Written by: Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.
Dr. Richard B. Gaffin is professor of biblical and systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia).
How is Christ’s resurrection essential for our salvation?
Surprisingly, this question has been relatively neglected in church history. The overriding concern, especially since the Reformation, has been to make clear that the death of Christ is not simply an ennobling example to be imitated but a substitutionary, expiatory sacrifice that reconciles God to sinners and propitiates his judicial wrath. In short, the salvation accomplished by Christ has become virtually synonymous with the atonement.
This concentration on the death of Christ has no doubt been necessary. But as a consequence the doctrinal or saving significance of his resurrection has been largely overlooked. All too frequently it has been considered exclusively as a stimulus and support for Christian faith (which it surely is) and in terms of its apologetic value, as the crowning evidence for Christ’s deity and the truth of Christianity in general.
When we turn to the New Testament, however, this doctrinal oversight proves particularly impoverishing, especially for the letters of Paul. They proclaim that Christ’s resurrection is inte-gral to the Gospel and essential for the accomplishment of our salvation!
Paul’s Resurrection Theology
The reality governing much of Paul’s teaching on the resurrection is expressed in 1 Corinthians 15:20 (cf. v. 23): Christ in his resurrection is “the firstfruits of those who are fallen asleep.” This description of Christ does more than indicate temporal priority or even preeminence. Commensurate with its Old Testament cultic background (e.g., Ex. 23:19; Lev. 23:9ff.), it conveys the idea of organic connection or unity. Christ is the “firstfruits” of the resurrection-“harvest” that includes believers (as v. 23 shows). Christ’s resurrection is the guarantee of the future bodily resurrection of believers, not simply as a bare sign, but as “the actual beginning of th[e] general epochal event” (Geerhardus Vos). The two resurrections, though separated in time, are not so much separate events as two episodes of the same event, the beginning and end of the one and same harvest. So, if present at a modern-day prophecy conference, and pressed as to when the bodily resurrection for believers will take place, the first thing Paul would likely say is, “it has already begun!”
The resurrection-harvest, then, is as an eschatological event. Christ’s resurrection is the dawn of the new creation (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:16), the arrival of the age to come (Rom. 12:2; Gal. 1:4). It is not an isolated past event, but, though it occurred in the past, it belongs to the future consummation, and from that future has entered history.
Christ as the “firstfruits” of resurrection highlights that the primary significance of his resurrection lies in what he and believers have in common, not in the profound difference between them. The resurrection is not so much a powerful proof of his divine nature as it is the powerful transformation of his human nature. According to Paul, Jesus did not “rise” but “was raised” from the dead (Rom. 4:25; 1 Cor. 15:20); stressing the creative power and action of the Father (e.g., Gal. 1:1), of which Christ is the recipient.
To find a conflict with statements like that of Jesus in John 10:18 (“I have authority to lay [my life] down and authority to take it up again”) is both superficial and unnecessary. The ancient creedal formulation adopted at Chalcedon (a.d. 451) proves helpful here: the two natures coexist hypostatically (in one person), without either confusion or separation; Jesus expresses what is true in terms of his deity, Paul what is no less true in terms of his humanity.
So far we have noted the bond between Christ’s resurrection and the future bodily resurrection of believers. But Paul also speaks of the Christian’s resurrection in the past tense: believers have already been raised with Christ (e.g., Eph. 2:5-6; Col. 2:12-13; 3:1). As Ephesians 2:1-10 clearly shows, this past resurrection is an experience at the beginning of the Christian life, that is no less real (and we might add, no less irrevocable) than the bodily resurrection will be. It effects a radical, 180-degree reversal in “walk” or conduct. The people who actually walked in the deadness of sin (vv. 1, 5) now actually walk in the good works of new creation existence in Christ (v. 10).
To sum up Paul’s resurrection theology: An unbreakable bond or unity exists between Christ and Christians in the experience of resurrection. This bond has two components–one that has already taken place, at the beginning of Christian life when the sinner is united to Christ by faith, and one that is still future, at Christ’s return. In terms of a distinction Paul himself makes (2 Cor. 4:16), so far as believers are “outer man,” that is, in terms of the body, they are yet to be raised; so far as they are “inner man,” at the core of their beings, they are already raised.
The Christological Implications
What concerns Christ (Christology) and what concerns Christians/the Church (soteriology and ecclesiology) are the two major, yet interrelated strands of this teaching. Respecting Christ, perhaps most striking is the working relationship between Christ and the Holy Spirit that results from the resurrection. Paul captures that relationship in 1 Corinthians 15:45 by saying, of Christ, that in his resurrection (and ascension, vv. 47-49) “the last Adam became the life-giving Spirit.” Consequently, speaking specifically of Christ as exalted, “the Lord is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:17). In view in such passages are: 1) Christ’s own climactic transformation by the Spirit, and, along with that transformation, 2) his unique and unprecedented reception of the Spirit.
Paul affirms what has not always been adequately recognized in the Church’s Christology: the momentously transforming significance of the exaltation for Christ personally. In his resurrection something really happened to Jesus. As Paul puts it elsewhere (Rom. 1:4), by the declarative energy of the Holy Spirit in his resurrection, God’s eternal (v. 3a) and now incarnate (v. 3b) Son has become what he was not previously, “the Son of God with power.” He now has a glorified human nature (2 Cor. 13:4).
But Christ does not receive his glorified humanity merely for himself but for the sake of the Church. In the language of Romans 8:29, the resurrection makes him the image to which believers are predestined to be conformed, so that he, the Son, might be “firstborn among many brothers.” Specifically the exalted Christ is that image into which Christians are even now already being transformed (2 Cor. 3:18) and which they will one day bear bodily in their future resurrection at his return (1 Cor. 15:49).
Likewise, Christ was raised “for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). The resurrection vindicates Jesus in his perfect “obedience unto death” (Phil. 2:8-9). It reveals that he embodies the perfect righteousness that avails before God. In that sense his resurrection is his justification and so, by imputation, through union with him by faith, our justification. Without the resurrection, along with his death, there would be no justification of the ungodly (Rom. 4:5): our faith would be futile and we would still be in our sins (1 Cor. 15:17).
The resurrection-transformation of Christ by the Spirit also results in a climactic intimacy, a new and permanent oneness between them that surpasses what previously existed. Previously, to be sure, Christ and the Spirit were at work together among God’s people (e.g., 1 Cor. 10:3-4). But now, dating from his resurrection and ascension, their joint action is given its stable and consummate basis in the history of redemption, as the crowning consequence of the work of the incarnate Christ definitively accomplished in history. 1 Corinthians 15:45 is, in effect, a one-sentence commentary on the primary meaning of Pentecost: Christ is the receiver-giver of the Spirit. What Peter stresses in his Pentecost sermon (Acts 2:32-33) as inseparable once-for-all events–resurrection, ascension, reception of the Spirit, outpouring of the Spirit–Paul telescopes by saying, “the last Adam became the life-giving Spirit.”
It bears emphasizing that this oneness or unity, though certainly sweeping, is at the same time circumscribed in a specific respect; it concerns their activity, the activity of giving resurrection life (1 Cor. 15:45) and eschatological freedom (2 Cor. 3:17). In other words, the salvation-historical focus of Paul’s statement needs to be kept in view. Eternal, innertrinitarian relationships are quite outside his purview here. He is concerned not with who Christ is (timelessly), as the eternal Son, but what he “became” (1 Cor. 15:45), what has happened to him in history, and that specifically in his human identity. Paul could hardly have been more emphatic calling Jesus “the last Adam” and “the second man” (v. 47).
Consequently, it is completely gratuitous to find here and elsewhere in Paul, as some do, a “functional” Christology that obscures or even denies the personal distinction between Christ and the Spirit, thus conflicting with later Church formulation of trinitarian doctrine. The personal, parallel distinction between God (the Father), Christ as Lord, and the (Holy) Spirit–underlying subsequent doctrinal formulation–is clear enough elsewhere in Paul (e.g., 1 Cor. 12:4-6; 2 Cor. 13:13; Eph. 4:4-6).
Eschatology and the Work of the Sanctifying Spirit
The relationship between the exalted Christ and the Spirit is the cornerstone of Paul’s teaching on the Christian life and the work of the Holy Spirit. The presence of the Spirit is the presence of Christ (Rom. 8:9-10; Eph. 3:16-17). Life in the Spirit has its specific eschatological quality because it is the shared life of the resurrected Christ, in union with him. The radical edge of Paul’s outlook stresses that at the core of their being (“the inner man” or the “heart”), Christians will never be more resurrected than they already are! Christian existence across its full range is a manifestation and outworking of the resurrection life and power of Christ, the life-giving Spirit (Rom. 6:2ff.; Eph. 2:5-6; Col. 2:12-13; 3:1-4).
These considerations need underscoring because of a pervasive tendency throughout church history to “de-eschatologize” the Gospel and its implications, especially the work of the Holy Spirit. His present activity, characteristically, is viewed in a timeless or even mystical way, as what God is doing in the inner life of the Christian, detached from eschatological realities. By contrast, the New Testament claims that “eternal life” is “eternal” not because it is above or beyond history (ahistorical in some sense), but because it is eschatological. Specifically, it is the resurrection life that has been revealed, in Christ, at the end of history and, by the power of the Spirit, comes to us out of that consummation.
A side of the Reformation, it seems fair to suggest, still needs completing. Justification by faith alone, as the reformers came to understand and experience it, is an eschatological reality. A favorable, gracious verdict at the last judgment is not an anxious, uncertain hope (where they felt themselves to be left by Rome), but a present possession, the confident and stable basis of the Christian life.
But while the Reformation and its children have grasped, at least intuitively, the eschatological thrust of the Gospel for justification, that is not nearly the case for sanctification and the work of the Spirit. The tendency (at least in practice) has been to view justification, on the one hand, as what God does, once for all and perfectly; while sanctification, on the other hand, is what the believer does, out of gratitude though imperfectly.
No doubt, one motive at work in distinguishing justification from sanctification in this way is to safeguard the totally gracious character of justification. Certainly, too, we must guard against all notions of sinless perfection, never forgetting that “in this life even the holiest have only a small beginning” (Heidelberg Catechism, Answer 114).
But–and this is the point–that beginning, however small, is an eschatological beginning. It stands under the apostolic promise that “he who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6). Sanctification, no less than justification, is God’s work. In the New Testament there is no more basic perspective on sanctification and renewal than that expressed in Romans 6: it is a continual “living to God” (v. 11) of those who are “alive from the dead” (v. 13). Elsewhere, it is a matter of the “good works” of the eschatological new creation, for which the Church has already been “created in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:10). In their sanctification believers begin at the “top,” because they begin with Christ; in him they are those who are “perfect” (1 Cor. 2:6) and “spiritual” (v. 15), even when they have to be admonished as “carnal” (3:1, 3). The Church today needs to give more adequate attention to this eschatological dimension of sanctification and the present work of the Holy Spirit.
But, it might now be asked: Hasn’t the resurgent Pentecostal spirituality of recent decades seen and, in large measure, recaptured the eschatological aspect of the Spirit’s working and so compensated for the traditional neglect and shortcomings just noted?
Here just one brief observation to this large question will have to suffice. Spiritual gifts are undoubtedly important for the health of the Church. But, a current widespread misperception not-withstanding, the New Testament does not teach that such gifts, especially miraculous gifts like prophecy, tongues, and healing, belong to realized eschatology. For instance, a concern of 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 is to point out that prophecy and tongues are temporary in the life of the Church. Whether or not at some point prior to the Parousia (I leave that an open question here), Paul is clear that they will “cease” and “pass away” (v. 8). But that cannot possibly be said of what is eschatological. Such realities, by their very nature, endure. Phenomena like prophecy and tongues, where they occur, are no more than provisional, less-than-eschatological epiphenomena.
All told, the New Testament makes a categorical distinction between the gift (singular) and the gifts (plural) of the Spirit, between the eschatological gift, Christ, the indwelling, life-giving Spirit himself, in which all believers share (e.g., 1 Cor. 12:13), and those subeschatological giftings, none of which, by God’s design, is intended for or received by every believer (1 Cor. 12:28-30, for one, make that clear enough).
The truly enduring work of the Spirit is the resurrection-renewal already experienced by every believer. And that renewal manifests itself in what Paul calls “fruit”–like faith, hope and love, joy and peace (to mention just some, Gal. 5:22-23), with, we should not miss, the virtually unlimited potential for their concrete expression, both in the corporate witness as well as the personal lives of the people of God. Such fruit, however imperfectly displayed for the present, is eschatological at its core. This is a point, I hope, on which charismatics and noncharismatics, whatever their remaining differences, will eventually agree.
Suffering Between Christ’s Resurrection and Return
But now a question may come from another quarter. Will not stressing the resurrection-quality of the Christian life and the eschatological nature of the Spirit’s work minister an easy triumphalism, a false sense of attainment? “Possibility thinking” and “prosperity theology” in various forms are by no means an imaginary danger, as our own times make all too clear.
The New Testament itself is alert to this danger–the perennial danger for the Church of an overly realized eschatology. Perhaps most instructive and challenging, even if at a first glance a paradox, Paul sees suffering as specifying the quality of the believer’s resurrection-life in the interim between Christ’s resurrection and return. Passages like 2 Corinthians 4:10-11 and Philippians 3:10, though strictly speaking autobiographical and having uniquely apostolic dimensions, clearly show that Paul intends the suffering he experienced to be understood as a paradigm for all Christians.
In the former passage, Christian suffering, described actively as “the dying of Jesus,” molds the manifestation of his resurrection-life in believers. In the latter, to know Christ is to know his resurrection-power as a sharing in his sufferings–an experience, all told, described as “being conformed to his death.” The imprint left in our lives by Christ’s resurrection power is, in a word, the cross.
This cross-conformity of the Church is, as much as anything about its life in this world-age, the signature of inaugurated eschatology. Believers suffer, not in spite of or even alongside of the fact they share in Christ’s resurrection, but just because they are raised up and seated with him in heaven (Eph. 2:5-6). According to Peter (1 Pet. 4:14), it is just as Christians suffer for Christ that God’s Spirit of (eschatological) glory rests on them. For the present, until he returns, suffering with Christ remains a primary marker of the eschatological Spirit.
The choice Paul places before the Church for all time, until Jesus comes, is not for a theology of the cross instead of a theology of resurrection-glory, but for his resurrection theology as theology of the cross. When the Church embraces the inseparable bond between faith in Christ and suffering for him (Phil. 1:29), it will come a long way toward experiencing the eschatological quality of its resurrection-life in Christ, the life-giving Spirit.