"For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God. I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me. I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness comes by the law, the Christ is dead in vain." - Galatians 2:19-21
This passage contains an amazing lesson in religion, a lesson that, if missed, will cost us dearly. I have found that many people who profess to be religious haven’t the slightest idea what this lesson is, and even many Christians, though they have read this passage and others like it a hundreds times, do not understand what the apostle Paul is truly talking about. The importance of this verse can easily be felt at first glance. We must stop to consider it; to ask, what does he mean? Too often when people read the Bible they assume they already know what it means and that they already know all there is to know about religion before they pick the Bible up. Thus their reading of the Bible is obscured and they are not able to see what is actually being said by it. This is the behavior of fools. I was once like that and speak from personal experience. Let us not do that as we look to and consider this passage.
The apostle Paul is also speaking from personal experience. He is not talking about people out there, but about himself: “I”. Something had happened to this man that radically changed the way he thought about everything: about God, about himself, about religion. To observe Paul saying that he is “dead to law” is an amazing thing when you consider that this man was at one time the greatest champion of law on the face of the earth. He was zealous for the law, and he saw Christianity as a threat to law (a threat to all that was good and holy). He was so zealous for the law that he began traveling to different cities in order to bring Christians to trial and to totally annihilate Christianity altogether. You must understand that he did this because of his zeal for the law. So many times we think that the persecution of Christians has to do with them being hated by the sinful world because Christians are so very good! This is an absolutely false view of what persecution is all about. Paul was not a man who desired to sin and who therefore hated the pious and holy Christians. Paul was a pious Pharisee, and if you were to see his pre-Christian life you would have been shocked by it's apparent morality. Many people would probably feel he never needed to become a Christian at all, that he was just fine. But they do not see with spiritual eyes.
Paul was zealous for the law, but now we read him saying: “I through the law am dead to the law that I might live unto God.” What does this statement mean? It’s meaning is of utmost importance. The most incredible thing it tells us is this: that if we are not dead to the law, we are not alive unto God. Let me say that again: If we are not dead to the law, we are not alive unto God. Paul was spiritually dead before he became a Christian, though he believed and thought that he had a relationship with God. Had he died at that time he would have gone to hell. He did not have eternal life. Now this is greatly shocking, because for most people the law is the way in which they relate to God. That’s how religion works in people’s minds: you do what God commands you to do and then you reap the benefits of a relationship with God. That is what law means. God’s commands are law, whatever moral things he requires you to do, and if you do them you get rewarded, and if you don’t do them you don’t get rewarded. Law is what every man and woman naturally understands, for God gave us a conscience. Law is a very real thing. Paul here acknowledges the reality of law. It is not a man-made fiction. God indeed has a law and it sets its demands upon every single living person. When you are born into this world you are born under God’s law, whether you are Jew or Gentile. The law he is speaking of here is not restricted to the law of Moses, but God's law in general (Rom. 2:14-15). It is the moral obligations that we all are under when we are born regardless of who we are. In a nutshell, you can sum it all up in two simple commands: Love the Lord your God will all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and, Love your neighbor as yourself. These two commands are comprehensive: if you were to obey these two commands you would never again sin and thus you would be righteous before God by law. The scary thing is, if you are under the law, you must obey these commands because God obligates you to do so. There is no flexibility when it comes to doing what is right with God. You must not sin, and if you do not obey God then you are unacceptable to God. If you do not do what God requires of you (and He does require it) then to hell you will justly go, for that is what you deserve for not obeying God. You prove yourself worthy of death for not obeying a good law from a good God to which your conscience assents. This is how the law works.
Of course, before Paul became a Christian he did not think he was a guilty person at all, and thought he was obedient to the law. There are billions of people like him today. Most non-Christians do not think they are worthy of death, but they think they deserve to go to heaven. This is because they refuse to acknowledge the law for what it really is. Yes, Paul, the champion of law, did not acknowledge the law. Oh, he knew what it said, but he did not take seriously what it required. What happens is that sinful men who want to be religious redefine what the law means so that they can feel good about themselves and have others feel good about them. So they say that “all” doesn’t really mean all, but "most of the time". "Do" really just means "try". Fornication only means having intercourse with someone who is not your spouse, not lust. Murder is only when you take a life, not hatred in your heart. Somehow you can still sin and be obedient to law, because the law's requirements have been redefined. In this way bad people fool themselves into thinking they are good. But the truth about the law came to the apostle Paul, penetrating his soul like a sword. He now states: “I through the law am dead to the law.” Meaning, the law itself brought me to a place where I died to it. The law did something, and that something meant death to law. It was when the law was seen for what it really was that Paul, forced to give in, died to it (Rom. 7:9). As he writes later in this very same letter, this is in fact the whole purpose of the law: the law was given by God, not to teach us how to be good people, but to teach us that we are not good people. The law was given by God to crush our human moral perceptions, to destroy our hope in our own goodness, to kill us at our self-righteous center. None of us are good, but all of us think we are good until the law has been shown to us in all it's deadly perfection. Once we see who we really are in the light of the law of God we die to the law as the way to be righteous before God and as the way to relate to God.
But where is the best place to see the law for what it really is? Is it by studying the law, the first five books of the Bible? While it can be seen by doing that, Paul was a student of the law and he didn’t see it, because as I said before, when left alone men twist and redefine the requirements of the law to suit themselves. There must be a more indelible place to see. And there is. The greatest setting forth of what the law truly is, which God Himself publicly set forth as the true interpretation of His own law, is the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The cross is the ultimate illumination of the law. We see this in the words of the apostle Paul: “I am crucified with Christ.” This was the moment of transformation in Paul's life. When Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus Paul had the most important revelation of his life: "That man Jesus who was crucified is actually the Holy One of Israel! God raised Jesus from the dead because He is in truth the Holy Messiah... the One who is speaking to me now is the Christ! But if He didn’t die for His own sins (as I thought He had) since He is the Holy One... for whose did He die?" The Scriptures that this Pharisee knew so well must have come flooding back to him in a rush of new understanding: “All we like sheep have gone astray, each one of us have turned our own way, and the Lord laid upon Him the iniquity of us all.” “He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities. The chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and by His wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5-6) Paul saw his own death in the death of Jesus Christ. He saw that Jesus had died on the cross because he, Paul, was a sinner worthy of death, despite all his reputed law-obedience. It was all dung. It was worth nothing. He was not righteous before God by the law, otherwise Christ would not have died. “If righteousness came by the law, then Christ died for nothing!” (Gal. 2:21) The cross of Christ is the once and for all statement that all men are sinners and that the law cannot make them righteous.
So you see, this crucifixion with Christ is not something that as Christians we are to be constantly striving to attain, as is so often heard: “You need to be crucified with Christ, Christian!” No. If you are a Christian, if you have come to the end of the law and put your faith in Jesus Christ for your justification, then you are crucified with Christ and you are dead to the law. His death was your death, and in God’s sight you are dead, your punishment has been paid, and the law has no more jurisdiction over you. What does the law have to say to a dead man? Your status before God has totally changed. This is what this verse is saying. Your status is changed. You don’t need to get crucified because you are crucified, and your life is now in Christ and you no longer relate to God by law. When you were under law you were dead to God because of your sins, but now that you have been crucified with Christ and have died to the law, you are no longer a sinner in God’s sight, but are alive unto God in Christ Jesus. God sees you as perfectly righteous, as righteous as Christ, because your identity is now in Him and not on your own apart from Him. This is what it is to be a Christian!
And what now? How shall our lives be lived as Christians? Since we are no longer under the law and no longer under any obligation to God’s commandments whatsoever (for indeed we are not), what then shall motivate us to do good works and live a life to the glory of God? Will we keep God's commandments, even if we don’t have to? The glory of this gospel is that the answer to this question does not lie somewhere outside of the gospel, but in the very same place where we started. Before the apostle Paul became a Christian he was a zealous man, but after Paul became a Christian he was even more zealous. We look at his life and are amazed at his love and passion for God and for people. Now here in Galatians 2:20 he is telling us the secret to his life. That which compelled him had nothing to do with law. Paul’s life was not lived because he had to do things. That kind of a motivation eventually breaks down after not too long; there’s no power in it, and doing things simply because you have to is not pleasing to God. God wants us to do what we do because we want to, from the heart, and not out of compulsion.
What then is the motivation and power for living? It is found in the very same place where we started: in Christ crucified. Paul states: “The life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.” There it is. It must be read all together. The life that he now lives as a Christian, he lives by the faith in the Son of God who loved Him and gave Himself for him. That was it! That was the secret of the apostle Paul. As Paul believed that Christ had loved him and had gave Himself for him on the cross, he was filled with response to the love of God. When we see the love of Christ for us, we cannot resist it, we cannot fail to respond to it, for there is no love like it, and it overwhelms us and calls us to action, not out of fear but out of gratitude and desire. Nobody loves us like Jesus does! Paul saw that God did not just love him in some pathetically small and cliché way (as the world speaks of love), but with a love incomprehensible, that cannot be seen anywhere except at the cross of Christ: where Jesus Christ gave His own life for us - not for good people, but for bad people! "For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." (Rom. 5:7-8) We, who are unworthy sinners, He died for. Jesus died for you because He loves you. That was the reason. There was nothing that He owed you. It was pure love. That’s how much God loves you, my dear friends. How can you reject that? To walk away here is to walk away from true love, and you will never find such love anywhere else in all the world. You will never know such a wonderful person as God. There is no one like Him. And His love is enough for you to live your whole life on, and even to give up your life for Him if you ever had to.
The Christian life starts with the cross, it is carried on by the cross, and it ends with the cross, only to be ushered into that blessed eternal bliss of redeemed men and women worshiping the Lamb for the triumph of the cross! That is what Christianity is all about! The love of God revealed in Christ crucified. Can you seriously propose something better than this? Many people who profess to be Christians have no concept of what Paul is talking about here in Galatians 2:19-21. They thought Christianity was all about being a good person, keeping rules and following the law. They thought they had a relationship with God because they pray, or go to church, or read their Bibles, or do good deeds and don't do certain bad things. But we must learn this lesson in religion: if you are not dead to the law then you are not alive to God. The law condemns you and nothing more. You need to come to the place where you, like Paul, die to the law - when your righteousness, hope and relationship with God is no longer determined by law but by Christ crucified, who died for your sins so that you could be righteous before God by faith in Him.
Only the person who has believed in this way is a Christian. And if you are a Christian, here is what you should do now: live your life by faith in the Son of God who loved you and gave Himself for you. Don’t look anywhere else for motivation. Keep your eyes fixed upon the place where it all started, and remember that Christ gave Himself for you because He loved you, and nothing can ever change that. You are loved perfectly right now by God, and nothing can ever be added or taken away from that. Think about it! And live your life as a response to God’s amazing love.