Question: "What does it mean to not conform to the pattern of this world (Romans 12:1)?"
Answer: Romans 12:1–2 says, “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. 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.” As followers of Christ, we are not to be conformed to this world’s pattern.
In Romans 12:2, Paul has a “don’t” follow by a “do.” The negative command is to not conform to the pattern of this world. As the J. B. Phillips Bible translates it, “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould,” which is what the Greek term for “conform”—syschēmatizō—means: “to form according to a pattern or mold.”
The same term is found in only one other place in the New Testament, which is 1 Peter 1:14: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance.”
What exactly do Paul and Peter mean by telling Christians to not conform to the world? The Christian and the world are not to be “like-shaped.” That is, we should not allow ourselves to be pressed into following the corrupt customs, ungodly principles, or evil plans of action promoted by worldly men. The blessed man, according to Psalm 1:1, resists being conformed to the pattern of the world:
“Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers.”
Just as a boat is in the water, but not of the water, the Christian is in the world, but not of the world. Followers of Christ pattern their lives after their Lord (see 1 Peter 2:21), not according to the principles of the world, which the Bible says is controlled by the devil, the “god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4).
The reference to “world” is not the physical world, but rather the aion or age. The Bible says that Christians are delivered from this present evil age (Galatians 1:4), which Satan oversees and which is marked by idolatry, fleshly lusts, and rebellion. The believer lives by the powers of the age to come (Hebrews 6:5), even while residing in this world.
The key to escaping the world’s grip of conformity is the metamorphosis (rendered “transformed” in Romans 12:2) of the Christian’s mind. This is accomplished through God’s gift of the Holy Spirit who is working to change believers’ hearts and minds from within, so that their obedience to God might be natural and immediate (see Romans 7:6; 8:5–9; Jeremiah 31:31–34; 2 Corinthians 3:6–7; Ephesians 4:22–24).