For an Informed Love of God
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When γάρ Can’t Mean “For” (Romans 12:3)
γάρ is a tricky word. The more formal equivalent translations tend to just use “for” and let you figure out what it means. The problem is that “for” has a much smaller range of meaning than γάρ, and “for” often does not fit the biblical context. In the case of Romans 12:3, I think translating γάρ as “for” misleads the reader.
Paul begins his new section of Romans by encouraging us to “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice” (12:1). How do you do this? You don’t allow yourselves to be conformed to the world (12:2a). How do you do this? “You renew your mind” (12:2b).
Renewal starts with our mind, not our heart. You have to be convinced in your mind that our rational and spiritual worship (12:1) starts with a right understanding of God and ourselves, and our heart will follow. So often I see people trying to change their heart, not taking the time to really understand what true worship is, not understanding God’s “good and acceptable and perfect” will. It always fails, ending in frustration.
But what then is the relationship of v 3 to the preceding? If you translate γάρ as “for,” the only way to read the text is that v 3 is giving the reason for vv 1–2, and this makes no sense. Rather, v 3 is an example of renewing your mind, of changing how you view yourself. This is why the NJB’s (New Jerusalem Bible) translation of γάρ as “and” is a little more helpful. I would prefer a continuation word like “now.” BDAG agrees and puts the verse under the heading “2. marker of clarification, for, you see.”
There is a debate about v 3. Some think that “measure of faith” refers to different amounts of faith different people have, but that is the exact opposite of Paul’s point. He goes on to stress that we are “one body” (v 4) and we all “belong to one another” (v 5). While there is diversity in the body in that we have different gifts (vv 4, 6–8), we all should have the same view of ourselves. We need to think of ourselves “soberly,” which means we think of ourselves in accordance to what our faith tells us about God and ourselves (v 3).
In the case of v 4, I do prefer the CSB’s translation of γάρ as “now” since what follows is not a reason but an example of “sober judgment.
I do like concordance. I do like translating the same Greek word with the same English word so the English reader can trace the author’s line of reasoning. But simply using “for” with its smaller range of meaning is confusing and does not help the reader see that v 3 is an example of what a renewed mind understands, nor does it help the reader see that vv 4–8 are an example of “sober judgment.
I never liked being called “pastor Bill.” It set me apart from others. I remember preaching a sermon where I suggested that in the sake of unity we should drop that designation unless you wanted to call others by their giftedness, like “plumber Joe” and “teacher Mary.” It is hard enough standing on the platform (so people could see who was speaking); it set me apart. But regardless of our giftedness, we are all recipients of God’s grace and are all equal members of the one body.
It’s the world that wants to assign value based on your role. It is the world that says you are more important if you are richer, more powerful, prettier, faster, stronger. That is not “sober judgment.” If you think you are more important or less important than others, you need to renew your mind, realizing that because each of us has been given the same measure of faith, we can all understand ourselves, and others, rightly.