Lay it at the Altar

“When Christ calls a man, He bids him, ‘come and die’.”

The words are etched into my mind much like they were carved into the top of the pulpit behind which I first developed my love for the Word of God. The words belong to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor who was martyred during World War II for refusing to follow and propagate Nazi teachings.

To me, it just seems right that a bold, Christ-loving, committed man would write the words that introduce this post. Not only did he write them, but he was willing to live them. He ended up laying down his life for Christ because he believed those words. One reason he believed those words is because they are very similar to what Jesus Himself said in Luke 9:23-24. We will come back to this passage in a few.

Unfortunately for Christianity, the Gospel has become unpopular. In fact, it has become so unpopular that you might even go into a “solid, biblical church” and hear the preacher railing against altar calls from the pulpit. This is unfortunate, and it should not be this way.

Yes, you got me. Just because someone is railing against altar calls does not mean that they are railing against the Gospel. But in our preaching, we need to clarify which altar calls we have a problem with. You see, there are two very different types of altar calls. Picture them with me for a moment.

First, you’re sitting in a packed auditorium listening to the pastor’s message when he says, “Would you pray with me.” Then he goes on to say, “Now with everyone’s head bowed and eyes closed, if you feel the Spirit tugging at your heart, if you feel like there is a God-shaped hole in your heart, if you feel like you’ve tried everything else to fix your life, raise your hand. Remember, no one is looking. Good, I see a couple up front.”
You feel like you should raise your hand, but you also know that you raised your hand last week.
He continues, “You know who you are. All you gotta do is raise your hand, and God will smile upon that small act of faith. Remember, no one is looking.” A pause. “Hands are going up all over this auditorium.”
You desperately want to raise your hand, but you don’t know what the person sitting next to you will think, so you decide to peek. Who all is raising their hands? As you look out at the crowd, only a handful of hands are raised, scattered all over the auditorium.
“Remember to keep your eyes shut and follow the Spirit’s leading. I see that hand. Good.”
You close your eyes again, don’t raise your hand, and decide the church is full of fakes and liars, ultimately led by frauds and manipulators.

Second, you’re sitting in Nazi-occupied Germany. The pastor is reaching the end of his sermon. He has been preaching not what the government demands, but what the Bible actually teaches.
A man rushes in, winded from running, and you recognize him as the Gestapo-lookout. “Pastor,” he interrupts. “I heard that the Gestapo is coming. We don’t have much time.”
The pastor’s facial expression remains the same. He speaks, “In that case, everyone here, give your life to Christ today. He is real. The government might hurt your body, but they can’t touch your soul. When Christ calls a man, He bids him, ‘Come and die’. The Christian life isn’t about comfort or fixing your situation in this world. Jesus says you might pay with your life. The fact of the matter is if you believe, your life will be less comfortable. But at least your soul will be secure.”
You’re transfixed. The preacher is not twisting your arm. He’s stating facts, as danger bears down on you. You want to leave to save your skin, but you also want to know more about this Jesus who can make a person so calm in the midst of danger.
“Trust Christ today,” the pastor pleads. “Don’t wait another minute. You don’t know how long you have.”

The first example is a manipulative, emotionally charged call that doesn’t ask for any change, and it needs to go back to the pit from whence it came. Sure, it might be slightly more public than the second example, but that’s the extent of the call. “Raise your hand, and God is obligated to save you.” The second example is a heartfelt, honest plea that danger is present and only Christ can save you, and while He might not actually choose to protect you physically, you can trust Him to keep you eternally. Even if we are in America, the land of little-to-no religious danger, this second example is what we need to hear in our churches each and every Sunday. There are some who disagree with me, but i hope and pray that the rest of this post might change their minds.

Paul writes the following in the book of Romans after laying out the gospel and all of its theological aspects in the first eleven chapters:

Romans 12:1 (HCSB)
Therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your spiritual worship.

Paul starts the meat of Romans by explaining that he is unashamed of the gospel (1:16-17). From there he takes the rest of chapter 1 until the end of chapter 11 to explain what the gospel is, how salvation is applied, and several other questions related to the gospel and salvation. And then we hit chapter 12, where Paul pleads with his readers to lay their lives down at the altar. Well, not exactly, but it is what he means. Reread the passage:

Romans 12:1 (HCSB)
Therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your spiritual worship.

He starts by saying “therefore.” This means, “Because of everything I’ve already said, here’s what it means.” The gospel of salvation demands a response, and Paul explains what it is in Romans 12:1.

Paul sums up Romans 1-11 as “the mercies of God” and says that it is on this account that he urges them to “present [their] bodies as a living sacrifice.”

Sacrifices. Open up the book of Leviticus, and read the first sixteen chapters. The majority of those chapters are about sacrifices. Sacrifices played a pivotal role in Israelite worship. There are many differences between the types, but one thing is the same every time. Sacrifices are dead.

Nowhere in the Old Testament do we ever read about a sacrifice saying, “Uh, you know what? Forget this. I don’t want to be sacrificed.” By the time they were on the altar, the sheep or bull or goat was either already dead or bound to be killed within moments.

But then we get to the New Testament, and after Paul presents us with a lengthy exposition of the gospel and all that the gospel entails, he pleads with his readers–altar-call style–to offer themselves “as a living sacrifice.” Why living sacrifices?

Bonhoeffer’s quote likely flows out of Luke 9:23-24. Here, Jesus is quoted as saying:

Luke 9:23-24 (HCSB)
Then He said to them all, “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me.  For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will save it.

If we are following Jesus, we are still physically alive, but if we are genuinely following Him, we will act as if we are dead, sacrificing our rights, desires, and freedoms for the sake of Him. This is what it means to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice.” We are alive, but we sacrifice.

In our sinfulness, we must be daily reminded of the gospel, and recommit ourselves daily to following Christ, regardless of the cost. The Old Testament sacrifices could never climb off the altar and live life for themselves again, but since we are still alive and still sinful, we must be daily reminded to jump back onto the altar and sacrifice ourselves. This is done in three clear ways.

The first way we can offer ourselves as living sacrifices is by dying to ourselves. Selfishness is innate in our souls. As babies, we cry to let those around us know we need something for our own survival, but as we grow older, we are often just giant babies thinking everything is about us and seeking our own way, usually at the expense of others. We must die to ourselves and kill our selfishness.

The second way we can offer ourselves as living sacrifices is to sacrifice for others. We are called to look out for each other’s interests and not merely our own (Philippians 2:4). We are also commanded to carry one another’s burdens and not just our own (Galatians 6:2). We can accomplish this by dying to ourselves first and looking out at what other people might need and then doing that for them. James 1:27 says the purest form of religion is helping widows and orphans in distress (not making sure your theological views are perfect).

The third way we can offer ourselves as living sacrifices is to sacrifice for God. When we die to ourselves, and when we sacrifice for others, we are in essence also sacrificing for God. Paul explains in Galatians 6 that when we bear one another’s burdens we “fulfill the law of Christ.” When we evangelize vocally, we are “pleading on behalf of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20). There are myriads of other ways in which we can sacrifice for God, but i want to land with the 2 Corinthians 5:20 thought.

Paul uses a noteworthy verb in his altar call of Romans 12:1. He says, “I urge you.” If you want solid proof that this really is an altar call, a heartfelt plea for people to believe and live out the gospel–toward both believers and unbelievers–look no farther than 2 Corinthians 5:20. There is no clearer passage about preaching the gospel and begging people to believe it than this one:

2 Corinthians 5:20 (HCSB)
Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, certain that God is appealing through us. We plead on Christ’s behalf, “Be reconciled to God.”

If i’ve said it once, i’ve said it a million times. When we preach the gospel–the message of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection as found throughout the Bible; the message that must be believed for salvation–we are allowing God to speak through us. There is no more excellent way to sacrifice for God than to preach the gospel. If you’ve been given a pulpit to preach from, but you don’t preach the gospel every time you’re behind it, all i can ask is, “Why don’t you?”

In conclusion, i beg you to believe the gospel.
I don’t care who you are, or how far along in ministry you are.
Believe the gospel! Jesus lived; Jesus died; Jesus rose again. All so that you could be free and have victory over sin.
And after you believe that, preach it, whether you have a theological education or not.
“This is your spiritual worship!”

In this with you.

Soli Deo Gloria
Solus Christus
Sola Scriptura
Sola Fide
Sola Gratia

Thanks for reading.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s