Wednesday, February 13, 2013

In the Flesh I Live by Faith

Ever since I became a follower of Jesus in college, Galatians 2:20-21 has been one of my favorite passages in the whole Bible.
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.  The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.  I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!  (NIV)
It's one thing to be excited about a Bible verse that captures the essence of the good news about Jesus when you're new in the faith.  But it's another thing to look back eleven years later and see more of this.  I guess that's one of the many things I love about the Word of God, too: it's so rich that it never ceases to be relevant.  As I learn more about life, it speaks deeper truths.

Paul wrote Galatians sometime between A.D. 48-52, at least 17 years after he met Jesus on the road to Damascus (see 1:18 and 2:1).  And what did he learn in those 17 years?  "It becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners" (2:17).  When I first began to love the gospel I think I had some idea I'd have grown a halo by now.  But instead I'm pretty sure the opposite has happened.

What I never saw before--and what I love now--is that Paul says that "the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith" (ESV).  For years I read "in the body" (NIV) and thought, Duh.  Of course he lives in the body.  He's a human.  He has a body.  I never understood why that was relevant for Paul.  But seeing "flesh" (Greek sarx) made sense of it: "flesh" is Paul's one-stop-shop for referring to the powers and postures of a fallen world and a sinful nature that tries to exercise every way of achieving hope and peace and life and joy except for submitting to God and trusting in him.  Our flesh represents our self-serving desires bent against God.

So why do I love this?  Because Paul just spent 17 years becoming an even bigger sinner, growing daily in his debt to God.  He knows he still lives "in the flesh."  He still has a "body of death" that perplexes him with his conflicting desires that rear their head without warning (see Romans 7).  And yet he can say that even in the midst of that--in fact, precisely because of that--he lives by faith in Jesus, God's Son.*  He sees he can't earn God's favor and love by his moral rectitude and just gives up, casting his worn-out soul on Jesus who loves him.

And if Paul can do that, so can I, because Jesus is not dead but alive.  In the middle of my perplexing, senseless sin that just grows every day, I can and must live by faith in Jesus.  I can know that Jesus "loved me and gave himself for me."  His death has not only fully paid for all my sins but also served as the culmination of a life of obedient sonship that became a fragrant offering to God (see Ephesians 5:2 and 1 Samuel 15:22).  And now, somehow, mysteriously, by faith his very life replaces mine before God--his obedience, his sonship, his place in the Father's love.

So I can go on living in the flesh, a stinkin' mess of sin and brokenness, knowing and trusting in Jesus.  The gospel is good news indeed.

*Paul's argument in Galatians 2:17ff. goes something like this: Because Paul and his company are sinners, people are accusing them of using Jesus' grace as an excuse for sin: When people have Jesus, they don't need to be law-keepers to earn God's favor, so Jesus is a "servant of sin."  But Paul denies this, saying rather that they were "found to be sinners," people who by very nature cannot keep the law wholly and so cannot earn a right standing with God through it.  Rather, Paul sees how the law shows him his own sin and then how Jesus fufilled it for him, so that he can say "through the law I died to the law."  That is, the law itself showed him the law was useless but that Christ was faithful in every way Paul himself had failed.