Dear Father John, what exactly is a living sacrifice? I’ve been asking some of my Protestant Christian friends and no one can give me an answer that I am satisfied with. My dissatisfaction stems from the fact that I keep receiving conflicting answers. Thank you and y’all are in my prayers.
Let’s start with the key biblical passage that made this phrase, “living sacrifice,” famous. It’s from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. He is writing about God’s great mercy, by which we have been saved from our sins. He points out that the Old Covenant focused on attaining salvation (a right relationship with God) through the “works” of the law. Among those works, ritual sacrifices were front and center. Those rituals involved taking some good thing(s) upon which the People of Israel were dependent for their existence – mainly the grain from their harvests or animals from their flocks – and offering it to God.
The Purpose of Ritual Sacrifices
According to the ritual, those offerings, or at least parts of them, had to be destroyed. By destroying them – burning them on the altar, for example, or giving them to the priests, who had no farms or land of their own – faithful Israelites acknowledged that those good gifts, and their own lives which depended on those gifts, belonged first and foremost to God. The sacrifices, then, were a form of worship, of gratefully and joyfully recognizing formally and regularly that the People of God were dependent on God for all things. Even pagan religions practiced some form of ritual sacrifice that took the form of worship, though their understanding of the nature of God was distorted (which is why they sometimes offered human sacrifice, or focused on the details of the ritual offerings rather than the intention in the hearts of those who were making the offering). In all cases, ritual sacrifices provided a way for believers to bring themselves, their work, and their communities into communion with God, to make them holy (the word sacrifice comes from “sacrum facere” which is Latin for “to make holy”).
A New Form of Worship
St. Paul is explaining, in his Letter to the Romans, that the old way of making things holy, through ritual sacrifice, in which good things are destroyed – removed from human use – in order to honor God and acknowledge our dependence on him, is over. Those old sacrifices were only shadows of the one true sacrifice, Jesus’ self-offering on the Cross. And it was Christ’s sacrifice that makes us holy, not because of anything we can do or earn, but simply because God in his mercy has offered us this grace. In the New Covenant, then, the role of sacrifice has changed. Christ’s sacrifice is now the source of our entering into a right relationship with God, not our sacrifices.
In Chapter 12, verses 1 and 2, of the Letter to the Romans, St. Paul draws a consequence from this new and definitive arrangement – he makes a “therefore” statement:
I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship. Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.
Instead of offering ritual sacrifices of grain and bulls in order to gain God’s favors, which is what happened in the Old Covenant, Christians are now called to a different mode of worship, a spiritual mode of worship. We are called not to earn God’s mercy by our offerings, but to express our gratitude and our love for God’s mercy – which we have already received through our faith in Christ’s definitive sacrifice on Calvary – through our new way of life. In Christ, we have received the grace to live no longer centered on ourselves, but centered on Christ and his message and his wisdom and his love. This new way of life, this new life in Christ (the life of the Beatitudes, the life exemplified by the saints) has become our way of deepening our union with God and worshipping him. Instead of the ritual sacrifices of the Old Covenant, we are now engaged in the great adventure of making our entire lives into a living sacrifice, an entire life “made holy” in Christ to give glory to God and to lead us to the fulfillment of everlasting union with him in heaven.
A Better Sacrifice
So you see, a living sacrifice is a different mode of worshipping God, a mode made possible only because in Christ we have been given grace, an interior renewal, that gradually transforms our minds, hearts, and emotions, from within. And this is much more pleasing to God than the old ritual sacrifices, because, in the end, he is interested not just in our external actions (ritual sacrifices), but in our friendship. A Christian, making a sincere, decent, and consistent effort to live the new life in Christ, is offering a living sacrifice each moment of every day, worshipping God in everything they do.
A lot more could be said. In fact, a whole literature on the nature of sacrifice has developed among theologians and anthropologists over the last few decades. But I think this should be enough to give you some clear reference points. I hope it helps. God bless you!
Tel Be’er Sheva, Reconstruction of an ancient Israelite horned altar (based upon remnants of the original one), photographed by Daniel Baránek, 27 June 2009 own work, CCA-SA 3.0 Unported,