Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Why the Resurrection?

My reflections on the cross and my response to Giles Fraser’s Church Times article attacking penal substitution generated a bit of interest in the blogosphere. I had a brief, but fairly unfruitful, exchange with Giles himself on Thinking Anglicans (a rare foray for me, these days), and on the Fulcrum forums it started an entire thread.

Unfortunately, the Fulcrum thread is headed ‘Cross vs Resurrection’, which is, of course, slightly mad, but does reflect the tenor of the discussion, just as Giles Fraser accuses believers in penal substitution of having no rôle for the resurrection in salvation, as if it were a matter of ‘either/or’.

Incidentally, as Alexander Kalorimos points out in the essay quoted by Giles Fraser, the notion of the penal death of Christ is the core Western tradition of both Catholics and Protestants, not some peculiarly ‘evangelical’ — much less ‘Conservative Evangelical’ — view. As the Anglican Prayer Book has it, Christ made on the cross a “full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world,” and in the 39 Articles we read that Christ “truly suffered, was crucified, dead and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for all actual sins of men.” Hence also it is news when a Roman Catholic bishop says that “Christ did not die for the sins of the people”.

That notwithstanding, it is true, as Tom Wright has observed in Surprised by Hope, that this tradition has often failed to incorporate the resurrection adequately into its theological perspective. The words, “There’s a home for little children, above the bright blue sky, where Jesus reigns in glory, a home of peace and joy,” may have addressed the felt needs of a generation where infant mortality was commonplace, but they reflect a popular, rather than biblical, understanding of the Christian message.

But what part, if any, does the resurrection play in our salvation? In what follows, I am conscious of going out on a limb. Those who generally like what I write are invited to read it with discernment. Those who do not will need no such urging.

The first recorded proclamation we have of Christ’s resurrection is Peter’s speech to the crowd in Acts 2,

This man [Jesus of Nazareth] was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. (Acts 2:23-24)

The first point to note is that the resurrection is presented here, as elsewhere in Scripture, as an act of God on Christ (“God raised this Jesus to life,” v 32). It is something done to Jesus, not by Jesus.

The ‘saving work’ of Jesus in relation to the resurrection is therefore, I would suggest, an expression of his humanity through waiting in obedient and passive trust on his Heavenly Father.

Thus Peter quoted David’s attitude to death as prophetic of Christ:

... my body also will live in hope, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence. (2:26b-28)

The second point to note from Peter’s speech is that the resurrection (and accompanying ascension) are declarative acts. They represent God’s ‘not guilty’ verdict on Christ’s condemnation, and God’s own testimony that “This is my beloved Son” (cf 2:30):

For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said, ‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.”’ Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ. (2:34-36)

The ‘shock value’ of the resurrection, as I have suggested previously, was not that God raises the dead but that God raised “this Jesus”, making him Lord and Messiah.

The second point I would make, then, is that the resurrection actually functions to throw us back on the crucifixion, confronting us with the scandal of the cross as both the work of “wicked men” and “God’s set purpose” (2:23).

But there is (I think) more, and it is not (I suggest) the obvious point that God’s future for the world is ‘resurrection shaped’ in terms of being a transformed ‘new heavens and new earth’, rather than a place ‘beyond the blue’. That hope, as I have observed earlier, was already part of the faith of Israel by this time. There was nothing remarkable in the idea that God raised the dead (Acts 26:8), or in the idea that God’s kingdom and the general resurrection would coincide (cf Jn 11:24).

The key, I think, lies in Romans 6:9,

For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him.

However, this is actually not self-evidently true unless one understands the nature of the resurrection. Lazarus, after all, was raised from the dead (and was truly dead!), yet he died again. Why should Christ be any different? The answer Paul gives is not that Christ is Christ, but that Christ has been raised. But what does this mean, and how does it differ from the raising of Lazarus, or Jairus’s daughter, or Dorcas? The answer, I suggest, lies in vv 6-7:

For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin — because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.

The sinner who dies has been, as Paul puts it “justified from” (NIV etc, “freed from”) sin. Dying is the outcome of “sin unto death” (6:16), and the sinner who dies has suffered the just penalty for sin. In that sense, their slate is ‘clean’. But if they remain a sinner in death, then re-animation is no help. It helps to remember that we are not ‘souls in bodies’ but ‘embodied persons’. Resuscitated sinners would thus be back in the same realm of sin because they would be back as the same sinful people.

There is, however, the possibility of truly breaking the cycle, and we see it in Christ himself when we consider the course of his whole pilgrimage. For as Hebrews puts it,

... we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are — yet was without sin. (Heb 4:15)

The picture this presents of Christ is outwardly familiar: he was tempted (specifically in the wilderness, but right through his earthly life), yet unlike us (and Adam) he did not sin. But there are two important questions this raises: was Christ capable of sin, and is he still open to temptation? Both are fundamental, and I suggest the answer to the first is yes, and the answer to the second is no.

If Christ was incapable of sin he was not tempted ‘as we are’. Similarly, his resistance to sin was, I take it, a real resistance, not a mere indifference, and therefore he was not ‘faking it’ in being tempted but ‘going through it’. (This itself has something to do with the Cur Deus Homo issue, and is also something he did ‘for us and for our salvation’.)

However, if he is still open to temptation then the life of the godhead is not what we have been led to believe, and there is the potential for corruption within God himself (contra James 1:13). To entertain this possibility would be to undermine the entire basis of our theology. But equally, we are taught that this freedom from temptation is not because Christ has left behind an assumed humanity. On the contrary,

Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again his body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of Man’s nature; wherefore he ascended into heaven, and there sitteth ... (Article VII)

This may seem odd to those who have not considered it before, but it essential to our salvation, for it means that human nature can be subsumed into God’s nature. Christ’s pilgrimage is thus the pilgrimage God intends for all humanity: that though we may be capable of sin (and unlike Christ, have sinned), we will one day no longer be open to temptation, and in that day will cease to sin.

My third point, then is that resurrection is not about ‘getting a new body’ but about ‘being a new creation’, whose embodiment is necessarily different from our present embodiment in this creation, where we remain simul justus et peccator — both righteous and sinners.

God’s resurrection of Christ is the outcome and expression of his ‘perfection’ as the term is used in Hebrews:

In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. (2:10)

This does not mean that Christ was ever imperfect in the sense of being ‘faulty’, but it does mean that until he had suffered Christ was not all that he was to become. After he had suffered, however, he could move on to the final stage of his pilgrimage. In biblical-theological terms, his resurrection (and ascension) is his entering into the Sabbath rest:

After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. (Heb 1:3)

And we are called to persevere until we also enter that rest:

There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience. [...] Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.(4:10-11, 14)

Similarly, then, for us, resurrection is our reception into Sabbath rest. The cross obtains the forgiveness of our sins, without which we would face only the punishment of being driven from God’s presence and deprived of life, as mankind has been since the Fall (Gen 3:22-24). Yet forgiveness is not all that God has in store for us, and should not be all that we hope for ourselves:

For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?

The answer is that God will, through Jesus Christ our Lord who died for our sins and was raised to life by him for our justification (Rom 4:25) — our being brought finally and fully into our right relationship with God.

Revd John P Richardson
29 April 2009

PS: I am conscious of glaring gaps and problems in relation to what I have said above. One is the nature of the resurrection of the wicked! However, it has taken several hours to write this and I offer it for comment from those willing to engage with it.

When posting your comments please give a full name and location. Comments without this information may not be posted.


  1. John,
    Thank you for a superb post.
    Reading it led me to Ephesians 1 and 2 where Paul speaks of the effects of salvation (being raised up to sit with Christ in the heavenly places; being made one people through barriers broken down by the cross; etc). This may be too cursory an observation but it seems in these chapters that Paul emphasises the resurrection when talking about (say) our upward movement to become a transformed people united with Christ, and the cross when talking about (say) breaking the power of sin. I have no doubt that Paul does not divide cross-and-resurrection into two distinct events. Yet he clearly feels free to emphasise one in relation to one matter in soteriology and the other in relation to another.
    In short: Western theology emphasising the cross is following good precedent, but not if it fails to also emphasise the resurrection!

  2. Thank you John - this has clarified some of my thinking as I turn once more to put pen to paper and craft a defense of penal substitution in the face of contemporary criticism (college essay).

  3. The upcoming lessons here are "Good Shepherd Sunday", with John 10:11-18 as the Gospel.

    Resurrection is the validation of Jesus' sacrifice - "The Father loves me - I have power to lay down my life and power to take it up again."

    The cross establishes the "goodness" of THE Shepherd. "I lay down my life" comes up five times in that short passage - an emphatic exclamation point if not a downright FLAMING PROCLAMATION OF THE CROSS.

    The Epistle from the First Letter of John says that "because he laid down his life for us, we should do the same for one another." John gives the application of putting whatever we have at the disposal of those in need. He is very close to Paul in Romans 12, where the call to be "living sacrifices" is lived out by using our gifts to the good of the whole church.

    I Peter 2:24-25 (the Good Shepherd Sunday Epistle in the PECUSA 1928 BCP) also defines the Good Shepherd with the cross - because he died on the cross when we (like sheep) had gone astray, we can come to him and be made new in his righteousness.

    We can come to the one who laid down his life for us and find our lives conformed to his. As we "abide" in him, we share the hope of resurrection life that he alone has taken up and has power to bestow.

  4. Sorry, forgot to give name and place on the last post,

    Timothy Fountain
    Sioux Falls, South Dakota, USA

  5. What a blessing for me to read your commentary!

    I reached it via a link from
    [which I had just stumbled upon].

    Chab Guthrie, Findlay, Ohio, U.S.A.