Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
"PAUL EXHORTS EVERY CHRISTIAN TO SACRIFICE THE SELF TO GOD."
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Psalm 26:4,5 (collection)
Psalm 119:4,7 (profession of faith)
Beloved Congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ!
How shall a Christian live in todayís world? That question is very much on the minds of any and all who are serious about the faith. Weíre in this world, the Bible says, but not of this world. How then can we, contemporary people as we are, be Christians in our society?
Itís a question each one of us needs to ask Ė not in the least the nine young people who today by Godís grace make public profession of the faith. As we live and move and talk in a society that knows less and less about God, how shall we live? Do we answer the question well by simply staying away from the more vile habits of society, making sure we donít frequent the nightclubs or the explicit sexual sites on the internet? Do we answer the question well by guarding our tongues and trying in its time to speak about our Lord and Saviour? In truth, how shall we then live?
Our caring Father has also told us the answer to our pressing question. He moved the apostle Paul to instruct the saints of Rome to sacrifice their whole beings to God. Not the self is essential, or service to the self, but God and God alone. That mindset determines how one lives, yes, guarantees that one lives for God every step one takes every moment of every day. This instruction is as relevant for any who profess the faith at the threshold of the new millennium as it was for the saints of Rome twenty long centuries ago.
I summarise the sermon with this theme:
PAUL EXHORTS EVERY CHRISTIAN TO SACRIFICE THE SELF TO GOD.
Why each Christian must sacrifice the self
Weíve busied ourselves over the past months with the earlier chapters of Paulís letter to the Romans. It cannot have escaped you, congregation, that these earlier chapters were thick with doctrine. Paul has written of the depravity of man, has written too of Godís justice in punishing sin, and Godís mercy in sending His Son. Heís spoken of being justified through the blood of Jesus Christ, of dying with Christ and rising with Him, spoken of election and reprobation too, and the place of Israel in Godís saving work. In truth, material heavy in doctrine.
Now we come to chap 12. And you will surely have noticed, as we read the chapter, how different the thrust of this chapter is compared to previous chapters. The chapter strikes us as so practical, so very hands on; there are commands here, instructions about how we actually need to live. This is material one can easily apply to the nitty-gritty of daily living. And thatís in turn why commentators have felt free to divide Paulís letter to the Romans into two main parts. There is, they say, first the doctrinal part, chaps 1-11, and then the practical part, chaps 12 to the end. And thatíll be true; Paulís letter to the Romans (like others of his letters) falls neatly into these two parts.
Yet - and this point is critical if we are to appreciate Paulís instruction in our chapter- we may not separate this second part of what Paul writes from the first part. For the material of our chapter is based on and built on what he wrote in chaps 1-11. There is a reason why Paul in our text uses the word "therefore". As we consider Paulís exhortation to every Christian to sacrifice the self to God, we need to come to grips with why every Christian must sacrifice the self. The answer lies in the doctrine of the earlier chapters.
That "doctrine of the earlier chapters": we respond to that concept with a bit of a negative feeling, for that doctrine was heavy, tedious. But Paul, brothers and sisters, does not agree. In our text he beseeches the Romans "by the mercies of God" to present their bodies a living sacrifice. With that phrase "by the mercies of God", Paul summarises all that heís said in the previous chapters. All of that material about God sending His Son for a depraved human race, that material about justification and dying with Christ and rising with Him and election, etc, is all, says Paul, "mercies of God". Itís "in view of" those mercies that Paul gives the instruction of our text. To get the flavour of that instruction, then, we need a quick overview of "the mercies of God" as outlined in the previous chapters.
The portion we read from chap 1 had described the depravity of man in no uncertain terms. People purposely ignore God, and so become increasingly darkened in their hearts. As a result people end up "being filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil-mindedness," etc (vss 29ff). Old Testament Scripture, Paul insists, is emphatic that Jews and Gentiles are equally depraved (Rom 3), and so "all the world [is] guilty before God" (3:19). But, Paul continues, despite such radical depravity on manís part, God revealed His righteousness through Jesus Christ. Thatís to say: God set forth His Son "as a propitiation by His blood" (3:25). Whereas we ought to die on account of our sins, the Lord God has poured out His wrath on His Son instead so that sinners might not perish but live forever. This is gospel of free grace that God would have sinners embrace by faith (ch 4). And those sinners who do embrace this gospel by faith "have peace with God" (5:1); there is for them "no condemnation" (8:1).
Yet the thrust of what Paul wrote goes beyond these basics of the gospel. For the apostle added in chap 6 that persons for whom Christ died have a new boss; no longer are they slaves to that old king called Sin, but they are slaves instead to a new Boss, Christ. So: "grace Ö reigns" (5:21). Children of God, Paul argued, died when Christ died and arose when Christ arose (6:1ff), and thatís to say that children of God died to sin so that sin is no longer their boss. Instead, they arose with Christ and so are alive with the risen Christ; He is their Master. So we remain slaves, but not slaves to sin; weíre instead slaves of God. In truth, "grace Ö reigns." Itís this reality that prompted Paul to tell the Romans in 6:12ff not to let sin reign in their mortal body. I quote:
"Do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God" (vs 13).
We say: thatís a tall order. For who can resist sin? Paul knows of that struggle too. Thatís chap 7: "what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do" (vs 15) and "the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice" (vs 19). Yet Paul does not despair in the face of the evil that remains in the children of God, for (as he says in chap 8) the Spirit of God dwells in the child of God (8:1,5,9). And that Spirit will strengthen so that people by nature given to sin are able to live as children of God (8:11).
These are "the mercies of God", congregation, that the apostle has in mind as he sets out to write chap 12. Thatís to say: Paul takes the work of God as described in the previous chapters and now draws out its consequences. Since by the mercies of God, he says to the saints of Rome, you have died to sin and been raised to a new life, since by the mercies of God sin is no longer your Master but Christ Jesus is, since by the mercies of God the Holy Spirit has made His home in you, "I beseech you, therefore, that you present your bodies a living sacrificeÖ." The saints of Rome are to be consistent, are to be what they are. More, the saints of Rome are to work with the work God has done. By Godís doing they died with Christ when Christ died on Good Friday, by Godís doing they arose with Christ when Christ arose on Easter Sunday, by Godís doing they were made temples of the Spirit poured out on Pentecost. Therefore these saints are not to give themselves to sin, but are instead to present their bodies a living sacrifice to God.
Here, my brothers and sisters, is a thought that we need very much to bear in mind. For Sunday by Sunday we as congregation profess our catholic and undoubted Christian faith, and that includes those items of doctrine about Christís death and resurrection, as well as the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Today some young members profess the faith, and thatís to say that these youth believe the doctrine of the Word of God as summarised in the confessions Ė and that includes the death of Jesus Christ and His resurrection, includes too the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. But, beloved, these are not cold doctrines that donít touch our daily lives; Paulís point in our text is that "the mercies of God" described in the first chapters of this letter are exactly the reason why you live a certain way. All that doctrine is so practical for daily living; getting doctrine right, says Paul, is the basis for getting life right.
The flip side is: anyone who has professed the faith but does not live according to the Word of God in effect is denying the very confession he claims to love. Make no mistake: to profess the faith and then to refuse to offer your body to God is high-minded sin. To profess the faith implies by definition a specific life-style.
That brings us directly into our second point: how does the Christian sacrifice the self to God?
How each Christian must sacrifice the self
Paul says: "I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrificeÖ." We need to know that Paul did not pull the word Ďpresentí out of the blue. The word Paul uses here is precisely the word he used in chap 6 when he spoke about the consequences of having died with Christ and being raised with Him. I quoted the passage earlier:
"Do not," said Paul, "present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead" (vs 13).
The point of the term Ďpresentí is that you surrender yourself, that you place yourself at the disposal of another. In this case, the members of the body are not to be placed at the disposal of sin but rather at the disposal of God because the Christian is so tied up with Christ Ė he died with Christ, arose with Christ.
As it is, though, Paul adds a thought to the notion of Ďpresentí. He speaks of presenting a sacrifice. Specifically, itís "your bodies" that are to be presented as sacrifices. That concept of Ďsacrificeí brings us back to the Old Testament. The Lord had commanded His people to make numerous sacrifices, be it as a sin offering or a burnt offering or a thank offering or a peace offering or even a free-will offering (cf Lev 1-6). These offerings all had this in common that the animal presented in sacrifice was killed. That is: the animal lost its freedom, lost its life, was completely given to the Lord to whom it was sacrificed.
This is the notion that Paul sets before the Romans. Those Roman saints for whom Christ died and rose again, yes, those Roman saints who died with Christ and rose with Him, need to present a sacrifice to God. But theyíre not to go to the paddock and collect a sheep; theyíre instead to present their bodies in sacrifice to God. That is: their bodies are the sacrifice thatís given to the Lord. Please note that Paul does not say that our bodies are to be compared to a sacrifice, doesnít say that we our present our bodies as a living sacrifice. No, these bodies are the sacrifice thatís given to the Lord. The sacrificed animal of the Old Testament lost its freedom, its life, its being on the altar. Equally, the saint of Rome, the Christian, looses his freedom, his life, his being. The command to sacrifice the body to God means that the Christian is no longer his own; he gives himself with his whole being to God. Elsewhere Paul says that we are not our own, but were bought with a price (I Cor 6:19f). Well, here he says that this reality has consequences. If youíre not your own but were bought with a price, then be consistent: sacrifice your bodies to God.
But why, we wonder, does Paul speak about sacrificing the "body"? Why doesnít he tell the Romans to present themselves to God? The answer to that question, brothers and sisters, lies in what Paul wrote in chapter 1. Back in that chap, Paul had described the apostasy of heathen people, had described how the natural man refused to glorify God and so "their foolish hearts were darkened" (vs 21). "Therefore," Paul had said in chap 1, "God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonour their bodies among themselves" (vs 24). That dishonouring of the bodies included that they came under the control of "vile passions", including homosexual behaviour. And that in turn led to all kinds of selfish, self-centred attitudes so that these apostates were "filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness." They ended up "full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil-mindedness" and so became "whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, violent, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, unmercifulÖ" (vss 29ff). Hereís a regression from bad to worse, and it begins with serving the creature instead of the blessed Creator Ė and the body is a creature.
Well now, that body Ėand the Romans were so very familiar with the vices of chap 1; who today can tell what evils the saints addressed in this letter had once given themselves to?- that body, says Paul, these saints of Rome need to sacrifice to God. In the past they may well have given themselves to sin, yes, in the past they may have served the self and in their efforts to satisfy their wishes adopted attitudes of covetousness, envy, deceit, evil-mindedness, and hence immoral conduct, violence, strife Ė anything in order to get what the self desires. But now, says Paul to these very Romans, you have died with Christ and been raised with Him, yes, and you have received the Holy Spirit too; so, sacrifice your bodies to God. No longer give the self to attitudes and conduct circling around the self (for thatís being conformed to this world); instead, you are renewed in mind and so need to be transformed, changed so that youíre no longer worldly but godly. Paulís point, then, is not that the Christian sacrifices only his body but not his mind to God; Paulís point is that the Christian sacrifices his entire self to God Ė including body and mind, conduct and attitude. While the Gentiles of Rome served the desires of the body, and so gave themselves to evil conduct to satisfy their desires, the saints of Rome had to sacrifice the body to God.
Sacrifice the body. An animal sacrificed in the Old Testament died. Paul wants the saints of Rome to sacrifice themselves to God. We understand, though, that his intent is not that saints of Rome are to kill themselves. That, in fact, is why Paul says in our text that they need to present themselves "a living sacrifice."
We can imagine what the sacrificed, dead animal of the Old Testament looked like. But what is the sacrificed saint to look like? What is the concrete evidence that the Christian has sacrificed himself to God? The vices of Rom 1 all have in common that these attitudes and actions revolve around the self. To sacrifice the self to God means that oneís actions and attitudes no longer revolve around the self; they revolve instead around God. Thatís the whole thrust of the remainder of chap 12. Vs 3: none is to think of the self more highly than he ought to think. Paulís point is not only that the Christian is not to be uppity; his point is primarily that the Christian is not to be too busy in his mind with the self. For the more you think about yourself Ėbe it in terms of ĎIím pretty goodí or in terms of ĎPoor me, I canít do anything rightí- the more you think about yourself, the less opportunity you have to use your God-given gifts for the benefit of others. Yet benefiting the other members of the body is precisely what the Lord wants us to do. God emptied Himself for our salvation; it is for us equally to empty the self for the sake of the other. As we have gifts, itís for the redeemed to use those gifts for anotherís advantage. Hereís the opposite of the selfishness driving the attitudes and conduct of Rom 1, and thatís what sacrificing the self is all about.
That is equally why Paul in vs 9-21 speaks about unhypocritical love. The mind driven by love for self is "filled with all unrighteouness, sexual immorality, wickedness," said chap 1 (vs 29). But the mind that knows what love really is "abhors what is evil" and "clings to what is good." Instead of being "full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil-mindedness", the mind driven by genuine love is "kindly affectionate to [the] another" and "in honour gives preference to [the] other." Such a person, instead of doing evil in an effort to satisfy his urges, can be "patient in tribulation", can "continue steadfastly in prayer," etc.
And where does this "genuine love" come from? For itís certainly not natural! Paul explains where it comes from in chap 5: "ÖGod demonstrate[d] His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (vs 8). That self-emptying on Godís part for the benefit of the lost: that is true love. Those ransomed as a result of such love from God in Jesus Christ are to love the other equally selflessly. Thatís the love of our chapter, a love that blesses those who persecute you Ė as Jesus did when He asked the Father on the cross to forgive those who crucified Him (Lu 23:34). Thatís the love that doesnít repay evil with more evil, that doesnít seek vengeance either Ė as Jesus did "who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return" (I Pet 2:23). Itís a love that puts the self lastÖ, all in an attempt to seek the well-being of the other. Truly, how different, how radically different is that mind-set from the attitude of the unregenerate of Rom 1!
Here, of course, is also the mirror we need in order to consider ourselves. So many of us have professed the faith years ago. Others of us want to profess the faith today. With that profession of faith we express that we believe the gospel of Jesusí death and resurrection, believe that we died with Him and arose with Him too. Well now, brothers and sisters, do you recognise in yourself the attitude of Rom 1 or of Rom 12? Selfishness or selflessness? Love for self without regard to the other or love for the other without regard for the self? The one is worldliness; the other is Christianity. The one implies youíre still dead in sin; the other that youíre alive to God. The one is conformity to the world; the other is the result of being transformed by the renewal of your mind. What, my brothers and sisters, do you see in yourself?
And please do not think that presenting your bodies a sacrifice to God is a once-off thing. The animal of the Old Testament was sacrificed once, and that was it; the animal was dead, butchered, burnt and so couldnít be sacrificed again. But the verb Paul uses in our text involves an ongoing process. Daily, as long as weíre alive, we need to sacrifice ourselves again and again, need again and again to distance ourselves from the attitude of selfishness characterising the world and again and again adopt for ourselves the attitude of self-emptying that God displayed in giving His Son for vile sinners.
Easy? No, beloved, this sacrificing of self, this denying the urges of the sinful self, does not come automatically. But this is the service, the worship Paul exhorts us to perform day in day out. It requires thought, conscious, deliberate thought: in my specific circumstance, what is Godís will for me? That is Paulís point with the last words of our text: this is "your reasonable service". That is: this service of God requires mental energy, requires that one think through what God would wish in a given circumstance. Itís easy to supply knee-jerk reactions to the circumstances youíre in, and so do what the sinful self desires. But God has renewed the mind, and so itís for the child of God to consider Godís will, do Godís will, and so supply evidence to one and all that Godís will is good and acceptable and perfect (vs 2).
Here, then, is need for training, for exercise, for experience. Thereís need to know the will of God, to know the Bible back to front. And thereís need to know this life, to know the times in which we live. Then and then only can one answer rightly that pressing question: what does God want of me? Then and then only can one determine what attitude God would He have me display in my circumstance. Then and then only shall I know how I can use my gifts in this situation for the benefit of others, how I can show to others the love that God showed me in Jesus Christ. Christian living is not a matter of doing what you feel is right; Christian living is matter of being consciously busy with the revelation of God in His Word. By being busy with that Word, we become increasingly aware of how, concretely, God would have me to sacrifice my urges, my feelings, my being, my self to God.
Yes, brothers and sisters, that takes study, prayer, exercise. And always it takes that we fix our eye on the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ Ė as Paul has explained it in the detailed doctrinal chapters of Rom 1-11. You see: getting doctrine right is the key to getting life right Ė also in the new millennium. Amen.