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. {2} Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:1-2)

Dr. Gregory House (of the television series House) insists that people don’t change. Both the Apostle Paul and novelist Victor Hugo would disagree, though they would also insist that real life-change requires that we do something other than adopt a legalistic, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps approach that invariably results in an attitude of self-righteous judgmentalism toward others. (A terrible self-destructive and others-damaging attitude which, ironically, Dr. House seems to manifest quite often despite his atheistic disdain for all things religious!)

Is it really possible for people to change? What does it mean to become a holy person before God? How is this actually accomplished? How do we experience genuine life change without becoming arrogantly self-righteous and judgmental toward others? These are some crucial questions I want to address in this blog posting.

The protagonist of Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Misérables, is a man named Jean Valjean, an escaped parolee whose life is radically changed for the good when he is shown mercy and grace by a kind, sincere, forgiving bishop of the Church. I want to suggest that Jean Valjean is meant to represent every sincere Christ-follower who has truly encountered and embraced the mercy extended to him or her through the cross-work of Jesus Christ.

But the story also has an antagonist, a policeman named Javert, who is so compulsive about seeing the law kept that he makes it his great mission in life to see Jean Valjean re-arrested and re-incarcerated for the rest of his natural life.

The irony is that near the end of the story, Jean Valjean shows his mortal enemy, Javert, the same mercy and grace that he himself was once shown by the Christian bishop.

But Javert is not like Jean Valjean. He represents those people in this world (and sometimes in the church) who simply cannot receive mercy or grace. So, rather than live his life with any sense of indebtedness to Jean Valjean, Javert decides to commit suicide instead.

So, in a sense, the story told in Les Misérables is all about this business of mercy and grace. What will we do with the offer of mercy presented to us in the Christian gospel? Will we allow an embrace of God’s grace to change our lives for the good, or would we rather die (or continue to behave in ways that are ultimately hurtful to ourselves and others) than be indebted to the mercy shown to us by Jesus Christ?

Like Les Misérables, Paul’s Letter to the Romans is likewise all about this business mercy and grace. Over and over again in the first eleven chapters of this missional missive, Paul advances the idea that the key to possessing a right relationship with God is not to try to earn this standing by trying really hard in our own strength to obey the dictates of the Old Testament law (rules and rituals), but to simply receive the mercy and embrace the grace made available to us because of Jesus Christ who perfectly fulfilled the law on our behalf.

Then, having spent eleven chapters hammering away at this theme, in chapters 12-14 of his Letter to the Romans, Paul begins to talk about the effects that this embrace of God’s mercy and grace will have in his readers’ lives. He boldly states here that if we have truly experienced the mercy of God, we will find ourselves empowered to live a radically different kind of life—a life that is truly pleasing to him!

This powerful section of Paul’s Letter to the Romans begins with these words:

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. {2} Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:1-2)

According to this passage, if we truly embrace God’s offer of mercy, experiencing his grace down deep in the core of our being, then we will find ourselves (like Jean Valjean) empowered to live our lives in a way that lines up with God’s good, pleasing and perfect will.

And what does God’s good, pleasing and perfect will look like? That, in a nutshell, is what Romans 12, 13 and 14 are all about. According to the Apostle Paul, if we’ve truly embraced God’s mercy and grace down deep in our hearts, we will find ourselves empowered to:

  • Use whatever gift(s) God has given us for the good of others and the cause of Christ (12:3-8).
  • Love people enough to speak truthfully to them about any ongoing sin still present in their lives (12:9).
  • Demonstrate genuine devotion to one another, honoring each other above ourselves (12:10).
  • Maintain a strong, unwavering sense of spiritual sincerity and intensity (12:11).
  • Manifest an amazingly consistent joy, hope, patience and prayerfulness despite the adverse circumstances that come our way (12:12).
  • Share our resources with each other as needs dictate (12:13).
  • Respond with blessing rather than cursing when people treat us unfairly (12:14).
  • Genuinely care for other Christ-followers, feeling their joy and pain along with them (12:15).
  • Be humble enough to cultivate genuine friendships with people whom society as a whole would not characterize as especially pretty, powerful or popular (12:16).
  • Simply let go of the insults and slights that come our way instead of feeling the need to get revenge every time someone does us wrong (12:17-19).
  • Actually respond with kindness and goodness to those who feel the need to treat us as their enemies (12:20-21).
  • Submit ourselves to the governing authorities: obeying laws, paying taxes and tolls, honoring leaders for their service to the community instead of constantly criticizing them (13:1-7).
  • Be careful to pay off bills and loans in a timely manner so that no one can accuse us of defaulting on a debt or taking advantage of a friendship (13:8).
  • Love our neighbors as ourselves by refusing to engage in any behavior toward them that we would not want them to engage in toward us (13:8-10). 
  • Focus more on becoming Christlike than on doing those things the world says are necessary in order to “have a good time” (13:11-14).
  • Learn how to live peacefully and non-judgmentally with other church members who disagree with us regarding certain worship, ministry and lifestyle issues (14:1-13a).
  • Always act in such a way as to try to edify fellow church members in their walk with Christ, even if this means laying aside our own “rights” in the process (14:13b-23).

Once upon a time, Jesus was asked his opinion regarding the most important commandment of the Law. The Gospel of Matthew tells us that Jesus responded by saying …

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ [38] This is the first and greatest commandment. [39] And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ [40] All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

Keeping the story of Les Misérables in mind, we should notice how that the list of mercy’s effects provided us by Paul in Romans 12-14 suggests that our embracing God’s grace will empower us to do precisely what Jesus instructs: love God and our neighbors in ways that are radical and practical at the same time!

For those who are concerned that an emphasis upon grace will lead to a lack of concern in the area of sanctification, the truth is that the effect of God’s mercy in one’s life is not to produce a sense of spiritual narcissism, entitlement, complacency, or sloth. To the contrary, an authentic embrace of divine grace serves as a powerful motivational force that is successful in producing genuine life change precisely because it emanates from within us via a transformed heart and a renewed mind.

In other words, yes, genuine life change is possible, but the key to becoming a more holy person is not legalism but grace. In point of fact, a legalistic approach to sanctification will make it impossible for us to become the loving people God desires us to be. In another passage, Jesus commented on the connection between our receiving mercy and our ability to extend it toward others. Speaking to a self-righteous, hard-hearted Pharisee, Jesus said:

. . .  he who has been forgiven little loves little.” (Luke 7:47)

Again, the key to our becoming truly holy people—i.e., becoming more and more loving in our relationships with God and others—is for us to humble ourselves before Christ and gratefully receive his mercy and embrace his grace.

This was the case with the literary character, Jean Valjean. It has also proved true in the lives of many millions of Christ-followers throughout the history of the Christian church.

Then again, adopting the grace-rejecting (and ultimately self-destructing and others-damaging) legalism of the policeman, Javert, remains an option as well. But taking this futile approach will only serve to reinforce the cynicism of the Dr. House’s in our world. May all of us who name the Name humbly allow the Spirit of God to help us actualize Romans 12:1-2 in our lives!

Something to think about.