Romans 12: Transformation, Conformation, Legalism, Moralism, Hylemorphism, Gnosticism, Sanctification, and Glorification




“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. 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)

The apostle Paul introduces the transition from the theology of Romans chapters 1-11 to the ethical commands of 12-16 with the above verses. For quite some time, this passage was troubling for me because I was never clear on why, ultimately, one’s post-salvation actions mattered. Of course, it seemed self-evident that Christians should do good and sacrifice for God, but I had difficulty relating this intuition with the theology I was being taught. If we were saved by grace through faith and not by works (e.g., Eph 2:8-9), so it seemed works did not matter for our past. I was told that if we didn’t get salvation by works, we can’t keep salvation by works (Galatians or something), so it also seemed that works did not matter for the present either. Finally, I was promised that Christians will be sinners until they are glorified and made perfect after death, so it seemed that works would not matter for our future either. Well, that’s all the works that can be done, and none seemed to matter. This conclusion seemed to be obviously false though.

The tension between this form of the gospel message and what Scripture actually teaches is the subject of this post.

Between Moralism and Legalism

The first key I found to resolving this dilemma was my discovery that the Apostle Paul says a lot of positive things about doing good works. Ephesians 2:10 (which completes the 2:8-9 passage quoted above), for example, says we are saved for good works! And there are verses like these:

“God “will give to each person according to his works. To those who by persistence in good works seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (Rom. 2:6-7).

“Present your members to serve righteousness for sanctification” (Rom. 6:19).

“And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Gal. 6:9).

“Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, For God is one who, for his good purpose, works in you both to desire and to work” (Phil. 2:12-13)

“That they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate; Laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life” (1 Tim 6:18-19).

Now, it is widely recognized that Paul’s epistles typically begin with theology (orthodoxy) and end with morality (orthopraxy). My question, then, was why would Paul have so much to say about what we think and do if what we do does not ultimately matter? The solution was in in the distinction Paul made between three kinds of works: First, Paul uses “works” to refer to sin. These are works of the flesh – the sinful attitudes and deeds we all commit (Galatians 5:19; Romans 13:12; 1 Corinthians 6: 9-11). Obviously we aren’t saved by or for these! Second are works of the law. These are precepts of the Mosaic Law that were given to Israel in the Old Covenant. These are not necessary for salvation (Gal. 2:3, 12-16; 4:10; 5:2). Third are good works, namely moral and ethical good deeds (Romans 2:16, 21-26; Galatians 6: 7-10). These do matter to salvation, for (as will be shown below) good works are the basis on which people will be judged by God and receive either reward or punishment (e.g., 1 Cor. 6: 9-10; Gal. 5:21; 2 Cor. 5:10).

If the distinction between “works of the law” and “good works” is not made, then 1 Corinthians 7:19 would make no sense: “Circumcision means nothing and uncircumcision means nothing; what matters is keeping God’s commandments.” Circumcision was a command of God, so this verse would be saying that keeping God’s commandments both does and does not matter! This distinction also demonstrates why commanding good works is neither “Legalism” nor “Moralism.” Legalism is making Old Covenant requirements (“Works of the law”) necessary for salvation under the New Covenant. Moralism is sometimes used to refer to the teaching that good works are a sufficient condition for salvation – obligating God to save based on our own merit. Either way, it’s false – but a false view of the role of works does not eliminate there being a true one.

Now, on to Romans 12:1-2, which is the hinge between the theological and ethical sections of Romans.

Godly Transformation vs. Worldly Conformation

I found the second key when I considered how Paul speaks of conformation and transformation. “Form” refers to what something is (not just its “shape”). To Con-form, then, is to share a form – it is being the same thing. To trans-form means to change from one form to another – to become a new thing. As sinners, people are worldly (con-formed to the world). As saints people are to become godly (trans-formed into god-like people). Paul is not the only biblical author to speak of these actions.

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained from this world” (Jas 1:27).

“And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, . . . predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son” (Romans 8:28-29).

“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18).

“You may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire” (2 Peter 1:4).

Note that this transformation from conformity-to-the-world to conformity-with-God comes by ridding ourselves of sin – not just changing our thoughts / beliefs. We don’t often hear this because of the illicit fear of legalism that many Bible teachers instill in their students – a teaching that, I think, is itself based on a subtle version of an ancient heresy called Gnosticism.

Biblical Hylemorphism vs. Heretical Gnosticism

The Gnostics were one of the earliest “Christian” cults. They drew a complete distinction between matter and spirit, and claimed that matter was pure evil and spirit was purely good. This, and other, false beliefs led to some specifically Christian heresies. Theological Heresy #1 was a denial of Jesus’s incarnation – for how could God take on matter? Moral heresy also followed, for actions performed in the body only affected the body and so did not affect salvation – only what the mind thought (gnosis). In a sense, then, the Gnostics avoided legalism by substituting it with licentiousness.

The truth is that we are both body and spirit – one “thing” with two principles (a view known as Hylemorphism). It is not the case that “we are a soul, and just have a body.” Our bodies are not “earth suits” for the soul. The perfect state for humans is not disembodiment. We do not become angels when we die. We are physical beings in a material world that God calls “good” (Gen. 1). This is why we are resurrected and why Jesus incarnated. When Jesus saves, He saves all of us – not just our minds or hearts. And if the body is important, then what we do with it is important.

“If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:19).

“I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world” (John 17:14).

“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:15).

“Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4).

Today there are few Christians who would affirm Gnosticism as such, but what one of my teachers called a “practical Gnosticism” often remains. Sometimes this comes out in how the Bible is understood. The “flesh”  is thought to refer to our physical bodies, when it actually refers to the sin nature (Rom. 7:5; 8:9 cf. Col. 3:5, and Gal. 5). The “world” is sometimes thought to mean the earth / physical / material realm, when it really refers to sinful mankind. But these are both Gnostic-like mistakes.

Beyond the strictly theological realm, however, in subtle ways the physical often is denigrated in the attempt to be spiritual. Popular Christian culture excuses its low-grade, derivative music and movies because these come packaged with “good messages.” Many church buildings are kept very plain because people don’t want to distract people from spoken ideas with beautiful physical imagery. The layout focuses attention on a lectern because that’s where “the message” (=the preacher’s thoughts) is delivered. Some Christians excuse inappropriate clothing because “God only looks at the heart.” Worship music is chosen based on what will get people in the door so they can hear “the message.” Sacraments / Ordinances are practiced and in any way we wish because they’re just symbols. Christian leaders can get away with immorality as long as they “teach truth” (= a “good message”). I think all of these are signs that many Christians today have fallen for the false dichotomy between the material and immaterial. What we think takes almost complete precedence over what we do.

How we think and act depends on what we are – and  what we think and how we act changes what we are. The easiest way to think about it is what we call habits. Initial actions are often difficult because we are not used to performing them. Habits are formed when we do something repeatedly. But habits are not just things stuck on to us – they become us (or rather, we become them). When we change our actions, our thinking changes too. Our actions affect our will, and our wills direct our intellects. When we choose certain actions, these strengthen our wills, thus redirecting our minds. Actions that create pleasure will be seen as making us happy. If what we choose does make us happy we return to it much easier next time.

This is the process of transformation/conformation. New habits breed new thinking. How we think and act determine what we are. Conformation to the world is habitually operating in our sin nature. Transformation of the mind requires new habits: not just new thinking in the mind but new acting in the body. Thus, spirituality is not just about the spirit  (our minds) – the physical (our bodies) matters too.

Salvation as Sanctification and Glorification

With this understanding of how actions and the mind go together, Romans 12:1-2 makes a lot more sense!

What we do with our bodies is a spiritual act. And that means the physical matters. The physical matters in our faith. Music matters: I want to worship God, not “rock for Jesus.” Aesthetics matters (candles and incense vs. lasers and fog machines). Clothing matters (robes and stoles vs. skinny jeans and trendy shirts). Sacraments/Ordinances matter (bread and wine vs. crackers and juice). Messages matter – but so does the messenger (a pastor vs. a projector). The physical matters in our works, too. Our works, though insufficient to gain us salvation, do matter to our salvation. Works matter in this life because they make us what we will be in the next life.

God will perfect us in heaven – but what He will perfect is up to us. This view makes sense out of passages  concerning judgment and rewards and punishment that are applied to saint and sinner alike. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:9-15 that, “The fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.” Wow – works, judgment, rewards, loss, and salvation all in one passage!

And there are more:

“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be paid back according to what he has done while in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor. 5:10 cf. Rom. 14:10).

“Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done” (Rev. 22:12).

“There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for one star differs from another star in glory. So also is the resurrection” (1 Cor. 15:41-42).

“Be steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, for as you know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 15:58).

“For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labor of love” (Hebrews 6:10).

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. And every man that strives for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible” (1 Corinthians 9:24-25).

“Blessed is the man that endures temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love Him” (James 1:12 cf. 2 Tim. 4:8).

“It shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. . . . it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you” (Mt. 11:22-24).

“Those who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers . . . will receive the greater condemnation” (Luke 20:47).

While Christians often talk of “salvation” when referring to the judgment of God concerning one’s “place” in the afterlife (Heaven or Hell), it means much more than that. From the above verses it seems clear that there are also different levels of reward and punishment for both those in Heaven and those in Hell. And these differing degrees are determined by works. How do we make sense out of these verses if what we do in this life does not modify our experiences of the afterlife?

If Heaven is not going to be a place of any suffering (Rev. 20-21), then God will have to purify us – get rid of the all that is conformed to the world so that we can love only the good and be completely satisfied by it. How much of us will be left? Will we just barely make it (“Saved as if through fire”)? If so we will have our reward in full – but our fullness will be lessened because we are lessened. All of our cups will “runneth over” – but how big will our cups be?

Our bodily sacrifices are spiritual worship that result in personal sanctification. By doing good works we are sanctified – transformed into godlikeness. When we are godlike we desire what God desires – goodness. To the degree that we love goodness we will be rewarded in heaven – by partaking in goodness. But if we miss out on this process, and remain conformed to the world, much of what we desire and love will not be available to us – for God is all we will have.


So why do good? Why endure suffering? So that we can “glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” This life is not just for getting people off the sinking ship of the world, and neither is it for polishing its brass. We remain alive – in part, at least – to prepare our souls for eternity by being transformed through our lives (which is also by God’s grace – Phil. 2:12-13). And it should be mentioned that pursuit of this reward is not materialistic or selfish – it is God’s will for us. At the end of the passage in question, Romans 12:1-2., Paul says that by not being conformed to the world and by transforming our minds, we will know God’s will.  And here it is: “This is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thess. 4:3).

The difference between Heaven and Hell, then, is not simply based on one’s beliefs. Our eternal reward / loss will be the result of what we are conformed to when we arrive.