Conformed or Transformed?

Sunday, I preached on Romans 12:2, part two of my series on Living Sacrifices.  This is the first of two posts giving some of the thoughts from my sermon (and a few other thoughts I’ve had since I preached it).  I’ll do it in two parts because, well, I’m long-winded. 🙂  Romans 12:1-2:

1 I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. 2 And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.

Last week, I posted on “service”, at the end of verse one.  The word means service in the sense of worship, and is used of worship in the temple.  Paul is telling the Romans that, as believers who have been “grafted into the tree”, where unbelieving Israel had been broken off, they still have a sacrifice to make.  For Israel, there had been temple worship and sacrifices (Romans 9:4).  For the church, there is also a logical/reasonable temple worship and sacrifice — the living sacrifice of their bodies, the worship that they give to God as themselves being His temples.

In verse two, Paul develops this worship further, with two parallel commands, a negative one and a positive one.  Don’t be conformed.  Do be transformed.

Be Not Conformed

Paul is telling us to be non-conformists.  Did you ever hear someone say, “I’m a non-conformist”?  Usually, the person saying it means that he is a rebel, not conforming to normal and appropriate societal standards, and he is proud of his rebellion.  That’s not what Paul has in mind when he tells us, “Be not conformed.”

Our English translation gives the impression that these two words, conformed and transformed, are related, but in the original Greek they are not.  “Conformed” is the Greek word suschematizo.  Etymologically, it comes from the Greek sun (meaning “with”) and schema (meaning external condition or fashion).  We might say “get with the scheme”.

My American readers may not be familiar with the term “housing scheme”, so I’ll explain it.  In Britain, when builders are putting together a housing scheme, it is an area where all the houses are laid out according to a plan, and they generally have similarities in architecture, materials, landscaping, etc.  In Glenrothes, for instance, the Balfarg area looks different from Woodside, which looks different from South Parks, which looks different from Forester’s Lodge.  Not every house looks exactly the same, but if you showed me pictures in isolation of 100 houses from these areas, I’d be able to properly identify the general location of at least 80 of them.  They are part of the scheme, and they look like it.

The first command we are given in this verse is not to be with the scheme of the world.  You are already a believer, so your internal values are different from the world’s — so quit looking like the world, being conformed to it.  This is focused on outward appearance — not necessarily what people would see if they look at a picture of us, but everything people see in us.

We shouldn’t look like the world’s values.  That will impact how we dress, but that is hardly the main focus here.  The biggest factor is purity in what we do and say, but it goes far beyond that.  Paul has in view here our attitudes, everything that we outwardly convey.  Even our facial expressions, the way we smile at people, our tone of voice, these are all things that are seen outwardly.

Does the world see a kind person when they see us, or a tough nut to crack?  Do we carry a haughty or self-absorbed expression on our face, or a welcoming smile?  Do they see us groomed in a way that shows respect to others, or in a way that says, “I’m my own individual and I don’t really care if it bothers other people”?  Do they hear humility in our tone of voice, or arrogance?  Do they see someone who wastes his time and money, or do they see someone who is a faithful steward of God’s resources?  Does our attitude give the impression that we are lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God?  If we are going to stop conforming to the world’s values, it goes far beyond stopping sinful actions.  It demands kindness, respect, and humility in our attitudes and forms of communication, rather than selfishness and pride.

From a grammatical perspective, this is a present tense (continuous action) and a negated imperative.  The general sense is, “Stop being conformed to the world,” stop going with the world’s scheme.  The Greek would allow for either the passive voice (“stop letting yourself be conformed”) or the middle voice (“stop conforming yourself”).

The translators settled on a rendering that nicely brings that middle/passive ambiguity into the English.  The middle voice seems to fit best, but it makes little difference to the overall meaning.  Very simply, conforming to the world needs to stop.  It’s the wrong “scheme” for a believer.  You are supposed to be a living sacrifice now — being conformed to the world is not consistent with that.  To fit with the world doesn’t fit.

Be Ye Transformed

This command is also present tense in the Greek, indicating a continuous ongoing process.  We might say, “Be being transformed.”

The Greek word for “transformed” is metamorphoo, from which we get our word metamorphose.  The root morphe, “form” (essence), is the same word used in Philippians 2, where it talks of Christ being in the “form of God”, and taking on “the form of a servant”.  The meaning of those passages is that Jesus was the very essence or nature of God, and He became the essence of a servant.  (The word translated “form” in II Timothy 3:5 is also derived from morphe, but is not the same word, and means “appearance”).

If our morphe is to be changed, then this is not just talking about external change, but internal, a change in our very essence.  This second command in this verse is not telling us to conform to God’s external scheme, but to be changed internally.  The reason is obvious — the external changes will follow.  Without the internal change, external changes are of no more value than “lipstick on a pig”.  It might create an interesting spectacle, but it wouldn’t be something you’d want to kiss.

That is not to say that externals don’t matter — remember, they were mentioned in the first command.  We need to get rid of the world’s external scheme, but that which takes its place should flow out of the transformation which is Paul’s second command in this verse.

This command is in the passive voice.  We are commanded to be metamorphosed, transformed internally, but it isn’t our doing.  Clearly, we have a role here or we wouldn’t be the ones given a command.  You wouldn’t command someone, “Be killed by a terrorist attack.”  There’s not really a way to obey that — either it happens to you, or it doesn’t.

This is something we are to obey, so it isn’t in the “it just happens to you” category.  Either we are to permit it, or do something that triggers it happening, but the grammar tells us the actual action of changing us is not ours.  This is not simply self-reform.  Self-reform may be effective in changing behaviour, but it won’t change the essence of who we are.  That is a spiritual task that needs to be accomplished by spiritual resources beyond our own power.

How this spiritual task is to be accomplished is left unspecified in the command itself — we have the rest of the verse (and the rest of Scripture) to clarify that.  But before rushing on to the “how”, we would do well to pause long enough to reflect on the fact that we can’t do this ourselves, and God doesn’t expect us to.  He expects it to happen, He expects (commands) us to undergo it, but He doesn’t actually expect us to do it ourselves.

We are thrown back into dependence on God.  As we were saved by God’s grace through faith, so also we must be transformed by His grace through faith.  Even though we are receiving commands here, we are not in the realm of human endeavour, but rather in the realm of God’s gracious work in our lives.  We live by faith, trusting God’s grace to transform us.

So these are the two commands, the two imperatives:

  • Stop conforming yourself to the world’s scheme.  You’ve been saved, and given new life.  That which you value, that which you love and which motivates you, is different from the things that produce the world’s externals.  You are a living sacrifice.  It is time to stop conforming to the world’s scheme.
  • Embark on the journey of transformation.  Yes, you’ve been saved, but not everything in you matches that yet.  If you are going to be a living sacrifice, then you need to be yielding yourself to this ongoing transformation of your nature, your essence.  God is concerned about what you show externally, but He is also concerned with much, much more than that.  You are a living sacrifice.  It is time for transformation.

Up next:  Transformation, how and why.

Navigation note:   First in the series:  “Service” in Romans 12:1;  Next article: Transformation, How and Why

About Jon Gleason

Former Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
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3 Responses to Conformed or Transformed?

  1. Mdk says:

    Helpful, thanks.

  2. Kay Sherwood says:

    Thank you so much for this excellent article! Part of my daily Bible reading today included Romans 12:2. After looking up the Greek words for being conformed and being transformed, I was so interested in what this passage really meant and the full implication. Your article really helped me to understand that. Thanks so much!

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