Read: Ephesians 2:1-10
I want this Easter evening to think with you about the resurrection of the Lord Jesus as a part of our salvation. The question is: what role does the resurrection play in our salvation? We know what the cross achieved. Christ bore our punishment in our place and satisfied God’s wrath on our behalf. He removed our guilt by bearing its penalty in our stead. Guilt is liability to punishment and Christ bore our punishment so that we would not have to. That is clear. But what does the resurrection on the third day contribute to our salvation? I have, in fact, taken my sermon title from a famous lecture of J.I. Packer entitled What Did the Cross Achieve? In that lecture Dr. Packer provided a scintillating defense of the biblical doctrine of penal substitution: that Christ on the cross suffered the punishment of our sin in our place. He satisfied divine justice on our behalf so that a holy and just God might deal with us as righteous and not as the sinners we are in ourselves. But if that is what the cross achieved, what did the resurrection achieve? It is not an altogether simple question to answer. The Bible certainly never speaks as clearly or at such length about the role of Christ’s resurrection in our salvation as it does about the role of the cross. In all of the Bible, in regard to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus there is nothing quite like Isaiah 53, the text we considered last Lord’s Day evening.
Now, to be sure, there are some very obvious effects or fruits of the resurrection of our Savior that the Bible draws attention to. 1) It has an evidentiary value, of course. It proves certain things. The resurrection demonstrated the identity of Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior of the world. Paul says that Jesus was “declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead.” [Rom. 1:4] The apostles emphasized the resurrection in their preaching at least in part because it was the unassailable demonstration that Jesus Christ was everything he claimed to be and that eternal life was to be found in him. Clearly the resurrection proves that God was pleased with his Son. The resurrection vindicated the Lord on the cross and proved that the Lamb of God had taken away the sin of the world. In 1 Cor. 15 we are taught that the resurrection of Christ is the proof of the existence of the world and life to come and serves as a pattern of our own resurrection at the end of the age. Jesus had made the same point, by anticipation, at the tomb of Lazarus. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he said, “whoever believes in me will live, even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” [John 11:25-26]
2) The resurrection is also a demonstration of the reality of eternity and of the eternal issues of human life. You remember Jesus’ parable about the foolish rich man who, in a desire to be richer still, decided to tear down his barns and build bigger ones to hold his bumper crops, but did not realize that that very night his life would be demanded of him. The resurrection of the Lord Jesus is proof positive that, as has often been said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” It is the fool who tries to have his heaven here in this world; it is the wise person who views life in this world rather as preparation for the life to come. Time is short, eternity is long and the resurrection is the proof that there is such a thing as eternity: existence on the other side of death. The resurrection is the demonstration that Christians are wise to endure any manner of difficulties here in this life so as to secure a place in the life to come. As Paul famously says, were there no resurrection – and had Jesus not been raised we could have no expectation of our own resurrection – there is nothing left but to eat, drink, and be merry in the prospect of the inexorable approach of death. But, because of the resurrection, as Paul says at the end of 1 Cor. 15, we know that our labor in the Lord is not in vain.
3) The apostles preached Jesus and the resurrection also because the resurrection of Jesus is the embodiment of the gospel message itself: the promise of life after death, of renewed and perfected life in the world to come to all who believe in Jesus. [Acts 17:18] This is the sense of Peter’s beautiful statement in the opening of his first letter:
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade – kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.” [1:3-5]
In other words, that Jesus’ resurrection is a demonstration, an enacted prophecy, an anticipation of what awaits all believers when Christ comes again. We see our own future in Christ’s resurrection.
But in none of these ways does the resurrection of the Lord actually accomplish our salvation or part of it. Is it, after all, only proof, only demonstration, only embodiment, or is it a key part of salvation itself? Does it have a place next to the cross in the salvation of sinners? It is not a simple question and has resurfaced in our time as a point of some theological interest, even contention. Stop and think for a moment and you will see that forming an answer to our question – “What did the resurrection achieve?” – requires some sophisticated theological reasoning.
Take, for example, Paul’s deservedly famous argument in Romans 1-5, explaining, proving, and justifying his doctrine that sinners are made right before God through faith in Christ. Having demonstrated man’s need as a guilty sinner – the section that ends in 3:21 – Paul, in the next paragraph sets out the remedy. But in doing so in 3:21-26 Paul speaks of Christ’s atoning death, of his redemption, and of the propitiation accomplished by his death on the cross. He says nothing about the Lord’s resurrection. He says, in effect, that the answer to our sin is the cross of Christ, the Lord’s suffering and death in our place. But then, after all of that, and after a lengthy account of the place of faith in obtaining this righteousness from God, Paul concludes the section, in the final verse of chapter 4:
“He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our
What does he mean by bringing the resurrection in at that point, at the very end, having said nothing about it beforehand? And in what sense was our justification related to the Lord’s resurrection? Paul does not explain. In chapter 5 Paul will say again that we are reconciled to God through the death of his Son. But he also says in chapter 5 that having been reconciled to God through the death of his Son we are saved through his, that is Christ’s life.” It is not easy to know precisely what he means by that, but the remark seems to anticipate the argument he will make in chapter six about our having died and risen with Christ. More on that in a moment.
Peter also, in that very difficult argument in 1 Peter 3:18-22 – the one about preaching to the spirits in prison who disobeyed during the days of Noah – begins by saying that Christ died for sins, once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. That seems clear to us. Our salvation is accomplished by Christ on the cross. But later in the same paragraph, and with no explanation, Peter says that we are saved “by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
Galatians is a letter or a book of the New Testament that we all believe provides a very important account of the grounds and the way of salvation, but, though Paul does speak of Christ living in him, the words “resurrection,” “raise,” and “rise” do not appear anywhere in Galatians. Paul speaks very clearly about Christ bearing the curse of the Law in our place, but the fact that Jesus rose from the dead is not mentioned and the resurrection of Jesus is not part of Paul’s theological argument. The book ends with Paul’s famous peroration, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” He didn’t say, “God forbid that I should boast save in the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
It is facts like these in the presentation of salvation in the Bible and especially in the New Testament – this concentration on the cross more than on the empty tomb in its account of how sinners are saved and its scattered, brief, and enigmatic statements about the way the resurrection functions in salvation – that explain why you often find a comparative neglect of the resurrection in Christian preaching and spiritual writing.
I told you this morning of William Wilberforce. One of Wilberforce’s great achievements as a Christian was the book that he wrote, A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians, in the Higher and Middle Classes in this Country, Contrasted with Real Christianity. It doesn’t sound like a page-turner but, in fact, it became a runaway best seller. Before Wilberforce’s death in 1833 it had gone through 15 editions in Great Britain and 25 in the United States. It was translated into a number of other languages and was regarded as something of a manifesto of evangelical Christianity. It was, as the title indicates, an exposure of the nominal Christianity then so pervasive in English society by comparing it to biblical Christianity. The difference between the two systems, Wilberforce argued, lay in the differing conceptions of the gospel to be found in each. Nominal Christianity reduced the Christian faith to a system of morals, nothing more. There was in it no transforming love, no demonstration of divine power; it was an ethical system only. The foundational doctrines of the biblical gospel, on the other hand, are “the corruption of human nature, the atonement of the Savior, and the sanctifying influence of the Holy Spirit.” [Cited in Stott, The Incomparable Christ, 171] It is a great book and was deservedly influential. But consider this: I checked the index and then skimmed through my copy of Wilberforce’s great work and found repeated references to the atonement, to the Savior’s death on the cross for sin. I found, however, in what is a large book scarcely more than a single reference to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.
Wilberforce, as you may know, was greatly influenced toward a biblical faith by his study of Philip Doddridge’s masterpiece The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul. You find the same thing in Doddridge: many references to the Savior’s sacrifice and death, very few to his resurrection. In the case of both these books it is the cross that is thought to be the great motivating principle of the Christian life, our Savior’s self-sacrifice. And as both of these books are about what it means to live as a Christian, the cross is essential and the engine of love and the pattern of self-sacrifice, the two fundamental principles of the Christian life. The resurrection did not seem to these men to fit in to their argument in the same way.
So what are we to do with this: general statements that we are saved by the resurrection of Christ, but an unmistakable concentration – especially in summary explanations – on the death of Christ as the basis of our peace with God and hopes of heaven? For whatever one says about this, the comparative attention given to the cross and to the resurrection is such an obvious fact of biblical revelation that it has led countless Christians, however unwittingly, to think much more, talk much more, and write much more about the cross than about the Lord’s resurrection from the dead.
Now much of this may be accounted for by the fact that, as Calvin remarks, the death and the resurrection of the Lord are, in the New Testament, regarded as inseparable events; they belong together. So, when one is mentioned without the other, the other is invariably assumed. The resurrection assumes the cross and the cross the resurrection. Christ’s death is only what it is because it is followed by his resurrection. The resurrection is only what it is because it follows the cross. That is no doubt true. The cross would mean nothing without the resurrection and the resurrection would lose its special meaning if it were not the consummation of the Lord’s suffering and death for sin. There cannot be one without the other. They belong together in a single work of salvation. So every time we read of the cross, we are to understand that we are also reading about the resurrection. [Institutes, II, xvi, 13]
In a very fine passage, Calvin continues:
“For how could he by dying have freed us from death if he had himself succumbed to death? How could he have acquired victory for us if he had failed in the struggle? Therefore, we divide the substance of our salvation between Christ’s death and resurrection as follows: through his death, sin was wiped out and death extinguished; through his resurrection, righteousness was restored and life raised up, so that – thanks to his resurrection – his death manifested its power and efficacy in us.” [Ibid]
But something still more specific may be said. The NT does, after all, as we have seen, say that we are justified by the resurrection and saved by the resurrection. Certainly we are taught that the resurrection is part and parcel of Christ’s saving work. But how is it so?
In the text we read this evening, we come in vv. 4-6 to this:
“But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus…”
This is very like Paul’s account of things in Romans 6:1-14:
“…don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 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.
“If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.
“Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him…. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
In other words, because Christ was acting as our substitute, on our behalf, what he did for us, we did in him. We died in him and we rose in him because he died and rose again for us and on our behalf. Paul already said in chapter 5 of Romans that Jesus is a second Adam, acting on behalf of an entire race and holding their fates in his hand. As Thomas Goodwin, the English Puritan quaintly put it, “There are only two men standing before God and these two men [– Adam and Christ –] have all other men hanging from their belts.” In that sense, we went to the cross, we went into the tomb, and we came out again filled with eternal life. We did all of those things in Christ because he did them for us.
On the cross our guilt was destroyed; in the resurrection new life was granted. It is not victory to be a guiltless corpse! It is, however, victory indeed to be a sinner, now made a righteous man or woman with eternal life coursing through our soul and body. In this sense the resurrection is much more than simply the demonstration of things; it is, as the cross itself, the way we were saved. [Cf. Berkouwer, The Work of Christ, 189-193]
In these texts and others – especially Paul’s lengthy working out of the implications of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 – there is assumption that Christ’s resurrection and ours constitute a single reality. You can argue forward from his to ours, backward from ours to his. If the one did not happen, the other will not; because the one happened, the other must. There is an organic connection between the two that Christian theology explains under the rubric of union with Christ. We were united with Christ in what he did for us as our Savior in the first century and by faith we are united with Christ in his triumph over sin and death. We partake of his history, of his victory, and of his present life. So Paul can say
“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” [Gal. 2:20]
It is the fact and power and meaning of the resurrection that explain why the resurrection, perhaps even more than the cross, was the focus of the earliest preaching after Pentecost. They preached the resurrection we read in Acts. Paul preached the resurrection in Athens. For in the resurrection is the triumph over death for those who trust in Christ. And that surely is the most wonderful news that could ever be announced or proclaimed to a human being.
Is this the whole sad story of creation,
Told by its toiling millions o’er and o’er,
One glimpse of day, then black annihilation,
A sunlit journey to a sunless shore?
No. It is not. At least, it need not be! It is our joyful privilege to say:
I shall sleep sound in Jesus,
Fill’d with his likeness rise,
To live and to adore him,
To see him with these eyes.
‘Tween me and resurrection
But Paradise doth stand;
Then – then for glory dwelling
In Immanuel’s land.
We can say that because and only because Jesus rose from the dead!