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.
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
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).