Living, Holy, and Acceptable Unto God
Written by Pastor Jim Law
The mercies of God found in the Lord Jesus Christ call for the songs of loudest praise, and they also flow from a heart of faith. Early in his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul stated that through the preaching of the gospel the purpose of his ministry was “to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations (Romans 1:5).” This obedience of faith is described in Romans 12 as believers are called to present themselves to God as living sacrifices. This language brings us back to the old covenant sacrificial system, however Paul is challenging with a new picture, not of livestock, but of ourselves. The sacrifice we are to offer to our Savior and King is to be a living, holy, and acceptable sacrifice.
What does this mean? What does such a life look like? For this post, I want to take a look at these descriptors Paul uses to call believers to give themselves to God completely. Good English translations of the Bible strive for accuracy to the original languages along with readability. For example, the English Standard Version (ESV) provides the following translation, “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship (Romans 12:1b).” However, while reading smoothly, this gives the impression that “living sacrifice” is distanced from the adjectives “holy” and “acceptable” when all three actually describe the sacrifice in question. In other words, the text calls us to present our bodies as a living, holy, and acceptable sacrifice.
A Living Sacrifice
Under the old covenant sacrificial system, the worshiper was required to present offerings as an expression of personal commitment and repentance. The burnt offerings described in Leviticus could be a bull (1:3-5), a sheep (1:10) or a bird (1:14). The offering was to be without blemish (1:3). Under the guidance of the priest, the worshiper would present the animal, place his hand upon it, and then slay it on the altar (3-5,11). Great care was given to the arrangement of the pieces on the altar (vv. 6-9, 12, 13) and the offering was consumed by fire as “a pleasing aroma” to the Lord. This was God’s prescribed way under the Mosaic Law, and it provided a picture of atonement through the shedding of blood.
When Paul speaks of a “living sacrifice” some commentators believe Paul is providing a contrast between the Levitical sacrifices of dead animals, with the living sacrifices of the believer’s life. However, even the old covenant sacrifices were alive until the moment of the offering. For this reason, it seems best to see the word “living” as a reference to the spiritual life that Christ has brought to the believer in salvation. Thomas Schreiner explains that “the word ‘living’ denotes the spiritual state of believers. They are now ‘alive to God in Christ Jesus’ (Romans 6:11, 13; 8:13). It is precisely those who are alive in Christ who are called to give their lives to him as a sacrifice.” (Schreiner, T. R. (1998). Romans (Vol. 6, p. 644). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.)
This understanding seems to flow with the message of Romans. To be in Christ is to be alive to God. Paul weaves the themes of mercy and life elsewhere in his writing. In Ephesians 2:4-5, he offers this powerful declaration of the life-giving power of salvation, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved (Ephesians 2:4-5).” This mercy and life that has been given to those who were once dead in their trespasses and sins are now alive by God’s grace for the purpose of good works (Ephesians 2:8-10). To be a living sacrifice means that, moment-by-moment, the believer’s life is to be given to God through a life of obedience and surrender. It is a living sacrifice to him who loved us and gave himself for us.
A Holy Sacrifice
We mentioned above that the sacrifices under Moses were to be without blemish, without mark or defect. This standard was to represent the heart of a true worshiper in bringing their best to the Lord, and it was also to show the pursuit of holiness in their life. To be holy is to be set apart for God’s purposes, and it necessarily means a separation from sin to a life of humble obedience to Christ.
At the end of the old covenant era, Malachi preached against the blemished offerings of God’s people. With strong sarcasm, he rebukes the flawed sacrifices offered on the altar of worship, “When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not evil? Present that to your governor; will he accept you or show you favor? says the LORD of hosts (Malachi 1:8).” The blind and maimed animals offered to the Lord in Malachi’s day were indicators of the wayward hearts of God’s people. In essence, Malachi was saying, “You give to the Lord what you would never give to your governor, or anyone else for that matter. That’s pathetic, and worse, it’s evil.”
Holiness is a key biblical theme for those serious about living for God’s glory. In Leviticus 19, a chapter containing the “Holiness Code,” is a section in which the Lord provides specific commitments for his covenant people. The chapter begins with this directive to Moses, “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy (19:1-2).” This command is repeated in the New Testament as a charge to the church to be imitators of God’s holiness (I Peter 1:16), and to honor Christ in our hearts as holy (I Peter 3:15). The writer of Hebrews also emphasized that the pursuit of holiness was not a “take-it-or-leave-it” proposition. No, listen to the intensity of what he says, “strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14).” Holiness is something we should strive for, and for good reason, because without holiness we have no assurance of ever seeing the Lord.
With so much at stake in the pursuit of holiness, why is it that we are often hesitant to talk about it? When is the last time a fellow believer asked you, “How is your pursuit of holiness going?” It has probably been a while, if ever. Why is this a topic that often comes across as boring, undesirable, irrelevant, or suffocating? Rankin Wilbourne diagnoses the problem well in his book Union with Christ. Wilbourne refers to holiness as “The Big Broccoli in the Sky,” and he quips, “Holiness is like broccoli for many of us. We know we are supposed to want it, but we don’t, not really. And we might even think the good news is that we no longer need to pursue it.”
What a contrast when we read passages like Exodus 15:11 where Israel is celebrating God’s deliverance through the parting of the Red Sea, “Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” Holiness is described as beautiful in Psalm 29:2, and the holy hill of the Lord is the place we should long to dwell according to Psalm 15:1.
Wilbourne challenged the prevailing neglect of holiness among God’s people when he wrote, “Nothing could be more clear from an honest reading of the Bible that holiness is a major part of God’s plan for His people, to be holy as our God is holy, to be imitators of God as dear children.” Or as J. I. Packer wrote, “Holiness is the goal of our redemption,” and it should describe the sacrifice of our lives before God.
An Acceptable Sacrifice
The sacrifices of the old covenant were said to be “a soothing aroma to the Lord (Leviticus 1:9).” This described a pleasing, sweet aroma, and because the sacrifice was offered in faith and in obedience, it was well-pleasing to God. I think this is an important truth to internalize. By God’s grace, we can live lives that are well-pleasing, acceptable to him. The New Testament gives many examples of such a life before God, beginning with Jesus, who always did that which pleased His Father. What a statement from heaven on the day Jesus was baptism! “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased (Matthew 3:8).”
When we walk in love, we model the example of our Savior who “loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (Ephesians 5:2).” When we demonstrate Christ’s love in this world, it is a pleasing sacrifice in the courts of heaven. When we give sacrificially to the needs of others, as the Philippians did to support Paul’s ministry, he described their gift as “a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.” These expressions of faithful service for the glory of God give us a picture of life on the altar that Paul is describing in Romans 12.
In the last letter, Paul reflected on his journey with the Lord and described it as an offering being poured out, “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing (2 Timothy 4:6-8).” The Christian life is to be lived with an aim to please our gracious God. Our motivation for doing so is because of his great mercy extended to us. You see, life on the altar is a daily walk in which we aim to please him (2 Corinthians 5:9). Our efforts in this life are a continual quest of trying “to discern what is pleasing to the Lord (Ephesians 5:10).” This does not grow a dull story, but on the contrary, it is a life of abundant joy that comes from a God who rewards those who seek him (Hebrews 11:5-6).