John Bunyan’s book The Acceptable Sacrifice starts from Isaiah 57:15 “For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.’”
The only acceptable sacrifice to God is a broken and contrite heart. And even that is not of our own offering. Bunyan writes, “He that made the heart must break the heart…the heart of man is harder than hardness itself, til God softeneth and breaks it.”1 Humility is difficult to work on in our lives because we can’t be too aware of our success lest we become prideful and lose it. Likewise, a contrite heart is not a natural thing nor is it something we can obtain through our own efforts. We are completely dependent on God to supply us with the very thing He requires as the only acceptable offering.
After our justification we are in a constant state of sanctification. Our hearts have been softened by God and we are finally able see rightly. But with this new sight we must be constantly vigilant in our confession and repentance so that our hearts do not harden again. John Bunyan says, “There is a native hardness in every man’s heart; and though it may be softened by gospel means, yet if those means be afterward neglected, the heart will fall to its native hardness again: as it is is with the wax and the clay.”2 I love how Bunyan relates it to wax and clay. When the candle is lit, the wax is soft and liquid. But as soon as the flame is blown out the wax begins to cool and harden. That flame in our Spirit must stay lit. We are the light that must stay bright not only to show others the way but to keep our hearts malleable to be shaped and transformed by God. We must not cool in our sanctifying affections.
It’s important to remember that God has dominion over this earth right now. We do not live in a reality of two realms of equal or even near equal power that are at war with each other for our souls. There is one domain, God’s Kingdom and rebels to that Kingdom. When anything happens to us it is by the sovereign will of God. This can often be in the form of tragedy or calamity. As John Bunyan points out in scripture, God is the one who breaks down and builds up and sometimes he breaks down to build up. “Yea, he does the one in order to, or because he would do the other; he wounds because his purpose is to heal; ‘he maketh sore, and bindeth up; he woundeth, and his hands make whole’ (Deut. 32:39, 1 Sam. 2:6, Job 5:18). His design, I say, is the salvation of the soul. He scourgeth, he breaketh the heart of every son whom he receiveth, and woe be to him whose heart God breaketh not.”3 There is an absence that is to be pitied more than strife. Fighting with God is a communication with God. It’s when he’s abandoned you altogether that you ought to worry. We can’t look at someone struggling with belief as further removed from God than a content atheist. Someone who is “happily” lost is the poorest creature. Heavenly conviction and cleansing affliction should be welcomed by the believer. “If a man has had a broken leg, is but made to understand, that by the breaking of that leg, kept from breaking of his neck, he will be thankful to God for a broken leg. ‘It is good for me,’ said David. ‘That I have been afflicted’ I was by that preserved from a great danger; for before that I went astray (Psalm. 119:67,71).”4 Too often we see earthly calamity or even removal from this world by death as the worst possible outcome for our souls. But it’s not. Physical ailments or emotional distress is nothing compared to the eternal death of Hell and the misery of being forsaken altogether by God. More excruciating than the cross was God’s abandonment. There is a difference between dying and being damned.
It’s not enough to ask God for mercy in breaking our hearts. Bunyan points out that, “God has many sorts of mercies, some more rough, some more tender. God can save a man, and yet have him a dreadful way to heaven!”5 When we look around at our Christian brothers and sisters we must remember that everyone’s walk with God is different. If someone looks like they’re falling away or acting out of bounds from Gods Word, we should of course point them to the Bible and hold them accountable to the truth in love. But with that we must also understand that God has not lost control of their lives. We can be faithful to our friends and the Word while also trusting that God knows what He’s doing with that person. I pray that for my loved ones, God has tender mercies instead of rough for their life. It’s not always tender but it’s mercy none-the-less.
In Ephesians 4:22-24 Paul says, “to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” Paul often talks about putting aside the old ways of life and putting on the new. The call to Christianity is never only a list of things not to do but a list of things to replace in your life. Ezekiel 36:26 “ I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” It’s an exchange. The characteristics of both the lost and the redeemed cannot occupy the same space in our lives at the same time. Righteousness cannot abide sin in it’s midst. In regards to the transformation from foolish to wise, Bunyan writes, “But how now must this fool be made wise? Why, wisdom must be put into his heart (Job 38:36). Now, none can put it there but God; and how doth he put it there, but by making room there for it, by taking away the thing which hinders, which is that folly and madness which naturally dwelleth there?”6 We have a sin nature that must be pruned (John 15:3) if we’re to be fruitful for the Kingdom of God. He does this, not us.
If someone does not submit themselves to the righteousness of God they are submitting themselves to the righteousness of another god. This is usually the god of Self. The sinner does what pleases himself, he makes sacrifices and offerings to himself. He listens to his own counsel and follows his own “truth.” There is no neutrality in worship. We are either worshiping God or whoring with idols. Bunyan drives this point home with fiery language, “Here can be no concord, no communion, no agreement, no fellowship. Here, here is enmity on the one side, and flaming justice on the other (2 Cor. 6:14-16; Zech. 11:8).”7 And when we finally come it is never quietly. Our sin must be brutally mortified and there will be resistance. Our sinful hearts do not turn to Christ as one that has chosen rightly or solved the God puzzle, but rather as one conquered and beaten into submission. This is a sincere conversion.
The Acceptable Sacrifice,like many puritan writings, can come off as kind of intense. It’s not for people with tender self-esteem. John Bunyan deals explicitly with the human condition of sin that is in all of us. But at the same time, he offers hope in the grace of God and how our relationship can grow in tenderness both with God and other people. A great work by a great puritan.