... and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.
These two passages have been on my mind lately less because I have thought of them specifically than because of the thing they tell us about God. What is striking about John's writing is that (despite the claims of some of the more jittery Calvinists, the universal scope of the work of Christ is emphasized by the apostle who is often the favorite of Calvinists who would elide this statement into a defense of particular atonement. It would be more honest and frightening to say that while one aspect of Yahweh's character is strikingly consistent other aspects of His character are unknowable. We know that the offer of salvation must really meaningfully be offered to all but what we do NOT know is who the Lord may damn.
This is significant because Scripture is more clear that Christ sacrificed Himself for sinners than about who amongst sinners will refuse Him, rightly because it is not our business to know who is beyond the redemption of Christ and because it is not even our place as individuals to presume to know who is or isn't in Christ because of our personal assessment.
We know that while we were sinners Christ died for us and this tells us something significant about the nature of Christ's sacrifice, obvious thought it may be to point out. Christ sacrificed Himself for us from the fulness of His own self and not based on our deserving that sacrifice and not even on the basis of our receiving salvation due to some form of election. The reason this has to be said is because regardless of what one's views about the election of saints or sinners, regardless of one's estimate of who can receive and accept the offer, any side can presume that they are the measure of Christ's offer, they can decide who receives Christ's mercy. One Christian may suppose that the assent to this set of particular doctrines is necessary, another may suppose that being tied to this particular group of believers is necessary and while both are necessary in their own rights to determine one's inclination toward Christ these are not the same or sufficient as the consideration of all these things with spiritual fruit and love for one's neighbor.
If we are to love as Christ then we can lovingly sacrifice ourselves for people who might not seem to be worthy of the sacrifice. The sacrifice of Christ was made to offer us mercy and perhaps this was why Christ rebuked his adversaries on earth
For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.
These words of Christ are challenging because we can persuade ourselves that because of our sacrifices we are serving Christ. We could simply be serving ourselves. And if we sacrifice only for those we consider worthy of the sacrifice we do not have the heart of Christ, who sacrificed Himself for us even though we did not deserve that mercy. Yet it is freely given to us. And God through the Psalmist reveals to us that He has no need of our sacrifices. There is nothing we can deprive ourselves of or offer to the Lord that adds anything to His nature.
We can be like Cain and offer a sacrifice that merely builds ourselves up rather than reflects a heart of love toward Christ and our neighbor. This was at the heart of the man who dared to ask Christ "And who is my neighbor?" The man understood the command to love God and love his neighbor as himself, he wished only to ask if there was a qualification for who his neighbor was because he wanted to justify himself. Christ took away that justification by revealing who the man's neighbor truly was, the one the man refused to recognize as his neighbor, the one the man refused to extend kindness to. When Christ extends his hand to the people we despise He reveals that He offers redemption to those that we would not offer ourselves to. We would prefer to protect our heart and our possessions where Christ emptied Himself. I would prefer to sacrifice only for those who deserve the sacrifice if I could help it but the Lord can thwart my understanding of who deserves what. In fact Christ once told His disciples
"Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, 'Come along now and sit down to eat'? Would he not rather say, 'Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink'? Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.' "
We have only done our duty. There is nothing we can offer as a sacrifice to Christ because even if we have done so how is it a sacrifice to simply obey the master? If we love our enemies as we love ourselves, if we sacrifice ourselves for people who we would not think deserve that sacrifice then we have not offered a sacrifice to Christ at all, we have only done our duty. Only Christ can make a sacrifice of love that is not commanded, all others are inherent in the command to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. If we die for our neighbor whether he is an enemy or a friend, we have simply done our duty. This will never commend me to Christ if I do this, whose sacrifice for me is greater than the entire race of mortals can repay. If I sacrifice out of love of Christ and neighbor the sacrifice is not valuable because it has any value in itself but because Christ works it in me.
Christ is a warrior who sacrificed Himself for His mortal enemy, who fought the devil and sin for the sake of the very sinners who condemned Him to death. Christ is a soldier who died for the enemy's sake, for us, who sacrificed Himself for the sake of people who refused to acknowledge even His sacrifice. If Christ died for the sins of the whole world then He died for those who will never acknowledge His kindness or even acknowledge that He exists. A sacrifice offered freely out of love for people who will scorn even that is a sacrifice that is truly thankless. This is what is so piercing about Christ's words, He reveals that He can remove the reward of gratitude we expect from Him and from men for the sacrifices we would offer.
If we make our sacrifices so as to obtain respect from God or men then we are making those sacrifices for our own pleasure and not out of love for Christ and our neighbor. We will have received our reward and most of us do not receive even that. Haven't we all had a parent complain to us that we don't appreciate the sacrifices they have made for us? :) A parent who speaks that way to his or her child is not speaking of real sacrifice at all, but of the appearance of sacrifice which is used as a means of control, as a means to extort loyalty and respect.
Christ did not do this in making His sacrifice but we, like this parent who points to a sacrifice as a means of demanding respect, think that our sacrifices ought to be recognized by the Lord. He won't recognize them not because they have no value as sacrifices but because they are not done out of His love. If I sacrifice myself only for the people who love me how am I better than an unbeliever. If I sacrifice myself because Christ's love enables me to sacrifice myself for people who consider me to be nothing then it is more like Christ, and only like Christ if the Spirit of God works it within me.
it seems that in every generation people believe that sacrifice is needed and that today's ungrateful generation knows nothing of it. And it's always true, but it is also always true that too often we condemn others for not making sacrifices we have made that were really sacrifices embarked upon with the goal of personal convenience in mind. I certainly have to say that I have sacrificed things with a consideration of my own happiness, which vitiates the very nature of the sacrifice.
If I sacrifice money for the sake of family I am sacrificing something for what I consider to be the better of two things. If I sacrifice friends to obtain a wife I am simply saying that one is less valuable than the other rather than making a sacrifice for the sake of someone else. The reason our sacrifices in themselves don't make us right with the Lord is because we cannot make a sacrifice that gives, we can only make a sacrifice that reveals where our heart really is. We sacrifice in a way that says this is valuable and that is not whereas Christ offers Himself as a sacrifice that says it is all valuable, valuable enough that for these things He is willing to die.
Our sacrifices reveal our selfishness, not our selflessness, especially if at any point we believe that anyone is unworthy of the sacrifices we make. Those are the people for whom Christ sacrificed Himself, a sacrifice greater than any we could possibly offer.