“Soundings” is a series of essays that, like the waves of a sonogram, explore issues in society, culture and the church in light of the Gospel and Christian understanding.

For many, the prominent biblical theme and practice of sacrifice first appeared in the Bible in Genesis 4, which records the sacrifices of Cain and Abel. But, as some scholars have rightly pointed out, the earliest hints of sacrifice precede this account and is found in the previous chapter where God provided Adam and Eve with coats of skin after the Fall (3:21).

We find, in the Old Testament, numerous accounts of the sacrifices offered by God’s people, ranging from the sacrifices of Noah (Gen 8:20) and Abraham (Gen 12:7–8, 13; 4:18; 22:13) to the elaborate sacrificial system described in Leviticus. These sacrifices culminate in the ultimate sacrifice offered by the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ, when he died for sinful humanity on the cross of Calvary.

The New Testament (NT) also uses the language and metaphor of sacrifice to describe the Christian life. Writing to the Christians in Rome, the apostle Paul exhorts his readers to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1). Christians are required to offer nothing less than their very lives to God in response to the unmerited grace of salvation they have received in Christ.

It is in this profound sense that the NT presents the Christian life as a sacrificial life. The Christian worships God by offering everything that he or she is and does to him. This is made clear in Paul’s exhortation to the Colossian Christians: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of Jesus Christ, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col 3:17).

To be sure, in the Christian tradition, spiritual disciplines such as prayer and praise are often described as spiritual sacrifices. Thus, for example, in Psalm 141:2, David uses the analogy of incense used in the sacrificial ritual of Israel to describe the prayer he offers to Yahweh.

The NT stresses all these spiritual activities must be undergirded by a life that is totally surrendered to God.

The renown British philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch has, in another context, coined a clumsy but arresting word that helpfully describes this kind of self-abandonment: unselfing.i

Unselfing is a transformative process in which the Christian acknowledges that he is not the centre of the universe, and that he is created and redeemed in order to serve God and neighbour. The relentless first-person singular, the “I”, which has hitherto been so loud and demanding, now falls silent. Attention is now directed at the “Thou”.

We see this self-surrender, this unselfing, very evidently in Jesus Christ, the example of self-forgetting obedience par excellence. In the Garden of Gethsemane, before his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus prayed: “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine be done” (Luke 22:42).

Jesus demands this same self-surrender from those who would follow him. “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt 16:24–25).

For the Christian, unselfing is part of that on-going process called sanctification, the transformation actualised by the indwelling Spirit of God. It is a spiritual process that cannot be accomplished by our own efforts or strength.

This is because fallen human beings are “curved in” on themselves (homo incurvatus in se), to use an expression by Augustine. Because of our sinful nature, we are hardwired to be instinctively self-serving.

The fallen culture also exemplifies the incurvatus in se insofar as it promotes self-sovereignty as the greatest good, and champions self-determination and self-promotion at the expense of the welfare of others.

The Christian life travels in the opposite direction, from the “I” but outward towards the “Thou”. It is characterised by unselfing—by that self-forgetting and self-giving love called agape.

The Christian always seeks to honour God and is concerned for the wellbeing and good of his neighbour (1 Cor 10:24).

i Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of the Good (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970).

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor at the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity (