What is Sacrifice?

This post was originally part of a presentation at Lancaster Bible College | Capital Seminary & Graduate School. It has been modified from its original version.

I have the daunting task of explaining to you, my fellow readers, what is a sacrifice. When I first chose the topic, I had a million different ways in which I wanted to go. After all, this is a vast topic! How can I possibly talk about all the various aspects of sacrifice in their fullest extent in a blog post?!

Richard Baxter offers hard and disgusting imagery of our depravity in contrast to the work of Christ:

As a sinner, you are far viler than a toad. Yet Christ was so far from making light of you and your happiness that He came down into the flesh, and lived a life of suffering, and offered Himself a sacrifice to the justice which He has provoked, that your miserable soul might have a remedy. It is no less than miracles of love and mercy that He has showed to us. — Richard Baxter (300 Quotations for Preachers from the Puritans)

But why does he?

First, we will briefly examine sacrifice in the Old Testament. Second, we will be looking at sacrifice in the New Testament.  Third, we will look at Christ and his High Priest role he possesses. Fourth, we will be reconciling how New Testament sacrifice fulfills the Old Testament. Last, we will be exploring how to live as a sacrifice.


We all know that sacrifices were in the Old Testament. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are all filled with examples after example and law after law concerning sacrifices. Some of you may be thinking – “Wait, ‘sacrifice’ isn’t mentioned until Leviticus, how can Genesis and Exodus be included?” Sacrifice is a result of the fall.

The fall opened the gate for sin to affect all things in nature and man. The very first sacrifice was mentioned just shortly after the fall:

And the LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.
— Genesis 3:21 (ESV)

The skins would have to come from somewhere. God had to kill an animal to make clothing for Adam and Eve. An animal had to be sacrificed for Adam and Eve (and in effect, all humanity) so that they would not be ashamed due to their sin.

Due to sin entering all creation, God required of his people sacrifices to provide an atonement for their crimes.

Early on, sacrifices were a part of the life of God’s people. The very next chapter is the birth of Cain and Abel, and we all know their story well:

3 In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4 and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, 5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell.
— Genesis 4:3-5 (ESV)

We have our first example (especially pre-Mosaic covenant) of sacrifice for God and the work of sin.

Some have interpreted this passage to mean that the Lord had a problem with Cain because of what he offered. However, I (and many other scholars, pastors, and theologians) do not agree with this interpretation. You will find most agree that this is an issue of the heart.  Note the absence of “firstfruits” in Cain’s offering whereas Abel brought the “firstborn” of his animals. Cain did not bring his best to the Lord whereas Abel brought his best trusting that the Lord will provide for him and that he would be pleased. Another proof is that God permitted fruit offerings when he gave his law (cf. Leviticus 2).

Sacrifices were supposed to be an act of pure worship to God and regulated by God because he is the God and deserves our very best and to be worshipped per his Word. However, these sacrifices were not enough to forgive of sin – they merely allowed God to pass over the transgressions temporarily. Sacrifices in the Old Testament did not deal with wrongdoing finally and fully.

As I mentioned, sacrifices were pointing to what was to come and to determine that we have to look to the New Testament. The primary role of sacrifices in the Old Testament was that they were a foreshadowing of what was to come.


We don’t have to think long and hard to come up with an example of sacrifice in the New Testament. The very first portion of the New Testament – the four gospels – gives us the ultimate example of what sacrifice is – the sacrifice is Jesus Christ.

Whereas God’s first sacrifice was an animal in the garden to cover Adam and Eve, Christ’s sacrifice would be the final one and would include all his people’s sins. This sacrifice is a redemption of the fall.

Hear the words Jesus said when he instituted the new covenant:

… for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
— Matthew 26:28 (ESV)

From this statement, we know his final acts will be significant. If we take the story of Christ on the Cross ignore the rest of the Bible, we just see a man dying on the Cross. The Bible gives us the context and meaning to understand why this was not an ordinary death, but a sacrifice. Christ had to die for the sins of his people.

He died for us: idolaters, blasphemers, disobeyers, murderers, haters, gossipers, liars, adulterers, lusters, distorters of sexuality, coveters, those who are jealous, thieves, and many other sins that grieve our Savior.

He saved us from the wrath of God, hell where we would suffer for an eternity for our sins as punishment, sin so that we may no longer continue in those errors but that we may learn the way of Christ (Ephesians 4:20), for his glory, and himself.


However, Christ’s work did not stop there. Christ is alive, he has been resurrected and has ascended to heaven where he is interceding to God for his people – the church.

He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself.
— Hebrews 7:27 (ESV)

Whereas the people under the Old Covenants had to be invariably offering up sacrifices to the Lord, Christ has provided the ultimate sacrifice – himself. No longer do we have to go to a priest and offer animals up to cover our sins. We may meet the Lord wherever we are and come to him and expect in full assurance the forgiveness of our sins through his sacrifice by his blood.

Since the Lord forgives our sins, he covers us by his sacrifice and blood; we can experience the full benefits of what it means to be called the children of God. Namely, we can experience his intercession for us.

Once a year, the high priest would put on his garments prescribed by the Lord and enter into the Holy of Holies to make an atonement for God’s people. On the vest were twelve stones that represent the twelve tribes of Israel. The priest would bare the tribes of Israel and their sins as they made atonement before God.

Now Christ sits at the right hand of the Father and bears our names on himself. Because of his sacrifice, he goes before God continually and pleads for mercy for his people. What a great Savior this is!

Most importantly, Christ will return:

27 And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, 28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.
— Hebrews 9:27-28 (ESV)


Now, how do these two testaments connect?

Do you remember what I said about when sacrifice began? In the Old Testament, sacrifice is a result of the fall. In the New Testament, Christ’s sacrifice redeemed the fall.

Do you remember what I said about the frequency and quantity of sacrifices? In the Old Testament, sacrifices fill the Pentateuch. In the New Testament, there is but one, ultimate, glorious, and beautiful sacrifice.

Do you remember what I said about who sacrificed for who? In the Old Testament, God sacrificed an animal to cover Adam and Eve physically. In the New Testament, Christ sacrificed himself to wash away spiritually the sins of his people.

Do you remember what I said about why the first sacrifice had to happen? In the Old Testament, God had to sacrifice an animal so that Adam and Eve would not feel ashamed physically. In the New Testament, the God-man had to be sacrificed for his people from their sins so that they would not feel ashamed of their sin (in spite of who they are).

Do you remember what I said about the quality of the sacrifice? In the Old Testament, God expected the “firstfruits” – the very best – to be sacrificed to cover sins. In the New Testament, God offered his very best to wash away sins – his only begotten Son.

Do you remember what I said about the sufficiency of the sacrifices? In the Old Testament, sacrifices never finally and adequately dealt with sin. In the New Testament, Christ’s sacrifice did.

Do you remember what I said about the continuance of the sacrifices? In the Old Testament, sacrifices were a constant part of everyday life. In the New Testament, Christ sacrificed himself once and for all – there is no more need for us to sacrifice.


Our salvation has always been in the same in the Old Testament and the New Testament. It’s important to touch on this point because the result of the New Testament sacrifice is the justification of God’s elect.

The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 11, Section 6 boldly proclaims:

The justification of believers under the old testament was, in all these respects, the same with the justification of believers under the new testament.
— Westminster Confession of Faith (11.6)

One of the proof texts that the Westminster Divines used is found in Galatians 3:

9 So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham. … 13 Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: 14 That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
— Galatians 3:9, 13-14 (KJV)

Also, Paul writes in Ephesians that

4 There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. — Ephesians 4:4-6 (ESV)

Living as Exiles

So what does this all mean for us today?

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
— Romans 12:1 (ESV)

What does this verse even mean? I think Thomas R. Schreiner describes what this verse implies and its application very well:

Sacrificial language from the OT is used to denote the new life of Christians, and this means that the word bodies here refers to Christians as whole persons, for both body and soul belong to God. They are a living sacrifice, meaning that they are alive from the dead since they enjoy new life with Christ (6:4). “Living” also means that they will not be put to death as OT animal sacrifices were (see notes on sacrifices in Leviticus 1– 7), for Christ has fulfilled what was predicted by those sacrifices. Whereas OT worship focused on offering animal sacrifices in the temple, Paul says that spiritual worship in a broad sense now includes offering one’s whole life to God (cf. Heb. 13:15–16).
— Thomas R. Schreiner (ESV Study Bible)


Do you understand why Richard Baxter used such strong language when talking about sacrifice? We are vile, but God showed us love – not just any love – but ἀγαπε love. This love is a love bestowed towards an unworthy object, such as us in our sins. How did he show us?

But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. — Romans 5:8 (ESV)

So now, with the glory of sacrifice manifested, we can sing with the great Isaac Watts:

1 Alas and did my Savior bleed And did my Sov’reign die? Would he devote that sacred head for sinners such as I? 2 Was it for crimes that I had done He groaned upon the tree? Amazing pity, grace unknown, And love beyond degree! 3 Well might the sun in darkness hide, And shut His glories in, When Christ the mighty Maker died For man, the creature’s sin. 4 But drops of grief can ne’er repay The debt of love I owe; Here, Lord I give myself away, ’Tis all that I can do.
— Isaac Watts (Alas and Did My Savior Bleed)

All praise, honor, and glory to the One who has called us to this beautiful redemption, the slain and resurrected Son, and the Holy Spirit that makes these truths a reality in our hearts. Amen.

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