[K:NWTS 2/2 (Sep 1987) 3-13]

A Sermon on I Corinthians 15:14

Geerhardus Vos

Among the evils which threatened the life of the church at Corinth (and to correct which was Paul's chief end in writing this epistle) were certain doubts and errors on the subject of the resurrection. Evidently Paul attributed to these very great importance. You can infer this from the fact that in dealing with the various abnormal conditions in the church, he reserves the treatment of this particular evil for the close of the epistle. He wanted the impression of what he had to say on this point to be the final and most lasting impression left upon the minds of the Corinthians. All the other problems concerning such matters as divisions and partisanship, the relapse into pagan modes of living, marriages between believers and unbelievers–important though they were in themselves–belonged after all to the periphery, the outcome, not the root and center of Christianity.

But with the resurrection, it was a totally different matter. Here the heart, the core, the very foundation and substance of the Christian faith were at stake. Paul felt that if on this vital point a serious departure from the truth were allowed to develop itself unhindered, then sooner or later, by the inexorable law of organic disease, the whole body was doomed to destruction. Thus, and thus only, can we explain the intensely earnest, careful, thorough-going manner in which the apostle conducts the battle for this part of the Christian position. Paul was so profoundly impressed with the vital character of this truth that no other method of vindicating it could satisfy him than one by which it was placed in the center of the Christian religion and all the light that streamed from its highest experiences and convictions focused upon it.

We may say Paul here exhibits the resurrection as that towards which everything in Christianity tends; the goal in which all thinking and striving and hoping of believers finds its perfect rest and triumphant solution. It seems to me we can set for ourselves no more appropriate or profitable task this Easter day than at the hand of the apostle to trace the inner nexus of our Christian faith with the resurrection of Christ. If the observance by the church of special seasons associated with the great epochs in the work of redemption is to be justified at all, it can be justified on no higher ground than that such seasons as Christmas and Easter and Pentecost invite us to rise for a moment from the poor fragmentariness of our average consciousness of salvation to that clearer and more blessed vision whereby as from a mountain top we span the entire origin of our faith. Everything belongs to us of right, brethren, because we are Christ's and Christ is God's; but we are consciously rich in so far only as we learn to place ourselves at least sometimes on those points of elevation from which we may survey the land of God's promises as a whole. Perhaps we do not sufficiently appreciate the extent to which the remembrance at stated seasons of these great facts of the incarnation, the atonement, the resurrection, the gift of the Spirit, has kept alive in the church the spirit of true evangelical piety. I am sure we shall not have meditated upon the words in vain if our meditation leads us to realize in some measure how entirely our holy religion stands or falls with the resurrection of Christ.

Resurrection and Justification

There are three trains of thought that I would like briefly to pursue with you. Let us ask in succession: what does the resurrection of Christ mean for our justification; what does it mean for our regeneration; what does it mean for our glorification? First of all then we observe that the resurrection stands for Paul in the center of the gospel as a gospel of justification–of deliverance from the guilt of sin. To Paul the one religious question which overshadows in importance all others is the question: "How shall a sinful man become righteous in the sight of God?" Now if the resurrection of Christ had nothing to contribute towards the solution of this one stupendous problem, then (whatever significance in other connections might belong to it) it could scarcely be said to be of the heart of the gospel. It would have to recede into the shadow of the cross. As a matter of fact, this frequently takes place in our minds when we think of the forgiveness of sins. That justification depends on the cross is one of the commonplaces of our evangelical belief; so much so that we hardly deem it necessary to ask whether the resurrection perhaps may not have an equally important bearing on this great concern of our souls with the righteousness of God. Now it appears from these words of our text that to Paul the resurrection is an absolutely necessary step in the work of atonement and justification. "If Christ has not been raised," he says to the Corinthians, "your faith is vain." That is to say, your faith is ineffective and worthless. And in which respect, their faith would be ineffective and worthless on the supposition that Christ was not raised appears from the following words: "Ye are yet in your sins." It is justifying faith–faith in its connection with the forgiveness of sins–the efficacy of which is somehow bound up with the Savior's resurrection. "Ye are yet in your sins" means "ye are yet under the condemnation of sin"; subject to the wrath of God; exposed to eternal destruction. This appears still more clearly from what the apostle straightway adds: "Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ have perished."

Nor is this the only place in the epistles of Paul where the justification of the believer and the resurrection of Christ are joined together. Elsewhere we read that our Christian faith, on which the imputation of righteousness depends, is in God as the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead (Rom. 10:9). Christ was delivered for our sins; he was raised for our justification (Rom. 4:25). Nobody can lay anything to the charge of God's elect; God justifies and none can condemn because it is Christ Jesus that died, yea rather that was raised from the dead (Rom. 8:33,34). To speak in one's heart despairingly, as if righteousness were still to be provided would be equivalent to saying: who shall ascend into heaven, viz., for the purpose of bringing Christ down to his life of suffering and humiliation; and who shall descend into the abyss, viz., for the purpose of bringing Christ up from the realm of death. The two things therefore on which righteousness depends are the descent of Christ from heaven to bear our sins and the resurrection. Hence, "if thou shalt believe in thy heart that God raised Jesus from the dead, thou shalt be saved" (Rom. 10:9).

From all this, it is perfectly plain that we are not dealing here with an isolated form of representation, but with something which stood out in the apostle's teaching as a fundamental truth on which he dwelt repeatedly in the most various connections. We are therefore bound to put the question: "What is it that the resurrection contributes to our becoming righteous in the sight of God?" I think we can put the answer in the most simple form by saying, "The resurrection stands related to righteousness in the same way that death stands related to sin. If we once clearly understand what death meant to the apostle, then it will immediately become plain what the resurrection of Christ meant to him. Death is a word that looms large in the Pauline epistles. By no one perhaps has the terribleness of death been so intensely realized as by the apostle. Death appears to him personified as a great enemy, a huge specter, casting its dreadful shadow over human existence, something that it is impossible to become reconciled to, more horrible than any other shape or form to be encountered in the spiritual world. Now to what does death owe this its unique terror in the mind of Paul? Is it simply the inevitable aesthetic recoil from its loathsomeness as a process of physical dissolution? Or shall we say that the apostle shrinks from death because of the strong, instinctive desire to live, as every living being shrinks from that which threatens to cut short its existence? Both of these feelings are to a greater or lesser degree present in the mind of every man. They were undoubtedly present in the mind of Paul and colored to some extent his intense consciousness on the subject. But they do not explain this consciousness exhaustively. In the apostle's attitude towards death, there is something more than this, something different from this; there is an element of moral revulsion. Paul abhors and hates death because it is the wages–the penalty of sin. Whatever else it might be, to him it appeared first of all as a minister of condemnation, the personified, incarnate sentence of God against sin. This is what death is when you strip it of all accidental features. Death is the exponent of sin. Its sentence and penalty is one with which the criminality of sin ineffaceably stamps the sinner. The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law, and the law is nothing else than God himself personally confronting the transgressor and rendering judgment: "The soul that sinneth it shall die."

Now if this be [the] significance of death in general, it follows that the death of Christ in particular must be interpreted on the same principle. Christ was made sin on our behalf. When he assumed our guilt, it became inevitable that not merely some general form of suffering entailed by sin should fall on him, but that also the one great typical punishment of sin should be visited on him–that he should die. Though his whole life in the flesh was sin-bearing from beginning to end, yet it was specifically in the cross and in the death that took place upon the cross that the condemnatory power of the law was concentrated on Christ. There it was made manifest that he had become sin for us, the curse incarnate. But if this be so, then the significance of the resurrection for the atoning work of Christ immediately springs into view. If the Savior's death was the embodiment of the curse which rests upon the world, then so long as he remained under the power of death there could be no assurance that satisfaction had been rendered, the condemnation of the divine wrath removed. On the other hand, as soon as at any point the process of death is suspended and life permitted to emerge from death, this will be equivalent to a practical declaration on God's part that the curse has exhausted itself, the penalty been paid. Now Christ's bodily resurrection was the only way in which this could be impressively declared. As the curse laid upon him had assumed the visible form of separation between body and soul, it was necessary that in the same physical sphere, in the same palpable form, the divine absolution should be solemnly pronounced and placed on record. By raising Christ from death, God as the supreme Judge set his seal to the absolute perfection and completeness of his atoning work. The resurrection is a public announcement to the world that the penalty of death has been borne by Christ to its bitter end and that in consequence the dominion of guilt has been broken, the curse annihilated forevermore.

And all this was true of Christ not in his personal capacity so much but as our representative. We were concerned–you and I and all believers–in this momentous transaction. The principle of our justification was given here as an accomplished fact. It is just as impossible that any one for whom Christ rose from the dead should fail to receive the righteousness of God as it is that God should undo the resurrection of Christ itself. Consequently, knowing ourselves one with Christ, we find in the resurrection the strongest possible assurance of pardon and peace. Brethren, when Christ rose on Easter morning he left behind him in the depths of the grave every one of our sins; there they remain buried from the sight of God so completely that even in the day of judgment they will not be able to rise up against us any more. And not only is this true of the resurrection as an accomplished fact, it is true in an even higher sense of the risen Lord himself. The very life of the exalted Christ is a witness to the blessed reality of the forgiveness of our sins. In the living Savior Paul would have us by faith grasp our justification. In the same real sense in which on earth he was identified with our sin, he is now in his resurrection-life identified with our state of pardon and acceptance. According to the profound words of the apostle, we are become the righteousness of God in him (II Cor. 5:20) because he has become the righteousness of God for us.

Resurrection and Regeneration

In the second place, the resurrection of Christ is of basal importance for the renewal of our life, for our regeneration and sanctification. We are all conscious that the creative, regenerating power which transforms our life, which expels sin and infuses holiness proceeds from the Spirit of Christ. And by this again Paul does not merely mean that in accordance with the Trinitarian constitution of the Godhead the Son sends the Spirit as his representative and agent to execute his task. The apostle clearly teaches that Christ as God-Man–as Mediator–in his exalted state has in a special, unique sense the disposal of the Spirit; inasmuch as the Spirit dwells in his own human nature and invests it with transcendent power and glory. Christ is Lord of the Spirit; nay in even stronger language we say with Paul, Christ is the Spirit (I Cor. 15:45; II Cor. 3:17). Now the point to be noticed for our present purpose is that this unique and close relationship between the Spirit and Christ dates from the moment of the resurrection. By the resurrection of the dead, he was effectually decreed to be the Son of God in power (Rom. 1:4). At the resurrection, he became the Second Adam who is a life-giving Spirit (I Cor. 15:45). In still another form the same thought is expressed when Paul represents the glory of Christ as the source from which supernatural power is brought to bear upon the believer (II Cor. 3:12). This glory of Christ again is none other than his resurrection-glory.

From various points of view therefore, we are taught by the apostle that the resurrection of Christ, besides being the divine acknowledgement of his perfect righteousness, is also the fountain head of all the renewing and quickening influences that descend from him to us. To preach a risen Christ means to preach a gospel which claims to come with the demonstration of the Spirit and with power. It means to assume that this world is dead in trespasses and sins, that no word of persuasion, no force of example, no release from the body, in fact that nothing short of a new creation can give it life. Precisely here lies the point where the old apostolic gospel of Paul and the modern moralizing interpretations of Christianity part ways. Because the modern world has ceased to take sin seriously, it has lost its sense for the necessity of the supernatural in the work of salvation; and to such a state of mind the message of the resurrection of Christ no longer appeals. At present it is believed by many who call themselves Christians that all that is necessary to reach a state of perfection is the self-evolution of the natural man. Now so far as purely inward processes are concerned this modern naturalistic spirit finds it easy to clothe itself in the old Christian forms and to retain the old Christian ways of speaking. But it will immediately rise up in protest when confronted with an intrusion of the supernatural in the external, physical sphere, such as the resurrection of the body. Need we wonder then that where Christians have begun to give ear to this seductive spirit, the doctrine of the resurrection should gradually have come to be regarded as a source of weakness rather than of strength. The conviction seems to be gaining ground that all practical ends of religion will be equally well served and a possible cause of offense removed by exchanging this doctrine for a simple belief in the immortality of the soul with reference both to Christ and believers. We may learn from Paul, brethren, that skepticism on this concrete point is symptomatic of infection with the poison of naturalism in the very heart of the Christian faith. The most striking feature of Paul's treatment of the resurrection here and elsewhere is that, far from representing it as an isolated fact, he makes it part of an organic work of renewal involving both the soul and the body of man. The resurrection is supernatural for no other reason than that from beginning to end–in regeneration and sanctification, and in everything–the work of grace is supernatural in the most absolute sense of the word. According to Paul the same exceeding greatness of divine power is displayed in the production of spiritual life in the sinner's soul as when God raised Christ from the dead and made him to sit at his right hand in heavenly places. The one is no more difficult to believe and no more essential to hold than the other. The great question for you and for me is not whether we shall believe or disbelieve the resurrection as a single historic event, but whether we shall maintain or surrender the character of Christianity as a resurrection-religion–a religion able to bring life out of death, both here and hereafter. Can the choice be difficult to any of us?

Resurrection and Glorification

In the third place, let us very briefly observe that the resurrection of Christ is fundamental for our glorification. Ours is a religion whose center of gravity lies beyond the grave in the world to come. The conviction that the gospel is primarily intended to prepare man for a future life and that consequently neither its true nature can be understood nor its full glory appreciated unless it be placed in the light of eternity–this conviction broadly underlies the apostle's reasoning both here and elsewhere. Christianity does many things for the present life, but if we wish to apprehend how much it can do, we must direct our gaze to the life beyond. What more eloquent expression of this feeling can be conceived than is found in immediate proximity to our text in the words: "If (nearing the end) we are such who have only hope in Christ in this life, we are of all men most pitiable." What else does this mean than that the Christian's main thinking and feeling and striving revolve around the future state; and that, if this goal should prove to have no objective reality, the absoluteness with which the believer has staked everything in its attainment must make him appear in his delusion the most pitiable of all creatures. What a gulf then lies between this statement of the apostle and the sentiment we sometimes meet with–that Christianity had better disencumber itself of all idle speculation about an uncertain future state and concentrate its energies upon the improvement of the present world. Paul could not have entertained such a sentiment for a moment because the thirst for the world to come was of the very substance of the religion of his heart. He felt deeply that the believer's destiny and God's purposes with reference to him transcend all limits of what this earthly life can possibly bring or possibly contain. Christ's work for us extends even farther than the restoration of what sin has destroyed. If Christ placed us back there where Adam stood in his rectitude, without sins and without death, this would be unspeakable grace indeed, more than enough to make the gospel a blessed word. But grace exceeds sin far more abundantly than all this: besides wiping out the last vestige of sin and its consequences, it opens up for us that higher world to whose threshold even the first Adam had not yet apprehended. And this is not a mere matter of degrees in blessedness, it is a difference between two modes of life; as heaven is high above the earth, by so much the condition of our future state will transcend those of the paradise of old.

It is for this reason that we know so little, and that even in the moments of greatest clearness of our spiritual vision we form such inadequate ideas of what awaits us hereafter. But, thanks be to God, in the resurrection of Christ for once the veil has been lifted. When Christ rose from the grave he rose as one whose human nature had been transformed into harmony with heavenly conditions. This was true not merely of his body, but of all the faculties and powers of his humanity hitherto exercised in humiliation and now set free and made fit for their perfect use in heavenly glory. In this respect the resurrection of Christ is prophetic of that of all believers. As we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly man (I Cor. 15:49). In the resurrection, therefore, we have the assurance that we ourselves also shall be made fit in our entire nature for our habitation in heaven. It is only by understanding this that we can understand the true significance of the resurrection of the body. Not that our bodies as such shall be restored to us is the great hope of the Christian, but that they shall be restored to us in such a state as to resemble the resurrection-body of Christ; that through them our spirits may dwell in perfect accord with their heavenly surroundings and may lead in its consummate form the life that knows no end.

In conclusion let us observe that these three aspects of the resurrection of Christ are not merely each for its own part fundamental, but are also, when taken together, a comprehensive summary of the gospel which we are commissioned to preach. Peace of conscience, renewal of life, assurance of heaven: what more than this could we endeavor to bring to our fellowman? What less than this could we dare to offer them under the name of the gospel? As preachers of Christ and the resurrection, let us always remember to give due prominence to these three great things. Is there not a special satisfaction in being able to proclaim a gospel which so completely covers the needs of a sinful world? "If Christ has not been raised–then is our preaching vain and vain the faith of all that hear us." But now that Christ hath been raised from the dead and brought righteousness and life and heaven to light, now we can be steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as we know that our labor is not in vain in the Lord.

Preached in Princeton Chapel on Easter, April 23, 1905
Princeton, New Jersey