What does it mean to not conform to the pattern of this world (Romans 12:2)?

Paul opens the twelfth chapter of Romans with two heartfelt instructions for the conduct of the Christian life. He then spends the next several chapters expanding these two ideas, providing encouragement and exhortation on how to live our lives in this manner. Paul begins saying, "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). What it means to not conform to the pattern of this world is related to what it means to present our bodies as a living sacrifice to God. While the focus here will remain on the second verse, the first will remain constantly in the peripheral of the discussion.

When Paul instructs his readers to not conform to the world, what he is saying is not to conform to the sinful patterns of the world system, that which is against God. The word translated world is the Greek aion, referring to an age. We aren't to be conformed to the current world system, shifting with the culture, but instead conformed to Christ (Romans 8:28–30). Scripture is clear that everyone has inherited the same sinful nature of Adam. Paul writes, "Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned" (Romans 5:12) and, "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). This sin nature pervades the world system. So, too, does the deception of Satan. Second Corinthians 4:4 says "the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers."

But "if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come" (2 Corinthians 5:17). When we put our faith in Jesus, we are forgiven of our sin and we're also made new. We receive the indwelling Holy Spirit who changes us to live more as God would have us live (Ephesians 1:3–14; Philippians 2:12–13). We no longer belong to the sinful world system and therefore should not be conformed to it (John 17:14–17; Ephesians 2:1–10; 1 Corinthians 6:9–11). In Romans 12:2, Paul essentially says we are not to allow the sinful world system to inform our way of thinking or behaving, but instead, have our minds transformed by God to His way of thinking.

In Ephesians, Paul tells us to "no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!" (Ephesians 4:17–20). Paul uses the term "Gentiles" here to represent those who do not follow God. This is similar to his discussion in Romans 12, but here he explains why we should not be conformed to them. If those who don't follow God are "darkened in their understanding" and have "given themselves up to… every kind of impurity" then we, as followers of God should avoid behaving in like manner because we belong to Christ!

Going back to Romans 12, Paul instructs us instead to, "Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them" (Romans 12:9–14). This is how Christians are supposed to behave, and in Christ, love is absolute.

But there is more difficulty in this than we realize. How are we to keep from being conformed to the sinful world system, especially considering our own sinful tendencies (James 1:12–18; Romans 7—8)? How do we remain "in the world yet not be of the world"? How can we genuinely love the people around us, including those who are of the world, without accepting a worldly way of thinking? Paul gives us the answer: "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 12:2).

One of the keys to how our minds are renewed is found in Romans 12:1: "present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship." We submit to God and seek to honor Him. We study God's Word so that we can better know Him and be better established in truth (Psalm 1:1–4; 2 Timothy 3:16–17; Hebrews 4:12–13; 5:14). We yield to the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts (Philippians 2:12–13). We seek to abide in Christ and obey Him (John 15:1–11). We actively "put off the old" and "put on the new" (Ephesians 4:17–32). We spend time with other believers for encouragement, equipping, accountability, and support (Hebrews 10:24–25; Galatians 6:1–10). We actively use our spiritual gifts for the benefit of others (Romans 12:3–8). We seek to live at peace with others (Romans 12:18), having a humble heart that is willing to serve even our enemies (Romans 12:19–21; Philippians 2:1–11).

Being conformed to Christ ultimately looks like loving God and loving others with His agape love (Romans 13:8; John 13:34–35). Ephesians 5:1–2 tells us, "Be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." If we are conformed to Christ, we cannot, and we will not be conformed to the world.

Related Truth:

How is a Christian a new creation? What does 2 Corinthians 5:17 mean?

Progressive sanctification—What is it?

What does it mean for Christians to be in the world but not of the world?

What does 1 John 2:15 mean when it says 'Do not love the world'?

How can I come to really know God?

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