Growing up in a typical Southern Baptist church, I was taught from a very early age that Jesus died to take the penalty for my sins so that I would not have to face that penalty, and thus God could uphold his righteous opposition to sin even while forgiving me for my sins. This doctrine, known as “penal substitution” (because Jesus bore my penalty as a substitute in my place) was standard teaching among evangelicals when I was young.
And this teaching is entirely right and biblical, as I have argued here. One problem area that remains for many evangelicals, however, is harmonizing the resurrection of Jesus with this understanding of his death. If the death of Christ on the cross has put away my sins, then what does the resurrection actually accomplish? Wouldn’t the death of Jesus have been sufficient all on its own? Does not good Friday make Easter Sunday little more than an extra bonus?
It is my contention that any view of the cross that renders the resurrection superfluous is an unbiblical view, for it is clear from Scripture that our salvation is tied just as much to the empty tomb as it is to the cross. Without the resurrection, the gospel is meaningless. Without the resurrection, we are still in our sins (1 Corinthians 15:17). Without the resurrection, the death of Christ on the cross does not take away sins, which is the key to understanding the cross in the first place. How can we fit all of these concepts together?
Our churches must recover a biblical understanding of the meaning of death. Death is divine condemnation for sin (Genesis 2:16-17). It is a legal penalty decreed and enforced by God. The universal reality of death testifies to the universal reality of our guilt before God (see Romans 5:12-19).
And Jesus came as a sinless one who died. He did not die for his own sins but for ours. He came under the condemning sentence of the law in death, falling under the curse of God as he hung on the tree (Galatians 3:10-14). Jesus died under condemnation, even though he never committed a single crime in his life.
So here’s the key: if Jesus had remained dead, he would have remained condemned before God. If Jesus had remained in the tomb, he would have remained under the divine curse. And if the divine curse has the final word, we cannot be saved. We need a Savior who has been justified, declared righteous before God. Only in union with such a Savior can we who are guilty receive the imputation of righteousness to ourselves and so inherit eternal life. If we are united to a dead Savior, we are united to a condemned Savior, and thus we are destined to receive the same condemnation that he received. But if we are united to the one who was raised from the dead, justified before the divine court as God’s obedient Son, we stand to inherit the same life he has received.
Far too many Christian funerals these days speak of the death of a Christian believer as his or her ultimate hope. To be sure, there is hope for the Christian in death. We have hope that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8). But this hope is only for an intermediate stopping point on the way to resurrection. Our ultimate hope is not that we will die, “fly away” to Heaven and leave our bodies to rot under the curse of death forever. Our ultimate hope is that we too will come out of our graves, publicly vindicated as those whom God has declared righteous by virtue of our union with Christ by faith.
Without the resurrection, there is no forgiveness of sins. There is no hope of eternal life. There is no gospel at all. “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). Happy Easter!