“I am dead to the Law” does not mean either that the Law is dead or that I have no responsibility to obey the Law. It means “I am dead as far as the Law is concerned.” The Law requires sinners to be executed, but in the believer’s case, since Christ is executed on our behalf, the death sentence has already been executed: justice is preserved in the court of God while the believer is set free.
In the Bible it is written, “For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God.” (Gal 2:19) What does it mean to be “dead to the law?”
As with any text of scripture, it is good to look at the larger context. The verses preceding this text are very helpful.
15We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, 16Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified. 17But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is therefore Christ the minister of sin? God forbid. 18For if I build again the things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor.
The immediate context, particularly verse 16, suggests that Paul is addressing legalism, the idea that justification, or being declared perfectly righteous before God, can be attained merely by human effort and obedience. Paul is clearly stating that justification is by faith and not by works; justification does not come by our effort and obedience. We can’t get there from here merely by trying our best.
However, in saying this, Paul is careful to not throw out works, or obedience, or trying altogether: though works are not the ground of justification, Paul maintains that obedience to the Law is still important. He makes this plain in verse 17 when he asks, “Is therefore Christ the minister of sin?” Paul addresses the natural concern that arises in the context of justification by faith: if we can be declared righteous without regard to our obedience, is Christ then promoting or encouraging sin, the violation of God’s Law? (1 John 3:4) Paul is emphatic that this is not the case. “God forbid.” In other words, Paul is maintaining that justification is by faith and not by works, and he is also saying that Christ does not encourage sin: Christ still requires and expects obedience to the Law. Both concepts are true.
Then Paul elaborates about what actually is sinful in this context: it is when “I build again the things which I destroyed (that) I make myself a transgressor.” Following the Law is not sin and does not promote sin, but being inconsistent and double minded about justification is sin indeed. This is “building again things which I destroyed:” claiming to trust Christ and his atonement as the ground of justification and then deciding that one needs to convert to Judaism in order to be justified. You can’t have it both ways.
This was the problem in Galatia. From the very outset in this letter Paul is concerned about their understanding of the Gospel; he is alarmed by what they are thinking and saying, and the way they are acting. They are giving ear to the Judaisers, those claiming that one needs to become Jewish and start keeping all the man-made Jewish regulations in order to inherit eternal life. Paul is concerned that the Galatians have never understood the Gospel and its implications.
It is not their desire to be obedient to God’s Law that bothers Paul. He isn’t saying that they can now live in fornication, lie, cheat and steal. Following the Law is still good, but it is why they want to obey the Law that concerns Paul; he is concerned about their motivation and understanding of the role of the Law in their lives.
We must have this context in view when we explore what Paul means when he says: “For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God. I am crucified with Christ .” He does not say that the Law is dead, but that the believer is dead: “I am (have been) crucified with Christ.” What is he teaching us here?
Christ was put to death on our behalf, in our place, because the Law demanded this as a penalty for our sin. Christ suffered in our place, as our substitute and representative, fulfilling the demands of the Law for our transgressions. This is what Paul seems to mean by, “through the (agency, demands or implications of the) law.” As if Law was the plaintiff in the courtroom of God, rightly demanding that we be put to death for our sin. But the Judge replies that the execution has already taken place … so Law is completely satisfied and clamors no more. The defendant has already been executed – we are already dead. In this sense we are “dead to the law,” or dead in the view of the Law, or from its perspective: dead as far as the law is concerned. The Law no longer pleads for justice in our sentencing and execution because this sentence has already been carried out in Christ.
So, rather than abolishing the Law, Christ has upheld the Law and its demands by delivering us from its penalty, suffering that penalty himself on our behalf. This frees us from the constant, paralyzing dread of being damned so that we may joyfully obey God and fellowship with him. Christ has redeemed us from the curse imposed by the Law by becoming a curse for us. (Gal 3:13) But this does not mean that his Laws are now obsolete; God continues to call us to righteousness, to obey him and conform to his perfect standard. This call is righteous and holy and good, for to violate any part of the Law is to sin.
Paul affirms that Christ is not the minister of sin: Christ has not merely delivered us from the final penalty imposed by the Law, leaving us to suffer under the temporal consequences of continuing in willful sin. No. Christ has come to set us free from both the penalty of the Law and from our inclination to break it. He is not telling us the Law is dead and obsolete, he is writing it on our hearts and into our minds. (Heb 10:16) He is the minister of righteousness, (2 Cor 3:9) not merely positional righteousness but also practical holiness. It is thus true that justification is by faith, and also true that those who live lives of willful and intentional rebellion against God, those who are against his Law, anti-law, shall not inherit his kingdom. (Eph 5:3-6) Those that God justifies he also sanctifies and glorifies. (Rom 8:30, 1 Cor 1:30, John 17:17) Those who do not love Jesus Christ and obey him have not been justified. (1 Cor 16:22, 1 John 5:3)
As Peter warns, it certainly is easy for the ignorant and unlearned to misunderstand Paul, to wrest his words out of context and to bring themselves and others great harm. (2 Peter 3:16) It is so easy to read, “I am dead to the law and alive to God” as if Paul were saying, “I could care less about the law … it is dead to me and I to it. We have no interaction with each other … God doesn’t care about Law any more, only that I love and worship him.”
Those who wrest Paul do not generally make him out to be a legalist, that he teaches salvation by works. Due to shallow reading of texts such as this one, Paul is generally misinterpreted as being antinomian: one who is anti-Law, against the Torah, by those who are already of this persuasion. The truth is that he was neither a legalist or an antinomian. Yet those teaching that Christ has abolished the Law of God, and that seeking to obey Torah is bondage, invariably leverage passages such as this one to make their point. It is to such teachers that a final, sober warning must be offered.
In the last Day many will say to Christ, “Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” (Mat 7:22-3) The word iniquity is from the Greek anoumia, from which we get the word antinomian. It means against law, violation of law or lawless. What word is more fitting to describe those who wrest the scripture to teach believers that they are … “not under the law,” (Gal 5:18) meaning (to them) under no obligation to obey God’s Law. Let no sincere soul continue to make this kind of basic, dreadful mistake. For further reading on this topic, please see Not Under the Law and Keep My Commandments.