Transformed By The Renewing Of Our Mind
Be Not Conformed

In a Brief Survey of the Epistle of Paul to the Romans
Based on sermons preached in PCC Worship Services, July 2003 to Sep 2005
Part 59a of 83

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” (Romans 12:2).

The apostle Paul began the second part of this magnificent letter by exhorting us, —on the basis of what we know about God’s mercies, —to present our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God. This, he reminds us, is our reasonable or logical service. It is what is expected of us. It is what we can conclude we should do if we think about how great God’s compassion and love towards us is.

But Paul does not end his exhortation with this call. His exhortation continues in verse 2 where we find two appeals: one negative and one positive.

So altogether Paul is, in these introductory words of application, appealing to us to do three things on the basis of God’s mercies, viz.: (1) Present our bodies as living sacrifices; (2) Not to be conformed to this world; and (3) to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.

We’ve considered the first exhortation. In the present study, the Lord helping us, we must consider the second and third exhortations. Now, these two exhortations may be seen as two sides of the same coin. But it is helpful for us to consider them separately.

First, then, let us consider the call to refuse to be conformed to this world.

1.  Be Not Conformed to this World

a.   Paul says, “Be ye not conformed to this world.” What does that mean?

In the first place, we must know that Paul is not telling us to isolate ourselves from the world. He is not saying that we should cut ourselves from society, and deny ourselves every worldly pleasure that we can think of! Some think that if they do that, they will be more spiritual than others. But if this is true then we should build a monastery and we should become monks and nuns.

Fortunately, this is an error. God does not intend us to be monks or ascetics. We are to be in the world but not of the world; but nowhere in the Scriptures are we told to take ourselves out of the world. In fact, the Lord Jesus says in His high priestly prayer:

“I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil” (Jn 17:15).

But if he is not asking us to cut ourselves from the world, is Paul telling us that we should have nothing to do with the traditions and culture of the world? Is he saying that we should not follow the tradition of greeting one another during the Lunar New Year or giving oranges and red packets? Well, I used to think that many of these things are meaningless. Does the apostle mean to tell us that we should not follow the world in these things?

Well, no! The Bible forbids all superstitions, but it does not require us to be culturally insensitive and rude as it pertains to traditions. No, when Paul says, “unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews” (1 Cor 9:20), he is, —among other things, —speaking about his respect and even observance of the custom of the people so long as they are not done superstitiously nor violate the Word of God.

b.  What then does the apostle mean?

In the first place, the word translated “conformed” (συσχηματίζω, suschēmatizō) literally means “to form or to mould after a schematic or a pattern.”

Many of us enjoy pineapple tarts during the Lunar New Year. You know what pineapple tarts are, don’t you? It is shortbread cookie with some pineapple fillings on top.

Do you know how the cookie of pineapple tart is made? It is not usually shaped with bare fingers, or else every piece will look very be different. It is usually made with a mould. What you do is: make some cookie dough, press it into the mould and then knock it out on the table. And you get one cookie. You do it again, and you get another cookie!

In this way, every piece of cookie looks alike. Well, the pineapple fillings are often of different sizes because they are hand-filled, but the cookies look identical because they are moulded.

Well, Paul is telling us that we must not be moulded by the standards and fashions of the world, or else we will be like the world. The world is like a worldly-cookie producing machine. We must not allow ourselves to be moulded by the mould of the world.

Now, if you look at the Greek, you will see that Paul is literally saying: “Do not continue to be conformed to this world.”

In saying this, Paul is suggesting: Firstly, that we have been conforming to the world; and Secondly, we will continue to feel the pressure to conform to the world.

Is it not so? Like the Romans, we live in a high pressure society that constantly attempts to mould us to be like the rest of the people in the society. Anyone who is different is considered strange.

There is an unspoken norm of society to which everyone is pressurised willingly or unwillingly to conform. This norm changes from age to age, but the pressure to conform does not weaken. Indeed, the word rendered ‘world’ (αἰών, aiōn) here may be literally translated as ‘age.’ Paul is literally telling us not to be conformed to the standards or mould of this present evil age.

Now, this mould has three faces, namely: fashion, expectation and principle. Believers must be mindful not to assimilate these worldly standards.

Consider fashion. Think of dressing fashion. Consider how it moulds us. Few of us will want to be caught wearing bell-bottom jeans, because it is out of fashion. I used to have a pair of bell-bottom jeans which I inherited from my cousin; and I wore it for many years until one day, it suddenly dawned upon me that I was the only one wearing bell-bottom jeans as far as I could see. O how embarrassed I was!

Now of course Paul is not really concerned about bell-bottom jeans or anything like that. What he is concerned about is that we do not fashion ourselves according to our former lusts (1 Pet 1:14). In other words, we must not be very concerned about keeping up with the fashion of the world.

We must especially resist the fashion of the world when it makes us immodest. I do not have to go into a lot of details about this. But ask our couples who recently got married, and they will tell you how they were pressurised by the wedding shops to buy wedding dresses that look more like swimming costumes than something you will wear in church!

Now, beloved brethren, we must never allow ourselves to be moulded by the world in terms of external fashion. Let the world deride us as being Victorian or prudish. We are accountable to God, not man!

But now consider the expectations of the world.  Think of the notorious 5 or 6-C’s—Career, Cash, Car, Condo, Credit Line and Country Club. In the eyes of the world, you have made it if you have obtained these things.

These things are not necessarily wrong in themselves. But the problem is that these are the things that many in our society live for.

Are these the aims of your life, dear reader? If they are, then you have become slaves to them. Our Lord puts this truth to us very starkly:

“No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Mt 6:24).

Beloved, do not allow yourself to be moulded by the expectations of this world. If, in order to maintain such a high standard of living, you must have two incomes, or work long hours, or refuse more children that God may seek a Godly seed, then you are more a child of the world than a child of God. Oh resist the temptation!

But consider thirdly, the principles of the world. What are the principles of the world?

“Business is business!” “Big fish eat small fish!” “Do it, but don’t get caught!” “The Law is made to be broken!” “So long as I do not hurt anyone, I am OK!”  “Do good today so that tomorrow, you will have a bargaining chip!” “If it works, it must be good!” “If you like it, buy it!” “If they have it, I must have it.” “Grab it first before others get it!” “Why wait when you can have it now?”

Now, we can spend a lot of time talking about these things, but it will probably be more profitable to use them for starting a spiritual conversation over coffee.

For now we need only to hear the admonition of Paul in Colossians 2:8—

Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.

It is so easy to simply drift along with the tide of this age, and to do so unconsciously. But at the end of it, we find that although we profess to know God, we are merely living some form of beggarly existence no different from those of unbelievers in the world.

So dear reader, let us wake up from the slumber. Do not continue to conform to the worldly fashion, expectations and principles of this age.

Let us begin truly to walk with Christ, with spiritual eyes wide open to do the will of God in our lives.

But how can you be kept from the subtle influence and demands of the world? And what is there to fill the void if we evict the world from our hearts?

The apostle Paul, as a wise pastor, does not leave us without guidance. He says in the same breath…  

—JJ Lim