(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.
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that have been made against him and against his gospel message to the effect that his doctrine that the Law is no longer in effect encourages Gentile converts to continue in sin.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.