1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
— Romans 12:1-2, ESV
God gets three nods in this text. This is fitting in many ways, not the least of which is that our one true and living God is a triune supreme being, being all at once Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, “who proceeds from the Father and the Son” (Nicene Creed), comes to indwell those who have been chosen by the Father and redeemed by the Son.
Once the Holy Spirit is in you, you become a holy and spiritual person. What do holy and spiritual people do? They participate in holy and spiritual worship, and engage in holy and spiritual work. Romans 12:1-2 defines for us spiritual worship, and Romans 12:3-8 will delineate the spiritual work.
“Spiritual worship” is the two-word centerpiece of this prolific two-verse text in God’s word. The terms are so ripe with meaning, translators have had difficulty in bringing them to the table in English. I like the ESV’s “spiritual worship,” but respect the old KJV, which offers a different angle as “reasonable service.” The NASB, “spiritual service of worship,” and NIV, “true and proper worship,” add a word to augment the meaning.
“Spiritual” is an adjective that describes the noun “worship.” In the original language of koine Greek, Paul chose the adjective derived from “logos” to describe the noun “latreuo.” “Logos" you probably know, is the word for “word" in the New Testament, both the living Word of God, Jesus Christ, and the written word of God, the Bible. “Latreuo” is less commonly known until we filter it through Latin, then into English as “liturgy.”
Therefore, brothers and sisters, true, Christian, spiritual worship is the participation in a serious and joyful liturgy, an orderly worship service, saturated with the word of God, exalting the person and work of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
It is a public gathering.
In his magnum opus, Romans, Paul spent the content of the first eleven chapters reveling in the dynamic doctrines that undergird Christianity. No theological stone is left unturned. It is a one-stop shop to learn about God and man, righteousness and sin, grace and faith, propitiation and atonement, election and predestination, justification and sanctification, glorification and more.
As chapter twelve opens, Paul makes a strong “appeal” (parakaleo) for Christians to put their faith into practice, and to do so publicly, beginning with “spiritual worship.” “Present your bodies,” are his exact words.
“Present,” means to take a stand by participating in a public event or ritual, in this case “spiritual worship,” which is a biblically-based, liturgical service. The Old Testament is replete with required, public, liturgical ways to approach God in worship. In those days, failure to worship God in God’s ways often ended in disaster (ref. Nadab and Abihu).
For New Testament Christians, the grace of our Lord and “the mercies of God” should motivate us to heed this call and present ourselves, publicly, for worship conducted in accordance with God’s word and consistent with the best examples from Church history. This means gathering on the first day of the week to engage in the orderly reading of Scripture, congregational singing, the sacraments of the Lord’s supper and baptism, sermons from the word of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ, and supplications (prayers and offerings).
These things have been done rather consistently in Christianity for almost two thousand years. It is only in the last few decades that some people have come to believe they can be Christian without regular public worship, and where many of our public worship services have run off the rails and become neither spiritual nor worship.
You may live a lousy life when you leave the service of spiritual worship on Sundays, but you area already living a life that does not honor God, His word, and the heritage of the Christian faith if you fail to present yourself publicly for spiritual worship on Sundays (ref. also Hebrews 10:25).
It is a personal sacrifice.
For the Old Testament saints, sacrifices were a part of public worship. Services in the synagogues were not unlike our Christian services, but there were also regular Temple rituals resulting in actual animal (and agricultural) sacrifices. These sacrifices were brought in living, but wound up dead.
“By the mercies of God,” our Lord Jesus Christ fulfilled and ended the need for all of those Old Covenant types. New Testament Christianity replaces the altar with a cross and a communion table. You do not need to come to church on Sunday bringing a sheep, or cow, or bird, or any other living thing for the Pastor to make dead. You simply have to bring your formerly dead (spiritually) self into the house of God to testify to how you’ve been made alive by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
You make a living sacrifice with the time it takes you to present yourself in spiritual worship. As the liturgy unfolds, you sacrifice the sin that would in any way obstruct your prayers, your praise, your participation in holy communion. You hear the word of God read and preached, and you sacrifice the sin that is in any way disobedient to God’s word and God’s will. You come in to declare that God belongs to you, and you leave knowing you belong to God, to live, worship, and work for Him.
It comes with a worldly warning.
Among all the positive appeals and affirmations in this text regarding spiritual worship, there is one warning. “Do not be conformed to this world.” What in the world are we to make of this warning?
“World” has various meanings in Scripture. The world can refer to people God loves and to people at enmity against God. The world is a beautiful planet God made full of wonderful sights and sounds and a dying planet doomed by the sinfulness of man. The world can be cultural mores neither advocated nor condemned by the Bible and the world can signify a system of beliefs and values that are hostile and contrary to God.
Obviously, the context of this text dictates the world as something wrong, at least if it obstructs or infiltrates spiritual worship. Not worshiping the Lord, on the Lord’s Day, is conforming to the world, because the world at large does not worship the Lord. But the primary warning of this clause, however, is against those who tend to worship God alright, but in worldly ways that are not right for spiritual worship.
Lights so low you cannot see anything but the stage in front of you is for the world, not for worship. Music so loud you cannot hear yourself think is for the world, not for worship. Pep talks so shallow they offer no doctrinal truth whatsoever are for the world, not for worship. Notice I have not said such things are wrong, necessarily, but they are wrong for worship, for they detract from true spiritual worship, and from the Spirit, Son, and Father we are called to worship.
I read recently of a popular contemporary church drawing big crowds with their loud, rock-oriented music and light, positive pep talks from the non-pulpit. The article noted the attendees included atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, and adherents of other religions, and how much they all loved the “worship.” If lost people in the “world” can worship with us only to be entertained and have their ears tickled, never to be challenged and convicted by the inspired word of God and exclusive gospel of Jesus Christ, then be warned, this is not a true church and this is not spiritual worship.
It is a mental exercise.
When we conform the worship of Christ’s church to the Scriptures, not to the world, it can have an amazing effect upon Christians and non-Christians. Rather than manipulating your emotions, spiritual worship, word-based liturgy, makes you think. Thinking brings about powerful and positive change as you are “transformed by the renewal of your mind.”
Music may move you for a moment but the word of God changes you forever. A Christian engaged in spiritual worship gains a better informed and increased faith. A Christian in spiritual worship experiences fresh repentance where it is needed to give back to God. And, a non-Christian involved in spiritual worship can gain both, faith and repentance, for the first time resulting in eternal salvation.
We come to spiritual worship not to be entertained, but to be changed, by the Spirit and the word. We come to spiritual worship not to do our own will, but to “discern what is the will of God.” We come to spiritual worship to become more holy and spiritual, like the Holy Spirit within us, which is always the will of God.
It makes for a perfect day.
Some say the Fourth Commandment to keep the Sabbath is the only one of the Ten Commandments not repeated in the New Testament. Clearly there is a shift in worship from the last day of the week to the first. But the concept of committing a day for the public worship of God and taking some rest for the body is alive and well in Romans 12:1-2.
When you present yourself in spiritual worship, when you see yourself as a living sacrifice devoted to God. When the Spirit and the word flows through you, then you will find what is “good and acceptable and perfect” in the eyes of the Lord. Superficial, silly, man-centered worship is bad; word-based liturgy is “good.” God finds right worship “acceptable” (pleasing) as much or more than anything else we have to offer Him. As Christians gather for and scatter from a spiritual worship service, it makes for the “perfect” (complete) day that begins another complete week of worship and work of the Lord.
Some may take exception to my narrow focus on this sacred text, preferring an interpretation that encompasses every day of the week, not just the first. I certainly would not argue against such an application, I would even endorse it. But my point is the way you worship God on Sundays makes a difference every day. It should be “spiritual worship.”