Very few Christian religions require their members to offer any kind of sacrifice for their belief in the Lord. Indeed, the commonly accepted idea is that the only thing we need to do that's necessary to enjoy eternal life and salvation is to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. It is further noted that Christ offered the last great sacrifice Himself, thereby doing away with any other need to offer sacrifices.
However, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints takes a different view. The law of sacrifice is a very important and integral part of what we believe. But why?
To understand this principle, we first need to understand the role which faith plays in our relationship with God. The apostle Paul declared, "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1). It should be noted that the words "faith" and "belief" mean essentially the same thing. Thus, when Paul says, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved" (Acts 16:31), he could have just as easily said, "Have faith on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved." In other words, to have faith or belief in something means that we hope that something is true, even though we can't actually see it and know for sure of it's existence. Paul's definition of faith specifically refers to the hope we have of the eternal salvation which God has promised us, but which we cannot actually see.
God's word has promised us that if we believe in His Son, Jesus Christ, we will be saved into a glorious realm known as the kingdom of heaven. Since none of us have ever actually seen this kingdom, we take it on faith that, first of all, such a place even exists, secondly that the scriptures really are the words of God on how to get to heaven, thirdly, that His promise is true, and fourthly, that we correctly understand how to achieve that promise.
For Christians, this is what we base our faith on. For non-Christians, they have no such faith, or hope, or belief that any of these things are actually true. As such, each person lives their life in accordance with what they believe or have faith in. Therefore, it is our faith, or lack of it, that determines our actions. Even in life, everyone acts in accordance with their beliefs. Take, for example the person who sets their alarm clock at night to wake them in the morning for work. Why do they set their alarm? Because they believe or have faith that the alarm clock will wake them on time, that there will be another day to wake up to, that nothing will happen to them during the night to prevent them from hearing the alarm, and that they will still have a job to wake up for. None of these things are known with absolute certainty, but we have faith, hope, and a belief that all of these things will happen. As such, our faith motivates us to set the alarm.
In the law of Moses, the Israelites were required to do many things, one of which was to offer up various kinds of sacrifices to the Lord. The question has often been asked, "What does the Lord need with a burnt animal?" In reality, nothing. Then why did He require the Israelites to offer these sacrifices?
The answer most usually given is they were meant to illustrate how God would someday sacrifice His own Son for man's sins. Although that is true in one sense, in another sense there is a problem with this understanding. The word "sacrifice" means: "To forfeit something for something else considered to have a greater value" (American Heritage Dictionary). Jesus forfeited His life for something He considered to be of greater value -- the salvation of mankind. He deliberately gave up everything he had and willingly exchanged that life for one of insults, humiliation, pain, and even horrific agony to the point of death in order to achieve something more glorious. His was the truest form of sacrifice.
But what sacrifice is there in slitting the throat of a goat upon an alter? Did the goat willingly give up it's life for the sake of it's owner? Of course not. The goat was butchered and burnt without it's consent. More than that, the Israelites had no idea that they were offering a sacrifice that was patterned after that which the Savior would someday make for their sins.
If that is so, then why did the Israelites offer sacrifices unto God? The real reason is simply because God told them to do it. Since it was a commandment from the Lord, they believed, or had faith that such an offering was pleasing and acceptable to their God. In other words, it was their faith in God that motivated them to offer up their sacrifices.
But why is this called a sacrifice? Because the Israelites were to give up something of value -- their best goat, sheep, dove, etc. -- in exchange for something of greater value -- the approval and blessings of God. It is highly doubtful they would have sacrificed their personal property if they didn't believe that what they were doing was pleasing to God. Therefore, the sacrifices which the Israelites made showed God how much faith and trust they really had in Him. The apostle Paul explained it this way: "But without faith it is impossible to please him [God]: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him" (Hebrews 1:6).
A sacrifice, then, becomes the substance, or the evidence of the faith which we claim to have.
If a person doesn't believe that God exists or is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him, they won't have any desire to sacrifice anything for the Lord's sake.
In the Old Testament days, the Lord required His people to sacrifice an animal as a way of showing their faith. After the death of Christ, did the need for sacrifice end as a means of showing our belief in God? Paul counseled the saints in Rome: "I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service" (Romans 12:1). According to Paul, God feels it is a reasonable request that those who put their trust, faith, and belief in Him perform the service of sacrificing their bodies to Him in a way He considers to be holy and acceptable.
But, how do we offer up our own bodies as a sacrifice, especially in a way that makes it holy and acceptable to God? If we remember the definition of "sacrifice", then it becomes clear that the Lord expects us to forfeit or give up or exchange "something" for something else that has a greater value. If our sacrifice is based on our faith in God, then that greater value we seek is something which the Lord has promised us, but which we cannot yet see or know of for sure.
Before we look at what it is that God expects us to sacrifice, we need to look at another aspect of faith. Faith is not something a person either has or doesn't have. It's not like a light bulb that's either off or on. It's something that's measured in degrees. The scriptures make reference to those who are of little faith, those who have great faith, and those who are full of faith. More than that, faith is not a constant value. It's something that can grow and shrink, expand or contract. In addition to this, it's clear from the scriptures that the Lord expects His people to be full of faith. But why? What value is there for increasing our faith in God?
Paul explained that without faith it's impossible to please God. It therefore follows that the more faith we have in God, the more pleased God is with us. If that's so, then it's reasonable to suspect that the more God is pleased with us, the more He blesses or rewards us. Indeed it was Jesus who taught, "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works" (Matthew 16:24-27).
Notice that Jesus said, "What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?" The idea of exchanging, or giving something up to gain something of a greater value is the definition of a "sacrifice." Jesus also talked about us "denying" ourselves, and "losing" our life. All these statements imply forfeiting ourselves and our life for the purpose of gaining something else of greater value. When the Lord said he would reward each man according to his works, it's clearly implied that the greater our works the greater our reward will be. There's no indication that all men will be rewarded equally. Therefore it's obvious that the greater the sacrifice, the greater the value must be of that which we hope to receive. It's also as obvious that the greater the sacrifice, the greater our faith must be to offer it. Thus, the greater our faith, the greater the sacrifice must be and the greater will be our reward.
But what is it we are expected to sacrifice?
Paul explained that it was "By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous ... "(Hebrews 11:4). Why was Abel's offering more excellent than Cain's? We know from the account in Genesis that Cain didn't offer his sacrifice according to the manner in which God had explained. Thus, the offered sacrifice was an indication of how obedient Able and Cain were to obeying the words of the Lord. Thus, a sacrifice is holy and acceptable only if it is done the way the Lord requires it to be performed.
Consider these two examples. There was a yearly sacrifice that each Israelite was expected to make (Samuel 1:21). What if someone made two sacrifices a year to show they had twice as much faith? Would that please God? No, because the offering was to be made only once a year. Doing it twice a year wouldn't have been performing the sacrifice according to the way God had commanded. Consider the second example of King Saul. He was commanded by the Lord to utterly destroy the Amalekites. Instead, he kept the spoils of war, including the sheep and the oxen, which he later sacrificed unto the Lord in Gilgal. Rather than being pleased by this offering, the Lord was angry at Saul for not obeying Him. The prophet Samuel rebuked him, saying, "Hath the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as [he does] in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams" (1 Samuel 15:15-22).
When a person offers a sacrifice in a manner different than what the Lord requires, rather than pleasing God, it confirms a lack of faith in Him. Thus, a sacrifice is only holy and acceptable when it is offered in the manner in which the Lord has prescribed. Only in that way does it demonstrate a person's faith and trust in God.
The apostle Paul explained that one of the functions of the church is to help perfect the saints (Ephesians 4:12). When a church doesn't require its members to sacrifice, they are robbing them of the opportunity to demonstrate their faith and thereby grow unto perfection.
Many Christian denominations are usually satisfied if their members just come to church each Sunday. By way of contrast, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints expects much in the way of sacrifice from its members. From paying tithing, to living the word of wisdom, to accepting various positions of service, to doing home/visiting teaching, missionary work, temple work and genealogy, each member has many opportunities to show the Lord their faithfulness by offering Him a sacrifice of their time, money, talents, and energy. In short, they have the opportunity to show their faith and trust in the Lord by sacrificing themselves and all that they possess, including their own lives if necessary. This is what is meant by presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice.
When asked what the greatest commandment in the law was Jesus answered, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind" (Matthew 22:37). The Psalmist wrote "Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding" (Psalm 3:5). In order for us to trust in God, have faith in God, and believe in God with all of our heart, soul and mind, then He must come first and be the central focus in our life. And it is through sacrificing according to the way God has directed that demonstrates the degree of trust, faith and belief we actually have in Him.
It takes faith to pay tithing. It takes faith to live the word of wisdom. It takes faith to serve voluntarily in callings. It takes faith to do visiting/home teaching. It takes faith to do genealogy, temple, and missionary work. And the reason it takes faith to do all of these things is because of our belief that such actions are pleasing God. And it is that belief which then motivates us to perform these acts.
The greater our faith in God, the greater our service will be to Him. The greater our faith that we are pleasing God, the greater sacrifices we will make for Him. In the same vein, the converse is true. The less we sacrifice ourselves in doing these things, the less faith we show toward Him whom we profess to believe. Since we are saved through our belief in Jesus Christ, if our faith in Him is small, then the reward of our salvation will be small. When we are willing to sacrifice all that we have for Him, then we will receive an "enjoyment of life and salvation [that] never could be obtained without the sacrifice of all earthly things."
But like everything else, faith is built a little at a time. Our faith grows as we offer ourselves willingly to the Lord. At first we may only have the faith to come to church each Sunday. As we receive a calling, we have the opportunity to sacrifice more of ourselves to serve the Lord. If we strive to serve Him according to the manner in which He has asked us, our sacrifice of time and effort becomes the evidence of our faith in Him. Because of that faith, He blesses us and our faith grows. When it grows, then we need to offer even greater sacrifices until we are able to have the faith to offer him all that we have.
One day when Jesus was at the temple He "sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much. And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing. And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury: For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living" (Mark 12:41-44).
The widow only gave two mites, but her sacrifice was greater than those who "cast in much," Although her contribution was small, the widow sacrificed all she had. The rich gave many times more money, but they gave only from their abundance. The same principle applies to our sacrifices. As our faith grows, so must the level of our sacrifice. As Jesus taught, "For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more" (Luke12:48). We could also say that to whom God has committed much faith, of them He will ask more of a sacrifice.
The Lord has given us ample opportunities to show our faith in Him by providing the members of His church with numerous ways to sacrifice. Our duty is to increase in faith and demonstrate our willingness to present our bodies and our lives as "a living sacrifice, holy, [and] acceptable unto God." It is in this way that we will be able to have the "power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation." That is what the law of sacrifice is all about.