Jesus’ Resurrection and the Christian Life

Albrecht AltdorferThough the reference eludes me, C. S. Lewis once wrote, “A man can’t always be defending the truth; there must be a time to feed on it.” In the past I have written posts defending the historical veracity of the resurrection: the first argued that the most convincing reason for the existence and expansion of the early church is Christ’s bodily resurrection; the second compared Christ with the Caesars, asking why an itinerant Jewish rabbi is remembered as a god while his contemporaries, worshipped in the Imperial Cult, are all but forgotten. Following Lewis’ dictum, my aim in this post is to offer a few theological points on the resurrection that I hope will encourage and exhort believers. Come and feed on the resurrection, let it nourish your soul.

Through the resurrection Christ earned absolute trust

Jesus told his disciples, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again” (John 10:17). When we slow down and reflect on these words we cannot but be in awe of Jesus. His power matches his promises. The resurrection is no parlour trick. It is the validation of all that he said he would do. Elsewhere Jesus is recorded saying that he would give his life as a ransom (Mark 10:45). Therefore at the resurrection Jesus is not merely vindicated as a martyr or misunderstood zealot but confirmed as God’s Messiah. His work is powerfully presented as complete. What does this mean for us? It means that Christ can be trusted. His word can be believed. We can depend on him for the salvation he promised. It is here that a biblical definition of faith emerges. If Christ died and three days later took his life up again then there is something more certain than death and taxes: our own resurrection.

In the resurrection our lives gain real meaning

In one of his autobiographical works, titled Confessions, Tolstoy admitted that he seriously considered taking his own life, as he suffered from severe melancholy. As he did so, he was haunted by a question, ‘Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?’ Despite his monumental achievements and influence the crushing conclusion he drew was that death brings an end to all of them. A similar sentiment can be read in 1 Corinthians 15:32, where Paul wrote, “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’”. Frighteningly, such outlook can not only be widely observed today but is celebrated. Importantly, however, while gallantly expressed with a drink in hand among friends it is far more sobering to reflect on quietly—and alone. We should do so, since we will all face death alone.

ResurrectionEarlier in 1 Corinthians Paul wrote, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (15:14); and a little later, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (15:17). Part of Paul’s argument in this chapter is that for the Christian life is not vain and death is not final. Apart from the resurrection we only have only death to look forward to, when everything we spent our lives pursuing is lost. In the resurrection, on the other hand, “Death has been swallowed up in victory” (15:54). Though this life is besotted with blessings it labours vainly for meaning if death has the last say. For the Christian even though death is inevitable it does not destroy. One of J. I. Packer’s regularly quoted verses is John 17:3, “This is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” To know Christ means eternal life has already begun. To know his resurrection means this life is not futile.

By the resurrection we are set free from sin

In 1 Corinthians 15, mentioned above, Paul makes the point that Christ’s death means we need not fear God’s judgment against sin. As Paul puts it, ‘Death has lost its sting, which was our sin.’ We are free from the power of sin in the future. But in Romans 6 Paul mounts a different argument: Christians are free from the power of sin in the present. It reads,“We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (6:2); “We were 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” (6:4); and “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin – because anyone who has died has been set free from sin” (6:6-7). Paul’s point, which is worthy of much more reflection and rereading is that objectively the power of sin is broken in the life of the Christian. Therefore when we sin we do so freely and not under compulsion. Sin is our decision to submit to a defeated power. Our sin denies the work God has done and defies the work he is doing.

A few verses later Paul offers one of the first imperatives in the book of Romans, “Count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires” (6:11-12). Echoing Paul I say this as much to myself as I do to you: the resurrection broke the power of sin, which means you are no longer a slave. Stop choosing slavery; stop choosing sin. We have been raised that we might live a new life, a life no longer marked and defined by sin. I know that I often do not believe this, particularly when I struggle with sin and temptation. But according to these verses in Romans 6 when I sin it is not because I was powerless to do otherwise. When I sin it is because I am not standing with conviction and resolution in the power of Christ’s resurrection. Go and sin no more, as you go with the confidence found in Christ’s finished work.

The Work of Christ: Not Merely Substitution

Jesus Christ iconLast year the church I was part of worked through Paul’s letter to the Philippians. On one occasion at a leaders’ meeting an argument broke out over Philippians 1:27-2:11. The line of application we were pressing was that Christ’s death is an example of sacrificial service, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus” (2:4-5). Paul then goes on to recount Christ’s incomparable humility in serving others (2:6-8). Some present felt that emphasising Christ’s death as an example might weaken our grip on Christ’s death as substitutionary, when he satisfied God’s justice at the cross by suffering the penalty for sin we deserved. However I do not think that we are forced to choose one of these over the other.

After his lengthy section presenting and critiquing what are called ‘the theories of atonement’ in The Work of Christ, Robert Letham writes, “No one theory has ever commanded universal support. Moreover, no one viewpoint appears to answer all the questions that surface when we reflect on what Christ came to do on the cross” (p174). Reformed Christians typically have a mature understanding of justification by faith alone. This strong emphasis however often completely overshadows the manifold blessings and benefits of Christ’s work. The result is Christians who see the work of Christ in purely legal and transactional terms, a deficient view I argued against in my previous post. Letham does an excellent job of presenting the different atonement theories, pointing his readers to their respective biblical foundations, potential pitfalls and obvious errors. I attempted to do something like this, thinking about what is called the Christus Victor theory of atonement. Returning to the post at hand, if the extent of your appreciation for Christ’s work is merely substitution it is likely you have an underdeveloped scope of humanity’s plight and God’s powerful salvation. 

The argument about Philippians I mentioned pertains to the Christus Exemplar theory of atonement, also called moral influence. Remember, neither Letham nor myself are presenting this as an exclusive, or even capping, approach to understanding Christ’s work. But we would have to exclude vast swathes of the New Testament in claiming that we are not called to imitate Christ. Furthermore, I am not presenting the moral influence theory of atonement as historically without fault. Letham shows that the unbiblical tendency of those who advocate for a pure Christus Exemplar reduce the atonement to human effort. The subjective change resulting from our imitation of Christ is what brings us back into relationship with God, or atones for sin. However, he also writes, “Christ’s death does produce a subjective moral change in those who contemplate it in faith by the power of the Holy Spirit” (p167).

Robert LethamIt is perhaps this lost emphasis that has lead to us practising a purely memorial or Zwinglian Lord’s Supper. But that is a topic for another post. Christ’s self-giving sacrifice is both the effective power and powerful example for transformed lives. If we always retreat into preaching Christ’s death as substitution why are we surprised that churches are full of rudimentary faith and nominalism? Many churchgoers today will gladly profess the name of Christ as long as they never need to put on his character.

Similar language of ‘subjective change’ through participation in Christ’s death can be argued from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul yearns for the Philippians with the affection of Christ (1:8). He prays that they will be filled with fruit of righteousness through Christ (1:11). Suffering together and supporting each other in hardship is said to be for the sake of Christ whilst merely believing is inadequate (1:29). The encouragement to be shared is in Christ (2:1). Paul can even say that believers must have the same mind as Christ (2:5). Even the section of the letter that comes closest to a fully orbed idea of justification by faith in Christ, most often exclusively tied to the substitution view of atonement, in 3:2-11 concludes with striking language of participation and subjective change: “That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (3:10-11). Go and read the book in its entirety and tell me if I am missing something.

Let me wrap this post up. The gospel teaches that Christ gives himself over to death and judgment, in the place of sinners so that those who place their faith in him can be declared righteous. But the gospel also teaches us how to live. To put it another way, at the cross we see God’s self-giving love. But when we experience that love, or participate in Christ by faith, his death and all that it embodies begins to shape our hearts. We might think of faith in Christ’s substitutionary death like the air pumped into the lungs of someone who has stopped breathing. The process is incomplete until that person has started breathing again for themselves, when the air has given life to their dead body. The atonement brings about new life, a life fixed on Christ our example.

Romans: The Righteousness of God

The men’s group that I am a part of has started reading through Paul’s epistle to the Romans and a few weeks back we considered Romans 1:17, ‘In the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”’ The question we discussed was one that has been asked throughout church history: how is the revelation of God’s righteousness good news?

RomansBefore his Turmerlebnis, or conversion, German Reformer Martin Luther understood what this verse meant, in part, and he hated it, deeming it decidedly bad news. Luther felt that God’s righteousness can only show up our own unrighteousness and wrestled with the claim that its revelation was desirable. In the Institutes, discussing the law, John Calvin writes, “It shows God’s righteousness, that is, the righteousness alone acceptable to God, it warns, informs, convicts, and lastly condemns, every man of his own unrighteousness” (2.7.6). If we advance no further than this view of God’s righteousness we can hardly call it gospel.

In his magisterial commentary on Romans, Douglas Moo provides a few options for understanding the “righteousness of God,” which explain Luther’s original disdain for the verse. Moo says that it has been understood to refer to the God’s attribute of righteousness and his just activity. Neither of these filled Luther with much hope, because he was a man well acquainted with his own sinfulness. But Moo offers another historical interpretation, one which both Luther would eventually champion: a righteousness attributed to us by God. In fact, upon consideration of these three options we hardly need to treat them as mutually exclusive, since Paul combines them in Romans 1-3.

Turning back to Romans 1:17, and the question over God’s righteousness being revealed in the gospel, a basic exercise in exegesis sets our course. For in the immediate context, Romans 1:16, we read, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” Notice that the same gospel that reveals the righteousness of God (1:17) is the powerful salvation of God for all who believe (1:16), not those who possess their own righteousness. So the revelation of God’s righteousness in the gospel must mean more than simply his righteousness or his just activity being displayed; it is somehow related to those who have faith in Christ.

It is when we reach Romans 3:21 that Paul brings these ends together. Having repeatedly shown in 1:18-3:20 that we do not possess a righteousness of our own, Paul writes, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested” (3:21). This righteousness does not come through the law but faith and belief in Jesus Christ (3:21-22). But how does faith reveal God’s righteous character and behaviour? The answer: God shows his righteousness in giving us the righteousness of Christ, in justifying us “by his grace as a gift” (3:24). Paul concludes, “It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (3:26). Drawing our minds back to 1:17, the gospel reveals the righteousness of God in at least two ways: firstly we see that he is just, not merely forgetting unrighteousness but punishing it in Christ (3:25); secondly we learn that he is the God who justifies those with faith.

InstitutesWe have covered much ground in a short space. Our original question was how is the revelation of God’s righteousness a good thing, since alongside it our blemishes and sin are made clearer? Added to that was another questions, how does our faith in Christ reveal God’s righteousness while also achieving salvation (1:16)? The answer to these questions comes in Romans 3:21-26, for in the gospel God’s righteousness is manifest. This happens as he simultaneously works in a way that is perfectly just and justifies those who are not perfect. Thus Calvin writes, looking at Romans 5, “God, to whom we are hateful because of sin, was appeased by the death of his Son to become favourable toward us…As by the sin of Adam we were estranged from God and destined to perish, so by Christ’s obedience we are received into favour as righteous” (2.17.3). “To God be the glory forever” (Romans 11:36).

Doodle: “It Doesn’t Matter What You Believe as Long as You’re Sincere”

Our world loves to trade in platitudes when it comes to questions about truth, morality, and tolerance. For example the statement, “exclusivity is intolerant” sounds gracious and diplomatic, understanding and inclusive, even if in reality it is a thoughtless and logically inconsistent statement. Another cliché, which I want to briefly tackle in this post, says, “It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you’re sincere.” In other words, if someone earnestly believes something then who are you to tell them that they are wrong? This statement supposedly draws the line between arrogant fundamentalism and tolerant inclusivity. But in the points below I want to challenge this platitude, which essentially claims that sincerity trumps truth.

It is inconsistent

What I mean is that no one actually thinks that you can believe anything as long as you are sincere, and that no one consistently abides by that position. To swap the words around: most of us agree that sincerity does not equal truth or validate what is false. Very few people believe that the holocaust was a good thing yet Hitler’s zealous sincerity is undeniable. Thus British philosopher John Hicks has said, “To say that whatever is sincerely believed and practised is, by definition, true, would be the end of all critical discrimination, both intellectual and moral” (McGrath, Bridge-building). No one defends defunct truth claims, such as bride burning in India or the daily human sacrifices carried out by the Aztecs. We simply do not consistently hold to the claim that people can believe whatever they want if they are sincere. When we say that we reveal intellectual laziness and logical inconsistency, which leads into the next point.

It prizes ignorance at worst, and apathy at best

What I really suspect is behind the sincere faith argument is indifference and an unwillingness to engage critically or endeavour to reach conclusions about truth. It says more than, ‘We can’t really know,’ and means something closer to, ‘I don’t care.’ When I state that people can believe whatever they want to I gain the license to give no thought to what I believe. Therefore it is an active decision to live ignorantly in the dark, though it appears enlightened and tolerant. The postmodern philosopher Richard Rorty writes, “Nobody except the occasional university first year believes that two incompatible opinions on an important topic are equally good”. Believing that sincerity trumps truth is the decision to remain ignorant, a refusal to engage thoughtfully, and ultimately rests on apathy. 

It is arrogant and offensive

ApologeticsThe implication of this position is ironically intolerant. Hidden in the statement is the insinuation that everyone else has got it wrong. All those shades of truth in the world, theological statements, philosophies, world views, and belief systems are wrong, or maybe right in part. As Christian apologist Alister McGrath says, “It is not individual religions that have access to truth; it is the western liberal pluralist.” When I smugly suggest that you can believe anything granted you are sincere I am making a value judgment on what you believe: it is insufficient, inadequate, and incomplete. My position of radical tolerance supplants your position, with a condescending dismissal. Because the statement says, It does not actually matter what you believe. Whatever beliefs you hold, build your identity and meaning around, are irrelevant.

It is a dogmatic faith position

Finally, the statement has an underlying theological position, reducing any concept of God to a sort of LCD (which I have written about in the post linked above). Timothy Keller writes in The Reason for God, “Ironically, the insistence that doctrine do not matter is really a doctrine itself. It holds a specific view…touted as superior and more enlightened than the beliefs of others. So the proponents of this view are guilty of the very thing they forbid in others.” This belief – contained in the statement we are discussing – undermines most of what many people believe. When someone claims that people can believe anything as long as they are sincere what you should hear is that there is no truth. You also should not miss the note of patronising dogmatism, which side-lines all other beliefs and makes sincerity more important than someone’s actual position.

Galatians: Faith in Christ or the Faithfulness of Christ

Nestled in the tightly argued and exegetically demanding section of Galatians 2:15-21 we read this: “A person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (2:16, ESV; similarly NIV). But if you use another translation, such as the NET, you would have read this: “No one is justified by the works of the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.”

Codex Sinaiticus - Comma JohanneumThe first translates the Greek to mean that we are made right with God through placing our faith in Jesus Christ. However the latter renders the verse to mean that we are justified, declared righteous, by the faithfulness of Christ. There is a technical linguistic term for each of these, respectively: the objective genitive and the subjective genitive. For example, the phase ‘the love of God’ can mean: our love for God (objective genitive) or God’s love (subjective genitive). Usually context would inform our reading of the phrase. The same is true in Greek. Only in this instance translators are divided, with most admitting that the Greek cannot be argued definitively in favour of one or the other. So which is it?

I would be foolhardy to harbour any notions of settling a debate in which both sides boast the support of formidable scholars. But we must do business with the text and its context. Before offering my trifling opinion, it is worth stating that we would lose nothing theologically if we translated every instance solely one way or the other. For there are passages that unambiguously develop the significance of Christ’s obedience (Romans 5:19; Philippians 2:8) and that emphasise our faith in Christ (Galatians 3:1-5; Ephesians 2:8-9). I would also add, a point made by Carson, in his superb essay Approaching the Bible, we misconstrue how language works if we attempt to read a text while entertaining the whole semantic range of words or phrases (which is what the Amplified Bible sets out to do). In our reading of Galatians we must settle on a translation.

Mihaly MunkacsyWorking through the first half of Galatians I have became convinced that the subjective genitive fits more naturally with its surrounds. At first I thought it was simply a matter of avoiding repetition, since the next phrase in 2:16 straightforwardly reads: “We also have believed in Christ Jesus.” But as Schreiner rightly responds, ‘Instead of thinking these verses are redundant, we can read them as emphatic, stressing the necessity of faith.’ The reason I am more in favour of reading 2:16 as “the faithfulness of Christ” is tied to my understanding of an issue central to the letter: the works of the law. Paul is tackling readers who were confusing faith alone with a faith augmented by obedience. As I have written elsewhere, 1st century Jews did not view religion as either grace or works; so it follows that the Jewish believers at Galatia struggled to distinguish between sola fidei and faithful obedience. Therefore it is not unlikely that Paul’s emphasis extends beyond faith in Christ alone to the faithfulness of Christ alone.

These posts are meant to be short, so let me conclude. The wonder of the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone is that the quality of my faith depends less on my grip and far more on the object: Christ. This challenges us to shift confidence away from ourselves and solely onto Jesus Christ, the one with whom the Father was pleased. I need that reminder, as the Galatians did, because my own faithfulness, obedience, and even my faith in Christ can subtly become the reason for my confidence, when it should never be anything other than his obedience and death on my behalf.

Technology: Saviour or Servant

Molech and RorshachSince first seeing the film in 2009 and subsequently as well as hurriedly reading the graphic novel, I have found The Watchmen fascinating. Few stories, in my opinion, so cleverly provide the backdrop for philosophical conversation, raise such interesting questions about morality, and underline the sense of hopelessness often experienced in our human condition. But my purpose in mentioning The Watchmen is not to unpack its many vivid themes; I simply want to point out one of its more poignant episodes to introduce this post. Following the death of the Comedian, Rorschach is bent on tracking down the “mask killer” and breaks into the home of the former arch-villain Molech, now Edgar Jacobi, an aged and dying man. After discovering illegal cancer medication Rorschach asks Jacobi what kind of cancer he is suffering from, and his response is almost heartbreaking: “Well, now, y’know that kind of cancer that you eventually get better from? Well, that ain’t the kind of cancer I got.”

Those words were in the back of my mind as I prepared a talk on technology for the teenagers at my church. I made the point that when it comes to cancer we have led to believe it is only a matter of time until we can cure all forms, for technology’s march is unrelenting. We might even think, If the fictional Jacobi lived in our 21st century then he most likely would not be living his long defeat. But let me state a highly unpopular possibility: we may never eradicate cancer. Unfortunately that is the reality facing all of us who inhabit a creation bound to decay, groaning for redemption. Please do not think I am for a second making light of cancer and the immense suffering it causes, for those with it along with those who stand by them and are often left behind. Let me also say that this is not a post about cancer. However, I think it is a presumptuous and proud view endemic to many of us, which is convinced it is only matter of time before cancer is conquered by medical research. Furthermore, I worry that many of us fall into the trap of ascribing a godlike attribute of unassailability to technology, that which we have made with our own hands; we begin to worship the created rather than the Creator.

Essays on Anthropology As Elaine Graham says in her essay, The “end” of the human or the end of the “human”?, “For some commentators, the advent of new technologies will protect us against physical disease and vulnerability. Technologies, long the means of enabling humanity to compensate for physical limitations by providing instruments of comfort and utility, now offer the opportunities to overcome the limitations of the flesh entirely.” In the same paper Graham paraphrases the prominent atheist David Noble, doing his best parody of a preacher, exclaiming how new technologies are “instruments of deliverance…possessors of the power to transport us their users into a sacred realm of ‘transcendence,’ free from the encumbrances of the flesh.” She notes how the arrival at this new religious cult, which even reproaches “techno-pagans” (Erik Davis), is traceable to the Enlightenment mood, or secular humanism, “In its emphasis on personal liberty, free enquiry, and self-determination.” What we are seeing is, “A distortion of modernity’s faith in the benevolence of human reason, producing the hubristic belief that humanity alone is in control of history.” Technology, etymologically meaning “craft” or “skill”, has been transfigured from servant to Saviour; technology that was once held in our hands, now has many lying prostrate at its feet.

The great danger in this modern assumption of unassailability is not merely that it disappoints our faith in it, but that it subtly derails our faith in the Creator God. Paul to the Romans, which I have alluded to above, writes that our present sufferings are incomparable with the glory to be revealed, our hope of redemption that is now unseen. Technology might never eradicate cancer; it will never bring about redemption and glorification. And we must resign ourselves to that first clause, lest we fall into the trap of believing it might offer us the latter. Elaine Graham rightly asserts the distinguishing mark of humanity as a species is the imago Dei, “Understanding of human creativity as participation in divine creativity.” Technology is a gift from our Creator, who has made us like him, to be creators. We are endowed with dreams that become designs and ultimately realities. Yet Graham concludes that we cannot forget that our creativity is framed within our creatureliness and interdependence, “This offers a necessary reminder that our technologies are ultimately not our own, that our inventions, like the whole of creation, make sense only when offered up as part of a larger, divine purpose.”

I have addressed two related idolatrous attitudes in this post, so I will conclude by trying to pull them apart. The first is the hubris of modern secularism, which tries to convince us that humanity controls history, as the masters of our fate and captains of our souls. This is closely tied to the second, more beguiling, attitude that is overawed by the apparently inevitable progress of technology. It is this second attitude that is incredulous at my statement: “We may never eradicate cancer.” And I think it is this attitude many Christians living in the 21st century undiscerningly adopt. We will do well to remember that we cannot set this groaning creation free from decay and futility, regardless of how far our technology takes us.