Have you ever heard this verse before?
“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Do you know what book of the New Testament it comes from?
If you said Galatians, you were right. Specifically it comes from Galatians 2:20. Do you know what the context is of this section of Galatians? The context is that Paul had found Peter being hypocritical toward his Gentile brothers and sisters. When Peter was alone with them he would treat them properly but when certain Jewish Christians came from Jerusalem Peter withdrew table fellowship with the Gentile Christians. By his withdrawal from these Gentile brothers, Peter was imposing on them portions of the law that were not agreed upon at the Council in Jerusalem (Acts 15). The two most basic parts of Jewish identity were circumcision and dietary laws. Jewish Christians had some difficulty accepting Gentiles into their midst who did not abide by these same customs.
So Paul begins his defense of his Gentile brothers and writes in Gal 2:15, “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.” Paul is saying that it is not through distinctive signs of our Jewish heritage (which Peter was reverting to by his actions – eating with the uncircumcised) that we are justified, rather, we are justified by Christ alone. So by the time we get to the verse in question, Paul’s point is not to make an abstract statement about our Christian faith or to write words for a peppy Christian devotional song. He is making a real and applicable point about a real situation with real Christians who are experiencing division due to Peter’s misapplication of the law. Paul is saying that he will make no such distinctions because he has been crucified with Christ and no longer lives for himself (as Peter had been doing when around the Jews). Even the life that he does have in the flesh (which is normally connected with circumcision) is to be lived by faith (which is a circumcision of the heart and not by distinctive signs of Jewish custom such as fleshly circumcision and dietary laws) because we are not justified by observing the law. We are only justified by faith in Christ.
That is not to say these verses don’t have good things to say. They just need to be understood for what they meant rather than stripped of context and held up to mean something completely different. Which verses can you think of that have been stripped of context and popularly propped up for something they are not?