The Apostle Paul wrote the most books of any New Testament author. He was spiritually profound and intellectually brilliant. This means that his writings are filled with deep wisdom and understanding, but they can also be a bit difficult to grasp at times. One of his puzzling phrases is found in Romans 12:1 where he says, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice….” What is a living sacrifice? That is not a common phrase in 21st-century Western society.
The temptation may be for us to just skip over that part and keep reading. However, if we do that, we miss a very important point about what the life and attitude of a Christian should look like. As with many things in Scripture, the concept of a living sacrifice is one that requires some intentional digging to fully understand. But if we do, we may find a new way of looking at our lives.
What Is the Context of Romans 12:1?
Romans could be considered Paul’s most thorough explanation of redemptive history. He starts with the sinfulness of mankind and God’s judgment of both Jews and Gentiles alike. He then introduces Christ as the solution to humanity’s sin problem. Because of this, believers live in freedom from sin and peace with God. He then addresses God’s sovereignty over salvation and the future of the Jews. The beginning of Chapter 12 acts as a hinge on which Paul pivots his discussion from theology to how we should live our lives in light of it. Verses 1 and 2 of chapter 12 are meant to be the heart attitude behind the commands Paul gives in chapters 12 through 14.
What Does ‘Living Sacrifice’ Mean?
So, what exactly does the phrase living sacrifice mean?
We know from other places in Scripture that it cannot refer to a sacrifice that covers or atones for sin. We are told in numerous places that all the sins of the saints have been atoned for by the blood of Jesus (Heb. 9:12; 2 Cor. 5:21; Rom. 3:24-25, 5:9). Therefore, there is nothing for us to “make up,” in a sense. In addition, Paul openly condemns the idea of works-based salvation (Gal. 3:10-11; Eph. 2:9-10).
Now that we have established what it cannot mean, let’s go to the text and look for clues as to what Paul means by the phrase “living sacrifice.” If we look at the end of verse 1, we see that Paul describes being a living sacrifice as spiritual worship. The word for worship here can also mean ministry or service. This gives us a good starting place for understanding sacrifice in a New Testament context.
One way to understand sacrifice in the New Testament is as a service or offering to God. We see this idea in Philippians 4:18 when Paul describes a gift he received from the Philippian church as “a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.” Paul is not saying that they literally made an offering to God in an Old Testament sense. Rather, by serving Paul and meeting his needs, the Philippians served the cause of God, which was “acceptable and pleasing” to the Lord.
If this is the case, what effects—if any—do these sacrifices have on our relationship with God? The very fact that Paul tells his readers to offer their lives as an offering or service to the Lord would indicate that doing so is important. One reason could be that such sacrifices win the Lord’s approval because we are living as he calls us to live (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia). This does not mean that we earn God’s love or favor; we receive that as a result of salvation through Jesus.
Rather, we might think of it as a father watching his small child. The child shares his toys with his sister, obeys his father’s warning not to touch the light socket, and colors his father a picture that would confound even the most expressionistic of artists. All these things please the heart of the father. He does not love his son more because of his behavior, but he is delighted by his simple expressions of love and respect.
This is how living our lives as sacrifices affect our relationship with God. Just like the father in the illustration, God is already committed to those of us who are in Christ. When we live our lives in service to God, we are simply returning love and respect to the one who has already given us everything. May we never try to earn what the Lord has already given us by grace (1 John 4:10).
What Are the Qualities of a Living Sacrifice?
Naturally, our next question may be, “How do I live my life as an offering or service to God?” As with all biblical commands, we should begin with the attitude of our hearts. Without the right motives, our good deeds are nothing more than filthy rags to God (Isaiah 64:6).
The Lord graciously gives us examples of how we ought to be motivated in his Apostles. The Apostle Paul, who wrote the command for believers to present themselves as living sacrifices, understood that his life did not belong to him. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul says this, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” In a spiritual sense, Paul’s old self and the life he lived for himself died with Christ. His life now is given to him by Jesus. Therefore, Paul lives every day through faith in the life-giving power of Jesus.
What does that kind of dependence and indebtedness do to a person? Paul tells us in Romans 1:1. He describes himself as a “servant of Christ Jesus…set apart for the gospel of God….” The Greek word translated servant more accurately means slave. Paul is not the only apostle to think of himself as a slave of Christ. Peter also in his second epistle introduces himself as Jesus Christ’s servant. Servants and slaves do not live for themselves but do whatever their master wishes. Though it may offend our modern sensibilities to think of ourselves and other believers as slaves of Christ, this is the right way of thinking. We have been bought with an immeasurable price: the blood of the Son of God himself. Through the shedding of his blood, we have been raised to new life. It is only right that we would live our lives in complete service and devotion to the One who saved us.
Through this lens, we can look at how to act as living sacrifices. After encouraging his readers to make themselves living sacrifices, Paul expounds upon what he means in verse 2. From this verse, we can discern three basic elements of a living sacrifice:
1) Not conformed to the ideals of the world
2) Transformed by an inward renewal that works outward
3) Able to discern the will of God
First, we are told that a living sacrifice is not conformed to what the world looks like. This means that a believer who desires to live as an offering to God rejects whatever he/she sees in the world that does not line up with Scripture. In the first chapter of Romans, Paul describes how humanity turned from God and refused to acknowledge him as Lord. Therefore, he gave them over to their foolish ways of thinking. From there, people became more and more depraved, running further and further from God’s ways. As followers of Christ, we must have the courage to reject ideas and practices that are contrary to what God has said is right. People will see that we are disciples of Christ when we oppose things that grieve the heart of God.
Second, a living sacrifice is to be inwardly transformed and renewed, which will work its way out into actions. Salvation is not “clean yourself up, get your life together, then Jesus will love you.” Quite the opposite. Salvation is God forgiving us, reaching down into the filth of our hearts, and transforming us into new creatures who love him and want to do his will. Rather than focusing on doing and saying all the right things, we should be focused on the renewal of our hearts. This will change how we think, how we feel, and how we behave. Inward change naturally works its way outward. Jesus said, “You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside may also be clean” (Matt. 23:26). In order to change our behavior, we must invest time and energy into renewing our minds and hearts through prayer and time in God’s word.
Finally, Paul tells us that a person who is committed to being a living sacrifice will be able to discern the will of God by testing. The word that the ESV translates as testing can also be translated to discern, examine, or approve. Basically, he is saying that as the Holy Spirit works in our hearts and we grow in our understanding of who God is, we will develop the ability to test a situation and determine if the direction we want to go lines up with God’s desire for our lives. This is an incredible promise! We do not have to guess God’s will for our lives and just hope we don’t screw up. If we prayerfully seek his wisdom, he will give us the ability to see his will. This may not look like an angel coming to us in a dream or an audible voice saying, “Take the job.” But God will guide us as we navigate trying to live our lives in service to him.
How Can We Be Living Sacrifices to God?
Paul’s encouragement to the Romans (and us) is no easy calling. To be a living sacrifice means to live every minute of every day as an offering and service to the Lord. It radically goes against our culture of self-promotion and making our own dreams come true. It means laying down our own ambitions, dreams, gifts, and fears, and telling God, “Do whatever you want with me. I am your servant.” Armed with that mindset, we must be ready to reject things that do not line up with God’s word, devote ourselves to having our minds renewed, and to learn how to discern the will of God for our lives.
How do we even begin such a process? The answer is simple: look to Jesus. Jesus not only saves us from our sins and brings us into the presence of the Father, but he lived a perfect life for us to emulate. Jesus demonstrated what it means to be a living sacrifice. He was God in the flesh, yet he humbled himself and lived to serve others (Matt. 20:28; Phil. 2:6-7). He called out sin and rejected the ideals of the culture around him (Matt 23:3-36; Mark 7:5-13, Mark 10:5-9). His mind was in complete harmony with that of the Father (John 10:30). He knew the will of God and always acted on it (John 14:10).
Jesus set a perfect example for us, and he is always ready to forgive us when we fail to live up to that example. We will mess up at times, but Jesus will always be right there to give us grace. We can take great comfort in this as we work toward living every moment of our lives as offerings to God.
Pray and ask God to help you change your mindset from what you want to what he wants. Ask him to show you his will and give you the strength to act on it. Most of all, pray that he will help you to fall in love with the heart of Jesus. The more we love Jesus, the more we will desire to be like him.
Photo credit: Daniel Reche/Pixabay
Rylie Fine is a freelance writer and editor. She is passionate about the Bible and seeks to equip other believers to study it for themselves. Rylie lives in northeast Ohio with her husband, Evan.
This article is part of our larger resource library of popular Bible verse phrases and quotes. We want to provide easy to read articles that answer your questions about the meaning, origin, and history of specific verses within Scripture's context. It is our hope that these will help you better understand the meaning and purpose of God's Word in relation to your life today.