Living Sacrifice

by Peter Ditzel

This article is adapted from The Word of His Grace radio program, "Living Sacrifice."
If we Christians would join the wise men, we must close our eyes to all that glitters before the world and look rather on the despised and foolish things.... --Martin Luther
Martin Luther understood that being a living sacrifice involved turning from wordly ways.

In Romans 12, verses 1-2, Paul writes, “Therefore I urge you, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service. Don’t be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what is the good, well-pleasing, and perfect will of God.”

In the first eleven chapters of Romans, Paul wrote of the sinfulness of humanity. He explained justification by faith alone in Christ alone. He proclaimed freedom from the tyranny of sin and the condemnation of the law. These are the mercies of God that Paul now mentions here in Romans 12:1. Paul tells them that as a result of these mercies they are to do two things: 1) They are to present their bodies a “living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God”; and 2) they are to be not conformed to this world, but transformed by the renewing of their minds.

What does it mean to present our bodies a “living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God” and to be not conformed to this world: but instead to be transformed by the renewing of our minds? And what does this mean to you as you work, play, and go about your day-to-day life?

All of Grace

Our salvation from beginning to end is all of grace. In Ephesians 2:8-9, Paul writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, that no one would boast.” You cannot work for your salvation. You cannot merit your salvation. You cannot work to make God owe you anything. Yet, in the very next verse, Paul says, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared before that we would walk in them.”

The danger that we Christians can fall into is to say, Okay, I’m saved. And we stop right there. We need to live our Christianity. And Paul is telling us how to do this.

God’s grace saves us. Our works cannot save us. God is doing all of the work. In fact, we are His workmanship. But notice that God is creating us in Jesus Christ to do good works that He has ordained that we should do. Do you see? We are not saved by good works. But in saving us, God is by grace creating us to be creatures who can do the good works He has determined we should do. We are not saved by good works, but we are saved by grace for good works.

Some people make the mistake of saying that our good works sanctify us. They are wrong. Sanctification is a part of our salvation, and salvation is all of grace. Sanctification is a work that God works in us through His Word and the Holy Spirit working in our minds. It is important that we not fall into the error of thinking that our sanctification, or any part of our salvation rests on our good works. Our salvation rests entirely upon the finished work of Jesus Christ. The good works you perform are merely the result of the salvation Jesus Christ bought for you on the Cross and which God is now working in you: “For it is God who works in you both to will and to work, for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).

There is a story of a young girl who claimed that she trusted in Jesus Christ as her Savior and applied for membership in a church. She was asked some questions. “Were you a sinner before you trusted the Lord Jesus?” inquired an old deacon. “Yes, sir,” she replied. “Well, are you still a sinner?” he asked. “To tell you the truth, I feel I’m a greater sinner than ever.” “Then what real change have you experienced?” he wondered. “I don’t quite know how to explain it,” she said, “except I used to be a sinner running after sin, but, now that I am saved, I’m a sinner running from sin!” I think she explained it very well.

This girl was beginning to understand something. The theologian, Gordon Clark, explained it as a change of habit. As Clark says, all the actions of those who are not yet born again are sinful. Because their motives are always evil, those who are not born again continually sin. “Then,” writes Clark, “the Holy Spirit comes upon this individual and instills into him different habits. These new habits, though they may and will develop by practice, are not produced by practice. The Spirit immediately forms the habit for him” (Gordon H. Clark, The Holy Spirit, [Hobbs, N. Mex.: The Trinity Foundation, 1993], 34).

So, when we are born again, the Holy Spirit gives us new habits. We once ran after sin, but now we run away from it. Sin was once our way of life, but now, when we slip and sin, we abhor it. The Holy Spirit has changed our mind. And, over time, we will develop these habits more and more.

As is true of all Christians, there will certainly be times when it will seem that you are doing no good works, and you will have times when you slip into sin. But you can take comfort in the fact that your salvation is in Jesus Christ and that God will never abandon the work He has begun in you: “I thank my God whenever I remember you, always in every request of mine on behalf of you all making my requests with joy, for your partnership in furtherance of the Good News from the first day until now; being confident of this very thing, that he who began a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:3-6). Once we are saved, we cannot lose our salvation. After all, our salvation is God’s work and He can’t fail. In what is called sanctification, God is making us holy. As Peter explains in 1 Peter 1:15-16, we are to be holy because God is holy.

Living Sacrifice

Now, going back to Romans 12:1-2, we see that presenting our bodies as a living, holy, and acceptable sacrifice to God, and not being conformed to this world, is a part of our sanctification. It is an element of God setting us apart from the world as His holy people. But what is our portion in this? How do we present our bodies as a living sacrifice?

Being a living sacrifice means we are to sacrifice the substance of our lives—our time, efforts, resources, and, yes, when called for, sometimes our lives, as an example of the love of Jesus Christ. Sacrificing is Christianity in action. But, judging by the shape Christianity is now in, most of us would rather be spectators. Someone once described a football game as twenty-two men on the field badly in need of rest being watched by seventy-two thousand people in the stands badly in need of exercise. But Christianity is not supposed to be a spectator sport.

Jesus said, “If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, and whoever will lose his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25). No doubt with this in mind, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.” If you know of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, you may not agree with all of his theology, and neither do I. But you cannot fault the man in one area. He was not a spectator Christian. He was a participant. When the rest of the church in Germany was caving in and kissing up to Hitler and the Nazis, Bonhoeffer stood relatively alone and resisted. He spoke out against the Nazis, was imprisoned, and was eventually put into a concentration camp. Shortly before the end of the war, the Nazis executed him by hanging.

What are you sacrificing? I don’t mean to make anyone uncomfortable, but certainly this is a valid question for every Christian to ask of him- or herself. Too many give—whether goods or time or effort—only what they can spare without missing it. I once heard a preacher rightly say that God does not want your leftovers. God wants sacrifice, and sacrifice hurts.

Now you have probably heard of the incident where Jesus and His disciples were watching people giving their offerings into the collection box in the temple. The rich people, giving out of their wealth, put in a lot, but it didn’t hurt them because they were rich. Whatever they gave, they wouldn’t even miss it. But then, along came a poor widow. She threw in two, small copper coins that were worth almost nothing. And Jesus said she gave more than all the others. Why? Because they gave out of their abundance, but she, in her poverty, “gave all that she had to live on” (Mark 12:43-44). They gave their leftovers, but she gave everything.

I have heard people say that the widow’s heart may have been right, but she was foolish. She should not have given everything. She was wrong to do this, and she probably regretted it later. But Jesus doesn’t say this. Jesus’ comments about her do not even hint of criticism. He holds her up as a shining example of a living sacrifice. And I am certain she did not regret what she did.

There was a Christian physician in Bangalore, India. While others in his field drove expensive sports cars, he drove a broken down vehicle and lived in a small house that had no hot running water. On Sundays, he held church services in a lean-to shack made of scrap boards and raw lumber. Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton write, “The faithful walked, limped, and dragged themselves to that mat-covered room to worship…. It was poverty at its most extreme. The people listened to the sermon, sang, prayed, and had communion. Then they did an astonishing thing. They gave their money. Having almost nothing, they gave very little, but the percentage of their earnings that went to God was extraordinarily high.” (Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton, Toxic Faith, [Nashville, Tenn.: Oliver-Nelson Books, 1991] 61). Why did these people do this? Why did they sacrifice so much? Because they saw what so many of us living in the affluent and, so called, Christian world have become jaded to. They saw Christianity as the light in a very dark world. These people, and Christians like them, give because they love God, because they put their money where their hearts are.

And, of course, money is not the only way to sacrifice. Let me give you another example from Asia. This is the account of an American meeting a Chinese couple in Hong Kong while traveling to China.

A friend took me down a narrow alley to a second-floor flat to meet a man recently released from prison in China. I knew I would be pressed to carry Bibles and literature on my trip. But I was hesitant and tried to mask my fear with rationalizations about legalities and other concerns.

A Chinese man in his 60s opened the door. His smile was radiant, but his back was bent almost double. He led us to a sparsely furnished room. A Chinese woman of about the same age came in to serve tea. As she lingered, I couldn’t help but notice how they touched and lovingly looked at each other. My staring apparently didn’t go unnoticed, for soon they were both giggling. “What is it?” I asked my friend. “Oh nothing,” he said with a smile. “They just wanted you to know it was OK—they’re newlyweds.” I learned they had been engaged in 1949, when he was a student at Nanking Seminary. On the day of their wedding rehearsal, Chinese communists seized the seminary. They took the students to a hard-labor prison. For the next 30 years, the bride-to-be was allowed only one visit per year. Each time, following their brief minutes together, the man would be called to the warden’s office. “You may go home with your bride,” he said, “if you will renounce Christianity.” Year after year, this man replied with just one word; “No.” I was stunned. How had he been able to stand the strain for so long, being denied his family, his marriage, and even his health? When I asked, he seemed astonished at my question. He replied, “With all that Jesus has done for me, how could I betray Him?” The next day, I requested that my suitcase be crammed with Bibles and training literature for Chinese Christians. I determined not to lie about the materials, yet lost not one minute of sleep worrying about the consequences. And as God had planned, my suitcases were never inspected.”
Moody Monthly, January 1986, 33

Are we taking for granted what Jesus Christ has done for us? In part two, we’ll continue this theme, see some misconceptions about works, and learn what being a living sacrifice has to do with not conforming to this present, evil world.

Go to Part 2

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