Ephesians 5:2 “Live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

Live a life of love, says the Christian faith, and almost everyone in the world nods their heads in agreement – “If only more people would live a life of love there would be happier marriages, emptier prisons, more peaceful schools, less warfare and far fewer people feeling a need of drugs.” Everyone tells us that the great need is to live lives of love. You can imagine a pop song called, “Living a life of love,” or a dictator giving his people the annual New Year address and concluding by this exhortation, “Happy New Year. God bless you all, and live a life of love.” Moral exhortation comes easily to all men.

Is the ethical message of Christianity one that would be suitable in a Jewish synagogue, an Islamic mosque, or in the columns of a Mormon magazine? If a preacher says to a congregation, “Live a life of love” he has said nothing distinctively Christian. Think of the BBC’s ‘Prayer for the Day,’ or ‘Thought for the Day’ with various religions giving a little meditation each morning. Most people who go to Christian churches don’t quibble with what they hear because these are the exhortations they are accustomed to each Sunday. Evangelical pastors sound the same as the speakers on ‘Thought for the Day.’

Are Paul’s words here the same as the world’s? There are two crucial differences.


The Bible which exhorts us to love also defines what love is. In other words it doesn’t give anyone the right to define the word ‘love’ as he chooses. It is not huggin’ and kissin’. The New Testament tells us what true love is in the words of I Corinthians chapter 13, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails” (I Cor. 13:4-8). Live a life of loving in that way, our text is saying.

More than that, it charges us with the example of Jesus Christ. Paul adds these words, “just as Christ loved us.” Not just as your parents loved you, or a your dear husband or wife loved you, but as Jesus Christ has left us a model for how a person should love. That is what love is all about; living a life like the Lord Jesus. It’s pretty awe-inspiring. Love all men with the love of Christ. When our fellow Christians are disappointing, even when they are hurtful, still we are to love them like Christ does, so that no sacrifice is too great, and no kindness is too extravagant. That is what living a life of love is all about, and no matter how wide is our knowledge, how stupendous our experiences, how great are our gifts if we don’t show the love of Jesus Christ then our Christianity is mere posturing. We are nothings and nobodies.

So in this way Christianity is different. It defines for us what true loving is all about. It describes it to us in I Corinthians and also enfleshes that love in the example of Jesus Christ. It means living just like him. That means we will love men and women as we love ourselves, that we will kneel down and wash their feet; it means we will love our enemies, we will turn the other cheek when they hit us, we will give a gentle answer when they shout at us. It means we are prepared to humble ourselves even to the death of the cross for other sinners. We lay down our lives for the brethren, and we will pray for them when they are torturing us, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” That is what living a life of love is all about.

I feel the further I go in explaining the requirements of Christian love the more I’m condemning myself. If Christianity were simply telling people, “Live a life of love” and then let everyone define love in whatever way they chose – “warm cozy feelings and mutual hugging and affection” – then we would be left with an overall sense of smugness, but when love is defined for us in this way, loving my enemy, and doing good to those who are spiteful to me – then we start to look for excuses for our own behaviour. Where is the good news in this commandment “Live a life of love”? Am I saying that this is what God requires of me 24/7? Yes. Is this how my life is going to be scrutinised and judged when I give an account to God? It is, did I live a life of love, as Christ the proper man did?

Do you think if the church preached the message to the world of “live like Jesus” and nothing more than that that the world would start copying Christ? Do you really think so? Then listen, “He did no sin.” Can you live like him? You say no, that you cannot, then the example of Christ brings no hope to you. His perfect life serves only to condemn you. Then it is not an example that is the first need of the world but a Saviour from its lovelessness. The world loves darkness rather than the light of the world.

There was once an old Christian and she was talking to a young man about the Saviour, commending Jesus Christ to him, pressing him to be saved, but he was far too assured to acknowledge that he needed salvation. So she asked him to turn in her Bible to Romans 3 and read some verses aloud slowly. So he began to read these words from verse ten to verse eighteen, “As it is written: ‘There is no one righteous, not even one’ [‘Except you,’ she interjected quietly, squeezing his arm, and he went on]; there is no one who understands [‘Except you,’ she said], no one who seeks God [‘Except you,’ she whispered]. All have turned away [Except you,’ she said to his growing irritation], they have together become worthless [‘Except you,’ she murmured squeezing his arm again]; there is no one who does good, not even one [‘Except you’ she added]. Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit [‘Except yours,’ she said to him], The poison of vipers is on their lips. [‘Except yours’ she added. And then he hurried along louder and louder]. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know. There is no fear of God before their eyes [ ‘Except yours,’ she said to him again, squeezing his arm]. He was a quieter student when he had finished reading those words. His was not the exception at all. He was a common sinner like all the rest of us. He was failing to live a life of love as all mankind has failed.

Why do people come on one occasion to this church, or maybe twice or three times, and then not return? One reason would be that they don’t want to hear me addressing them as ‘sinners.’ If I urged them all to live a life of love and never defined what love is they’d be happy, because my preaching would simply be a rearranging of their prejudices week by week, but that is not Christianity. The first step to becoming a Christian is to step into a sinner’s shoes, to get into the place of the sinner, the sinner who is nothing, and has nothing but his failure and sin, and who can do absolutely nothing to help himself. You protest, “Preacher, we are not as bad as that.” Yes, you are, and far worse than you ever could imagine if you could see yourself as God sees you, not because I say so but because God says so in the Bible.

There is a wonderful verse in the Bible in Colossians 2:14 which speaks of ‘the handwriting that is against us.’ I worked as a wages clerk for the National Coal Board before I came to Aberystwyth, and there were pay-books we kept on all the miners in every colliery in southwest Wales, my own colliery wages book was Cynheidre anthracite mine near Llanelli, and one of the verses in the Bible that has taken on a new meaning to me since then is the one in the book of Revelation, “And the books were opened.” Once in a while inspectors would come in and check the books, and all our figures, to find out if we were being accurate and honest in all we did. There are the books of God. The file is there of your life, your loving, your forgiveness, your patience, your gentleness, your sweetness, and all the rest! The handwriting is there, as Omar Khayam says,

“The moving finger writes,
And having writ moves on.
Nor all thy piety nor wit shall lure it back
To cancel half a line,
Nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.”

God says, “Live a life of love, just as Christ loved,” and those words of the law of God, far from inspiring us and leaving us with a warm glow, search and condemn us leaving us without hope in the world.

But there is another difference in the Christian exhortation to live a life of love, and our passage goes on to demonstrate that.


The second difference between how the world thinks of love and the Christian is that Christianity, immediately it exhorts us about living a life of love, presents to us the grace of God in Jesus Christ. It sources the command in Jesus Christ. The model is shown in his sacrifice; the strength for living in love lies in his purchase of the Holy Spirit; and the encouragement to resume loving is found in the forgiveness he offers because of his work of redemption.

Such a setting for the exhortation to love is crucial to Christianity or it will become a religion of Pharisaism. Adam Laughton of the Southport Baptist Church has just returned from a conference in Nigeria and he listened to a number of African sermons and this is his impression of what he heard: “There is a worrying tendency amongst preachers there to overstate our Christian duties whilst underemphasising the grace of God in our salvation. Several expositions we heard took this pattern: the Scriptures were read, some introductory comments were given before winding up (in volume and earnestness) to the climax of the sermon which consisted of by telling us we should be loving more, praying more, giving more, evangelising more etc. All true, but without the encouragements of seeing the grace of God in the face of Christ Jesus, an exclusive diet of such preaching would, over time, only discourage God’s people.”

So Paul exhorts us to live a life of love; he heightens that by telling us to live like Christ, and when all that would leave us despairing he reminds us of Christ’s grace. Paul says that Jesus Christ gave himself. His life was not wrested from him by men. Freely he gave himself. His Father didn’t insist, “Son you do what I tell you to do.” He gave himself. It was absolutely voluntarily that he did so. It was genuinely and willingly done. He was not humbled by the Sanhedrin, and by Pilate, and by the execution squad, he humbled himself.

We see examples of such wonderful behaviour in our every day life. On January 14 in 1982 on a freezing evening a 737 plane crashed into the 14th Street bridge as it was trying to land in Washington Airport. There were 79 passengers and crew on board and the plane began to sink in the Potomac river. Only five people were saved. This was done by a single helicopter hovering overhead and pulling people out by a line one by one. A passenger was standing at a door and he attached the lifeline to a passenger and the person was winched away, and then it returned and this man again attached it to another passenger and she was saved, and then he attached it to another, and he was winched to safety, and so on. Five times he did that and then the plane went under. That man gave his life absolutely freely so that those five people might be rescued before him. A man gives his life for others. Someone lays down his life for his friends. We know of such instances. Christ freely gave his life that we might live.

I find the poems of R.S. Thomas to be generally grim but this poem gives us a glimpse of the self-giving of Christ.

And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look, he said,
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; rusted buildings
Cast their shadows: a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
With slime.
On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.

“Let me go there,” and that phrase expresses Christ’s willingly giving himself up. He left the glories of fellowship with his Father, all the perfect delights of heaven’s uncreated and eternal blessedness, and he came to this scorched land where the serpent, the god of this world, exercises his control. Then on Calvary Christ picked up our sin as a filthy stinking robe, with a stench that was revolting, and he covered his spotless self with it. Have you been stopped short by some of the hideous, hellish, manifestations of sin? You know that men will behead a man they do not know on camera and put the video of that gross evil on the internet. We gasp at such cruelty. Have you seen the ravages of sin in a human life, and wanted to draw back from the sight? You turn the face of your child away to something else. If you, a sinner, feel like that, what do you think was the reaction of the Son of God when he was clothed in our depravity? Yet the grace of Jesus Christ constrained him to give himself up so freely and lovingly.

But then Paul goes on to tell us to whom and to what Christ gave himself up.


We know the idea of sacrifice from various areas of human life. Somebody has been moved to France with their job and so they need to sell their car quickly at below book price. The advertisement in the local paper says, “Owner anxious to sell: will sacrifice.” A soldier fighting for his country declares, “My only regret is that I’ve got only one life to sacrifice for my country.” A young Olympic swimmer sacrifices her social life in order to swim countless lengths of butterfly stroke in the baths, dreaming of a gold medal. A brilliant medical graduate will sacrifice a career teaching and doing research in a prestigious medical college to spend his years in an underfunded African hospital.

When you sacrifice you give up something of value in order to get something of even greater value. So, throughout the Old Testament, God required the people to bring him fragrant sacrifices and offerings. They would give up something of value – a fine spotless animal which otherwise would have fed the whole family for a few days – in order to get something of greater value, that is, forgiveness and peace with God. There is something in God himself, a wrath towards sin, a burning righteousness, a determination to be just, and the demand of life laid down for a life defying him – that is how the living God is! He hates meanness and cruelty and abuse and the afflicting of pain. His justice requires that sin be avenged. God punished Cain, for example, because he heard the cry of his brother Abel, whom Cain had murdered. Abel’s shed blood cried out to be avenged. It cried out for satisfaction. God cannot shrug his shoulders at sin. He can’t look the other way. What a cosmic monster that would make him. He won’t overlook it; he won’t go soft on sin. The axe must fall. Payment must be made. Blood of sacrifice must be shed. Whenever someone sins, someone pays. This was a lesson written on the minds of the whole nation of Israel for over a thousand years as they brought their sacrifices day after day. They were like children and they needed the constant reinforcing of simple lessons. “We deserve eternal death because we are sinners, but Jehovah, in his love, has provided a way of substitutionary sacrifice. The life of a spotless lamb is taken away in our place, and we are forgiven.”

Don’t we all feel a sense of justice? Isn’t that part of being made in the image of God? Isn’t it an international phenomenon? Where is there a tribe or a culture that doesn’t show this? Don’t we feel deeply that a thief who sneaks into the porch and steals money from the offering box ought not to get away with it? There’s a bully in the local school who makes your child’s life so miserable so that she wets the bed and cries about going to school. Don’t we feel somehow that bullies should pay for what they are doing to her and other children? There should be a rebuke and a restraint. Why do we feel that? Because it is right. Because it is just. Because without it the debt is not paid, the wound is not healed, the emptiness is not filled. You think of parents whose teenage daughter has been assaulted and murdered. They long for the man who perpetrated this monstrous act to be discovered, and arrested, and punished for what he has done. They hate to think of him wandering around, calling in a restaurant, and watching TV – all the things their daughter will never do. Who will be his next victim? Such feelings for justice are good and righteous. Those parents are not to take vengeance into their own hands, of course. The powers that be have that responsibility as the servants of God, but the desire for justice is our reflection of being made in the image of God.

God the Creator is a person to whom his creatures owe obedience – like we owe it to our teachers in school, or our parents, or the policeman, or the traffic warden, or the tax official. Defying God robes God of his due. Disobedience is unjust. Disobedience creates an empty space, as it were, that ought to be filled again. To satisfy God’s justice is to offer what we owe. It means making amends, balancing things out on the scales of justice. It means filling God’s empty place by returning the obedience that is due to him

The problem is this. We owe, but we can’t pay. God is worthy of our obedience, but we can’t deliver. God’s justice requires satisfaction, but we can’t come through with it. Our bill is due now, but we’re bankrupt. That is the human predicament, and no one can say, “except mine.” It is yours too.

Then the extraordinary message of the Christian religion is this, the message that makes it different from every other religion invented by men, God himself has provided a way to satisfy his own justice. In the Old Testament he began to teach his people that those who trusted in him must sacrifice an animal to take their place. It is offered to God, and the aroma of the roast lamb would be to God what a good meal is to us when we are hungry – satisfaction! The obedience, the confession, the sacrifice pleases and also appeases God. It propitiates his righteousness. God’s justice demands satisfaction, but God’s mercy has provided a substitute so that the sinner himself does not have to pay for his defiance.

You see this most powerfully in God’s testing Abraham when he asked him to do a remarkable thing, to sacrifice his own beloved son Isaac. Father and son travel together to Mount Moriah in obedience to God’s command. When they get there Isaac says to his father, “Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said to him, “My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering” (Gen. 22:7&8), but it was Isaac he laid on the altar. Abraham was even able to raise the knife to cut Isaac’s throat, and Isaac was ready to be offered as a sacrifice. What a moment! Heaven must act, and heaven does act. God is watching. At that moment the angel of the Lord cries, “Abraham, Abraham . . . Do not lay a hand on the boy . . . Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son'” (Gen. 22:12). A point had been reached at which Abraham had shown that he loved God more than he loved his son. Abraham believed the promise that one day his Seed would be born through whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed, and God was glorified. God could raise the dead, but Isaac’s life was spared, but how was that possible? Isaac was a sinner and the soul that sins shall surely die. A sacrifice was provided instead of Isaac: “Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son” (Gen.22:13). Isaac’s life was spared and saved because God himself had provided a ram for a burnt offering.

Already from before the foundation of the world God had got the Lamb ready, the one who would be a fragrant offering and sacrifice. In the eternal Counsel of Peace God the Father asked, as it were, “Where can I find the lamb for a burnt offering? How will my justice be satisfied? How will all the demands of my righteousness be met? And how will mercy reign?” And God the Son replied, “Lo, I come: in the volume of the book it is written of me, I delight to do thy will, O my God: yea, thy law is within my heart” (Ps. 40:7-8). When Jesus Christ began his public ministry John the Baptist announced his identity, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” God has provided a Lamb from his own heart. God has become the Lamb. There is no distinction between the one who gave the Lamb and the one who became the Lamb. They are both infinite, eternal and unchangeable in their being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.

When this Son went up the mountain with the cross on his shoulders there was no ram to take his place, no substitute to be offered in his stead. When a man lifted up the sledgehammer and another held the nail in the palm of Jesus’ hand no angel from heaven cried out, “Don’t even think of it.” God the Father had spared Isaac but he didn’t spare his own holy child Jesus. No one else could take the Son of God’s place. If all the angels and saints had offered to become one great corporate sacrifice God would have said to them, “But you yourselves have to pay the penalty for your own sins.” They couldn’t endure their own punishment. They themselves had a tremendous debt to discharge. Their own self-sacrifice couldn’t be sinlessly offered to God. The Son of God alone in the entire universe had no sins himself for which to answer. Only he could offer himself purely, filled with love for those in whose place he stood. His sacrifice alone is infinite, eternal and established for ever.

You notice that Paul emphasises that it is to God that Christ’s gift of himself as a fragrant offering and sacrifice was made. The Son gave himself up for us to the Father. What was happening on Golgotha was a transaction between God and God and the single determinant of a sinner’s relationship with God today is what was happening on that cross. Nothing else matters. Nothing else is relevant. There are only two factors in the equation. What Christ did – he offered himself as a sacrifice – and the one to whom he made this sacrifice – Almighty God. And the way you feel, and the way you struggle, what you achieve and how you fail – none of that is relevant. The one thing relevant is what Christ did on the cross and that it was a fragrant offering to God. Those sins for which Christ made a sacrifice have all been dealt with. They have all been cancelled. It is as if they no longer exist. Every sin has been wiped away. They have been removed from us and from the face of God. God himself chooses not to see them again.

A little girl came home from school and told her mother how the teacher had written some things on the board and later had wiped away what she had written. “What happened to those words when she wiped them away?” was her question. “Well, they just disappeared,” said her mother. “Yes, but where did they disappear to?” the little girl asked. So they bantered about, back and fore, these questions. “Lydia, you’re just going to have to trust me that those words are gone,” said her Mum, “and they don’t exist any longer.” Thank God that when he forgives our sins then it is as if those sins no longer existed. God will never bring them back against us again. They are gone. We have been given complete, absolute, eternal forgiveness.

I don’t know if you can believe this. I am saying that when Christ was nailed to that tree a multitude were set free. By his death they received life. His curse became their blessing. His shame became their glory. God’s forgiveness is utterly illimitable; it is mercy according to the riches of his grace. It is a wonderful phrase, “according to the riches of his grace.” In other words, God’s forgiveness is in keeping with, or equal to the riches of his grace. How significant is this? Think of it in this way, an estranged son has been alienated from his millionaire father for many years, but one day in desperation he accosts his Dad outside his house and asks his father for some help. The father remembers all the other times when he has helped his son but the money was all spent on drugs. Today the boy looks pitiful and the father cannot reject his plea. He takes out his wallet and gives him a hundred pounds. He gives to his son out of his riches, after all he’ll never miss a hundred pounds.

Suppose now that the reaction of the father is different. What if this wealthy father has great compassion on his chastened drug-free son and he writes him a cheque for a million pounds and he puts him in a flat, and he gives him employment? Now he is giving to the boy according to his riches. A million pounds is representative of the extent of this businessman’s wealth, while the hundred pounds was merely a penny of his vast riches. Most of us could withdraw a hundred pounds from a cashpoint though it might hurt us a bit to give it to someone. Very few of us could write a cheque for a million pounds. Our resources simply are not that great. God’s resources, on the other hand, are measureless. The blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, is infinitely powerful. When the Lord forgives, he grants to sinners forgiveness according to the riches of his grace. In other words, his infinite grace is given to us in infinite measure. Though our sins might occasionally seem to us to be infinite they are finite in God’s sight. His grace isn’t stretched or diminished in covering all of them.


“Live a life of love like Christ!” Now do you see the context for that exhortation? It is in a sentence in which Paul is reminding us of what Christ has done for us, and because of that we must live in a particular kind of way. The demand to live a life of love is based upon Christ’s redeeming love for us. So in the light of Calvary, and with the knowledge of the grace of Jesus Christ, this command no longer frustrates us. We have a new motivation to love like that.

i] A new desire. I desire the Lord Jesus. Christ I have. Christ I enjoy, in the privileges of Christian faith and sonship, but I want the same Christ more! I want him all. I am pressing on for the prize, the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. I want to please him in everything I do. I want to love him, and I want to love like him, and more and more. We are absolutely desperate for the righteousness of conformity to the image of the Son of God, because he loved me and gave himself for me. Paul says it elsewhere, “This one thing I do;” one thing, to live a life of love like Christ. That is the absolute dominant longing in the Christian soul, that the love of Christ should be shed abroad in his heart. The more your appetite for Christ is satisfied the bigger it becomes. Does that sound contradictory? Does that sound paradoxical? It is – in terms of human reason – but it is absolutely true. The more I know Christ the more I want to know him. The more I discover of him the more I discover myself to be ignorant of him. The more I know him the more I discover there is to be known of him. He is the one I desire.

I was reading this week of George Balanchine who co-founded and directed for years the New York City Ballet Company. Through all their rehearsals he was the Company’s inspiration and an audience which consisted of one man. This Company of ballet dancers and musicians adored him. They wanted his approval so much that they danced their best with just him looking on, simply for his praise alone. To please him, that was their delight. The Christian has a new desire to please the Lord. We once lived a futile way of life which we inherited from our forefathers. We lived pointlessly. Nothing we did had any meaning as far as God was concerned; nothing we did had eternal value or worth. It was vanity of vanities. Before we understood Golgotha we were like a man whose daily job was to go to the beach in Aberystwyth and pick up grains of sand and throw them into Cardigan Bay. Day after day, year after year, that’s what he did. Now we belong to Jesus we have a purpose in life. We desire Christ and we live for him. We give him our relationships, our moments, and our days, all to him. So first motive to love is our new desire and the second is,

ii] Gratitude. Our second motivation to love as he loved is our gratitude. Wouldn’t everyone be always grateful to the man who died to save their parents, their children, their friends, they themselves? But what if this deliverance were from hell itself? Christ loved me, said Paul, and gave himself for me. Love as amazing and divine as Christ’s love, demands everything, my soul, my life my all. This poor self of mine, so sensitive, so defensive, so self-pitying, that had stopped me from loving patiently and kindly – what is that now? I see the Saviour layed down his life for me, and so I pour contempt on all my pride.

Jesus is all the world to me, and just because he is, he is worthy of all my response of love, and esteem, and adoration, and obedience. Charles Wesley cries: ‘O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise.’ We may allow him the poetic license. We may indulge the thought that we’d love to have the state of soul that sincerely desired the same thing. The fact of the matter is that no man has any more than one tongue. Use the one you have to say thank you to God every day. There is no need to say, as another hymn writer does:

Had I ten thousand hearts, dear Lord,
I’d give them all to thee.

Again poetic license. Hypothesis, hyperbole. Just gratefully give him the one heart you have. It is all he asks. Give him its fire, its fear, its flame, its love, its ardour, its zeal, its pain, its pleasure and you may be sure of this, that when you can give everything that is in your heart to the Lord without exception and without reservation and without fear, you will be showing true gratitude to him for what he’s done for you. So desire for him, thankfulness to him, and then,

iii] Trust. I believe that God asks nothing from us other than what he can enable us to do. So if he says, “Live a life of love, just as Christ loved you,” then that is acceptable to me. I pray to him, “Make me such a man.” I plead that in a special way, “in the name of Jesus,” in other words I am praying, “Do it now for me as you would have done it for Jesus.” You enabled him to love, and so you must enable me to love too. I trust like a child in my heavenly father

This is a great question, can I entrust Jesus Christ with my heart, with everything that is in it, those hidden things, all those things which no man knows anything about, those inner secrets that I in my better moments tremble over, that I, in my better moments, am fearful about? Can I trust him with my whole heart without reserve and without exception? Yes I can, because I bring God no surprises. He knows me exhaustively and still he loves me. So let me trust him in testing times, when his answer is Wait a while, or it is No. Let me live a life of love.

29th May 2005 GEOFF THOMAS