The apostle Paul instructed members of the church at Rome to “present your bodies a living sacrifice.” How is that possible, and what did Paul mean?
Long considered the most comprehensive treatment of theology in the New Testament, Paul’s epistle to the Romans explains everything from sin to salvation, and from justification to Israel’s place in the plan of God. The first 11 chapters are dedicated to these topics.
Chapter 12, however, begins with a big “therefore.” Paul moves from theology, or “head knowledge,” to practical applications of that theology. In essence, he is telling the congregation at Rome that, because of the doctrine he has just laid out, they must live their lives differently—be converted.
What is so surprising is the wording of Paul’s first instruction: “Present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service” (Romans 12:1).
Living sacrifices in a world of animal sacrifices
In a world full of religions practicing animal sacrifice, this statement would have appeared odd at best, but fanatical at worst. Since sacrificial animals were slaughtered at the altar, the idea of a living sacrifice would seem to contradict itself.
Before we can begin to understand the concept of a living sacrifice, though, we must come to grips with what makes a sacrifice a sacrifice.
Cost is at the core of a sacrifice. A sacrifice entails giving up something, especially something precious.
In its article “Offering and Sacrifice,” the Zondervan Expository Dictionary of Bible Words defines the living sacrifice of Romans 12:1 as corresponding to “the whole burnt offering of consecration.” For the person who gave a valuable animal to be completely burned up, this was a costly sacrifice. And, of course, from the perspective of the animal, it was the ultimate sacrifice. (Learn more about the sacrifices of the Old Testament in our online article “Types of Sacrifice in the Bible and What They Mean.”)
David understood that, to God, what is most important about a sacrifice is the heart—the motivations and intentions—of the person who makes that sacrifice. In his well-known psalm of repentance, David recognized that “the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart” (Psalm 51:17).
So, then, what does it mean to “present your bodies a living sacrifice”?
Just before urging the Christians in Rome to present their bodies “a living sacrifice,” Paul reminded them of “the mercies of God.” The order here is important. The fact that mercy comes before these living sacrifices distinguishes them from the sacrifices of the world.
As noted in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary on Romans, “Whereas the heathen are prone to sacrifice in order to obtain mercy, biblical faith teaches that the divine mercy provides the basis for sacrifice as the fitting response” (Vol. 10, p. 127). It is because God gave His only begotten Son as a sacrifice to pay the penalty of our sins that His children should desire to become living sacrifices.
Being a living sacrifice is all-encompassing. It’s living by every word of God. It is putting God first.Another word in the passage, the Greek word logikos, warrants a closer look. It is not easy to translate into English, but has been translated as spiritual (English Standard Version), logical (Complete Jewish Bible) and true and proper (New International Version). In the King James and New King James Versions it appears in the expression reasonable service (Romans 12:1).
In essence, logikos carries with it the idea that “the sacrifice we render is intelligent and deliberate” (Expositor’s, p. 127). This intent distinguishes the living sacrifice of Christians from the sacrifices of animals.
The living sacrifice in Romans is a response to God’s mercy, and it involves the intent of the individual. What else does it mean to be a living sacrifice?
Living sacrifices and the great commandment
Being a living sacrifice is all-encompassing. It’s living by every word of God. It is putting God first.
It can be summarized by what Jesus called the first and great commandment, to “love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37; study this more in our online article “Heart, Soul and Mind: Three Components in Loving God”).
This great commandment—paired with the other summary command, to “love your neighbor as yourself” (verse 39)—guides Christians in a way of life that directs their every action and every thought. It’s a way of life of obeying, serving and sacrificing.
Living sacrifices and the perfect will of God
Consider Paul’s exhortation that we present our bodies as a living sacrifice in light of an important prayer of Jesus. This prayer was only hours before His crucifixion.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, shortly before Jesus was arrested, He was “deeply distressed” (Matthew 26:37). Knowing the manner of death He faced, He asked the Father, “If it is possible, let this cup pass from Me,” but quickly added, “nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will” (verse 39).
Jesus made this request three times with such passion that “His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44).
Yet each time He concluded by yielding to the will of the Father.
When Paul urged the Roman Christians to “present your bodies a living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1) and to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (verse 2), he concluded his statement by explaining that after this transformation they could “prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”
In both cases, sacrifice is connected to the ability and desire to yield to God’s will.
The unity that comes from presenting our bodies a living sacrifice
Romans 12 connects sacrifice, service and unity. After exhorting the Christians in Rome to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2), Paul admonished them not to think too highly of themselves (verse 3). Instead, they were to use their different gifts to serve the Church (verses 4-8).
Though Paul did not use the word unity in this passage, the concept is implied. This is especially true in verse 5: “So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another.” To be one body means to serve God and each other and live in unity.
You were called to present your bodies a living sacrifice
Paul was not the only apostle to understand how crucial sacrifice is for the Christian. Throughout the New Testament, we see references to sacrifice. Sometimes the terminology is a little different, but the idea is there.
For example, Peter reminded servants that they had a responsibility toward their masters. That responsibility did not go away when the masters behaved badly. Christian servants were to treat their masters—good or bad—with respect and dignity (1 Peter 2:18-20).
The sacrifice Jesus made was the rationale for Peter’s instruction. In fact, suffering is part and parcel of the Christian calling, according to Peter: “For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps” (verse 21).
How can you present yourself a living sacrifice?
The Christian calling, though a gift of God, comes at a cost—it requires sacrifice. In a sense, we give up our lives to yield to God’s will, first, and to yield to one another, second. That is why we die a symbolic death at baptism.
This is critical for all of our relationships, whether with God, in our marriages, in our jobs, among our neighbors or in our churches. Some of the sacrifices are large. Some are small. Altogether, they add up to a life completely dedicated to loving God and loving others.
We must work to identify areas of our lives where we need to put to death our wrong habits and ways in order to develop the righteousness of Christ. Examples could include:
- Doggedly striving to overcome an addiction to harmful habits—alcohol, drugs, gaming, etc.
- Working hard to conquer pride and vanity—striving to be humble.
- Controlling the tongue—being more kind, thoughtful and loving in the way we speak. Not gossiping.
- Working to stop lying and become a truthful person.
Remember, a living sacrifice is a response to the mercy God has already shown us. So, it is altogether appropriate that we extend mercy to those around us. It is also a deliberate choice on our part.
Submission to God, of course, must come first. That is part of the first great commandment. Only within that context do we yield to our spouses, coworkers, neighbors and brothers and sisters in Christ.
Why is this so important?
God has created us and called us to become His children, to live in His family throughout eternity. But He will not just automatically do this for everyone. He is looking for people who are fully committed to His way of life. Those who present their lives to Him as living sacrifices are the ones who will be given this wonderful blessing.