When I was in college, I tried to memorize a whole bunch of different Bible verses. I made it most of the way through my list, but unfortunately each verse was memorized in isolation. Not to take anything away from memorizing Scripture, but in my case, the effort at the time was probably more an act of spiritual bravado than anything else. The real goal was to get through the list. One of the verses on my list was Galatians 2:20. I ended up memorizing it alright, but at the time I wasn’t really sure what Paul was saying. What did “being crucified with Christ” mean? I’d like to explore Galatians 2:17-21 and list a few thoughts I have regarding what Paul might be trying to communicate. Undoubtedly, however, many of you have far greater hermeneutical skills than I, and therefore its your job to set me straight if I’m missing something. Let me present the NIV version of the text and then give you a few thoughts:
17 “If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners, does that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! 18 If I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a law breaker. 19 For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be obtained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”
Setting the Stage:
When you look at Galatians as a whole, one theme, or rather one question seems to garner significant attention. The question is: “What role does law in general, or The Law, in particular play in salvation?” The answer is quite radical, especially if you are a blue-blooded, law-abiding Jew. But even if you are a Gentile sinner and not a Jew, the answer still cuts cross-grain to what “feels” right. The answer to the question above has many implications, nuances and layers. However, I believe the core of the answer is found in Galatians 3:24, which states: “So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith.” The purpose of the law was to expose sin; to drill into our hard hearts concrete knowledge of our desperate need for a Savior. “The law was put in charge to lead us to Christ.” What we do with Christ then becomes the real issue. Furthermore, when speaking of salvation, the notion of levels of obedience to the law is really quite meaningless. It is our failure to obey the entire law perfectly that is the whole point! The law prosecutes me perfectly before a Holy Judge. That is its sole purpose. The case against me, brought to light by the law, is absolutely iron clad. The verdict is guilty! I need a Savior. Now, if this is the role of Law in general, then what role does Law play in my life now that I am a believer? I believe Galatians 2:17-21 seeks to answer this question. So, lets look at the text verse by verse.
Verse 17: “If, while we seek to be justified in Christ...”
Obviously, this verse is referring to believers. Paul is including himself in this group. And, Paul is differentiating between any other group of people who may be trying to be justified before God by some other means.
Verse 17 continued. “…it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners, does that mean Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not!”
In some ways this statement could be the understatement of the year! First, to repent and believe requires that we become cognizant of our sin. (This is why we have the Law) Second, after we truly do repent and believe and receive the Spirit and are given a new heart, a strange thing begins to occur. We become increasingly aware of our sin over time. This is the very working of the Spirit in our lives. When encountering an obvious believer who is struggling with sin, Geoff Volker likes to quip: “If you think you’re sinful now, just wait a year.” I know Geoff pretty well, and he’s not getting any younger… I think he’s got it right! The question, however, that Paul is trying to address is this: Just because I continue to sin after becoming a believer, does that mean Christ has put His stamp of approval or endorsement on my sin? Don’t we need the Law too, just to help keep us all in line? Christ may have purchased forgiveness from sin, but is that really enough? How are we going to squash all of this sin that keeps bubbling to the surface? Surely Christ doesn’t want me to continue sinning, does He? No, He doesn’t. But, the purpose of the Law was to lead us to Christ. Once we become a believer, a radical change occurs that could never have happened while we were prisoners of sin. We obtain a new internal motivation, the Law written on our hearts, that pushes us onwards towards sanctification. It is impossible for a real believer not to make progress in holiness! For that purpose, we don’t need the Law.
Verse 18: “If I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a lawbreaker.”
I try bring the Law back into the equation for any purpose whatsoever after becoming a believer, what do I accomplish? Well, I end up back at square one, which is, I simply prove once again that I am a guilty sinner in need of a Savior. That is as far as the Law is designed to take a person. So, if I rebuild what I destroyed, which is justification through obedience to the Law, then all I gain in return is proof that I can’t truly be justified through obedience to the Law!. I’m incapable of perfect obedience; that’s the point and that’s why I need a Savior.
Verse 19: “For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God.”
This sounds somewhat convoluted at first reading, but I’m pretty sure Paul is just saying the same thing once again. The law was put in place to lead me to Christ. However, the law is powerless to effect a changed life and grant me forgiveness of sin. In effect the law holds me prisoner until Christ sets me free (Romans 7). So, if through the law I become cognizant of my need for a Savior and thus accept Christ, I die to the imprisoning effects of the law and instead become a child of God. The law leads me to Christ, and then once I repent and believe, I’m released from its condemnation.
This takes us right up to verse 20, the verse I struggled with when in college. I want to stop here today and pick things back up in a day or two. The point I leave you with, though, is that the Law was put in place to lead us to Christ. That is the purpose Scripture seems to give to law. Consequently, if we try to use the Law for any other purpose, we risk going against what Scripture teaches. Christ death on the cross is sufficient to pay the penalty for sin. And, the Spirit’s work in the life of a believer is sufficient to effect all necessary change that will ultimately lead to holiness. Having the assurance that my salvation and sanctification are both guaranteed by God Himself is very comforting. Of course, all of this is true only if I persevere in faith until the very end and thus prove that my salvation is genuine indeed!