Raised For Our Justification

Lee Irons
Wednesday, August 15th 2007
Mar/Apr 1996

It is a commonplace of theology that the life of the incarnate Son of God can be divided into two major states. Reformed theologians call these two states the state of humiliation and the state of exaltation.

The humiliation of Christ begins with his incarnation, when the divine Word of God left the bliss of his Father's glory and willingly became flesh for our salvation. His birth was in humble circumstances–his mother laid the divine baby in a feeding-trough for animals. His upbringing was unattended by the gaudy displays of wealth normally associated with the royalty of this world. He suffered as any ordinary peasant did who lived in the backwaters of Galilee during the Imperial occupation. In addition to the common lot of humanity under the curse, the Messiah of Israel's ancient hopes suffered the further ignominy of being rejected by the majority of his family and fellow countrymen. Even further, he was tried for blasphemy, convicted by false witnesses, cruelly tortured by Roman soldiers, and finally executed as a criminal more dangerous to the societal order than the insurrectionist Barabbas. But even this was not the height of his suffering. He endured excruciating abandonment by his own Father, accursed and judged by a holy God for our sins: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" And he was buried, entombed in the belly of a more wretched whale than Jonah's (Mt 12:40).

But this is not the end of the story! "The Kerygma: Part II" is now playing in churches everywhere. Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, the light of the first day of the new creation dawned. Something deep within the fundamental fabric of the cosmos changed. The Son of God reclaimed his former glory and the world has never been, nor will it ever be, the same again. The exaltation of Christ commenced with the glorious resurrection of the Firstborn from the dead. Forty days he showed himself to his disciples with convincing proofs until he was received by the Shekinah cloud of the divine glory. He ascended into heaven, approached the Ancient of Days to receive his kingdom, took his seat at the right hand of the Father, and broke the seals of the scroll of history. He now reigns from heaven, with all authority and dominion, waiting until all his enemies are made his footstool. And he will come again to judge the living and the dead, to present to himself his Bride, the church, bodily transformed into his likeness without spot or wrinkle. The exaltation of Christ began at the resurrection and it continues eternally into the future. It is indeed a great and magnificent theme.

Dividing Christ's life into these two states has its precedent in Scripture itself. Peter tells us that the principal theme of the Old Testament prophets was "the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow" (1 Pt 1:10-11). Paul agrees. In his apology before King Agrippa he argued that he was "saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen–that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles" (Acts 26:22-23). But ultimately the apostles were following in the hermeneutical footsteps of their Lord. It was he who, on the day of his resurrection, rebuked two of his disciples for the shallowness of their biblical understanding: "How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?" (Lk 24:25-26). It is a constant theme: the sufferings and then the glory; the humiliation and then the exaltation.

Like the disciples, it is sadly true that more often than not we have a better grasp of the sufferings of Christ than of his glory. We understand in some measure that Christ had to die for our sins. But why is the exaltation of Christ so important? Why did Christ have to rise from the dead? What is the theological significance of the exaltation of Christ? If it is true that the Bible places just as much emphasis on the exaltation of Christ as his humiliation, we must ask, "Why?"

The Heidelberg Catechism helps us begin to answer this question. Lord's Day 17 is devoted to a single question and answer: "Question: How does Christ's resurrection benefit us? Answer: First, by his resurrection he has overcome death, so that he might make us share in the righteousness he won for us by his death." The catechism goes on to deal with the other saving benefits of regeneration and glorification, but here we will restrict our attention to justification. However, this does not mean that our study will be restricted, for "the doctrine of justification by faith is like Atlas: it bears a world on its shoulders, the entire evangelical knowledge of saving grace." (1)

Justification is a primary soteriological benefit of Christ's resurrection. This is plainly taught in Scripture: "He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification" (Rom 4:25). But the precise nature of the connection between the resurrection of Christ and our justification needs some explaining.

Let's begin by making sure we understand the meaning of the verse itself. Paul's basic point is not difficult to understand. In his death, Christ was judicially "handed over" on account of our sins. Our sins were the judicial basis of his death. He was condemned because of our transgressions. But in his resurrection, the judicial relationship changes. His resurrection becomes the judicial basis of our justification. By being raised from the dead, Christ was vindicated, acquitted, freed of all charges. He was declared to be righteous and accepted as such in the court of heaven. But ultimately this was for our justification.

It is a mistake to assume that the repetition of the prepositional phrases ("for our sins … for our justification") is intended to convey a parallelism. Upon closer examination, it becomes clear that the force of this verse actually lies in the exact reversal of the judicial relationship. Our sins caused Christ's death. But Christ's life causes us to be freed of the guilt of our sins. The preposition "for" is being used in two different senses: "He was delivered to death on account of our sins and was raised to life for the purpose of our justification." (2)

Paul likes to do this sort of thing. He likes to craft antithetical parallelisms in order to express the heart of the gospel in a nutshell. For example, "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor 5:21). Or, "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich" (2 Cor 8:9). These verses are like brilliant diamonds cut to precise tolerances in order to let the light of God's incredible grace dazzle the eye of faith. All of these texts have something in common: Paul wants to highlight the "marvelous exchange" of our sins for Christ's righteousness. Accordingly, Romans 4:25 teaches that if our sins killed Christ then his resurrection lets us go free. He received the rap that we might receive the blessing. Our sins (which should have resulted in our judgment) caused him to be handed over to die, and his resurrection (which we might imagine he deserved to enjoy solely for himself) caused us to be declared righteous in God's sight.

It is the idea of judicial representation. Generally speaking, most of us understand this idea when applied to the death of Christ. He judicially represented us on the cross by paying for our sins. But how many of us would apply this to Christ's resurrection as well? Paul tells us that Christ represented us not only in his vicarious death but in his resurrection: "And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake both died and was raised" (2 Cor 5:15). If Christ's death was substitutionary, then his resurrection was as well. Just as we can say that Christ was condemned in our place, we can equally say that he was justified in our place.

At first this may sound heretical. "If you say Jesus was justified, you're saying he was a sinner in need of forgiveness. Only sinners need to be justified, right?" Wrong! It is imperative that we expand our definition of "justification" beyond merely the forgiveness of sins. Following Paul's own example (Rom 5:12-21), we will therefore take a little detour back to the garden of Eden in order to make sense of this odd-sounding claim. Even before the entrance of sin into the world Adam needed to be justified, that is, he needed a judicial declaration granting him a right to eternal life. Consider Adam as he was before the fall, innocent and without sin. He did not yet possess eternal life. True, he had not yet incurred the punishment that God had threatened ("In the day that you eat of the tree you will surely die"). He was not yet mortal in the sense that we are mortal, i.e., destined to die. But on the other hand, he was not immortal either. He could die–an obvious statement, and one that is clearly demonstrated by the fact that he did. And if he could die, then he did not have eternal life.

But although he did not actually possess eternal life as he was created, God offered him a way of getting it. According to the Reformed understanding of Genesis 1-3, God entered into a covenant with Adam in order to give him the possibility of gaining the right to eternal life. "The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience" (Westminster Confession VII.2). In other words, Adam was put under a test or a probation. If he had kept the condition (perfect obedience to God), he would have obtained eternal life–a higher kind of life than the life he had by virtue of his creation, a life that can never be forfeited. This aspect of the pre-fall arrangement usually goes unnoticed. The negative side is obvious: if Adam sins, he must die. But there was a positive side as well. The tree of life was pledge of the reward of eternal life that God offered Adam on condition that he passed his probation (Gn 2:9; 3:22-24; Rv 2:7; 22:2, 14, 19).

This is the broader biblical picture of justification. Justification presupposes the existence of a covenant of works. It is impossible to conceive of someone being justified unless there is a covenantal arrangement that makes this possible. "Justification is impossible without a covenant." (3) Imagine what it would be like if God had not entered into a covenant with Adam but had simply required perpetual obedience with no promise of eternal life. Only two options would lie before him. Either he could disobey God and fall into judgment (death). Or he could just continue to obey. But at any point he would be capable of falling. He could remain in this state of integrity indefinitely. But that would be all. Even after millions of years, he would still be "on probation." He could never have a confirmed relationship with God, a non-forfeitable life. No "secure horizons" for Adam! Just the endless potential for falling.

But a covenant makes justification possible. On such an arrangement, if the human party successfully passes the period of testing, then he will be justified, that is, his relationship with God will be advanced to a level of permanent security. He will be granted a non-forfeitable right to eternal life. In fact, it will be an inalienable right–that is, it is a right which the possessor cannot surrender even if he theoretically wanted to. Justification is God's judicial recognition that the covenant of works has been fulfilled and that therefore the right to eternal life has been obtained.

On this definition of justification, it is legitimate to say that Christ was justified. For as the Last Adam he entered into a covenant of works on our behalf (Rom 5:12-21; 1 Cor 15:22, 45). The first Adam miserably failed. But the Last Adam gloriously triumphs! The first Adam broke the covenant, thus bringing death. But the Last Adam keeps the covenant, thus bringing life and that more abundantly! On these two Adams the entire gospel hangs.

There are differences between the two Adams, of course. First, because of the introduction of sin into the world, the probationary phase of the Last Adam included something that the first Adam never had to do, namely, satisfy the wrath of God for the broken covenant of works. In submitting to the covenant of works on our behalf the Last Adam must submit to the judgment that justly fell upon us all for the first Adam's rebellion. His probation involves his whole life of obedience to the Father, beginning with his humbling himself in his incarnation. But it reaches its climactic expression in his "obedience unto death-even death upon a cross" (Phil 2:5-8).

The second difference is that the Last Adam–who is not only true man but true God–received a greater reward than the first Adam. Because of his covenant faithfulness, God highly exalted him by raising him from the dead and seating him upon the throne of universal dominion. God the Father gave his Son the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is "Lord" (i.e., Jehovah), to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:9-11). Christ therefore receives divine worship and authority, something Adam would never have achieved even if he had kept his probation. Thus, unlike the first Adam, the probation of the Last Adam is a cursed humiliation, and his confirmation a divine exaltation.

Yet in spite of these differences, the basic pattern remains the same. For both, probation is followed by confirmation. And for both, the basis of confirmation is meritorious obedience. This is brought out very clearly in the passage we have cited (Phil 2:5-11). Christ's humiliation (vv. 5-8) is followed by his exaltation (vv. 9-11), and the judicial link connecting the two is found in the key word "therefore." Christ fully obeyed the Father's will, becoming obedient unto death. Therefore, God highly exalted him. On the meritorious ground of his obedience unto death, even death on a cross, God transcendently, gloriously, and cosmically vindicated the law-fulfilling Last Adam. It is impossible to conceive of a Christ who has fulfilled the covenant of works but who remains in the grave unjustified. If the servant of the covenant (Christ) has fully met its stipulations, then the Lord of the covenant (God the Father) is bound to honor its terms–terms to which in eternity he had bound himself in immutable self-commitment (Jn 17:4-5). Thanks be to God that Christ fulfilled the terms, thus winning his reward!

For these reasons we can say that Christ's resurrection was his justification. And this is not just a theological deduction. One of the ancient creeds of the apostolic church states that "he was justified in the Spirit" (1 Tm 3:16), the same Spirit that is often described as the agent of the resurrection of Christ (Rom 1:4; 8:11). And though not as explicit, the verse with which we began our discussion affirms that just as Christ was condemned in our place, so he was justified in our place (Rom 4:25). "The unexpressed assumption is that Jesus' resurrection is his justification." (4)

Our justification, therefore, is not to be conceived of primarily as something each believer receives individually by faith at the moment of salvation. Rather, it is first and foremost the justification of the sinner's representative–Christ, the Last Probationer. And by virtue of union with this exalted and justified Head, we have a full and free justification. In Christ, our probation is over! In Christ, we are regarded as those who have fully kept the covenant! In Christ, who is our life, eternal life cannot be lost or forfeited by sin! "Secure horizons" for us who by grace have been transferred out of the first Adam into the Last! No wonder Paul wrote with exuberant joy, "I am not ashamed of the Gospel…for in the Gospel the righteousness of God is revealed" (Rom 1:16-17). And what is this righteousness? "Christ Jesus, who has become…our righteousness" (1 Cor 1:30).

Perhaps the best proof that our justification and Christ's resurrection go together is the fact that they both produce the same "triumphant gladness" in our hearts. The eighth century Eastern theologian John of Damascus has written one of the great hymns of the Christian church celebrating the redemptive joy and judicial benediction that flow from the resurrection of Christ:

Come, ye faithful, raise the strain of triumphant gladness;
God hath brought his Israel into joy from sadness;
Loosed from Pharaoh's bitter yoke Jacob's sons and daughters;
Led them with unmoistened foot through the Red Sea waters. .

'Tis the spring of souls today; Christ hath burst his prison,
And from three days' sleep in death, as a sun hath risen;
All the winter of our sins, long and dark, is flying
From his light, to whom we give laud and praise undying.

Now the queen of seasons, bright with the day of splendor,
With the royal feast of feasts, comes its joy to render;
Comes to glad Jerusalem, who with true affection
Welcomes in unwearied strains Jesus' resurrection.

Neither might the gates of death, nor the tomb's dark portal,
Nor the watchers, nor the seal hold thee as a mortal:
But today amidst thine own thou didst stand, bestowing
Thine own peace, which evermore passeth human knowing

The reference in the last stanza is to Christ's blessing his disciples as he ascended into heaven. Only Luke records this. "When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven" (Lk 24:50-51). Our theological study has led to the conclusion that Christ's resurrection and exaltation were for our justification. But the disciples experienced this in a tangible, concrete, historical manner. The risen Christ departs to ascend his heavenly throne, and as he goes, his hands are lifted up in the Aaronic benediction of peace–the divine shalom which comes only from the knowledge that the covenant of works is complete. In Christ they are now on the other side of the probation, at peace with God in the eternal happiness of a confirmed relationship that can never, never be ruptured by sin. We are not surprised, then, that the disciples "worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God."

We will never deny that the death of Christ is central to the Christian faith. Indeed, the apostle tells the Corinthian Christians that he "resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Cor 2:2). But what God has joined together let not man separate. Our study brings us to the conclusion that the humiliation of Christ by itself and isolated from his exaltation is of absolutely no value to us. If Christ is not raised, then we are still in our sins (1 Cor 15:17). "A dead Christ is an unjustified Christ, and an unjustified Christ means an unjustified believer." (5) Yes, it is true that we are "justified by his blood" (Rom 5:9). But as important as this central truth of the Gospel may be, we must not abstract it from its broader covenantal context. For the same Paul who declared that he would preach nothing but "Christ and him crucified" urged Timothy, "Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my Gospel" (2 Tim 2:8).

1 [ Back ] J. I. Packer, "Introductory Essay," in the Banner of Truth edition of James Buchanan's The Doctrine of Justification, p. viii.
2 [ Back ] The first "for" is causal, the second is final. C. E. B. Cranfield, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, Vol. I, p. 252.
3 [ Back ] John L. Girardeau, Calvinism and Evangelical Arminianism, p. 473.
4 [ Back ] Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Resurrection and Redemption, p. 123.
5 [ Back ] Gaffin, p. 124
Wednesday, August 15th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

J. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church