Today at 1:30, I’ll be teaching this in Elder’s Quorum. Last week, Elder Ballard taught us in Regional Conference to not “over complicate” the Gospel. I’m trying.
Defining Sacrifice in LDS theology
Sacrifice can and has meant a variety of different things. The definition I like the best in the context of LDS theology comes from our concise little manual “True to the Faith” published in 2004. It says, “To sacrifice is to give up something valuable or precious, often with the intent of accomplishing a greater purpose or goal”. In a way, this definition is very similar to the use of the term in the game of Chess, where the pawn may sacrifice itself for the benefit of the entirety of the team. The pawn is killed for a greater purpose, but does not necessarily receive any direct benefit for itself. I sometimes hear people say sacrifice is giving up something good now for something better later. Thus we end up with sacrifice sounding like investing in a 401k plan. This doesn’t ring true to me. While it may be true that we give something up for something of higher value, the “something of higher value” may not directly have benefit for ourselves, and does not necessitate that benefit. The manual asks, “Why is it important to sacrifice as the Lord asks without expecting anything in return?” I think it is because the greater purpose or goal we are to give up is greater than ourselves. It is the glory of God and all mankind. Anyway, I think this concept of sacrifice as giving up for a greater good is useful as we think about religious sacrifice before Christ, of Christ, and in our lives as Christians.
Sacrifice Before Christ
Ritual sacrifice before Christ is very complex. I am going to grossly oversimplify it. Joseph Smith’s midrash of the Bible, the Book of Moses, contains an explanation of this ritual sacrifice as having been commanded of God as a “similitude” (def.-likeness) of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. (Moses 5:5-7) We’ll get back to that in a moment though. First, it should be noted that between the time of this commandment and Christ’s atonement, Jewish sacrifices took on many ritual aspects from the neighboring cultures (considered pagan) of Babylon and Egypt. While noted LDS scriptorian Julie M. Smith has done extensive work pointing out how this ritual can and does point to Christ (Studies in the Bible and Antiquity, Volume 1), I think there were some misconceptions that arose as well, which have sadly permeated our concepts of atonement. One is the “God the king of mafia protection rackets” approach, where the sacrifice became a payment or bribe to an angry, vengeful, cruel God to remove his wrath from us. Another is the concept that we can pass the consequences of sin from ourselves to another via vicarious substitution. Maimonides, the great Jewish Philosopher, believed this ritual sacrifice, and the cult that came up around it, was a concession to human psychological limitations, and that it was ultimately better to obey than to sacrifice. (1 Samual 15:22)
If we boil down sacrifice in the Old Testament, whether it is animal sacrifice, or of the other varieties, what I see is that the followers were giving up food. Not only that, it was their best food. So it was not only the life of the animal they were giving up, but their own livelihood as well. Thus they were giving up of themselves for the good of their faith, and pointing to Christ’s sacrifice, where he gave up his own livelihood as well.
Sacrifice of Jesus Christ
There are many different ideas surrounding the atonement of Jesus Christ and how what he did was a sacrifice for us. (In fact, there are so many different metaphors related to how the atonement works, that one scholar called it a “multiplicity of ideas” that “influence one another, but also [can] contradict one another.”[ C. J. Den Heyer] ) Rather than get in to all of them, I would like to briefly focus on one very important but often overlooked way Christ gives up of himself for that which he values more, us. In Philippians 2:6-7 it notes that Christ “being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men.” In LDS theology, we hold that before being born on this earth, Jesus Christ was a member of the Godhead, and was Jehovah, possessing all the power and authority of God. In the NRSV translation the term “but made himself of no reputation” is more directly translated from the Greek “kenosis” as “but emptied himself” meaning that Christ emptied himself of his divine nature, and came to us a mortal, willing to sacrifice all he was pre-mortally so that we could have the opportunity to be saved. Christ did not give up his divinity as an investment to gain more divinity for Himself, but so that we could be raised up and given “all that the Father hath.” So great was Christ’s sacrifice, that it changed the order and system of our religion forever. (3 Nephi 9:20)
Sacrifice in our lives as Christians
Christ gave all for us, and asks us today to covenant to sacrifice all that we possess. The Apostle Paul wrote that we should become living sacrifices, holy and acceptable unto God (see Romans 12:1). If we are to be a living sacrifice, we must be willing to give everything we have for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—to build the kingdom of God on the earth and labor to bring forth Zion. In the Lectures of Faith, often attributed to Joseph Smith, it says:
“Let us here observe, that a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things, never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation; for from the first existence of man, the faith necessary unto the enjoyment of life and salvation never could be obtained without the sacrifice of all earthly things; it was through this sacrifice, and this only, that God has ordained that men should enjoy eternal life; and it is through the medium of the sacrifice of all earthly things, that men do actually know that they are doing the things that are well pleasing in the sight of God. When a man has offered in sacrifice all that he has for the truth’s sake, not even withholding his life, and believing before God that he has been called to make this sacrifice, because he seeks to do his will, he does know most assuredly that God does and will accept his sacrifice and offering, and that he has not nor will not seek his face in vain. Under these circumstances then, he can obtain the faith necessary for him to lay hold on eternal life. It is in vain for persons to fancy to themselves that they are heirs with those, or can be heirs with them, who have offered their all in sacrifice, and by this means obtained faith in God and favor with him so as to obtain eternal life, unless they in like manner offer unto him the same sacrifice, and through that offering obtain the knowledge that they are accepted of him.”
The scriptures point out that the one we should “fancy” ourselves to be joint-heirs with is Jesus Christ. (Romans 8:17) If Christ was willing to sacrifice even his divinity for us, ought not we be willing to give of ourselves for his plan?