In his final letter, when he knew that his death was near, the apostle Paul wrote to his friend, close companion and co-worker Timothy, “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come” (2 Tim. 4:6; ESV). In using the imagery of the drink offering, Paul is drawing on Old Testament sacrifice language. The drink offering accompanied the old covenant sacrificial offering from the herd or flock (Num. 15:1-10). It tells us that Paul viewed his life as a sacrifice given over to God (see also Phil. 2:17).
In fact, in Romans 12:1, Paul calls all Christians to present their “bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” This echoes the earlier words of Jesus, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 16:24-25). In Jesus’ day, the only time people saw someone carrying a cross was when he, like Jesus, was carrying it to his death. Jesus requires that all his followers give up their lives, and follow him alone.
Of course, Jesus does not command this without his first being willing to do it himself. This is why Paul begins Roman 12:1 with the words, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God” (Rom. 12:1). Paul has spent much of the previous eleven chapters discussing our justification, that is, how sinners can be in right relationship with a just and holy God. At the heart of this discussion are four verses that summarize the basic truth of the gospel:
for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:23-26).
Paul says that God is both “just and the justifier” of those who trust in Christ for salvation. God is just, and as the just Judge of the universe, he must punish sin. Furthermore, “the wages of sin” is death (Rom. 6:23). In Christ, God acts justly in punishing sin. Christ becomes the substitutionary sacrifice, dying in the place of his people. His “blood” (death) becomes the “propitiation,” which turns away the wrath of God (the basic meaning of the word propitiation). In this way, God remains just—sin is punished. But he is the justifier in declaring those who are united to Christ by faith to be righteous in his sight.
Christ as a Living Sacrifice
To put it differently, at the cross, God’s justice and mercy meet. Christ’s death is the sacrifice that satisfies God’s justice. Christ himself is also the substitute who dies in place of his people. The great John Newton hymn summarizes this beautifully in Let Us Love and Sing and Wonder:
Let us wonder, grace and justice,
join and point to mercy’s store.
When through grace in Christ our trust is,
justice smiles and asks no more.
This is the foundation for Paul’s exhortation in Romans 12, and explains the words, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the mercies of God…” The word “mercy” also occurs repeatedly in chapters 9-11 to describe God’s electing grace. But Christ’s merciful, substitutionary sacrifice forms the heart of Paul’s command for believers likewise to present themselves as a “living sacrifice.” It is the only “reasonable” (a word we will come back to) thing to do. It is fitting that as Christ gave himself for us, we give ourselves to him. In the words of another great hymn, “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”
Christians as Living Sacrifices
Having looked at the basis for Paul’s command, let’s look at what this means practically for believers. It is important, first of all, to recognize the plurals in this verse: brothers, bodies. Paul is addressing the community as a whole. What Paul commands here is only to be worked out and can only be worked out in a community of believers. While Paul can elsewhere say of himself that “I beat my body, to bring it under submission to Christ,” he does not do this in isolation from other Christians. He works out his salvation in combination with his coworkers and churches. What follows in Romans 12:3-8 is clearly one practical outworking of presenting our bodies to Christ as a living sacrifice. It means, in part, the sacrificial use of our gifts.
Romans 12:1 as a whole is striking for its language of temple worship and sacrifice. The verb “present” was regularly used for worshipers presenting their sacrifices to God. “Holy” means that the sacrifice was to be without blemish and set apart for God. The word “acceptable” draws to mind how the sacrifices were to have a “sweet-smelling aroma,” pleasing to God. God’s people are to offer to him only what is “acceptable.” For us, the only sacrifice acceptable to God is to present to him our “bodies,” this is, our whole selves, even as whole animals were laid on the altar under the old covenant and Christ presented his body on behalf of his people and shed his blood to initiate the new covenant. No one can belong to Christ who does not give himself fully as a sacrifice to him. Click To Tweet
We may be tempted to think that this kind of sacrifice is only for people like Paul or other full-time Christian workers who give themselves wholly to the work of the Lord. But the New Testament makes clear that no one can belong to Christ who does not give himself fully as a sacrifice to him. Paul often uses the language of crucifixion to express this. He says of himself in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ; I no longer live, Christ lives in me. And the life I now live I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” He similarly says later in Galatians, “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14).
Paul also uses this same language of crucifixion to describe all Christians. In the same letter to the Galatians, Paul writes, “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24). Similarly, in Romans, Paul says “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin… We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:6, 9-11).
The Christian Life as Death and Resurrection
As these verses indicate, the Christian life begins with death and resurrection. “Our old self was crucified.” “The world has been crucified to me.” “I have been crucified with Christ. I no longer live.” At the same time, “Christ lives in me. And the life I now live I live by faith in the Son of God.” Galatians 2:20 might seem contradictory, “I no longer live…And the life I now live…” But this is the essence of being a follower of Christ. The Christian dies to the old self, the old way of thinking, the old way of living. He is made alive in Christ by the Spirit and no longer lives as he used to live, fully devoted to the endeavors and pleasures of this world. He is a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17).
Many commentators likewise consider the words “living sacrifice” in Romans 12:1 to be a contradiction. But like the verses just quoted, they indicate that believers are dead to sin but alive to God. What is different about Romans 12:1, however, is that Paul’s command is given to those who have already died and been made alive. In other words, to present our bodies as a living sacrifice is not just an experience that takes place at our conversion. We make a conscious effort to present ourselves to God and to live for him while already alive as a follower of Christ. The primary reason for this is that the sin nature does not die a natural death. It hangs on. The Christian throughout this life continues to do battle against the world, the flesh, and the devil. Every day is a struggle to give ourselves wholly to God and to live for him. It requires both walking by the Spirit (Gal. 5:25) and putting to death the sinful nature (Col. 3:5).
John Stott helpfully describes what the language of crucifixion in Gal. 5:24 means in practice for the Christian. First, he points out that in the ancient world crucifixion was pitiless. Crucifixion was death by torture and it was inflicted on the worst of criminals. It was a slow death, sometimes lasting several days, without pity. In the same way, we are to show no pity for our sin as we put it to death.
Second, crucifixion was painful. The process of crucifying the sinful nature is painful. Why? We love our sin. We love to pamper it and hold on to it. Sometimes it means getting rid of things in our lives that are not necessarily sinful in themselves, but which lead us into sin or subtly turn our hearts away from the Lord and to the things of this world.
Finally, crucifixion was decisive. Death by crucifixion was slow and painful. But it was certain. In the same way, we need to be decisive in dealing with our sin. Jesus said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell” (Matt. 5:29-30). Sin turns our hearts away from the Lord. We need to deal decisively with it.
The point of this crucifixion language, first and foremost, is that it points to our death. Death to self. Death to the things that once captivated and enslaved us. Death to pursuing our earthly ambitions and desires. As a sacrifice, we lay on the altar. The Christian throughout this life continues to do battle against the world, the flesh, and the devil. Every day is a struggle to give ourselves wholly to God and to live for him. Click To Tweet
Simultaneously, however, we offer ourselves to God. We live a new life fully given over to him, having been made alive by the Spirit. It is in this sense that presenting ourselves as a “living” sacrifice” is also “holy” and “acceptable” to God. As we offer ourselves to God we are holy in the sense of being “set apart.” We are set apart from the world and sin and set apart for God in his service. The great Reformer John Calvin wrote about Romans 12:1, “we are redeemed by the Lord for this end—that we may consecrate to him ourselves and all our members…for it hence follows, that we must cease to live for ourselves, in order that we may devote all the actions of our life to his service.”
The Aroma of Christians to the World–and to God
Being set apart for God in this way also requires being set apart from the world. Thus Paul says in verse 2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Often when Christians read this verse, they think of not being conformed to the world in its immorality—adultery, pornography, drunkenness, etc. That is certainly a big part of it. Yet Paul’s command also includes not being conformed to the world in its “morality.” Many are motivated to be “nice” or to be a “good person” because of its benefits in this life—to be liked, to gain the accolades of man, to be popular and ultimately to be successful. Some even attempt to be good because they believe it will earn God’s favor. In its essence, however, this is living for self and is contrary to the call for the Christian to live wholly for God.
This holy life is the only life that is “acceptable” to God. The Greek word translated acceptable in the ESV can also mean “well-pleasing.” It draws on the Old Testament language of sacrifices having a “pleasing aroma” to God. Paul uses the word in just this way when he describes the gifts that the Philippians sent to him as “a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God” (Phil. 4:18).
In 2 Corinthians Paul writes, “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life” (2:14-16). The term triumphal procession refers to a military victory parade in which the conquering army marches before a cheering crowd leading conquered foes into an arena to be put to death. In Paul’s image, he and those who preach the gospel are not the victors but the victims. He is being led to his death, which he describes using the language of sacrifice. The “aroma” that rises in death is simply the fragrance of death to those who are spiritually dead. But it is the aroma of life to those who are alive through hearing and believing the Word.
It is possible that Paul was reflecting on the possibility of his death here—though that would not occur for at least fifteen years. It is more likely that Paul is speaking of his life given over as a sacrifice to God, including the opposition that he experiences. Presenting ourselves as a living sacrifice to God, while well-pleasing to God, not only makes us different from the world, it puts us on a collision course with the world. Jesus told his disciples that this would be so and even warned that many would fall away because of the opposition and hardship that they would face. Indeed, this is the cross that many Christians find most difficult to bear. Yet this is true discipleship: “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27).
Paul says that this life given over to God is our “reasonable service” (KJV). The ESV and other modern versions translate this phrase in Romans 12:1 as “spiritual worship.” But the adjective is the Greek word from which we get our English word “logic,” and typically refers to a proper use of the mind. Following Christ requires thoughtful, dedicated intentionality. It means counting the cost (Luke 14:28). And it requires thoughtful discernment throughout our pilgrimage on this earth (Romans 12:2). Yet this living sacrifice is the only thing that is truly life.
Christ came ultimately to restore life, not to take it away. Sin dehumanizes. It robs us of life as God created human beings to live. Martin Luther described the sinner as a person turned in on himself. John Milton pictures this as Eve seeing her reflection in a body of water and becoming infatuated. By God’s grace, God enables sinners to turn away from self, to put self to death and to live for the glory of God and in communion with God according to God’s original intention in creation. This is the reason that so many, like David Livingstone, who gave their lives in service to Christ and the gospel come to the end of their lives and say, “I never made a sacrifice.” Life as a living sacrifice is life itself.