Paul’s readers, whether Jews or Gentiles, were familiar with the practice of sacrifices since they were daily occurrences everywhere. It is likely that Paul had in mind the Old Testament burnt offering because it depicted entire dedication by the worshipper. The instructions of Paul are obvious, but it can help us if we just proceed through his sentences and see what he says.
First, Paul says that the dedication should be voluntary. Many of his readers would have been slaves who were forced to give life-long service to their masters. Even if the masters were good and kind, there was a sense in which the service was still compulsory. Christian dedication was to be very different from that form of service. Instead, their response was an expression of gratitude to the One who had done such great things for them. This is a reminder that God does not want unwilling adoption of his instructions. Our response is to be one dominated by love.
Second, Paul says that such dedication will be expressed physically – by their bodies. This means that every action we do and every appearance we make should be an expression of dedication. The area of life in which we might find this hard is in the area of Christian liberty. As we know, God commands some things and prohibits other things and both of them are easy to identify usually. Christian liberty is a third area and involves those aspects about which God’s Word says nothing specific. It is important to remember that Christian liberty does not mean that I can do what I like. Whenever it is expressed, and however it is expressed, it must be done in a manner that glorifies God. It is impossible, of course, to do something without our bodies, so this dedication is extensive, involving our eyes, ears, mouths, hands and feet.
Third, we can see that this dedication is regarded by God as holy and acceptable. When Paul says that the sacrifice is holy, he does not mean that it is perfect, without flaw. Animals that were offered in Old Testament sacrifices had to be flawless, one reason for this being that the worshippers had to offer their best to God. But no Christian is perfect; even the best fall far short. Instead I think Paul is saying that the dedication is holy because the individual has offered or separated himself to God. The worshipper has resolved to identify with God and his kingdom and left all other things, whether they are religious or not. Now he lives as a person committed entirely to the Lord.
At the same time, Paul says that the dedication is acceptable to God. How can God accept an imperfect dedication? The answer is that the service of such a believer is offered through the merits of Jesus. He does not change their imperfect offering, but since he paid the penalty for their imperfections, they can now serve God despite their imperfections and because they confess that they are accepted only in the merits of Jesus.
Paul informs the Romans that such dedication is spiritual worship. In using the term ‘worship’ in this context, Paul is indicating that worship covers all of life. Worship is not limited to what we do on Sundays. Of course, we cannot use this argument to suggest that other activities are equally important with church gatherings.
There is a bit of disagreement about the meaning of the word translated ‘spiritual’. The Greek word means rational or reasonable. Indeed the word translated ‘worship’ can also mean service, so we can see why other versions translate the two words as ‘reasonable service’. The difficulty is not that we should say one translation is wrong and the other is right, because the original words include both ideas in their meaning. It is obvious that Christian spirituality should be rational and not mindless and it is obvious that Christian thinking should be spiritual. So our worship or service should always be thoughtful and spiritual.
In an ideal world, the spiritual sacrifice should be permanent. Once dedicated, always dedicated, would be the ideal. Yet we don’t live in an ideal world as Christians and are lives are marked by failures. So what do we do when we fail? We repent and rededicate ourselves to God’s service. How often do we have to this? As often as is necessary.