“It is No Longer I That Live, But Christ Lives in Me”

Galatians 2:19-21

(19) For I, through the Law, died to the Law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ. (20) It is no longer I that live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the son of God who loved me and gave himself over for me. (21) I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for nothing.

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Several posts ago, I suggested that “the things that I destroyed” from verse 18 refers to not to the works of the Law, as is virtually unanimously understood, but to the works of the flesh, i.e., to sin. In this post I want to quickly examine how this understanding of Galatians 2:17-18 affects our reading of the final three verses in the chapter.

Paul’s purpose particularly in verses 17-18 is to counter accusations that have been made against him and against his gospel message to the effect that his doctrine that the Law is no longer in effect encourages Gentile converts to continue in sin. Paul’s response in verse 17 is that even if Jews who have declared their faith in Christ are found to be living in habitual sin, even they do not get a free pass. The rationale for this in verse 18 is that living in habitual sin while seeking to be justified in Christ is contradictory – by rebuilding the life of sin that had been torn down in coming to Christ one is proving oneself to not actually be in covenant with Christ but, rather, to be a “transgressor” – someone who has violated the covenant. The point of Christ for Paul is total salvation, not just justification. We are saved from sin in two ways: we are saved from our guilt by being declared righteous in Christ, and we are saved from our sinful nature by being made righteous via the Holy Spirit. If you misunderstand this total package, you misunderstand Paul just like his Judaizing opponents did.

This counterargument is an important part of Paul’s larger argument in Galatians that the Law is not needed to control the flesh and that we ought to trust the Spirit to do what the Law never could do and was never even intended by God to do. The Law was intended, rather, to teach us about righteousness and about our lack of it. Through the Law, Paul says in verse 19, he died to the Law. He was led by the Law to the end of his own ability to establish his own righteousness before God. The Law itself showed him that he could not live for or by the Law, so he died to it, he gave up any pretension he had to righteousness so that he could live totally in the grace of God. But the point of dying to the Law was to live for God, not for himself.

“To the Law” and “For God”

“To the Law” and “for God” are both dative nouns in parallel structure in verse 19, and this might call into question my choice to translate them with two different prepositions. I do not think the dative forms nomo(i) and theo(i) are talking about instrumentality, since this would make dia nomou (= “through the Law”) and nomo(i) (= “to/by/for/in the Law”) redundant. Also, Paul is not contrasting living “by the law” with living “by God”, but dying “to the law” with living “to God”. If he were contrasting two kinds of living, then instrumentality would make sense. “To live” is often synonymous with “to be saved” in Paul’s writings, rather than “to behave” or “to conduct oneself.” And, actually, it could still be so in verse 19 – Paul could be saying that he died by the Law (i.e., he was condemned) so that he could made alive by God (i.e., be saved). But the verb “to live” in verse 20 can only be read salvifically, that is, as relating to salvation, with difficulty. Verse 20 clearly more naturally lends itself to reading “live” as pertaining to behavior (“It is no longer I that live, but Christ lives in me” – how can this be read where “live” is an antonym of “die” rather than a synonym of “conduct oneself”?). So taking the two dative nouns as the instruments of dying and living does not really fit with the way Paul continues his thought in verse 20.

Rather, I have understood these datives as communicating goals of behavior, and if I understand Longenecker correctly, so does he. He communicates this idea quite well: “the law’s purpose was to work itself out of a job and point us beyond itself to a fuller relationship with God” (Longenecker, 91). The Law’s purpose was not to point us to itself, but to “point us beyond itself”. Properly understood, the Law did not lead us to live for the Law, as if obedience to the Law were the end goal. Rather, when Paul allowed the Law to have its full intended effect, he died to the Law. He came to end of the Law’s usefulness. He accepted its condemnation so that he could be completely dependent on a different and more effective source of righteousness: God himself. It was only in dying to the Law, in ceasing to live as if the Law were the end goal, that he could live with God as the end goal.[/nextpage]

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The Emphatic “I”

The prominent inclusion of the personal pronoun ego (= “I”) in both verses 19 and 20 perhaps should be interpreted with stronger emphasis, since their inclusion is not, strictly speaking, necessary (Greek’s verbs are inflected and contain person and number in their form, so the explicit inclusion of the personal pronoun at any point demands some attention and perhaps an explanation). Paul is saying that he as an autonomous individual with pretensions of personal righteousness came to an end through the Law’s demonstration of his own inescapable sinfulness. I am tempted to translate the pronoun with quotation marks in order to make this point: “For ‘I’, through the Law, died to the Law, so that I might live for God.”

This understanding of the personal pronoun is supported by verse 20. Paul says that it is no longer he that lives. Christ now lives in him. Paul’s “I” died, it was crucified together with Christ, and now what Paul wants is no longer of any relevance. Sin, by implication, is understood as unchecked self-seeking behavior. To sin is to seek pleasure, honor, wealth and possessions, and safety at the expense of others. But the “I” that would want those things has died, as far as Paul is concerned. Only what God wants is of any relevance to him. Only the way Christ would act is of any importance. This is what it really means to seek one’s righteousness in Christ. It is not to add Christ as just another facet of one’s present existence. It is to radically re-center one’s entire existence on Christ, to desire only to follow him and please him. Only someone who has no idea what it means to follow Christ could possibly think it was okay to continue living in sin after seeking to be justified in Christ.

“I do not set aside the grace of God”

Because of all of this, Paul says, the Law is not only irrelevant but counterproductive in our pursuit of righteousness. This is because when we turn back to the Law as a means of controlling the flesh rather than relying upon the Holy Spirit to do that, we set aside grace. For Paul, grace is an all or nothing proposition because the Law is an all or nothing proposition. Paul argues in several places that if you are going to try to do the Law, you are responsible to do the whole thing, not just the parts that are most palatable to you or easiest. You cannot pick and choose which parts of the Law are more important and which parts are less important. To do so is presumptuous – it presumes to have authority over the Law or to be a judge with respect to the Law. But this is a usurpation of God’s exclusive jurisdiction. God is the one who gave us the Law, therefore only he gets to change it or make amendments to it. This means that you cannot choose to live partly by grace and partly Law. You either live wholly by the Law, or you give up trying to live by the Law. And there is no point trying to live wholly by the Law. In the end, one cannot acquire any level of righteousness before God by observing the Law.

Paul further emphasizes this point by saying that if righteousness does, in fact, come through the Law, then Christ died for nothing. It was apparently generally accepted by all Christian parties, including the Judaizers, that Jesus’ death atoned for sins. This was not an innovation of Paul’s. So Paul’s line of thought in verse 21 assumes the atoning power of Jesus’ death rather than argues for it. Because the Law is an all or nothing proposition, if righteousness comes at all through the Law it must come completely through the Law and Christ died for no purpose. No one, including the Judaizers, would have accepted that conclusion.


So in Galatians 2:17-21, Paul demolishes the Judaizer position that observation of the Law was necessary for Gentile believers (and continued observation was necessary for Jewish believers) as a safeguard against sin. They were saying that Paul’s “faith only” gospel was turning Jesus into a servant of sin, into a means of justifying habitual sin. Paul declares to the contrary that his gospel means nothing of the sort. If someone continues in habitual sin while seeking to be justified in Christ, they will not partake of the righteousness of Christ. This is because to put one’s faith in Christ necessarily involves a total reorientation of one’s life towards God and righteousness and not simply an adding of Christ to one’s previous way of life. The Law, rather than being a means of obtaining righteousness, had the goal of leading us to the end of ourselves in our pursuit of righteousness and to our single-minded focus on God’s grace in Christ as the means of righteousness. The reason sin is not an issue to the one who trusts in Jesus is because in trusting Jesus one dies to oneself and lives only to God, only caring what it is that Jesus would do. Their whole heart is transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit in the process of being drawn to and confessing Christ. So not only is the Law incapable of being a safeguard against sin (and so an ineffective addition to the gospel of Jesus, at best), the gospel of Jesus is itself such a safeguard through the heart-changing power of the Holy Spirit. To try to keep partial Law observance (which is probably what was being suggested, not total Law observance) as a supplement to faith in Christ is essentially to make the death of Christ of no effect.[/nextpage]

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