The Christian Life: Mere Virtuous Habits Or A Living Sacrifice?

Text: Romans 12:6-16

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

The Apostle Paul tells you and me that we should let our love be genuine. He says that we are to hate what is evil and hold fast to what is good. We are to love one another and outdo one another in showing honor. We are not to be slothful but full of zeal. We are to be patient in trials and full of joy. We are to be friendly, humble, pleasant, charitable, empathetic, and peaceable.  

Now, there is no doubt that this is a very tall order to fill. In other words, what Paul lays out is difficult to do. Nonetheless, we do witness people in this world fulfilling these good things from time to time. For example, I can remember back several years ago to a lady named Ann. Ann was the chief financial officer of a local architectural firm. She was kind. She loved deeply. She held to good; and pushed back on evil. She showed honor to her coworkers. She was full of joy, humble, charitable, and sought peace in conflict.  She not only carried herself with great virtue but also demonstrated virtue in her words and actions. She was the type of person that you would want to have as a neighbor, coworker, and even a fellow churchgoer. The only thing that might come as a surprise is that Ann wasn’t a Christian. She was an atheist. Even as an atheist, though, she was not rude to Christians; rather, she had a very deep conviction that there was no God. And yet, she outperformed most Christians in her attitude, actions, and words. 

I can remember struggling with this as a young pastor: how is it possible that Ann functions better than most Christians in the church that I am serving, and yet, she is an atheist? Furthermore, how was it possible that an atheist treated my wife and me better than most Christians that we knew at that time? 

It is important for us to understand that pagans are fully capable of doing virtuous things. Take Ann for an example again. Through many years of life, Ann learned the importance of being charitable, calm, friendly, self-disciplined, and so forth. Somewhere along the way, she found that life worked better when a person acted kindly and sought the good in every situation, and so she developed the habit of being virtuous. But again, I remind you, she did all of this as an atheist. 

Dear friends, it is important to remember that the cup's outside can be shiny and bright, while the inside is dirty and wretched. In other words, even though Ann was more virtuous than most Christians, she was still very far away from the kingdom of God. In fact, for what it is worth, I would wager that alcoholics, prostitutes, and ragamuffins are closer to the kingdom of Heaven than Ann.

So, if you are like me, you most likely are having a knee-jerk reaction right about now, thinking – are we saying that we do not need to do good works? Are we saying that we can do whatever we want?  

Absolutely not!  

Remember our reading from the Epistle of Romans? Paul praises goodness, not evil.

So, what’s the point?  

Tragically, too many well-intentioned Christians will read what Paul says in our epistle reading and then set out to build up virtuous habits in themselves and others. In other words, if your love is not genuine, well… then you better work to develop more genuine love in your life. If you are full of pride, well… you better work to be less prideful and more humble. If you are slothful, well… time to level up and get full of zeal. If you are conflicted, greedy, arrogant, and confrontational, well… stop it. Be more harmonious, charitable, empathetic, and peaceable.  

And to help in becoming a more virtuous Christian, books are written, sermons are preached, and conferences are organized to give strategies, tips, and pointers to be more virtuous.  

But there is a problem with this kind of thinking – it is Christless! It is doing the exact same thing as Ann, the atheist!  

Dear friends, we must consider what Paul says in our Epistle of Romans in its fuller context. Back in Romans 12:1-2, Paul states this:

“I appeal to you, therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

In other words, your and my attitudes as Christians are connected to the reality that we are a living sacrifice unto God with our minds being continually transformed. 

Let me explain it like this: take your ordinary everyday life. Consider your sleeping, your going to work, your walking around in life, your interactions with those around you – take your whole life and realize that your whole life is laid bare before God as an offering. In other words, your life is not your own. You do not belong to yourself because you belong to Christ.  You have been crucified unto Christ. Furthermore, as a Christian your mind is captive and attentive to the Word of God, not the culture and certainly not the desires of your old Adam. And so, everything you think, say, and do, is an act of worship before the Lord, who possess you as His very own. Because you are a living sacrifice unto God and because your mind is not conformed to the world but renewed to the will of God, you…  

…love from the center of who you are in Christ 

…you run for dear life from evil. 

…you are good to your friends, willing to play second fiddle  

…you are a servant full of cheer 

…you are hospitable, humble, harmonious, charitable, empathetic, and peaceable

But there is a problem with all of this, though. And that is this; we don’t always do the good that Paul describes. And so, when this happens to you - when you find that your love is not genuine, when you are not holding to what is good, when you are slothful, anxious, greedy, vengeful, combative, thirsting for fame, and apathetic, the key is not to go the way of Ann, which is try harder!  Instead it is to go the way of repentance. Yes, when the attitude and shape of what Paul describes in the Epistle Reading are not found in your heart, mind, and actions – when it is not found here in St. Paul’s Lutheran Church – there is only one solution and one option – we need to repent boldly and acknowledge that we are not living as sacrifices unto God and that our minds are not renewed by the Word of God but conformed to the world and our old Adam. 

Martin Luther was right. The entire life of a Christian is daily repentance. We need daily repentance because daily, we find ways to squirm out of being a living sacrifice unto God. Daily we find ways to conform our minds to the opinions of the world and the desires of our old Adam while closing our ears to God’s Word. 

You see, a Godly life as a Christian is never apart from Christ. Furthermore, when we fail to live the Christian life, the solution is not to press on with our willpower. Holy living as a Christian is not about developing a habit or pattern rooted in sheer willpower, apart from Christ, because this is just as godless as a profane hellion. But instead, holy living is returning again and again to Christ Jesus. It is returning to who we are – a living sacrifice with ears and minds listening to the Word.  

Baptized Saints, never forget that the world and your sinful nature (and my sinful nature as well) will always drag us down to its level of immaturity.  Also, remember that apart from Christ, no matter how good the work seems, it is still a filthy rag apart from Christ.  But in Christ, all sin is forgiven and all works are made holy because Jesus is holy.  Perhaps, it could be said, the reason why we have communion and a sermon at St. Paul’s every Sunday is that continually we need to be strengthened as living sacrifices with our minds transformed by the Word. 

Dear Baptized Christians – let us never stop praising that which is good, beautiful, and true. And let us pray that God would continually renew a right spirit within us, so that we may walk in His goodness that He has prepared in advance for us. And when you and I fail short of that which is good, beautiful, and true – may you and I repent again and again – returning to Jesus’ forgiveness because He is not only the author of the Christian faith but the One who continually perfects your Christian faith.  

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

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