For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
Philippians 1:21 (ESV)
Having studied verse 21 in its context, I am still compelled to wade further into the waters of this profound sentence. I’m calling this two week study an excursus because we are veering off the consecutive path through Philippians to perform a more detailed examination of this verse. To think of it another way, if our main study is like traveling down the interstate, then this excursus is exiting the highway in order to explore a town.
But why does Philippians 1:21 deserve an extended two-part excursus from our main study? As we studied previously, Paul explained in the following verses the meaning of verse 21. To live is Christ meant fruitful labor, and to die is gain because death means being with Christ. What more needs to be mined out? I believe that Paul’s explanation of verse 21 in verses 22-23 is like taking a bucket of water from a well. Verse 21 captures the heart of how the gospel transformed Paul’s outlook on life and death; therefore, it also strikes at the heart of the apostle’s overall theology. So to me, the well of Philippians 1:21 is simply too deep not to explore in more detail.
I should also note, before we begin our study, that one of the most beautiful qualities of this verse is its simplicity. We read these words and have an immediate grasp on what Paul is communicating. However, much like defining concepts like love, our innate understanding is quite difficult to capture in words. My hope with these two studies then is to express the felt truth of this text in words. By God’s grace, I desire to say what we know to be true but may not know how to express.
THE DOCTRINE OF THE TEXT
As we focus upon the first phrase of verses 21, to live is Christ, we must begin by explicitly stating what the doctrine (or the teaching) of this phrase is. What does Paul mean by claiming the act of being alive is Christ?
Jesus is life. Or we might say, life itself belongs to Christ. True life, therefore, is only found in Him. For Paul, life and Christ were inseparably linked together. Without Christ, living is really a perpetual death. There is no life apart from Jesus.
Yet we should also take note of the actual syntax. Although saying “Life is Christ, and death is gain” does capture the essence of Paul’s thought, his usage of verbs instead of subjects is highly significant. For most of us, the concept of life is quite abstract and difficult to fully understand. We find it easy, therefore, to say some things are of critical importance to our life, while actually giving them very little time and attention. A lifetime is simply too big to fully grasp, so we tend to view it through unrealistic lenses. A life, however, is lived through the act of living, breathing, walking, thinking, and doing each and every day until the day that we do them no longer. Life is a conglomeration of various verbs that together create the act of living. For many, being alive may be passive, mere existence and nothing more. For Paul (and for us), life must be active. We must not be content with simply being alive; we must live while we are still alive because the act of living is by, through, and for Christ.
This is, I believe, a (brief) summary of the doctrine to live is Christ.
ARGUMENTS FOR THE DOCTRINE
Part of the beauty of this phrase is that it is not isolated from the rest of Scripture. While to live is Christ may only be explicitly stated here in Philippians, God’s Word whole-heartedly supports Paul’s manifesto. We shall, therefore, take a few moments to explore how other passages of Scripture also argue that to live is Christ.
Christ the Creator
Let us first look at Christ role in the creation of the universe. Hebrews 1:1-2 tell us explicitly about Jesus’ involvement with the act of creation: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.” Jesus, therefore, was the means by which the Father brought all things into existence.
Colossians 1:16 affirms this as well: “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” Note how Paul emphasizes all things. Everything that exists was created by Christ, through Christ, and for Christ, both spiritual and physical, visible and invisible. No throne, ruler, or authority is higher than Christ because He created all rulers, thrones, and authorities.
But how exactly did the Father create the world through Jesus?
John 1:1-3 gives us some idea: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” As John makes clear in verse 14, Jesus is the Word of God, who being God, also “became flesh and dwelt among us.” John sets up the beginning of his Gospel in a direct parallel with the beginning of Genesis. He does this to emphasize that when God created the heavens and the earth in the beginning, Jesus was there as coequal with the Father and the agent of all creation.
Calling Jesus the Word is not coincidental either. Beginning in verse 3 of Genesis 1, God speaks creation into the existence. He commands light to exist, and it does. God made the world with the words of His mouth. He made the world with His Word, the second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ.
All of this is fundamental to our understanding of the phrase to live is Christ since nothing would live without the Father giving life through Jesus. Because all of reality was formed, shaped, and created by Christ, life itself also comes from Christ. Without His creative involvement, life is not possible. He, not the Big Bang, is the catalyst of all things. Without Christ, there is no life.
And yet Christ did not simply create the cosmos; He also sustains it. Hebrews 1:3 states this: “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.” The word uphold gives the imagery of Christ carrying the entire universe in order to keep it from falling. He, therefore, is the glue which holds all things together. Without the active upholding work of Christ, the universe would fall into disrepair. Our very existence is not only owed to Christ, but our continued existence is owed to Him as well. Life is not possible without Christ, both in its inception and continuation.
All of this is merely to emphasize the title that Peter gave to Jesus: “the Author of life” (Acts 3:15). The very act of being alive comes as a gracious gift directly from the hand of Jesus Christ our Lord. Love Him or hate Him, this fact remains steadfast. If you are currently breathing, Jesus deserves your praise. Take a moment, therefore, to simply close your eyes, feel your lungs inhale and exhale, and give thanks to Christ for giving you life.
Christ the Redeemer
Yet Jesus not only the agent of creation and our physical life, He is also the means by which we are recreated and given a new spiritual life. Such a re-creation is necessary because of sin’s present dominion in the world beginning in Genesis 3. Before Adam and Eve disobeyed God, they were given free reign over the whole earth to live forever and fulfill their commission of cultivating the earth and bearing offspring. This eternal existence was cut short, however, by the first humans’ rejection of God’s law by eating the only forbidden fruit. Just as God promised beforehand, death entered into the world alongside sin. Death, therefore, has been both a physical and spiritual reality ever since. Physically, death removes us from this material existence (although we do believe in the physical and glorified resurrection of our bodies, but we will address that in our study of to die is gain). Spiritual death means to be separated from the blessings and favor of God, living under His wrath and curses instead.
In Ephesians 2:1-3, Paul writes, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked… carrying out the desires of the body, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” This is a crucial distinction. While we will all one day die a physical death, each of us is born spiritually dead. Our sin alienates us from God, and so we all need to be reconciled to God before our spiritual death plays out for all of eternity in hell. Many people are presently alive (physically) by the common grace of God, who are not actually alive. They are dead men walking. Their lungs still take in oxygen and their heart still circulates blood throughout their bodies, but they are alienated from the Author of life. They are children of wrath who, when they do die physically, will find themselves in the eternal throes of God’s wrath.
Thankfully, the Author of life did not leave us to live out this inevitable existence. Paul continues in Ephesians 2:4-5: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.” The solution to our spiritual death in sin is being made alive by God with Christ.
How does this happen?
How does God save us from our sins and bring us from perpetual death to life?
Just as Christ was the agent of creation, so He is also the agent of re-creation, the salvation of God’s people from their sins. Christ did this by taking our place, both in life and death. In life, Jesus walked in sinless perfection, obeying without fault all of God’s commands, which you may recognize as how we were created to live. In death, Jesus took the wrath of God for our sins upon Himself. In His resurrection, Jesus now sits at the right hand of the Father offering forgiveness of sins to those who follow after Him as His disciples.
Therefore, by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, we are now able to truly live here in this life because we have been reunited to the Author of life, while also longing and waiting for the day when we will receive glorified physical bodies that are without sin. “When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3:4).
All of this is to show that to live must be Christ. Both physically and spiritually, eternally and temporally, life is only found in Christ.
Now that we’ve seen, briefly, how the rest of Scripture supports Paul’s claim that to live is Christ, let us discuss specifically how this doctrine applies to us directly.
You belong to Christ.
For the first application, we must understand that if living really is Christ, then everything that we do must be for Christ. As the creator, sustainer, and redeemer of our lives, we belong to Him. The purpose, meaning, and goal of life is Christ because without Christ, there is no life.
Unfortunately, it can often be quite easy for Christians to affirm the truth of this statement without actually meditating through its impact and ramifications on our daily life. We can lift up Galatians 2:20 as our banner: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” But do we truly live our lives exclusively for Christ? Have we crucified our life in order for Christ to live in us?
To help us think through this, let us purposefully consider the realms of life that belong to Christ, if He is living in us.
First, belonging to Christ means that our possessions are for Christ. The lie of materialism is that we will find satisfaction in a multitude of possessions, but while Jesus never forbids possessions entirely, He does call us to submit them to His will and kingdom. Christ alone is our satisfaction, so we must understand that everything we have is His to give and take away. Christ’s eternality juxtaposed against the transient nature of material possessions also makes this the most practical understanding. Even the people we love are only here in our life for a time, Christ is the only lasting security. We must, therefore, submit everything we have to Him.
Second, belonging to Christ means that our actions are for Christ. If being saved by Christ means Him living in us, then each and every action that we take should be for the glory and praise of Christ. We should never do anything without first considering whether or not Christ would do the same.
Third, belonging to Christ means that our words are for Christ. Jesus does not merely own our possessions and actions; He also lays claim to our words. “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36). Whether our words honor or dishonor Christ is our test for how careless our words might be.
Fourth, belonging to Christ means that our thoughts are for Christ. In writing to the Corinthians, Paul confesses, “But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:3). In order to maintain a sincere and pure devotion to Christ, our thoughts must be set upon Him. Thoughts, therefore, are not morally neutral agents. Sin does not become sin when it becomes a word or deed; thinking upon sin is also sin. “For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:6).
Finally, belonging to Christ means that our wants and desires are for Christ. “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24). Belonging to Christ must not be behavioral shift only; Jesus cuts to the very heart of our thoughts and intentions, reforming even our wants and desires so that the reflect the heart of Christ.
Take note of my intent: there is not one sphere, realm, or aspect of our lives that does not belong to Christ, from our innermost desires to our external possessions. As Lord, Jesus claims it all.
You are an ambassador of Christ.
The second application flows directly from the first: we are ambassadors for Christ. Paul states this explicitly to the Corinthians: “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:20).
But what does it mean to be an ambassador for Christ?
We are His earthly representatives. We are His Bride, united to Him under the New Covenant, and we are His Body, displaying Christ physically to the world around us. We are the continuation of His earthly ministry, calling all people to repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. As the Father sent Christ, so He sent us (John 20:21).
As ambassadors, we must, therefore, display Christ with every realm of our lives. The world is meant to see Jesus in us. Our possessions, actions, words, thoughts, and desires must all be for the glory and exaltation of Christ.
But remember, this is not a metaphorical statement. We are called to literally live for Christ, to surrender everything to His control. Two problems typically arise here. First, if you do not desire this to be true, a sincere and honest evaluation whether you are truly following Christ or not is necessary. Second, if you think this to be an easy thing, you do not understand what is being demanded.
If you do not desire to give over your possessions, actions, words, thoughts, and desires over to Christ, it is quite likely that you do not yet know Him. Of course, we know that no Christian in this life will every fully live for Christ. In fact, we would each be tremendously ashamed if we were able to know how little we actually live for Him. The point is not of perfect obedience but of desire. Do you want to live for Christ? If you do not, then you likely do not know Christ.
And if living entirely for Christ sounds like an easy task, you do not grasp the weightiness of this command. We are utterly incapable of surrendering over all our self-motivations to Christ. We cannot live this way. Until we grasp our own inability, we will never be able to take refuge in the Holy Spirit’s working through us. “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13). Attempting to follow Christ in our own strength is doomed to fail. We can only do so by the Spirit.
OBJECTIONS & ANSWERS
We have now observed the doctrine to live is Christ, witnessed its support from the rest of Scripture, and discussed how it directly applies to us. We will now answer a few objections to this doctrine.
Christ is not the exclusive path to eternal life.
Religious pluralists will take issue with the claim that Christ alone is life. They would vehemently argue that just as all roads lead to Rome, all religions lead to God. For the Muslim, then, to live is Allah, and for the Hindu, to live may be Krishna. These are taken as completely valid answers, while it is supreme arrogance and intolerance to claim that Christ alone offers life.
To believe such a statement as a Christian is to make a mockery of the cross. The crucifixion of Christ boldly declares that nothing but the substitutional death of God Himself could atone for the consequences of our sin. To say that there are other roads to salvation belittles the sheer wonder and love of God dying for His own rebellious creation. We must either accept Jesus as exclusively offering life and salvation, or we must forsake Him entirely. He cannot, however, coexist within a pantheon of other gods that also offer life.
My ____ is my life.
Perhaps a more practical, if not unconscious, objection to Jesus alone being life is that something else is defines one’s life. My ____ is my life, and we can fill in the blank with a vast number of different options. My family is my life. My friends are my life. My career is my life. My status is my life. My music is my life. My books are my life. My happiness is my life. My experiences are my life. My wealth is my life.
Each of these gifts and blessings from God. He gives them for our enjoyment and pleasure because He wants us to delight in the world that He created. The problem is that we often elevate the gifts above the Giver. While they are good to have, they are not eternal and, therefore, cannot truly satisfy us. Given enough time, they will each eventually fail us. God, however, cannot fail us. Augustine describes this trading of the Giver for His gifts as being like a hungry man who keeps licking a painting of bread instead of asking a baker for a loaf.
My life is mine.
The final objection that we will answer is that my life is my own. This is a blatant rejection of our belonging to Christ, and therefore, it is also a rejection of the gospel. Jesus warned His disciples of this danger in Matthew 16:24-26:
The Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?
We think that by withholding our life from Christ that we can keep it for ourselves, yet Jesus promises that this only guarantees us losing it. Denying ourselves and giving our entire life to Christ goes against every grain of our flesh’s impulse, but the hands of Christ are the only true security for our life. We love to maintain our illusion of control, thinking that we have a handle on our own lives, yet we cannot determine or control a fatal accident or terminal illness. Such events remind us how little control we actually possess. Our life is much safer in the loving, gracious, and providential hands of Christ.
INSTRUCTIONS FOR OBEDIENCE
Now that we have studied the doctrine at hand, how Scripture argues its truth, how it applies to us directly, and answered a few objections to it, we will conclude by addressing how we are to walk in obedience to this teaching of Scripture. Let us remember, even as we lay out these actions to take, that true obedience can only be achieved through the empowering of the Spirit. We can do nothing, not even coming to Christ, apart from the working of the Holy Spirit. May we, therefore, pray for His strength to walk in obedience, that for us living would be Christ.
Come to Christ.
The first and most important act of obedience to this doctrine is to come to Christ. Typically, this command is associated with the act of conversion, the calling of someone who is apart from Christ to call upon His name and be saved. While that is certainly the case, followers of Christ must also constantly return to Him as well. Jesus came to call all people to repent and believe the gospel (Mark 1:15). Repentance is the turning away from and renouncing of sin, and believing the gospel means placing our confidence in the truth that we who were once objects of God’s wrath are now His children by the blood of Christ. These are two actions that everyone must take. For the non-Christian, come to Christ, repent of your sin, and believe the good news that Jesus died to save you from your sin. And for the Christian, come to Christ yet again, repent of the sin that you continue to commit, and reaffirm your faith in the good news that Jesus has rescued from all your sins. The simple, yet difficult to accept, truth is that none of us perfectly live for Christ, and this failure to do so is sin. These is, therefore, no one who does not need to come to Christ to repent and believe the gospel.
Labor for the Lord.
Our second act of obedience is to labor in this life for the Lord. Recall that Paul went on to say in verse 22 that continuing to live in the flesh meant fruitful labor. The apostle understood that because his life belonged to Christ, his life must also be one of labor for Christ. As long as he had breath in his lungs, he would continue to be an ambassador for Christ in every realm of his life.
But what does this labor look like on a practical level? It means working as though we are working for Christ (Colossians 3:23) and proclaiming the gospel whenever a door is opened to do so (Colossians 4:3). Laboring for Christ means being missional and intentional where you are and in everything that you are doing, no matter how boring or inconsequential it might seem.
This is also an interesting answer to one of the primary laments of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes. Recall that he repeatedly moaned against the toil at which we toil under the sun, honestly questioning if any gain could come from such labor. Paul now answers that he has found a purpose for toiling away under the sun. His toil and labor in this life are for Christ, and in them is great gain because Christ’s work will always yield fruit. After all, the LORD makes this promise about the proclamation of His Word: “so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish what which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11).
To quote the band, Anberlin: “There’s more to living than being alive.” This is far too true. Too many people are alive in the sense that their bodies are still functioning, but they are not actually living because they do not know Christ who is Himself life.
Take a time, therefore, a reflect on the truth of the doctrine that we have studied, honestly answering the following questions:
Is Christ your life?
Do you define living around the person and work of Jesus Christ?
In what ways is your life reflecting that you belong to Christ and are His ambassador?
May we, therefore, with each breath of life, declare alongside Paul that to live is Christ.