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The Cross and the Resurrection | Part V

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?

For part one of this series, click here.

For part two of this series, click here.

For part three of this series, click here.

For part four of this series, click here.