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Raised for our Justification
Once upon a time, I believed that our salvation and justification was something achieved exclusively by the cross (i.e. “justified by his blood” in Rom 5:9). The resurrection, then, was really just the proof that God accepted Christ’s atoning death and proof of life after death.
However, after I read through the Pauline letters more carefully, I came to see that God’s justifying verdict was more intimately bound up with the resurrection of Christ. Passages such as Rom 4:25, 1 Cor, 15:17 and 1 Tim 3.16, show that God’s saving action is executed in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Resurrection is not just the rolling credits on the passion story or an easter egg about eternal life! Jesus’ death and resurrection both matter for our redemption!
This is laid out quite explicitly in Paul’s letter to the Romans:
The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification. (Rom 4:23-25 [NIV]).
Notice what is affirmed in v. 25 with the double use of the word “for”: Jesus was handed over to death for our sins AND raised to life for our justification. Note the two key parts!
First, God hands over Jesus for the purpose of dealing with our sins, this is the atonement, removing the penalty of sin by undergoing the penalty in his own body. The language is highly reminiscent of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 so that Jesus’s death is redemptive because it removes the sin that alienates us from God. But that is only half the story! There is no salvation, forgiveness, reconciliation, or justification if Jesus stays dead.
Second, God raises up Jesus for the purpose of our justification. Now this “justification” is a forensic, it refers to our status, it is the opposite of “condemnation” (see Rom 8:1). This means we have a right relationship with God, a relationship that begins with Christ’s resurrection, it is expressed in our continuing faith in God and allegiance to king Jesus, knowing that his presence in heaven is proof of God’s continuing favor towards us. This resurrection means that God’s death-defeating, sin-crushing, evil-destroying, love-winning, life-giving new creation power declares us to be “righteous” before him. Justification, if understood biblically, is how God creates a new people, gives them a new status, in a new covenant, as a foretaste of the new age! If Jesus is risen indeed, then you are justified indeed! The believer possesses a righteous status before God which can no more be doubted than the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. If Jesus is risen, then you are righteous before God, clothed not with your own righteousness, but that of the Son of God who was faithful and obedient to his messianic vocation, the first-born among many brothers, the prince of life!
If we put that together, then in the cross, we see God’s verdict against sin, our sin, meted out in the flesh of the Son of God, the condemnation of our evil is given its due (see Rom 8:1-3). But then, the resurrection transposes that verdict from condemnation to justification, taking us from death to new life, from guilt to acquittal. Moreover, Jesus himself is justified in his resurrection, he is vindicated as the Son of God, and because we share in his death and resurrection, his justification becomes ours as well. In other words, we are justified because we participate in Jesus’ own justification!
The cross without resurrection is merely martyrdom; while the resurrection without the cross is just a supernatural freak show. But together they constitute the fulcrum of the divine saving action to rescue, redeem, justify, and transform a whole new humanity; a humanity that has passed through death into new life, from condemnation to justification, and begun experiencing the power of the new creation.
Many years ago, when I lived in Scotland, there was a church that had the words of Roman 4:25 on a banner above the stage. I always thought it was a great summary of Easter. Jesus was handed over for our sins (Good Friday) and raised for our justification (Easter Sunday).