“He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Romans 4:25).
The death and resurrection of Christ was the central act of human history. It’s also the foundation of Christian theology, so we’ll be spending some time digging into this topic.
Why did Christ have to die? Human rebellion had to be paid for, and “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). “In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb 9:22). Rebellion against God is a capital offense, but God, in Christ, was willing to take that punishment upon himself.
So Christ went to the cross. Many today want to dismiss the notion that God sent Jesus to die. They say that he came here to teach and inspire, but we killed him. The apostles disagree: “This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross” (Acts 2:23).
Some today object that this constitutes “divine child abuse.” They have a weak understanding of the Trinity. The Father and the Son are separate persons, but there is one God and there was one plan whereby God would take the penalty on himself. The Son was not forced into a role by the Father; this was their plan. “We must not, then, speak of God punishing Jesus or of Jesus persuading God, for to do so is to set them over against each other as if they acted independently of each other or were even in conflict with each other. We must never make Christ the object of God’s punishment or God the object of Christ’s persuasion, for both God and Christ were subjects not objects, taking the initiative together to save sinners.”1 Jesus said, “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again” (John 10:18).
Which brings us to the resurrection. In the epistles, the authors will often speak of Christ’s death or of his resurrection, but in most cases they have both in mind. His death and resurrection are two parts of the same event. “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Rom 4:25).
It’s common for skeptics to claim that this belief developed later, long after everyone who knew Jesus was dead. Today, though, even non-Christian NT scholars (yes, that’s a thing) find themselves agreeing that this belief is very early. 1Cor 15:3-7 is held by many scholars to be an early creedal statement that Paul quotes in his letter. It says, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, ... he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures....” According to Jesus Seminar founder Robert Funk, this creed was probably set within three years after Christ’s death.2 Note that both his death “for our sins” and his resurrection are included in this formula.
Today “progressive Christians”* often teach that the resurrection of Jesus was a “spiritual resurrection,” that is, that he “rose” in his followers’ hearts or perhaps that he continued in a spiritual existence after his death. In his massive The Resurrection of the Son of God, NT Wright has shown in exhaustive detail that a non-physical resurrection would never have even entered into the minds of either Jews or Greeks of that time period. Resurrection meant the body getting back up and walking off. That is part of what made the Christian message so hard for the Jews and Greeks to believe. “The resurrection is particularly significant, for inflicting death was the worst thing that sin and the powers of sin could do to Christ. In the inability of death to hold him is symbolized the totality of his victory. What more can the forces of evil do if someone whom they have killed does not stay dead?”3
The teaching of the apostles was that Christ physically rose from the dead and so will we. Christ was “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1Cor 15:20). Because he had victory over death, we will have victory over death. Not only will we live again, we will live better than we ever have — we will have a resurrection body (eg, 1Cor 15:51-54) like his.
But the victory of the resurrection isn’t just for after we die. Through Christ’s resurrection, we have victory over sin’s power right now. “When you accepted Christ you were identified completely with Him, both in His death and in His resurrection. So when Christ was raised from the dead, you also were raised to a new way of life.”4 Through Christ’s death, the chains of sin were broken. Through his life, we have the power to not sin. It’s a power we don’t use well or often enough, but we can get better with practice.
The death and resurrection of Christ are not just an event to commemorate. It’s supposed to transform us. We should live differently because of the price paid for our sins and because of Christ’s victory over death. Let us commit to living, through the power of the Holy Spirit, lives worthy of the risen Savior.
For more on this topic, I recommend “The Uniqueness of Christ in His Resurrection” in Theology You Can Count On by Tony Evans.
1 John RW Stott, The Cross of Christ
2 Robert Funk and The Jesus Seminar, The Acts of Jesus
3 Millard Erickson, Introducing Christian Doctrine
4 Tony Evans, Theology You Can Count On
* The term here refers to a religious perspective rather than a political movement. I put the term in quotes because the extent to which these people teach Christianity is in serious question.
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Part of Christianity 101