The Key to Success

Sacrifice is not a popular subject today. Churches across a wide spectrum are moving rapidly toward a kind of religion that limits duty while broadening freedom to live as you please. Many caught up in the trend think that what they espouse is still Bible religion, but it is not. It is really something else. So, they have entered dangerous ground, because their religion has no adequate support. Any religion not based on the Word of God is pointless make-believe.

But we who follow Christ can rejoice that the Bible is true, and when we interpret it according to reasonable, time-honored rules, we find that Bible religion is very demanding. One of its demands—the demand of sacrifice—is clearly stated in Jesus' own words.

24 Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.

25 For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.

26 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?

Matthew 16:24-26

In the work of God, sacrifice is one requirement for success. We may even say that a religious career without sacrifice is not true Christian service. Why? Because sacrifice is necessary to accomplish anything of eternal value. You cannot get something for nothing. If you read the lives of great Christians, you will discover that they paid a price to be great.

Sacrificing Saints

Since definitions are the bedrock of clear thinking, we will start by proposing a definition of sacrifice. Sacrifice is simply giving up something for God or giving something to God. To illustrate the concept, we will give three outstanding examples of saints who served Christ sacrificially.

The apostle Paul

Paul was a high-born Jew (Phil. 3:5-7) with the best rabbinical education available in his day. His teacher was Gamaliel, still regarded as one of the greatest rabbis who ever lived (Acts 22:3). Already as a young man, Paul held a important place in the governing councils of his nation (Acts 8:1-4; 9:1-2). But when he became a Christian, he fell from these heights to the level of the despised and downtrodden. The litany of his sufferings in the cause of Christ is astonishing (2 Cor. 11:23-28). It is hard to imagine that a human body could survive so much cruel treatment. Yet he had no regrets that he exchanged a life of privilege for a life of hardship. He said that he counted all his losses as dung (Phil. 3:8). Why? Because the sacrifice gained him something better—"the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3:8).

Henry Martyn

In his youth Martyn was a top scholar at Cambridge University. He graduated in 1801 after taking a first in college examinations and winning two math competitions. It was said that he was without a rival in mathematics. But instead of pursuing a career in England, he dedicated his life to foreign missions and in 1802 became a chaplain with the East India Company. In succeeding years he devoted most of his time to the work of translating the Bible into Hindustani and other tongues. The crowning achievement of his life was to translate the New Testament into Persian. He had always been sickly, however, and on the mission field he contracted tuberculosis. He was on his way to present his Persian New Testament to the Shah of Persia when he died at the age of 31.

What had he sacrificed? A brilliant career in math leading perhaps to fame, wealth, prestige, perhaps a peerage—all the benefits that one of the most brilliant minds of his generation might expect to achieve. Was his a wasted life? He did not think so. A few days before he died, he wrote, "I thought with sweet comfort and peace of my God. . . . Oh, when shall time give place to eternity! . . . None of that wickedness which has made men worse than wild beasts shall be seen or heard of any more." In his eagerness to reach heaven he placed no value on the worldly things he had left behind.

William Borden

Borden, born in 1887, was the gifted son of a wealthy family in Chicago. From an early age, through the influence of his godly mother, he had an interest in spiritual things. He attended Moody Church when the pastor was R. A. Torrey, and at the age of seventeen he surrendered to missionary service.

He attended Yale University and quickly became one of the leading figures on campus. Among his achievements was to play all the major sports, including football, wrestling, baseball, and rowing, and to be elected president of Phi Beta Kappa. After graduation he went to Princeton Seminary. During his years there he donated $70,000 of his personal fortune to Christian work. After completion of seminary training he became a director of Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.

But he was not satisfied to help others go the mission field. He wanted to go himself. Soon after deciding to dedicate his life to reaching the Muslims in China, he took passage on a ship and was on his way. He reached Port Said in Egypt on New Year's Day, 1913, when he was age 25. But just a few months later, before he was able to travel further toward his goal, he died of cerebral meningitis.

Here was a man who made sacrifices. During his college years, when he was giving thousands to Christian work, he denied himself a car, thinking it an unjustifiable luxury. Because he expected to go someday to a difficult mission field, he never married, saying that it would be cruel to take a woman with him. Why would it be cruel? "Because the woman always fared the worst, often succumbing when the man survived." What else did Borden give up? A life of every possible comfort and pleasure, because he was rich—a life of worldly achievement and influence, because he was a born leader with an exceptional mind.

Was his a wasted life? Consider this. Shortly before going to the field, Borden willed most of his fortune to the work of God, so that at his death almost a million dollars (equivalent to about 25 million today) was pumped into missionary enterprises around the world. Moreover, this man was so highly respected that his death sent shock waves throughout the Christian world. The number of young people stirred by his sacrifice to dedicate their own lives to God was beyond count.


The problem today is that we no longer have top scholars at Cambridge and Yale surrendering to missionary service. America has fallen into such apostasy that far from giving our brightest young people to God, we are giving Him hardly any young people at all. The reason is that today's young people are unwilling to make sacrifices. They think that the purpose of life is to have a good time.


The natural human reaction to any problem is to hide from it, hoping that it will go away. My son Wes has told me that some years ago, after visiting his brother in Savannah, he drove out of town and entered the expressway, intending to start the journey back to his home in West Virginia. About an hour later he and his wife noticed a large sign by the side of the road, "Welcome to the State of Florida." How did he get so far in the wrong direction? He neglected to watch the road signs and the landmarks that would have warned him that he was going south, not north.

Likewise, in the rearing and education of our children we are going in the wrong direction. The warning sign is that so few of them want to serve Christ. Five measures will help us turn around.

  1. Teach duty first, pleasure last. Everything good and necessary should take precedence to pleasing self. We do need times of rest and recreation, but as a rule, we should structure our lives according to duty. I used to tell my sons, "Work first." Indeed, children should do their homework before playing outside. They should do their chores before calling their friends on the phone. But duty not only requires work before pleasure. Also, it gives priority to serving God. We must teach children that you go to church rather than go fishing. You take part in soulwinning instead of staying home to watch television. You have your devotions instead of sleeping in. Training children to make these right choices should be one of the main objectives of a Christian upbringing.

  2. Do not spoil your children by giving them too much. We are heaping possessions and entertainment on our children to a degree unprecedented in history. If you are a parent, compare what your children get for Christmas with what you obtained, and then with what your parents obtained. Compare the time your children spend watching TV and videos with the time you spent on similar entertainment, and then with the time your parents spent. We are heaping possessions and entertainment on our children because we think we are being good to them. But it is not good if we are teaching them a false concept of happiness—that happiness depends on having things and filling your life with fun and games. It is not good if we are teaching them that the purpose of life is not sacrifice and service, but pleasing yourself. It is not good. It is the spiritual equivalent of putting a gun to your child's head and pulling the trigger.

    Unfortunately, our Christian colleges have become much more luxurious and entertainment-centered over the years. As a result, they are failing to prepare their graduates for lives of sacrificial service. I know the difference between schools sixty years ago and schools today from first-hand observation. In the 50s, one of my two sisters attended Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, and the other attended Prairie Bible Institute in Three Hills, Alberta, Canada.

    I was very familiar with Moody because my father worked there. Moody in those days was squeezed into a single city block, and surrounding it were rat-infested slums at some stage of demolition. On the campus itself there were no trees or grass, as I remember, only a hodgepodge of buildings and sidewalks.

    The school in Canada was built by poor farmers who wanted a place to train young people for the mission field. When my family traveled by train to attend my sister's graduation, it seemed as if we went on and on forever until we finally came to the very edge of civilization. The school, situated in the middle of the cold northern prairie, was a collection of drab wooden buildings put up at minimal expense. Dorm rooms were small and rudely furnished. My bed was a tick mattress laid on the floor. The auditorium was a plain wooden structure with hard benches for seats. There were no recreational facilities, no sports teams—hardly an inviting place to spend your college years. Yet my sister has said, "I never sensed that students were bothered by the Spartan conditions of life there. Many came from rural areas that lacked modern conveniences. We were children of the depression. Who knows how many of our parents had struggled during those difficult years? Finances were always short when I was young, so I wasn't expecting anything luxurious. In many ways, Prairie was a reflection of L. E. Maxwell [founder and principal]. He spoke often of the kernel of wheat falling into the ground—of death bringing forth life. He was a wonderful example of being a servant to all. When we were there, the staff shared and shared alike no matter what position they held. People were friendly and in general I believe that students were happy. I really had a lot of fun."

    Contrast Prairie back then with Christian colleges now. Look at their roomy and comfortable dorm accommodations, their beautiful auditoriums, their recreational facilities. I am not saying that all these things are wrong. I am merely observing a trend. Although a school like the old Prairie would attract few of today's students, it was very successful in preparing students for a sacrificial life advancing the Kingdom of God. Most of its graduates entered Christian service as missionaries or in other capacities. Dorothy and her husband, also a graduate of Prairie, became lifelong missionaries. What percent of Christian college graduates today become useful in Christian work?

  3. Encourage the reading of Christian biographies. Young people find it much easier to understand what sacrifice means if they see illustrations in the choices of real people. They find such illustrations in Christian biographies. Reading about the great servants of God also teaches them two important lessons: first, that the sacrifices made by these saints were necessary to do a fruitful work for God and, second, that despite their sacrifices they had lives rich with joy and satisfaction.

  4. Set an example of sacrifice. Your children are unlikely to make sacrifices if they do not see you making them. Show your children that you are generous with your money. As you live your life before them, make choices that put service and integrity and God's will above wealth and success.

  5. Teach the principles of sacrifice. There are five.

Principles of Sacrifice

Principle 1/ Some sacrifice is no sacrifice.

In Malachi's day, the Jews thought that they were giving God every sacrifice the law required. But in disregard of the law, they brought polluted bread and inferior animals—animals that were not strong and unblemished, but lame and sickly. God was angry with the Jews. He said that He rejected their offerings as well as those who gave them (Mal. 1:7-10).

The man who goes to church occasionally and drops a dollar in the offering plate is also self-deceived. No doubt he thinks he is doing God a favor—that God should be mighty pleased with the hour he has carved out of his precious weekend and with the dollar he has torn from his precious wallet. He could have bought a couple cans of coke. But in reality his sacrifice is no sacrifice.

Principle 2/ God wants only one thing, and that is everything.

What is lacking in these feeble attempts at sacrifice? They give God less than the best. Suppose I am asked well in advance to play an offertory on the piano. I spend weeks preparing for it, and when the time of performance finally arrives, I play it faultlessly. I not only hit the right notes, but I make people cry in the soft passages and I break a few strings in the loud passages. Is God pleased? Yes, He is pleased with my best if I give it to show my love for Him. But what if circumstances cause me to give Him my worst? Suppose the scheduled offertory is canceled at the last minute and I must provide a replacement. Because I do not have the right glasses with me, I get lost and fumble. My fingers do not cooperate with my efforts to play the trickier passages. At last, as I am leaving the piano, I trip over a cord and fall flat on my face. The performance is altogether a disaster. Is God pleased? Yes, He is pleased with my worst if I can do no better and if my motive is love for Him. God wants our best—and our worst. Indeed, God wants only one thing, and that is everything.

God does not want the pennies or dollars or hundreds of dollars that you put into the offering plate. He wants your whole bank account. He does not want your Sunday, even your Sunday and your Wednesday night. He wants your whole week. In days past, to gain divine favor, many Catholic fathers with large families sent one daughter to a convent. But God does not want one of your daughters. He wants your whole family.

Jesus articulated this principle when He said, "If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26). "Hate" can be understood "give up." To be Christ's, you must give up everything most precious to you. You must put it all on the altar of sacrifice. The meaning is that you must put everything in your life at God's disposal, acknowledging His right to use it or remove it or enlarge it as He sees fit.

Jesus was not talking about a requirement for salvation. Rather, He was talking about a requirement that God will put upon you in the course of your Christian life.

Principle 3/ There is no such thing as sacrifice.

Why not? For two reasons.

  1. You have nothing to give up (Psa. 50:8-12) . Imagine all the farmers who would be surprised to find that they have no real property rights over their own cattle, because they belong to God. Your life is like a little boy with empty pockets going into a toy store. He can look at the toys, handle them, even play with them a little bit. But at last when it is time to go, he must leave them behind. What you have in this world is a temporary loan from God. He expects you to use temporal possessions properly and for the right purposes. It is legitimate to use them for sustaining your body and your physical life. It is even better to use them for advancing God's work and thereby making eternal friends (Luke 16:1-13).

  2. Every worldly possession or privilege you give up for God is garbage anyway, by heavenly reckoning (Phil. 3:8). You lose nothing of real value. Leaving your family to serve God is a different matter, however. They are not garbage. But you need not fear that your departure will do them harm. You will discover in eternity that your closeness would have added no lasting benefit to their lives—that they were spiritually better off without you. But the family God may require you to leave will probably exclude your own dependent children. If you bring children into the world, you incur an obligation to take care of them, and serving God is no excuse for neglect.

Principle 4/ It is not possible to avoid sacrifice.

Whatever you refuse to sacrifice, you will lose anyway. The sacrifice that you dreaded will in some fashion fall upon you. I knew a man once who loved a woman called to the mission field. He persuaded her not to go, but to marry him. What happened then? God did not permit him to keep the prize he had stolen from God Himself. After a few short years of marriage, the woman died, leaving her husband as a widower with two small daughters. God's visible blessing did not return to his life until years later, when one daughter accepted a call to missionary service and he supported her decision. That man was my father.

I knew another man who in his youth was called to preach, but he refused. He wanted to be a professor instead. But after he held that position only a short time, God did not allow him to continue. By several devices He forced the man to abandon his career. That man was me.

Likewise, if you choose anything in place of sacrifice, you will find the results disappointing. Either you will not enjoy it, or you will not keep it.

Principle 5/ Sacrifice is the key to blessing.

The Bible teaches that if we give priority to seeking the Kingdom of God, we will attain it and receive "all these things" besides (Matt. 6:33). By searching the context, we discover that "all these things" refers to food and raiment and the other material necessities of life (Matt. 6:31-32). What we receive will be a hundredfold greater than what we sacrifice (Mark 10:29-30). Indeed, if we choose to serve God, He will give us everything that a godly person needs and a godly heart desires (Psa. 37:4).

We can go further and say that there is no blessing without sacrifice. James and John wanted places on either side of Christ when He sat on the throne of His kingdom. But Jesus answered that they could earn such a high honor only by undergoing great suffering on Christ's behalf (Matt. 20:20-22). In the spiritual realm, as in every other, you cannot get something for nothing. The more you would gain of eternal rewards, the greater the sacrifice required of you. If you want a great ministry for God, it will cost you something—perhaps affliction, persecution, loss of worldly comforts and pleasures, separation from family, contempt, loneliness, anguish of mind, or betrayal. Men may tell lies about you. They may try to harm you or destroy you. You will take up a cross and be identified with the man of sorrows. If you study the life of any great Christian in the past, you will find that he paid a price.

Therefore, if we wish to train up our young people so that they will replace us in Christian work, we must prepare them to pay a price as well. Let us never deceive them by promising that Christian work will be an untroubled road to comfort and pleasure. Christian workers whose basic motivation is self-indulgent will never do a great work for God.

But let us also be careful not to give them a picture of Christian service that is too discouraging. We must emphasize that serving God brings great joy and blessing. We must show them all the promises of great reward. If you serve Christ, what will you gain (Matt. 5:10-12)? You will receive rich compensation for every word spoken against you. What else (Psa. 126:5-6)? Christian work is sowing in tears, but the end result will be joy. According to this passage, a servant's joy will come to fullness when he brings "his sheaves with him." In other words, if you serve Christ, the reward giving you greatest satisfaction will be lives transformed or enriched through your labors. Did you know that the people you minister to here, in this world, will be your special friends forever (Luke 16:1-13)? They will be an unending source of precious love and companionship. Thus, you will never exhaust your reward for Christian service. The benefit will last throughout eternity.

Do not shrink from making sacrifices. Do not let your great potential for doing good be squandered on a self-centered life. Rather, spend your life helping others. The paradox is that while you are making others your focus, you will be heaping up treasure for yourself, an incorruptible treasure in heaven (Matt. 6:19-20).