What does it mean to be a living sacrifice?

Romans 12:1, "Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship."

A sacrifice is something of value that is given up completely to God as an act of worship. Sacrifices in the Old Testament were normally livestock or birds that were brought by the people to the tabernacle or temple to be slaughtered on the altar by the priests. These blood sacrifices were a picture pointing forward to Christ's ultimate sacrifice on the cross, (Hebrews 9:11-14). Though on certain occasions there were other kinds of sacrifices like the offering of produce (Leviticus 2) even these had to die. They were harvested and burned on the altar or given as a portion for the priests to eat. The idea of our being a living sacrifice is a striking one. It means that we are wholly given to God as an act of worship to Him, not merely as a one-time action like a blood sacrifice, but continuously for the duration of our lives.

What's more is that we cannot do this alone. God does not desire you, individually, to be one living sacrifice while I am another. The passage is clear that what is acceptable worship to God is that we present our bodies (plural) as a living sacrifice (singular).1 The people of God join together to offer up one living sacrifice to God. This is our service of worship. God is pleased with the offering of our unity and love. We honor Him by being united in the gospel as one people. This is the living sacrifice that God desires. Us living in devotion to Him by loving and serving one another in His name. Notice how the rest of the passage flushes this out:

  • 12:3 - Don't think too highly of yourself
  • 12:4;5 - Members of the church are to all be like members of the same human body
  • 12:6,7,8 - Every Christian should use his or her gifts selflessly for the benefit of the rest of the church
  • 12:9 - Love without hypocrisy. Despise evil and hold fast to good.
  • 12:10 - Be devoted to each other in love and give preference to one another over oneself
  • 12:11,12 - Do all of this with diligence as a service to the Lord, rejoicing, praying, and enduring in persecution
  • 12:13 - Give to fellow believers who have need and be hospitable to on another
  • 12:14 - Bless those who persecute you
  • 12:15 - Rejoice with others who are rejoicing and weep with others weeping
  • 12:16 - Be of one mind. Don't be proud. Associate even with the lowly. Don't think of yourself as wise.

The emphatic theme that runs through this passage is our love and devotion to one another. We glorify God in our unity. A living sacrifice is a community of Christians who set aside themselves and prioritize one another in God-honoring love. This is not a squishy, sentimental love that tolerates sin just so we can all get along. Verse 9 is clear, "Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good." Our devotion to one another is not at the expense of holiness. It is, rather, for the purpose of holiness. We encourage, instruct, advise, and when necessary rebuke and correct on another out of loving concern for one another's souls and ultimately as an act of worship to God. We love God by giving a hungry sister food. We also love God by correcting a brother who is falling into sin and firmly but compassionately leading him to repentance. This isn't possible, however, if we all only get together to sit in pews for an hour once a week and then go home. Being a part of the one living sacrifice means giving my whole life to the people of God because I am giving my life together with theirs to God as one offering. In my time, my budget, and my priorities in general, the people of God come before myself. I must know them intimately to know their needs, correct their sins, and to use my gifts to their benefit. For the people of God to be a living sacrifice, we must not be conformed to the self-centered priorities of the world. We must be transformed by the renewing of our minds so that we think of others before ourselves in all things. In doing so, we "prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect, (Romans 12:2)

  • 1. The 1984 NIV incorrectly translates both as plurals. Subsequent updates to the NIV corrected this mistake. The KJV, NASB, ESV, HCSB, NRSV, NKJV, and others all properly reflect the Greek in rendering this as bodies in the plural and living sacrifice in the singular, which is crucial to properly understand the passage.