The cross stands near the center of Christian treatments of atonement—and rightly so.
Paul famously proclaims that he resolved to know nothing when he came preaching to the Corinthians except Christ, “and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2).
But the cross is hardly the only aspect of God’s saving work; thus Paul writes in Romans 4:25 that Jesus was
delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.Romans 4:25 NIV
In this short post, I want to focus on the last part of the verse.
By definition, justification involves the declaration that one has been officially granted the status of “righteous” with regard to God’s covenant. In lay terms, it’s a bit like the pronouncement of “Not guilty!” handed down in court.
Unfortunately, while evangelicals often have some answer for how the cross connects to justification (usually involving some notion of penalty-bearing on our behalf), many accounts of how the resurrection fits in are either unsatisfying or missing altogether.
For this reason, N. T. Wright claims that
There seems to be something about the joining together of resurrection and justification which some of our Western traditions have failed to grasp.Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, 219
It’s not that evangelicals think the resurrection is unnecessary. We hear each Easter how if Christ had not been raised, we would still be stuck in our sins and to-be pitied for our misspent faith (1 Cor 15:17-18). It’s just that we rarely get around to addressing what exactly it means to say that Christ was raised “for our justification.”
GOOD ANSWERS TO DIFFERENT QUESTIONS
Instead of answering that question, accounts of the resurrection tend to run as follows:
Christ’s resurrection guarantees our own future resurrection.
True enough (1 Cor 15:20). But this doesn’t offer any explanation of how Jesus rising from the dead is connected to the declaration of us being righteous in the eyes of God.
Christ’s resurrection must be true, or our faith is based on a lie.
Also true. But if your only understanding of justification is that “Jesus paid it all,” then it isn’t clear why his resurrection is required.
After all, if someone paid my student loan debt by writing me into their will, it wouldn’t follow that their resurrection was also needed for my bill to be paid. In this scenario, a death is necessary, but resurrection isn’t.
So too in some evangelical treatments of atonement.
Christ’s resurrection is the vindication (or proof) that he is who he claimed to be, and that his work on the cross was effective.
Yep. But this point confuses the corroboration of atonement with the idea that the resurrection itself is necessary for our justification.
To use an imperfect analogy, that’s like assuming that the corroborating answers in the back of a math textbook are required for 2+2 to equal 4, or for your work in the front of the book to be accurate. (To be clear, I did need those answers—which is why I’m a theologian and not an engineer.)
If Paul had meant merely to highlight that resurrection vindicates Christ’s prior justifying work on our behalf, then he should have written Romans 4:25 differently.
In summary, each one of these answers is true. But each one also fails to explain how Christ was “raised for our justification.”
What is a better answer?
THE STATE OF OUR UNION
In a word, it has to do with “union” or “participation.”
For Paul, Christians have been raised up with Christ, and seated with him in heavenly realms (Eph 2:6) because we have been united with him in his death (Gal 2:20; Rom 6:5). Salvation therefore comes about by being “in Christ” by virtue of faith, as symbolized by baptism, and as brought about the uniting work of the Holy Spirit.
The New Testament highlights this saving union through a variety of metaphors—one of which is marriage. In this legal bond, the two become “one flesh” (Gen 2:24) so that what’s mine is yours, and what’s yours is mine. “But I am talking,” Paul says to the Ephesians, “about Christ and the church” (5:32). Insofar as we have been bound-together by faith with Christ’s broken body, his death is our own death to sin (Rom 8:3; Gal 2:20), and his resurrection is itself our justification. The logic here, however foreign to modern individualists (see here), is that of union.
Sadly, if all we understand about atonement is a sort of penalty-exchange, then we will never know what to do with Romans 4:25, and we will never understand the importance of the resurrection.
(To be clear, I spent just shy of a hundred pages in The Mosaic of Atonement arguing for a particular version of the idea that Christ justly bears the penalty for human sin on our behalf. So I can’t be accused of rejecting that biblical reality.)
But thankfully, there is more to Jesus’ saving work than penalty-bearing.
In the view of Michael Bird, Christ’s resurrection is his “justification”—not because Christ was a sinner in need of saving—but because it is the official declaration that he is, in fact, righteous.
Likewise, Constantine Campbell is right to say that
Believers share in the vindication of Christ’s resurrection by dying and rising with him; they are declared righteous by virtue of their participation in these events.The Hope of Glory, 338
Union with Christ provides the foundation on which the language of justification and penalty-bearing make sense.
And it explains why Paul can say that Christ was not only “delivered over to death for our sins,” but also “raised to life for our justification.”
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