A Commentary by John Stott
Plain and pungent as Paul’s exposition is, it was challenged in his day, and it is still being challenged today. So in these verses he turns from exposition to argument. He tells us both the argument which his critics used to try to overthrow his doctrine, and the argument which he used to overthrow their doctrine and to establish his. We hear them arguing with one another, as it were.
a). The critics’ argument against Paul (verses 17-20).
Verses 17,18. These verses are not easy, and have been differently understood. Of the two main interpretations, I have chosen that which seems the more consistent with Paul’s writing elsewhere, and in particular with the parallel teaching in the Epistle to the Romans.
Paul’s critics argued like this: ‘Your doctrine of justification through faith in Christ only, apart from the works of the law, is a highly dangerous doctrine. It fatally weakens a man’s sense of moral responsibility. If he can be accepted through trusting in Christ, without any necessity to do good works, you are actually encouraging him to break the law, which is the vile heresy of “antinomianism”.’ People still argue like this today: ‘If God justifies bad people, what is the point of being good? Can’t we do as we like and live as we please?
Paul’s first response to his critics is to deny their suggestion with hot indignation: ‘God forbid’ he says (verse 17, AV). He specially denies the added allegation that he was guilty of making Christ the agent or author of men’s sins. On the contrary, he goes on, ‘I make myself a transgressor’ (verse 18, AV). In other words, ‘if after my justification I am still a sinner, it is my fault and not Christ’s. I have only myself to blame; no-one can blame Christ.
Paul now proceeds to refute his critics argument. Their charge that justification by faith encouraged a continuance in sin was ludicrous. They grossly misunderstood the gospel of justification. Justification is not a legal fiction, in which man’s status is changed, while his character is left untouched. Verse 17: We are ‘justified *in Christ*’. That is, our justification takes place when we are united to Christ by faith. And someone who is united to Christ is never the same person again. Instead, he is changed. It is not just his standing before God which has changed; it is he himself – radically, permanently changed. To talk of his going back to the old life, and even sinning as he pleases, is frankly impossible. He has become a new creation and begun a new life.
This amazing change, which comes over somebody who is justified in Christ, Paul now unfolds. He describes it in terms of death and a resurrection. Twice in verses 19 and 20 he speaks of this dying and this rising to life again. Both take place through union with Christ. It is *Christ’s* death and resurrection in which we share. Verse 19: *For I through the law died to the law (the law’s demand of death was satisfied in the death of Christ), that I might live to God*. Verse 20: *I have been crucified with Christ* (that is, being united to Christ in His sin-bearing death, my sinful past has been blotted out); *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*.
Perhaps now it is now becoming clearer why a Christian who is‘justified in Christ’ is not free to sin. In Christ ‘old things are passed away’ and ‘all things are become new’ (2 Cor. 5:17, AV). This is because the death and resurrection of Christ are not only historical events (He ‘gave himself’ and now ‘lives’), but events in which through faith-union with Him His people have come to share (‘I have been crucified with Christ’ and now ‘I live’). Once we have been united to Christ in His death, our old life is finished; it is ridiculous to suggest that we could ever go back to it. Besides, we have risen to a new life. In one sense, we live this new life through faith in Christ. In another sense, it is not we who live it at all, but Christ who lives it in us, And, living in us, He gives us new desires for holiness, for God, for heaven. It is not that we cannot sin again; we can. But we do not want to. The whole tenor of our life has changed. Everything is different now, because we ourselves are different. See how daringly personal Paul makes it: Christ ‘gave himself for *me*’, ‘Christ…lives in *me*.’ No Christian who has grasped these truths could ever seriously contemplate reverting to the old life.