“The good news of the gospel is that Jesus paid for all our sins on the cross and we are thereby forgiven.”
Jerry Bridges wrote those words in his excellent work, The Discipline of Grace. As a pastor, I’ve recommended that book to many over the years and loaned out my personal copy so much that I’ve had to replace it repeatedly. But every time I read that line I cringe just a bit. I want to write in “and was raised from the dead!” I want his summary of the gospel to include the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. After all, Paul makes clear that Christ’s resurrection is no inconsequential matter, telling the Corinthians that “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in yours sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). The resurrection is of absolute necessity to the gospel message. But I have to admit, this is an area in which I’m a bit sensitive.
An Increasing Awareness of a Truncated “Gospel”
My sensitivity stems from two things. First, I’ve pastored the same church in a college town for the last twenty-three years. With a transient town and students moving in and out, I’ve done my fair share of membership interviews over this time. In those interviews, I always ask the prospective member to share the gospel with me. To the best of our ability, it’s our church’s way of making sure that the person is a believer and is able to articulate the basic components of the gospel message. And more often than I like to admit, the resurrection is absent in these “gospel” presentations. The follow-up question that I’ve most frequently had to ask is, “Did Jesus remain dead?” Of course, without exception, the person answers by affirming that Jesus rose from the dead on that Easter Sunday morning, but for some reason the importance and necessity of the resurrection doesn’t immediately register.
The second reason for my sensitivity in this area comes from my days in graduate studies. The focus of my work in those years was on defending penal substitutionary atonement from the attacks of so-called “evangelicals” who began to argue against this understanding of Christ’s work around the turn of the century. Their attacks ranged from claims that penal substitution is a picture of child abuse to arguments that it distorts intra-Trinitarian relationships. But one attack that always seemed to surface was that proponents of penal substitution ignore the resurrection because our understanding of the cross makes it unnecessary.
1. See, for example, Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000).
For example, Tom Smail wrote in his work on the cross,
The penal model as such does not quite know what to make of the resurrection. It gives birth to a spirituality that . . . is symbolized . . . by a preaching that is dominated by a one-sided preoccupation with sin and condemnation and the suffering of Christ as the price of our deliverance from it. The resurrection is seen only as the sign of the Father’s acceptance of the sacrifice, his affirmation of the sufficiency of what has been done to secure our pardon, and as a rather disconnected promise of life after death.
2. Tom Smail, Once for All: A Confession of the Cross (London: Darton, Longman, & Todd, 1998), 96.
Clark Pinnock ratcheted up the charge, claiming that the penal “idea of the atonement does not have much room for resurrection which can go almost unmentioned because it is not required.”
3. Clark H. Pinnock, “Salvation by Resurrection,” Ex Auditu 9 (1993): 2.
Upon reading those attacks, I always wanted to dismiss them as attacks on straw men. “Of course defenders of penal substitution see the necessity of the resurrection,” I wanted to respond. We would never ignore it or let it go unmentioned. But then I would remember those membership interviews.
Given a moment’s reflection, you can see why detractors of penal substitution make this claim and why proponents of this precious doctrine often do allow the resurrection to go unmentioned in their “gospel” presentations. There is a certain logic to this “gospel” message that seems sound, coherent, and complete without noting the resurrection at all. Because God is holy and we are sinful, we bear divine condemnation. But God sent his Son into the world to live in perfect obedience and then die on the cross, bearing the condemnation that we deserved in our place. Therefore, if we repent of our sins and believe in him, we are credited with his perfect righteousness, and Christ’s death counts as the complete payment for our sins and removes God’s condemnation from us.
In this description, Christ’s death seems to account for everything. The problem, of course, is that without mention of the resurrection a gospel message is no gospel at all (1 Cor. 15:4), and Scripture will not allow such an empty proclamation to be called “good news.” Again, Paul declared, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17-18). He doesn’t say, “If Christ has not been raised, your sins remain forgiven and divine condemnation is removed, you just won’t get to experience resurrection.” Rather, he says if Christ isn’t raised, we’re still in our sins and will perish. Does this mean that Pinnock, Smail, and others are right, and it’s time to move on from penal substitution?
Of course not. To abandon penal substitution in light of its biblical support (see esp. Rom. 3:21-26; 8:3; 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13) is no better than ignoring the resurrection. Rather, we need to understand the saving nature of the resurrection. We need to see that, far from penal substitution leaving no room for the resurrection, it is the penalty-bearing nature of Christ’s death that demands the resurrection if we are to be saved. But in order to see this, we need to understand three elements: (1) Christ as our representative substitute, (2) the condemnation involved in penal substitution, and (3) the legal nature of Christ’s resurrection. We’ll take these in turn.
Christ as Our Representative Substitute
4. See, for example, Morna D. Hooker, From Adam to Christ: Essays on Paul (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 26–41.
In order to understand why penal substitution demands the resurrection, one must consider the representative nature of Jesus’s work. Some have attempted to place the concepts of representation and substitution in separate and exclusive categories, but Scripture allows no such division. Believers are said to have “died with Christ” (Rom. 6:8) and are told that “Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). Christ represents believers in his high-priestly work (Heb. 5:1), and because he is our substitute, he bears divine wrath in our place and on our behalf. Thus, Jesus is a “representative substitute” for believers, as Packer noted fifty years ago. This recognition must be our starting point in seeing how the cross and resurrection are necessary for our justification. The reason for this is because what Christ accomplishes in both his death and resurrection is appropriated to believers through our union with him. What is true of him becomes true of us, his people, because he is our representative.
5. J. I. Packer, “What Did the Cross Achieve: The Logic of Penal Substitution,” TynBul 25 (1973): 21.
Salvation is pictured throughout Scripture as those blessings we receive by being united to Christ. For example, when Paul writes of believers experiencing no condemnation before God, it is a reality “for those who are in Christ” (Rom. 8:1). Nor is this example exceptional in Paul’s letters or in Scripture as a whole. Bruce Demarest has noted that expressions such as in Christ, in the Lord, in Christ Jesus, and in him occur 216 times in Paul’s letters, in addition to the twenty-six times in John’s writings. It is no exaggeration to say that without union with Christ, there is no salvation.
6. Bruce Demarest, The Cross and Salvation: The Doctrine of Salvation (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1997), 315.
As the Son takes on flesh, then, he comes into the world as the second/last Adam. Just as Adam represented all mankind so that what he did affected all those in him, so Christ represents all his people so that what he does affects all in him (Rom. 5:12–21). Therefore, we must consider Christ’s work against the backdrop of Adam’s, and as we do so it becomes clear that Jesus must address two key elements in his saving work—the sin Adam brought into the world, as well as its accompanying condemnation.
Paul notes that Adam’s one trespass “led to condemnation for all men” (Rom. 5:18), indicating the demand for absolute obedience, since one sin was sufficient to bring condemnation on Adam and all in him. Therefore, in order to undo Adam’s work, Christ had to perfectly obey his Father and bear the condemnation that Adam’s sin ushered into the world. This is why it is no accident that all three synoptic gospels record Jesus resisting a time of temptation just prior to his public ministry and then build to his death on the cross. The Gospels are showing us Christ’s obedience and penalty-bearing death as necessary elements in our redemption. This brings us to a second crucial issue—the element of condemnation in penal substitution.
Condemnation and Penal Substitution
The Bible portrays Jesus as bearing the wrath of God in his death. This reality is seen both in Jesus’s struggle in the garden and also in the nature of his death. Prior to the cross, Jesus prays in the garden, “Remove this cup from me” (Mark 14:36). In light of the cup symbolizing God’s wrath in the Old Testament (see Ps. 75:8; Isa. 51:17; Jer. 25:15), this is the clearest meaning of “cup” in this text. Jesus anticipates going to the cross so that he might bear divine condemnation for God’s people. Then, the scene at the cross shows Jesus undergoing condemnation, bearing God’s wrath toward sinners. He cries out, asking why God has forsaken him (Ps. 22:1), while his body hangs on the tree (Deut. 21:22–23), and the earth is shrouded in darkness (Exod. 10:21–22; Deut. 28:29). All of these signify he is bearing God’s wrath. Therefore, when Jesus dies on the cross, he dies and and is laid in the tomb as the condemned one.
Again, we can be reminded why opponents of penal substitution want to pounce at this very point. Greg Boyd, for example, notes, “If the main problem needing to be addressed by Christ was that God’s wrath needed to be appeased, and if the main solution to this problem consisted in God slaying his Son on the cross, one naturally wonders what could possibly be left to be done once this is completed.” If Christ bears the divine penalty for sin on the cross and dies as the condemned one, what more is needed for our salvation?
7. Gregory A. Boyd, “Christus Victor Response,” in The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views, ed. James Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006), 99.
Yet here is where we need to remember that our salvation is experienced in our union with Christ. Jesus’s death is a judicial declaration that he is accursed of God. If he is not raised, then the last word on that Friday is that Jesus is condemned. Moreover, because we are united with Christ by faith so that what is true of him is true of us, if Christ is not raised, we too are condemned. Christ must be raised. But we can say more. He must be declared righteous. This brings us to the third crucial element—the legal nature of Christ’s resurrection.
The Legal Nature of Christ’s Resurrection
As we’ve seen, the necessity of the resurrection must be seen against the backdrop of the fact that Christ died as the condemned one. If Christ remains dead, then he remains under condemnation, and believers are condemned in him. This is precisely Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 15:17. After his death, then, Jesus—as the condemned one—must be declared righteous. To use legal language, he must be justified as the righteous Son. This is precisely what happens in the resurrection. As Geerhardus Vos explained, “Christ’s resurrection was the de facto declaration of God in regard to his being just. His quickening bears in itself testimony of his justification.”
8. Vos, The Pauline Eschatology, 151.
In order to see Vos’s reasoning, we must understand the argument Paul makes in Romans 5:12–21 as he parallels and contrasts the work of Adam and Christ. Concerning Adam, Paul tells us that “the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation,” that “because of one’ man’s trespass, death reigned through the one man,” and that the “one trespass led to condemnation for all men” (Rom. 5:16–18). Putting this together, we can say that Adam’s one act of disobedience led to a legal sentence of condemnation that fell on him. However, because Adam was a legal representative for all as the head of the human race, his condemnation came to them as well. And what was the evidence of this legal condemnation on Adam and all who are in him? It is the reign of death over all mankind. Therefore we can say that the reign of death is evidence of the legal sentence of condemnation that came to Adam and all humanity he represents.
But Paul also shows us a contrasting parallel with Christ. As he notes that Adam sinned and brought condemnation that resulted in death reigning, so he writes, “One act of righteousness leads to justification resulting in life for all men” (Rom. 5:18). The elements are paralleled: disobedience is offset by righteousness, condemnation by justification, and death by life. Before moving too quickly past this, however, we must take note of the implications of Paul’s declaration here. The reason condemnation spread to all in Adam was because this was the very sentence that was pronounced on Adam. If Christ’s obedience “brought justification” (Rom. 5:16) to all in him, then we must also conclude that it is because Christ received a legal sentence as well—that of justification. This took place in the resurrection, and it was necessary precisely because Christ had died as the condemned one.
9. My translation, as I see this as a genitive of result.
But how is it that we can affirm that Christ’s resurrection reveals that he has received this sentence of justification? The answer lies in the connection between righteousness, justification, and life just noted. If one can say that death is a demonstration that one has been condemned, so one may equally say that resurrected life is a demonstration that one has been justified. Consequently, when Christ is raised from death to life, it is a demonstration that he is justified. The transformation to life is the evidence that he has received a legal sentence of justification.
10. The ESV translates the verb dikaioō as “vindicated,” but the root carries the idea of righteousness, or in this case, justification.
This is what Vos was claiming as he wrote, “His quickening bears in itself testimony of his justification.” If one can only have life as a result of being justified, then the resurrection of Christ to life is proof he has been justified. As Jesus is raised, he is declared to be the righteous Son. Scripture also confirms this elsewhere as Paul notes in 1 Timothy 3:16 that Christ has been “justified by the Spirit.” This Christological confession is a reference to Christ’s resurrection carried out through the agency of the Spirit.
11. Also, compare the Spirit’s role in the resurrection in Rom 1:4, where Paul writes, “[Jesus] was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead.”
Moreover, we must remember that because of the believer’s union with Christ, that which Christ does affects all those in him. Therefore, if Christ’s resurrection proves the legal declaration of his righteous status, then believers should anticipate Christ’s resurrection leading to their own justification as well. And that is precisely what one finds in Romans 4:25, where Paul writes that Jesus “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” He paid the penalty for our sins and was raised so that—in union with him—we might be justified.
The charge that penal substitution has no need of the resurrection couldn’t be further from the truth. As we’ve seen, Christ’s resurrection was the necessary act to justify him because he had died as the condemned one. That is, Christ’s resurrection was needed precisely because of the nature of his atoning death. Because Jesus was the righteous Son of God (the obedient second/last Adam), he could not remain under the condemnation of God, which he bore in his death. Thus, far from being disconnected from the resurrection, it is Christ’s penal substitutionary death which demands the resurrection. Furthermore, because the resurrection is a demonstration of the legal verdict of righteousness pronounced on the incarnate Son, the resurrection is not an event we loosely tie to a legal atonement but is itself legal in nature as it is Christ’s justification. And because salvation comes to us via our union with Christ, we can declare that he “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”
12. When Paul declares that he determined to know nothing among the Corinthians except “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2) or preaches “Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23), he is using the crucifixion as a metonymy, or a shorthand representation for the whole of Christ’s redeeming work.
The Scripture commands us to preach “Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23), but the very apostle who wrote those words made clear that a “gospel” proclamation without the resurrection is by no means good news. If Christ has not been raised, not only are we still in our sins, but all those who have died in the Lord before us have perished (1 Cor. 15:17–18). But Christ has been raised, and by his death and resurrection we have forgiveness of sins and eternal life in him. Therefore, as we share the gospel with our neighbors or proclaim the good news from the pulpit this Sunday, let us make sure that we do not proclaim a truncated gospel that leaves Christ in the tomb and believers without hope. Rather, let us faithfully proclaim the crucified and resurrected Christ, for it is only by his sin-bearing death and justifying resurrection that we and those to whom we preach will find life in him.