Sacrifice and the Christian Life

 

Originally Published in Pulpit Helps, July 2008.

The Christian life has always included struggles against sin. Even the Apostle Paul wrestled with this (Rom. 7:15). We understand that our sin natures are not completely cast aside until we die or the Lord returns, and thus we are still capable of disobedience. This does not absolve us of the responsibility to do God's will, however, and certainly does not preclude God from delivering us from our sins.

In 1 Peter 4:1-2, Peter puts an interesting spin on our fight against the sin nature: "Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God." Peter's point appears to be that when we take on the sufferings of Christ (contextually, persecution for the faith), we cease from sin precisely because suffering sharpens our focus-the things of the world fade quickly under such circumstances.

The larger themes of Peter's letter (indeed, of the New Testament) are that suffering comes to Christians for the greater glory of God, and that it usually takes two forms-to wake us from our selfish desires and bring us to God's will (as C. S. Lewis said, "Pain is God's megaphone to rouse a deaf world."), or as proof that we are indeed following the Lord (1 Pet. 4:12-19). Peter's goal in telling of the unavoidability of suffering is to motivate us to living sacrificially for Christ.

The concept of a sacrificial life that was so central to the teaching of Christ and the apostles is severely lacking in the Western church today. We are not called to be blessed, to live victoriously, or to focus on inward spirituality. Rather we are called to take up the cross (Luke 9:23, Matt. 16:24), to offer ourselves as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1-2), and to allow Christ to determine our actions (Phil. 2:5). Simply put, if our Lord and Savior would give His own life for us, why would we not give our all for Him? As Bonhoeffer put it, "When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die."

What does sacrifice mean? In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word zebach (literally "slaughter") is translated as "sacrifice." This is clearly rooted in the Jewish system of animal sacrifice for atonement, and speaks of finality (something sacrificed cannot be reclaimed). This same word is also used figuratively, as in Psalm 51:16-17: "For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; You are not pleased with burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise." It is clear, then, that God's desire is for a life laid down with no reservations and devoted completely to Him.

In the New Testament, the Greek word for sacrifice is thusia, which has connotations of complete incineration (also, obviously, implying finality). This word is used by Christ when He speaks of His own sacrifice, and throughout the Epistles to mean that which we offer freely to God. Such sacrifices can take many forms. They can range from physical gifts to the ministry (Phil. 4:18), expressions of gratitude through worship (giving up the idea that we provide for ourselves, as in Heb. 13:15), the work we do in the Spirit (1 Pet. 2:5), or the forsaking of the way of the world to be like Christ (Eph. 5:2), to martyrdom.

Therefore, through the Bible, we see sacrifice commanded by God as a reminder of guilt and a foreshadowing of His ultimate sacrifice at the cross. By the time of Christ, sacrifice was nothing more than a hollow ceremony-what God really wanted (and, for that matter, always had desired) was submission and loyalty. After Christ, sacrifice takes on the connotation of putting your life aside to let Christ live His life through you.

Spiritual disciplines such as fasting, giving, serving, etc., are all tied to the central idea of sacrifice. They bring some level of discomfort to our physical lives and remove our focus from our own desires to strengthen and regenerate our spiritual lives.

God's strength is perfected in our weakness. This will always be the case, whether we actively embrace weakness or He brings us to our knees through suffering. To follow Christ has always meant sacrifice-the disciples left their nets (and their livelihoods), forsaking all to be with Him. Jesus demanded of the rich young ruler that he sever his soul from his possessions.

Many believers throughout history have understood and embraced this truth, but the idea that the Christian life is not about us or our comfort is largely lost on today's church. We have to stop and examine the myriad ways in which the culture around us has permeated and corrupted our understanding of the faith. The process is so subtle and so complete that we may not even be aware of it.

The way out of our humanistic, materialistic, hedonistic mire is through the sacrifice and suffering that Christ calls us to. That, the Scriptures repeatedly tell us, is how God purifies us and prepares us to do His will.

Justin Lonas is editor of Disciple Magazine for AMG International in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

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