Why ‘Better Than Sacrifice’?

In 1 Samuel 15, we read God’s instruction to King Saul to punish the city of Amalek by utterly destroying it. Not one man, woman, child, ox, sheep, camel or donkey was to be spared. Saul carries out the command – almost. But, he does not execute Agag, king of the Amalekites, and he spares the best of the sheep, oxen, fatlings, lambs and ‘all that was good’.

The prophet Samuel confronts Saul with his sin, and pronounces God’s judgment with these words:

Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,
As in obeying the voice of the LORD?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,
And to heed than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft,
And stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the LORD,
He also has rejected you from being king.
1 Samuel 15:22-23 (NKJV)

The timeless truth presented in this passage is that God requires total obedience to His commands. This is the demand of the law. Failure to obey justly brings God’s punishment.

It is immediately apparent that such total adherence to all aspects of God’s law revealed in the Bible is impossible for fallen men and women to achieve. We can’t earn God’s favour, because even our best attempts fail to reach His standards and are as filthy rags in His sight. We don’t even want to obey God — like Saul, we rebel against God’s commands and think we know better. We sin because our nature is inherently sinful. We deserve God’s wrath.

We therefore need a Saviour, someone who is able to fulfil the law by keeping it perfectly on our behalf. Jesus Christ, God’s unique son, is that Saviour. Christ received on the cross the punishment that was due to all those who turn away from their sin and believe and trust in Him for the forgiveness of their sins. More than that, Jesus’ perfect righteousness is put to their account. This salvation — the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness — is not earned, but is a free gift given by God. It is the result of His unmerited favour (Ephesians 2:8).

If we are among those who trust in Christ, those who have been forgiven our sins and declared righteous, does this mean that we don’t have to keep God’s commands? Not at all. Christ sets us free from sin — it would be a nonsense for us to continue to submit ourselves to it. We have instead become slaves of righteousness. God’s Word shows us how He desires us to live, and every one of His commands was given for our own good (Deuteronomy 10:13). Although we know that obedience to God is not a way to earn God’s favour, the new nature that is now within us yearns to do God’s will — it is our joy and privilege to serve Him and our neighbour. Jesus says:

If you love Me, keep My commandments.
John 14:15

and

He who has My commandments and keeps them,
It is he who loves Me.
And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father,
And I will love him and manifest Myself to him.
John 14:21

But, of course, even as we read these words, we realize that we don’t keep His commandments. Not even close. The more we mature as Christians, the more we realize how sinful we are. There’s not one second of a single day that goes by in which I love God with all my heart, mind, soul and strength (Luke 10:27). And I fail miserably to love my neighbour as myself. But our confidence is not in our own law-keeping, but in Christ alone. And so, even as we strive against sin, we daily cast ourselves afresh upon the mercy of Christ, trusting and knowing that even our continuing sinful failure has already been paid for in full by Jesus on the cross — this truly is Good News.

Much (but not all!) of the modern church seems at times to have lost sight of these things. The Gospel is not that Christianity or the Bible offers a better way of living, but that Christ was crucified for sinners and raised from the dead. Paying lip-service to the authority of Scripture is worthless unless we believe and faithfully proclaim its message — Christ crucified for sinners. For fear of giving offence, we too often fail to call people to repentance. For fear of seeming foolish, we neglect to proclaim the forgiveness of sins through Christ crucified on the cross. Yet we are called to be faithful to the Gospel we have received. Let us be doers of the Word, not merely hearers (James 1:22)!

I hope that this blog will be a contribution (if only a very meagre one) to helping us rediscover the riches of ‘the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 1:3) and the joy that is to be found in Christ.

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