Once completed, these will be companion pieces to my earlier essay on the cross. This first one is a little late, since Easter has already come and gone. But as the saying goes, “better late than never”.
Christians know well how to celebrate the crucifixion of Jesus. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the resurrection. Whilst we rightly proclaim the death of Christ as a sacrifice for sin, as a triumph over the powers of evil, and as a demonstration of God’s holy love (cf. Romans 5:8), it seems that many are much less certain about the significance of Christ being raised from the dead. Indeed, beyond the vague notion that it means we can now possess eternal life, or that it was God’s way of publicly vindicating his Son (both true, of course, but they need to be worked out in more detail), Christians are unsure quite what to do with the resurrection.
Hopefully, these posts can offer a kind of corrective. There are many ways in which the resurrection of Christ is a vital belief for his followers. What I want to concentrate on are four different dimensions of this great event:
1) The resurrection as a vital element in the justification of believers – that is, their being declared righteous before God despite their sin.
2) The resurrection as a necessary foundation for sanctification.
3) The resurrection as the ground upon which people can claim membership in God’s family.
4) The resurrection as the first step in new creation.
There is not enough space to consider each of the fours aspects in the one post. So I shall simply focus on how the resurrection is a necessary part of our justification.
Resurrection and Justification
We normally think that our being justified before God rests upon the sacrificial work of Christ on the cross. That is certainly – and gloriously – true. What I didn’t say clearly in my post on Christ’s crucifixion is that it was an act of substitution, of penal substitution. In other words, Jesus paid the penalty for sin that was ours to pay, as our substitute and representative. When he walked the road to Calvary and was put to death at the place called Golgotha, Jesus “stood” in our place under sin’s weight and God’s condemnation of it. Indeed, he died the death that we were due to die (“For the wages of sin is death” – Rom. 6:23). God in Christ managed to do for us what we could not do ourselves, by shouldering the price of sin and forgiving us justly (ie. without condoning sin).
Consequently, when we place Spirit-impelled faith in Christ’s work, we trust in his once-and-for-all death as the means by which we can come into a right relationship with God. That right relationship is closely identified with our justification, which is a legal term that is used often by writers in the New Testament (not least, Paul). We are justified by faith because God reckons us to be righteous. And he reckons us to be righteous precisely because we have, via the work of the Spirit, appropriated the benefits of Christ’s gracious, representative work on the cross. Our sins are no longer counted against us, and we are no longer separated, alienated, from God.
This is a wonderful truth, which has been secured by the cross. However, it is not the cross, in isolation, which has secured it. In fact, I would go as far as to say that by itself, the cross would have been a monumental failure. That may seem a trifle overblown, but we have to remember that in God’s redemptive economy, Jesus’ shameful death was always – of necessity – going to be followed by his triumphant resurrection. And this has important implications for our justification. What may not be apparent to many Christians, in their commendable zeal to ground our righteous standing before God in Christ’s sacrificial work, is that this legal position also hinges upon the certainty of the empty tomb. Indeed, the cross and the resurrection are indissolubly linked, forming one saving event. This is true, whether we are referring to our initial standing before God or to our ultimate glorification. Unfortunately, the resurrection is invariably neglected when it comes to explaining the ground for a Christian’s justification before God, even though the link is made explicit at several points in the NT.
Romans 4:25 is a prime example of the relationship between the resurrection and justification. It is also, out of interest, a clear example of how the NT often considers the death and resurrection of Christ as one event. Let’s take a look:
“He [Jesus Christ] was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” [emphasis mine].
They cannot, nor should they, be seen as ultimately separable acts. This is important as we move on. In any case, reading the above verse suggests one very important fact: Christ was raised so that we might be justified. Our justification would not have occurred had it not been for his triumph over death. Now, it is possible to read this verse a little differently. That is, some might reverse the causal order and argue that because justification had already been achieved (presumably through the cross), Christ was raised from the dead. The act of raising Christ from the dead becomes, then, the public demonstration of something that had already been accomplished. In other words, the cross alone opened up the possiblility for the justification of sinners; the resurrection was the outward, tangible sign of what was already the case. Views to the contrary notwithstanding, I think it best to say that what Paul is arguing in Romans 4:25 is that Christ’s resurrection in some way secured our justification. It’s not that the cross was unimportant in this scheme – far from it. However, it would have been incomplete, and therefore futile, without triumph over death three days later.
Understanding the judicial significance of death is important at this point. Our death is a consequence of sin, to be sure. But to be clear: it is also a sign of God’s judgment upon it and those who participate in it (which is to say, everyone). Indeed, in sinning, we alienate ourselves from the very source of life; death is the inevitable (but not to say, impersonal) implication of this estrangement and divide. I noted earlier that in taking on the burden on humanity’s sin at Calvary, Jesus also bore God’s wrathful condemnation of it. He did so as our representative, bearing punishment on behalf of others. But without the resurrection, Christ’s substitutionary offering before God would have been a rejected one. By taking the place of sinful humanity, Christ had to be raised. For only then could it be said that he himself had been justified as the representative man (bearing the divine punishment for sin before being vindicated) and that death, as a judicial consequence of sin, had been defeated.
Christ’s vindication – his being raised from the dead publicly – was necessary, in that without it, the guilt that he shouldered on behalf of humanity would not have been removed. The penalty of death would still have been in place, sin’s reign unbroken, and God’s condemnation upon us. Or, as I. Howard Marshall, a NT scholar, puts it:
“…The resurrection is God’s release of Christ from the punishment of sin that he is bearing; he remits any continuation of the punishment. Hence, there is now the possibility of a new relationship between God and the man whom he has judged in death, and so God can now forgive sinners” (“Aspects of the Atonement: Cross and Resurrection in the Reconciling of God and Humanity”, p.86).
The new relationship of which Marshall speaks is the new legal status of human beings, who because of Christ’s successful and accepted offering, can now escape sin and its divinely-ordained penalty, death, thereby enjoying a right relationship with the God who has forgiven them on the basis thereof. Insofar as we participate in Christ (through Spirit-impelled faith and union), we are counted as righteous before God. But that could only come about with the raising of Christ after his death. That is why Paul can say, in 1 Corinthians, that “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). He is pointing to the very thing I have suggested in this essay: that if Christ has not been raised, then he is still dead; and if he is still dead, then his offering was unsuccessful in paying the penalty for sin, since God did not remit the condemnation that befell Jesus as our representative. If that is so, then we are still locked in our sins, apart from God and facing the consequence of death.
“But”, Paul declares, “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead” (1 Cor. 15:20). All who are in Christ “will be made alive” in him (v.22). It is the fact of the resurrection that completes the sin-bearing work of Christ on the cross. More than that, it brings us assurance of our own vindication – our own acquittal, our own triumph over sin and death – as we are brought into union with him.