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Spiritual Worship

At first glance, the term “living sacrifice” seems like an oxymoron. To sacrifice means to surrender, to renounce, to “permit injury or disadvantage to for the sake of something else.” In biblical terms we generally think of a sacrifice as something that is dead—perhaps a bull or a sheep or a pair of pigeons. But in Romans 12, Paul envisions a new kind of sacrifice that models not death, but rejuvenation.

I appeal to you… 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 (v. 2).

Paul then explains how to live this forward by immediately entreating his readers “not to think of [themselves] more highly than [they] ought… but to think with sober judgment” (v. 3).

We live in a culture where self-awareness is prized and cultivated, but too often our self-knowledge can become self-flattery, shallow and unsupported by concrete activity that nourishes and corrects, as needed, whatever it is we’ve learned about ourselves during times of reflection. Surely Paul here expects that our “sober judgment” will lead to sober living. How do we live wisely and constructively from the truths we know about ourselves?

No list can be exhaustive, but I see at least two obvious ways presented in chapter 12. First, Paul asks us to develop a spiritual awareness that we are not alone, but that we exist in community with other believers: “For as in one body we have many members… so we, though many, are one body in Christ…” (vv. 4, 5). We need each other for the unique contributions each can make, and we are encouraged to share (or “sacrifice”) our gifts with our neighbors in Christ.

Spirit-filled “sober judgment” of ourselves enables us to discern what it is we have to give and how we should give it, instead of allowing ourselves to be tossed back and forth by the adulations or insults of others. A dead sacrifice burns out, becomes a martyr on the altar of busyness, despair or pride. A living sacrifice rejuvenates itself by setting boundaries and by acting on no more or less than the truth it knows about itself: “be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that … you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Verse 9 presents a second way to live well from what we know of ourselves: “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.” In other words, be more than just simply aware of what good and evil you are attracted by. Let the power of love cause you to move away from your evil and to enter more deeply into Christ’s goodness.

The call to live hard simply oozes from verses 9-21: “Outdo one another in showing honor” (v. 10). “Be fervent in spirit” (v. 11). “Be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” (v. 12). “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (v. 15). When love is genuine in these acts, it is evidence that we are living from a true and humble judgment of ourselves because all inward temptation toward self-preservation or self-destruction is silenced and the purity of living for life’s sake takes over. A dead sacrifice can muster no passion like this. Only a living sacrifice can “overcome evil with good” (v. 21).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose sacrificial living also led him to a sacrificial death, understood the profound importance of living from a “sober judgment” of oneself. He wrote,

When a man really gives up trying to make something out of himself—a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called clerical somebody), a righteous or unrighteous man… when in the fullness of tasks, questions, success or ill-hap, experiences and perplexities, a man throws himself into the arms of God… then he wakes with Christ in Gethsemane. That is faith, that is metanoia and it is thus that he becomes a man and Christian. How can a man wax arrogant if in a this-sided life he shares in the suffering of God? [Quoted in G. Leibholz, “Memoir”, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Touchstone, 1995), p. 24]

We begin to be living sacrifices when we stop trying to be other than what we are, and when we embrace Jesus Christ, the true Living Sacrifice. As we then boldly confront everything that is not of God, or that is not “genuine love” (selfishness in our own hearts, apathy in the world), we re-discover God’s own redemptive suffering and share in Christ’s resurrection.

We then also become living sacrifices who embody gospel paradox: We believe even when we doubt. We keep speaking even when the masses are silent to injustice. We bless those who curse us (v. 14). We live peaceably on the crossroads of violence (vs. 18, 19). On a practical level, we do things like follow a new vocational path that burns in our hearts even when others think it is strange. When acting on behalf of those for whom we are responsible, we have the courage to choose the best of a lot of bad options rather than to do nothing. We give of ourselves with passion, fully, without fumbling over the cost.

Paul assures us that this kind of living is in fact our “spiritual worship” (v.1). What we know about ourselves is of little anxiety to God. But that we know, and that “knowing” propels us forward into new, whole-hearted loving — this is what honors Christ.

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