Dying to Live  (Galatians 2:17-21)

Dying to Live

A historic battle for the Gospel, part 2–Galatians 2:17-21

Whenever I hear beautiful music, I think about playing the music with them–trumpet, percussion, even piano. I had lessons from the fourth grade, I was first chair trumpet–I could handle most percussion, but I can barely play three numbers on the piano. And one of those numbers is, you know it–what? Chopsticks. Chuck Swindoll says, “When someone plays Chopsticks on the piano, you can be sure of two things—1) they don’t play the piano, and 2) they don’t mind annoying other people.

Both Jean and I would love to play the piano, but the only way that will happen now is if someone, somehow were able to play through me. If Chopin or Liszt or, my preference, John Williams could somehow run his musical genius through my unskilled fingers, it would be a dream come true. But if it were possible, I am confident I would have to consciously let go of my own will and my own effort and let one of those masters have his way through me.

But knowing me, it wouldn’t be long before I’d try to take over–add a modification, do a little improv. But as soon as I did, you know what would happen–we’d be back to Chopsticks. To have the master play through me, I must depend and obey, doing things his way not mine, in order for him to play his masterful music. That all sounds crazy, but it points to a crucial truth of the Christian life. Jesus Christ comes into your life to reside there, working in you by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

Philippians 2:13 says, “both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” His life, the life of God, now resides in me. And Christ says, in effect, “All you need to do is trust Me. By faith, let Me work My will through you. Don’t try to do this or that in your own strength. Rely on Me. Rest in Me. Let Me work through you and we’ll play beautiful music together.” That’s what Paul means in Galatian 2:20, “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.”

Each day, moment by moment, you and I have to make a simple but important decision–choose to let Christ’s divine life flow through you by dependently trusting Him and cooperating with His gracious empowerment, to do what you could never do on your own. Or you can go back to playing Chopsticks. One of the most important, yet often forgotten, truths of the Christian life is that you can’t live your Christian life–Christ must live through you by His Spirit.

You are not to live in the flesh–being in the flesh means living by your own power. You are to live in the Spirit–that’s living by God’s presence and the Spirit’s power through you. This is a crucial key that will set you free–the crucial truth of dependent faith. It’s not passive–you act upon your will in order to walk according to God’s Word. But you do so dependently, so that the indwelling Spirit can empower and work through you. The Christian life is Christ living through you, ministering through you, doing his work through you. You’re the vessel He works through to manifest His presence individually and corporately.

This truth has transformed my life. Missionary CT Studd said this, “Only one life, ’twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.” But all that is done for Christ will be done by Christ, in His Spirit through you, or it’s not for Christ. This is how Paul concludes his personal argument over the power and purity of the God-revealed, genuine Gospel of grace. This is how Paul completes the personal section of Galatians in chapters 1 and 2. This is how Paul finalizes his confrontation of the Apostle Peter.

You remember what happened last week in verses 11 to 16. On his first missionary journey, Paul made his way through the cities of southern Galatian preaching the Gospel that was revealed to him directly from Jesus Christ. Paul taught a salvation that is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. After Paul returned to Antioch, almost immediately some false teachers began to insinuate that Paul was a fake, weak, or less than the original twelve apostles. They subtly undermined his apostleship by saying Paul was a man-pleaser, teaching an easy salvation that came free from God with no works. They implied that Paul taught them error. These Judaizers taught that to become a Christian, you must first become a Jew in practice, obey all the ceremonies, eat only Kosher food, and get circumcised in order to become a true Christ-follower.

In chapters 1 and 2, Paul has been defending his apostleship that came directly from Christ and he has been clarifying and fighting for the true Gospel of grace alone. At the end of chapter 2, Paul rocks the Galatians by recalling an event which cements and affirms Paul’s apostleship and clarifies the true Gospel of grace. Starting in verse 11, Paul confronts the main apostle of the twelve, Peter. Why? Because . . .

#1  Don’t be like Peter who subtly DEFECTED from the true Gospel

Read verses 11 to 13, “But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. 13The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy.”

Peter got afraid, was intimidated, and stopped eating Spam with the Gentiles. Then Peter actually withdrew from them as a people. Peter was so influential that all the Jews and even the son of encouragement, Barnabas, remained aloof as well–thus dividing the Church and affirming an errant doctrine of salvation. So the text implies . . .’

#2  Be like Paul, who DECLARED a biblical Gospel of grace

First  Like Paul CONFRONTED Peter, confront those in GOSPEL error

Read verse 14, “But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, ‘If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?’” When Paul observed the inconsistency of Peter’s faith, he pounced. Paul began by abruptly pointing out Peter’s obvious irregularity. Regardless of the discomfort and embarrassment for Peter and his companions, Paul knew he had to expose the error or the Church would divide and salvation by grace would be lost.

Paul pointedly reminded Peter that just a short time ago, Peter had lived like the Gentiles, observing their customs, speaking their language, and eating their foods. But now Peter’s actions clearly communicated a lie–in order to have Christian fellowship with the Jerusalem visitors, the Gentiles would have to live like Jews. Paul brought the issue out of the shadows and into the light, and now everybody in the room saw the stark contrast and recognized their hypocrisy.

Second  Like Paul, CLARIFY and CONFORM to sound GOSPEL TRUTH

Read verses 15 to 16, “We are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles; 16nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.” Paul is simple here–even those who were born Jewish know they cannot be saved by keeping the Law, but only by faith in Jesus Christ. You and I are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone–no works of the Law, no living good, and no religion can save you, but only total dependence upon Christ and His work.

And now this morning, Paul finishes his profound words to Peter in verses 17 to 21–and as he does, he asks and answers the million-dollar question which is raised by the doctrine of justification by faith alone. If by His grace God has already declared us righteous, then why should we bother avoiding sin and growing into a better Christ-like person?

Read with me Paul’s profound words in verses 17 to 21 (remembering Paul is still speaking to Peter here). “But if, while seeking to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have also been found sinners, is Christ then a minister of sin? May it never be! 18For if I rebuild what I have once destroyed, I prove myself to be a transgressor. 19For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God. 20I have been crucified with Christ; and 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 up for me. 21I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.” Paul begins with a challenge to each of you.


The doctrine of justification seems irresponsible. What incentive do I have to live for God? Justification by faith sounds like winning the spiritual lottery. If God gives righteousness away for free, who will ever try to please Christ or serve Christ again? If God justifies bad people, what is the point of being good? Paul anticipates this objection by making it part of his argument in verse 17, “But if, while seeking to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have also been found sinners, is Christ then a minister of sin? May it never be!”

This is a fair question–too much emphasis on grace will make Christ a minister of sin, meaning this. If a believer in Christ does not need to keep the Law in any fashion, then logically this would mean that justified sinners can continue in sin with no repercussions! Continuing in that logic means, the more we sin, the more grace we get to cover those sins. If this is God’s way of salvation, then it makes Christ an advocate of sin.

This describes the problem the Judaizers were having with Paul–to them, Paul had become an outlaw. Now in Paul’s lifestyle, he lived like a Gentile sinner, not a Jew. Paul used to keep every detail of the Law. But now, Paul was eating Spam–unholy food with uncircumcised Gentiles. And to their disgust, Peter had joined Paul in this filthy behavior. This is why the Judaizers worked so hard to intimidate Peter earlier in chapter 2, to abandon his believing Gentile friends, and stop his Gentile ways. If the Judaizers were right–if eating the food of a Gentile, hanging out with Gentiles, not getting circumcised, and not participating in Jewish religious customs is actually sin . . . if that’s true (not) then Christ was wrong and Christ was teaching people to sin.

Paul shocks them with this blasphemy–if the Judaizers are correct, then verse 17, “Christ is a minister of sin.” But this is not what Jesus lived, taught or intended. The Lord clearly taught that food cannot contaminate a person. Mark 7:18 and 19, “Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, 19because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?” (Thus He declared all foods clean.) And Acts 10:13 and 15, “A voice came to him, ‘Get up, Peter, kill and eat! 15…, What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.’” Christ taught food didn’t matter.

When the Judaizers discovered these apostles were living like Gentile sinners, they reached an obvious conclusion–being justified by faith causes believers to sin in the name of Christ. And if Paul and even Peter were guilty of this charge, then so were all those Gentiles who believed in justification by faith. They had come to faith in Christ, but they were still living like so-called pagan sinners. Someone needed to hold them to a higher moral standard, and the Judaizers were just the men to do it. They had neglected the truth that when Christ saves, he transforms and regenerates, giving a new heart that desires to obey the commands of Christ.

But the Judaizers wrongly concluded that free salvation, justification by grace, leads to a license to sin. And as Martin Luther said, “A Christian is not someone who has no sin or feels no sin; he is someone to whom, because of his faith in Christ, God does not impute his sin.” This is the crucial difference–Christians are sinners too, but their sins do not count against them. Think about this–like the modern-day prison, the Church of Jesus Christ is an institution designed for bad people.

Paul’s airtight logic in verse 17 condemned Peter, because Peter’s actions had, in effect, made it appear as if Christ was lying. This thinking is, of course, not only completely wrong–it is blasphemy, moving Paul to use the strongest Greek negative there is in verse 17, “May it never be.” Certainly not, God forbid. Students say, “No way!” Stuffed shirts say, “Perish the thought” that Christ would ever be a “servant of sin.”

When God justifies sinners by faith, He is not aiding and abetting their sin. The very suggestion is offensive. James 1:13 says, “God cannot sin”–nor can the Lord be held responsible for my sin. If I am still a sinner after I become a Christian, it is no one’s fault but my own. The doctrine that really does promote sin is justification by the Law. All religion by works righteousness, or salvation by human achievement, produces sin.

Paul shows this by using his opponents’ argument against them in verse 18, “For if I rebuild what I have once destroyed, I prove myself to be a transgressor.” What’s this? Rebuild what I destroyed? Simple–this is what Paul had done. He abandoned the Old Testament Law as a method of salvation to trust only in salvation by grace. Peter had done the same, but when pressured by Judaizers, he tried to rebuild a system of salvation by Law-keeping that he had previously destroyed or abandoned.

At first, Peter had destroyed the Law by welcoming Gentiles into the Church as full-fledged Christians. But then, Peter allowed himself to be pressured into separating himself from them. In essence, Peter was rebuilding with one hand what he had destroyed with the other. First he told the Gentiles they were saved by faith not by works. But then later he made the works of the Law a test of Christian fellowship.

And now the Galatians were trying to do the same–they were trying to build the Law into salvation by grace alone. The Judaizers were urging the Galatians to rebuild the Law into the Gospel, thus destroying God’s Gospel of grace. If the Galatians did that, they would become lawbreakers all over again. Once they add works to grace, they would prove to be verse 18, transgressors. The Law’s purpose is to show that we are sinners, so the more of it that gets rebuilt, the more sinful we become. In the words of F. F. Bruce, “Anyone who, having received justification through faith in Christ, thereafter, reinstates law, in place of Christ, makes himself a sinner all over again.” Because no one can keep the Law–no, we must . . .


In Christ, the Law has been destroyed as a way of getting right with God. Paul says in verse 19, “For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God.” Practically, keeping rules will not get you saved, and maintaining rules will not keep you saved. To die to the Law means Paul, the former Pharisee, who used to live for the Law now as a Christian, is dead to the Law–meaning Paul is no longer under the Law’s power. And because of God’s grace he is now alive to God because of Christ’s work on the cross.

The penalty for breaking just one of God’s laws is death. Just one lie, one lust, one word of anger, one selfish act, one harsh comment and you’re condemned to die. But once you are executed, then the crime of breaking the Law is paid. When Paul says, “For through the Law I died to the Law”–the penalty of the Law has already been carried out. The Law’s demand of death was satisfied in the death of Christ. Having stopped trying to please God by keeping the Law, Paul exchanged his damning pursuit of self-righteousness for the life-giving grace of Jesus Christ.

It was the Law that put Christ to death on the cross. When Christ died, Paul died too–at least as far as the Law was concerned. Paul died–and Christian, you died to the Law in the death of your substitute. And now Paul and all Christians who are in Christ can, verse 19, “live to God.” The death Christ died was reckoned to you–therefore you died to the old life and were raised together with Christ to a new life.


Having written his own obituary, Paul proceeds to explain the circumstances of his demise in verse 20, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” Paul indicates when he died to the law–he died to the law when Christ died on the cross. Do you know what was nailed to the cross? Do you know? The Bible says at least four things in the Bible.

1  Jesus was nailed to the cross, via his hands and feet

2  A public announcement that read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”  (John 19:19)

3  The debt for your sin  (Colossians 2:13 to 14)–all our trespasses were nailed to the cross

4  Here is the surprise–if you’re a follower of Christ, YOU were nailed to the cross

The crucifixion is not merely a fact about the life of Christ and a momentous event in human history, but is also a part of every genuine Christian’s personal story. Do not misunderstand, Jesus Christ died once for all. He alone was the God-man, so He alone could atone for the sins of the world by offering his life in our place. Yet the Scripture also says a Christian has been crucified with Christ.

The tense of the Greek crucified says this is something that really happened in the past, and its implications continue on to this day–it is as if we were nailed to the very tree of Calvary. It is not merely a subjective experience in the life of the believer, but an objective reality based on the believer’s relationship to Christ. Our union with Christ, being in Christ, united to Christ allows us to die with Christ and rise from the dead with Christ.

Paul describes Christians in verse 16 as those who have believed in Christ Jesus. So the moment we put our faith in Christ, we are united to Christ–meaning you and I are in Christ. Our union with Christ is a spiritual reality. Martin Luther said, “By [faith] you are so cemented to Christ that He and you are as one person, which cannot be separated, but remains attached to Him forever.” Being in union with Christ is a thrilling doctrine. It teaches once we’re in Christ by faith, then everything Christ has ever done becomes something we have done.

It is as if we had lived His perfect life and died His painful death. Romans 6 teaches it’s as if we were buried in His tomb, then raised up to glorious Heaven. God attaches us to the events of Christ’s life so that they become part of our lives. His story–the story of the cross and the empty tomb becomes our story. The only way to get what Christ has to offer is to be united to Him by faith. Calvin warns, “We must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us.”

But once we are in Christ, then we get everything He has to offer, especially His righteousness. When we are in Christ, God considers us as righteous as His own Son–not because we are righteous, but because we are in Christ. The doctrine of union with Christ explains why the Christian is dead to the Law. We were united to Christ in His crucifixion. As far as God is concerned, we are truly nailed to the cross with Christ.

It was on the cross that the Law carried out its death penalty against us. Therefore, as far as the Law is concerned, we are now dead. There is nothing the Law can do to improve our standing before God. Are you hearing me? The better you live, it never changes your standing before Christ. But we can live for Christ, because we are dead to the Law and we want to live for Christ because He has transformed our hearts. But our standing remains the same.

Not only are we dead to the Law–it’s almost as if we’ve stopped living altogether. Verse 20, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” Paul is saying “I no longer have a life of my own.” The only life I have is the life that God puts into me through Jesus Christ. You die to the Law–you died to self, you die to this world, and you live to Christ. Your unsaved family and friends live for themselves. Their heart cries, “It is my life, my pleasure, my time, my money, my happiness, my fun–life is all about self-esteem, self-improvement, self-fulfillment and self-indulgence, Self Magazine and you.

But as a born again Christian, your self died. Verse 20, “It is no longer I who live.” The world no longer revolves around you. The Christian’s life revolves around Christ. Paul reminds Peter in verse 20, “Christ lives in me.” That does not mean becoming a Christian is a kind of suicide. We still have a normal physical existence, what Paul calls in verse 20, “and the life which I now live in the flesh.” Since it is the life I live, I even have a self. But the only self I have is the one united to Christ by faith. My life is the life that verse 20, “Christ lives in me.” “I live by faith in the Son of God”–are you getting this?

The Christian life is not about working as hard as we can to live right? It’s about allowing Christ Himself to live out His life through us. Just as in the piano analogy, I call it dependent obedience. Total reliance on God the Holy Spirit, while you act upon your will to live moment-by-moment, obediently to the Word of God–dependent obedience. The only healthy self-image anyone can find is only found as you live in Christ.


Union with Christ provides the answer to the question posed earlier–If God justifies bad people, then why live good? Isn’t justification by faith alone a dangerous doctrine that encourages people to live immoral? The answer is, no way! The reason the doctrine of justification by faith does not promote sin is that justifying faith is what gets us into Christ, and when we’re in Christ we become new people. We are not simply justified by faith–we also live by faith.

By faith, we are in the crucified Christ. And by that same faith, Christ lives in us. Since we live in Christ, we no longer live in sin. We live in Christ, by Christ, and through Christ for the glory of God. The Christian life is like life after death. We were crucified with Christ–dead, both to the Law and to ourselves. But we’re still united to Christ by faith. So our story does not end at the cross, but goes on to the empty tomb. Just as Jesus was brought back to life in His resurrection, so we also have been raised from the dead. God has given us a whole new life to live for Him–a life of faith responding to love.

This is what it means to be a Christian–which is why Paul ends his confrontation of Peter with the Judaizers listening in, with verse 21. “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.” J. Gresham Machen identifies verse 21 as, “the key verse of Galatians; it expresses the central thought of the Epistle. The Judaizers attempted to supplement the saving work of Christ by merit of their own obedience to the law. That, says Paul, is impossible; Christ will do everything or nothing: earn your salvation if your obedience to the law is perfect, or else trust wholly to Christ’s completed work; you cannot do both; you cannot combine merit and grace; if justification even in the slightest measure is through human merit, then Christ died in vain.”

Paul says to Peter, if salvation can be earned by keeping the Law, then Christ died for nothing. But no one can ever live perfect–therefore Christ died, not in vain, but for the sins of His children. Verse 21–if anyone insists that our righteousness comes by works or that we earn our salvation through our own efforts, that person is saying, in effect, that “Christ died needlessly.” To live with God now and be in Heaven forever, you and I must be perfectly righteous. Since you and I can’t live perfect, we need the righteousness of someone who is perfect given to us–and that is what our union with Christ does. It makes us perfect before God.

Verse 21, if we can be saved by our own works, then Jesus died a worthless death. But if righteousness can be given freely to sinners, by Christ taking our punishment for sin and justifying us, giving us His perfect righteousness, then His death is paramount. So Christ did die for something. Or to put it more accurately, Christ died for someone. He died . . . for . . . me. Notice the intensely personal terms Paul uses to describe his relationship to Jesus Christ. Although Jesus is the very Son of God, verse 20, “He loved me and gave himself for me.” The same God who created everything, from a grain of sand, to the myriad of galaxies, loves me, specifically and individually.

He not only loves me, He also gave Himself for me when He died for my sins on the cross to rescue me. Fully God and fully man—Jesus freely and willingly volunteered to be my Savior. Then I, personally, was crucified with the Christ who died, specifically, for me. Divine love is not an abstract concept. Christ’s love is a passionate affection that has been expressed and proven through sacrificial action. His life, His suffering, His death, His resurrection and His ascension were all of it—for you. And though it is overwhelming, it was done for me.


A  Stop trying to EARN your salvation

Unbeliever or make-believer, understand–your form of Christianity will not save you. You must be given the grace of God by faith, totally entrusting yourself to Christ. Believer, stop trying to please Christ with your behavior–you’ve already been given perfect righteousness. God the Father treats you like you are His Son Jesus. Learn to please Him, from a heart that wants to delight in the God you are in union with.

B  Live your life in UNION with Christ

To be filled with the Spirit and not live in your own effort, the flesh, is to depend on the Holy Spirit, every moment, with everything, while you walk in obedience to His Word. Depend and obey–not merely depend and not merely obey. But to live by faith in love, you must depend and obey in order for Christ, the Master to live melodically through you, and for you not to end up living out Christian Chopsticks.

C  Make it your goal every day, to die to SELF and live to Christ

Ask yourself each day, in marriage, in parenting, at work, at school—“Am I dying to self?” Let’s pray.

About Chris Mueller

Chris is the teaching pastor at Faith Bible Church - Murrieta.

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