We have a saying that when in Rome, do as the Romans do. Paul is in the process of teaching the opposite. When in Rome, do not do what the Romans do. Paul began this section by exhorting the Roman Christians to present their bodies as sacrifices that are alive, holy, and pleasing to God. This happens by transforming the way we think, renewing our minds so that we are not conformed to this world. In the following verses Paul is going to teach us in greater detail how we ought to think.
Proper Thinking About Ourselves (12:3)
As we begin it is important to notice who Paul is speaking to at this point. In verse 3 he says he is speaking to everyone among them. Paul is not writing only to the Christian leaders. Nor is Paul speaking only to Christians who have miraculous spiritual gifts. Paul is writing to every Roman Christian, whether a Jewish Christian or a Gentile Christian. Paul’s command is to not think more highly than one ought to think. Don’t be proud. Don’t be arrogant. Let’s not remove ourselves from Paul’s context as we look at this command. Recall that chapter 11 warned the Gentile Christians about being arrogant toward the Jewish Christians (11:18). The Gentile Christians were to watch themselves about having pride, not to falsely think that they were someone important. Just because we are in the kingdom of God does not make room for arrogance against anyone, especially other Christians. Remember that we do not support the root, but the root supports us. We are able to stand because of God’s grace. This is the thought that Paul uses to kick off his exhortation. "By the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think…." We must think properly about ourselves because it is by God’s grace that we are in God’s kingdom receiving God’s blessings.
Why do we think that we are anything before God? How is it possible for Christian preachers, teachers, leaders, servants, and shepherds to ever think that they are someone before God? We are not important in God’s plan! We must think properly of ourselves. We are simply God’s servants. We are simply people who are grateful for all that God has done and we want to return to God a mere fraction of thanks for his goodness and glory. Woe is me to ever think that I am anything before God. I do what I do not because God needs me and not because I can do a good job. I do what I do because the work must be done. I do what I do because God must be glorified. God’s word is that good and it is that powerful that it can overcome my failings, weaknesses, mistakes, and shortcomings. I am thankful to God if I can be a little mud between the bricks of the building of the kingdom of God.
Standard of Faith
Paul continues that we need to think with sober judgment. We must evaluate ourselves properly. I think that this verse has been greatly misunderstood. I believe it has been interpreted in such a way that it brings out the opposite meaning than Paul intended.
There are two ways to understand what Paul is saying and everything hinges on the word that is translated "measure." Nearly every major translation reads like the ESV, "But to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned." This reading and the standard interpretation of this verse leads Paul to mean that every person must think of themselves according to the quantity of faith that each believer possesses. The idea is that every Christian has different levels of faith that God has assigned to each person. Therefore, do not think of yourself any higher than that degree of faith that God has given you. Paul then goes on to explain the different measures of faith that God gave to people.
I find it nearly impossible that this is what Paul meant. The reason is it creates the very problem that Paul is condemning: arrogance! If I am to think no more highly of myself based on the measure of faith given to me, I can say that I have much faith. I am preacher, I know the scriptures, I know a little Greek, and so forth. Therefore, I can have a proud attitude because look at the measure God has given me. Now, for you who do not preach, teach, or know the scriptures well, God has not given you much and that is a shame. So you think low of yourself, but I can think high of myself. I hope you are able to see the problem. Paul cannot be saying to keep your pride in line with the measure of faith God gave you. Then Paul would be saying that those with special gifts or abilities have the right to think highly of themselves. The reason this way of understanding the text is popular is because of the Calvinistic belief that God must give you faith. You do not develop faith, but God gives it to you. Therefore, this interpretation fits that theology. But there is another way to understand this text.
The word translated "measure" can also be translated "standard." Paul can just as easily being saying that every person must think about themselves according to the standard of the faith that God has given to everyone. The point is not that God has given to every Christian a different degree of faith but that God has given to every Christian the same standard of faith. Everyone shares the same grace that has been poured out by God. This is fitting with the Romans 11 illustration. We are all on the same tree and all are receiving the same grace, same blessings, and same benefits. There are a couple translations that read this way:
Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. (Romans 12:3 TNIV)
Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us. (Romans 12:3 NLT)
God has not given a different measure to each Christian, but has given to each Christian the same measure, that is, the faith. Therefore, we need to think of ourselves appropriately and soberly based upon grace and faith that all of us have received in Christ. Every Christian has the faith in common as fellow members in the body of Christ. This is the basis against which each of us is to estimate ourselves. In my opinion this is a much better fit of what Paul is saying in the context and fits better with verses 1-2 and the rest of the discussion.
Proper Thinking About Others (12:4-8)
Paul extends his reasoning about thinking properly about ourselves in relation to how we think of others. One body has many members and those members do not perform the same function. In the same way, Christians are many but belong to one body in Christ. Paul’s immediate context comes back into play again because Jewish Christians and Gentiles Christians must realize they are united in one body. There are not two bodies. The point is driven home more forcefully with the rest of verse 7. Individually we are members of one another. We are not only members in the body of Christ but we also belong to each other. Knowing the direction Paul is going concerning fellowship in chapter 14 it becomes clear that Paul is laying the foundation about how to think about other Christians. Do not think more highly than you ought. Think appropriately in light of the common faith and grace that we have. Even though we are many, there is only body and we belong to each other.
Paul reminds us that we must have a kingdom vision. We must have a vision of being individuals in the body of Christ. It is easy to be focused upon just the few. But there is only one body and there are many members in that body. We want Christians to be successful all over the earth. Paul is setting up for us that there is diversity within this body.
"Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them." Christians possess different gifts but every gift is the product of God’s grace with all believers have in common. Every Christian possess different gifts. But these gifts must be used rightly. Paul then illustrates how we are to use our gifts rightly with a number of examples. The list of gifts does not appear to be an exhaustive listing. Nor is the list of gifts only miraculous spiritual gifts. As we noted at the beginning of our study, Paul is instructing "everyone among you," not just those who had an apostle lay hands on them. Paul’s first example is in prophecy.
"If prophecy, in proportion to our faith." Once again there are two ways to understand what Paul is saying. Some think Paul is saying that everyone was to use the gift they had in proportion to one’s personal faith. So if you have the gift of prophecy, prophesy in proportion to the amount of faith you have. I find this interpretation nearly impossible, once again. How could Paul be saying that the basis of using a gift is the amount of personal faith one has? What does my personal faith have to do with the proportion of teaching, exhorting, and the like? Why would my personal faith have any relevance this point? I believe the HCSB has the right idea here.
If prophecy, use it according to the standard of faith. (Romans 12:6 HCSB)
The gift each person had was not to be use for personal praise and glorification. Rather, use the gift in accordance with the faith and grace that every Christian has received. Paul is instructing each Christian to use his or her own gift diligently and faithfully to strengthen the body’s unity and to help it flourish. To say verse 6 in another way: All of us have different gifts, but they are to used according to the common grace that we all share in Christ. Exercise your gift according to the standard of the faith that all of us share. Our gifts are not for boasting. We use them because of the grace and the faith given to us.
It is important for us to exercise our gifts. We need to see what are some things we can do. We need people who will serve. Not just people who serve, but people who will serve without concern for lifting our pride and ego. Serve because of the mercies of God according to what God has revealed in the faith. We need people who will teach. Not just people who teach, but people who will teach without concern for lifting our pride and ego. Teach because teaching must be done and because we see the need based on the faith we all share. The gift of teaching refers to passing on the truth of the gospel to others. We need people who will exhort. Not just people who will exhort, but people who will exhort without concern for lifting our pride and ego. The gift of exhortation denotes the activity of urging Christians to live out the truth of the gospel. We can see, therefore, that a preacher of the gospel engages in the gift of teaching and the gift of exhorting. The point is that you do not have only one gift. You have many gifts that you can use in God’s service. We need people who will contribute. We need people who will share their goods and wealth without concern for exalting self and lifting up our ego. We need givers who have generous hearts for the spreading of God’s kingdom. We need people who lead. We need people who will diligently lead, not only as shepherds which we need the young men working toward, but also leading as examples and as workers. As you know at your jobs, the best leaders are not those who are decision makers but are those who lead by example. They do the work and they do the work diligently. We need people who do acts of mercy. The acts of mercy is a reference to those who administer aid to the sick and the suffering. We need people who will show these acts of mercy to the spiritually sick, to the physically sick, and the suffering for the glory of God and not for the glory of self. Do your work with cheerfulness.
- Think of ourselves properly. We will think properly of ourselves when we always keep in mind the mercies and grace of God.
- We must work to improve in our gift and do well with the gifts we have. Find what we can do and do it according to the grace God has given us all.
- Extend ourselves to develop more gifts. We can work to have gifts that currently are not natural to us. I was not a natural teacher. I had enormous stage fright. I hated to speak in front of people. I developed the gift to be used for God. It does not have to be the best. But develop more gifts for God.
- Use your gift as a small member of the whole body of Christ to expand God’s kingdom.