What Does Romans 12:2 Mean?

What Does Romans 12:2 Mean?

Some Christians have taken this verse to mean that we should retreat from the world, have nothing to do with it. Is this the true meaning of Romans 12:2? We’ll consider this verse in context and look at different versions of the translation, but first, let’s look at its authorship.

Who wrote Romans 12:2?

Saint Paul wrote this epistle to the Christian church in Rome while he was in Corinth in 57 AD. Paul hoped to be able to visit the congregation for the first time on his way to Spain. 

What is the meaning of Romans 12:2?

‘Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.’ New International Version

From the moment we are born we are being socialized. Our independent circumstances will vary but the pressure to ‘conform to the pattern of this world’ is relentless. We know the way of the world: its violence, its greed, its selfishness, its pride…We know how worldly concerns can come to dominate our thoughts and actions so that we operate like marionettes, the world tugging our strings. What Paul urges here is not that we hide away from the world but that we ‘transform’ ourselves by ‘renewing ‘ our minds. Instead of allowing the world to dictate our thoughts, we should turn our minds to God. We should recognize the Will of God and choose to act upon it. Let’s look at how this verse is presented in some of the other Bible translations.

‘Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.' Romans 12:2

Romans 12:2 King James Version

‘And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.’

Once we strip out the archaic language, we can see that the sense of this 400-year-old translation is very close to that of the New International Version. The word ‘prove’ has been expanded to ‘test and approve’ in the modern version and I think that’s helpful, however, the substitution of ‘pleasing’ for ‘acceptable’ is less helpful. ‘Acceptable’ may seem an odd choice of word, sandwiched as it is between ‘good’ and ‘perfect’ but it refers to what is acceptable to God and by contrast, the word ‘pleasing’ seems rather vague. What do you think? 

Romans 12:2 New American Standard Bible

‘And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.’

This seems to me a much more helpful modernization of the King James Version, than the New International rendering. The key words are all retained including the powerful pairing of  ‘transformed/conformed’ and the grammar is reshaped to make the meaning clear.


Man atop a mountain


Romans 12:2 The Message

‘Don’t be so well adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you and, quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.’

The Message is all about opening up an understanding of the Bible, putting it into language which is accessible to modern readers, not being tied to a literal translation but expanding and explaining ideas. It’s a fine ambition, but has this version of Romans 12:2 moved too far away from the meaning of the original? Let’s take a closer look. ‘Be not conformed’ is explained as ‘Don’t be so well adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without thinking’. Is this a clarification, I’m not convinced; to me this actually seems rather more confusing. Again, ‘changed from the inside out, seems to me a bit of a vague cliché. This version also introduces an ‘immaturity/maturity’ contrast which is entirely absent from the original text. For me this well-intentioned version of Romans 12:2 is a dilution of the original text. What do you think?


'Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.’ Romas 12:2


Romans 12:2 in context

Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is the sixth book of the New Testament, and is the most important statement of doctrine in Saint Paul’s writings. The Christians of Rome had been driven from their homes a decade earlier and they would suffer further persecution at the hands of Emperor Nero. 

Let’s look at the preceding verse.

Romans 12:1

‘Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God-this is your true and proper worship.’

New International Version.

Saint Paul is drawing a conclusion to all the doctrinal advice that he has presented so far in his letter to the Romans. Romans 12:2 is an answer to the question ‘ How should we respond to God’s great mercy?’ Romans 12:1 urges Christians to ‘offer your bodies as a living sacrifice’ and verse two explains how this can be achieved. 


Sailboat in the middle of the ocean


Reflections on Romans 12:2

Paul is not urging us to withdraw from the world, we need to live and do God’s work in the world but that requires us to constantly renew ourselves by keeping God’s will uppermost in our minds and ensuring that all our actions are guided by it.


Read next: What Does Romans 12:12 Mean? "Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer." The New Testament contains letters to various churches with the core message of the gospel of Christ. Included in this is the verse Romans 12:12. What is its meaning?


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