Jesus’ sacrificial death and triumphant resurrection stand at the center of the “good news” Christians stake their lives upon. The Bible joins the bloody cross and empty tomb as two distinct but inseparable events. And yet, many of our gospel presentations and theological conversations refer to the cross as the place where salvation was fully accomplished and the deal was sealed. Christ’s resurrection is either left out or tacked on as the cherry on top. I’m thankful evangelicals have been “cross-centered” but it’s unfortunate we’ve moved the resurrection to the periphery.
Do we lose anything or is salvation lost if (hypothetically speaking) there was a crucifixion but no resurrection? The answer is yes, we lose everything. The cross needs the empty tomb. Both are absolutely essential for forgiveness, salvation, and victory. But why? Many can answer that when it comes to Christ’s death but are less clear on the role of the resurrection. I want to briefly mention one way (of many) Scripture speaks about the resurrection.
Why Jesus Had to be Justified
The main idea I want to turn the spotlight on is that the resurrection’s significance for us rests in the fact that Christ himself was actually vindicated, or justified, at the resurrection. Similar to how the Christian moves from being condemned to justified so too does Jesus himself as the second Adam move from condemnation at the cross to justified at the resurrection. He was both “delivered up for our trespasses” as well as “raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25).
Christ’s role as the second Adam who stands on behalf of his people is essential to grasping this concept. Although Jesus was in himself perfectly righteous, as the second Adam he takes our sin upon himself and bears the just penalty for it. 2 Corinthians 5:21 states “For our sake he [God] made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin.” Our sin was (temporarily) imputed onto Christ. He bore it for us, and all the judicial consequences it carried.
In Galatians 3:13 Paul states it another way by saying Christ became a curse for us. Jesus kept the law so we know he was not under the curse of the law because of any personal sin or guilt. Rather, as the one on Golgotha’s hill who takes our sin upon himself he falls under the law’s curse. It’s because of us but also for us.
Part of the “Romans road” meant to show people the consequences of sin states “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Wages are the fair and appropriate payment earned. The Romans equation tells us sin brings the just verdict of condemnation, which must legally be punished with death.
This universal principle applies to Jesus. Since he takes our sin on himself, he stands legally condemned before God. His death is considered by God, the just and righteous judge, as the punishment and payment for sin (i.e. wages). This is what it means to be under the curse of the law. It is to stand condemned before God with death hovering over us as the penalty. Just as the first Adam’s sin brought condemnation carrying death, so also the second Adam’s death is proof of his legal condemnation before God because of sin (cf. Rom 5:12-21, 8:3).
We should understand Jesus’ death as nothing less than the legal punishment due to his condemnation before God, not because of sin committed by him but because of sin committed by us. As our representative and mediator, he takes on our punishment by taking our place through death.
To remain in the grave would mean to be conquered by death, with the verdict of condemnation still reigning over him (and us). This implies when Jesus’s body rests in the tomb on Saturday, at that point in time redemption was not yet fully accomplished. Something else was necessary. All Creation waited on the edge of their seats for the somber silence of Saturday to be interrupted by the triumphant victory shout of Sunday.
“In becoming identified with his people Christ was made sin (II Cor. 5:21)…The direct relevance of the resurrection on this guilt-bearing of the second Adam resides for Paul in the character of Christ’s death as the penalty and seal of the condemnation he bore. As long as he remained in a state of death, the righteous character of his work, the efficacy of his obedience unto death remained in question, in fact, was implicitly denied.”
The Cross Is Not the End Of The Story
The gospel proclaims Christ did not remain under the dark pall of death forever. On Sunday morning, the day we celebrate each week and on Easter, Jesus arose. As he kicked down the door of death, he conquered the grave, accomplished victory, vanquished his Enemy, reversed the curse of sin, and sealed the deal of salvation for all those who are his. He was justified. The resurrection vindicates Jesus and validates all Christ accomplished at the cross.
His resurrection ties into what we’ve been seen when it comes to the judicial relationship between sin, condemnation, and death on one side, and righteousness, justification, and life on the other side. Jesus rises as the second Adam who is “raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). He died paying the penalty of our sin and his death demonstrated his condemnation, but his resurrection demonstrates he now stands declared righteous by God and before God. “Consequently, the eradication of death in his resurrection is nothing less than the removal of the verdict of condemnation and the effective affirmation of his (adamic) righteousness.”
What all of this means is the resurrection isn’t simply proof of Christ’s deity and the efficacy of his atonement (though that is true), but even more so it also signifies that the resurrection in a sense completes the work of Christ. Jesus now stands as one who is vindicated and receives the just verdict of justified and its consequences or wages, namely life (Rom. 5:12-21).
“Christ’s resurrection was the de facto declaration of God in regard to his being just. His quickening bears in itself the testimony of his justification. God through suspending the forces of death operating on Him, declared that the ultimate, the supreme consequence of sin had reached its termination. In other words, resurrection had annulled the sentence of condemnation.”
Paul understood the significance of this when he wrote that “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). Easter commemorates our victory through Christ’s victory and validation.
As those united to Christ, if he were still dead we would with him still stand under the sentence of condemnation. Thankfully, that’s not the situation, “but in fact Christ has been raised from the dead” (1 Cor. 15:20). Jesus stands victorious over death because he exhausted the penalty of sin in his own death, and as those united to him by faith we share in his justification through the resurrection. Just as Christ is reckoned condemned because he bears our sin so also in him we are justified because we receive his righteous status (2 Cor. 5:21).
A Reason to Celebrate
The resurrection of Jesus should be understood as part of a just and merciful God’s way of providing an appropriate solution to our sin problem. Christ takes our sin and condemnation when he dies on the cross, but he rises from the grave and stands as the righteous one who offers to us justification by being united to him through faith. We marvel at and embrace both the cross and the resurrection together as Christ’s accomplishment for us and rejoice that “death is swallowed up in victory.”
Being a Christian does not mean we memorialize our fallen hero whose whole story was he gave his life at the cross. It means we follow a redeemer who gave his life, then put death in its place through his resurrection, and now reigns from heaven as a living person. Through the second Adam, sin has been dealt with and we have been given the righteousness of God. “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Cor. 15:55-57).
Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Resurrection and Redemption(Phillipsburg: P&R Press, 1987). Much of what I will say is developed from Richard Gaffin’s Resurrection and Redemption.
Gaffin, Resurrection, 121-22.
Gaffin, Resurrection, 122.
Geerhardus Vos, The Pauline Eschatology (Princeton University Press, 1930), 151. Quoted in Gaffin, Resurrection, 122.
*Image taken in Nice, France.