years avoiding them, especially right out of college. So many other people seemed enamoured with them as well, and I'm not one to be caught up in a fad. Everybody else's understanding of the two verses just didn't seem to sit well with me - they always used these verses to talk about "real" worship, and "knowing" God will (like which college should I go to, who should I marry, where should I work, etc).
My enamour with these verses has resulted in a hesitancy to dive into them...I don't want to misuse them anymore. I want to rightly understand them without any flippancy. Here's my position on them now. The two verses should NOT be used to talk about what is true worship or knowing God's will.
Here's my reasons:
1) "in view of God's mercy" is a reference to Paul's use of mercy in chapter nine, when God's mercy is referenced in the context of who God elects/calls. Paul's point is that only by God's will/choice/desire/mercy/compassion have we obtained righteousness.
2) "offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God - this is true/your spiritual act of worship" is a reference to chapter eleven, when Paul uses the Elijah story it illustrate once again God's choosing of a remnant, people who had "not bowed the knee to Baal". Paul is urging the Roman Christians to not be proud of their righteousness, but remember that it is by God's mercy that they have been chosen, and like the minority Israelites roughed up by Jezebel, stay true to God by worshipping/kneeling/bowing only to Yahweh. The verses have more to do with remembering God's mercy then "right worship".
3) "able to test and approve what God's will is - his good, pleasing, and perfect will" is not supposed to paralyze people's decision making process. Some Christians get so paranoid that God has only one/perfect spouse for them, and if they marry the "wrong" person, they are outside of God's will and totally messed up for life. Or the one/perfect job, or church, or number of kids, or whatever. Paul is not talking about God's one perfect will for your whole life. The word will can be translated wish, desire, choice, want. And again, the refernce is back to chapter nine, when Paul is teaching about God's mercy is the basis for his choosing us - and his compassionate election of us is good, pleasing and perfect.
That's my brief exegesis now of those two verses. The issue is not about worship and will, so much as humility, remembering, mercy and election. Way off from what I preached at New Hope with Donnie in 1991. But everybody has to start somewhere. So I continue to try and live in view of God's mercy.