4 Reasons We Neglect the Resurrection
1. The resurrection could be eclipsed by the prominence of the cross.
The cross is the basis by which we can be forgiven. Our penalty was placed on Jesus; there our debt was discharged. Because the cross is literally crucial, it sometimes overshadows the resurrection. Richard Gaffin1 explains:
As a generalization . . . Christ’s resurrection has been relatively eclipsed. In Eastern Orthodoxy . . . the accent has been on his incarnation. . . . In Western Christianity (both Roman Catholic and Protestant) . . . attention has been focused heavily and at times almost exclusively on Christ’s death and its significance. The overriding concern, especially since the Reformation, has been to keep clear that the Cross is not simply an ennobling and challenging example but a real atonement. . . . In short, the salvation accomplished by Christ and the atonement have been virtually synonymous.
My point is not to challenge the validity or even the necessity of this development, far less the conclusions reached. But in this dominating preoccupation with the death of Christ, the doctrinal . . . significance of his resurrection has been largely overlooked. Not that the Resurrection has been deemed unimportant, but all too frequently it has been considered exclusively as a stimulus and support for Christian faith (which it undoubtedly is) and in terms of its apologetic value, as the crowning evidence for Christ’s deity and the truth of Christianity in general.2
I am not concerned that there is too much emphasis on the cross. I am, however, anxious that as we “survey the wondrous cross” we also study the resurrection. We must remember that the cross is just as empty as the tomb, and Christ is now glorified, having completed his work. The truth is, we cannot be truly cross-centered without also being empty-grave-centered! Jesus was not just our prophet and priest—he is our reigning King. At the cross we learn true humility, our hopeless sinfulness, and our need of God. At the empty tomb we fully appreciate what Christ has achieved for us and receive power to live for him. A deeper, fuller insight into the truth of Jesus’s resurrection will cause our lives to be radically transformed.
2. The resurrection has missed out on the beneficial effects of controversy and heresy.
The cross has prompted vociferous debate and hence much study. Most books about the cross of Jesus were written as a direct response to disagreements over the meaning of Jesus’s death. Recent controversy has centered on whether Jesus died in our place to take the punishment for our sin (penal substitution) and experience the full force of the wrath of God. This concept is taken from Romans, Isaiah 53, and elsewhere in Scripture. It can easily be explained to a child, yet its depths continue to puzzle the professor. A divine exchange occurred. He took our sin; we gained his righteousness. As a result, God’s attitude toward us changed, and now we are forgiven, and the guilt of our sin is washed away. God now sees us covered in the righteousness of his Son. With our debt paid, we come freely and boldly into the presence of a holy God. Paul explains this transaction as follows:
For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. . . . Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself. . . .
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:14–21)
This idea has recently been attacked by some leaders in the evangelical movement. Two key books popularized this. Steve Chalke and Alan Mann rejected this teaching as “cosmic child abuse.”3 Chalke, who remains one of the most influential figures in the UK’s evangelical movement, has since reaffirmed that he rejects the whole notion of penal substitution.4 In addition, from the other side of the Atlantic, Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker argue that this teaching is a form of sadomasochism.5 Incensed by such inflammatory language, some evangelicals responded robustly, arguing that such thinking is misguided and contrary to Scripture.
This argument has led directly to some positive results, including books being written and, in the UK, a significant new Christian conference, New Word Alive.6 This caused many Christians to come together with one accord, from a variety of denominational backgrounds, and has strengthened many churches.
Therefore, because persistent and ongoing doctrinal arguments are difficult to ignore, controversy tends to heighten our awareness of certain doctrines, while noncontroversial ones become neglected. Biblical truths seem, at least in the long term, to actually benefit from being attacked. Truth appears to be most visible when viewed against a backdrop of error. Many have rightly stressed that when we define true doctrine, we simultaneously define false teaching. As J. Gresham Machen said:
Every really great Christian utterance, it may almost be said, is born in controversy. It is when men have felt compelled to take a stand against error that they have risen to the really great heights in the celebration of truth.7
The average preacher does not directly explain heresy in his preaching; he is, however, well aware of it during his own preparation. He may deliberately engage the latest popular errors by preaching biblical truth as a specific antidote. Tim Challies8 compared discernment to identifying fake money:
In discerning what is true from what is false it is best to focus more attention on what is genuine than what is counterfeit. It would be tempting to train people to identify what is fraudulent by focusing a great amount of time on what is false. However, because falsehood is always changing, it is more beneficial to focus on what is unchanging. Knowing and identifying what is false can be done best by knowing and understanding what is true. A person who studies and understands what is true is necessarily equipping himself to discern what is false.9
God now sees us covered in the righteousness of his Son. With our debt paid, we come freely and boldly into the presence of a holy God.
This same approach is also seen in the New Testament, where most of the epistles are written in response to error in the churches. Surprisingly, Paul never elaborates in any real detail on precisely what false teaching he is addressing. Instead he explains the truth in a way that contradicts the specific errors, while not providing them a platform for further attention. This reads a bit like a transcript of one side of a telephone conversation. We could strain our brains in the fruitless task of trying to infer what is being said on the other end, or we can focus instead on understanding what the apostle is communicating.
At no point in church history has there been widespread debate among Christian theologians about the resurrection of Jesus. Certainly all major groups that say they are part of the Christian church today, including Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and all the Protestant denominations, believe that Jesus was raised bodily for us and that we too will be raised. Of course, some liberals deny the physical resurrection of Jesus, but there is broad agreement that by abandoning this view they lose their right to call themselves Christians at all. Because of this relative lack of controversy, we might incorrectly assume that all churchgoers believe in Jesus’s resurrection and fully understand its significance. Unfortunately, this doctrine is rarely discussed in great detail, and hence understanding about its full ramifications is often vague. We can be passionate about the glorious truths of God’s Word, even when they are not directly under assault. The relative absence of controversy or heresy concerning the resurrection is not a sufficient excuse for us to fail to fully explore the impact of this doctrine. All of our doctrinal walls must be firmly built, not just those that currently are under attack. We cannot afford to allow any important doctrine to fall into neglect simply because no one seems to be publicly contradicting it. Too many Protestants are so busy protesting about what they are against that they forget to declare as loudly what they are in favor of.
3. Our neglect of the resurrection could be part of a satanic strategy.
Without becoming obsessed with the Devil, we must recognize that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood” (Ephesians 6:12). It is quite likely that Satan has at least two different strategies that he utilizes to undermine truths that are essential to our faith. The first approach is to assault a biblical truth directly by encouraging us to doubt it or to form wrong conclusions about it. However, we have seen that attacks of this kind can often backfire and inadvertently benefit the church. Athanasius, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Spurgeon, and countless others taught glorious truth in direct reaction to the erroneous teaching of their day.
Satan’s other strategy might well be to encourage us to neglect a doctrine by merely assuming it. Everyone, in principle, accepts it, even though few may really understand it. Perhaps this is precisely how Satan has assaulted the doctrine of Jesus’s resurrection, as well as our own future resurrection.
We could even speculate that this doctrine is so distasteful to him that he cannot bear to think about the resurrection or even formulate false teaching on it. Given that it was such a glorious victory for Jesus, I am sure that Satan does not wish to be reminded of it, though he daily feels its effects. Satan might hope, therefore, that if he does not try to promote controversy and/or false teaching concerning the resurrection, perhaps the full implications of this important doctrine will remain relatively undiscovered. Since it is the power of the resurrection that enables us to live as Christians, it is no surprise if Satan is indeed trying to stop us from applying this power to our lives.
Satan sometimes also entices Christians to believe that they are defending a righteous cause even though they are profaning God’s name by the manner in which they are doing it. This is not dissimilar to the way many of the Pharisees of Jesus’s day behaved. For example, some bloggers seem to exist purely to root out the many and varied errors that are out there. They do so in a nasty manner and are nicknamed “watch bloggers.” We must not allow our enemy to define our agenda. We have a positive body of truth to proclaim irrespective of the latest popular theological heresy.
4. The Bible appears to rarely mention resurrection.
If we measured significance by merely comparing a count of those verses in the Bible where subjects are mentioned, we could assume that very little emphasis is placed on resurrection. However, there is little sense in this approach, since hell would then be more important than heaven, and money more important than forgiveness. The virgin birth of Jesus is mentioned only rarely in Scripture, but does that make it any less central?
Has the Resurrection Been Completely Neglected?
Absolutely not! Christians have not totally ignored the resurrection. The resurrection is, after all, precious to us and is acknowledged as a vital factor in our salvation. “No tenet of Christianity is more central. . . . Resurrection is at once the foundation of Christian faith and the focus of Christian hope.”10 We must not use either the cross or the resurrection to reduce the value of the other.11 Many evangelicals do value this doctrine, but we must look more closely at “the most important doctrine of the New Testament.”12
John Piper also declared, “The gospel has at its center the events of the cross and the resurrection.”13 He included these words even though the purpose of that book was to discuss how the cross is involved in saving us. Elsewhere in the same book he quotes14 1 Corinthians 15:3: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.”
- Emeritus Professor of Systematics at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia.
- Richard B. Gaffin, “Redemption and Resurrection,” Themelios, Vol. 27.2, Spring 2002, 16–31; see www.beginningwithmoses.org/articles/redemptionresurrection.htm.
- Steve Chalke and Alan Mann, The Lost Message of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 182.
- Steve Chalke, in Derek Tidball et al., The Atonement Debate (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 34–48.
- Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 30.
- See http://newwordalive.org.
- J. Gresham Machen, “Christian Scholarship and the Defense of the Faith,” in J. Gresham Machen: Selected Shorter Writings, ed. D. G. Hart (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2004), 148–149.
- Author of one of the most widely read Christian blogs, www.challies.com.
- Tim Challies, The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), 142.
- .Donald K. McKim and David F. Wright, Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1992), 319.
- See G. C. Berkouwer, The Work of Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), 192.
- George Eldon Ladd, I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1975), 10.
- John Piper, The Future of Justification (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), 82.
- Ibid., 89.
This article is adapted from Raised with Christ: How the Resurrection Changes Everything by Adrian Warnock.
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