This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland. If you have any questions or comments for Rev. McGeown, please post them in the comment section on the blog.
Alive in Christ
You might think that, if Paul has been crucified with Christ and had died to the law, he would be dead—but he is not, for he clarifies in verse 20, “Nevertheless, I live.”
Paul’s crucifixion with Christ did not put his physical body in the tomb. Paul’s death to the law did not kill him physically. Paul was not physically crucified at all.
Or to put it another way, Paul is dead in one sense: he is dead to the law; but he is alive in another sense: he is alive to God. When the law threatens him, Paul’s answer to the law is, “I died to you; I am dead to you because of the cross of my Savior, Jesus Christ.” When God calls him, Paul’s answer to God is, “O my God, I live to thee; I devote myself to thee because of Jesus Christ thy Son.”
“I live” is Paul’s conclusion in verse 20. What does he mean by that? Does he refer simply to physical life? That cannot be the meaning, for that would be true of anyone—believer or unbeliever; or Christian, Jew, or atheist. But Paul is making a distinction: I have been crucified with Christ; therefore, I live. To the unbeliever Paul would say, “You have not been crucified with Christ, but you are a stranger to Christ; therefore, you do not live. You cannot live.”
Outside of Christ, the unbeliever is dead.
The life of which Paul writes is the rich life of fellowship with God. This life has its source in God, for God alone has true life. This life consists in knowing God. This life is eternal and everlasting life. It is the life of heaven begun in to the soul, which will come to perfection in the kingdom of God.
“Nevertheless, I live.”
Paul lives because Christ lives.
Although Paul does not explicitly mention the resurrection of Jesus Christ, he has that in mind. Christ was crucified; Christ was buried; Christ was raised from the dead. Because Paul belongs to Christ, Paul was crucified; Paul was buried; and Paul was raised from the dead.
Paul explains this further in Romans 6:6: “Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.” Paul explains it also in Ephesians 2:5–6: “Even when we were dead in sins, [he] hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;) and hath raised us up together and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”
Here, then, is the transformation in which Paul rejoices. He was dead in sin and dead to God. In that former life, Paul had no fellowship with God, for he was estranged from God, alienated from God, and an enemy of God.
Now he is dead to sin—and to the law—and alive to God; now he lives in the highest, fullest sense: by virtue of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
“I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless, I live.”
As is characteristic for Paul, he clarifies what he has just stated: “Yet not I, but Christ liveth in me” (v. 20). I do not live, or more literally, “I no longer live.” Christ lives. Christ lives in me.
What does that mean? Clearly, it does not mean that Paul’s human person has been replaced, as if Paul’s ego is no longer present, or as if Christ’s person has replaced Paul’s person. That is impossible: then Paul would be assimilated into Christ; then Paul would no longer exist. If that were the case, Paul would not be the subject of his thinking, willing, and acting. Paul would simply be a puppet in which Christ lives. Paul would be an empty shell in which Christ performs the activity, and in no sense could it be called Paul’s activity.
Then that would be true for all Christians—Christ’s person (his ego) would replace the individual persons (or egos) of millions of Christians; that is impossible and absurd.
Paul makes similar statements elsewhere. In 1 Corinthians 15:10 he writes, “But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain: but I labored more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.”
In that verse Paul does not deny that he worked hard, but he gives the praise to God. God’s grace worked in him; God’s grace was the source of his strength. Yet God did not work in him in such a way that he did not also work. God did not bless Paul’s sloth, but God blessed Paul’s diligent labors. Yet God’s grace was first: Paul depended on God’s grace for his work; God did not depend on Paul.
Similarly, then, Paul writes in Galatians 2:20, “Nevertheless, I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.” Christ is the source of Paul’s life; Christ dwells in Paul by the Holy Spirit; Christ gives Paul the grace to live, to fight sin, to follow after holiness, to bring forth good works of obedience, and to endure affliction. Yet Christ does not fight sin—Paul does by the power of Christ; Christ does not follow after holiness—Paul does by the power of Christ; Christ does not obey—Paul does by the power of Christ; Christ does not endure affliction—Paul does by the power of Christ.
Do not fall into mysticism by confusing your person with Christ. Do not imagine that you are assimilated into Christ so that you no longer do anything. Do not sit idly and expect without any effort on your part to walk in God’s commandments and serve him. That is not how it works—and that is not what Paul means.
Apply that to Galatians 2:20: I am so united to Christ that Christ lives in me. I am so separated from sin that I do not identify with sin. Yes, I am guilty of sin—but Jesus has died for my sins. Yes, I commit sin—but I hate my sin, I flee from my sin, and I crucify my sin by the grace of God. And that is only possible because Christ lives in me.
The Canons of Dordt address this also, and in so doing they refute the “Let go, and let God” error of some Christians. Some Christians in an attempt to elevate the grace of God teach passivity in the life of a Christian. “Let go—make no effort. Let God—God will save you while you are unconscious, but he will do so without your activity.” That sounds pious, but that is not how the Bible describes the Christian life: the Bible describes the Christian life as a battle, a struggle, a fight, and a grueling race. God works in us in such a way that we work. Listen to the Canons: “Grace is conferred by means of admonitions; and the more readily we perform our duty, the more eminent usually is this blessing of God working in us, and the more directly is his work advanced” (Canons 3–4.17).
That this is the correct meaning of Paul ought to be obvious when we read the rest of the verse. Paul very definitely refutes the view of the mystics on this verse when he writes, “And the life which I now live in the flesh” (v. 20).
So Paul wrote, “I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless, I live.”
Then he qualified it, “Yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.”
And then he qualifies it again, “And the life which I now live in the flesh.”
So Paul does, in fact, live after all—he lives in the flesh. The word flesh is a reference to Paul’s human nature or his human existence: it is human nature from the perspective of its weakness and even its sinfulness. What is man—he is flesh! Body and soul, he is flesh. When Paul writes Galatians 2:20, he has not yet reached the perfection to which he aspires.
But notice what Paul does not say, “The life that I now live according to the flesh.” Paul lives in the flesh, because he cannot (until Christ releases him in death) escape from the flesh. Nevertheless, Paul does not live according to the flesh, or in harmony with the flesh, for he does not serve the flesh; he does not serve sin.
How could he—he is dead to the law! How could he—he lives unto God! How could he—he is crucified with Christ! How could he—Christ lives in him! Paul explains it elsewhere in Romans 8:12–13: “Therefore, brethren we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh, for if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.” Or Galatians 6:7–8: “Be not deceived: God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, the same shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.”
That is the Christian life. On the one hand, we live in the flesh—that’s our life, the everyday, ordinary, and difficult life in this world. We live that life. We struggle through that life. We fight against our sins. We stumble, we fall, and we get back up again. We watch and we pray, and we seek to glorify God. On the other hand, we no longer live, for Christ lives in us—he is the source of our strength; he enables us by the power of his grace to live as his children.
Our lives have been transformed, and they are being transformed. The process is slow—and often painful—but we press on by the grace of our Savior.
Living by Faith
Finally, Paul explains the power of his life. “The life, which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God” (v. 20).
There is confusion about these words, as well as the words in verse 16: “by the faith of Jesus Christ.” There is some who imagine that Jesus Christ the Son of God is the subject of the faith—that is, Jesus is the one performing the activity of believing. Grammatically, that is possible, but it makes no sense. How could Jesus be the one performing the activity of believing? Jesus does not believe for us or instead of us; we believe in him.
The meaning, therefore, is clear: I live by faith in the Son of God, or, if you prefer, I live by faith that comes from the Son of God. Jesus is the one in whom I believe, or Jesus is the one from whom my faith comes. But when God gives me faith, it becomes mine; it is mine, and I exercise it.
Jesus works faith in us, and we believe. We live by (or by means of) faith in Jesus. In Jesus we trust; on Jesus we rely; in Jesus we find our salvation. Therefore, we do not find salvation in the law or in our efforts to keep the law; we find salvation and all the benefits of salvation in Jesus alone.
Paul explains the basis for this: the love of God displayed in the cross. Notice that Paul emphasizes the dignity of Jesus’ person: he does not call him “Jesus” or “Christ,” but “the Son of God.” That is a testimony to his deity: he is the eternal, only begotten Son of God; he is equal to the Father and the Holy Spirit in the Holy Trinity.
And the Son of God, says Paul, loved me. The Son of God had great affection for me; before the foundation of the world the Son of God willed and sought my highest blessedness and salvation; and the Son of God sought and established a bond of fellowship with me—that is love!
And here is how he loved me. He loved me by giving himself to the cruel, humiliating, painful death of the cross for me. He loved me by taking my sins upon himself, by bearing God’s wrath for me, and by enduring the curse for me.
And now I live, but not in my own strength: I live by faith in him, the one who loved me and gave himself for me.