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 Darnay, being held for execution in the Bastille prison.

Paul's words in Romans 12:1-2 are an urgent appeal to us to do something, to offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God. This is not done for us. It is something we must do. May I put it in other terms? It is the "obedience that comes from faith," which Paul wrote about early in the letter, saying, "Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith" (Rom. 1:5). So you see, again we are back to one of the great doctrinal teachings offered earlier.

The truth of what it means to "live by dying" is the paradox itself, namely, that it is by dying to our own desires in order to serve Christ that we actually learn to live. I do not think there is any difficulty in understanding what this means. We understand only too well that dying to self means putting personal desires behind us in order to put God’s desires for us and the needs of other people first. And we understand the promise, too. The promise is that if we do this, we will experience a full and rewarding life. We will be happy Christians. The problem is not with our understanding.

Redemption from sin by Christ is not the only doctrine on which the Christian life of self-sacrifice is built. A second doctrine is our having died to the past by having become new creatures in Christ, if we are truly converted. We studied this teaching in Romans 6 where Paul argued, much as he is going to do in Romans 12, that because we have "died to sin" we are unable to "live in it any longer" (v. 2). Therefore, instead of offering the parts of our bodies "to sin, as instruments of wickedness," as we used to do, we must instead offer ourselves "to God, as those who have been brought from death to life" and the parts of our bodies "to him as instruments of righteousness" (v. 13).

The principle of sacrifice is so foundational to the doctrine of the Christian life that we must be very careful to lay it out correctly, and in order to do that we need to review the foundations for this foundation. The first foundation of this foundational teaching is that we are not our own but rather belong to Jesus, if we are truly Christians. Here is the way Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians: "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price" (1 Cor. 6:19-20).