Read through the Old Testament in even a cursory way and it is impossible to miss the place of animal sacrifices in old covenant worship. Much of the book of Leviticus, for example, consists of instructions for how to offer sacrifices properly. The Historical Books, the Psalms, and the Prophetic Books feature many references to the practice of sacrificing bulls, sheep, goats, and other creatures to the Lord.
Of course, sacrifices to atone for sin have ceased under the new covenant. Christ has fulfilled the purpose of the various sin offerings, so we do not offer up sacrifices to atone for sin any longer (Heb. 10:1–18). That does not mean, however, that we offer no sacrifices unto the Lord in the present era. As we see in today’s passage, God’s fundamental demand for our worship is that we offer ourselves to Him as a “living sacrifice” (12:1).
Note the striking phrase “living sacrifice.” Ordinarily, that which is sacrificed is dead. It has lost any say in its destiny because there is no life left within it. Something similar happens when we offer up ourselves to God as living sacrifices. Although we remain alive—indeed, we are more alive once we are in Christ than we were outside Him—we are sacrifices unto God. We have surrendered any control we have over our life’s mission and are now committed entirely to the lordship of another. By the Lord’s irresistible grace, we have put ourselves in His hands and are His to do with as He sees fit. Our Creator is not cruel or capricious, and we can be sure that He will never mistreat us. But He is our Master, and to be a Christian is to offer ourselves unreservedly for His use wherever He calls us. As Dr. R.C. Sproul writes in his commentary Romans, when we bow the knee to Christ Jesus, “we give ourselves to thank and serve him.” At root, our worship is our surrendering of ourselves to God Himself every day of our lives, and especially as we gather with God’s people to praise His name.
Old covenant believers were called to offer the best of their animals, to offer up that which was without blemish (see Lev. 1:3). In our worship, we must do the same. We must not serve the Lord as a mere afterthought. We must not seek Him half-heartedly. Instead, we are to give Him the very best of ourselves, not to atone for our sin or to merit our forgiveness but to thank Him for saving us, for giving us a purpose, and for calling us into service.