As Christians, we recognize the importance of the death of Christ on the cross. In fact, it is impossible to overstate the importance of what He did. In that death He paid for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2). Because of that payment, all who believe in Him for eternal life are declared righteous before God and receive that life.
His death is rightly associated with His resurrection. Because He rose from the dead, so shall every believer. All believers will spend eternity with Him.
These are, indeed, great truths. Unfortunately, most believers fail to grasp all that the Scriptures explain about just how great these truths are. Believers have a strong tendency to look at the death and subsequent resurrection of the Lord solely in terms of our eternal destiny. It is very common to hear believers say that since Christ died and rose again, they will be in the kingdom of God forever. When they read about the death of Christ in various NT passages, that is all they see.
When we do that, we miss the point of certain verses. Galatians 1:4 is an example. In this verse Paul says that Christ “gave Himself for our sins.” This is clearly a reference to what He did on the cross. Paul then gives the purpose for that death when he says that Christ died in order that “He might deliver us from this present world.”
My guess is that most readers look at that purpose statement and, at first glance, assume that Paul means the believer will “go to heaven.” Christ died so that we can be taken out of this world and live in the coming kingdom. This may be worded in different ways. It might be said that we live in a fallen world, but that because of the death of Christ, the believer will live in an eternal world where there will be no sin.
But surely this is missing the point Paul is making. Paul is speaking about a deliverance here and now. He talks about something that involves the evil we see in the present. In other words, Christ’s death does not just deal with a salvation in eternity future. It involves a deliverance we can see now.
Don Campbell says concerning Gal 1:4: “The gospel is an emancipating message. It delivers believing sinners from the power of the present world system through the power of the indwelling Christ just as certainly as it delivers them from eternal judgment to come” (“Galatians” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, p. 590).
Galatians 1:4, of course, is found in the book’s introduction. In the introduction to each of his books, Paul mentions themes that he will discuss in the rest of the book. This is what he does here.
Paul wrote the book of Galatians because there were false teachers affecting the readers. These teachers were saying that holiness was to be found in keeping the Law of Moses. Some were even saying that eternal salvation was obtained by keeping the Law (see Gal 1:6-9; 2:16; 5:4). Through a decision to obey all the commandments, spiritual victory was thought to be obtainable in the power of our own flesh.
Galatians, however, destroys such a view. One is eternally saved by grace through faith alone. After being eternally saved, the believer is to walk by the Spirit, not the Law (Gal 3:1-3). When the believer lives by the flesh–in his own power–by focusing on the Law, he will fail and will instead produce the sinful works of the flesh (Gal 5:19-20).
How can the believer live in this present world in a way that avoids the negative fruit of the flesh? By walking by the Spirit. But this is only possible because Christ died and rose from the dead and gave us His Spirit.
In his introduction to Galatians, Paul mentions the Lord’s resurrection as well as His death (1:1). In these verses, Paul is not saying that the Lord’s death and resurrection mean that the believing readers will be in the kingdom. He is saying that because Christ died for our sins and rose from the dead, He has broken sin’s power over us. When He rose, He sent us His Spirit. We can now live by the Spirit and be delivered from the power of sin in our present everyday walk. You won’t find that in living by the Law in your own flesh.
Who can properly explain the magnitude of what Christ’s death means? Nobody. But we can do better than focusing on only one aspect of it. We should thank the Lord for our eternal salvation, recognizing it was all made possible by His death. But we should also thank Him because His death benefits us while we still live on this earth.
No wonder that after mentioning what Christ’s death means for us now, Paul adds that to Christ belongs “glory forever and ever” (Gal 1:5).