Question: "What does it mean to be crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:20)?"
Answer: In his letter to the Galatians, the apostle Paul wrote that he had been “crucified with Christ,” and, as a result, Paul no longer lived. Does this mean that Paul hung on the cross with Jesus and was crucified along with Him physically? Obviously not. What, then, did Paul mean by “crucified with Christ”? The life and death alluded to here are spiritual, not physical.
In the previous verse, Galatians 2:19, Paul states that in Christ he became dead to the Law, insensible to it in the same way that physical death makes a person insensible to all surrounding objects and influences. Paul says that he became insensible to the Law as a means of justification. It lost its power over him and ceased to influence him. Paul was also dead to the world, to ambition and the love of money, to the pride of life, and to the dominion of evil and hateful passions. They lost their power over him; they ceased to influence him. They, too, were crucified with Christ.
When we are crucified with Christ by faith in Him, we are to completely surrender every selfish desire and ambition to the perfect will of God. Self-promotion and self-pleasing desires are the greatest obstacle between man and salvation because it is the nature of man to want to please himself, and this self-recognition is a building block for sin. All sin erupts from the desire to please self, and this is what must be crucified with Christ in surrender to the will of God before salvation can bear fruit. This, as Paul attests, is an ongoing process because the spirit, which has been crucified with Christ, still resides within in the flesh, which is still very much alive (Romans 7:18–25).
Man cannot overcome his inherited sinful nature on his own and needs the power and assistance of the Holy Spirit to make this happen, but the surrender of his own will to that of God’s will is essential for the elimination of his own desire’s powerful motivation and enslavement. This is part of repentance. True repentance is not just asking for forgiveness of sin but is also a willingness and desire for change that conforms to the will of God. It is surrender of one’s own control and will to the power and will of the Holy Spirit that is the beginning of being crucified with Christ.
This beginning brings a quickening of the Holy Spirit within man, which brings forth a new spiritual life in him as he is born again of the Spirit of God. Old, corruptible desires are replaced with a new and more powerful motivation to experience the holiness of God. Temptation for the former corruptible ways that enslaved him to sin are defeated, not by man’s own effort to battle his corruptible nature, but in surrender of his own will to God’s will (1 Peter 1:23). This proves to be a great challenge for many people because we attempt to control our sinful nature on our own with the result being repeated falls into the same old, sinful ways they are attempting to escape. If it had been possible for man to overcome his sinful nature by his own power and will, there would have been no need for Jesus to die for our sins. Man could have simply overcome his sinful nature, obeyed the Mosaic Law, and stopped sinning on his own by the power of his own will. But because man is not capable of denying his sinful nature on his own, by the grace of God man has been given this victory through the gift of spiritual rebirth if he is willing to fully surrender in repentant contrition to God’s will. Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8).
Many Christians want to be obedient but continue to stumble in sin because they try to hang on to parts of the old self they think they are able to control. This is a self-defeating rationale that relies on the idea that man saves himself by his own works. The Bible teaches us that nothing a man does can save his soul, and salvation is only by the grace of God (Ephesians 2:8–9). Through this gift of grace, man can be born again and be given a new nature to replace the old, sinful self. He must be born again if he is ever to see the kingdom of God (John 3:3), and if he is to be born again, his sinful nature must be crucified with Christ, and he must be filled with the Holy Spirit of God.