FAQ's on the Cross and Resurrection

For a number of years now—actually, as long as I’ve been a part of Sovereign Grace— I’ve often been asked questions about our emphasis on the cross: Is it balanced? Is it biblical? Does it de‐emphasize the resurrection? I’ll attempt to answer a few of the more common questions I’ve received in a brief, FAQ format.

Question 1: Sovereign Grace churches and leaders often use the phrase “cross­ centered.” Doesn’t this phrase lead to an overemphasis on the cross and a neglect of the resurrection? (Issue: Neglecting the resurrection)

Phrases are no substitute for systematic theology, and I don’t think any of us would want our doctrine diluted down to a single adjective. However, this particular phrase reflects a common New Testament pattern in which “the cross” functions as shorthand for all the various facets of Christ’s atoning work—life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Paul in particular often speaks this way as he describes what it is that informs and animates his life and ministry: “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14), and “I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). In 1 Corinthians 1:17, the cross and the gospel are virtually equated. That’s why theologians for centuries have referred to Christ’s “cross‐work” in speaking of the whole complex of his redemptive acts. So the use of the phrase “cross‐centered” is neither biblically inconsistent nor historically innovative.

I suppose one could deal with “the cross” in such a way as to neglect the resurrection, but I suspect that in doing so one would be preaching a different kind of cross—for the cross and the resurrection are inextricable. The absence of one either drains or distorts the meaning of the other. In our circles, I think the use of this phrase is simply an attempt to keep the gospel central in our thinking and preaching, and hopefully our living as well.

Question 2: Christ has been raised, and so both the cross and the grave are now empty. In light of this, isn’t it wrong to focus on a crucified Savior when, after all, we serve a living Christ? (Issue: Distorting Christ’s identity)

This question creates a false choice—and a dangerous one—for how we are to view Jesus. The Savior we worship and serve is indeed a risen, glorious Savior, seated at the right hand of God (Colossians 3:1) and upholding all things by the word of his power (Hebrews 1:3). However, he is also the suffering servant who through his death ransoms many (Mark 10:45; see also Isaiah 53:10‐11) and the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). A crucified Jesus was central to the preaching of Paul, who emphatically reminded the Galatians that “it was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified” (Galatians 3:1). It was precisely because Paul boldly proclaimed “Christ crucified” that the gospel was a stumbling block (1 Corinthians 1:23)! In fact, we cannot know Jesus rightly apart from the cross, for it is through that gruesome death that his identity is revealed (John 8:28; see also 12:32, 34).

Something profound is at stake here. To conceive of Christ apart from the cross is to distort his identity and his mission, much as Peter did when he rebuked Jesus for announcing his pending suffering and death (Mark 8:31‐33). We can infer God’s greatness and power from his creation (Romans 1:19‐20), but it is at the cross that his love and mercy are most fully revealed. In the new heavens and new earth we will undoubtedly worship Christ in hushed silence as we behold his transcendent glory (Revelation 1:12‐17), extolling him as the victorious Lion of the tribe of Judah. But we will also forever sing his praise as the Lamb that was slain, whose blood ransomed the people of God (Revelation 5:6‐10). As a result, we are never to move on from beholding Jesus as our crucified Savior, relegating the cross to the past. The cross must always inform our understanding of Christ in the present, for it will indeed do so for eternity.

Question 3: It’s through union with Christ’s resurrection that we have been raised to walk in new spiritual life. If we talk about the cross so much, won’t we end up focusing only on sin and ignoring this important aspect of the Christian life? Doesn’t a focus on the resurrection lead us to a more holy, victorious Christian life? (Issue: Helping believers pursue sanctification)

Texts that speak of our union with Christ are precious and should be proclaimed and cherished. The Holy Spirit transforms the believer, providing power for godly living. Absolutely. But as in so many areas of biblical teaching, we must always beware of disjunctive thinking—of separating things that should be kept together.

For example, it is not only the resurrection that provides tremendous hope and motivation for a transformed life; the cross is meant to function this way as well. It seems that for Paul, one of the primary motivations for living a holy life is that Christ died for his sins: “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” (2 Corinthians 5:14‐15). We see a similar connection in Galatians 2:20, which falls amid Paul’s argument concerning justification by faith. The indwelling of Christ in the believer’s life is real and true—and Paul will stress this elsewhere, such as Galatians 5:16 and following. But his primary point in Galatians 2:20 seems to be that his new life is lived by faith, based solidly on the truth of justification as a result of Christ’s death for him. For the believer, then, both the cross and the resurrection fuel our motivation for godly living—and it’s best that they do so together.

We should also recognize that the danger of isolating one set of truths from another cuts both ways. To be sure, the new birth, our union with Christ, and the gift of the Spirit decisively transform our lives. But our present existence is not simply one of unbridled glory and triumph. We still battle the flesh, and we do so in a fallen world that awaits Christ’s return before all is set right again. And so, while we can know “the power of his resurrection,” at the same time we are to “share in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:10). We rejoice that we’ve been “born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3), even as we trust God in the jaws of suffering, knowing that “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21). The Savior himself told his disciples that following him involved a life of cruciform self‐denial (Mark 8:34‐35; 9:35; 10:42‐45). To isolate either the cross or the resurrection in the Christian life is to distort and impoverish it. The cross and resurrection together shape the contours of our lives as disciples of Jesus.

Question 4: In the book of Acts there seems to be a greater emphasis on Christ’s resurrection than the cross. Shouldn’t we follow the early church’s example and emphasize the resurrection over the cross? (Issue: Proportionality in biblical interpretation)

Interpreters of the book of Acts have long recognized the centrality of the resurrection—or better, the exaltation of Christ through his resurrection and ascension—in Luke’s presentation. (So much so, in fact, that some scholars have questioned whether Luke even has a theology of atonement!) While it’s true that the resurrection is prominent in Acts, those texts must be understood within the larger framework of the book. Luke’s primary focus in Acts is the progress and triumph of the gospel. Within this scheme, we see the apostles time and again in evangelistic and apologetic situations. When one is proclaiming the message of a crucified messiah—particularly within a few years of his death—the resurrection (and, in Luke’s writings, the ascension) becomes the fundamental apologetic point for supporting the claims of Jesus. Here, then, we find a central focus of the theology of the book of Acts: it is through the exaltation of Jesus that God confirms his status as Lord and savior. Far from marginalizing the cross, this focus authenticates its reality. This very point is made by Mark Seifrid: “In focusing on Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation Luke provides an apology for the claims of the gospel, supporting rather than diminishing the understanding of Jesus’ death as a vicarious atonement” [Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments (IVP, 1997), 272]. Therefore, an emphasis on the resurrection is precisely what we’d expect to find in such contexts, and it is in keeping with Luke’s overall purpose in writing his two‐volume work: to provide assurance to his readers that the foundation of their faith is secure (Luke 1:1‐4).

Question 5: With all the preaching and writing about the atonement that we see in evangelicalism, isn’t there a danger that the resurrection will get lost? (Issue: Overemphasizing the cross)

I don’t think there is, if teaching on the cross is handled responsibly. Once again, the cross and the resurrection are two aspects of a unified whole (see for instance 1 Corinthians 15:3‐4), and they should never be fundamentally separated. One without the other is meaningless. Attempts to subordinate one to the other are wrongheaded.

This does not mean, however, that we can’t speak at length about one without mentioning the other—an impulse that is well‐meaning but often unnecessary. We hear and read a great deal about various facets of Christ’s atoning death for good reason: Scripture reflects extensively upon the death of Jesus in ways that don’t directly apply to the resurrection. Howard Marshall makes a similar observation about Paul’s treatment of the gospel: “The central event in the gospel is the death and resurrection of Jesus. These two actions belong closely together (Rom 4:25; 8:34; 1 Cor 15:3–5; 2 Cor 5:15; Phil 3:10; 1 Thess 4:14), but the weight lies on the former” [New Testament Theology (IVP, 2004), 436]. This is in no way to create a hierarchy among the redemptive acts that make up the gospel. It is simply to recognize Paul’s priority of expounding the implications of Jesus’ sin‐bearing death for the spiritual health and nurture of the churches to which he wrote.

Take “propitiation,” for example. By definition, it was in his death that Christ endured God’s wrath in our place. The same is true for “redemption”: the ransom price for our redemption was the giving of Christ’s life. This is clear in texts like Mark 10:45, where Jesus says that he came to “give his life as a ransom for many,” and Ephesians 1:7, where we’re told that we have “redemption through his blood.” And on the face of it, Christ’s death is itself a sacrifice, fulfilling massive structures of Old Testament teaching and practice (the Passover lamb, the sacrificial system, etc.). Without detailed study of the atonement, vast swaths of Old Testament revelation, which molded the thinking of New Testament writers, remain in the shadows.

In this context it bears repeating: in no way do I want to minimize the resurrection, or to neglect its truth or implications for our lives. Indeed, at least one biblical metaphor for the atonement, Christ’s conquest in Colossians 2, richly illuminates it and has perhaps been neglected in some segments of evangelicalism. But I think Scripture itself leads us to place an emphasis on the cross, exploring as it does the significance of Christ’s death with great depth and richness, and at length. It is our privilege and responsibility as teachers of God’s Word to do the same.

There’s another point that I find missing in such objections about cross‐centered language, writing, and preaching. It’s instructive that the one ordinance instituted by  our Lord to be observed repeatedly among the gathered people of God is designed primarily to picture and call to mind his death for us. In the Lord’s Supper, we partake of bread, symbolizing Christ’s broken body, and we drink from a cup, symbolizing his shed blood. And in doing so we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). Of course, the resurrection and exaltation of Christ are also in view in the Lord’s Supper, for we partake in anticipation of his return, when we will feast with Christ in the messianic banquet (Matthew 26:29; Revelation 19:9). But the primary focus of the Supper is Christ’s atoning death and the benefits that accrue to those who share in it by faith. If Christ calls his church regularly to celebrate such a “cross‐centered” sacrament, are we wrong to give consistent attention to the cross in our preaching and teaching and praise?