“And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.”
1 Corinthians 15:17
Last week I was preparing for the Easter sermon from 1 Corinthians 15:12-20 when something happened that changed my week. I was working with a group of friends when we bumped into verse 17. The gist of it is this, If Jesus died on the cross and stayed dead, then you are still responsible for your sins. They haven’t been taken away, atoned for, and forgiven. Have you considered this?
The light came on for me when one of the people in our group asked, “If Jesus died and stayed dead, couldn’t we still be forgiven?” In other words, “Jesus died on the cross for our sins, isn’t that enough?” I’d never considered things from this angle before and I’ve been chewing on it ever since.
The plain meaning of verse 17 is, no, if Jesus is dead, you are still in your sins. You can see also Romans 4:25 for a similar thought. This means that Jesus’ resurrection is just as vital to our salvation as Jesus’ death, yet I look back over my life and see that for a long time I neglected the resurrection. I never rejected it, but I did ignore or overlook it. Why?
I can think of three reasons why I fell into the trap of becoming so conscious of Christ’s death that I lost sight of his resurrection.
- The Old Covenant system that prepares the way for the cross is a sacrificial system that requires the death of various animals but no resurrection. The Passover lamb doesn’t come back to life. On the day of atonement, when the high priest kills a goat to atone for the sins of the people, the goat stays dead.
- The gospels go to great lengths to describe Jesus’ betrayal, denial, false conviction, suffering and death. One writer famously described the gospels as “Passion narratives with long introductions.” By comparison, the resurrection comes in for less attention. Mark simply informs us that Jesus is alive, Matthew and Luke give one chapter each to the resurrection, and John has two.
- There are many more books and songs focused on “surveying the wonderful cross” (and wonderful it is!) than there are about the resurrection.
For these reasons and more, it is easy to reduce the gospel to, “Christ died for my sins,” and the cross to, “Christ died,” when in fact the gospel is, “ For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4, italics added).
What do we lose if we overlook or ignore Jesus’ resurrection? If Jesus didn’t die on the cross, we know Christianity collapses, because our sins are not atoned for, they are still in our account and we are guilty before a holy God. But if Jesus died on the cross and stayed dead, we are still in our sins because death is still in charge. “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). When Jesus rose from the dead, he defeated the enemy of death and the new creation began right here on planet earth. This means that when we become Christians we die to sin and rise to newness of life (Romans 6:4).
The resurrection gives us hope that the life of our living Lord is working in us right now. Christ has risen from the dead and the same Spirit that raised him from the dead is now at work in Christians. This means change is possible. If people who were dead in their sins can be made alive in Christ, then transformation is possible in every area of our lives. There is resurrection power to overcome sin, to live by faith, to live fearlessly in the face of death.
Some years ago I had a conversation with a church member about our church’s emphasis on the cross. He mentioned that he wished we would include the resurrection more often and more clearly. When I asked him why, he replied that it was the resurrection that gave him hope, not just for life after death but also for joy and power to live for God today. I’ve often reflected on that conversation and every year that goes by I see the wisdom of his comments more clearly.
Is the cross enough? If by “cross” we mean “Jesus’ death” then the cross by itself is not enough. Without the Jesus’ death on the cross Christianity collapses and we have no hope. But if Jesus died on the cross and stayed dead, we are of all people most to be pitied.
As author James Denney wrote over 100 years ago, “There can be no salvation from sin unless there is a living Saviour: this explains the emphasis laid by the apostle [Paul] on the resurrection. But the living One can be a Saviour only because He has died: this explains the emphasis laid on the cross.”
Nearing the end of his life, the apostle Paul urged his friend Timothy to “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead” (2 Timothy 2:8). May God grant us all the help we need to do the same.
 James Denney, The Death of Christ, p. 73.