God’s Altar Call
October 5, 2006
“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” (Romans 12:1).
I must have been about eight or nine years old when I first responded to an altar call. For those who don’t know, the term refers to the practice of asking people to make some sort of public decision at the end of a worship service. It often means coming to the front and talking to the pastor while the congregation sings a song. If you have ever watched Billy Graham preach in stadium and then invite people to come forward at the end of his sermon, you have seen an altar call. It simply means to invite people to make a definite personal response to the message they have just heard. I can remember a very moving campfire service on Word of Life Island where Jack Wyrtzen led us in singing, “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” as teenagers came forward to signify their dedication to the Lord Jesus Christ. That same summer I saw Dr. Viggo Olson, a gifted surgeon serving as a medical missionary in Bangladesh, hold up a scalpel as a way of challenging us to become instruments fit for the Master’s use. That stuck in my mind because my father was a surgeon too. That night I responded to the altar call.
With this sermon, we begin the fourth major section of Romans. Here are the four sermon series covering the entire book:
W. H. Griffith-Thomas explains the importance of Romans 12-16 this way:
After doctrine comes duty; after revelation, responsibility; after principles, practice (Romans, p. 318).
And after belief comes behavior; after creed comes conduct. Right thinking leads ultimately to right living. If good theology is the foundation of the Christian life, then godly Christian living rises naturally from that solid foundation. It is never enough simply to know the truth; at some point we must begin to live the truth. Likewise, we must not simply embrace the truth; the truth we believe must at some point embrace us. Regarding the section of Romans that is before us, John Stott reminds us that “in spite of our newness in Christ … holiness is neither automatic nor inevitable” (Romans, p. 317). Bishop John Hall puts it quaintly:
Doctrine without exhortation makes men all brain, no heart; exhortation without doctrine makes the heart full, but leaves the brain empty. Both together make a man, one makes a wise man, the other a good (man) … Men cannot practice unless they know, and they know in vain unless if they practice not (Quoted in Griffith-Thomas, Romans, p. 322).
Let us pray that we might have renewed minds and open hearts so that by putting the truth into practice, we might become both wise and good.
In our study of the book of Romans, we have come to one of the most famous passages in the Bible—Romans 12:1. This is God’s altar call.
It builds upon all that has gone before in chapters 1-11.
It calls Christians to a new commitment.
It comes as a tender personal appeal.
It flows out of the abundant mercy of God.
It leads to a total personal transformation.
It results in knowing and doing the will of God.
We can see the heart of the call in the middle of verse 1—“to present your bodies as a living sacrifice.” God’s call is intimate, personal and inescapable. If we are Christians, we come to this call again and again and again. As Warren Wiersbe puts it, “The problem with a living sacrifice is that it keeps crawling off the altar.”
I) The Background of the Call
The picture of a living sacrifice comes from the worship of the Old Testament where the priests daily killed bulls and goats and offered them before the Lord. If you took all the bulls and all the goats and all the lambs and all the lambs and all the rams and all the other animals that were offered in sacrifice to God, and if you took them and looked at all those sacrifices made over a 1500 year period, it would be a veritable river of blood. Though you had the river of animal blood before you, not one sin could it forgive. Not one. “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4).
It is right at this point that we discover the difference between Old Testament religion and New Testament Christianity. The entire legal system of the Old Testament was meant to prepare the Jews for the day when John the Baptist saw Jesus and exclaimed, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). What an amazing statement that is. First, he is God’s lamb sent from heaven to earth. When God offers a “lamb,” that “lamb” is his own Son. He is the perfect sacrifice. All those animals the priests put to death were meant to point directly to him.
Second, he is God’s lamb offered for our sins. The word translated “takes away” is used elsewhere for the rolling away of the stone that sealed the tomb of Jesus. When our Lord died on the cross, he “rolled away” our sins once and for all. They are gone, removed, blotted out, covered, and rolled away forever.
Third, he is God’s lamb who rolls away the sins of the world. Here is an amazing truth. The blood of Jesus is so powerful that it is sufficient payment for the sins of the whole world. Anyone, anywhere, at any time can be forgiven through Christ. There are no barriers that stand between you and eternal life. Jesus paid it all.
In recent years we have learned a new term—suicide bomber. We wonder what would make an apparently normal man in his 20s strap explosives around his waist, walk into a crowded restaurant or take a seat on a bus or drive a car to a checkpoint or walk down a busy street and suddenly and deliberately blow himself up? Why would a man do such a thing? We understand going to war and dying for your country. We know that in a dangerous world, any of us may die at any time. But suicide bombers seem to live in a parallel universe because they not only voluntarily kill blow themselves up, they look forward to it, and some of them even train their children to do it. What sort of civilization and what sort of religion teaches you to do something like that? Osama bin Laden gave us the answer shortly after a 9/11 when he told a reporter, “We love death. The U.S. loves life. That is the difference between us.” He’s right about one thing. There is a fundamental difference between radical Islam and most of us who live in the West. And right at this point we see a crucial difference between Christianity and Islam. One writer summarized the difference between radical Islam and biblical Christianity this way:
In radical Islam God tells you to send your son to die for him.
In Christianity God sends his Son to die for you.
Jesus said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
He also said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).
Out of his death comes our life.
Christianity is supremely a religion of life.
No Bull In Church Today
Did anyone bring a goat to church last Sunday? Did anyone park a bull outside the church? Did anyone bring a pigeon with you? You didn’t because now that Jesus died and rose from the dead, we don’t have to do that any more. There’s no need for that anymore. The one sacrifice of Christ has paid the full price for our salvation. He did what a river of animal blood could never do.
There is no other religion in the whole world like Christianity. We are the only people in the world who preach free grace. Ours is the only free religion in the world. Every other religion says, “Do this and live.” Our God says, “It has been done for you.” And right there you find the whole gospel in just three little words:
Do vs. Done</font size>
Every other religion is based on works. You go to heaven because of what you do:
Go to church or to the synagogue or the mosque.
Pray toward Mecca.
Light a candle.
Pray all night.
Keep the feast days.
Give alms to the poor.
Offer a sacrifice.
Keep the Ten Commandments.
Follow the Golden Rule.
Be a good neighbor.
Don’t get in trouble.
Obey the law.
Stay out of jail.
Be courteous, kind and forgiving.
Do your best.
Follow the program.
Live a good life.
In looking at that list, it’s important to note that many of those things are indeed good and right and noble, but the problem with a religion based on “doing” is that you can never be sure you’ve done enough. And if somehow you finally do enough, how do you know that you won’t blow it all tomorrow by one stupid sin?
But Christianity is based on grace. Sometimes you hear the phrase “free grace, but that is a redundant statement. If it’s not free, it’s not grace. If you have to do something, anything at all, to earn it or merit it or deserve it, it’s not grace. Grace is no longer grace if you have to do something to earn it. The whole difference comes down to this: Christianity is based on what Christ has done for us. Every other religion is based on what we ourselves do.
“Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love.” (Micah 7:18).
Where else will we find a God like this? He is a God who delights to show mercy to sinners like you and me. He loves to forgive sin. He longs for sinners to come to him. He sends his Son to die on the cross and then says to the whole world, “Whosoever will may come.”
II. The Essence of the Call
Don’t miss Paul’s major point. In the Old Testament God wanted dead sacrifices because those dead animals offered on the altar pointed to the dying Son of God who gave up his life for our sins. But he did not stay dead! On the third day, God’s lamb came back to life, raised from the dead, never to die again.
So now what does God want? Living sacrifices! He wants men and women who, having received his divine mercy through Christ, who having themselves been raised from spiritual death, who having drunk deeply at the fountain of grace will now gladly offer themselves as living sacrifices to the Lord. If we know the Lord, this is the only reasonable thing to do. Nothing else makes sense. This is our “reasonable act of service” to the God who saved us or as the Contemporary English Version puts it, this is “the most sensible way to serve God.” Note how specific it is—“present your bodies.” Don’t skip over that or think that it simply means, “Present yourselves.” The word literally means your physical body. Present your body to the Lord as a living sacrifice. Someone may ask, “Why would God want my body?” Because if he’s got your body, he’s got you. Wherever your body goes, you are sure to follow. John Stott points that we are sometimes squeamish about this:
Still today some Christians feel self-conscious about their bodies. The traditional evangelical invitation is that we give our “hearts” to God, not our “bodies” (Romans, p. 322).
But God cares about your body, not just about your soul. Psalm 139:13-16 tells us that God formed your body, knitting it together while you were still in the womb. According to 1 Corinthians 6:19, your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. The same passage says, “Glorify God in your body.” One day your body will be raised immortal and incorruptible (1 Corinthians 15:53) and your earthly body will be transformed to become like his glorious body (Philippians 3:21). Between now and the day of your resurrection, God intends that the life of Jesus be manifested in your body (2 Corinthians 4:10). When we stand before the Lord, we will answer for the deeds done in the body (2 Corinthians 5:10). Therefore, we must keep our bodies pure from the defilement of sin (2 Corinthians 7:1) by putting to death the deeds of the flesh (Romans 8:13). This means offering the parts of your body as instruments of righteousness to the Lord (Romans 6:12-13). We should pray that Christ will be honored in our body, whether by life or by death (Philippians 1:20). If you do not discipline your body and keep it under control, you can be disqualified from ministry (1 Corinthians 9:27). True sanctification means controlling your own body in holiness and honor (1 Thessalonians 4:4). We have the assurance that God intends that your body be kept blameless at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 5:23).
Your body matters to God! Your salvation is being worked out, not just in your soul or your spirit, but also in your physical body. Have you ever thought of it this way? God has no lips except your lips yielded to him. He has no eyes except your eyes yielded to him. He has no ears except your ears yielded to him. He has no hands except your hands yielded to him. He has no feet except your feet offered to him.
What you do with your body matters to God. He wants you to use your body for his glory in every situation and to seek to know him intimately and serve him joyfully in every circumstance, not just in church but every moment of every day:
Here in the sanctuary, there in the workplace.
Here when we sing, there when we work.
Here when we worship, there when we study.
Here when we pray, there when we play.
Here when we clap, there when we date.
Here when we listen, there when we speak.
We are to offer our bodies unreservedly to the Lord for his service, to be used for his glory.
Then our feet will walk in his paths, our lips will speak the truth and spread the gospel, our tongues will bring healing, our hands will lift up those who have fallen, and perform many mundane tasks as well like cooking and cleaning, typing and mending, our arms will embrace the lonely and the unloved, our ears will listen to the cries of the distressed, and our eyes will look humbly and patiently towards God (John Stott, Romans, p. 322).
This is the practical side of Christianity. Sometimes we can get very dreamy and sentimental and even mystical in our faith. But Paul is far from a mystical dreamer. In his mind, everything we have and all that we are, every blessing we receive flows from the mercy of God. And in just a few verses he will call us to a lifestyle of mercy to the people around us. We who have received such mercy are now to show mercy in a thousand different ways to people both inside and outside the family of faith.
* We are to teach, to prophesy, to serve, to exhort, to give, to show mercy and to lead (vv. 3-8).
* We are to love one another, abhor evil, be zealous, fervently serve the Lord, give high honor to each other, pray, rejoice, be patient, give to those in need, all of this demonstrating that our love is genuine (vv. 9-13).
* We are even to bless those who persecute us, live in peace with troublesome people, quickly forgive, refuse to retaliate, live in harmony, hang out with the lowly, rejoice and weep with those who rejoice and weep, and if our enemy is hungry or thirsty, we are to give him food and water, and by doing this we will overcome evil will good (vv. 14-21).
That’s radical stuff he’s talking about.
Nothing sentimental about it.
Nothing mushy in Paul’s theology.
This is love in the nitty-gritty.
No one lives like this naturally. Only those who have been baptized in the ocean of God’s mercy will have the desire or the ability to live a mercy-full life toward others.
And get this! You can’t do any of those things without your body.
So this is flow of Paul’s argument …
Since you have received God’s mercy through the cross of Christ,
Since you are now brothers and sister in the family of God,
Since your life has been utterly transformed by Jesus Christ,
There is only one sensible thing for you to do …
Offer your body to God as a living sacrifice,
So that he can use you as a vessel of mercy to others.
Nothing else makes sense.
Nothing else really matters.
Nothing else will satisfy you.
God doesn’t want dead animals burning on an altar.
He wants his people to be living sacrifices.
This is holy and acceptable in his sight.
III. The Application of the Call
So the only thing that is left is to do what Paul calls us to do. You might call this Practical Christianity 101. I only have one piece of advice for you. Make it specific and very personal. Stand in front of a mirror and consider your body. It may not be much to look at it, and it’s probably not the body you want, but God wants the body you have so that it might be put into his service. We may say, “Lord, why would you want my body? It’s overweight, it’s out of shape, it’s wrinkled, blotchy, achy, diseased, impulsive, nervous, unattractive, lazy, awkward, disabled, near-sighted, hard-of-hearing, stiff, and brittle. It has a bad heart, it has bad joints, it doesn’t work so well, and it has a dirty mind. My body is always tripping me up. I’m better in the spirit than in my body. Why would you want my body? It doesn’t work so well anyway.” And God says, “I know you better than you know yourself. I intend someday to transform your body into something so glorious that if you knew about it today, it would almost scare you. I know how to take that body that gives you so much trouble and use it for my glory. But I can’t do anything with it until you present it to me.”
Here is a wonderful, encouraging, life-changing thought. God never says, “Clean yourself up and then I will use you.” He says, “Come to me just as you are, and I will clean you up.” He never asks us to change ourselves (which we can’t do). He invites us to come to him with all our faults and failures and all the limitations we experience, and in the coming, and as we coming, and while we come, we are slowly changed into the image of Christ. Bring your body with all of its problems, all of its temptations, all of its weakness, and just give it to God. You’ll be surprised what he can do with your body.
We have to begin somewhere, don’t we?
Lord, here are my hands.
Lord, here are my lips.
Lord, here are my eyes.
Lord, here are my ears.
Lord, here are my feet.
Lord, here are the most private parts of my body.
Lord, here is my voice.
Here I am, Lord. All that I have, I now give to you.
Here I am, Lord. All that you gave me, I now give back to you.
Presenting your body as a living sacrifice means taking all that you have and placing it at the disposal of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. This is the only sensible thing to do. Not long ago I chatted with Ramesh Richard, a professor at Dallas Seminary, who told me that he had been praying, “Lord, feel free to make yourself famous at my expense.” Then he added this thought. “I pray that way because of a radical confidence in God’s goodness, that he will never misuse what I place in his hands.” What a powerful insight.
We hold back because we think our plans are better, and we secretly fear that God may send us to somewhere like … China! Just as I was typing these paragraphs, I got an email from a mother whose daughter now serves as an English teacher somewhere in China. I don’t really know where she is, and it doesn’t matter. She is there to serve the Chinese people by teaching English and to serve Jesus by talking about him every chance she gets. Not an easy thing to do in China. You have to be careful, think about what you are saying and who you are talking to. The mother asked about sending some books into China. “I also have Chinese addresses of 3 new believers who live in remote areas of China that I would be willing to mail over via Airmail in a safe manner for these baby lambs.” Those baby lambs have come into the kingdom because her daughter made her body into a living sacrifice for the sake of the Great Commission.
You can’t go to China without taking your body with you. That’s the whole point of presenting your body as a living sacrifice. If Jesus has your body, he has you because where your body goes, you must soon follow. I used to wonder about parents whose children serve Christ in far-off lands. How do they do it? I have a slightly better understanding now than I used to, and I know this much. You don’t hold back your own flesh and blood, you give your loved ones to the Lord because of a radical confidence in God’s goodness. He will not misuse the precious treasure entrusted to him.
I could end this sermon with a story of victory or with a story of earthly defeat. It’s easy to find plenty of examples of people who trusted the Lord and won great victories, and it’s easy to find people who gave all to Christ only to die prematurely or to suffer enormous loss. Read Hebrews 11. But those brave men and women did what they did because, having received God’s mercy, they responded to God’s altar call and presented their bodies to God. To them it was the only reasonable thing to do. This was holy and acceptable in the sight of God.
Presenting your body to God is an act of spiritual worship. God wants worshipers, he seeks men and women who will seek him, trust him, follow him, believe in him, risk all for him and who will count it joy and not loss to serve him every day.
It’s time for this sermon to end, and every sermon about an altar call should end with an invitation hymn. How about Take My Life and Let It Be by Frances Ridley Havergal? As you read the words, sing it aloud if you can. Let this be your response to God’s altar call.
Take my life and let it be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take my hands and let them move
At the impulse of Thy love.
Take my feet and let them be
Swift and beautiful for Thee;
Take my voice and let me sing,
Always, only for my King.
Take my lips and let them be
Filled with messages from Thee;
Take my silver and my gold,
Not a mite would I withhold.
Take my moments and my days,
Let them flow in endless praise;
Take my intellect and use
Every pow’r as Thou shalt choose.
Take my will and make it Thine,
It shall be no longer mine;
Take my heart, it is Thine own,
It shall be Thy royal throne.
Take my love, my Lord, I pour
At Thy feet its treasure store;
Take myself and I will be
Ever, only, all for Thee.