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Jesus Christ: Not I, But Christ (Galatians 2:20)
I am often asked to sign my name in Bibles or books as I travel and minister the Word of God around the world. When I oblige, I usually append to my signature Galatians 2:20. This gives me an opportunity to tell people what this verse means and why it has become increasingly precious to me as the years have come and gone.
Why is this verse so important to me? Because it gets to the heart of the most essential matters of the Christian life. As F.B. Meyer puts it, this is Paul's "confession of the power of the cross in his own life. It stood between him and the past. His self-life was nailed there, and this new life was no longer derived from vain efforts to keep the Law, but from the in dwelling and [overflowing} of the life of Jesus -- the perennial spring of John 4:14."1
As we look at Galatians 2:20, we need to examine the context, the content, and the challenge of this matchless verse.
I. The Context of This Verse
"When Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed" (Galatians 2:11). The whole background of the confrontation between Paul and Peter is beyond the purpose of this message. In fact, too many "unknowns" have boggled greater minds than mine. What is clear is that Paul "stood up" to Peter for a good reason. Peter was to be blamed. He was acting not only against his conscience but, more importantly, against the revelation he had received from God (see Acts 10 Acts 15).
What stirred Paul's holy indignation was the deceitfulness and compromise of Peter. In Antioch Peter had shared meals (including, perhaps, the Lord's Supper) with non-Jewish Christians. Everyone knew this and rejoiced. Peter was the first apostle to evangelize Gentiles (Acts 10,Acts 11,Acts 15) and was, therefore, to be trusted. But when "certain men came from James [the pastor of the Jerusalem church]...he withdrew [from this fellowship with Gentiles]...fearing those who were of the circumcision [Jews]"(Galatians 2:12). This disorderly behavior seriously influenced "the rest of the Jews" [in the church] who "played the hypocrite with him"-- including Barnabas, who "was carried away with their hypocrisy" (Galatians 2:13).
Such deceitfulness and compromise were more than playacting; they were, in fact, an adverse reflection on the gospel of the grace of God and unity of the church of God. By his bad example, Peter was implying that Gentile believers who were saved by grace alone, through faith alone, needed to "live...as the Jews" (Galatians 2:14), and that law-keeping and circumcision rituals were necessary for acceptance by God. This was, in essence, heresy!
Whatever else we can say about Peter, he was dodging the message of the cross! For as we shall see in a moment, to be justified by the grace of God is to die -- as far as the law is concerned, so as to life -- as far as God is concerned.
And this is not the first time Peter was rebuked for dodging the crucified life. It happened after his great confession at Caesarea Philippi. What could be clearer than his words "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God"? So sound and fundamental was this declaration that Jesus said to him, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven."
Yet shortly afterward, when "Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised," we read that "Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, 'God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!'" But the Lord "turned and said to Peter, 'Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.'"
Then the Master added: "'If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?'" (Matthew 16:13-26).
Peter's refusal to accept the way of the cross eventually led to the shameful denial of his Lord -- even after boasting that he would lay down his life for Jesus' sake (John 13:37; see Matthew 26:30-35; Mark 14:30-31; Luke 22:31-34). But that was before Pentecost and, therefore, somewhat understandable.
But for you and me there is no excuse since we have the Holy Spirit. And yet we are living in an hour when the message of the "crucified life" is the last thing many professing Christians want to hear. They adore the cradle of Christ and await the coming of Christ, but they abhor the cross of Christ. For many religious people, the cross is either a stumbling block or a laughing stock (1 Corinthians 1:23). For this reason the message of this book is so necessary for true overcomers in the Christian life.
II. The Content of This Verse
Here, in substance, is the great doctrine of justification by grace through faith. Martin Luther expounded on this passage:
This is the truth of the Gospel. It is also the principle article of all Christian doctrine, wherein the knowledge of all godliness consisteth. Most necessary it is, therefore, that we should know this article well, teach it unto others, and beat it into their heads continually [my emphasis].2
Read the preceding verses again and follow Paul's argument. Taking his text from Psalms 143:2, Paul interprets what he means by justification. The word justified occurs four times as a verb in Galatians 2:16-17 and once as a noun in Galatians 2:21. To summarize what Paul teaches in this passage I quote John R.W. Stott:
Jesus Christ came into the world to live and to die. In His life His obedience to the law was perfect. In His death He suffered for our disobedience. On earth he lived the only life of sinless obedience to the law which has ever been lived. On the cross He dies for our law-breaking, since the penalty for disobedience to the law was death. All that is required of us to be justified, therefore, is to acknowledge our sin and helplessness, to repent of our years of self-assertion and self-righteousness, and to put our whole trust and confidence in Jesus Christ to save us.
"Faith in Jesus Christ," then, is not intellectual conviction only, but personal commitment. The expression in the middle of Galatians 2:16 is (literally) "we have believed into (eis) Christ Jesus." It is an act of committal, not just assenting to the fact that Jesus lived and died, but running to Him for refuge and calling on Him for mercy.3
So justification is not only a legal fact in which we are declared righteous by a holy God; it is also a transforming experience through a living identification with Christ (Galatians 2:17). By union with Christ we are radically transformed; we can no longer go back to our old life, for in Christ we are "a new creation" (2 Corinthians 5:1).
This brings us to:
III. The Challenge of This Verse
"I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me" (Galatians 2:20). In this matchless statement Paul the apostle encapsulates the gospel of the grace of God. It is the gospel of the extinguished life -- "I have been crucified with Christ" (Galatians 2:20).
We have died to the law. By dying with Christ, who died under the law's penalty, we find that all the law's demands were satisfied in Him. They have no more hold on us. Being crucified, moreover, means that we have died to self. The dominating control of the fallen nature has been broken. If we do not understand this, then we are missing something very important. The extinguished life means death to self and sin.
In his book The Christ-Life for the Self-Life (addresses delivered mainly at Carnegie Hall, New York, during an ever-memorable week), F.B. Meyer writes:
The curse of the Christian and of the world is that self is our pivot; it is because Satan made self his pivot that he became a devil. Take heaven from its center in God, and try to center it in self, and you transform heaven into hell....The philosophy of the Bible is to do away with self and to make Christ all in all. When dealing with a drunkard I am inclined to say to him, "Be a man." What a fool I am! I am trying to cast out the evil of drink by the evil of self-esteem. If I want to save a man, I must cast out the spirit of self and substitute the Lord Jesus Christ. Alpha, Omega, all in all. But how?....This epistle to the Galatians is my battle-axe. Luther used it for justification, but I think it is for sanctification [see Appendix B], How? By the cross, and by the cross as presented in the epistle to the Galatians. [see Galatians 2:20, Galatians 3:1; Galatians 5:24; Galatians 6:14].
The apostle tells us in Galatians 1:4: "Jesus Christ...gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from his present evil world, according to the will of God and our Father." He considers the cross in its aspect toward sanctification. He says: "He delivered us from this present evil world." In Romans we have the cross for justification; the putting away of sin; in Galatians for sanctification, the cross standing between me and my past, between me and the world, between me and myself.4
So in Galatians 2:20 we have the gospel of the extinguished life.
But it is also the gospel of the relinquished life -- "It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me" (Galatians 2:20). No longer is our life self-centered but Christ-centered. By the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the Lord Jesus lives out His life in us day by day as we maintain total dependence on Him. The apostle says the same thing in his letter to the Romans, exhorting his readers to "present [themselves] to God as being alive from the dead and [their] members as instruments of righteousness to God" (Romans 6:13). We do not relinquish ourselves to an enemy, but we present ourselves as a bride to the bridegroom who has wooed and won us in love.
As a pastor I have had the privilege of marrying couples times without number. As the two stand before me, I say to the bride, "Will you have this man to be your lawful wedded husband?" She answers in two words, "I will," and they are joined for life. That is the kind of presentation we are thinking of when we speak of the relinquished life. We are saying in effect, "Lord, I am married to You, being alive from the dead, to bring forth fruit unto God. Lord, from now on my language and life are two words: 'I will.'" Every day we must repeat that once-for-all interaction: "I am wholly Yours, Lord. Use me for Your glory."
Once again it is the gospel of the distinguished life -- "The life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me" (Galatians 2:20). That phrase, "faith in the Son of God," is loaded with rich meaning. Because of our union with Christ crucified and risen, we are "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4); we actually share with the Son of God the distinguished life.
Two aspects of this distinctive life are spelled out for us. As the Son of God, our Lord in His perfect humanity chose to live a dependent life. He lived by faith (see John 5:19, John 5:30;John 6:57;John 8:28; and John 14:10). We also must live by faith (Romans 1:17; Hebrews 11:6).
The other distinctive is that the Son of God lived a devoted life. He "gave Himself for [us]" (Galatians 2:20). That takes in the entire sweep of His life, service, and even death, in response to the will of His Father. In similar fashion, we are called to the high and holy distinction of yielding ourselves to God as living sacrifices so that we might "prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God"(Romans 12:1-2). Dependence on God and devotion to God are the marks of divine distinction. Such distinctiveness can be detected anywhere and under any circumstances by a watching world. Out of such a life the streams of living water flow in blessing to others.
Certainly this is the testimony of God's people throughout the centuries. Martin Luther experienced this blessing:
He was a show-piece of discipline and penance, and self-denial and self-torture, "if ever," he said, "a man could be saved by monkery, that man was I." He had gone to Rome; it was considered to be an act of great merit to climb the ScalaSancta, the great sacred stairway, on hands and knees. He toiled upwards seeking that merit that he might win; and suddenly there came to mind the voice from heaven: "The just shall live by faith." The life at peace with God was not to be attained by this futile, never-ending, ever-defeated effort; it could only be had by casting himself on the love and mercy of God as Jesus Christ has revealed them to men. It is when a man gives up the struggle which the pride of self thinks it can win, but must ever lose, and when he abandons himself to the forgiving love of God that peace must come.5
The blessing that flowed from Luther's life changed the face of Europe and, ultimately, the fate of millions. John Wesley was one of those affected. Here was a cultured mind, matched only by his spiritual sensitivity, servant attitude, and social concern. But he was a discouraged man as he returned to England from Savannah, Georgia. He had encountered great problems in his attempt to deal with the colonists in the New World. Indeed, these outward and inward battles brought him to doubt his own acceptability before the God he loved and served.
In this frame of mind he went one evening -- most reluctantly -- to a meeting where Luther's Preface to the Epistle to the Romans was read. During the reading Wesley's "heart was strangely warmed." He recorded in his journal: "I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given to me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from 'the law of sin and death.'"6
Armed with this message of union with Christ in His death and resurrection, John Wesley embarked on forty years of ministry that beggars description. So mightily did the Spirit of God use him that revivals blazed in England and America throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the course of history was changed.
In his book They Found the Secret,7 the beloved former president and chancellor of Wheaton College, Dr. V. Raymond Edman, share the testimonies of men and women who experienced the blessing of life "in Christ." His purpose "was to show...how the power of Christ, [which he called] 'the indwelling life of Christ,' was the source of every believer's spiritual strength." Feeling that evangelicals had largely neglected this theme for many years, Dr. Edman wanted to "put the idea into the mainstream of Christian thought so that all could benefit by entering into a life-transforming relationship with Christ. It is not enough just to know about Christ or to know about what He did for us or even to experience His work in us. What is needed is to experience Him in us as He works out God's inscrutable will."8 Here is the testimony of one who discovered the secret of the exchanged life.
The crisis of the deeper life came to John Bunyan one day as he was walking in the fields. "Suddenly," he said, "this sentence fell upon my soul, Thy righteous is in heaven.' And me thought with awe, I saw, with the eyes of my soul Jesus Christ at God's right hand....It was glorious to me to see his exaltation and the worth and prevalency of all his benefits."...Ephesians 5:30 became "a sweet word" to him: "For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones." He could say:"...the Lord did also lead me into the mystery of union with the Son of God.... By this also was my faith in him, as my righteousness, the more confirmed in me; for if he and I were one, then his righteousness was mine, his merits mine, his victory also mine. Now I could see myself in heaven and earth at once; in heaven by my Christ, by my head, by my righteousness and life, though on earth by my body or person."...
And what were the results of Bunyan's being unchained from his doubts and fears?...Among them he lists grace that could keep him in deepest difficulties, insight into the Scriptures, no fear of death, an assurance of his Lord's presence with him, and a fruitful service for the Savior both in the pulpit and in the prison.9
Devotional literature is replete with similar testimonies, but the example cited above illustrates the blessing we can know when we understand and appropriate the truth embodied in Galatians 2:20. As God's people, we must be willing to pray and mean:
Crucified with Christ, my Savior,
I am dead to sin and shame;
Now HIS LIFE rules my behavior --
To the glory of His Name! Amen.
1F.B, Meyer Devotional Commentary (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989), p. 542.
2Martin Luther, A Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians, rev. and completed translation based on the 'Middleton' edition of the English version of 1575 (Cambridgejames Clarke & Co. Ltd, 1953), p.101.
3John Stott, The Message of Galatians (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter Varsity Press, 1968), p.62.
4F.B. Meyer, The Christ-Life for the Self-Life (Chicago: Moody Press, n.d.), pp. 45-46.
5William Barclay, The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians, The Daily Study Bible (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1959), pp. 23-24.
6Percy L. Parker, ed., Journals of John Wesley (Chicago: Moody Press, 1974), p. 64.
7V. Raymond Edman, They found the Secret: Twenty Transformed Lives That Reveal a Touch of Eternity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1960, 1984), p. xv.
8Walter Elwell, Forward to ibid., pp. x-xi.
9"John Bunyan: The Unchained Life," ibid, pp. 18-20.
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