Dedication in Romans 12:1–2
Romans 12:1–2 begins the final section of the letter. Paul shifts his focus from instruction to exhortation, from what we might call the indicative—what God has done for us—to the imperative—what we are to do in response.43 Moo explains, “If we take to heart the truth of the gospel that [the apostle] has presented, we will have a transformed worldview that cannot but affect our lives in uncounted ways. Paul has made this clear already in chapter 6, where he shows how our union with Christ in his death and resurrection leads to our ‘walking in newness of life’ (v. 4).”44 Now in this final section, Paul urges Christians to manifest the power of the gospel in specific areas of day-to-day life.
Those who embrace the gospel, who are united to Christ, are rescued from the devastating effects of sin. Believers are justified, declared righteous in God’s sight, and thus have a secure hope for salvation from the wrath to come. They have been delivered from the penalty of sin and are no longer under condemnation (5:1). But, as Romans 6 makes clear, all those who have been delivered from the penalty of sin have just as certainly been delivered from its dominion. Union with Christ in his death and resurrection provides for both justification and sanctification. Paul’s commission as an apostle was to “call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith” (1:5, NIV). “Jesus Christ is the Lord; and thus to believe in him means at the same time a commitment to obey him.”45
Beginning in chapter 12, it is this obedience, made possible by the transforming power of the gospel, that Paul calls upon believers to render. “The ‘imperative’ of a transformed life is therefore not an optional ‘second step’ after we embrace the gospel,”46 but instead has its roots in our initial response to the gospel itself. What Paul calls upon believers to do in Romans 12:1–2, the imperative of the gospel, is an indispensable element of the gospel; it is a natural and expected result of the gospel. Romans 12:1–2 can be viewed as essentially summarizing the demands of the gospel for believers living in a secular world.47 What does God want from those of us who are the recipients of his grace? Paul tells us that God demands our transformation—an ongoing transformation that is from the inside out so that we might conform ourselves to the will of God. While it is all too easy for believers to be satisfied at times with only superficial, outward obedience to God’s will, what God requires is nothing less than a continual, lifelong transformation of our character into the image of his beloved Son.
The Believer’s Response to God’s Grace Should Be to Offer Himself as a Sacrifice to God (v. 1)
Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.
Paul begins with an exhortation: “I urge you, brethren.” It is agreed that the verb translated “urge” (παρακαλέω) in the context of our passage has a meaning somewhere between “request” and “command,” between a mere beseeching or urging and a more authoritative exhortation.48 Most believe that Paul’s emphasis lies closer to exhortation. Cranfield argues the verb “has all the urgency and earnestness that it has when it is used in the sense beseech, but also something more—the note of authority. It denotes the authoritative summons to obedience issued in the name of the gospel.”49 The inferential conjunction “therefore” (οὖν50) and the phrase “by the mercies of God” tie the exhortation of v. 1 (and those that follow in 12:3–15:13) to the theology of chapters 1–11.51 The preposition “by” indicates the ground or basis of Paul’s exhortation and thus could be translated “because of” or “in view of.”52 The plural “mercies” may refer to the different concrete expressions of God’s mercy in the preceding chapters, but it is more likely that the plural Greek term (οἰκτιρμῶν) is due to the influence of the LXX, where it always appears in the plural as the translation of a Hebrew term (רַחֲמִים), which only appears in the plural.53 Thus, Paul’s exhortation for the believer to offer himself as a sacrifice to God has its basis in the mercy of God that has been so wonderfully set forth in the preceding chapters. As Stott rightly observes, “For eleven chapters Paul has been unfolding the mercies of God. Indeed, the gospel is precisely God’s mercy to inexcusable and undeserving sinners, in giving his Son to die for them, in justifying them freely by faith, in sending them his life-giving spirit, and in making them his children.”54 God’s mercy that has been manifested in the Holy Spirit’s work of inward renewal or regeneration does, in fact, impel us toward the obedience that the gospel demands.55 But it is not automatic, so Paul exhorts us “to present [our] bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God.” Moo observes, “We experience God’s mercy as a power that exerts a total and all-encompassing claim over us (5:21). It is therefore entirely fitting that our response is to be one that is equally total and all-encompassing: the presentation of our entire persons as a sacrifice to God.”56
The heart of Paul’s exhortation is for believers “to present [their] bodies” to God.” The word “present” (παρίστημι), when used with the word “sacrifice” (θυσία), was a technical phrase in Paul’s day for offering a sacrifice.57 Over the years, advocates of Holiness and Keswick theology have attempted to support their view that believers must come to a crisis, once-for-all act of dedication by appealing to the fact that the Greek verb translated “present” (παραστῆσαι) is in the aorist tense.58 For instance Evan Hopkins, who is considered the formative theologian of Keswick, commonly stressed this point in his speaking and writing.59 And this emphasis was continued among evangelicals in the twentieth century.
The familiar exhortation found in Romans 12:1, to “present” ourselves to God, is the same word [as in Rom 6:13] in the aorist tense, again a definite act of yielding to God.60
Initial dedication (Rom 12:1–2). Initial dedication is a crisis and once-for-all matter…. The tense is aorist (which indicates an unrepeated event).61
The presentation of Romans 12:1 is viewed as a once-and-for-all presentation because of the tense of the verb in the Greek.62
Numerous other examples could be cited.63
This interpretation represents a misunderstanding and abuse of the Greek aorist tense.64 No Greek grammar has ever suggested that the aorist tense means once-for-all action though it was once a popular and widespread misconception among pastors and teachers. This once-for-all idea of the aorist makes nonsense out of countless texts. For instance, when Paul told the Corinthians to “glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:2), the aorist imperative “glorify” does not mean that the apostle only wanted them to do it one time. Neither does the aorist imperative “preach” indicate that Paul wished Timothy to “preach the word” (2 Tim 4:2) only once. More recent Greek grammars generally have taken special pains to correct this abuse of the aorist so that the teaching of a once-for-all act of dedication in texts like Romans 12:1 is not as common today,65 though it is still not unusual to read that v. 1 calls for a decisive act of consecration based on the aorist tense.66 In actuality, the aorist tense is the least significant tense exegetically, and thus Paul’s exhortation for the Roman believers “to present [their] bodies” to God” does not suggest by the tense of the verb that Paul is calling for a crisis, once-for-all act of dedication, or even a decisive one.67 And there is nothing in the context of Romans 12 itself to support such a view. As we will see in v. 2, the context suggests just the opposite. Paul simply exhorts us to make this offering; he says nothing in v. 1 about how often it needs to be done.68
43 Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), p. 744; Everett F. Harrison, “Romans,” in vol. 10 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 126; Grant R. Osborne, Romans, IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), p. 323.
44 Moo, Romans, p. 744.
46 Ibid., p. 745.
47 David L. Olford, “Romans 12:1–2: The Gospel and Renewal,” in Faces of Renewal: Studies in Honor of Stanley M. Horton, ed. Paul Elbert (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1988), p. 21.
48 BDAG, s.v. “παρακαλέω,” pp. 764–65; C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 2 vols., International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1975, 1979), 2:597; Moo, Romans, pp. 748–49.
49 Romans, 2:597. Also, Moo, Romans, p. 749; Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), p. 642; Osborne, Romans, p. 318; Olford, “Romans 12:1–2: The Gospel and Renewal,” p. 24.
50 BDAG, s.v. “οὖν,” p. 736; Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), p. 673.
51 C. K. Barrett, The Epistle to the Romans, Harper’s New Testament Commentaries (New York: Harper & Row, 1957), p. 230; James D. G. Dunn, Romans, 2 vols., Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word Books, 198), p. 708; Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), p. 432; Osborne, Romans, p. 318; Moo, Romans, p. 748; Cranfield, Romans, 2:595; Harrison, “Romans,” p. 127.
52 Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, s.v. “dιά,” by Albrecht Oepke, 2:67–68; Moo, Romans, p. 749; Cranfield, Romans, 2:596; Schreiner, Romans, p. 643.
53 HALOT, s.v. “רַחֲמִים,” 3:1218-19; New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, s.v. “Mercy, Compassion,” by Hans-Helmut Esser, 2:598; Dunn, Ro- mans, 2:709; Moo, Romans, p. 749; Harrison, “Romans,” p. 127; Cranfield, Romans, 2:596;
54 John Stott, Romans (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), p. 320.
55 55Moo, Romans, p. 750.
57 BDAG, s.v. “θυσία,” p. 463; Cranfield, Romans, 2:598; Dunn, Romans, 2:709; Olford, “Romans 12:1–2,” p. 25. The infinitive παραστῆσαι is used here in indirect discourse following παρακαλῶ to represent an original imperative (Wallace, Greek Grammar, p. 604).
58 Randy Maddox, “The Use of the Aorist Tense in Holiness Exegesis,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 16 (Fall 1981): 106–18.
59 Evan H. Hopkins, The Law of Liberty in the Spiritual Life (reprint ed.; Philadelphia: Sunday School Times, 1954), pp. 66–67. See also Alexander Smellie, Evan Hopkins. A Memoir (London: Marshall Brothers, n.d.), pp. 95–96.
60 John F. Walvoord, The Holy Spirit, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1958), pp. 197–98. See also Lewis S. Chafer, Major Bible Themes, rev. John F. Walvoord (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974), p. 118.
61 Charles C. Ryrie, The Holy Spirit (Chicago: Moody Press, 1965), p. 96. To be fair, Ryrie has removed this language from his updated edition (The Holy Spirit Chicago: Moody Press, 1997], p. 160).
62 J. Dwight Pentecost, Pattern for Maturity (Chicago: Moody Press, 1966), p. 129.
63 William D. Lawrence, “The New Testament Doctrine of the Lordship of Christ” (Th.D. dissertation, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1968), p. 197; Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Right. An Expository Study of Romans (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1977), p. 138; Curtis Vaughan and Bruce Corley, Romans (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 137; Harrison, “Romans,” p. 127.
64 See the corrective by Frank Stagg, “The Abused Aorist,” Journal of Biblical Literature 91 (June 1972): 222–31; and D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996) pp. 68–73.
65 E.g., Wallace, Greek Grammar, p. 557.
66 E.g., David J. MacLeod says, “The tense of the verb (aorist) points to a decisive action. The believer is called to an act of consecration that is ‘decisive, crucial, [and] instantaneous’” (“The Consecrated Christian and Conformity to the World,” Emmaus Journal 4 [Winter 1995]: 104); also Robert H. Mounce, Romans, New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1995), p. 231, 232.
67 “The aorist tense ‘presents an occurrence in summary, viewed as a whole,…without regard for the internal make-up of the occurrence’” (Wallace, Greek Grammar, p. 554).
68 Moo, Romans, p. 750.
Bill Combs serves as Academic Dean as well as Professor of New Testament at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, where he has been teaching since 1983. He earned his BA at Tennessee Temple University, and his MDiv and ThM degrees at Temple Baptist Theological Seminary. He holds a ThD from Grace Theological Seminary. Dr. Combs has also served in pastoral ministry. He and his wife Pansy are members of Inter-City Baptist Church in Allen Park, MI.