“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1).

What is the heart and soul of Christian ethics?[1]

As those who are well-schooled in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, we might immediately respond, “the Ten Commandments.” The Ten Commandments was spoken by the voice of God from Mount Sinai, engraved by the finger of God upon the stone tables, and written by the Spirit of God upon the hearts of his people! Why should we look further? Because the Bible compels us to look further.

If not the Ten Commandments, then must it not be the two greatest commandments? “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind,” and “thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matt. 22:37, 39). No less an authority than our Lord Jesus Christ himself has declared that all of the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments (Matt. 22:40). Need we go further? The Bible compels us to go further still.

It is a curious fact that the New Testament epistles do not quote the greatest commandment. Never in the epistles, never in the wealth of ethical instruction that we find there, do we find the command to love God. Were the apostles forgetting something? No, when the Bible leads us into the inner sanctum of Christian ethics, into the heart of hearts, we find something there even more profound than the command to love God.

In seeking for this heart of hearts, we can do no better than to examine Paul’s epistle to the Romans. Here is Paul’s fullest and most systematic exposition of his gospel, of which Calvin justly remarks: “when anyone gains a knowledge of this Epistle, he has an entrance opened to him to all the most hidden treasures of Scripture.”[2]

In seeking for the heart of the ethical teaching of Romans, we can do no better than to turn to Romans 12:1. The first verse of the twelfth chapter of Romans is the turning point of the epistle. Paul has brought his doctrinal teaching to a climax at the end of chapter eleven, concluding with the marvelous doxology, so full of reverence and awe at the mystery of God’s eternal purpose (Rom. 11:33–36). Now with a brief “therefore” Paul turns to exhortation.

Let us not rush over this “therefore” too quickly. This little conjunction is remarkable. It stubbornly contradicts modern ethical philosophy. It is well-nigh an axiom of modern philosophical ethics that the indicative does not imply the imperative, that is to say, no account of what is can imply what ought to be. With a single word, the Spirit of God speaking through Paul contradicts this error. For eleven chapters, he has been expounding to us what is: what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. With a single word he tells us that these great indicatives imply the imperative.

Such is the case with the whole structure of biblical ethics. What we must do follows from what God has done for us. Remove “therefore,” and you completely alter the teaching of the Bible.

There is a sense in which this single word begins to answer the question that I have posed to you at the outset. The heart and soul of biblical ethics cannot be found in command alone. The imperative cannot be detached from the indicative. You cannot do without “therefore.”

That this is not merely a question of form or grammar becomes evident immediately upon examining the clause in which “therefore” appears. “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God.” The earnest entreaty that the Spirit makes to the Romans comes not with the thunder of Sinai, not with the threat of wrath, but with the blessing of grace. The verb that he uses, παρακαλέω (parakaleō), is a warm word, which is elsewhere translated encourage or comfort, and which forms the root from which we get one of the names for the Holy Spirit, παράκλητος (John 14:26) (parakletos), helper or comforter.

To this tender, appealing verb, he adds the phrase “by the mercies of God.” He is not calling us before the bar of God’s outraged justice but inviting us to the Mercy-Seat. Here God does not threaten us with death if we dare approach too near to the Holy Mount. Rather, he sweetly draws us with cords of love, divine love that expresses itself to sinners as mercy.

A singular mercy would be quite enough for poor sinners such as we are. But it is mercies, plural. There is a divine fullness in this plural, “mercies.” It is mercy to which we respond, and it is mercy by which we respond.

There is something deeply instructive in Paul’s gentle appeal. The opening words of Christian ethics should always reflect this gentleness, for the opening words of Christian ethics always follow the Word of God’s mighty acts on our behalf. The people of God are no longer to be subjected to the deadly threats of the broken covenant of works. Dear fathers and brothers, as you address the flock of God that is your charge, be mindful of this! Draw them with mercy!

Now to the heart of the matter. What is it that God so sweetly draws us to do? To present our bodies a living sacrifice.

The sacrificial language has often sent commentators to the Old Testament. It seems that Paul is alluding to the Old Testament sacrificial system. Some find an allusion to the fact that no dead animal could be offered to God; hence the “living” sacrifice means that which is brought to the altar alive and there slaughtered before God. Others find contrast with the Old Testament: whereas the Old Testament sacrificial animals were slain as they were offered, Paul describes a sacrifice in which the victim continues to live.

Both insights are part of the richness of the text, but they fall short of the mark. The whole sacrificial action that Paul commends to us should be kept in view: “present your bodies a living sacrifice.” I ask you: Which of the sons of Aaron ever offered his own body in sacrifice? What Israelite ever came to the altar prepared to offer his own body? No, it is not the Old Testament priesthood of which Paul speaks.

But there is a priest who has offered his own body in sacrifice. There is only one priest who has made such an offering: none other than our Lord Jesus Christ. It is his sacrifice that the Holy Spirit wishes us to see as the very pattern of our own duty.

Paul has given us other clues that this is his meaning. What he here commands is based on what he declares in chapter 6: “we have been crucified with Christ.” (By the way, our own beloved John Murray makes this connection.[3]) Paul tells us in chapter six that we have been crucified with Christ. Here he commands us to offer our bodies in sacrifice. We have indicative followed by imperative, so characteristic of Paul’s theology. We have what is by divine grace being followed by what we ought to do.

But it is not merely a matter of sequence. It is not merely that command follows doctrine. And it is not merely logical implication. It is not merely that the word “therefore” stands between doctrine and ethics, as vital as that conjunction is.

It is rather a matter of vital union between doctrine and practice. Or to speak more biblically, it is a matter of union with Christ. The Spirit wishes us to see our lives as so united with Christ in his death and resurrection that we reproduce the pattern of that death and resurrection in our lives.

For it is the pattern of death and resurrection that gives us the phrase “living sacrifice.” “Living” means resurrected. You will say to me: “How can this be? How can that which is resurrected be offered in sacrifice?” It is possible in the mystical union with the crucified and risen Lord.

This is not the only place where Paul inverts the order of death and resurrection. In Philippians 3:10–11, Paul prays that he “may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” Notice that the power of the resurrection precedes the conformity to Christ’s death. Or to speak more fully, it is precisely the power of the resurrection in Paul that will make it possible for him to participate in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings and be conformed to his death.

For us, then, it is not a question of how resurrection can precede sacrifice. Oh, no! The question is all the other way around! How can we, poor sinners that we are, offer any sacrifice to God unless we are empowered by the resurrection? The sequence of death and resurrection in the experience of Christ has become simultaneous in our experience. We offer our bodies in the spirit and power of the resurrection.

You see that we have come beyond mere metaphor. Let us be clear upon that point. If Paul were dealing in metaphor, he would simply be saying that there ought to be something in our experience that is like something in Christ’s experience, or like something in the experience of the Old Testament priests as they offered their sacrifices. Sadly, it seems that this is how most of Paul’s interpreters take Romans 12:1.

But if you will allow the Spirit of God to be his own interpreter, you will find him using the language of union with Christ, not merely likeness to Christ. In Romans 6, you will find the phrase “the likeness of his death” only once (v. 5), but repeatedly you find the language of union, for example: “crucified with him” (v. 6), “live with him” (verse 8), “baptized into his death” (v. 2). Even verse 5, which speaks of likeness, says, “we have been united together in the likeness of his death.” The language of union predominates.

Why is this important? I ask you: Do you think that you can take one step in the Christian life apart from union with Christ, apart from the power of his death and resurrection? Do you think that the greatest act of sacrifice that you can ever make, considered in itself, could bear comparison to the sacrifice of Christ? No, to begin to think of our sacrifice apart from union with Christ’s sacrifice is to begin to transform biblical sanctification into humanistic moralism.

What then is the heart and soul of Christian ethics? The death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. If this sounds strange to our ears, perhaps it is because we are too accustomed to thinking of Christ’s death and resurrection exclusively in a substitutionary way. That is to say, we think of Christ dying so that we might not die, and his rising as that which secures the efficacy of this substitution.

But the Bible presents the death and resurrection of Christ not only as that which takes place on our behalf but also that which represents our union with these events. Christ’s death is not only for us but also in us. We are united to him in his death and resurrection. The New Testament consistently urges this consideration upon us—that Christ’s humbling himself to the point of death is the pattern for our life. A classic example is Philippians 2, which speaks of Christ’s being in the form of God and yet humbling himself to the point of death, even death on the cross. Paul introduces that teaching with “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God …” (Phil. 2:5–6).

The ethical side of the cross is present from the moment that Jesus begins to teach his disciples about it. You will remember the great scene at Caesarea Philippi, when Jesus leads his disciples, through Peter as spokesman, to acknowledge him as the Christ. Immediately thereafter, as Matthew 16:21 says, “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” And what is the sequel? Peter begins to rebuke Jesus, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord; this shall never happen to you!” (v. 22).

Do you think that this was a case of misguided zeal and concern for Jesus’s honor and wellbeing? No, Peter is concerned for something much closer to his own skin! He knows, perhaps better than we do, that the disciple is not above his master (Matt. 10:24–25). If a cross awaits his master, surely a cross awaits him too. We may read Peter’s rebuke much more personally: “Far be it from me, Lord; this shall not happen to me! I’m looking for a crown, not a cross!”

You think I do Peter a disservice? Immediately after Jesus rebukes Peter, we find this in Matthew 16:24: “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.’” Jesus has read what was in Peter’s heart, and here is the teaching that he so much dreaded: there is a cross for you too, Peter, and for each of my disciples.

Dear fathers and brothers, you cannot rightly preach the cross without both the redemptive side and the ethical side. Conversely, when you do preach the cross, you are always in reality not only teaching the people their hope of redemption but also their pattern of life. The cross is full of ethical instruction unless we take pains to suppress it.

But lest this seem to cast a morbid pall over the Christian life, let me remind you of something. Notice the last thing on Jesus’s lips in Matthew 16:21 just before Peter begins to rebuke Him: “and on the third day be raised.” It is as if Peter never heard that last phrase! Peter is missing more than just the cross when he rebukes Jesus. He is missing the resurrection!

Yes, people of God, there is a cross for you to bear, but there is also a resurrection. And if you will but see it, the power of that resurrection is at work even in your bearing of the cross.

Now let us return to Romans 12:1. If indeed the heart and soul of Christian ethics is the cross and resurrection of Christ, what implications does this have for the way we are to live? The Spirit of God does not leave us in the dark!

First consider the nature of the sacrifice that Paul urges us to make. Clearly, a sacrifice implies that we must offer something. We are to offer our bodies. In conformity to Christ’s offering, this means the offering of our lives.

It is conceivable that what Paul is saying is that we are to give up the fleshly lusts of our bodies, to crucify our old nature, to put to death what is earthly in us. You will recognize in these phrases the very language of Paul in other epistles: Colossians 3:5 and Galatians 5:24 are examples. As Christ became sin for us and so was put to death as our sin, so also we are conformed to the cross by the putting to death of sin in us.

As true as this is, however, it is not what Paul has specifically in view in Romans 12:1. Here in Romans 12:1, Paul describes the living sacrifice as “holy, and acceptable to God.” He is focusing on the fact that Jesus was the blameless, unblemished sacrifice. He is saying that we too, as those who have been made blameless and unblemished in Christ, are to offer our justified and sanctified selves as a sacrifice pleasing to God.

I trust that you see that Paul is thus drawing you to an infinitely higher plane! What you are to offer up in sacrifice is not that which is worthy of death. Rather, what you are to offer up is precisely that which is now worthy of life! You are to offer up what is good in you, the very good that has been created in you by God himself. You are not to hoard it up like some treasured possession that you will never let out of your grasp. No, immediately upon receiving it, you are to give it up again to God who gave it!

You will perceive then that on no account can we imagine sinners making such a sacrifice in their own strength. Sinners, as sinners, do not have something holy and acceptable that they can offer to God. This is a sacrifice that is inconceivable apart from grace!

Again, I ask, what implications does this have for the way we are to live? First and foremost, it forever banishes the selfish motive for holiness. Yes, there is such a thing as a selfish motive for holiness. The whole pursuit of holiness can be and often has been presented as a means of personal attainment, of holy self-actualization, if you will. The Christian life, sanctification, is conceived of as a lifelong self-improvement project. Under this kind of teaching, we conceive of the Christian life as a building up and a conserving of the life that God has given us, not as a giving of that life away in sacrifice.

But if we have heard what our text is saying, we must conceive of the Christian life far otherwise. The sacrifice that we are to make does not have in view the improvement of the self who sacrifices. Paul describes that self as already holy and acceptable to God, as that which God will gladly accept. What then is the end of this sacrifice? The glory of God? Certainly! But also the good of our neighbor. Ephesians 5:1–2 says it plainly: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

Did Christ offer himself for the purpose of self-improvement? God forbid! He offered himself to God for us. That is the nature of the Christian life! Offer yourselves to God for others!

Don’t you see that this is precisely where the Spirit of God leads Paul in Romans 12? He immediately begins telling us about the gifts that we have, and how we are to use them for the good of the body (Rom. 12:3–8). Then he paints a beautiful picture of selfless serving in the remainder of the chapter (Rom. 12:9–21). Do not think of how well you are doing! Think about how well others are doing, and what you might do to serve them!

You will object: “Am I not supposed to be improving in my Christian life? Shouldn’t I be getting better?” Yes, but if that is your primary aim, you will become worse. Here as elsewhere, he who seeks to save his life will lose it, but he who loses his life for Christ’s sake will find it (Matt. 16:25). Yes, you ought to improve. But do not serve others that you may improve. Rather, improve that you may serve others better.

Selfishness in the pursuit of holiness is perhaps the most refined and subtle kind of selfishness. But for that very reason it is deadly. How shall we escape it? The cross, the cross, the cross! The self-centered pursuit of holiness will never pursue the cross. The self-centered pursuit of holiness usually fastens itself in one way or another upon the law. Not the law rightly understood, but the form and outward appearance of the law.

Do not misunderstand me. The law of God is indispensable to true holiness. The law of God is like the skeleton of the Christian life. A body without a skeleton would be shapeless, useless, hideous. So also is a so-called Christian life that disregards the requirements of the law.

But the law does not contain the vital organs of the Christian life. It is the bare skeleton, which, being found without flesh and sinew, is the hideous face of death. So also is a so-called Christian life that goes no further than the law.

What God commands in our text is something that the law has no power to command. The law says, “Thou shalt not kill” but never says, “present your bodies a living sacrifice.” The law teaches you not to harm others, but the law does not teach you to give yourself away.

Only the cross can teach you to give yourself away. Who would ever think to do so unless Christ had first given himself away for our sakes? Self-centered piety is drawn to the principle of the law as the covenant of works. That principle is self-preservation: “Do this and live” (Rom. 10:5; Lev. 18:5). But the cross is self-abnegation: “You have been made alive; now give your life away.”

How then shall we give ourselves away? Read the rest of Romans 12!

There is a particular relevance of all this to the General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. There is a great deal of adherence to law in the assembly. We know our rights and we cling to them! Rights and legality are not evils, but if they are all that we have, then are we most pitiable.

How long shall it be in this assembly before we hear bitter words of anger? How long before we verge upon slandering one another? How long before we treat one another not as precious brothers, but as enemies? And even if we were enemies, our Lord says, “Love your enemies” (Matt. 6:43–48). Imagine rather a General Assembly in which these things abound:

  • Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.
  • Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.
  • Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
  • Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
  • Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.
  • Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.
  • If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
  • Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
    (Rom. 12:9–10, 14–18, 21)

These things are the outworking of the presentation of your bodies as a living sacrifice! A living sacrifice—that is the heart of the matter. Bear with me a little longer, for there is more that we can draw from these words.

You may have noticed that I entitled this exhortation “A Living Sacrifice,” singular. That is how Paul in fact puts it. Present your bodies, plural, a living sacrifice, singular. At first glance, this seems to be a trivial thing. It is the kind of slip of the tongue that is common enough and causes no confusion in conversation. For example, I might say to a class, “I expect all the students in this class to write a term paper.” Only the pedantic and legalistic would interpret me to mean that all the students, together, should write a single paper.

So also here it has generally been assumed that Paul is guilty of an innocent solecism. He says, “a living sacrifice,” (thusian zōsan θυσίαν ζῶσαν) but he means “living sacrifices.” So, the New International Version has actually translated it that way. But it is not so easy for me to believe that this is all there is to it. Not that I believe that inerrancy requires a pedantic grammatical precision. Rather, I have concluded from the text itself and from the context that the singular is deliberate and meaningful.

In fact, it is not only the word “sacrifice” that appears here in the singular. There are six closely connected singular words in this sentence. (For those of you unfamiliar with Greek, nouns, adjectives, and participles have endings that denote, among other things, whether they are singular or plural.) Stating the words in the order in which they appear in the Greek text, we have: sacrifice (singular), living (singular), holy (singular), acceptable (singular), reasonable (singular), service (singular). Like six ringing hammer blows, these words emphasize the singularity of the sacrifice. It is difficult to imagine that Paul’s original audience would not have heard this emphasis as they heard the letter read aloud to them.

What is the significance of this? First and foremost, it is another reminder that the Holy Spirit is speaking here of the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ and that he wishes us to see our sacrifice in union with Christ’s.

But there is more! We are to conceive of our living sacrifice collectively. To be sure, each of us individually is called upon to make this sacrifice, but the text leads us to think of all our bodies together as making up one great living sacrifice. Consider the surrounding context. In chapter eleven Paul has been expounding on the unity of God’s people, Jew and Gentile, under the image of the one olive tree. In the following context, chapter 12, verses 3–8, he will speak of the people of God as the one body in Christ. Here, between those two images of unity, he describes the church as one living sacrifice.

In the broader context, Paul will go on in Romans 15:16 to speak of the Gentiles collectively as an offering (singular) which is made acceptable by Paul’s apostolic ministry. This fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah 66:19–20: “And they shall declare my glory among the nations. And they shall bring all your brothers from all the nations as an offering to the LORD …” These texts make plain that the people of God, collectively, are one offering to God.

It is a marvelous image, is it not? The whole church of Jesus Christ, in all ages and places of the world, offered as one great living sacrifice, empowered by the one great sacrifice of Jesus Christ himself. And it is more than just a literary image.

The gospels make plain that Christ was utterly alone on the cross. Betrayed by Judas, abandoned by his disciples, condemned by the Sanhedrin, condemned by Pilate, sacrificed by the crowd for Barabbas, mocked by the onlookers and even by his fellow-sufferers, and last of all, abandoned by God himself. Who can imagine such loneliness as this!

Yet in your sacrifice you are never alone. First of all, you are always united to Christ himself. You are never alone because Christ is with you.

But union with Christ is never merely a matter of Christ with you as an individual. No, union with Christ means union with his people as well. You are never alone, for the whole company of all the saints in every age and every corner of the world is with you also. You, together with them, make one great living sacrifice to the one true God and Savior. You are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses (Heb. 12:1), but do not conceive of those witnesses as pitiless judges who are watching to see if you will slip up! Oh, no! These witnesses are united to you by the bonds of love and affection, and they gave their lives in sacrifice for your sake, that you also might join them, the happy throng who have found their lives by giving them away.

Are you still taken aback at the demand that the gospel lays upon you? Does it seem to be a daunting task that I have laid before you—one perhaps that is too heavy to bear? Listen once more to the Word of God. The last words on the living sacrifice are that it is “your reasonable service.” I am convinced by all that the Spirit has packed into this text that what he means by “reasonable” here is “fitting.” It is a fitting thing that you offer yourselves. Does it seem too great a thing to ask of you? Consider what Jesus has given for you. And after all you will come to see that what he asks of you is only fitting. Amen.


[1] Exhortation by James S. Gidley, moderator of the 67th General Assembly, to the 68th General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, May 30, 2001.

[2] John Calvin, Epistle to the Romans, “The Argument,” Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. XIX (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979): xxix.

[3] John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965): 111.

James S. Gidley is a ruling elder in Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Sewickley, Pennsylvania. He serves as a professor at Geneva College, where he is chairman of the engineering department. He is also a member of the Committee on Christian Education and the Subcommittee on Ministerial Training. Ordained Servant Online, June–July 2022.

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Ordained Servant: June–July 2022

A Living Sacrifice

Also in this issue

Commentary on the Form of Government of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Chapters 30–32

Dueling Methods: A Review Article

Well Ordered, Living Well: A Field Guide to Presbyterian Church Government, by Guy Prentiss Waters

The Medieval Mind of C. S. Lewis by Jason M. Baxter

Daniel’s Hope

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