Sacrifice: Have we given up?

For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. (Mark 8:35).

This book will frighten some. Let none who want a book to soothe read on. We face the Cross.1

2010 is a notable anniversary for evangelical student ministry in Australia: exactly 80 years ago, Howard Guinness arrived here.2 He was 27 years old and large—in physical stature; in energy, passion and vision; and in faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. In a whirlwind three months, he inspired the establishment of evangelical ministries at universities in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Hobart, as well as a Crusader movement in several secondary schools.

But Australia was not the first place Guinness touched; two years earlier, just weeks after finishing his medical degree, Guinness was sent to Canada by the recently established InterVarsity Fellow­ship in the UK with a one-way ticket, a second-hand fur-lined coat and 14 pounds for expenses, to grow evangelical student witness. The planned six-month visit expanded to a year and a half. Having criss-crossed Canada several times, proclaiming the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and starting groups on university campuses and in secondary schools, Guinness was invited to visit Australia and New Zealand to continue his ministry planting work. Guinness spent the next decade establishing and encouraging evangelical student ministries across the world, making trips (sometimes repeated) to India, South Africa, Spain, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Hungary, Switzerland and Belgium.

Guinness has been described as a maverick—a highly motivated, enthusiastic extrovert with the “unquenchable optimism of a pioneer” whose life was “all risk, attack, venture, daring”. However, “he loved people, and his warm-heartedness came through”.3 But as his original ‘sending’ to Canada shows, Guinness embraced personal sacrifice for the sake of the Lord Jesus and his gospel. (How many would be content with a one-way ticket today?)

During this decade of global ministry in the 1920s and 30s, Guinness wrote a booklet on this theme of sacrifice.4 His point was straightforward: the church has pulled back from sacrifice as a way of discipleship, with the result that global mission has been impeded. He wrote to provide a ‘wake-up call’. Sample these lines from his final paragraphs:

Where are the young men and women of this generation who will hold their lives cheap, and be faithful even unto death? … Where are those who will live dangerously, and be reckless in His service? Where are His lovers—those who love Him and the souls of men more than their own reputations or comfort, or very life? …

Where are the men who say “no” to self, who take up Christ’s Cross to bear it after Him; who are willing to be nailed to it in college or office, home or mission field; who are willing, if need be, to bleed, to suffer, and to die on it? …

Where are the men who are willing to pay the price of vision?

Where are the men of prayer? Where are the men who, like the Psalmist of old, count God’s Word of more importance to them than their daily food? …

Where are God’s men in this day of God’s power? (pp. 76-77)5

Read today, Guinness’s booklet shows its age, reflecting the culture of the 1930s—from the quirky (e.g. commending cold baths to aid one’s health!) and the stylistic (e.g. Bible verses quoted aplenty without context or exposition) to the theological (e.g. seek God’s specific will and guidance in every situation lest you wander into God’s ‘second best’). However, there are two great strengths of Howard’s booklet that we would do well to explore.

1. Sacrifice and the heart of Christian life

The first strength of Guinness’s booklet is his emphasis on ‘sacrifice’. Sacrifice lies at the heart of the Christian life: at the centre of our redemption is the love-motivated, grace-abounding, obedient-to-his-Father self-sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ for us (Heb 9:11-15; Luke 22:42; Eph 1:7; 1 John 4:9-10). This once-for-all sacrifice was prefigured in the old covenant temple sacrifices, which could never effect actual atonement (Heb 10:1-4). But Jesus’ willing death was the gracious atoning reality.

However, sacrifice is more than just central to the atonement; it takes us to the heart of God himself. Jesus’ self-sacrifice for our sakes demonstrates his love for us, and so reveals the character of God—name­ly that God is love (1 John 3:16, 4:9-10).

Moreover, since God’s people are to reflect his character, Jesus’ sacrifice reveals the way to live as the redeemed and loved children of God (1 John 3:16, 4:11-12). We sacrifice not in order to earn salvation, nor because sacrifice is intrinsically valuable, nor merely because it is demanded; instead, it is our free response to God’s loving sacrifice towards us, and the way in which we follow Christ and image God in the world as we pursue his kingdom and purposes.

Guinness was right in his estimation of sacrifice’s importance. We dare not be forgetful or ignorant of it, for our life in Christ is found in sacrifice: “We face the Cross” (p. viii).

But if sacrifice is so fundamental to Christian life, why does it characterize our discipleship so little? Guinness does not provide much analysis of why we have gone wrong; he just exhorts us to lift our game! I suspect there are four main ways in which we have distorted our understanding of sacrifice.

a) Sacrifice using the wrong measure and model

Firstly, when it comes to sacrifice, we adhere to a wrong measure and model. Chatting with certain pastors, the incongruity of them insisting on a standard of housing far beyond the financial reach of most in their church has often struck me. To compound the tragedy, on a Sunday in church, many will interview missionary families who live in houses a third of the size of theirs, but will not think to agitate on their behalf for a better situation, let alone readjust their own expectations.

Even more significant is the fact that, even though our tendency is to look ‘sideways’ to others to calibrate our sacrificial discipleship, the New Testament looks to the sacrifice of our saviour. The cross of Jesus is the measure and model; when we fail to look to him, we fall into complacency, self-satisfaction and petty comparison. Furthermore, failing to look to the cross of Jesus has, in my estimation, led to the three other problems discussed below.

b) Sacrifice only when compelled

Secondly, we tend to sacrifice only when compelled. Guinness makes the point that it is not demanded of all of us to give up everything for Christ; the issue, he insists, is whether you are willing to lose it all for his sake. I suspect our answer is usually, “Yes, of course I am willing … if it is demanded of me”.

However, the question that takes us closer to the issue of sacrifice in our discipleship is “What will I voluntarily give up for the sake of the gospel?” This is a much more revealing question because it involves choice, not compulsion. Further­more, the list of things I could choose to sacrifice is enormous: my money, my time, my career, my worldly security, my comfortable life, my safe relationships …

But hang on; does Jesus really urge me to forgo these blessings for the sake of his kingdom? That seems to be his message in Luke 12:13-34—at least with respect to worldly possessions. He comforts his disciples with the fact that they need not be preoccupied with pagan worries about securing their future needs, for their heavenly Father knows their needs, and as they seek first his kingdom, he will meet them (vv. 22-31). In fact, so sure is God’s faithfulness, you can sell your possessions to help the poor (vv. 32-33).

This is worth reflecting upon. Does Jesus command them to sell everything? No. Does he proclaim to God’s children freedom from the need to hoard up wealth in a vain attempt to secure their future? Yes, absolutely. Is this so that his disciples can spend more on themselves? No way; it’s to liberate their assets in order to meet the needs of others. “You don’t need these assets to secure your future”, says Jesus. “Your heavenly Father will look after that. But you can be his means of helping those who are currently in need.”

This brings us back to the point: this is freedom—the freedom to sacrifice for Jesus’ sake, grounded in trust in our Father’s sovereignty and promise. But I wonder if many of us elect not to take up this freedom—or, at best, we partake of it in just small amounts. We ask ourselves, “Why would I voluntarily sacrifice these good things?” The answer is because there is great need and we are driven by love. We tend to fall into the trap of “I’ll sacrifice if I’m compelled” because we kid ourselves (deliberately or out of ignorance) that desperate need does not exist in the wider world. But the reality is that billions don’t know Jesus, there is always the need for the sharing of God’s word, and there is a massive disparity of both material and spiritual resources around the globe. Has our horizon narrowed so much that we no longer see the bigger picture?

The model of voluntary sacrifice out of love for God and his kingdom comes from Jesus. The New Testament teaches that Jesus’ self-sacrifice was never out of compulsion (Luke 22:42; John 14:31); at any time, by Satan’s own reckoning, Jesus could have called on angels to deliver him from the path he had chosen (Luke 4:9-12). But he chose the cross—he chose humiliation—all for love of his Father and for us (Phil 2:6-8; Gal 2:20).

c) Sacrifice with the wrong attitude

Thirdly, we sacrifice displaying the wrong attitude. We fall prey to the lie that we are our own. But the truth is all we have is not ‘ours’, but ‘his’: we are stewards, not owners. The material assets at my disposal, the time that I have, the choices I get to make—all are God’s gifts to me. Certainly they are given to me to enjoy, but fundamentally they are his, not mine (1 Tim 4:4-5; Ps 24:1).

When we lose sight of the fact that we are mere stewards, we again start to overestimate the virtue of our sacrifice: “I’m giving up my holiday/my weekend/my opportunity/my lifestyle …” The reality, of course, is that we are his: we are his stewards in his world using his gifts for his good purposes. The cross of Jesus tells us we are not our own (1 Cor 6:19-20).

d) Sacrifice without cost

Fourthly and finally, we sacrifice without cost to ourselves. An older preacher remarked to me recently, “Sacrifice isn’t in our vocabulary anymore”. He meant not that we don’t use the word, but that as a Christian community, in his judgement, we no longer grasp what it means to sacrifice for the sake of Christ. It seems to me that we have diluted the idea of ‘sacrifice’ so that it now means just ‘giving something up’, rather than ‘giving something up at cost to yourself’. Is going to church on a Sunday a ‘sacrifice’? Many seem to regard it so, even though the cost for most isn’t much more than the hassle of getting the family dressed and in the car. Is giving out of our abundance really ‘sacrificial’? When we don’t notice the amount that’s gone because its loss has no tangible impact on our life, how ‘sacrificial’ have we been?

It is worth remembering that Jesus’ voluntary sacrifice for us was costly: “you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Pet 1:18-19). I suspect that we are happy to sacrifice for the sake of the gospel when it costs us very little. But what, out of love for God and his kingdom, could you voluntarily forgo—even at cost to yourself—to see Jesus glorified?

2. Sacrifice and contemporary Christian culture

If the first strength of Guinness’s booklet was the importance of his theme, the second strength is the depth and extent of his application. He took a magnifying glass to the Christian culture of his day and identified in close detail areas in which he felt a sacrificial attitude was disappearing. If we apply the same magnifying glass to contemporary Christian culture, are there particular areas in which we have pulled back from sacrificial discipleship—both individually and corporately?

Discussing this question with my fellow ministry staff workers at Sydney University brought up a surprising array. So here’s a list of 11 areas in which we may be pulling back from sacrificial discipleship (in no particular order). It’s worth reflecting upon.

• Self-gratification: It is easy for us to slip into decisions that are more about me/us than what might serve Christ, his kingdom and our neighbours. The world justifies self-indulgence (“You deserve it!”); the Lord Jesus commanded self-denial (Luke 9:23). What difference would it make if you asked yourself regularly, “How can I genuinely serve Christ, his gospel or my neighbour here”?

• Reputation: To follow Jesus means embracing the foolishness of our faith in the world’s eyes and not being afraid of the world’s hatred (1 Cor 1:18-19; John 15:18-20). But who wants to be thought of as a crazy, out-of-touch, prejudiced, narrow-minded, religious extremist? We’d prefer to have a (largely private) Christian faith, and keep our reputation in the world’s eyes. Is this why we struggle with evangelism—because we’re concerned about our reputations? What if we were more concerned with God’s ‘reputation’ among his creatures?

• Time: It used to be said that “Time is money”; today, it seems that time is more valuable than money since people are more willing to give money than to sacrifice their time! In contrast, the Christian must ask, “How am I going to steward the time God has given me to further his kingdom and glory?”

• Family: For some, family is sacrosanct: it always comes first, and all other external opportunities for service must fall in line behind it. This creates a ‘sacrifice-less’ family in which members are never called upon to forgo their own plans in order to facilitate the service of others outside the family. At best, this is selfish; at worst, it is idolatry.

Unfortunately some Christian families have swung too far the other way, with family always and forever being placed on hold while one or more of the parents is out ‘ministering’. Here, it’s the norm to sacrifice perpetually for others, with spouse and children receiving the (often fairly cold) relational leftovers.

Undoubtedly it is difficult to get the balance right. But maybe our children and spouses will appreciate the power of sacrificial love shown to those outside the family when they experience it in a steadfast way from us.

• Children’s educational/sporting/musi­cal opportunities: Would you forgo opportunities that are available to your children in the interests of furthering God’s kingdom? Taking children overseas on missionary service is an easy example (easy to identify, not easy to do), because some sort of sacrifice of opportunities for your children is par for the course. But will you sacrifice opportunities for your children here in order to grow Christ’s kingdom? Or is expecting our children to sacrifice whatever area we value deeply (be it education, sport, music, dance or surf lifesaving) too much to ask? Why are we so wedded to this form of development that we cannot countenance sacrificing it for the sake of the gospel? We don’t believe we love our children less if we don’t give them every toy on the market, so why do we think forgoing this particular opportunity will deprive them unreasonably if there is tangible benefit for the progress of Jesus’ gospel?

• A church that ‘works’ for me: Do we need to lose that critical consumerist attitude to church? Why do Christians need to seek out the most spirited preaching, the most dynamic music, the most professional children’s program and the most comfortable group of peers? Maybe we need to work on cultivating a servant-heartedness that commits voluntarily to a small church where the preaching is faithful (if not fervent) and the music acceptable (if not awesome), but where there are opportunities aplenty to use our God-given gifts to edify Christ’s body. After all, Jesus’ humble other-person-centredness is what we are called to emulate (Phil 2:1-5; John 13:12-17).

• Standard of living: What standard of living will you adopt in order to free up more of your income and assets for the furtherance of God’s kingdom and purposes? As living standards continue to rise, the regularity with which this question needs to be asked and the breadth of items to be considered increases. From investments to holidays—from bigger houses (“But it’s much more conducive to hospitality!”) to gourmet food—from the latest technological gizmo to funky KitchenAid appliances—will you forgo these good things for the sake of releasing more financial resources for God’s kingdom?

• Future ‘security’: Our attempts to secure our future are vain. As I’ve already pointed out, Jesus says pagans chase after future security, but in him, we have been freed from these anxieties so that we can use our wealth to help those currently in need (Luke 12:13-34; cf. 2 Cor 8:13-15; Titus 3:14).

• Where I live: Will you choose to move to a less salubrious suburb (rural, interstate or overseas) in order to use your gifts for God’s work in that place?

• What work I do: Many of us have been blessed by God in being able to choose what work we do. But are you willing to let your desire to see God’s purposes fulfilled shape your decision about careers? Or have you cut off that decision from your commitment to the Lord Jesus? Are you willing (if you have the gifts, opportunity and affirmation of God’s people) to give up your day job for vocational Christian ministry?

• Comfort zone in relationships: Loving people takes energy and time. Are you willing to go the extra mile and leave your comfort zone in order to love that person in their need? Are you willing to seek out the one lost sheep (Matt 18:12-14)? Are you prepared to mourn with those who mourn, or does that seem too draining? Are you prepared to risk conflict and offer a gentle, loving rebuke to that wandering brother or sister?

At the end of a list like this, there are two things worth remembering. Firstly, this is not about sacrifice for its own sake; instead, as a central aspect of Christian discipleship, we sacrifice for a purpose: to see God glorified through the progression of his kingdom. Secondly, the power to live sacrificial lives comes not from ourselves, but from the Spirit of him who sacrificed himself for us. May he work such willing sacrifice in us to his glory.

  1. Howard Guinness, ‘Author’s Preface’, Sacrifice, Inter-Varsity Fellowship of Evangelical Unions, London, 1939 (1936), p. viii.
  2. Information on Howard Guinness has been taken from Keith and Gladys Hunt, For Christ and the University: The Story of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship of the U.S.A., 1940-1990 (IVP, Downers Grove, 1991); Meredith Lake, Proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord: A History of the Sydney University Evangelical Union (The EU Graduates Fund, Sydney, 2005); and Stuart Piggin, ‘The challenging but glorious heritage, difficult but joyful birth, and troubled but triumphant childhood of the Melbourne University Evangelical Union, 1930 to 1940’ (paper written for 75th anniversary of the Melbourne University Christian Union, Melbourne, 2005. Accessed at:
  3. See Hunt, 61-66.
  4. Guinness’s booklet, first published in 1936, proved enduringly popular, going through numerous print runs and editions. Most recently a sixth edition was published by IVP in 1975, just four years before Guinness’s death.
  5. Guinness’s determination to see people changed and willing to embrace Christ’s call to sacrificial discipleship is obvious when you turn to the very last page of the booklet: there you find a prayer penned by Guinness, a space for you to sign and date your name, and these words:

    This booklet will not have fulfilled its purpose if it has only awakened conscience and not precipitated action. We must act. It is to help you to decide about this great issue that a prayer is appended here with a space below for your signature …

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