[I am a life-long Mormon but admittedly not conventional in my views. I write this from my own perspective which may be an example of Mormon thought but perhaps not typical of it. I am using both the NIV and the KJV.]
In Romans 12 Paul starts a new line of thought. Shifting focus from salvation, grace, and election, to how Christians should live in the context of these realities.
A Living Sacrifice ( verses 1-2)
The most significant and interesting concept Paul brings up in the chapter is found in the first two verses:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
To me, these verses capture an essential mystery of Christianity, and perhaps of the spirituality of love in general. When we give ourselves, we are transformed by something outside the world. Lose your life, and you shall find it.(Matt. 10:30) Paul speaks of an offering, a willful giving of something of value to us, the only think we have in the end, ourselves. Upon giving this sacrifice, Paul says that our minds can be renewed and we can begin to know the will of God.
The sacrifice reference is critical, it entails a choice on our part, something that we give, not that God takes. It also implies that we have something that is pleasing to God, and in that sense Paul’s thought stands against the idea of total depravity of humanity.
Paul points to a phenomena that, perhaps unlike the forgiveness of sins, is something that you can test, that you can try and experiment with. As you give yourself, your mind will be renewed to something that is beyond yourself, beyond this world, or at least not according to the natural patter. This promise motivates and hits home more than Paul’s detailed talk of forgiveness of sins, or salvation, which frankly either seems flat wrong to me or far in excess of what we can reasonably say.
If it is by grace that we are saved, we are not really involved in the transaction, if its not up to us, then it is a deal that God seems to be making with himself or for his own purposes. And to that extent, this deal can’t really interest me because it is beyond my understanding. However, Paul here talks about something we are completely involved in, and have control over and can see the results from. It gives a challenge and a promise. It mirrors Jesus of the Gospels: If we do His will, we shall know of the doctrine (John 7:17) If we keep Christ’s commandment of love, God will come live in us: (John 14:21)
“Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.”
Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?”
Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. “
Jesus here, like Paul in Romans, does not promise salvation from God for our sacrifice, he promises His very presence in our minds, the ability to see the world rightly, to participate in the life of God through understanding and seeking His will.
C.S. Lewis discusses the centrality of the sacrifice and its effect in in Mere Christianity:
“Now the whole offer which Christianity makes is this: that we can, if we let God have His way, come to share in the life of Christ. If we do, we shall then be sharing a life which was begotten, not made, which always existed and always will exist. Christ is the Son of God. If we share in this kind of life we also shall be sons of God. We shall love the Father as He does and the Holy Ghost will arise in us. He came to this world and became a man in order to spread to other men the kind of life He has — by what I call “good infection.” Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else.”
Neal A. Maxwell gives an LDS view of the central place of the sort of submission Paul talks about:
It is only by yielding to God that we can begin to realize His will for us. And if we truly trust God, why not yield to His loving omniscience? After all, He knows us and our possibilities much better than do we.
“Nevertheless they did fast and pray oft, and did wax stronger and stronger in their humility, and firmer and firmer in the faith of Christ … even to the … yielding their hearts unto God.” (Hel. 3:35.)
To me, the ready availability of this sacrifice and its blessings are perhaps the most profound proof of God’s presence and love. It’s a move away from the tangible sacrifice of the bodies of animals, to an different ethic of love. I believe all those who submit to the “new commandment” that Jesus instituted, whether they explicitly identify as Christian or not, or have the “correct” theology or not will experience a “renewing of the mind” that will make them see the world in another way.
Paul, in the preceding chapters has explained that Christ had allowed for a fundamental change in the world, its redemption. Participation in that redemption has to come with a new mind and the product of the new mind is charity.
Humble Service in the Body of Christ (v. 3-8)
For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.
Paul’s analogy of the Body is an apt follow-up to his invitation to sacrifice. An essential element in yielding to the transformational power of the sacrifice, is recognizing that you are not “all that”. Its a submission into a community, acceptance of a place and acceptance of others’ place.
Love in Action (v. 9-20)
In the final verses of the chapter Paul gives the Romans a general recitation of virtues and practical religion. The fact that Paul culminates his theological discussion of salvation and election with this sort of preaching reminds me of Blaise Pascal’s observation:
669 ” All that tends not to charity is figurative. The sole aim of the Scripture is charity.”
The fact that Paul gives this list of virtues in the way he does dispells any notion that Paul does not see practical love as central to living the Gospel. He knows that if the Romans believe what he says about salvation and grace but don’t submit and practice love, they will be blind or lost. I think the importance of seeking virtue in the context of salvation and sacrifice is best stated by Peter who brings it all together:
3 His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. 4 Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.
5 For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; 6 and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; 7 and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. 8For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.
I particularly like the last verse in Romans 12:
21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Paul’s counsel is in line with Jesus’ counsel to “resist not evil”, the true Christian path to overcoming evil is through virtue. God does not overcome evil with intolerance, violence, or hatred, but with the good.
Personally, Paul’s description of the supernatural renewal of our minds toward charity, and sacrificing ourselves to God to that end is the only thing that really makes good sense in Romans. The more I think about his descriptions of the fall, sin, election, and grace, the more inscrutable these ideas become to me. However, I can understand love and its effects and its power that truly apart from the “pattern of this world”, and I believe that sacrifice to this end is the only ” true and proper worship” that I can understand.