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The Threefold Justification of the Resurrection

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The profound significance of Christ’s resurrection comes from the threefold justification it provides: it justifies the sinner, the sinner’s hope, and God himself.

The recent celebration of Easter has led me to contemplate the significance of resurrection anew. The more trials I face and evils I witness, the dearer God’s promise of resurrection becomes! I now understand Paul better when he states his life goal: “that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil. 3:11-12, NASB95)

Jesus Christ’s resurrection, which serves as the precursor for our own, is a true fountain of theological riches. Among the benefits it produces is justification. In Scripture, to justify something is to prove or declare that it is just. The profound significance of Christ’s resurrection comes from the threefold justification it provides: it justifies the sinner, the sinner’s hope, and God himself.

Justification of the Sinner

When Christians speak of justification, they usually mean the justification of the sinner before God. This is accomplished by faith through our union with Christ, in which our sins are transferred to him and his righteousness is transferred to us, allowing God to rightly declare us just. We tend to focus on Christ’s atoning death as the source of this justification, but his resurrection is also linked to our justification, as Paul explains when discussing how God credited righteousness to Abraham. It is our God-given faith in what was objectively accomplished through Christ’s resurrection that justifies us before him.

“But the words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” (Rom. 4:23-25)

Furthermore, it is our sharing in Christ and his benefits that allows us to be justified before God, and Scripture is clear that this involves our union with Christ’s death and resurrection through baptism. Paul writes, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, 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). And again he says, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).

Peter echoes Paul’s conclusions, stating that “baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ...” (1 Peter 3:21) Notice how Peter points to “the resurrection of Jesus Christ” as the instrument by which “baptism now saves you,” for it is “through” Christ’s resurrection that salvation is accomplished. Christ’s resurrection therefore has an intimate connection with our justification and salvation.

Justification of Humanity’s Hope

Christ’s resurrection justifies not only the sinner but also the hope that sinner places in Christ for salvation. The resurrection was a demonstration of God’s power and proof positive that this power resided in Christ. It also demonstrated that the atonement on the cross was satisfactory. Thus, Paul remarks that Jesus “was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead.” (Rom. 1:4) In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul boldly states that our faith in Christ for salvation would be in vain were it not for the fact of his resurrection from the dead.

“For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” (1 Cor. 15:16-22)

Because Christ has been raised from the dead, we are no fools to place our hope in him. Indeed, we are daily assured of the reality of our salvation when we remember that the Spirit who raised Christ has also raised our spirits from the dead and will one day raise our bodies as well.

Justification of God

It may seem counterintuitive to speak of  God as  justified. After all, God is entirely just by nature! But remember, Scripture also speaks of justification in terms of establishing the justice of a thing to men. There are times when we have reason to doubt God’s goodness, and in these moments we long to see proof of the justice of God’s ways.

When David suffered under the guilt and condemnation of his sin, he proclaimed the essential righteousness of his Judge. “Against you, you only, have I sinned / and done what is evil in your sight, / so that you may be justified in your words / and blameless in your judgment” (Ps. 51:4). Paul referenced this passage when he declared that a righteous God is blameless in holding unrighteousness accountable:

What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written,
‘That you may be justified in your words,
and prevail when you are judged.’
But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) By no means! For then how could God judge the world? (Rom. 3:3-6)

Later in the same chapter, Paul again provides justification for God’s actions when he explains that God bore for a time the sins committed prior to Christ’s coming “to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). Yes, God is not only the justifier: he himself is just.

Nevertheless, two incidents in Scripture give people particular trouble in accepting the justice of God. The first is God’s command to Abraham that he make his son Isaac a burnt offering. While God ultimately provided a substitute for Isaac, Abraham himself believed God was just in commanding the destruction of the child of promise for one reason. As the author of Hebrews tells us, “He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead” (Heb. 11:19). So, God would have been justified in requiring such a thing if he had then raised Isaac from the dead, because it would have enabled the fulfillment of God’s promise to give Abraham a progeny through his wife Sarah. Resurrection could have justified God in this case.

Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac is a type of the greater event: the sacrifice of the Son of God upon Mount Calvary. Oh, how people object to the idea that God would send his innocent Son to die in the place of sinners! That he would require the righteous One to bear sin! That Christ would be forced even to experience the wrath that is suffered by sinners in becoming one of them! Many reject it. They call it an abomination: a monstrous theology, cosmic child abuse, a God no different from the devil.

Such persons would be correct in labeling the cross a horrendous evil were it not for one thing: resurrection. The resurrection of the Son justifies the Father, for the Son laid down his life on the condition that he would take it up again. “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father” (John 10:17-18).

The Son was not being abused at Calvary. He freely made himself a guilt offering, on account of which he was raised, glorified, and given all authority in heaven and earth. 

“And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:8-11).

The justification of God, accomplished by Christ’s resurrection, reveals that God the Father is no monster, but the saving One who declares his approval of his Son before the whole world. He did not abandon him to decay.

Therefore, we praise God for the resurrection of Jesus Christ, without which we have no hope in this life or the next, and without which neither he nor we would be just.