12:1—God’s sacrifice and ours: The principle of reciprocal love.
We’ve seen that chapters 1-11 describe “What God has given to us” (mercy through Christ’s sacrifice) and chapters 12-15 describe “What we are to give to God” (quoting Douglas Moo). Now as we begin to explore what we are to give to God, we find that verses 1 and 2 state in capsule form what is required of God’s people and thus serve as a heading over the remaining chapters.
We’ll look more closely at these two verses in future messages, but now I draw your attention to one of Scripture’s grandest themes. We discover in verse 1 a principle at the heart of two sacrifices—Christ’s and ours.
The principle of reciprocal love is crucial for understanding the nature of God and his interactions with saved humanity. To live godly on planet earth we must understand this principle, for it is the primary moral principle at the center of the Godhead and expresses the moral character God seeks to instill in his people—humility, service, and mutual love, which happen to be Paul’s primary themes in the remainder of this chapter.
Reciprocal love in the Godhead
In the Godhead, each member of the Trinity serves the others in a relationship of mutual self-surrender—in a sense, God surrenders to himself, while the Father is first in order but equal to the others in deity. To cite only a few verses:
The Father glorifies the Son and loves the Son (John 17:5 and 24), gives all that he possesses to the Son (John 16:15), and grants authority to the Son (John 17:2).
The Spirit testifies about the Son (John 15:26), enables access to the Father (Ephesians 2:18), and glorifies the Son (John 16:14). Although Father and Son do not glorify the Spirit, they fiercely defend this gentle and humble member of the Trinity who does his work in the background. We are warned not to grieve him (Ephesians 4:30), and people who cross him by blasphemy (Mark 3:29) or lying (Acts 5:1-11) forfeit their lives.
God is love, and love, expressed by self-surrender for the benefit of another, is a core characteristic of the image of God. When Adam and Eve in the garden succumbed to the devil’s promise to become “like God,” it was an image-defacing act of self-exaltation. The nature of sin is to take rather than give and to seek one’s own interests in defiance of God and at the expense of others.
Dying (and living) for another
Christ’s sacrifice both paid the penalty for humanity’s sin and demonstrated in the most dramatic way possible God’s self-surrendering love. Jesus came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28), and he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death on the cross (Philippians 2:8).
Once we recognize this principle at the center of the Godhead, we understand why God expects us to love him in return and love one another in mutual service. As his adopted sons and daughters we must share his character:
Jesus said, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (John 15:12). Members of the divine family seek the interests of their fellow members and regard others as more important than themselves. In Philippians 2 Paul tells us to exhibit the “same love” as Christ:
John says it this way: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers” (1 John 3:16).
And finally, Paul’s appeal in Romans 12:1 comes into sharper focus if we look at it through the lens of a parallel passage at the beginning of Ephesians 5. After saying in Ephesians 2 that the loving sacrifice of Christ expresses the Father’s rich mercy (2:4-5), he says this in chapter 5: “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” (5:1-2).
To present one’s body as a living sacrifice (12:1) is to walk in love in the manner of Christ’s sacrifice (5:2). Both passages challenge the Father’s children to imitate his self-giving love. The person who does this makes his or her life an ongoing act of worship, pleasing to God.
Attracted to God’s moral beauty
I have heard pastors use Romans 12:1 as the launching point for a pep talk on why believers should serve God more fervently. I regard that kind of message as a missed opportunity. The real drawing power for Christian service is the beauty of God’s moral excellence as expressed by the word “mercies.” Clever motivational teaching is no substitute for simply knowing God—his willingness to suffer and die for others and his heart’s desire for sons who bear his likeness. God’s loving heart makes me want to be near him, to please him, and to imitate him by giving back to him my life as he has given up his life for me.
Knowing God’s kindness, we can trust him to make something good out of our lives given to him. Jim Elliot, who was martyred in 1956 trying with four other missionaries to reach a tribe in Ecuador, said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
The cross invites us to sacrifice what we are so that we might discover what we shall become.