What Does “To Live Is Christ, to Die Is Gain” Mean?
“If there was no Heaven, would you still follow Jesus?”
One of the single most convicting conversations I have ever experienced was with my best friend and roommate in college. Seemingly out of nowhere I was confronted with this question: “If there was no Heaven, would you still follow Jesus?” My first response, born out of my spiritual immaturity, was “I really don’t know.” In that moment, I began to reflect on all the things the world had to offer. I reflected on being made fun of in high school for being trying to be a faithful follower of Christ. I considered the things I had “missed out on” by trying to be a good Christian.
My friend replied with confidence: “I would. What Jesus does in me each day is far worth it.” From that conversation, I realized two things. The first was that I wasn’t near as close to Jesus as I thought I was. The second was that I had been focused too much on the benefits that Jesus brings to me, specifically after death in Heaven. This conversation brought about a grace-driven effort to be fully committed to Christ regardless of future benefit.
Jesus + Nothing = Everything
Worship artist Cody Carnes has a song called “Nothing Else” that has these lyrics:
I’m not here for blessings
Jesus, You don’t owe me anything
More than anything that You can do
I just want You
Nothing else will do
The apostle Paul knew the truth of this lyric deeply. Facing potential execution in prison, Paul writes the following words to encourage the church at Philippi: “As it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:20-21).
Despite his afflictions and difficulties in prison, Paul knew that Jesus is all that he needed. Christ would be honored whether Paul continued living for him or laid down his life for Christ, knowing the message of Christ would continue. For Paul, life meant continuing his present work, and death meant following the example of Christ’s own sacrifice for the benefit of others. As Paul writes in another letter, “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:8).
The Two Become One
Paul communicates, here and all throughout his letters, the mystery of the union of the believer with Christ himself. Specifically in the letter to the Philippians, Paul addresses his union with Christ in verse 21: For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. The phrase “to live is Christ” reflects the truths Paul has spoken in Colossians 3:3-4 that tells us believers are both “in Christ and in God” but also that “Christ is our life.” He is the one who is the purpose, goal, and source of our lives. As John Calvin says, “this is the design of the gospel, that Christ may become ours, and that we may be ingrafted into his body.”
What this means is that we are so closely unified with Christ that we don’t even know where we end and where Christ begins. This might appear false at first since we are not sinless as Christ is and we are still being conformed into his image. Paul understood this dilemma, but instead of seeking to explain how this unity exists, he chose to focus on the truth of the union.
A Win-Win Situation
By digging a little deeper into Paul’s writing to the Philippians, we can uncover an even better understanding of this verse. It’s important to notice that Paul employs two different forms of “to be” verbs (infinitives) in this well-known verse. The verb behind “to live” is present tense and the verb behind “to die” is past tense. There are no active verbs in this phrase. The infinitives could be taken as gerunds (“living” and “dying”) and “for me” indicates the idea of “as far as I’m concerned.” This means a literal translation could say, “As far as I’m concerned, to continue living: Christ and to have died: gain.”
This is profound due to Paul’s circumstances as he writes the letter. He’s writing from prison, uncertain of whether or not he will ever be free again. As he reflects in chapter 4, Paul knew that Christ was sufficient for him in prison whether he had little or plenty. He was able to endure all things through Christ because his life was consumed by Christ’s life.
Paul knew that Christ is the one who is superior over all things. He truly believed that anything we give up for Christ is not loss, it’s gain—even death. Notice that Paul intentionally uses a past tense word behind “to die.” That means that Paul’s focus is not on the act of dying itself but instead what lies beyond. He’s not saying the act of dying is gain but that what comes afterward is worth it.
“To live is Christ and to die is gain” was Paul’s way of telling us that what seemed to be a difficult situation with a difficult end was not that difficult at all. That’s what union with Christ does. Jesus allows us to have peace when it doesn’t make sense to have peace; joy when the situation is anything but joyous. Paul’s struggle is one of preference: to be executed and enter into the peace Christ has prepared or to continue the mission Christ has given him and establish more local churches? Either way, Paul wins and Christ is glorified.
Lucas Smith has served in full-time ministry since 2011 and holds MDiv and MA in Biblical Languages degrees from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. He currently serves as Associate Pastor of Youth and Families at Eastern Heights Baptist Church in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.