'Issues for the Church' is our series for these few weeks. 'Commitment' is my topic. Romans 12.1-13 is my passage. It certainly will be helpful if you can have that open in front of you.
Katy is my daughter (or one of them). I think it's about time I told you about her attitude to koalas. I have her permission to do so, so you needn't worry on her account.
Katy is committed to koala bears. Her school project was on koalas. She reads books on koalas. The wall of her room is covered with an ever-expanding collage of dozens of pictures and posters of koalas. That's a bit rough on her sister Hannah who doesn't share a koala commitment with Katy but who does share a room with her. I suspect Hannah will have a lifelong aversion to koalas.
I told Katy that in reality koalas are probably nasty little creatures. She just delighted in telling me how they can rip a man's flesh to the bone with their claws. I told her she's mad. She said, 'I'm not mad. I'm just obsessed'.
I blame myself. When she was two, we gave her her first toy koala. I hope it's a phase she's going through. It's just that so far, the phase has lasted most of her life. In fact (you'll be relieved to know), Katy does have other commitments - deeper commitments than koalas. I hope.
But what about you? What are your deepest commitments? This passage, Romans 12.1-13, urges on us the two primary commitments of a believer – commitment to God, and commitment to the church, the fellowship of believers.
What motivates Christian commitment? It is a grasp of God's mercy in Christ. That's what Paul has been unfolding in the first eleven chapters of Romans. And now he says, in 12.1:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship.
What is the aim of the committed believer? It is worship. It is to please and glorify God.
And what are the characteristics of this commitment that Paul is urging on us? They are self-sacrifice, faithful service, and sincere devotion. And those are my three headings.
If we want to please God, then our lives will be marked by self-sacrifice. Verse 1:
offer your bodies as living sacrifices…
There are some important things to understand about the nature of this sacrifice.
First, we don't offer it in order to get on the right side of God. We don't atone for our sins by our own self-sacrifice. Jesus has done that for us. That's why he died. That's the very heart of the mercy of God that Paul has been describing. Our sacrifice is a thank-offering. It is a gift of gratitude for what God has done, not an attempt to persuade him to do anything.
Secondly, we tend to think that the essence of self-sacrifice is suffering and loss. But it isn't. The point is not to suffer or give things up for the sake of it, as if that's what pleases God.
There are certain Buddhist monks in the Far East who put themselves through the most appalling rigours for years for the sake of self-improvement. They run the equivalent of more than a marathon every day for months. They go a week without food or water, almost to the point of death. My admiration for their self-discipline is unbounded. But sad to say, they miss the point.
In the Philippines each Good Friday there are those who volunteer to be nailed to crosses temporarily as a display of piety and to win God's favour. They, too, miss the point. They fail to understand the nature of self-sacrifice in the Christian life.
The point is to give ourselves back to God – to make our lives totally available to him. To be sure, that will involve a degree of suffering and loss. Sometimes it will be severe. But that is a by-product. The cost of commitment is real. But when we've experienced God's mercy in Jesus, we gladly pay the price. We do that because we want to thank him. We want to please him with the whole of our lives, irrespective of any suffering and loss that may come our way as a result.
So, for instance, here's a recent report about a Christian leader in a central Asian republic.
"[He] is said to be close to death following repeated beatings and a heart attack. [He] is seriously ill in a prison camp… where fellow Baptists say he's been imprisoned on false charges. They believe the camp authorities are under instruction to 'break him morally or destroy him physically,' and say the authorities have decided to 'finish him off.' They say [he] is preparing to die… The authorities have confiscated and reportedly burnt his Bible. [He]… is serving a four year sentence on charges of fraud, which church members say were trumped up to prevent his Christian activities. [For your information, he is 39, and has a wife and five children. His name is Shageldy Atakov. Pray for him, his family and his church.]"
If he hadn't been serving Christ, he wouldn't have had any trouble. But he has offered his body as a living sacrifice.
That kind of thing is not going to happen to many, if any, of us. But if we want to please God then our lives will be marked by the offering of our bodies as living sacrifices to God.
What's that going to mean in practice? It means that when we're deciding what to do with our lives, then we'll ask ourselves two questions.
First, 'Who is my life for?' Answer: 'My life is for God.' If we have offered our bodies as living sacrifices, then our lives no longer belong to us. They belong to God.
Secondly, we'll ask, 'What is my life for?' Answer: 'My life is to be lived in order to bring glory to God.' In other words all our own subsidiary goals and ambitions are subordinated to that one great goal that we have for our lives: to glorify God. Anything that gets in the way of that is dispensed with. Anything that furthers that aim goes to the top of our priority list.
That applies when we're asking the big questions about what job to go for, whether to marry and if so to whom, where to live – what you might call the macro-decisions of our lives. But it also applies to the micro-decisions: what we're going to do with our time this week; what activities to get involved with; how we're going to spend our money; whether to answer that inconvenient call for help.
The big picture of our lives and the nitty-gritty bits and pieces will all be offered up to God.
And that ends up having a radical effect on what we do with our lives – with our days and with our decades. We're only going to live like that if we have a deep motivation. And that's only going to be there if we've taken a good, long, hard look at God's mercy towards us in Christ. When we do that, we find that God's grace is so amazing that we can't take our eyes off Christ. And there's nothing we want to do more than please him – whatever sacrifice is involved.
At least, that's the way of life that should come naturally to a believer. But too often we're sluggish in our gratitude, and we need urging to do what we should do.
So self-sacrifice is the first characteristic of commitment that Paul urges on us, in view of God's mercy. The second is faithful service. And that's my next heading.
Secondly, FAITHFUL SERVICE
If we want to please God then our lives will be marked by faithful service. The principle is there in verse 11:
Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord.
In other words, keep on the boil for God. Don't get lazy in your attitude towards God. Be aglow with the Holy Spirit. Don't turn down the heat. And what's the sign of a zealous Christian? Is it how wide their smile is? Is it how loud they sing, or how many praise tapes they've got in the car? No. It's how they persevere in enthusiastic service. Don't get spiritually lazy. Keep serving.
And note that Paul puts the responsibility for our spiritual temperature firmly on our shoulders. This is a command. And we are only commanded to do what is in our power to do. So spiritual fervour has very little to do with our emotions, which are largely out of our control. Emotions happen to us. Being zealous for God is down to us.
Imagine yourself going in for a spiritual MOT. When the duty angel has worked down his check list to the box marked 'spiritual fervour', what aspect of our lives will he examine? Will he be interested in the state of our emotions? No. He'll look at our service record. What's he doing for God? How's he going about it? Those are the questions a well trained angel will ask himself.
Verse 12 gives some strong clues as to the style of serving that should mark the grateful believer's life:
Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.
Let our service be joyful. Once again, don't be fooled. We're not talking about smiling, happy people here. Nothing wrong with smiling, of course. But this joy runs much more deep than mere happy feelings. 'Be joyful in hope' says Paul. This joy wells up from the knowledge the gospel gives us about the future. Jesus is coming back. We're going to meet him face to face. We're going to be like him. We're on the winning side – his side. In the deepest place of a believer's heart joy has displaced misery, because certain hope has thrown out despair.
Let our service be patient. Whatever we do for God, almost certainly it will get tough at times. It might even be tough all of the time. Affliction of one sort or another is the normal Christian life. But don't let the rough times stop you. That's the message. Serve patiently.
And let our service be faithful. Keep at it. That doesn't mean that once you're involved in some area of service, that's it for life. It might feel like that sometimes, and no doubt chopping and changing isn't helpful. But the issue here is not so much how we're serving, as that we're serving. Stick at it faithfully.
Paul's particular application of faithfulness here, though, is to prayer. Be 'faithful in prayer.' Apart from anything else, that's what saves our service from being an impersonal duty. If we keep praying about what we're doing, then we'll never forget why we're doing it. We do it for Christ – personally. Talk to him about what you're doing. Joy and patience come much more easily when you know that Jesus is by your side.
Now of course there is a sense in which the whole of our lives should consist of faithful service, whether we're at school or college, at work, or at home. Even when we're dealing with our enemies, we should be in servant mode. So down in verse 20 Paul quotes:
'If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.'
But Paul makes clear that there is a particular form of service that every believer should be engaged in. And that is service within the life of the church. Look at what he says in verses 4-6:
Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts…
The church is not merely a collection of individuals. It is a spiritual organism. It is a body. If you are a believer, you belong to your fellow believers, and they belong to you. We belong to one another. They don't own you. But they are a part of what you are part of – the body of Christ.
So the contribution of each one of us is vital. You are a vital organ in the body of Christ. We all need each other to be functioning as we should. The function within the body that God has designed you for cannot be fulfilled by anyone else, any more than a liver can take over the function of a lung.
So Paul gives a sample list of various gifts to be used within the life of the church, and his message is, whatever God has equipped you for, do it. Use what you're good at. It's a gift – not for you, but for the whole body.
Be humble about it. Verse 3:
Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought…
Be thankful for what you can do. Verse 6:
We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.
It is only by the grace of God that we can serve at all.
Work hard and consistently in doing what you can in the life of the church. That's what Paul says to leaders in particular, but it applies to all. Verse 8:
if [a man's gift] is leadership, let him govern diligently…
Oh, and by the way, let's not be grumpy and complaining. Verse 8 ends:
if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.
Cheerful and willing service lifts the spirits of everyone else around. Grumpy service drags everyone down.
If we want to please God, then our lives will be marked first by self-sacrifice, and secondly by faithful service. And there is one more characteristic of commitment in this passage.
Thirdly, SINCERE DEVOTION
If we want to please God, then our lives will be marked by sincere devotion. Verse 9:
Love must be sincere.
Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honour one another above yourselves.
'Devotion' is a good word, it seems to me, because it avoids the sentimentality and emotionalism that we tend to associate with the word love. But it's love we're talking about. Real, hard-edged, Christian love.
And there are practical examples of the outworking of that kind of love in verse 13:
Share with God's people who are in need. Practise hospitality.
Real love is a heartfelt desire for the good of the other. It is long-term. It is unwavering. It does not depend on how much love we get back. And it is practical. It affects what we do – how we behave towards people. It makes us willing to pay a price in order that others might benefit – even if it's just the price of the coffee that goes into the cafetiere as you offer a listening ear.
The truth is that total self-sacrifice and a lifetime of faithful service are worse than useless if they do not flow from love: love for Jesus, yes; but also love for the brothers and sisters that he's given to us.
But put all of those three characteristics together, and what have you got? You've got commitment.
My daughter Katy's commitment to Koalas doesn't end with all the pictures on her bedroom wall. She has a collection of soft toy koalas, which at the last count numbers 62 and rising. Katy has found on the internet the website of the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, which is in Jesmond Road, Brisbane. Her great ambition is to go to Australia to see Koalas. She would gladly give all the money she's got (fortunately not much yet) to do so. She wants to do a course in Koala conservation and then go and work at the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary.
Katy is committed to koalas. She would give anything for them. She wants to spend her life looking after them. She loves them. So her commitment is characterised by a willingness to sacrifice for koalas, a desire to serve them, and devotion to them. That's the nature of commitment. And in her case, that's just for koalas, of all things.
If I may move from the ridiculous to the sublime, without, I hope, irreverence: koalas are one thing; and no doubt we all have equivalent things that we're prepared to put a good deal of commitment into; but Christ and his church are quite another thing. The commitment they demand is unlike any other. It is not optional. It is not a matter of personal preference. None of us is exempt from its demands. It reaches into the whole of our lives. And it is the appropriate response to faith in Christ.
Faith without commitment is a sham. Faith that doesn't want to please God is no faith. And commitment without faith is futile.
So begin with faith. Then be committed – committed to Christ, and committed to his people, the church. What does commitment look like?
It takes the form of self-sacrifice, faithful service, and sincere devotion. 'I urge you,' says Paul, 'in view of God's mercy…' We can't say no to that, can we?