It’s no sacrifice … or is it?

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Steve Kneale writes that we should stop calling faithfulness a sacrifice. He argues that it is not a sacrifice to obey God’s commands and stay faithful to Christ because, the things we are being asked to give up are not good for us, we are being asked to turn our back on sin and idolatry.  He points out that Christ’s burden is easy and light.

I can see where he is coming from.  We can easily slip into language which suggests that the call to follow Christ is a burden, that we are losing out on something by following him.  We do well to avoid sacrifice language if:

  • It causes us to see temptation as attractive, beautiful, pleasurable good.
  • It gives the impression that Christ owes us something.
  • It downgrades or dilutes the joy of following Christ.

I can also see specific examples where sacrifice language is particularly unhelpful.  For example, when given in the context of singleness, it may suggest that the person who doesn’t get married is choosing a less satisfactory life. This would fly in the face of Paul’s insistence that singleness is for that person, a gift.

However, I want to challenge and disagree with Steve. Here’s why.  Scripture invites us to think in terms of sacrifice language when talking about the Christian life.

First, yes, Jesus insists that his yoke and burden are easy and light but that does imply that there is a burden.  His disciples talk in terms of what they have given up to follow him and he doesn’t correct them and say “you haven’t really given anything up.”  He recognises the reality of what they have forsaken and says that they will be repaid 100 times (Mark 10:29-31).  Jesus will call his followers to take up their cross, willing to die for him. That means following in a form of sacrificial death to self.

Second, Paul uses sacrifice language to describe our whole life worship (Romans 12:1). This is not pagan sacrifice in order to appease God, or Catholic penance. The sacrifice does not seek to win God’s love but comes in response to God’s love poured out to us in the grace of the Gospel.

Third, I think there are other hints and examples throughout Scripture. Consider for example David who said “I will not offer to God what cost me nothing.” (2 Samuel 2:24).  This was when he went to buy a plot of land to offer sacrifices and the owner offered to give him the land for free. Paul again gives us an example in 2 Timothy 4:6 when he says:

As for me, my life has already been poured out as an offering to God.

I think that there are three reasons why we might be tempted to avoid sacrifice language.  The first is that we primarily associate sacrifice with atonement.  I don’t think that Steve is doing this but we can think in that way.  We do not need another sacrifice of atonement, Christ has paid it all. However, there are other types of offering and sacrifice through Scripture.

Secondly, I think that we use the word primarily to mean “burden” and that’s what Steve is getting at.  The result is that we measure the value of sacrifice in the level of pain involved.  That’s after all, how we think of having “your cross to bear.”  However, sacrifice is about more than that too.  Sacrifice language is to do with putting to death and Scripture is clear that there is a call on us to put to death sinful desires and to die to self.

Thirdly, we can assume that faithfulness and obedience is only to do with giving up on things that are sinful.  However, again it is more than that.  It’s fascinating that Matt Redman’s song “Blessed be your name” which also draws on the words of Job to say “You give and take away” talks about “when there’s pain in the offering.”  Sometimes, the Christian life involves going through testing and proving. Sometimes, things are taken from us or we are asked to give up things that are good, wholesome and joyful.  There’s pain in the offering when you recognise and accept God’s Word that you must say goodbye to a loved one. 

That’s not to say that the issue of sin is removed from the question of faithfulness and obedience. If I refuse to obey God’s call on my life in a certain area and fail to give something up, then my unfaithful disobedience is sinful because it is idolatrous, even if the thing is not sinful in itself. That’s where it becomes costly, that’s where it becomes sacrificial.

Or to take another perspective, I may use sacrifice to refer to abstaining from sin. However, I am talking about the genuine forsaking of pleasure attached to it, not the sin itself. You see, whilst sin’s pleasures may be hollow and temporary, they are very real and that’s why temptation is real. Further, I may lose an associated pleasure. Saying no to drunkenness may also mean saying no to companionship, music, laughter, if it means saying no to a night out. Or the person who says no to sex outside of marriage, may also be saying no to a genuinely intimate relationship. Temptation may be about offering something “good” but with something bad as a necessary part of the deal.

There is a cost to Christian service when it means a reduce or no pay check. There was cost and sacrifice for those early missionaries who put their lives at risk from sickness and plague, not to mention the physical threat from hostile people. And whilst not every person who chooses singleness is making a sacrifice, sometimes they are, sometimes they are giving up on the real possibility of love and companionship.  Sometimes, it means they will face a lifetime battle with loneliness.

 Jim Eliot said that

“He is no fool, who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot earn.”

I think that’s a healthy attitude but it doesn’t remove the language of sacrifice.  From the perspective of eternity, we might say “It’s no sacrifice.”  However, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a sacrifice now.

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