The gospel is an inherently political message. As Paul explains it in Romans 1, it’s the announcement that Jesus, Son of David, has been installed as King in His resurrection.
Romans 12—15 fills out the ecclesio-political import of this message. Because Jesus is King, He will restore human society. Because Jesus has fulfilled the justice of God, there will be a people conformed to that justice.
That is, there will be a people justified before the Father. And, there will be a people that lives out God’s justice in their individual and corporate lives.
In Romans, that just society is the church. It’s a real-world, Spirit-filled body of men, women, and children, existing within the Roman world, overlapping with Roman society, sometimes clashing with Roman society.
Paul warns the Romans not to be conformed to the world. The world will exert pressure. He might be referring to general cultural pressures, but he probably has more direct pressure in mind: The world’s demand to worship idols, on pain of death.
Given the radical injustice of the Roman world, so long as the church embodies the Lord’s justice, there will be blood.
Paul’s teaching about the life of the body is overshadowed by an earnest eschatological threat (Romans 13:11-14). The day is far spent. Night is about to arrive. The Roman Christians need to walk in the light so they’re not taken over by the darkness.
Paul isn’t expecting the end of the world. He’s expecting the end of the old order, a shaking of Israel and the Roman world. He wants the church in Rome to be prepared for the traumatic end of the age, so they can cross over into the new age.
As the just society in an apocalyptic moment, the Romans church is called to present its body as a living sacrifice, a reasonable service of worship (latreia).
What does Paul mean by “living sacrifice”? We can view this through the lens of Old Testament sacrifice. Under the law, sacrificial liturgies were never confined to the rituals that took place in the sanctuary. As Dru Johnson says, rituals have “biographies” that extend beyond the temple ritual.
Paul stretches the notion of sacrifice even further. The sacrificial life he describes is extra-sanctuary, a civic and public way of life. The whole life of the church, and the whole life of each Christian, enacts a sacrificial liturgy.
The church still gathers to offer a sacrifice of praise, but Paul’s attention is on how that liturgy overflows in a liturgy of common life.
Paul’s description of body life in Romans 12 ties off themes from earlier sections of the letter. God delivers the unrighteous to unnatural uses of their bodies (Romans 1). But the church, baptized into the death and life of the last Adam, presents the members of the body as instruments of justice (Romans 6).
In chapter 12, Paul returns to the theme and sketches a portrait of just body life. He shows how the church lives out resurrection life in the body, even now, before the resurrection of the body.
Resurrection life takes corporate form in a social body in which each member is equipped to contribute to the health and growth of the body (12:3-8). Through the Spirit of Jesus, the church embodies the ideal of pagan and Jewish politics: A harmony of difference, a single body knit together from many members.
Resurrection power forms bodies and a social body characterized by humility, diligence, joy, prayer, hospitality, self-restraint. The just society responds with love to its enemies, blessing those who curse and leaving vengeance in God’s hands (12:9, 19-21).
This may look like retreat and quietism, but it’s a way of war. Paul ends the chapter with an assurance of victory: “Do not be overcome (nikao) by evil, but overcome (nikao) with good” (12:21). Life triumphs over death, the justice of Jesus is victorious over the injustice of the world.
To download Theopolis Lectures, please enter your email.