Sacrifice and Obedience

Sacrifice and Obedience

The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio

In the first book of Samuel, chapter 15, King Saul neglects the direct commands of God. Samuel’s prophetic word in response to Saul’s sin is as follows:

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 listen than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected you from being king.

Here, in chapter 15:22-23, Samuel states clearly what the Lord’s prefers to receive from Saul. He prefers obedience, for “to obey is better than sacrifice.” It is a striking example of God’s requirements upon his people, and it is not the only instance that this juxtaposition between sacrifices and obedience is made. The people were definitely required by God to offer sacrifices; if they didn’t they could not be in fellowship with their God. Yet, it seems that obedience is a sweeter offering to the Lord “than the fat of rams.” How do these two categories, sacrifice and obedience, fit into redemptive history? What do they mean for us, in light of the work of Jesus Christ?

New Covenant Sacrifice

Jesus is our sacrifice. He is the fulfillment of every animal slain to atone for sin, every piece of grain burnt to make peace with God. Hebrews 9:11-12 says he is our high priest who offered himself as a sacrifice. He is a priest, who climbs upon the altar and offers himself before the Lord. In Hebrews 9:26, it states that Jesus has suffered “once for all” to end the need for sacrifices. Romans 3:25 says that Jesus was put forth as a “propitiation,” an atoning sacrifice for sins. Jesus is the New Covenant sacrifice. Therefore, we don’t need to sacrifice anymore, because  Jesus is the final sacrifice. You might say he is the real sacrifice, as he was the only one that could truly wipe away sins (Hebrews 9:28).

New Covenant Obedience

We New Covenant protestants are very aware that we’re saved by God’s sovereign grace alone, and not by any human endeavor or work. However, despite this wonderful truth, God’s requirement of obedience remains upon us. Indeed, the juxtaposition between sacrifice and obedience is heightened in the New Covenant, because sacrifice is no longer required. Obedience, on the other hand, is definitely required. Jesus constantly called people to “follow me,” which requires an obedient act. In Mark 10:17-22, he commands the otherwise obedient rich man to be even more obedient! In Matthews gospel, chapters 5 and 6, Jesus “ups the ante” on the Jews, re-interpreting God’s Law in light of the New Covenant. The epistles are full of exhortations to “do” and “not do,” which all imply obedience. In short, the requirement for obedience has not been done away with in the New Covenant. We must still seek the will of God, and live in accordance with his Law. We must not be conformed to the world, but be transformed so that we can know God’s will (Romans 12:1-2). We must be doers of the word (James 1:22).


  1. Don (Author)

    Simon, how different this is from the contemporary self-serving attitude expressed in these words; “it’s easier to seek forgiveness than gain permission” – almost the reverse of the sacrifice and obedience words of the prophet Samuel.

    The rebellious heart of man says, “Rules be damned!” If I want to break God’s law or the morays of society, or the rules of my employer, or my marriage vows – I’ll do it regardless of consequences. If it serves my purposes – I’ll do it. I can always seek forgiveness later.

    Thanks for this challenging reminder.

    • Simon (Author)

      Thanks Don. Very true. Our Lord requires radical obedience from his followers (and, ultimately, from those who don’t follow him). I think even certain strands of Christian theology encourage the sort of attitude you’ve described. Radical obedience is entirely superseded by God’s radical grace. However, God holds both dear and so should we.

  2. Andrew Courtis

    Very helpful post Simon. The fact that many teach a form of Christianity that ignores the importance of Christian obedience is very revealing of one’s understanding of the biblical nature of salvation and how it brings transforming grace. The only reason we can obey is because in His grace He has granted us the desire and capacity to obey (cf. John 14:15). To ignore the place of obedience in the Christian life is to ignore a significant biblical doctrine.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *