Conformed - or transformed?
Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. (Romans 12:2a, NIV)
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind…(Romans 12:2a, ESV)
Sometimes comparing English translations of a Bible verse can help shed new light, and, indeed, teach us a powerful lesson.
In the famous verse quoted above, the Apostle Paul is writing about the life we should live in the light of the gospel. The NIV translates Paul as saying “Do not conform”, in an active sense, as if he were telling us to dare to be different from the world. It is often understood that way, and I think I have given a talk or two saying so!
Well, we certainly are called to be different (as we’ll be hearing this Sunday at 5pm in our series on 1 Peter) but I’m not now so sure that this really is Paul’s point. The ESV renders the Greek in a passive, not an active voice: “Do not be conformed”. This is a much likelier translation (even though the NIV is normally very reliable!).
(As a slightly nerdy bit of evidence, this is because (a) an active sense of this middle / passive verb form would, the experts say, be rare; and (b) the passive sense would rhetorically mirror the parallel the “Be transformed”, which has to be passive.)
If we are called not to be conformed, the sense is rather different. Instead of being commanded to be different, we are being warned not to be taken in. The world about us now becomes the driver. It wants us, pushes us, makes us conform. J B Phillips, in his paraphrase, captures the verse this way: “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould.”
You could put it this way. We swim in the waters of our cultural surroundings - its shared assumptions, goals, hopes, fears, ethics. Almost inevitably, we will be affected by that water. We will be conformed.
How, then, are we not to be conformed? This is the other half of Paul’s command: Be transformed by the renewing of your mind. This is what happens as a person comes to know God through Christ. As they hear the gospel and are taught the Scriptures, their mind is changed. They realise then how toxic the water is that they’re swimming in!
Paul gives the command using a Greek tense which implies this is also an ongoing process. We are to go on having our minds renewed by God’s Word as we read the Bible and hear it preached. It’s the only way to avoid being conformed.
Churches, and people, who do not have God’s Word opened up to them will inevitably be conformed to the world, whether they realise it or not.
Be transformed, then, by the renewing of your mind!
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