Fire has always intrigued me. I don’t know when fire began to be intriguing to me, it just always has. Maybe it was my older sister’s fault. I remember one time, I think it was Christmas Eve dinner, when my sisters and I were all very young, our mother got all the nice dishes out and we ate dinner in the dining room. It was very fancy, we had to dress up, mom got out the crystal and candles and all. Well, I remember halfway through dinner my older sister, Jenny, got my attention and I watched in amazed disbelief as she ran her finger through the fire of one of the candles…and whispered to me, “It didn’t hurt.” So, of course I tried it! Not only did I get a big black mark on my finger, I went way to slow through the fire, but I also got an ear full from my parents for doing so. And ever since, it’s been a bit of a family joke with my sisters and I when we sit down at nice occasions to stick our fingers in the candles.
Fire, I think, is supposed to intriguing to us. God not only made fire a regular part of the Israel’s life in the OT, but fire is one of the main images used in Paul’s letter to the Romans to describe what the Christian life is like.
This morning we’re continuing on in our slow trek through these first two verses of Romans 12. Taken as a whole these two verses form the great turn in Paul’s letter to the Romans, where he transitions from the indicative to the imperative, from explanation to application, from doctrine to practice.
Last week we looked at how this great turn begins in the word ‘therefore’ and the phrase ‘by the mercies of God.’ Today we’re lingering over the rest of v1, focusing on the central image of the Christian life given to us here in these verses, a living sacrifice.
Hear God’s Word as we begin. Romans 12:1-2, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
After all the truth, all the glorious reality, and all the grand doctrine given to us in Romans 1-11, Paul then calls us to a certain kind of life saying “…present your bodies as a living sacrifice…” Is this strange to anyone else? The life we’re to live as the followers of Christ is truly a way of life. Why then does Paul refer to it as something that dies? Isn’t that the image of a sacrifice? It is. But doesn’t this make the whole image a kind of oxymoron? Jumbo shrimp, small crowd, deafening silence…living sacrifice. Why is he speaking like this? What’s he up to here? Rather than making a nonsensical statement, Paul is very intentionally here. He’s reaching back to the OT and one of its main images to define what the Christian life looks like. And this makes sense for Paul to do. So often people think the Apostle Paul is just making all this stuff up, as a kind of religious innovator or theological pioneer. Nothing could be further from the truth. Remember all throughout chapters 1-11 he reached back to the OT and made the case that all these doctrines: man’s sinfulness, the power of the gospel, the work of Christ, salvation by faith alone, and more…aren’t new inventions of his, no, rather they come from and flow out of the OT itself. So, to now see Paul reach back into the OT once again to define the Christian life shouldn’t be surprising to us. It not only shows us Paul’s method of thinking, it shows us how important and practical the OT is for the Christian life.
Well, let’s look at this image. A living sacrifice. Half the battle before us here is understand this image Paul is using. So let’s go back. Long ago when God’s people, Israel, were enslaved in Egypt, God, because of His covenant with Abraham, intervened and saved them. After this great Exodus moment God brought Israel out of Egypt into the wilderness, to Mt. Sinai, where He graciously gave them His Law to bring order to their lives. This Law was all encompassing for them. One gracious gift of God in the Law was the sacrificial system, where any Israelite individually and Israel as a nation could deal with their sins through certain ceremonies and rituals. This system is detailed in many places, but the book of Leviticus has an extensive description of it. Generally speaking, an individual or a family would acquire a costly offering, like an unblemished lamb or other animal or something else as costly, they would bring it to the priests, and the priests would then ‘present’ their offering to the Lord by placing it on the altar and burning it. In Israel’s annual life offerings like this were done in many different ways, for many different reasons, at many different times throughout the year. Again, generally speaking, this was how God’s people dealt with their sins. When the offering was presented and was burned up in the fire, the priests would declare that sins had been atoned for, and the people left.
Now, not only was this done when people sinned, God desired and through His Law communicated to His people that sin offerings were to be regularly done when the people gathered together to worship Him. So fiery sacrifice was a regular part of the worship of God’s people. Why? Because God is a holy God, sin cannot be in His holy presence, and so before His people can come into His presence their sin must be dealt with. And because sin abounds in us like, these sacrifices had to keep being offered, again and again.
Of course we don’t do animal sacrifices today, do we? We’ve never done that here at SonRise, and I would venture to guess that none of you have ever seen this done in a Christian worship gathering. Why so? Why don’t we do this anymore? Because all that is contained in the Law of God, including the sacrificial system, is brought to fulfilment in the Lord Jesus. Remember when John the Baptist said when he saw Him from afar? “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” This means Jesus was the faithful priest who made a sacrificial offering to God on the cross. And this means Jesus was the One willingly bringing the costly offering to God on the cross. And it means that Jesus Himself was the costly offering on the cross. The perfect, unblemished, Lamb of God, who died in our place, as our substitute, making such an atonement for sin that it now never needs to be repeated. This is why we don’t do sacrifices today. All the sacrifices of the OT were foreshadows/previews of the greater sacrifice to come, and now, we look back on that sacrifice, we see where the sinless Christ took our sin for us, and…what does it create in those who look to this Christ in faith? It creates worship!
Do you see now something of what Paul is up to here in Romans 12:1? As the animal was presented for sin and put on the altar to be burned before God in fiery sacrifice back then, so too Jesus presented Himself for sinners, offered Himself to God on the cross, and was burned up in the wrath of God. And once a sinner believes and trusts in Jesus, that sinner now presents themselves entirely to God, as living sacrifices. And as these sacrifices were so much of the substance of what worship was for Israel back then, Paul says us being living sacrifices is the substance of what our worship looks like today. This is the general gist of what Paul has in mind here in v1.
But, as with any image used in Bible, dangers abound in misunderstanding it, misinterpreting it, or abusing it. One way many misinterpret this image of our lives as living sacrifices is to take it too literally. Let me explain. Some see this, get the idea of what Paul is talking about in part, totally skip over Jesus’ greater sacrifice on the cross, and think that they’ve got to make a great sacrifice of their own so that God will no longer be angry with them and look on them with favor. So some have read this and made vows of great sacrifice…to live a life of poverty, to be a monk, or to be a missionary, etc. And as well intended as this is, what’s really occurring is that this person is believing that such a great sacrifice will somehow atone for the many sins they’ve done. And yet, can we? Do we have the ability to work hard enough or sacrifice deep enough to make up for our sins? No, we don’t. Only Christ, the perfect sacrifice, can do it, and He has done it once and forever. So, we cannot define the Christian life like this, as if what Romans 12:1 means is that we just need to make great sacrifices for God in order for God to be pleased with us. There’s no gospel in that. There’s no gospel in a message born out of anything you and I ‘do.’ The gospel message is what Jesus has already ‘done.’ And in light of Him already doing the work to save us and bring us back to God, we can truly devote our lives to a grateful and sacrificial obedience.
So, what is all this about, and what does life as a living sacrifice look like? Three answers, all from 12:1.
First, life as a living sacrifice is like death and yet it is truly life. It’s perhaps a no brainer to say the OT sacrifices actually died. When these animals were offered up on the altar, they were consumed in the fire and died. We get that. Yet, God here calls us to be a living sacrifice, as if we’re to be ever dying on the fiery altar yet remain alive and not consumed by the fires. So, perhaps a helpful way to put it is this: to be a living sacrifice is to be fully alive through fiery death. But what this even mean? Well, it really means the same thing as what Jesus spoke of in Mark 8:34, “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.” The way to live according to Jesus is to day by day, moment by moment, take up our cross (an instrument of death), deny ourselves (which is a kind of death), and continually follow Jesus. We’re so tempted to believe that true life, full life, is only found in doing whatever we feel like doing with no one to stop us from doing so, right? Yeah, that’s freedom, doing whatever I so please and desire. Yet, see how Jesus calls us to something far higher and far different? According to Jesus the true and full life is found in dying to self, dying to personal glory and ambition, and dying to whatever pleases us, and devoting ourselves to live according to and in line with what pleases God.
The image of a living sacrifice means we must lay ourselves down on the altar of God each day, each hour, and do life right there in the presence of God. The trouble with us, is that once we’ve laid ourselves down on this altar and begin to do life on it, is that we so often get back up off the altar to go off and do whatever we want. Church, life as a living sacrifice is death and yet it is truly life.
Second, life as a living sacrifice is holy and acceptable. See how Romans 12:1 continues on, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God…” Back in the OT sacrifices the offerings people brought to be burnt up were to be unblemished, spotless, and pure. If anyone brought something blemished or impure it wasn’t accepted. This was to indicate the holiness of God. and the holiness of His worship. In fact, one episode in Leviticus warns us as it shows two priests who died because they made the offerings carelessly and wrongly. So too, the Lord Jesus, as He offered Himself up as a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice on the cross…was Himself pure, holy, sinless, and altogether righteous. This was why His sacrifice was acceptable to God. Now, you and I, when we believe in Jesus we receive the pure and spotless righteous robe of Christ and what do we find? It covers us and fits us perfectly.
So, having been covered with the righteous robe of Christ the lives we now live in this body are to be lived holy and acceptable to God. I wonder, have heard that before? Perhaps you have. Perhaps you think I’m wrong to say it. That Christians, who are saved by God, secure in God, never to be taken away from God, can truly please or displease our heavenly Father by our obedience or disobedience. Yet, it’s all over the Bible. We’ve already seen this in our time in Romans, back in 8:8 we find, “…those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” And it’s other places too. In 1 Cor. 7:32 Paul speaks about how we’re to be anxious about the things of the Lord and how we can please Him. And 1 Thess. 4:1, “Finally, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more.”
The call to us here is this: as a sacrifice was holy and acceptable to God back in the OT, we as living sacrifices today must be holy and by being holy we please our heavenly Father. Anyone remember the vows we make as we become members of SonRise? One of the questions we’re all asked is “Do you now resolve and promise, in humble reliance upon the grace of the Holy Spirit, that you will endeavor to live as becomes followers of Christ?” What becomes the followers of Christ? What perfectly suits Christians? Holiness. Why? Holiness befits the Lord’s house (Psalm 93:5).
Third, life as a living sacrifice is worship. Now see how Romans 12:1 ends, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” We’ve touched on this already, but here it is in full. This kind of life through continual fiery death on the altar of God we live moment by moment is worship. But wait, isn’t worship singing? Isn’t worship what we’re doing here as we gather together? Indeed it is, and it’s lovely! But see here, the beautiful image of the entire Christian life as a life of worship. No longer is worship a thing of mere ceremony or ritual, now it has to do with the heart. No longer is worship a thing that only occurs at a certain place or location, now it has to do with all places. No longer is worship a thing that only occurs at a certain time, now it has to do with every second of everyday. Worship is a way of life for the Christian, that is to be lived, on the fiery altar of God. This worship, as it says here, is spiritual, having to do with the soul and the heart. But the Greek word used here literally means logical or rational. Meaning true worship both inflames the heart and informs the mind…but we’ll discuss this next week, Lord willing, as we begin v2.
For now, see what a grace of God this is! Remember back in Romans 1:25 the issue of worship comes up when Paul is speaking about sin? “…they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator…” That is our sinful bent’s ever increasing passion, to worship anything but the God we were made to worship. Yet here, because of the gospel, and through Jesus Christ, God takes a sinner and remakes the whole of him, places him on the altar, and gives him a heart to worship the true King!
Church as we end be hear the call of what the Christian life truly is.
The Christian life is a living sacrifice, a continual offering up of ourselves to God on His holy altar. It is a kind of death, but it’s also truly life, and it’s the essence of worship.
“The life of a Christian is always costly, for those who are actually following Christ.” (David Platt) What is your Christianity costing you? If it costs you nothing, is it true at all? Far be it from us, to offer to God a sacrifice that costs us nothing.
Church, may you ever burn up in these holy fires. May you find them to be what they are, suitable to your soul. And may you enjoy the pleasure of our great God in this sacrifice.
 Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans – Christian Conduct (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth, 1985), 36.
 Ibid., 38.
 Daniel M. Doriani, Romans – Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R, 2021) 415.
 Douglas Moo, Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2018), 767.