On Easter Sunday our Pastor preached a fine sermon on the seminal New Testament text on the resurrection of Christ, 1 Corinthians 15, carefully following Paul’s argument about the necessity of the resurrection. He pointed out the myriad consequences (all of them terrible) that would result if Christ had not, indeed, been raised. Most tragically, Paul tells us, if Christ has not been raised from the dead, then you (meaning we) are “still in our sins.”
Following the service, a very bright young man raised a question to our associate pastor that deserves serious thought and a serious answer. The question—or, more accurately, the question(s) are these: why is the resurrection necessary for the forgiveness of sins? Why isn’t Jesus’ suffering the penalty of sin on the cross sufficient for our salvation? Why isn’t his payment of the penalty due sin sufficient to bring us into fellowship with God? It wipes out our debt, does it not? Why would we still be “in our sins” if Jesus had not been raised?
These are excellent questions. In fact, I remember a time not too long ago when I had similar questions. I think many Christians intuitively have them—in fact, I know they do because my wife, who would not call herself an intellectual, has wondered about these things.
The first thing I want to say is that these questions are, to some extent, the result of a certain kind of theological reductionism that has been present in the Western church since at least the time of St. Anselm of Canterbury. We talk all the time about the “centrality” of the cross. We talk about the “sufficiency” of the cross. We heavily focus on the legal aspects of salvation (the doctrine of justification, or being “made right” with God), and the subjective aspects of salvation (like the new birth, our internal renovation, or the doctrine of sanctification) tend to take a back seat. This gives the impression that the cross is all there is to Christianity. (It doesn’t help that the largest Christian communion in the world, the Roman Catholic Church, has as its ever-present symbol the image of Jesus hanging on the cross. Why not an empty tomb?) But this is all understandable, to some degree. Does not the Apostle Paul himself say that he desires to know nothing except “Christ crucified”? But this emphasis (I do not want to say over-emphasis, for one can hardly over-emphasize the cross!) tends to obscure or push to the background other aspects of salvation that are no less important than the payment of the penalty for our sins.
In fact, sometimes it can obscure things that are right in front of our noses. For example, there is little doubt that in the doctrine of justification, the death of Christ does play a central role. Paul tells us that we can be freely justified by his grace because “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement” (Rom. 3:25). But as we read on in Paul’s exposition of the doctrine of justification by faith, it turns out that the resurrection of Christ is no less important than his sacrificial death: “[Christ] was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). He goes on in chapter six to say, “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Rom. 6:4). In all the places, in fact, where we would go to show the centrality of the cross in Paul’s thinking, we actually find the resurrection staring us right in the face. For some reason we often fail to see it.
Consider the glorious passage in Romans 8, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus [….]” The whole passage is infused with the doctrine of resurrection (e.g., vv. 11, 17, 20, 23), but most pointedly in Paul’s famous question: “Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen?” He answers that question this way: “Christ Jesus, who died […]” We could stop there, of course, but Paul interjects something important: “Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us” (Rom. 8:33-34). My point here is that we often exaggerate Paul’s emphasis on the cross as though it is to the exclusion of the empty tomb. That is not the way Paul’s thinking runs. When he speaks of the cross, he has in mind the entire complex of Christ’s work; he has in mind both the cross and the resurrection. For Paul, the cross without the empty tomb, a Christ who died but has not been raised to life, is utterly ineffectual for us. It leaves us, as he says, “in our sins.”
Now, whole books could be written on this topic. In fact, they have. For one of the very best scholarly treatments I can do no better than to point you to Richard Gaffin's Resurrection & Redemption. For a more popular treatment, I can point you to a book written by my colleague, Andrew Sandlin: New Flesh, New Earth: The Life-Changing Power of the Resurrection.
But allow me to take a brief crack at answering these thorny questions. Let me make clear the heart of the questions: Paul claims in 1 Corinthians 15 that the resurrection was absolutely necessary for our salvation. In this he simply follows the teaching of Jesus, who often claimed that “the Son of Man must suffer many things […] and that he must be killed and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31). In the Greek language this is expressed with a little word, dei, which means “it is necessary.” It has to happen. So what we are really aiming at answering is the why? What is the rationale behind that “necessity”?
The answer is supplied for us in the very context of 1 Corinthians 15, and it is unfortunate (yet understandable, given the thrust of the sermon) that our Pastor actually skipped over the part that supplies the answer. Immediately after telling us that if Christ has not been raised, we are to be pitied more than all men, Paul goes on to say this:
“But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” (1 Corinthians 15:20-22).
Here is the connection that will help answer our thorny questions, and it is a connection that Paul makes in a number of crucial places, particularly in Romans 5:12 and following. The connection is this: our destinies are indissolubly tied to an “Adam.” By speaking of Christ as the “second” and “Last” Adam (1 Cor. 15:46-47), Paul is encouraging us to remember the early chapters of Genesis. These are ancient “hyperlinks.” When he writes “Adam,” you need to mentally click on that link and make your way back to the Garden of Eden.
There are two things that clicking on that hyperlink ought to bring to mind. First, death is the penalty threatened for Adam and Eve for disobedience. Second, there is another tree in the Garden: the tree of life, which clearly represents the opposite of death, a life of eternal freedom from sin and fellowship with God. The tree of life is important because it reminds us that the Garden of Eden was not the ultimate purpose. God had something even greater than that in mind for Adam and Eve and, by extension, all of humanity. That "something" is eternal life, free from the possibility of death.
Understanding Paul's logic, then, is crucial for us: our destinies are bound up with the destiny of another: either Adam or Christ. Now ask the question: what benefit is a dead Christ? A dead Christ is no different from a dead Adam. They would both be under the power of death as a penalty for disobedience. And that means, no matter how you slice it, we too would be under the power of death. Without the resurrection, our status would not change. A dead Christ means a dead humanity, just as a dead Adam means a dead humanity. In neither case could humanity move to that place of ultimate blessing signified by the tree of life: eternal, incorruptible life.
Far too often, however, we don't think in the terms the Bible sets out for us. We think of our relationship to God as a direct, individual matter. We want to sidestep Adam (for obvious reasons), but we often want to sidestep Christ, too, as though he is only tangentially important, as though he is something of an accessory, merely an instrumental means for our forgiveness like the bulls and goats offered on the altar of old. Only by thinking this way could we have the thought that God the Father could forgive us of our sins, nullify the penalty of death, usher us into eternal life, all the while Jesus Christ, our representative, lies in a grave! It doesn't work that way. Only if Jesus is freed from the power of death can we be freed from the power of death. Only if Jesus is declared "righteous!" can we be declared righteous. Only if Jesus enters the eternal life originally promised humanity can we enter eternal life.
There is no "getting around" Jesus to get to the Father. And that really is what we're up to if we think that we can be saved while Jesus is dead. Because of Jesus' representative identity as the "Second Adam," the Father can do nothing with us that he does not first do with his Son. 1 John 1:23 highlights this connection: "No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also." The Father deals with us exclusively in his Son's representative mediation. When Jesus described himself, in other words, as the "Way, the truth, and the life," he meant it. He is THE way. There is no other place of access. When he said, "I am the resurrection and the life," he meant it. There is no other way to access eternal life than by being, as the New Testament incessantly puts it, "IN Christ."
Much more could be said. But at very least, a dead Christ, one who lies in the grave, is no different than a dead Adam. And a dead Adam leaves us under the power of death, and so therefore does a dead Christ.
Most thankfully, however, we do not have a dead Christ, but one who has, in fact, been raised from the dead. He is the firstfruits and we are the harvest. And when the time is ripe, we look forward to sharing in the same bodily resurrection life as he:
"When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
'Death is swallowed up in victory.'
'O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?'
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." 1 Corinthians 15:54-57.