Gospel Principles 26: Sacrifice

February 12, 2011    By: Matt W. @ 11:54 pm   Category: PH/RS Lessons

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?


  1. Well since I’ve noticed the Thang didn’t make the Straight and Narrow Blogs list of faithful blogs I’m starting to wonder if all yall should start sacrificing your heretic thoughts so you can make the list.

    The easiest way to do this is to start editing comments like sifter Gary does at No Death Before The Fall.

    *Sorry Matt, I needed to vent because he edited my comment so it appeared to agree with him.

    Comment by Riley — February 14, 2011 @ 1:10 am

  2. I am having trouble buying into the sacrifice for nothing idea. I am thinking of the unprofitable servants idea in the BOM. Also the idea of blessings coming to the obedient. Also the idea of degrees of glory. All of this seems to point to the something better in the future. THis seems to me to be so central to the gospel – enduring this mortal experience for a better afterlife.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — February 14, 2011 @ 6:44 am

  3. Matt W,

    I like your perspective though on the LDS definition of sacrifice. That JS quote has always puzzled me since to me I get the vibe from it that the sacrificing we are asked to do could just be some random test in this game of life as opposed to being something of pragmatic worth to God and His Kingdom. I may be wrong though.

    Comment by Riley — February 14, 2011 @ 8:07 am

  4. The natural man seems to constantly call out and encourage me to let my mind and heart seek the things of this world. Sacrifice, in all forms, beats the natural man right away and reminds me that joy comes from people, prayer, beauty and other spiritual things.

    I suspect that in ancient animal sacrifices of the best male, the sacrifice was more than we moderns realize. I’m not a farmer type, but I suspect the loss of those genes in the gene pool of the herd was huge – more than just the food from one ram.

    Comment by Hal — February 14, 2011 @ 12:00 pm

  5. Riley: In Truth, I think we run the “Straight and Narrow Blogs” list.

    Eric: Great Question! I actually got this one in my class as well. I think the answer has to do with intent and specificity. 1st, it our intent in doing good (sacrificing our selfish will for the the greater good, let’s say) is to get a reward, I think we will be more likely to fail to selfish expediency. While I’m not a big proponent of appeals to authority, the appeal would be to Dallin H. Oaks or Hartman Rector. I think Oaks makes a good point that love is a better reason to sacrifice than potential reward. And I think Rector is right, that acting out of desire for reward will not motivate us far enough along that we will do right in every case. This also makes me think of a post I did a while back on peer-relationships. So in the long-term, I think the intent we do things with has an impact on the value of the sacrifice that we perform.

    In the short term, I think acting without an expectation of reward is also good, because the reward we receive may not be the one which we expected, etc.

    Riley: I think it is only if the sacrifice is ultimately of pragmatic worth to us that it would be of pragmatic worth to us, so I’m not sure I see the difference between a random test and something of pragmatic worth.

    Comment by Matt W. — February 14, 2011 @ 12:57 pm

  6. Hal, very interesting point, RE: the sacrifice of the best male.

    Comment by Matt W. — February 14, 2011 @ 12:59 pm

  7. Matt:

    I think we could probably go in never-ending circles on this, but even if the sacrifice is out of love, the something better is for some other person. It is still something better – even if it is for someone else. So I still see sacrifice for nothing as something of a delusion. Even if is a hope for something better for someone else it is still not sacrifice for nothing.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — February 15, 2011 @ 6:47 am

  8. Eric:

    Let me kill the never-ending circle by saying: I agree completely. Thus my definition was that we sacrifice for “some greater purpose or goal”. I am not in the Ayn Rand camp where sacrifice is giving up something of a greater value for something of a lesser value. I do not think Sacrifice for nothing is intelligible. I just do not think that Sacrifice should always have direct personal gain associated with it. The idea that I only give things up so I can go to Heaven and receive better things for myself just runs counter to the idea of my giving up of myself for and in behalf of someone else.

    Comment by Matt W. — February 15, 2011 @ 8:07 am

  9. Exxxxxxxcellent.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — February 15, 2011 @ 12:30 pm

  10. Interesting point Hal.

    I think Philippians 2:6-7 is mistranslated in the KJV. See, for example, http://net.bible.org/#!bible/Philippians+2. Other translations such as this just reinforce the point you are making in that paragraph.

    One of my favorite talks is Elder Ballard’s “The Law of Sacrifice”: http://lds.org/ensign/1998/10/the-law-of-sacrifice?lang=eng After discussing the law of sacrifice through the ages, he concludes, “If I have a fear, it is that the principle of sacrifice may be slipping away from us…” A very powerful and thorough talk.

    Comment by rp — February 16, 2011 @ 12:02 pm

  11. Interesting. This post made me think of an LDS friend who believes in the “restoration of all things in the latter days.” He usually refers to this line to explain polygamy, but we often discuss animal sacrifices in these same light. He thinks as part of the “restoration of all things” these type of sacrifices (animal) will eventually be restored even if for a short period of time.

    What is the current mainstream LDS view on this???

    Comment by Manuel — February 16, 2011 @ 3:23 pm

  12. I haven’t read the the Lectures on Faith for some time, but in the past I always thought lecture sixth was the best one. Which is why I was surprised when I read this classic quote I’ve read a million times before and realized I don’t agree with it at all. In years past I have read into the lecture an idea which is not there and without which the argument becomes absurd.

    This is the fatally flawed piece of logic around which the rest of the lecture swirls in the bowl:

    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.

    That is just crazy. By that logic, the 9/11 bombers know most assuredly (not merely believe) that God does and will accept their sacrifice and offering. Sacrifice cannot be the medium through which we know that God approves of us because we are perfectly capable of sacrificing in ways that God does not approve. (The author(s) should know that because they cited the story of Cain and Abel in the second lecture). The only reasonable medium is God himself; he must reveal to us that our sacrifice is acceptable to him and that he approves of our course or we cannot know.

    I never realized that this lecture is claiming that it is by the sacrifice of all things, per se, that we know our course is acceptable to God and gain an absolute confidence that we will be saved. This absolute confidence is equated with the faith necessary to lay hold on eternal life. I don’t buy that for a minute.

    Comment by Jacob J — February 16, 2011 @ 5:48 pm

  13. Manuel:

    Try this


    The precedent to that statement though is:

    For a man to lay down his all, his character and reputation, his honor and applause, his good name among men, his houses, his lands, his brothers and sisters, his wife and children, and even his own life also, counting all things but filth and dross for the excellency of the knowledge of Jesus Christ, requires more than mere belief or supposition that he is doing the will of God, but actual knowledge; realizing that when these sufferings are ended he will enter into eternal rest, and be a partaker of the glory of God. For unless a person does know that he is walking according to the will of God, it would be offering an insult to the dignity of the Creator were he to say that he would be a partaker of his glory when he should be done with the things of this life. But when he has this knowledge, and most assuredly knows that he is doing the will of God, his confidence can be equally strong that he will be a partaker of the glory of God.

    So It’s unclear to me which came first, the faith or the sacrifice. I know it says we obtain the faith needed to obtain eternal life by sacrifice, but isn’t this also saying we could not and would not sacrifice all if we did not have “more than mere belief” that we are doing God’s will in what we are sacrificing?

    Perhaps I am wresting the text here a bit, but it resonates more with my experience. My take is that we would need faith to sacrifice and that the sacrifices we’ve made would deepen our faith as we saw the fruits of God’s will. It still may be a leap in logic, and I remember thinking of stockholm syndrome as we read this as part of my lesson on Sunday, though I didn’t bring it up at the time.

    Comment by Matt W. — February 16, 2011 @ 6:32 pm

  14. Matt,

    Read that whole lecture and look carefully for the mechanism by which a person obtains knowledge rather than mere belief. This gets referred to over and over in the lecture but the clearest statement of mechanism is in the snippet I quoted from #12 where it says flat out that sacrificing everything with a belief that you are called to make the sacrifice is what guarantees you have knowledge as opposed to be belief.

    As to which comes first, your spiral makes good sense, but the lecture seems to be saying something as simplistic as: it requires more than mere belief to sacrifice everything, so if you go sacrifice everything that then counts as proof that you have more than mere belief. Because if all you had was belief, you never would have sacrificed everything. QED!

    Comment by Jacob J — February 17, 2011 @ 10:17 am

  15. For those who won’t take time to read that lecture closely, here are some relevant quotes to compare:

    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.

    Those, then, who make the sacrifice will have the testimony that their course is pleasing in the sight of God, and those who have this testimony will have faith to lay hold on eternal life.

    All the saints of whom we have account …obtained the knowledge which they had of their acceptance in his sight, through the sacrifice which they offered unto him

    Comment by Jacob J — February 17, 2011 @ 10:41 am

  16. Jacob J: Excellent point, and I can’t really argue against that reading as being more true to the overall intent, even if I don’t like it. It reminds me of when people say Joseph Smith wouldn’t have suffered all he suffered for the Gospel if it wasn’t true. Very tenuous.

    Comment by Matt W. — February 17, 2011 @ 3:04 pm

  17. Good catch Jacob. Looks like some severely flawed and circular logic being employed there. At worst it lends itself to some serious abuse or radicalism.

    Comment by Geoff J — February 21, 2011 @ 12:28 am