But if, while seeking to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have also been found sinners, is Christ then a minister of sin? May it never be! For if I rebuild what I have once destroyed, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the Law I died to the Law, that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.” (2:17–21)
By their behavior, Peter and the other Jewish Christians at Antioch had given approval to the Judaizers’ idea that it was necessary for a Gentile to keep the Jewish rituals before he could become a Christian. Paul’s defense of justification by faith in verses 17–21 continues his contradiction of this Judaistic legalism to which Peter and the others had succumbed.
It is crucial to understand that, as in the previous two verses, we refers to Jewish Christians. But if, while seeking to be justified in Christ, we ourselves, as Jewish Christians, have also been found sinners, Paul asks rhetorically, is Christ then a minister of sin?
His first point was to show that, if the Judaizers were correct in their doctrine that believers are saved in part by keeping the ceremonial law of Moses and continue to be bound by that law to maintain their salvation, then, even before the Judaizers arrived in Antioch, Peter, Barnabas, and all the other Jewish believers, including Paul, had fallen back into the category of sinners by having freely eaten and fellowshiped with Gentile Christians.
Paul’s second point was even more devastating. “If you became sinners because of fellowshiping with your Gentile brothers,” he implies, “then Christ Himself became a minister of sin, did he not?” How? Jesus had clearly taught that no food can spiritually contaminate a person, because food cannot affect the heart (Mark 7:19). Through the vision of the unclean animals and the dramatic conversion and anointing of Cornelius, the Lord had given Peter direct evidence that Gentile believers are in every way equal to Jewish believers (Acts 10). On many other occasions and in many other ways Jesus had taught that all those who belong to Him are one with Him and therefore one with each other. Shortly before His arrest, trial, and crucifixion, Jesus earnestly and repeatedly prayed to His Father that those who believed in Him “may all be one; even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us … that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and Thou in Me, that they may be perfected in unity” (John 17:21–23).
But if the Judaizers were right, Paul pointed out, Jesus was wrong; if they taught the truth, He had taught falsehood and was thereby a minister of sin! Such an accusation must have shaken Peter to his bones. To be called a hypocrite stung enough, but to be called a sinner was unthinkable, and to be accused of making Jesus a minister of sin was shocking and repulsive. Yet the logic of Paul’s argument was inescapable. By his actions, Peter had in effect condemned Jesus Christ. He therefore had to forsake his Judaistic sympathies or continue to make His Lord a liar.
To his own question Paul immediately responded, May it never be! It must have been painful to Paul to suggest even hypothetically that Christ could participate in, much less promote, sin. But the drastic danger of Judaistic legalism demanded such drastic logic. He knew of no other way to bring Peter and the others to their senses.
By using the term we in the previous verses, Paul had graciously identified himself with the compromisers to a certain extent. Now he even more graciously and lovingly softens the blow to his friends by using himself as a hypothetical example. For if I rebuild what I have once destroyed, he said, I prove myself to be a transgressor. In other words, if anyone, including myself, tries to rebuild a system of legalism after he has once destroyed it by believing and preaching the gospel of God’s powerful grace and man’s sinful helplessness, he proves himself, not Christ, to be a transgressor. He proves himself to be a hypocrite and a sinner by abandoning grace for law.
“I could never do such a thing,” Paul asserts, “for through the Law I died to the Law, that I might live to God. The idea of legalism clashes with God’s clearest truth and my own deepest convictions. Now that I have accepted grace and died to the Law, I could never go back to its system of rituals and ordinances. Otherwise I could not live to God.” The law is not the believer’s master; God is. It is not his relation to the law that saves him, but his relation to God.
“Do you not know, brethren,” Paul asked the believers at Rome, “that the law has jurisdiction over a person as long as he lives? For the married woman is bound by law to her husband while he is living; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law concerning the husband.… Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead that we might bear fruit for God” (Rom. 7:1–2, 4).
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin, once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law, but under grace. (Rom. 6:1–14)
In both Romans and Galatians, Paul is referring to the fact that when a person exercises faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, he is placed in transcendent spiritual union with Christ in the historical event of His death and resurrection, in which the penalty of sin was paid in full.
If a man is convicted of a capital crime and is put to death, the law obviously has no more claim on him. He has paid his debt to society. Therefore, even if he were to rise from the dead, he would still be guiltless before the law, which would have no claim on his new life. So it is with the believer who dies in Christ to rise in new life. He is free forever from any claim of the law on him. He paid the law’s demand when he died in Christ. His physical death is no punishment, only a release to glory provided in his union with Christ.
Legalism’s most destructive effect is that it cancels the effect of the cross. I have been crucified with Christ, Paul testifies, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. To go back under the law would be to cancel one’s union with Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and therefore to go back under sin.
I died to the Law, Paul explains, because I was crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live. The old man, the old self, is dead, crucified with Christ, and the new man lives (cf. Col. 3:9–10). Now I … live to God, because Christ lives in me (cf. Rom. 8:9). The life I received by faith I now also live by faith. The Greek verb behind live is in the perfect tense, indicating a past completed action that has continuing results. When a believer trusts in Christ for salvation he spiritually participates with the Lord in His crucifixion and in His victory over sin and death.
That is why, the apostle continues, the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God. The true Christian life is not so much a believer’s living for Christ as Christ’s living through the believer. Because in Christ “all the fulness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Col. 2:9), the fulness of God also dwells in every believer, as “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4).
I do not have such a divine life and the magnanimous privilege of being indwelt with the living, powerful Son of God because of anything I have done or merited, but only because He loved me, and delivered Himself up for me.
The surpassing motive, therefore, for all spiritual devotion and obedience is gratitude to the sovereign, gracious Lord. The statement who loved me refers to the motive behind God’s saving grace. The New Testament is replete with teaching on this great truth (see, e.g., John 3:16; Rom. 5:8; Eph. 2:5). The gift of love was not taken from Christ, but He delivered Himself up for me, says the apostle. This is reminiscent of our Lord’s words in John 10:17–18, “I lay down my life that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down of My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.”
All of this saving work is the gift of God’s sovereign grace. Consequently, Paul concludes, I do not nullify the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly. In effect he was saying to Peter, “By withdrawing from fellowship with your Gentile brothers you take your stand with the Judaizers and against Christ. You nullify the grace of God by denying the need for Christ’s death, just as you did when you rebuked the Lord for declaring it was necessary for Him to suffer, be killed, and raised on the third day (see Matt. 16:21–22).
The two pillars of the gospel are the grace of God and the death of Christ, and those are the two pillars that, by its very nature, legalism destroys. The person who insists that he can earn salvation by his own efforts undermines the very foundation of Christianity and nullifies the precious death of Christ on his behalf.
Dying to Live
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal. 2:19–20)
What Paul said in Galatians 2:16 bears repeating: “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” This is the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone. As John Calvin (1509–1564) said, “we are justified in no other way than by faith, or, which comes to the same thing, … that we are justified by faith alone.”
“Justification” is a legal term that refers to a person’s standing before the bar of God’s justice. In order to be declared right with God, I must be righteous. But I am not righteous; I am a sinner. How, then, can I justify myself to God? This is the question that the doctrine of justification answers.
Righteous by Faith
It would be hard to think of a more important issue than how to be accepted by God. Certainly it was important during the Reformation, when Protestants defended the doctrine of justification by faith alone over against the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification by faith plus works. Martin Luther claimed that “if the doctrine of justification is lost, the whole of Christian doctrine is lost.”
Justification remains a vital doctrine to this day, even if many evangelical Christians are not sure what it means or if it matters. The situation is reminiscent of the man who when asked to explain the difference between ignorance and apathy said, “I don’t know and I don’t care!” “Precisely!” came the reply. And ignorance and apathy are precisely the words to describe the church’s present attitude. Christians do not know and do not care to know the doctrine of justification by faith. Yet there is no true Christianity without it. J. I. Packer once wrote, “The doctrine of justification by faith is like Atlas: it bears a world on its shoulders, the entire evangelical knowledge of saving grace.” Packer went on to say what happens “when Protestants let the thought of justification drop out of their minds: the true knowledge of salvation drops out with it, and cannot be restored till the truth of justification is back in its proper place. When Atlas falls, everything that rested on his shoulders comes crashing down too.”
As crucial as justification is to Christianity, it is even more crucial to the Christian. It is of paramount personal importance to get into a right relationship with God. How can a righteous God accept an unrighteous individual like me?
Part of the answer is contained in the last phrase of Galatians 2:16: “By works of the law no one will be justified.” In the previous chapter we noted that this phrase is a quotation from the Old Testament. It is important to realize that the New Testament writers did not simply quote a verse here and a verse there. Rather, they quoted verses in their original biblical contexts. Often, a single phrase is intended to call to mind an entire passage from the Old Testament.
This is what Paul does in Galatians 2. The psalm from which he quotes begins with a problem. David is pursued by enemies and tormented by guilt. He asks God to deliver him even though he knows that what he really deserves is divine judgment:
Hear my prayer, O Lord;
give ear to my pleas for mercy!
In your faithfulness answer me,
in your righteousness.
Enter not into judgment with your servant,
for no one living is righteous before you. (Ps. 143:1–2)
David did not want to be brought before the bar of God’s justice, where no living person can be acquitted, least of all himself. Yet David still appealed to God for his salvation, and the basis for his appeal was God’s own righteousness. David asked God to come to his relief, not because he was righteous, but because God was righteous. He makes the same appeal at the end of the psalm: “For your name’s sake, O Lord, preserve my life! In your righteousness bring my soul out of trouble” (Ps. 143:11). David asked to be saved by a righteousness that comes from God.
Psalm 143 is a psalm for the justified sinner, for an unrighteous man saved by the gift of God’s righteousness. By quoting from this psalm, Paul showed that God’s ultimate answer to David’s prayer came through Jesus Christ. No one can be made right with God by obeying the law, for no one is righteous. But Jesus Christ the Righteous One makes us right with God.
It happens like this. When we put our faith in Jesus Christ, God treats us as if we were as righteous as Jesus is. God credits us with his righteousness. To use the proper term for this, God “imputes” Christ’s righteousness to us, so that what Jesus did through the cross and the empty tomb counts for us. Justification is the judicial act in which God pardons sinners, considering them righteous because of the righteousness of Christ. When he justifies a sinner, God declares that as far as he is concerned, that sinner is as righteous as his own Son.
This doctrine of imputed righteousness is so important that it is worth taking the time to define. Martin Luther explained it like this: “ ‘Because you believe in me,’ God says, ‘and your faith takes hold of Christ, whom I have given to you as your Justifier and Savior, therefore be righteous.’ Thus God accepts you or reputes you righteous solely on account of Christ, in whom you believe.” Calvin wrote: “It is entirely by the intervention of Christ’s righteousness that we obtain justification before God. This is equivalent to saying that man is not just in himself, but that the righteousness of Christ is communicated to him by imputation, while he is strictly deserving of punishment.”5 Similarly, the Westminster Shorter Catechism defines justification as “an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone” (Answer 33). An even fuller explanation comes from the Heidelberg Catechism, which asks, “How art thou righteous before God?” The answer is:
Only by a true faith in Jesus Christ; so that, though my conscience accuse me that I have grossly transgressed all the commands of God, and kept none of them, and am still inclined to all evil; notwithstanding God, without any merit of mine, but only of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ; even so, as if I never had had, nor committed any sin; yea, as if I had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ hath accomplished for me; inasmuch as I embrace such benefit with a believing heart. (A. 60)
Objection: The Problem of Sin
The doctrine of justification by faith alone raises an obvious problem. If by his free grace God has already declared us righteous, then why bother to become a better person? What incentive do we have to live for God? The doctrine of justification seems irresponsible. It sounds, in fact, like winning the spiritual lottery. If God gives righteousness away for free, who will ever work for him again?
Paul anticipates this objection by making it part of his argument. “But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin?” (Gal. 2:17). This is a fair question, and from the way he poses it, Paul seems to have something specific in mind. The clue is the word “sinners,” which Paul used back in verse 15 to indicate the Jewish attitude toward Gentiles. The Gentiles were “sinners,” not so much because they were immoral, but because they lived outside the boundaries of the law. According to the Judaizers, this was precisely the problem with Peter and Paul: they had become outlaws. In their personal habits, they were living like Gentile sinners rather than like Jews. They used to keep the law in all its detail. Now they were doing things like eating unholy food with uncircumcised Gentiles.
Hence the accusation that they were making Jesus a servant of sin, almost as if he were doing promotional work for the devil. Peter and Paul had sought to be justified by faith in Christ. This included giving up on the law as a way to get right with God. Whereas before they had always been law-abiding Jews, they were sinking to the level of pagans. When the Judaizers discovered that Peter and Paul were living like “Gentile sinners,” they reached the obvious conclusion: being justified by faith causes people to sin in the name of Christ. And if Peter and Paul were guilty of this charge, then so were the Gentiles. They had come to faith in Christ, but they were still living like so-called sinners. Someone needed to hold them to a higher moral standard, and the Judaizers were just the men to do it!
What is the best way to answer this line of thinking? It must be admitted that Christians do not always make good advertisements for Christianity. When this is the case, it helps to remember that by definition, all Christians are sinners. Martin Luther said, “A Christian is not someone who has no sin or feels no sin; he is someone to whom, because of his faith in Christ, God does not impute his sin.” This is the crucial difference. Christians are sinners too, but their sins do not count against them. Therefore, with the possible exception of the prison system, the church is the only institution in the world for bad people.
This does not mean, however, that God himself is in the business of sin. “Certainly not!” Paul says (Gal. 2:17). God forbid! Or to put it in the vernacular, “No way!” Perish the thought that Christ is a “servant of sin,” as if his grace is somehow to be blamed for my guilt. When God justifies sinners by faith, he is not aiding and abetting their sin. The very suggestion is blasphemous. God cannot sin (James 1:13), nor can he be held responsible for my sin. If I am still a sinner after I become a Christian, it is no one’s fault but my own.
The doctrine that really does promote sin is justification by the law rather than by faith. Paul shows this by using his opponents’ argument against them: “For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor” (Gal. 2:18). As we shall see, when Paul spoke of rebuilding what he tore down, he was referring to the Old Testament law that he had torn down by preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. So what would happen if someone tried to rebuild the law? This was exactly what Peter was trying to do in Antioch. At first, he had destroyed the law by welcoming Gentiles into the church as full-fledged Christians. But then he allowed himself to be pressured into separating himself from them. In effect, Peter was rebuilding with one hand what he had destroyed with the other. First he told the Gentiles that they were saved by faith, not by works, but then he made the works of the law a test of Christian fellowship.
Not only is this what Peter did, but it is also what the Galatians were tempted to do. Some Jews had come to urge them to rebuild the law in place of the gospel. If the Galatians did that, they would become lawbreakers all over again. The law’s purpose is to show that we are sinners, so the more of it that gets rebuilt, the more sinful we become! In the words of F. F. Bruce, “Any one who, having received justification through faith in Christ, thereafter reinstates law in place of Christ makes himself a sinner all over again.” To rebuild the law is actually to transgress it, because we cannot keep the law in its perfection.
Dead to the Law
In Christ the law has been destroyed as a way of getting right with God. And now that it has been knocked down, it has to stay down. This has profound personal implications. “For through the law I died to the law,” wrote Paul, “so that I might live to God” (Gal. 2:19).
The first question to ask about this verse is, What does it mean to “die to the law”? Notice that the law is not what does the dying. Rather, Paul is the one who dies with respect to the law. This is a remarkable thing for a former Pharisee to say. When Paul was a Pharisee he lived for the law, but now that he is a Christian he is dead to it. That is to say, he is no longer under its power. Calvin said, “To die to the law is to renounce it and to be freed from its dominion, so that we have no confidence in it and it does not hold us captive under the yoke of slavery.”
But then another question arises: How can someone die to the law through the law? It would seem to make more sense for Paul to say something like this: “Through the gospel I died to the law so that I might live for God.” Instead he says that it was the law itself that persuaded him to abandon the law.
There are several ways to understand this. Perhaps Paul was saying that the law “did him in” by showing him that he was a sinner. This is certainly a point he makes elsewhere (Rom. 7:9–11). The law cannot save. All it can do is condemn us by proving that we cannot keep it. In the words of the old Scottish commentator John Brown (1784–1858), the Christian must therefore cease “to expect justification and salvation by obedience to its requisitions.” The law cannot promise life; it can only threaten death. Thus it is through the law that one dies to the law.
There is another possibility, however, which is based on the law’s penalty. Remember that the law came with a deadly curse. Anyone who failed to keep everything God’s law required (and note that in Galatians 2:19 Paul is referring to the whole law of God, not just the ceremonial law, as the New Perspective on Paul and the law would have it) was condemned to die. So the worst the law could do to a man was kill him. However, once the law had exacted its death penalty, there was nothing else it could do. A man can be executed only once, and once he has been executed, the law has no further claim on him. Perhaps this is why Paul considered himself dead to the law: because the law had already put him to death.
Now as far as the Christian is concerned, the penalty of the law has already been carried out. The law’s demand of death was satisfied in the death of Christ. It was the law that put Christ to death on the cross. When Christ died, Paul died too, at least as far as the law was concerned. He died to the law in the death of his substitute. Hence his triumphant statement: “Through the law I died to the law” (Gal. 2:19).
Alive in Christ
Having written his own obituary, Paul proceeds to explain the circumstances of his demise: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:19–20). Here the apostle indicates when he died to the law: he died to the law when Christ died on the cross.
This text reveals something very surprising about the cross. It shows that at least four things were nailed to the cross of Calvary. The most obvious, of course, was Jesus himself, through his hands and feet. As the records plainly show, he was put to death by being nailed to the cross. Also fastened to the cross with a hammer and a nail was the public announcement that read: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (John 19:19). The third thing that was nailed to the cross was the debt of our sin. Paul explained this to the Colossians: God forgave “all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2:13–14). The record of debt was the law of God, which condemns us by listing all our sins and which God canceled by nailing it to the cross.
But here is the surprise: if you are a follower of Christ, then you were nailed to the cross too! The crucifixion is not just a fact about the life of Christ and a momentous event in human history, but is also part of every Christian’s personal life story. The Cambridge Puritan William Perkins (1558–1602) said, “We are in mind and meditation to consider Christ crucified: and first, we are to believe that he was crucified for us. This being done, we must go yet further, and as it were spread ourselves on the cross of Christ, believing and withall beholding ourselves crucified with him.”
Do not misunderstand this. Jesus Christ died once for all. He alone was the God-man, so he alone could atone for the sins of the world by offering his life in our place. Yet the Scripture also says that the Christian has been crucified with Christ. It uses the perfect tense to show that this is something that really and truly happened, as if we were nailed to the very tree of Calvary. This is not a subjective experience in the life of the believer, but an objective reality that is based on the believer’s relationship to Christ. Mark Seifrid writes, “Paul does not have merely his inward life in view, but his whole person and history, which has now been manifestly taken up in the cross and resurrection of Christ.”
The surprising truth that the Christian has been crucified in Christ rests on the most magnificent of all doctrines: union with Christ, which the Scottish theologian John Murray (1898–1975) called “the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation.” We encounter it everywhere in the New Testament. Again and again, the Scripture teaches that the Christian is in Christ. To use the proper theological category, the Christian is united to Christ.
The way anyone becomes united to Christ is by faith. Paul said this in verse 16: “we also have believed in Christ Jesus.” Once we put our faith in Christ, then we are in Christ. Our union with Christ becomes a spiritual reality. Martin Luther said, “By [faith] you are so cemented to Christ that He and you are as one person, which cannot be separated but remains attached to Him forever.”
The reason union with Christ is such a magnificent doctrine is that once we get into Christ by faith, then everything Christ has ever done becomes something we have done. It is as if we had lived his perfect life and died his painful death. It is as if we were buried in his tomb and then raised up to his glorious heaven (Rom. 6:3–5). God attaches us to the events of Christ’s life so that they become part of our lives. His story—the story of the cross and the empty tomb—becomes our story.
The only way to get what Christ has to offer is to be united to him by faith. Calvin said, “We must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us.” But once we get into Christ, then we get everything he has to offer, especially his righteousness. When we are in Christ, God considers us as righteous as his own Son, not because we are righteous, but because we are in Christ.
The doctrine of union with Christ explains why the Christian is dead to the law. We were united to Christ in his crucifixion. As far as God is concerned, we were really and truly nailed to the cross with Christ. It was on the cross that the law carried out its death penalty against us. Therefore, as far as the law is concerned, we are now dead. There is nothing the law can do to improve our standing before God. We can live for Christ because we are dead to the law.
Not only are we dead to the law, it is almost as if we have stopped living altogether: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:19–20). Paul is saying something like this: “I no longer have a life of my own. The only life I have is the life that God puts into me through Jesus Christ.”
It would be hard to imagine a text more antithetical to our contemporary culture. Consider these words from the actress Shirley MacLaine:
The most pleasurable journey you take is through yourself.… The only sustaining love involvement is with yourself.… When you look back on your life and try to figure out where you’ve been and where you are going, when you look at your work, your love affairs, your marriages, your children, your pain, your happiness—when you examine all that closely, what you really find out is that the only person you really go to bed with is yourself. The only person you really dress is yourself. The only thing you have is working to the consummation of your own identity.
MacLaine’s words capture the spirit of this selfish age. Moderns and postmoderns alike are obsessed with themselves. Self-esteem, self-improvement, self-fulfillment, self-indulgence—whatever you want, as long as it begins with your “self.”
In these self-absorbed times, the Bible announces the death of the self: “It is no longer I who live” (Gal. 2:20). The world no longer revolves around me. I am no longer dominated by thoughts of my own pleasure and prestige. If I have a life at all, it is only the life that Christ lives in me.
This does not mean that becoming a Christian is a kind of suicide. We still have a normal physical existence, of course, what Paul calls “the life I now live in the flesh” (Gal. 2:20). Since it is the life I live, I even have a self. But the only self I have is the one that is united to Christ by faith. My life is the life that Christ “lives in me,” the life “I live by faith in the Son of God” (Gal. 2:20).
This is the mystery of Christ’s indwelling presence by the Holy Spirit. Theologians have tried to explain this mystery in various ways. Calvin said that the Christian “does not live by his own life but is animated by the secret power of Christ, so that Christ may be said to live and grow in him.” The Scottish theologian Henry Scougal (1650–1678) called it “the life of God in the soul of man.” One thing this means is that becoming a Christian is the best and only way to discover our identity. We will never find our true selves until we find ourselves in Christ. Our identity is established by our union with Christ. We have no self, except the self that we have in him. To have a “healthy self-image,” then, is to see ourselves as we are in Christ.
Christ Died for Someone
Union with Christ provides the answer to the question we posed earlier: If God justifies bad people, then why be good? Isn’t justification by faith alone a dangerous doctrine that encourages people to be immoral?
The answer is “Certainly not!” The reason the doctrine of justification by faith does not promote sin is that justifying faith is what gets us into Christ, and when we are in Christ we become new people. We are not simply justified by faith; we also live by faith. By faith we are in the crucified Christ. By the same faith Christ lives in us. Since we live in Christ, we no longer live in sin. We live in Christ, by Christ, and through Christ for the glory of God.
The Christian life is like life after death. We were crucified with Christ, dead both to the law and to ourselves. But we are still united to Christ by faith. Therefore, our story did not end at the cross, but went on to the empty tomb. Just as Jesus was brought back to life in his resurrection, so we also have been raised from the dead. God has given us a whole new life to live for him, a life of faith responding to love.
If this is not Christianity, then there is no such thing as Christianity, which is the point with which Paul concludes the first major part of his letter: “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if justification were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Gal. 2:21). J. Gresham Machen identified this as
the key verse of the Epistle to the Galatians; it expresses the central thought of the Epistle. The Judaizers attempted to supplement the saving work of Christ by merit of their own obedience to the law. That, says Paul, is impossible; Christ will do everything or nothing: earn your salvation if your obedience to the law is perfect, or else trust wholly to Christ’s completed work; you cannot do both; you cannot combine merit and grace; if justification even in slightest measure is through human merit, then Christ died in vain.
For the sake of argument, assume that there is another way to be justified, apart from the work of Christ. Suppose that there is some other procedure for getting right with God. Imagine, for example, that what Paul’s opponents were saying was true, that God will accept us only if we keep the law of Moses, getting circumcised and all the rest of it. Now explain why Christ died on the cross. Obviously not to justify sinners, because this is something that sinners must do for themselves. The cross is necessary only if it has the power to bring sinners into a right relationship with God.
Paul’s point is that if it is possible to be justified by working the law, then there was no reason for Christ to be crucified. His death was pointless. His work was in vain. His cross was unnecessary. For if our own works can save us, then Christ’s death was superfluous. Or perhaps Christ’s death was insufficient, so that when he hung, dying on the cross, and said, “It is finished” (John 19:30), it wasn’t really finished after all. Either salvation comes through the finished work of Jesus Christ, or it comes through human effort, but not both. If we can be saved by our own works, then Jesus was a false Messiah who died a worthless death on a meaningless cross.
The notion that Christ died for nothing is scandalous, of course. Luther considered it “an intolerable and horrible blasphemy to think up some work by which you presume to placate God, when you see that He cannot be placated except by this immense, infinite price, the death and the blood of the Son of God, one drop of which is more precious than all creation.” In fact, anyone who tries to add works to faith is treating Jesus exactly the way his enemies treated him when he was dying on the cross. Timothy George writes that “if we add works of the law to the sacrifice of the cross, then indeed we make a mockery of Jesus’ death just as the soldiers who spat upon him, the thieves who hurled insults at him, and the rabble who shouted, ‘Come down from the cross!’ ”21
This is exactly what the Judaizers were doing. They were adding works to faith as their basis for being justified before God. By doing this they were saying that Christ died for nothing. They were nullifying the grace of God. But the one thing the apostle Paul absolutely refused to do was to nullify the grace of God. He had come to Christ by faith, not by works. He understood that to go back now and argue that the law can save sinners would be to deny the saving power of the cross. All by itself the cross proves that justification comes by grace, through faith, and not by works. If the righteousness of the crucified Christ is not accepted, then the grace of God must be abrogated. For in order for salvation to be by grace alone, through faith alone, it must come from Christ alone. Otherwise, Christ died for nothing.
Christ did die for something, of course. Or to put it more accurately, Christ died for someone. He died for me. Notice the intensely personal terms that Paul uses to describe his relationship to Jesus Christ. Although Jesus is the very Son of God, he “loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). The same God who loved the world loves me, specifically and individually. He not only loves me, but also gave himself for me when he died for my sins on the cross. Jesus freely and willingly volunteered to be my Savior. I, personally, was crucified with the Christ who died, personally, for me. Divine love is not some abstract concept. It is a passionate affection that has been expressed through sacrificial action.
When John Wesley (1703–1791) was coming to faith in Christ, this truth made a deep and lasting impression upon him. In his journal he describes what it was like to come to the end of the second chapter in Luther’s Commentary on Galatians:“I laboured, waited, and prayed to feel ‘who loved me and gave himself for me.’ ” Wesley found that these verses were well worth the effort. So does everyone who comes to Christ by faith, becoming united to him in his crucifixion, and thereby receiving the free grace of the loving God.
20. I am crucified with Christ. This explains the manner in which we, who are dead to the law, live to God. Ingrafted into the death of Christ, we derive from it a secret energy, as the twig does from the root. Again, the handwriting of the law, “which was contrary to us, Christ has nailed to his cross.” (Col. 2:14.) Being then crucified with him, we are freed from all the curse and guilt of the law. He who endeavours to set aside that deliverance makes void the cross of Christ. But let us remember, that we are delivered from the yoke of the law, only by becoming one with Christ, as the twig draws its sap from the root, only by growing into one nature.
Nevertheless I live. To the feelings of man, the word Death is always unpleasant. Having said that we are “crucified with Christ,” he therefore adds, “that this makes us alive.”
Yet not I, but Christ liveth in me. This explains what he meant by “living to God.” He does not live by his own life, but is animated by the secret power of Christ; so that Christ may be said to live and grow in him; for, as the soul enlivens the body, so Christ imparts life to his members. It is a remarkable sentiment, that believers live out of themselves, that is, they live in Christ; which can only be accomplished by holding real and actual communication with him. Christ lives in us in two ways. The one life consists in governing us by his Spirit, and directing all our actions; the other, in making us partakers of his righteousness; so that, while we can do nothing of ourselves, we are accepted in the sight of God. The first relates to regeneration, the second to justification by free grace. This passage may be understood in the latter sense; but if it is thought better to apply it to both, I will cheerfully adopt that view.
And the life which I now live in the flesh. There is hardly a sentence here which has not been torn by a variety of interpretations. Some understand by the word flesh, the depravity of sinful nature; but Paul means by it simply the bodily life, and it is to this that the objection applies. “You live a bodily life; but while this corruptible body performs its functions,—while it is supported by eating and drinking, this is not the heavenly life of Christ. It is therefore an unreasonable paradox to assert, that, while you are openly living after the ordinary manner of men, your life is not your own.”
Paul replies, that it consists in faith; which intimates that it is a secret hidden from the senses of man. The life, therefore, which we attain by faith, is not visible to the bodily eye, but is inwardly perceived in the conscience by the power of the Spirit; so that the bodily life does not prevent us from enjoying, by faith, a heavenly life. “He hath made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” (Eph. 2:6.) Again, “Ye are fellow-citizens with the saints and of the household of God.” (Eph. 2:19.) And again, “Our conversation is in heaven.” (Phil. 3:20.) Paul’s writings are full of similar assertions, that, while we live in the world, we at the same time live in heaven; not only because our Head is there, but because, in virtue of union, we enjoy a life in common with him. (John 14:23.)
Who loved me. This is added to express the power of faith; for it would immediately occur to any one,—whence does faith derive such power as to convey into our souls the life of Christ? He accordingly informs us, that the love of Christ, and his death, are the objects on which faith rests; for it is in this manner that the effect of faith must be judged. How comes it that we live by the faith of Christ? Because “he loved us, and gave himself for us.” The love of Christ led him to unite himself to us, and he completed the union by his death. By giving himself for us, he suffered in our own person; as, on the other hand, faith makes us partakers of every thing which it finds in Christ. The mention of love is in accordance with the saying of the apostle John, “Not that we loved God, but he anticipated us by his love.” (1 John 4:10.) For if any merit of ours had moved him to redeem us, this reason would have been stated; but now Paul ascribes the whole to love: it is therefore of free grace. Let us observe the order: “He loved us, and gave himself for us.” As if he had said, “He had no other reason for dying, but because he loved us,” and that “when we were enemies,” (Rom. 5:10,) as he argues in another Epistle.
He gave himself. No words can properly express what this means; for who can find language to declare the excellency of the Son of God? Yet he it is who gave himself as a price for our redemption. Atonement, cleansing, satisfaction, and all the benefits which we derive from the death of Christ, are here represented. The words for me, are very emphatic. It will not be enough for any man to contemplate Christ as having died for the salvation of the world, unless he has experienced the consequences of this death, and is enabled to claim it as his own.
19–20 These verses contain four propositions: (1) “Through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God”; (2) “I have been crucified with Christ”; (3) “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me”; and (4) “the life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Determining the meaning of each of these statements will aid in understanding Paul’s intention in this section.
Stating “through the law I died to the law” further expounds the assertion Paul made at v. 18 that he is not a transgressor of the law. When Paul speaks of “dying to” something elsewhere, he means to say metaphorically that all relationship to that entity has been cut off (cf. “died to sin,” Ro 6:2, 10–11; “died to the law,” Ro 7:2–6). So here he contends that the believer cannot be a transgressor of the law because one who has trusted Jesus Christ has been cut off from any (intended redemptive) relationship to the law. Paul does not indicate that the believer is cut off from the law in any and every sense—the context of this statement is the propositio, in which he sets forth his thesis statement regarding justification and observance of the law—but in both the “legalistic” connotation and in the sense of the law functioning as the nomistic guideline for life (as argued by Paul’s opponents), the believer is “dead” to the law and thus no longer in relationship to it (cf. Burton, 132–33; Bruce, 142). This death to the law came about “through the law,” i. e., the believer’s death to the law is through the law because he died in Christ’s death (Ro 7:4). Paul will further expand on this statement in the probatio section of 3:19–4:7, particularly at 3:19–25.
“I have been crucified with Christ” speaks to the believer’s incorporation into the work of Christ. This is the basis of Paul’s earlier statements regarding the believer’s death to the law and living for God. This is a “Spirit-ual” identification with Christ (i. e., “of the Spirit,” “sourced” in the person of God’s Holy Spirit) in his death. It indicates that union with Christ by faith includes one’s being united with him in his experience of death to the old order, to the law.
The statement “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” extends this incorporation into Christ beyond death to the law to life in Christ. The Christian’s life is “hidden with Christ” (Col 3:3). The believer is transferred by virtue of incorporation with the crucified Christ to the sphere of resurrection life in him (cf. Matera, 103; Bruce, 144). The believer’s life is now lived out under the ethic and guidance of Jesus Christ by means of the Holy Spirit. Just as sin was the operative power of the former life, exercised through the law and the self, now Christ lives both in and through the believer.
Paul goes on to explain, “The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” The present life in the mortal body is, for the believer, a life that is lived “in Christ.” This is life lived in union with Christ, through faith in him who is the “Son of God.” This is a life of commitment to him who “loved me and gave himself for me.” The title “Son of God” both defines Jesus’ identity as God’s Servant and describes the close bond between him and the Father. It also emphasizes the greatness of Jesus’ sacrifice, as he gave himself up to be crucified in order to provide redemption for lost humanity. This sacrificial activity made the way clear for the faith life of union with Christ Paul describes here.
In these verses Paul has expressed the crux of his theology of the Christian life: the believer has died to the law by virtue of incorporation into Christ, with whom the believer has been co-crucified. Life is now lived in union with him in a daily existence of faith “outworked” (cf. 5:13–6:10). The law has no dominion over the believer, who lives now in the ethical sphere of Christ’s life by his Spirit, whose power it is that energizes and empowers one by faith in Christ’s person and work.
19–20a The emphatic “I” (egō), with which the positive argument in vv. 19f. against the false conclusion of v. 17b begins (in the Greek text), may be explained by the “I” (egō) of v. 20b (20a in Greek editions) as referring to Paul in his natural self; but the genuine first person singular is here used also representatively of all true Christians. Of this “I” Paul predicates a dying “through the law … to the law” (RSV, NIV, NASB). A person’s death to the law means that that person ceases to have any relation to the law, so that the law has no further claim or control over that person.
This death is accomplished “through the law”; this is more specifically expressed in the clause “I have been crucified with Christ,” which refers not in an ethical sense to a subjective experience in Christian consciousness, but to the believer’s objective position in Christ. By virtue of his incorporation into Christ (cf. v. 17) and participation in Christ’s death Paul has undergone a death whereby his relation to the law has been decisively severed and the law has ceased to have any claim on him (cf. Rom. 7:4, 6). But since the vicarious death of Christ for sinners was exacted by the law (cf. Gal. 3:13) and was “first an affirmation of [the law’s] verdict,” Paul’s death to the law through participation in Christ’s death can be said to be “through the law.”68 This death “through the law … to the law” means not only that the law as a false way of righteousness has been set aside but also that the believer is set free from the dominion of the law (under which there is transgression, Rom. 4:15) for a life of consecration to God (cf. Rom. 7:6).
Paul’s point in vv. 19–20a is thus that, although in seeking to be justified in Christ believers become “sinners” in that they do not possess the law (v. 17a), this is but an outworking of the principle of dying to the law in accordance with its own demands, and the purpose and result of freedom from the yoke of the law is not to lead them to sin, but to enable them to live for God; hence, Christ is not “an abettor of sin” (v. 17b, c).
20b As a result of his participation in Christ’s death on the cross, Paul now explains (note the first “and” of NASB, NIV), the life he now lives is not lived by him—by the “I” of v. 19, the self-righteous Pharisee who based his hope for righteousness and salvation on strict observance of the law—but by Christ, the risen and exalted One, who dwells in him. It is sometimes said that these words show the mysticism of Paul’s experience; but if the mode of expression may be somewhat “mystical,” the meaning is clarified by the completely rational statement which follows. Now that Paul’s natural self has come to an end, his earthly existence72 is no longer an independent life of his own, but a life of believing dependence on the Son of God who loved him and gave himself for him. To have Christ living in Paul, therefore, does not mean some kind of mystical depersonalization, as though the human “I” of Paul were absorbed into the pneumatic “I” of Christ;74 on the contrary, Paul fully retains his identity as an “I” who sustains an “I-Thou” relationship with Christ.
The new life spoken of here began when Paul “died to law—to live for God” (v. 19), which was also when “we believed … that we might be justified” (v. 16, RV).76 This means that the believer’s new life, which is characterized by faith in Christ and by Christ’s indwelling presence, is to be dated from the time of his justification. From the perspective of Paul’s argument, the point is that, although justification in Christ does mean that one abandons dependence on the law and becomes a sinner in that sense (v. 17), it does not mean actually committing sin, since it also and at the same time means living a new life of union with Christ: Christ lives in the believer, and the believer lives his present, earthly life by faith in Christ.
19–20 Paul offers a personal statement as a further elaboration of the rationale for why that which was torn down (2:17–18) should not be erected afresh. To do so would be to undo all that is spoken of in 2:19–21. He gives us thereby one of the most beautiful expressions of the essence of the Christian life: “For I died to the law through the law, in order that I might live to God. I have been crucified along with Christ. It’s not me living any longer, but Christ is living in me. What I’m now living in the flesh, I live by trusting God’s Son, who loved me and gave himself up on my behalf.” Paul describes a paradigmatic “dying” that opens up the possibility of a new kind of “living,” all the result of Jesus’s own dying for the sake of, out of love for, and in order to benefit Paul—and it is significant that, while Christ did this for “all” (see 2 Cor 5:14–15), he also did it for “each,” and thus for “me” (2:20). In this way, a general benefaction (“for all”) remains also a very personal benefaction (“for me”), calling for a very personal response and creating a very personal bond. It is this bond that Paul takes every pain not to violate, this response of gratitude to which Paul yields all that he is, such that “it is not me living any longer.” Returning to the Torah-driven life would mean, for Paul, setting aside the favor, the generous love, that Christ has shown at ultimate cost to himself, which is something he will neither do himself nor suffer others to do without being held accountable (2:21).
Paul claims that his movement away from seeking to align himself with God’s purposes and standards through continuing to align his life with the Torah, accompanied by his movement toward aligning himself with God’s purposes and standards through trusting Jesus and allowing Jesus to come alive within him, was itself a journey undertaken “through the Torah.” Paul will explain further below (3:11–14, 19–25; 4:4–5) how “dying to the Torah” is in fact in accordance with God’s ultimate purposes for, and revealed in, the Torah. That Torah should pronounce Jesus accursed while God pronounces Jesus righteous by means of resurrection represents Torah’s own claim of incompatibility with Jesus. Indeed, by contributing to bringing about Jesus’s death, the Torah helped to effect Paul’s liberation from its own authority and power. Torah has a positive function, but only as a temporary measure set in place to provide protective discipline for the particular people out of which the Seed (see 3:15–18) would arise. It had to give way to the more powerful means by which God would bring all people, and not just Jews, into alignment with God’s righteousness—namely, identification with Christ in his death and rising to new life, and the gift of the Spirit to direct and empower righteousness from the heart.
Paul’s identification with Christ in his death, because he is now in Christ (who had been crucified and rose to a new life) and Christ is now in him, frees him from obligation to the law, which “has authority over a person while he or she is alive” (Rom 7:1). It is a death to living under the authority of the Torah, constrained by its regulations and practices, but it is also, as Paul recognizes here, a death to “the jurisdiction of one’s own ego,”359 or as he will express it later, a death to the power of the “old person,” the “flesh” with its cravings and urges (Gal 5:24), so that one can follow the Spirit’s leading in all things, manifesting the righteous character and practices that fulfill the Torah’s vision for righteousness—becoming the sort of person that Torah would affirm as reflecting God’s holiness, even though the Christian arrives at that point by a completely different path (5:22–23; see also Rom 6:1–14; Col 3:1–17).
This dying in union with Christ allows Paul to enter into a new kind of living—not merely existence as a biological organism, but a coming alive to God in a wholly new way, a life before God characterized by the freedom of God’s mature children (3:23–25; 4:1–7), who have the capacity to do what pleases God because God’s Spirit, living within them and empowering them to live this life, guides them (5:13–25). Gratitude, the full-bodied response to grace shown, is the path into, and driving force of, this new life.361 Paul remains ever mindful of the generous kindness of Jesus, “the Son of God who loved me and handed himself over on my behalf” (2:20b; see 1:4). Jesus displayed the highest form of generosity that any benefactor could, giving not his resources but his very life to bring benefit to others. Such commitment ought to awaken an equal commitment to respond with a proportionate degree of gratitude. Paul describes this response as nothing less than a life for a life. In a very real sense, Paul has given over to Jesus the remainder of his life in the body (“flesh” here does not yet carry the negative hues with which it will be colored in Gal 3–6 but speaks only of “this mortal body,” as in 1:16). Paul has put himself out of the way so that “the one who loved [him] and gave himself over for [him]” could have the remainder of Paul’s life as a fair return. As a gift in return, it may not be of equal value, but it shows equal commitment to the grace relationship. Christ’s self-giving becomes the focal act, the stimulus, that defines all of Paul’s responses—all of life is thenceforth lived first and foremost with a view to giving oneself to Christ, to his interests, his agenda, his pleasure.
An essential component of this response to costly favor is to move forward with unflagging trust in such a benefactor, and Paul expresses his own commitment to continue in this response: “What I now live in the flesh, I live by trusting in the Son of God” (2:20). The “faith in Christ” that is the means to acquittal (“justification”) includes this new life of “living by faith in God’s Son,” a new life in which the “I” no longer drives what is lived in the body, but Christ does by the power and means of his indwelling Spirit. Much of the central argumentative section of Galatians can be read as Paul’s attempt to encourage the believers to show more complete confidence in Jesus’s ability to bring them into God’s household and in the sufficiency of the gifts that Jesus’s death has secured for them. Central here is trust in the sufficiency of the Holy Spirit, the blessing once promised to Abraham and now available to all who trust Jesus (3:14), to lead them to life and righteousness before God (3:21; 5:13–6:10) by causing Christ to take shape within, and to live in and through, them (2:20; 4:19). This is the “new creation” (6:15; cf. 2 Cor 5:16–18) that renders all concern over circumcision or uncircumcision misplaced.
Paul offers his own experience as a paradigm of response to Christ’s love manifested in his self-giving death. Paul emphasizes how deeply personal this statement is by his repeated use of the nominative pronoun egō, explaining why he himself cannot think as did the “people from James,” could not do as Peter did, and cannot abide what the rival teachers are now seeking to do. The experience of “dying to the Torah” is, moreover, a particularly Jewish one and not one with which the gentile converts among his audience can immediately identify. Nevertheless, Paul’s response in 2:19–20 is paradigmatic insofar as gentile Christians must also experience a death, a cocrucifixion with Christ, to “the flesh with its passions and desires” (5:24) and to “the world” (6:14) with its fundamental rules and ordering principles (4:3, 8–11) in favor of Christ coming to life within them and making them “new creation” in whom “righteousness” comes to be embodied (5:5–6; 6:15). Paul is in labor for his converts until “Christ is formed” in them (4:19), even as Christ has taken shape in Paul (2:20). He will speak more fully in 5:13–6:10 of the process by which this formation becomes reality.
The narrative of Jesus’s giving of himself for Paul out of love for him becomes the act that defines Paul’s response, namely, dying with Christ in return and, in some sense, for Christ in return so that Christ may now live in Paul. This narrative must, in turn, be allowed to awaken the same response in every person who trusts in Christ’s death: “One person died on behalf of all; therefore all died. And he died on behalf of all in order that those who continued living might live no longer for themselves, but rather for him who died and was raised on their behalf” (2 Cor 5:14b–15). This response frees the human being from the condition of being “curved in on itself”370 and restores to it the God-centeredness and other-centeredness that is at the heart of righteousness under the old covenant and under the new.
Taken as a whole, Gal 2:15–21 demonstrates the fallacy of choosing either “justification by faith” or “participation in Christ” as the center of Paul’s theology. The two represent facets of a single center. Indeed, if we understand “justification” in its fullest sense—God intervening to bring back in line what was out of alignment in human beings and their relationship with the divine—then “participating in Christ” or, perhaps better, “Christ’s participation in us” is an essential mechanism of that justification. Paul speaks of Christ’s participation in us as the Spirit’s activity within and among us (4:6–7; 5:16–25), of “Christ being formed” among the believers (4:19), and of Christ “living” in Paul (2:20). Christ participating in us, changing us to the point that we are not “ourselves” any more, with Christ, rather, taking on new flesh in us—this is the means by which the righteousness that God seeks in God’s people (6:7–10), for which the Christian hopes (5:5), is formed within us (a righteousness that the Torah could not effectively nurture, 2:21). Paul’s interest in God’s justifying (“rectifying”) initiative includes a highly “formational” or “transformational” element.
 Calvin, J., & Pringle, W. (2010). Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians (pp. 74–76). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 Rapa, R. K. (2008). Galatians. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, pp. 586–587). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.