Love is extremely rewarding yet also costly, since one who loves will sacrifice. Indeed, sacrifice is love's very essence.
We can illuminate Paul's thought in Ephesians 5:1-2 by placing it in a larger context. Note Ephesians 2:8-10:
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.
Salvation indeed is a free gift; it cannot be earned by works. Yet, after saving us from our sins, God requires us to work! We are to perform work that He has laid out beforehand for us to accomplish. In fact, verse 10, standing by itself, asserts that to do these good works is the very reason we have received justification!
This verse, in the phrase, "we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus," also says that God, in turn, is working on us. Before being saved, we were not in Christ Jesus. God's creative processes brought us into Christ, and once there, He continues to shape and form us into His Son's image (II Corinthians 3:18).
We are being formed, shaped, and molded by our Creator and Savior to become Christ-like. What kinds of work are required of us for this to happen?
As he progresses toward his statement in Ephesians 5:1-2, Paul says in Ephesians 4:17-18:
This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you should no longer walk [live your life] as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart. . . .
Is it twisting these verses to say that Paul is commanding these converted and already-saved people to work to sacrifice their lives as Christ did? Doing what he commands takes the work of consciously praying, studying, investigating, and meditating on God's Word to remove a person's ignorance and blindness. It also takes the additional hard work of resisting Satan, human nature, and the world to implement what is learned into daily life.
Such labor will be very pleasing to God, but in no way does it earn us salvation! Moreover, this is clearly obeying God's command. Even though it is not one of the Ten Commandments, it nonetheless expresses God's will for His children after they have been saved from past sins.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Is the Christian Required to Do Works? (Part One)
Living a life activated by loving-kindness in the keeping of God's commandments, following the example of Jesus Christ, and being tenderhearted to forgive is a sweet-smelling sacrifice to God.
Three of the offerings were sweet smelling, and two were not. The sweet-savor offerings were burned on the brazen altar, while the others were burned outside the camp. No sin is seen in the sweet-savor offerings; the individual Israelite gave them completely voluntarily and not because of guilt. They are simply sweet-smelling offerings. Christ does not appear in them as our sin bearer, but, even more, He is shown offering something so pleasing—so satisfying—it is sweet to God. It symbolizes the way He lived His life. Jesus Christ was a living sacrifice long before He became the sacrifice for sin by crucifixion. "Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends" in service, living a sinless life (John 15:13).
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Offerings of Leviticus (Part Two): The Burnt Offering
Do we see a similarity between this passage and Romans 12:1-2: "Present your bodies a living sacrifice. . . . And do not be conformed to this world"? Paul is saying the same thing here, also mentioning the shunning of fornication, uncleanness, covetousness, filthiness, and other things, that is, sinful behaviors, how the world does things. The point is that we fulfill the showing forth of God's praises through being a godly example to the world. Showing forth God's praises involves our witness of how God lives.
But to do so requires sacrifice—putting human nature to death and overcoming indwelling sin. It is not easy. It requires disciplining ourselves, controlling ourselves, saying, "No!" to ourselves. On the other hand, it also requires us to say, "Yes, I need to do this good thing"—in service, in kindness, in mercy, in love. Either way—positively or negatively—we will have to sacrifice as a sacrifice is involved in almost any act of love.
If we conform to the ways of the world, how can we possibly show forth the praises of God? We would be just like the people of this world. Peter means that, in showing forth the praises of God, we must live contrary to the carnal ways of the world. The principle also includes the preaching of the gospel to the world, giving it a verbal representation of the praises of God through explaining His purpose.
Now, making acceptable sacrifices through Jesus Christ involves doing activities more frequently thought of as being "priestly." Such sacrifices include things like prayer (which we do privately) and study (which we also do on our own). When there is nothing else to distract us, we carve out private time with God's Word—come right before Him, into His presence. Making acceptable sacrifices also includes meditation, whenever and wherever. God tells Joshua in Joshua 1:8, "You shall meditate in [the Book of the Law] day and night." In Psalm 119:97, the psalmist says, "[The law] is my meditation all the day."
It includes praying about the multitude of subjects God reveals in His Word. It means praying for leaders in the church, both the faithful ones and those who have gone astray, at least for a time. It also includes the activities that Paul mentions in Hebrews 13:15-16: offering "the sacrifice of praise to God" and doing good works and sharing our blessings. Jesus advises in Matthew 6:3 that in doing such things, we should not let our right hand know what our left hand is doing. Most of these deeds are things that we are to do privately.
John W. Ritenbaugh
New Covenant Priesthood (Part One)
Notice that Paul says Christ has given Himself for us and that the offering he refers to is a sweet savor. Paul's reference, therefore, is not that Christ gave Himself for us as a sin offering but as one not involving sin: He was a burnt, meal, and peace offering. He gave Himself for us in the manner in which He lived His life.
Even as Christ's sin offering is for us, and we find acceptance before God, satisfaction, and peace when we understand and believe that our sins are forgiven, so also is His life, as He lived it, for us. It is as though when God looks at us, He sees Christ! This is an incredibly wondrous aspect of His grace and part of the doctrine of our being "in Christ," that is, part of the spiritual body of which He is the Head.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Offerings of Leviticus (Part Four): The Peace Offering