Read Galatians 2:19-21.
Dying to the law is the negative; living for God is the positive. They both work hand-in-hand and show us the blessed catastrophe of the cross of Christ, the paradox of salvation. The way to life is through death. Christ made eternal life possible for us through His death, and we find life in Christ by losing ours.
The verb tense Paul used here demonstrates that his dying in Christ had happened in the past but had not lost its effect. But what did Paul mean by dying to the law? Was he suggesting that we are anti-law, that we are free to live apart from all of God’s commands, or in other words, that anything goes? We know that isn’t the case because he speaks against it elsewhere in Galatians and in the rest of his letters.
Paul was not saying that in Christ we are dead from the need to obey God; he was declaring that we have put the wrong view of that obedience to death. We die to the notion that our obedience can save us. We die to the notion that we are identified by our obedience. We die to what the Jewish men from James argued to Peter that led him astray (see Gal. 2:11-14).
We are certainly not dead from looking to the law to understand God’s character and heart better and allowing that to frame how we live each day. The law shows us what it looks like to love God and love other people, and so, out of gratitude for what Christ has done and with joy, we live out the eternal truths of the law without relying on that obedience to save us, define us, or sustain us.
Because Paul died to the law and to himself, he experienced the positive aspect of those deaths—life. “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20a). Obviously Paul wasn’t referring to his physical life, as if he had died physically when he trusted in Christ; he was speaking of the spiritual reality that guided his life. He explained this clearly in the next sentence: “The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (v. 20b). Christ had indwelled Paul, given him new life, and continued to empower him to live a life of holiness for the glory of God. The gospel that saves us is the same gospel that sanctifies us as we grow in our faith.
How do we live a life pleasing to God? Through Christ. How do we continue to put the desires of our flesh to death? Through Christ. How do we discern how to obey God without falling into the trap of legalism? Through Christ.
Paul added the perfect conclusion to his line of thinking with verse 21. When others may try to void the grace of God and return to the law as a pathway for salvation, Paul reminds us once more of the weakness of the law to rescue sinners from sin. If the law could do such a feat, then Christ’s death was unnecessary, as if the Son of God robed Himself in flesh, came to earth, suffered, and died for no reason. But Christ had to die because there is no other way. And because of His death, we have been given the only way we can have eternal life—through faith in Him.
This article was adapted from The Gospel Project for Adults Spring 2018, Session 1— Toward Faithfulness in the Gospel. The Gospel Project takes adults, students, and kids on a chronological, Christ-centered journey through the storyline of Scripture. Preview four sessions for free.