Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.
In making use of the Nicene Creed in our worship, we confess in part about the Lord Jesus Christ that he “for us and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried; and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father; and he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the living and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.” Together with the rest of the “one holy catholic and apostolic” church down through the centuries, we affirm what has achieved and continues to secure our salvation: the death, resurrection, ascension, and heavenly session of the incarnate Son, the eternal Son of God become man.
This confession prompts the question I want to consider here. How specifically is the resurrection “for our salvation”? What in particular is the saving efficacy, or “efficiency,” of the resurrection? Or, to ask the question negatively, without the resurrection, what would become of our salvation?
To the question of how Christ’s death is for our salvation, virtually every Christian will likely have a ready and heartfelt answer: he died that my sins might be forgiven, to bear in my place the eternal punishment my sin deserves. Most if not all believers grasp in some measure the saving truth of penal substitution, of Christ’s “once offering up of himself a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice, and reconcile us to God” (Shorter Catechism, 25). At the same time, however, it seems fair to say that in general Christians are not as clear about the answer to our question about the saving efficacy of the resurrection.
It should be immediately apparent that the death of a dead Christ, a Christ who remains dead, achieves nothing for our salvation. Paul makes that clear in 1 Corinthians 15: if Christ hasn’t been raised, then our faith is “futile,” or “useless,” and we are “still in [our] sins”—entirely—and our situation all told is “most to be pitied” (vv. 17, 19). Minus the resurrection, death continues with unabated, invincible finality, and it does so as “the wages of sin” we so justly deserve (Rom. 6:23).
Certainly without the death of Christ there is no salvation, but then neither is there any salvation without the resurrection. His resurrection, no less than his death, is at the heart of the gospel (Rom. 1:3–4; 1 Cor. 15:3–4). The resurrection is often viewed primarily as the awesome miracle that validates the truth of Christianity and the gospel. But it is more than such crowning evidence—much more.
Salvation on its negative side is salvation from sin. All too evidently the destructive consequences of sin are virtually incalculable, its misery untold. At the same time, those innumerable consequences are basically twofold. First, sin affects our standing before God; it renders us guilty, liable to his just judgment and condemnation. Second, it affects our condition, in that it leaves us thoroughly corrupt and enslaved to Satan and sin as the power that dominates our lives. The depth of sin’s effects are such that, left to ourselves, apart from God’s saving grace, we are nothing less than “dead in ... trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1, 5). Sin leaves the sinner both inexcusably guilty and helplessly enslaved.
“But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more” (Rom. 5:20, nkjv). As the effects of sin, in its abounding, are either one of two basic kinds, so too, in countering and alleviating these effects, grace—manifold, superabounding in its effects—is basically twofold. Grace is either judicial or renovative, reversing either our guilt-ridden standing before God or our corrupt, sin-enslaved condition. The role of the resurrection in bringing about that reversal can be seen here by focusing on justification and sanctification.
For justification, a key text is Romans 4:25: Jesus “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” Earlier in Romans, Paul has said that Christ’s death was a propitiatory sacrifice, so that God might be “just and the justifier” of believers (3:25–26). Later he says that “we have now been justified by his blood” (5:9). In 4:25, however, justification is connected specifically with Christ’s resurrection in distinction from his sacrificial death.
How are we to understand that connection? On the basis of his life of obedience, culminating in his death as the representative sin-bearer and righteous substitute for sinners (Phil. 2:8; Rom. 3:25; 8:3; 2 Cor. 5:21), Christ’s resurrection is his own justification. This is so in the sense that the action of God in raising him from the dead—that enlivening act itself—vindicates him in his obedience and effectively demonstrates his righteousness. The resurrection, then, is a de facto declaration of his righteous standing before God. As an event, Christ’s resurrection “speaks,” and it does so judicially, in a legal manner.
First Timothy 3:16 confirms this. There Christ is described as “manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit” (nkjv). This almost certainly has in view the Holy Spirit’s action in raising Jesus from the dead (Rom. 8:11). This response by the Spirit was justly warranted by the righteousness manifested in Jesus’ obedience “in the flesh,” that is, during his life on earth prior to the resurrection.
But the justification of Christ in his resurrection was not just for his own sake, apart from us; it was also for us, “for our justification.” Our justification flows from our union with him, by Spirit-worked faith, along with the other benefits of salvation manifested by that union (Larger Catechism, 69). Because of our union with him, then, we share in his justification; his resurrection-approved righteousness is reckoned as ours, imputed to us.
At the same time, this union preserves a key difference—a gospel difference—that is not to be missed. Christ’s justification, unlike ours, does not involve the imputation to him of the righteousness of another. Unlike us, he is declared righteous on the ground of his own lifelong, blood-bought righteousness.
Calvin has beautifully captured this reality:
Therefore, that joining together of Head and members, that indwelling of Christ in our hearts—in short, that mystical union—are accorded by us the highest degree of importance, so that Christ, having been made ours, makes us sharers with him in the gifts with which he has been endowed. We do not, therefore, contemplate him outside ourselves from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us but because we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body—in short, because he deigns to make us one with him. For this reason, we glory that we have fellowship of righteousness with him. (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.11.10)
How then is the resurrection essential for our sanctification_—for the renovative side of salvation, for lives pleasing to God and marked by holiness? That question can be answered along a number of lines, including the one we will follow here.
Again, as with justification, union with Christ is crucial. We are united with him in his death and resurrection, signified and sealed to us in baptism, “in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). Here the resurrection of Christ is linked specifically with the newness that marks the Christian life. That newness surely has in view Christ’s life as resurrected, the resurrection life he shares with those who are united to him.
The source and quality of this life are further clarified in Romans 8:11: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” What God the Father did in raising Jesus from the dead he will also do for believers. The controlling thought here is the tie or unity that there is between the bodily resurrection of Christ and that of Christians.
The intrinsic nature of that unity is made most explicit in 1 Corinthians 15:20, 23. There Christ is described as “the firstfruits” of the resurrection. To extend the metaphor as Paul surely intends, his resurrection and ours are the beginning and the end of one, single harvest.
Christ’s resurrection is, as is often said, the guarantee of ours, but we should appreciate that this is so because his resurrection is nothing less than “the actual beginning of this general epochal event” (Vos, Pauline Eschatology, p. 45).
As believers, we can be sure of our own resurrection, not only because God has decreed it and promised it (which would surely be enough for us!), but because he has done more: that decree has been realized, that promise has already been fulfilled, in history; the resurrection harvest in which believers will share bodily at the end of history, when Christ returns, has already begun. It has entered history and become visible in his resurrection.
Romans 8:11, as it highlights this resurrection unity, brings into view the activity of the Holy Spirit. God will resurrect us bodily, as he did Jesus, through the enlivening action of the Spirit. But more is said here than what will be true in the future. The Spirit of resurrection is the indwelling Spirit; he is already present in believers. This points us to a fundamental truth about the Christian life: life in the Spirit is sharing in the resurrection life of Christ.
That comes out clearly in the verses that immediately precede (vv. 9–10). Four combinations are present there: (1) “you … in the Spirit,” (2) “the Spirit … in you,” (3) to “belong to him [Christ]”—equivalent here to “you … in Christ,” and (4) “Christ … in you.” These expressions hardly intend to split the believer’s life into four different sectors; together they provide a unified, overall perspective on that life.
In this mutual indwelling, Christ and the Spirit are one. In their presence and activity, the Spirit is “the Spirit of Christ” (v. 9). There is no relationship, no union with Christ, that is not at the same time fellowship with the Spirit. There is no work of the Spirit in our lives that is not also the presence of Christ at work in us (see Eph. 3:16–17).
This inseparable bond between Christ and the Spirit does not begin with our experience; rather, it rests on what is first of all true in the experience of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 15, we are told that Christ, the last Adam, as the “firstfruits” of the resurrection harvest, became the “life-giving Spirit” (v. 45). At his resurrection, he was not only glorified by being transformed in his human nature by the enlivening power of the Spirit. He also came into a possession of the Spirit that was so climactic, so unprecedented, so overflowing, that it is properly captured by calling him the “life-giving Spirit.”
Note that this in no way compromises the personal distinction between Christ and the Spirit. The eternal, essential distinction and equality between the second and third persons of the Trinity remain unchanged.
But because of who Christ, in his human nature, has become in his state of exaltation, he and the Spirit are now one in their work of giving life. This life is nothing less than resurrection life in the Spirit. As we have seen, this is not only a future hope, but already a present reality for believers.
Of course, the bond between Christ and the Spirit did not begin at the resurrection. Christ was conceived by the Spirit (Luke 1:35), and the Spirit later descended on him at his baptism by John (Luke 3:21–22).
The difference, the momentous difference, is this: At his baptism, Christ received the Spirit as an endowment to carry out the messianic task before him, the task that ultimately led to the cross. But in his exaltation, in his resurrection leading to his ascension (Acts 2:32–33), he received the Spirit as the consummate reward for having completed that assigned kingdom task. And he does not keep this reward for “his own private use” (Calvin); it becomes the consummate gift that he shares permanently with his people at Pentecost.
So, Jesus Christ—the resurrected, life-giving Spirit—has promised us: “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). He is with the church to stay, indwelling believers as he provides every spiritual blessing and resource that we need to carry out our kingdom task of discipling the nations. So, too, as the life-giving Spirit, he is present with us in a special, sacramental way when he invites us to commune with him at his table.
How, then, was Christ resurrected “for us and for our salvation”? I have done little more here than to begin considering the answer. I have not yet taken note of what is as important as anything: Christ, “who died—more than that, who was raised,” intercedes for us at God’s right hand (Rom. 8:33–34). And that intercession of Christ, resurrected and ascended, as gracious as it is hardly gratuitous, refutes any and every charge that would call into question the justification of God’s elect. Moreover, it insures, with an infallible efficacy, that “they can never fall from the state of justification” (Confession of Faith, 11.5).
Finally, consider Romans 8:29. God’s predestinating purpose for believers centers ultimately in their being “conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” This “image” is the Son’s as he is resurrected, specifically in his now-glorified human nature. He is “the firstborn among many brothers” only as he is “the firstborn from the dead” (Col. 1:18).
Our privilege, great beyond our comprehension, is this: we have been chosen in Christ “before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4) to the ultimate end that we be like Christ. This conformity to his image, already being worked in us by the sanctifying power of the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:18; Gal. 4:19), will be fully realized when, like him, we are raised bodily.
But there is more to this than what is ultimate for us. Even more ultimate in God’s predestinating purposes is what is at stake for the Son personally in our salvation, what he has invested for himself. This, as much as anything, is why from all eternity the Son willed, together with the Father and the Spirit, to become incarnate, to suffer and die. He did so, so that, having been resurrected triumphant over sin and death, he might have brothers like himself—brothers glorified not because of anything in themselves, but entirely because of his saving mercy. They will share with him in this triumph and magnify forever his own preeminent exaltation glory. And so his “kingdom shall have no end.”
Surely there can be no more ultimate perspective on Christ’s resurrection “for us and for our salvation” than this.
The author, an OP minister, is emeritus professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. New Horizons, April 2017.