Not long ago I reread parts of Charles Dickens’ wonderful historical novel A Tale of Two Cities. The cities are Paris and London, of course, and the story is set in the years of the French Revolution when thousands of innocent people were being executed on the guillotine by followers of the revolution. As usual with Dickens’ stories, the plot is complex, but it reaches a never-to-be-forgotten climax when Sydney Carton, the disreputable character in the story, substitutes himself for his friend, Charles Darney, being held for execution in the Bastille prison. Darney, who has been condemned to die, goes free, and Carton goes to the scaffold for him, saying, “It is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest I go to, than I have ever known.” The tale is so well-written that it still moves me to tears when I read it, even though I have read it several times.
Few things move us to hushed awe so much as a person’s sacrifice of his or her life for someone else. It is the ultimate proof of true love.
We are to sacrifice ourselves for Jesus, of course, if we love Him. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13), and He did it for us. He did it literally. The sacrifice of Sydney Carton for his friend Darney is only a story, albeit a moving one, but Jesus actually died on the cross for our salvation. Now, because He loved us and gave Himself for us, we who love Him are likewise to give ourselves to Him as “living sacrifices.”
But, as I noted in last week’s study, there is a tremendous difference! Jesus died in our place, bearing the punishment of God for our sin so that we might not have to bear it. Our sacrifices are not at all like that. They are not an atonement for sin in any sense. But they are like Christ’s in this at least, that we are the ones who make them and that the sacrifices we make are ourselves. It is what Paul is talking about in Romans 12 when he writes, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1).