Romans 12:2 is a verse that reminds me of butterflies. This may surprise you, but I’m not an expert on butterflies. I do recall a few key insights from one of my favorite books, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. For instance, there are days—like the day after the Super Bowl—when I think I need to eat “one nice, green leaf,” and after that, I’ll feel much better.
I did a little reading up on caterpillars recently and learned some fascinating things about their transformation process. When the caterpillar is in its cocoon, it isn’t just rearranging pieces on its body. It’s not in there reading manuals about flight or working out. It actually releases enzymes that turn its body into a little soup. Those cells rearrange into a new creation—with wings, antennae, eyes, and all the rest.
After a few weeks, it nibbles a hole in the cocoon, and out pops a butterfly! And then, without any classes or coaching or coercion, it flies.
The Apostle Paul may or may not have known all this about butterflies. But he did recognize that something similar happens to the believer: “Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind …” (Romans 12:2 CSB).
“Transformed” means changed from within. The word in Greek for “transformed” is metamorphoo. It’s where we get our word “metamorphosis”—you know, the word we use to describe what happens to a caterpillar when it sews itself up in a cocoon and emerges as a butterfly.
When God transforms us from within, he releases gospel enzymes into our heart that restructure it so that spiritual flight becomes second nature.
This is different than mere religious change. Religious change is mechanical; it tries to get you to conform your behavior. It’s like screwing wings onto a caterpillar and trying to teach it to fly. It just won’t work.
When it comes to your spiritual life, I’ll bet a lot of you feel like caterpillars with mechanical wings. You keep trying to change by adding spiritual stuff to your life—attend church more, give more money, try these new habits, say these new prayers. But in the end, you just feel exhausted.
Romans 12:2 was a popular verse for preachers when I went to youth camp as a teenager. The way I heard it then went something like this: “Stop listening to Bon Jovi and Run-DMC and start listening to Petra, Carmen, and Sandi Patti.” (For those of you unfamiliar with these magical 80s icons, you could translate this to, “Stop listening to Lizzo and start listening to Lauren Daigle.”) These speakers preached about transformation as a change of behavior—and, for some reason, the main behavior they wanted to change was our musical tastes.
Now, there are good reasons to screen what you listen to. And I will still argue, decades later, that Petra is underappreciated. But Paul’s not talking about what kind of music we listen to. He’s spent the last 11 chapters of Romans talking about renewing our minds in the beauty of the gospel.
God doesn’t want mechanical change; he wants organic change. He wants your behavior to change because your heart has been changed and you now desire to obey him.
This is why the gospel is not just for unbelievers. As we renew our minds in the mercies of the gospel, saturating ourselves in them, we are transformed into the kind of people who obey God from the heart.
The gospel is like a well: You get the best water from the well not by widening the circumference of the well but by digging deeper into it. It’s not just the way we begin the Christian life; it’s the way we grow in the Christian life.
Renewing ourselves in the love of God for us is what produces love for God in us. It transforms our hearts so that obedience to God becomes our desire.