Romans 12:1–2 and the Doctrine of Sanctification, Part 4

Reproduced with permission from DBSJ 11 (2006). Read the series.

(Dedication in Romans 12:1–2, continued)

What believers are commanded to offer to God is their “bodies.” The word “body” (σῶμα) often refers to the physical body, and some commentators believe that is specifically what Paul means here, especially contrasting the “body” with the “mind” (νοός) in v. 2.69 But most commentators understand Paul in v. 1 to be using “body” (σῶμα) by synecdoche70 to stand for the whole person, including the body.71 As Calvin himself wisely observed, “By bodies he means not only our skin and bones, but the totality of which we are composed. He has used this word to denote by synecdoche all our parts, for the members of the body are the instruments by which we perform our actions.”72 We find the same figurative use of the term in 6:12–13 where “body” (σῶμα) must be interpreted more broadly to include the whole person. Paul says, “do not let sin reign in your mortal body…and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God.” Obviously, the “mortal body” and the “members of your body” are to be equated with “yourselves” (cf. 1 Cor 9:27; 13:3; Phil 1:20).73 Because of the imagery of sacrifice in v. 1, Paul quite naturally chose the term “body” since it was the body of the animal that was placed on the altar. But Paul’s emphasis is on the entire person, a truth that will become clearer in v. 2.

From the NT we learn that Christians no longer offer literal sacrifices. Christ himself has fulfilled and brought to an end the OT sacrificial system. But because sacrifices were such a central part of ancient religion, it is natural and inevitable that Christian writers would use this imagery to express Christian truth. For example, Paul tells the Philippians, “I am amply supplied, having received from Epaphroditus what you have sent, a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God” (4:18). In his first epistle, Peter says that Christians offer “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (2:5). But here in Romans 12:1 we are told to offer our bodies themselves God demands the giver.74

The kind of sacrifice that believers are to offer is explained by three adjectives: “living,” “holy,” and “acceptable” (to God). With this language the sacrificial metaphor is continued. Most translations render the adjectival participle “living” or “alive” (ζῶσαν) as an attributive adjective, with the adjectives “holy” (ἁγίαν) and “acceptable” (εὐάρεστον) following as predicates, as in the familiar KJV (“a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God”).75 However, it is more likely that all three adjectives are to be taken as predicates, as in the NET, “a sacrifice—alive, holy, and pleasing to God.”76 That is, each has equal force modifying “sacrifice,” and as predicate adjectives each is slightly more emphatic than a comparable attributive adjective would be.77

The sacrifice of the believer is first of all said to be “living” or “alive.” Many commentators understand the term, as Schreiner argues, to denote “the spiritual state of believers. They are now ‘alive to God in Christ Jesus’ (Rom 6:11, 13; 8:13). It is precisely those who are alive in Christ who are called to give their lives to him as a sacrifice.”78 But as Moo observes, such an interpretation would be possible if “living” modified “bodies.” However, that is not the case—it modifies “sacrifice.”79 Since this is so, it is best to understand “living” to refer to the nature of the sacrifice itself: “one that does not die as it is offered but goes on living and therefore continues in its efficacy until the person who is offered dies.”80

The sacrificial language is continued with the adjective “holy,” which is the common way to describe sacrifices—they are reserved for God and God’s service.81 Believers are to offer themselves to God, which means they are set apart from all that is profane and are dedicated to God’s service.82 Finally, Paul says such a sacrifice is “acceptable” or pleasing to God because it is a proper kind of sacrifice that he will accept.83 The word (εὐάρεστον) recalls the OT concept of sacrifices that are pleasing and fragrant to God (e.g., Lev 1:9; Exod 29:18; Num 15:7).84

At the end of v. 1, Paul adds an appositional phrase that qualifies the whole exhortation he has just given.85 Offering ourselves as a sacrifice is called our “spiritual service of worship” in the NASB. This phrase has been notoriously difficult to translate. Most modern versions have rendered it something close to “spiritual worship” (ESV, HCSB, NIV, NRSV) through the NET has returned to the reading of the KJV (and NKJV), “reasonable service.” The adjective “spiritual” (λογικός) is never used in the LXX and occurs only one other time in the NT at 1 Peter 2:2. There Peter encourages his readers to “long for the pure λογικὸν milk,” which is usually rendered “spiritual milk.”86 Peter is seen as drawing a contrast between “spiritual” or figurative milk and that which is literal.87 Thus, some commentators see Paul’s emphasis in Romans 12:1 as a contrast between the Christian’s inner “spiritual” worship and the literal, external forms of worship prescribed in the OT.88 But this contrast may be overdrawn since the Christian’s worship is not just internal but, as we have seen, involves the whole person, including his body (σῶμα).89 Still, there is truth here since the inner attitude is critical to Paul’s thought, as v. 2 indicates by stressing “the renewing of your mind.”90

Our term (λογικός) was a favorite expression of philosophers since the time of Aristotle.91 It was particularly used by the Stoics for whom it meant “belonging to the sphere of the λόγος or reason” and thus “spiritual” in the sense of beyond the physical senses.92 Epictetus used it in connection with the worship of God: “If I were a nightingale, I should be singing as a nightingale; if a swan, as a swan. But as it is, I am a rational [λογικός] being, therefore I must be singing hymns of praise to God.”93 Most likely in v. 1 the term means something like “reasonable” or “logical,” and Paul is stressing the need for worship that is appropriate to those who have rightly understood the truth of the gospel as it has been revealed in Christ.94 This might be called “intelligent,” “understanding,” or “informed” worship. As Moo explains, “We give ourselves to God as his sacrifices when we understand his grace and its place in our lives. We offer ourselves not ignorantly, like animals brought to slaughter, but intelligently and willingly. This is the worship that pleases God.”95 Paul told us in 1:25 that men outside of Christ have “exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.” In contrast the believer’s offering of himself to God constitutes true, understanding worship (cf. TNIV, “this is true worship”).

The noun “worship” (λατρεία) can also mean “service.”96 It is normally connected with the service a priest renders as part of the worship of God (Rom 9:4; Heb 9:1, 6), and in v. 1 the focus seems to be on dedication as an act of “worship.”97 In Philippians 3:3, Paul uses the cognate verb to designate believers as those who “are the true circumcision, who worship [λατρεύω] in the Spirit of God.” True worship is no longer confined, as in the old economy, to priestly activities; instead, it “involves honoring God by submitting to his sovereignty in every sphere of life.”98


69 Robert H. Gundry, Sōma in Biblical Theology (reprint of 1976 ed.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), pp. 34–36; William Sanday and Arthur C. Headlam, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 5th ed., International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1902), p. 350; Frederic L. Godet, Commentary on Romans (reprint of 1883 ed.; Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1977), p. 425; Robert Haldane, Commentary on Romans (reprint of 1853 ed.; Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1988), p. 562; John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, 2 vols. in one, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959, 1965), 2:110.

In his monograph (Sōma in Biblical Theology), Gundry argues primarily against the view of Rudolf Bultmann (Theology of the New Testament) and J. A. T. Robinson (The Body: A Study in Pauline Theology) that in the NT and particularly in Paul’s writings, σῶμα means the “whole person, the human personality without reference to the body. While Gundry’s work is a valuable correction to Bultmann and others who seem to eliminate any reference to the physical, he goes beyond the evidence in arguing that in most every instance Paul’s use of σῶμα refers to the physical body only. For some corrective to Gundry, see Philip E. Hughes, review of Sōma in Biblical Theology, by Robert H. Gundry, Westminster Theological Journal 39 (Fall 1976): 150; Daniel J. Harrington, review of Sōma in Biblical Theology, by Robert H. Gundry, Biblica 58 (1977): 136–37; James D. G. Dunn, review of Sōma in Biblical Theology, by Robert H. Gundry, Scottish Journal of Theology 31 (1978): 290.

70 Synecdoche is a figure of speech in which a part of something stands for the whole of it. Examples are “threads” for clothing, “wheels” for car, “mouths to feed” for hungry people. In Gen 19:8 when Lot is trying to protect the angels from the men of Sodom, he says, “Do nothing to these men, inasmuch as they have come under the shelter of my roof.” “Roof” really means house or home—a part for the whole.

71 BDAG, s.v. “σῶμα,” p. 984; Joseph A. Fitzmeyer, Romans, Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1993), p. 639; Barrett, Romans, p. 231; Dunn, Romans, 2:709; Osborne, Romans, p. 319; Moo, Romans, p. 750–51; Cranfield, Romans, 2:598–99; Schreiner, Romans, p. 644.

72 John Calvin, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and to the Thessalonians, trans. Ross MacKenzie (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960), p. 262.

73 See Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, s.v. “σῶμα,” by Eduard Schweizer, 7:1064–66; Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, trans. John R. DeWitt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), p. 114; George E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), pp. 506–7; James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), p. 58.

74 Moo, Romans, p. 750.


76 Wallace, Greek Grammar, pp. 618–19; Cranfield, Romans, 2:600; Moo Romans, p. 751; Schreiner, Romans, p. 644; Morris, Romans, p. 434.

77 Wallace, Greek Grammar, pp. 618–19.

78 Romans, p. 644. Also Calvin, Romans, p. 264; Murray, Romans, 2:111; Cranfield, Romans, 2:600.

79 Romans, p. 751. Those commentators like Murray who understand “bodies” in the strictly physical sense (rather than a figure for the whole person) face a special problem when they also take “living” with body: “It is the body alive from the dead that the believer is to present” (2:111). Jack Cottrell explains, “But if ‘bodies’ literally means bodies, this cannot be, because the body as yet does not participate in this new life (8:10–11)” (Romans, 2 vols., College Press NIV Commentary [Joplin, MO: College Press, 1998], 2:311).

80 Moo, Romans, p. 751. Also, Godet, Romans, p. 426; Charles Hodge, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (reprint of 1886 ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), p. 384; MacLeod, “The Consecrated Christian and Conformity to the World,” p. 108.

81 BDAG, s.v. “ἁγίος,” pp. 10–11.

82 Moo, Romans, p. 751; Schreiner, Romans, p. 644; Cranfield, Romans, 2:601.

83 Cranfield, Romans, 2:601.

84 Schreiner, Romans, p. 644; Osborne, Romans, p. 319. Compare the similar use in Phil 4:18, “But I have received…from Epaphroditus what you have sent, a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God.”

85 So most commentators: Moo, Romans, p. 751; Schreiner, Romans, p. 644; Cranfield, Romans, 2:601; Dunn, Romans, 2:711; Sanday and Headlam, Romans, p. 353. Contra Hodge (Romans, p. 384) and Barrett (Romans, p. 231), who restrict it to θυσία only.

86 So ASV, ESV, HCSB, NET, NIV, NRSV, and most commentators (e.g., Wayne Grudem, 1 Peter, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988], p. 95). The translation of the KJV (NKJV, NASB), “milk of the word,” apparently comes from the connection between λογικός and λόγος as well as the context where the “milk” is a figure for the Word of God, but λογικός does not mean “word” here or anywhere else.

87 So BDAG, s.v. “λογικός,” p. 598.

88 F. F. Bruce, The Letter of Paul to the Romans, 2nd ed., Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), p. 213; Matthew Black, Romans, New Century Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), p. 151; Barrett, Romans, p. 231.

89 Moo, Romans, p. 753; Cranfield, Romans, 2:604; Cottrell, Romans, 2:312.

90 Moo, Romans, p. 753.

91 BDAG, s.v. “λογικός,” p. 598;

92 Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, s.v. “λογικός,” by G. Kittel, 4:142.

93 Discourses 1.16.20–21.

94 Godet, Romans, p. 426; Cranfield, Romans, 2:605; Schreiner, Romans, p. 645; Olford, “Romans 12:1–2,” p. 30; David Peterson, “Worship and Ethics in Romans 12,” Tyndale Bulletin 44 (November 1993): 275; MacLeod, “The Consecrated Christian and Conformity to the World,” p. 109.

95 Douglas J. Moo, Romans, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), p. 395.

96 BDAG, s.v. “λατρεία,” p. 587.

97 Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, s.v. “λατρεύω, λατρεία, ας, ἡ,” by H. Balz, p. 345.

98 Thomas R. Schreiner, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), p. 253.

wcombs Bio

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.

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