A matter of ordinary faithfulness

Two days ago, I wrote that we should stop calling faithfulness sacrifice. You can read that post here. There have been a couple of bits of pushback that probably warranted, not so much an answer, as clarification. So, here I go clarifying what I meant.

Primarily, I was using the word ‘sacrifice’ in the modern way most people hear it. Sacrifice is very much a giving up of something good. In religious terms, most people think more of Lent than any Pauline use of the term. They tend to think of giving up chocolate (or some such), which is nice and fundamentally good, for something hard like fasting which, though difficult, is supposed to bring other spiritual rewards. What I was fundamentally talking about is people suggesting they are giving something good up for God when, in fact, our faithfulness is a better thing and our sin is actually ruinous. For the reasons I outline in the article, I think we should stop saying we are being sacrificial when we are just being faithful.

One reply – a frankly predictable one that I should have addressed ahead of time – was to ask, but what about the language of sacrifice in the Bible? Wasn’t Paul suggesting faithfulness and ministry is a kind of sacrifice in 2 Timothy 4:6? Doesn’t he talking about the Christian life as a sacrifice in Romans 12:1? Isn’t giving a sacrifice according to Phil 4:18? Other examples are also available.

It bears saying that Paul does not use the term sacrifice in any of the above examples in the way modern ears hear it. Indeed, in some of them, he doesn’t even use the word. In 2 Timothy 4:6, for example, Paul neither uses the word sacrifice nor suggests his ministry has been a sacrifice. He uses a simile of the drink offering to suggest, just as it is poured out, so he has been poured out in service of Jesus. That is, he has served Christ and now he is spent. He is, after all, about to die. He doesn’t seem to have any particular sense of sacrifice in view here at all, certainly not in the way many modern ears are inclined to hear these things. He is using a simile to show he has served and is now done, like a cup that has been poured out as an offering and is now empty.

In Romans 12:1, Paul does use the term sacrifice. So, we’re at least in the ball park with this one. But again, nothing in the verse suggests giving up something for the sake of Jesus. The idea of sacrifice being conveyed here is doing what is pleasing to God, just as the OT sacrifices were acts of pleasing obedience to God. Again, this simply is not what anybody means when they are in awe at people’s sacrifice or they insist they are being, like, totally sacrificial. The sense conveyed in Romans 12:1 is not that anyone has given anything up in particular, but that they have been obedient and it has been pleasing to God. It is the obedience that is pleasing here.

Philippians 4:18 talks about an offering and does call it ‘an acceptable sacrifice’. So, again, we’re in the ball park of the same word. But in exactly the same way as Romans 12:1, the meaning being conveyed by Paul is not giving stuff up. He isn’t using sacrifice in that sense. The point Paul seems to make is that the obedience of the people in supplying his needs is pleasing to God, just as it was the obedience of the people offering their sacrifices that was pleasing to God in the Old Testament. This is the same idea conveyed by David in Psalm 51:16-17. Indeed, it is all over the Old Testament (cf. Hosea 6:6; Psalm 40:6-8; Isaiah 1:11-31; Jeremiah 7:21-23). In every case, the idea is not about giving stuff up for God, but obedience. In the New Testament examples cited above, the reference to sacrifice that is pleasing to God is the same. The idea here is clearly not about giving stuff up for the sake of Jesus, for which we are to be commended as sacrificial (in the modern sense of the word), but is instead a simile whereby this act of obedience is just like the obedience of those who offered sacrifices in the Old Covenant. it is the obedience that is pleasing, not the giving up of something in particular.

The second, much less predictable bit of pushback, was the suggestion that I was arguing sacrifice only really applies to supererogatory works. That is, sacrifice is only really sacrificial when it is giving up something that isn’t actually demanded of us. I wasn’t arguing that. For one thing, it is clear that Old Testament sacrifices remained sacrifices whether they were demanded by God or not, so evidently that didn’t apply to the Old Testament understanding of what a sacrifice is. Second, what was really in mind as I was writing was not how the Bible uses the term sacrifice – as evidenced by the examples above – but with how that term is understood in modern parlance. Most people only think of sacrifice as some sort of extra-special giving up of something that is ultimately supererogatory, or if not that, certainly heroic of them in some way and worthy of praise and credit because they have manfully sacrificed something for the Lord. What I was trying to argue was that we really shouldn’t treat ordinary, everyday obedience like it is some special thing. We shouldn’t consider ourselves to have done anything particularly amazing simply by being faithful for all the reasons I outlined in the original post. My post was less to do with what Jesus and Paul mean when they mention (or infer) sacrifice and more to do with what modern ears tend to hear when we say it today.

For the record, I recognise Jesus did say that his followers would have to ‘deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me’. Jesus was clear we would have to give things up for his sake. I don’t deny that. But it does bear saying Jesus was specifically talking about his own death on the cross, and speaking to his disciples who he knew would taste death for his sake, and was saying these things just after he fed a crowd of people who only followed him because he was feeding them and not because they really wanted to follow him at all. There was a specific context to what he was saying. Nevertheless, of course there is a place for giving up things for Jesus. He specifically mentions the giving up of Father, mother, brother and sister as a particularly hard thing. But, just as Jesus was obedient ‘for the joy that set before him’, we are called to give up such things (where necessary) to receive something far greater.

But my point was simply to say we should not call ordinary faithfulness a matter of sacrifice. Indeed, God has our good at heart. When it comes to his law – as Rico Tice says in the Christianity Explored videos – we have to decide whether God has designed these things for our good or whether he is just out to ruin our fun. If what he is calling us to do is for our good, and what he is calling us from is ruinous (no matter how attractive and fun it may seem), I am not sure we ought to be calling that sort of thing a matter of sacrifice.