Must we believe in the resurrection of Christ?
Can you be a Christian and not believe in the resurrection of Christ? Throughout the years, there have always been those who answer this question in the affirmative. They say that belief in things like the Virgin Birth of Christ, his miraculous ministry, and his resurrection from the dead all belong to a former age for superstitious people. We who belong to this advanced scientific age, it is said, are above such primitive views.
In the place of supernatural Christianity, at least for a significant segment of our society, has been put what has come to be known today as moral therapeutic deism (MTD), a term introduced by Christian Smith and Melinda Denton in their book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (2005). This is a loose set of beliefs that can basically be summarized by the following principles: (1) A God exists who created everything and watches over people on the earth. (2) God wants everyone to be nice, fair, and good to each other as taught by most world religions. (3) The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself. (4) God doesn’t really need to be involved in our lives unless we need him to resolve a particular problem. (5) Good people go to heaven when they die.
If that is your worldview, then I admit that there is little need for a resurrected Messiah. In fact, there is little need for a Savior who had to become incarnate, live a perfect life, and die a sacrificial, substitutionary death for sinners who are under the shadow of God’s wrath and judgment. This is because missing in MTD is the reality of sin and the consequences it brings, condemnation before a holy God resulting in physical and spiritual death, and therefore missing is the need for a Savior who delivers us from these awful realities.
The reason for this hole in MTD and the difference between the Biblical gospel and MTD is what each perspective puts at the center of reality. MTD puts man and his happiness at the center of the universe. The Bible puts God there. MTD makes God the servant of man. The Bible makes man the servant of God. MTD creates God in man’s image. In the Bible, man is created in God’s image. In other words, MTD follows the path Paul describes in Romans 1 as traveled by fallen humanity: we exchange the Creator for the creature. And when the creature becomes sovereign, there is no longer a need for a Redeemer to save us from ourselves. What is wanted, instead, is a God who pampers man and caters to his fallen desires.
One of the tragic problems with this worldview, even though it puts man’s wishes at the center, and claims to be in pursuit of human happiness, is that it can never attain what it purports to achieve. As Christians, we know that this is because true happiness and fulfillment do not necessarily come when we get what we want. True happiness and fulfillment come when we die to ourselves and embrace the Triune God as the center of our affections and life. Martyn Lloyd-Jones put it well in his commentary on the fourth Beatitude: we run into problems when we seek to be satisfied apart from hungering and thirsting after righteousness.
In his book, When Harry Became Sally, Ryan Anderson gives an incredibly sad example of the folly of thinking that a self-centered life when end in happiness. He relates the story of Andrea Chu as told in an op-ed of the New York Times. Chu is an example of a man who suffers from gender dysphoria and is attempting through surgery to “become” a woman. However, the whole point of the article is Chu’s acknowledgment that seeking “gender reassignment” won’t bring happiness. Chu writes, “I still want this, all of it. I want the tears; I want the pain. Transition doesn’t have to make me happy if I want it. Left to their own devices, people will rarely pursue what makes them feel good in the long term. Desire and happiness are independent agents.” In other words, Chu acknowledges that this radical pursuit of man-centered self-sovereignty will not necessarily lead to happiness. Yet such is his commitment to self-sovereignty that he will ditch the happiness if that is the cost of living according to the counsel of his own will. I applaud the honesty while at the same time am heartbroken over the suicidal pursuit of godlessness. It reminds me of the story of an ancient king who was warned by his physicians that if he didn’t break off his debauched life-style, he would lose his eye-sight. To which he responded, “Then farewell, sweet sight!”
The fact of the matter is that we don’t need to “find ourselves” or to be validated in some sought-after identity. We need to be redeemed, body and soul. We cannot find true life and happiness in this world apart from Christ because every part of this world is fallen, including ourselves and our desires. We need to be redeemed from this word and its present fallen order.
That is why the resurrection is so important. The resurrection, if it is anything, is the demonstration that Christ has defeated sin and the death that it brings. The fact of the matter is that we cannot be Christian apart from the resurrection because there is no salvation without it. The literal, historical resurrection of Jesus must insisted upon for without it there is no gospel of grace, there is no justification, and there is no hope of a future bodily resurrection of own. Let’s consider each of these things in that order.
Apart from the resurrection of Jesus, there is no gospel of grace.
What do I mean by this? The gospel of grace is the good news that we can be saved apart from any works of our own. This is why it is of grace – grace being a free gift and not dependent upon my merit or in reward for something I have done. But if it is true that I am not saved by my works, then I must be saved by the works of another, for salvation does not happen without someone doing something. Either a drowning man will be saved because he rescued himself by swimming to shore, or he is saved because someone else jumped in and carried him to shore. We are drowning and cannot rescue ourselves, so we must carried to the shore by the efforts of someone besides ourselves.
This is why we must insist upon the gospel as being a record of what God has done in human history. This is offensive to modern man, not because it is impossible, but because it makes God our Savior and fallen man wants to be his own savior. But the offense of the gospel is also its glory. To leave us to save ourselves is to leave us to drown in our own misery and sin and death. Make man the savior and there is no good news left. It is only when God invades human history to rescue us that we can be saved.
And let’s be clear: God did not invade history to show us how to be better people. He didn’t come primarily to be a good example. He came to do what we couldn’t: pay the infinite debt we owe to God because of our rebellion and defeat the powers of sin and death (Rom. 8:3). And the resurrection is a necessary part of the saving action of God in the person of his Son Jesus. Without resurrection, there is no defeat of death. The cross cannot be separated from the empty tomb. There is no redemption apart from the resurrection. This is why Paul would say, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11).
The grace of God is demonstrated primarily in history before it affects our hearts, and the latter is dependent upon the former. The Spirit, who regenerates us and gives us new life, does so as the Spirit of Christ, and because of what he accomplished on the cross and in rising from the dead. This is why, every time the resurrection of Jesus is denied, Christianity just becomes another system of morality, and not a very good one at that.
Without the resurrection of Jesus, there is no justification.
In verse 10, Paul writes, “But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” What is this righteousness that the apostle is speaking of here? Is it our righteousness (cf. 8:4), or is the righteousness of God in Christ? I think it is the latter for the simple reason that here righteousness is the reason we will conquer death in everlasting life, in contrast with the sin that brings death. The apostle is saying that sin leads to death, and righteousness leads to life. But in the apostle’s thinking, this is not because we are righteous, but because Christ has been righteous for us: “For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:17).
This righteousness is not simply God’s saving action on our behalf (though it is not less than that), but it is righteousness that is imputed to us on the basis of what Christ has done for us (Rom. 4:6, 11). And it is this imputed righteousness that becomes the basis of our justification, the pronouncement that we are righteous in the eyes of God. This is no legal fiction but rests upon a real status of righteousness given to us in Christ. As our redeemer, Christ did not live his perfect life and die his sacrificial death for himself, but for others. He lived and died as a representative of all who have been given to him by the Father. Therefore, his righteousness is justly imputed to them and they are justified.
It is important, however, that we see how the resurrection is necessary for this. Without resurrection, there is no righteousness, because without resurrection there is no forgiveness of sins. For if Christ had not risen from the dead, this would have meant that his sacrifice had not been enough. It would have meant that Christ had not defeated sin and death. “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). This is why the apostle writes, “But the words, ‘It was counted to him’ were not written for his [Abraham’s] sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:23-25).
Thus, our resurrection life depends upon imputed righteousness which brings justification. And this, in turn, depends upon the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
Without the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, there is no hope of a future bodily resurrection.
This is Paul’s argument in 1 Cor. 15. But it is also his argument here. Note the logic of verse 11: it is only as we are indwelt by the Spirit that we will experience future resurrection. But the Spirit does this by virtue of the fact that he raised Christ from the dead. Why does Paul say that? I don’t think Paul is saying, “Look, the fact that the Spirit raised Christ from the dead means he can raise you from the dead.” Rather, what he is saying is that because we are united to Christ, and the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, then our being united to Jesus means that he will raise us also. As Paul puts it in verse 10, it is because “Christ is in you” that “the Spirit is life because of righteousness.”
In other words, our future, bodily resurrection depends completely upon the fact that Jesus rose from the dead. This is why Paul calls our Lord the firstfruits of those who have died (1 Cor. 15:20). He is not only the first of many, but just as you cannot have a harvest without firstfruits, you cannot have resurrection without Christ being risen from the dead. It is his life from the dead that secures our life from the dead.
But why should we even want a resurrection of the body? There are a lot of religions both ancient and modern that claim we should actually want to be freed from the body. Like the characters in the Star Wars movies, we are told that you should want to be absorbed into some impersonal “force.” In fact, in the first century, this was one of the biggest stumbling blocks to the Christian message: many people just weren’t interested in any future bodily resurrection; in fact, it was repugnant (cf. Acts 17:32; 1 Cor. 1:23).
The Biblical answer to this question is that we are incomplete without a body. Nowhere does the Bible teach that our spirits need to be freed from the physical. In fact, it is the separation of soul and body in death that is clearest sign that things are not right. Physical death is the result of sin, and therefore to be saved from sin is to be saved from this rending of the spirit from the body.
Thus, Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Cor. 5:1). The “tent” here is our earthly body. It will be destroyed, but Paul’s hope was that there is another building from God that will replace this current tent. And we should not think that this “building” is any the less substantial or physical than the “tent” that will be destroyed. When we are raised from the dead, our resurrection bodies, in continuity with our present bodies, will be genuine physical bodies. He goes on: “For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked” (2-3). In saying that he did not want to “be found naked,” Paul was saying that it was not existence as a disembodied soul that he desired. Rather, “For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened – not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up in life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee” (4-5). Paul’s longing and hope was to be raised from the dead, not as a disembodied, unclothed, naked soul, but as an embodied, clothed soul, made new through Christ, swallowed up in life.
This was the hope of the early church and it should be our hope as well: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phil. 3:21).
You must believe in the resurrection but it’s not enough to believe in the resurrection.
Grace – justification – resurrection, all hinge upon the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and are secured for all who believe on him for grace, justification, and resurrection. I’ve been insisting that we must believe in the resurrection to be authentically Christian. But it must with equal force be emphasized that believing that Jesus rose from the dead doesn’t mean that you are saved. The devils believe and tremble. The noted Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide – who is not a Christian – is convinced that Jesus rose from the dead. But he does not believe the Jesus was the Messiah. He doesn’t trust in Jesus as his Savior, though compelled by the evidence to admit his resurrection.
Now he claims that the reason why he doesn’t believe in Jesus as Messiah is because Jesus didn’t usher in the final age, the Final Judgment, and the restoration of Israel. I’m sure he would say that this is because of the way he reads the OT. But given the fact that Judaism puts repentance in the place of sacrifice, and thus creates a religion where salvation is based on works, surely one of the reasons he can affirm the resurrection without faith in Jesus as his Savior is because he doesn’t see his need for redemption from sin. He doesn’t see that in order for the restoration of this world to take place, sin must be dealt with, not only on the level of repentance, but more fundamentally on the level of propitiation and atonement. And that can only happen if there has been an atonement for sin. But atonement for sin cannot happen apart from a Savior who has conquered death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel (cf. 2 Tim. 1:10)
The resurrection is often given as evidence that Jesus was who he said he was, namely the Son of God. And I think that is right. But resurrection not only proves the claims of Jesus, it also points in the direction that what happened on the cross was more than martyrdom. God does not need to come down to suffer with us or show us the way. But in order for our sin to be atoned for – this is only something that the incarnate God can do. In the resurrection we have both the proof that Jesus is the Son of God, and we have proof that sin has been atoned for, and therefore that forgiveness is available for all who will embrace Jesus as their Savior and Lord.
But you must see your need for atonement. You must see that you need a Savior from sin, before the death and resurrection of Christ will be meaningful to you. Do you? Do you not see that sin against God is infinitely heinous? And that this applies to the least sin as well as to the greatest? Remember that God does not just see our ways, he also sees our hearts, our affections and our idolatries. He sees that we have loved other things rather than him and that we have chosen to serve ourselves rather than to submit to his good and rightful authority over us. Every day we repeat the sin of Adam and Eve. And this is why we need the Second Adam, Jesus Christ, to meet the demands of God’s holy law in our stead, by living the perfect life and then giving his life a perfect atonement for sin. May God draw you to himself in faith and trust upon his Son, our Lord and Risen Savior, Jesus Christ.
 Quoted in When Harry Became Sally, by Ryan Anderson [Kindle Version], p.xiv.
 I haven’t read his book The Resurrection of Jesus: a Jewish Perspective; but this observation is made by Michael Horton in his book, Justification, Vol. 2, page 257, footnote 1.
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