The Pauline Paradox of a “Living Sacrifice” (or, ‘Why God Wants You to Simply Come Alive’)

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August 30, 2014 by jmw

In Romans 12:1, Paul exhorts his brothers and sisters to offer their bodies as a living sacrifice to God. This is an odd phrase. It is easy for us to read right past this because we are not steeped in the same kind of culture as Paul: the culture of sacrifice. Most of us when we hear the word sacrifice are not thinking about systems of religious ritual, but rather the small acts of kindness that we might do for our neighbour, e.g. “John sacrificed his concert tickets so that we could stay home together,” that sort of thing. But this is not the way that Paul used the word sacrifice and I want to take a moment to explore what he might have meant.

This is an odd phrase: living sacrifice. In fact, this is the only time that the phrase occurs in the entire Bible, which gives us a clue that maybe Paul is doing something intentional and interesting. The phrase “living sacrifice” would have been a peculiar phrase for Paul’s audience. Whether Jewish or Roman, Paul’s audience was familiar with the norms of the sacrificial system; and that system required the same thing for all sacrifices: that they be dead. The word “sacrifice” implied dead sacrifice. Therefore, the notion of a living sacrifice was not simply odd, it was an oxymoron. It is a paradoxical kind of phrase; kind of like being “enslaved to freedom” or “dying to death.”

But Paul’s point here is not just to be clever. Paul is drawing an incredibly important contrast between death and life in order to explain the Gospel and our response to it.

Paul’s invitation to become a living sacrifice is an invitation to leave behind the old system of offering dead sacrifices. That system, in its most basic sense, was a system of offerings that could effectively stand in place for another thing with the purpose of bringing about some kind of reconciliation, acceptance or inclusion to the one who offered it. The most significant of dead sacrifices were those that offered restitution for wrongdoing and guilt by shifting the blame onto the offering. The basic idea of the system of dead sacrifice is that the human person needs to do something in order to bring about the desired outcome of the offering.

This method for relinquishing guilt and achieving reconciliation was both incredibly effective and incredibly temporary. Because conflict and shame are so much part of our human nature, one needed to sacrifice over and over in order to relinquish guilt, re-establish order, or regain the sense that one is good and acceptable. Put simply, this is how humans maintained right relationship with the god(s). This is what made sacrificial systems so incredibly compelling throughout human history. It wasn’t that uncivilized humans were bloodthirsty animal killers (because we’re so different today!) but that these systems served a function in the ordering of human society. This world of sacrifice was Paul’s world.

Now, it’s quite easy to scoff at such antiquated behavior and convince ourselves that we no longer live in such primitive ways, but I’m reluctant to let ourselves off the hook so easily. I remind you that sacrificial systems, as complex as they can be, were meant to achieve one basic goal: to make people feel better about themselves, whether that meant personally or collectively. And, as evolved and intelligent as we think we might be today, I’m convinced that this goal is still our most basic human need. One needs only to take a good look around to notice that just about all of our behavior strives to fulfill this basic need to feel good about ourselves, to feel like our existence matters, or to put it another way: to feel alive.

But the problem with systems of dead sacrifice is that they offer only temporary fixes and short-lived resolution. Even worse, dead sacrifices demand a seemingly endless effort to do something in order to achieve acceptance. A system of dead sacrifice not only requires us to do something, it requires us to do the correct thing, to offer the right sacrifice or know the right answer or think the right thought, etc. because this is how we become acceptable, this is how we are made whole, this is how we find our place in society, this is how we come alive. 

Perhaps the most interesting phenomenon of these systems is that we may say we believe in the god to whom we are offering sacrifice, but the truth is that we believe more in the sacrificial system itself and our ability to work the system.

But Paul says, “Therefore, I urge you, in light of God’s mercies, offer your bodies as living sacrifices…” This phrase, “living sacrifice,” is a paradox. It is like going to a lender at a bank and saying, “I invite you to offer free loans.” Not an “interest-free loan,” but a free loan. The adjective “free” totally revolutionizes the concept of the word “loan.” No longer can the word “loan” imply the payback of money, for it is free.  It’s an oxymoron. It’s a paradox. 

In the same way, Paul revolutionizes the concept of sacrifice. He says, “Offer your embodied existence (Greek: soma) as a living sacrifice…” Again, I remind you that sacrifice was not just about being “religious,” it was how a person established her identity, her selfhood, and her belonging to a particular people group. This is what Paul is revolutionizing. It’s like Paul is saying, “You know all the things you do with sacrifices in order to achieve social order and maintain relationship with God? Well, I’m telling you to forget about all that and just offer your living self to God as an act of worship.” 

He is saying that Gospel of Jesus makes it possible to live without sacrifice altogether. The only sacrifice needed is to live as if the Gospel were true. This is the only “logical” thing to do, which is why Paul uses the Greek word logikain (lit. “logical” or “reasonable”).

Unlike the offering of dead sacrifices, this offering is not a conditional offering. It is not the initial move in a tit-for-tat transaction, as if we needed to ask God to respond to our offering. This offering is a response to God. That is why Paul begins all of this with “Therefore” – that word points back to everything Paul has said about God’s love for humankind revealed in the Christ Event (ch.1-11). God is the initial mover here, not us. “Therefore, offer your bodies as a living sacrifice…” A living sacrifice is really no sacrifice at all; it’s simply a response, or, as Paul puts it, an “act of worship.”

How fascinating, then, that “[t]he earliest Christian groups in the cities of the diaspora… must have stood out as strangely distinctive by the fact that they practiced no sacrificial ritual, named no one as priest, and looked to no temple like that at Jerusalem. In other words, unusually their use of sacrificial imagery implies a replacement of ritual sacrifice and indicates an assumption that the death of Jesus had been a final sacrifice to end all sacrifices…” (World Bible Commentary, 710)

This is the revolution of the Gospel. The cross totally interrupts our human propensity to create systems of dead sacrifice in order to feel alive; systems where we can prove our worth, justify ourselves and assert our belonging to acceptable social groups. Those systems lead to death as they require endless offerings of dead sacrifice. The Gospel proclaims that the only sacred sacrifice is a living sacrifice, that is, a human being fully alive in response to what God has done in Christ.



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