Is faith in Jesus Christ all that I need to be justified? Has Christ really done it all for me? Today we face a variety of teachings which directly or indirectly erode Paul’s gospel by telling us that faith in Christ is just not quite enough. We must add some little pinch of our own: a little holiness, a good work here or there—some little extra to ensure our place in heaven. But Paul’s answer to this is a resounding affirmation of the all-sufficiency of our Savior: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life 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 must certainly be one of the more striking statements in Paul’s writings. He introduces his thought by saying, “I have been crucified with Christ.” We can imagine a zealot saying such things out of empathy for his martyred leader: “His death shall be my death!” But Paul’s next verse moves far beyond empathy: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” The context shows that Paul’s astonishing affirmation is no mere respectful exaggeration but a profound declaration of just how radically extensive and exclusive is Christ’s mediation for those who live by faith in him. For Paul, Christ is all that he needs. Paul carries his thought forward along these very lines: “And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20b).

Dying with Christ

Paul speaks elsewhere about the death of the Christian in the death of Christ. For example, in Rom 6:1–14, he develops an argument that the Christian has been crucified, buried and raised with Jesus Christ. In baptism, Paul argues, “We have been united with him in the likeness of his death” so that we are “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:5, 11). Later in Galatians he makes a similar point: “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal 5:24; cf. 6:14) only to be “made alive together with Christ . . . co-raised and co-seated” with him in heaven (Eph 2:5–6; cf. Col 2:13). In these passages, Paul shows that since Christ conquered the dominion of sin in his death and resurrection, we too participate in his victory by virtue of our union with him. This then forms the foundation of an exhortation to live according to that awesome truth: “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies . . . but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life” (Rom 6:12–13).

But there is a difference in how Paul develops the point in Galatians 2. In Gal 2:20, Paul’s statement about our death in the death of Christ is not an exhortation to personal holiness. It is instead a concise affirmation of how we are justified by faith alone. “Christ lives in me” deals with justification. This connection makes this verse striking and powerful.

What Does Being “In Christ” Mean?

In an earlier generation, scholars interpreted Paul’s many statements about our being “in Christ” or “in him” as a form of Christian mysticism. (1) They claimed Paul proposed that the Christian loses all individuality through a mystical merger into Christ like a drop of water falling into a divine “ocean.” This is similar to the pantheistic teaching which characterizes certain ancient Greek philosophies, New Age ideas, and Hinduism.

But this pantheistic mysticism is wholly absent from Paul, who conceives of the larger problem of mankind not as a separation from a divine “ocean,” but as being sinners (2) and through the law transgressors (3), which brings death (4) and not righteousness (5). Since we are all sinners, the law condemns us to death and places us under a divine curse. (6)

Because of this terrible, relentless truth, the brilliant light of God’s free mercy irradiates to the greater glory of his grace. God’s wonderfully wise and gracious solution was to give his own Son as our mediator. And here the true mystery lies. Through the law, which must condemn sinners, we died when the righteous, holy Son of God took upon himself the law’s curse. (7)

Substitutionary Atonement

This connection between Christ and us is the heart of the gospel. Conservative Christians have long defended the biblical doctrine of Christ’s substitutionary atonement. This teaches that Christ died as a sacrifice in our place both to appease God’s wrath toward us and to cleanse us of the guilt and stain of sin. In our Galatians 2 passage, Paul expresses the effects of this reality when he says, “I have been crucified with Christ . . . who loved me and gave himself for me.” This statement can only be true if Christ died as our Substitute, so that when Christ died for us, we died along with him. Furthermore, God’s wrath against us has been extinguished since it was poured out on his Son in our stead.

Substitutionary Righteousness

But this is not the whole gospel story. Paul is not finished because justification requires more than simply the forgiveness of sins; it also demands a righteous life. Consequently, Christ is not only our Substitute in death but in life as well. When Jesus Christ lived a righteous life in full conformity to God’s holy law, he was living for us. And when Christ was raised and thereby vindicated as holy and righteous before God, this verdict that passed on him, passed on us as well! (8)

Paul expresses this truth concerning Christ’s positive, substitutionary life and righteousness in Gal 2:20. Paul has no claim on God on his own. He has no righteousness of his own, no circumcision, no good works, no life of his own—nothing at all. But Paul has Christ and in having him, Paul has everything! (9) Though Paul no longer lives as it were, Christ lives in him.

Reformed theology has long held to both Christ’s substitutionary atonement and to his substitutionary righteousness imputed to guilty sinners as a free gift. For example, the Westminster Larger Catechism Q&A 71 states that Christ “by his obedience and death, did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to God’s justice” (substitutionary atonement). Furthermore, it states that Christ’s role is that of “surety” whose righteousness is imputed to his people by faith (substitutionary righteousness). This term “surety” (“guarantor” or “mediator”) is derived from a key passage in Hebrews (Heb 7:22) and expresses perfectly the positive role of Christ as our Substitute whose righteous fulfillment of God’s law is credited to us. Hence, in justification we are not only forgiven through the satisfaction of God’s absolute justice, but we are also accounted righteous in his sight through the merit of Christ’s own holy life.

So then, Paul’s statement that he no longer lives but that Christ lives in him is not a mystical teaching that he is merely a drop of water merging into a pantheistic divine ocean. Instead, Gal 2:20 is a radical statement of legal standing. Before God’s judgment seat, Paul and we along with him stand before God with no righteousness of our own whatsoever—we have only Christ. Indeed we have died, and Christ lives in us, so that we too will live in eternity with him. As such, our justification rests in Christ alone—who died the death we should have died and lived the life we needed to live. Nothing is left over for us to complete; Christ has done it all. He is our all-sufficient Savior.