Romans 12:1–2 and the Doctrine of Sanctification, Part 5

By William W. Combs. Reproduced with permission from DBSJ 11 (2006). Read the series.

The Believer’s Dedication Is Realized in His Life-long Transformation (v. 2)

And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

In v. 1 Paul has called upon believers to offer themselves up to God as the natural and expected result of having received God’s grace in salvation. But v. 1 is actually a metaphor using the image of sacrifice. In that sense it has been preliminary to the real thrust of Paul’s exhortation in v. 2. In v. 2 Paul explains the metaphor of sacrifice in v. 1 by giving the concrete steps by which the imperative of v. 1 is to be worked out in the lives of believers.99 “We can present ourselves to the Lord as genuinely holy and acceptable sacrifices only if we ‘do not conform to this world’ but ‘are transformed by the renewing of the mind.’”100 The aorist tense verb “present” in v. 1, is now explained by the two present tense verbs “conformed” and “transformed,” which stress the progressive, ongoing nature of believer’s participation that is required in his dedication to God.101 The sacrifice that Paul urges on the Romans in v. 1 is no one-time act.

In v. 2, Paul begins with the negative: “Do not be conformed to this world.”102 Since the prohibition (μὴ συσχηματίζεσθε) is in the present tense, it could be understood, as some scholars suggest, to mean that Paul wants his readers to “stop being conformed” to this world.103 Although the grammar will allow such an interpretation, it is not certain this is Paul’s emphasis in v. 2 since prohibitions using the present tense are often only general precepts with no indication whether the action is going on or not.104 Moo rejects the “stop being conformed” understanding, arguing that “Paul’s generally positive attitude toward the Romans’ spirituality (cf. 15:14) makes this doubtful.”105 Moo may well be correct, but I am inclined to agree with Cranfield, who sagely observes that “the pressures to conformity are always present, and always strong and insidious—so that the Christian often yields quite unconsciously…. The Christian has always to confess that to a painfully large extent his life is conformed to this age.”106 What the Christian is not to be conformed to is “this world” (αἰών), literally “this age.”107 Although this term can refer to the physical world, it almost always has a temporal sense, denoting our present age in the history of the world. Paul calls it “this present evil age” (Gal 1:4), seeing that it is characterized by the dominion of sin and Satan (2 Cor 4:4; Eph 2:2). On the one hand, Christ died so that “He might rescue us from this present evil age” (Gal 1:4), and in Romans 6 Paul has made it clear that that those who have been justified are no longer under the dominion of sin and death; nevertheless, we must still battle sin every day, which includes, as the PHILIPPS translation so aptly puts it, resisting the pressure to be “squeezed into the mold” of this world and the pattern of behavior that so typifies it.108

Instead of being conformed to this age, believers are to “be transformed.” Older scholars (and some more recent ones), following the seminal arguments of J. B. Lightfoot, believe that there is an important contrast between the first imperative “conformed” and the second imperative “transformed,” based on the different roots of the particular Greek words. They argue that the imperative “conformed” (συσχηματίζεσθε) refers to the outward form only and thus speaks of a change that is only external and superficial, while the imperative “transformed” (μεταμορφοῦσθε) indicates an internal and genuine transformation.109 Morris explains, “Paul is looking for a transformation at the deepest level that is infinitely more significant than the conformity to the world’s pattern that is distinctive of so many lives.”110 But Barrett nicely counters, “Conformity to this age is no superficial matter.”111 More significantly, recent scholarship has mostly rejected any important difference in meaning between the two word groups because of the lexical data and the use of the words in other contexts.112 For instance, in Philippians 3:21 Paul seems to use the two word groups synonymously when he says that Jesus will “transform” (μετασχηματίσει) the believer’s present body into “conformity” (σύμμορφον) with the Christ’s glorious body.

This transformation, Paul now explains, takes place by means of “the renewing of your mind.” The word “mind” (νοῦς) in the NT obviously involves man’s “faculty of intellectual perception” and in our context deals more specifically with one’s “way of thinking, mind, attitude,” or “disposition.”113 There is often a moral element involved that might be called “practical reason” or “moral consciousness.”114 The only other use of the word “renewing” (ἀνακαίνωσις) in the NT indicates that this process of transformation begins at, and essentially depends upon, regeneration: “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). The new life that is implanted by the Holy Spirit at regeneration motivates and enables the believer to present himself as a living sacrifice to God. However, if this sacrifice is to continue to please God in the ongoing trials and temptations of everyday life, the believer must continually be transformed by the renewing of the mind.115 The believer’s mind needs to be, in effect, reprogrammed so that his thinking is in accord with this new life in the Spirit (cf. Rom 7:6). We are, as Paul says in Col 3:10, “being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him.”116 Using the same verb translated “transformed” in Romans 12:2 (μεταμορφόω), Paul captures this renewing process with a vivid metaphor in 2 Corinthians 3:18: “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed [μεταμορφούμεθα] into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.” The reprogramming of our minds is not accomplished in a short period of time but is a slow, steady process that takes place over our lifetimes in order that our thinking might more and more resemble the way God wants us to think, which is, of course, like him.117 And to think like him, to know and conform to his thinking, means that his truth, his Word must be the standard that informs and regulates our renewed minds.118 Mind-renewal is ultimately a process of internalizing the Truth.


99 Moo, Romans, p. 754; Cottrell, Romans, 2:313; Schreiner, Romans, p. 646.

100 Moo, Romans, p. 754.

101 “The aorist tense ‘presents an occurrence in summary, viewed as a whole,…without regard for the internal make-up of the occurrence.’ This contrasts with the present…,which portray[s] the action as an ongoing process” (Wallace, Greek Grammar, pp. 554–55).

102 As Dunn notes (Romans, 2:712), the imperative is probably passive, not middle (contra NIV). The NET BIBLE argues that the passive form is more likely. A middle form would have to be a direct middle (“conform yourselves”), and such middles are quite rare in the Greek NT. See Wallace, Greek Grammar, pp. 416–17.

103 Cranfield, Romans, 2:607; Dunn, Romans, 2:712. Some older scholarship incorrectly believed that the present imperative in a prohibition always “demanded the cessation of some act that is already in progress” (H. E. Dana and Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament Toronto: Macmillan, 1955], p. 302). Wallace has a helpful analysis of that error (Greek Grammar, pp. 714–17).

104 Wallace, Greek Grammar, p. 724.

105 Romans, p. 755.

106 Romans, 2:608.

107 BDAG, s.v. “aἰών,” p. 32.

108 Moo, Romans, p. 755.

109 J. B. Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians (reprint of 1913 ed.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975), pp. 127–33; Sanday and Headlam, Romans, p. 353; Black, Romans, p. 151; William Hendriksen, Expostion of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981), 2:405.

110 Romans, p. 435.

111 Romans, pp. 232–33.

112 E.g. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, s.v. “µopor ,” by J. Behm, 4:743–44; Cranfield, Romans, 2:605–7; Moo, Romans, p. 756; Schreiner, Romans, pp. 646–67.

113 BDAG, s.v. “νοῦς,” p. 680; Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, s.v. “νοῦς,” 4:958.

114 Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, s.v. “νοῦς,” 4:958; Moo, Romans, p. 756; Ladd, Theology of the New Testament, pp. 518–19.

115 Peterson, “Worship and Ethics in Romans 12,” p. 282.

116 Here Paul uses the verb form (ἀνaκaινόω) of the noun “renewing” (ἀνακαίωσις) in Rom 12:2.

117 Moo, Romans, p. 757.

118 For Paul, the “mind” (νοῦς) “always includes the idea of an external standard” (Horace E. Stoessel, “Notes on Romans 12:1–2,” Interpretation 17 (April 1963): 164. Stott says, “Although Paul does not here tell us how our mind becomes renewed, we know from his other writings that it is by a combination of the Spirit and the Word of God. Certainly regeneration by the Holy Spirit involves the renewal of every part of our humanness, which has been tainted and twisted by the fall, and this includes our mind. But in addition, we need the Word of God, which is the Spirit’s ‘sword,’ and which acts as an objective revelation of God’s will. Here then are the stages of Christian moral transformation: first our mind is renewed by the Word and Spirit of God; then we are able to discern and desire the will of God; and then we are increasingly transformed by it” (Romans, p. 324).

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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