Jesus’ Resurrection, Our Justification
The resurrection of Christ is the divine announcement of Christ’s vindication as well as all those who are in Christ.
This essay will recap the doctrine of justification, primarily from Romans 3-4, and then examine the relation of justification to Christ’s resurrection according to Romans 4:25 and 1 Timothy 3:16.
Romans 3-8 is recognized as the apostle Paul’s exposition of the great theme of justification by faith. In Romans 3:21-31 he presents the doctrine in compressed yet very important detail. In chapter 4 he offers two Old Testament illustrations: David and Abraham. With regard to Abraham Paul cites Genesis 15:6: “And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” Now in Romans 4:22-25 Paul wraps up that discussion with these words:
22 That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” 23 But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, 25 who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.
Notice especially verse 25: Christ was “delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”
The most important question any of us face is, How can I be right with God? The question assumes several things, of course. It assumes that we are not right with God and that we need to be. It assumes that we are sinners, that God is the judge, that we are accountable to him, that there is a final judgment, and so on. But given those assumptions, this is life’s most important question: How can we be right with God?
In biblical terminology, the question is, How can we be justified? “Justified” means “declared righteous.” It is a term that has legal connotations. It envisions a courtroom – in this case, a courtroom where God is the judge and we are the accused. Standing before God the judge the big question is, How can he declare us to be righteous?
The question is complicated by the fact that God is a righteous judge – a just judge. We are unjust, unrighteous, and the question at issue is, How can he, the righteous judge declare us to be righteous when in fact we are unrighteous?
It’s a tough question and a real problem. God does not need to save us, of course, but if he would save us, how could he? He would not and could not ever deny himself – he must always act in righteousness and in keeping with all his perfections. But that is just the problem: on what possible ground, by what conceivable means could he maintain his righteousness while declaring unrighteous people to be righteous?
Other religions either play down this question or ignore it altogether. But it is the question that the Christian gospel faces squarely. And the answer is given in the doctrine of justification. The apostle Paul expounds it at length here in Romans 3-8.
“Justified By His Blood”
In sum, the answer is Jesus, our righteous substitute. He took all the sin of his people to himself, and on the cross he offered himself in sacrifice to God, bearing the curse of our sin. God cannot now condemn us, because that judgment has already fallen on our substitute. The demands of his justice are satisfied. Justice now demands our acquittal. This is what Paul means when he says in Romans 5:9 that we are “justified by his [Christ’s] blood.” An old hymn amplifies on this idea very well:
I hear the accuser roar of ills that I have done –
I know them well and thousands more – Jehovah findeth none.
Though the restless foe accuses, sins recounting like a flood,
Every charge our God refuses – Christ has answered with his blood.1
But there is more. Because Christ is in our place, in justifying us God not only pardons our sins – he also declares us righteous. Justification is a positive declaration that, having examined the evidence, we are declared before the court to be, in fact, righteous. Justification declares that we have done all that we ought to have done, that before the law we have not sinned.
How is that? At the cross there was a great exchange. Jesus Christ “the righteous” (1Jn.2:1) took our sin, and in exchange gave us his righteousness. This is the doctrine of imputation – our sin put on Christ’s account and his righteousness put on our account. God condemned Christ, his own Son, the sin-bearer, in our place, and now he accepts us as sons in his Son. He declares us righteous because of the righteousness of Christ given to us.
Normally in a court proceeding a person is “justified” after it is shown that he has not broken the law, or when there is a lack of evidence that he has broken the law. In our case before God we have in fact broken the law – we are guilty, and the evidence is overwhelming. But to answer the problem Christ both takes our punishment and gives us the righteousness that the divine court requires. Necessarily, our justification entails imputation – the counting of Christ’s righteousness to be ours.
All this is very important. It is essential to justice. When God declares us to be righteous, he is not pretending. It is not legal fiction. It is actually the case that divine justice is satisfied – Christ has answered for us in his curse-bearing death and in transferring to our account the righteousness God requires of us. In justification we receive both pardon and righteousness through Christ our substitute. All the demands of divine justice are satisfied for us in Christ.
That is to say, God did not sidestep justice to save anyone. Rather, at his own expense he provided in our place all that we need. Christ did for us all that God requires of us. And because of our righteous substitute, we – on righteous grounds – are declared righteous. This is why after expounding all this in Romans 3:21ff, Paul says in verse 26 that the gospel is the display of the righteousness of God (cf. 1:17). God saves us in Christ “that he might be just and the justifier.” The major obstacle to our salvation – the righteousness of God – is removed on righteous grounds by our righteous substitute. God declares us righteous, and he does so righteously.
Paul expounds all this in a very compressed way in Romans 3:19-31. The problem justification addresses is our guilt and condemnation (vv. 19-20) in light of divine justice (vv. 21-22, 25, 26; cf. 1:18-3:18). Justification is a gift of righteousness from God received by faith in Christ (vv. 21-24). This gift is grounded in the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ that secures our redemption (vv. 24-25). Thus, God’s righteousness is perfectly upheld in the justification of sinners (vv. 25-26).
Next, in chapter 4 Paul explains and illustrates all this from the Old Testament Scriptures in the experience of David and Abraham. In Genesis 15 and in Psalm 32 we read of their acceptance before God by faith alone and by an imputed righteousness. They were “justified by grace” – declared righteous by no work of their own.
“Raised for Our Justification”
Okay, so what does all this have to do with the resurrection of Christ? Notice in Romans 4:24-25 Paul explicitly links our justification to Christ’s resurrection.
24 but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, 25 who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.
This is Paul’s first mention in this discussion (Rom. 3-4) of the resurrection of Christ. How did he get there? There seems to be some unexpressed assumption – what is it? “Raised for our justification” – how did that happen?
Notice the two parallel clauses in verse 25: Christ was “delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”
Notice the two prepositional phrases, the two “for” expressions: Christ was “delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” The first one is easier to understand on a first reading. “Christ was delivered up for – “for” in the sense of on account of – our trespasses.” That is, our transgressions were the reason for his death. He went to the cross bearing our sins – God put him there in our place to take our curse.
To say it again, our transgressions were the reason for his death.
Verse 25b, then, tells us that our justification was the reason for his resurrection. He was “raised on account of our justification.” Again, there is some unexpressed assumption here – what is it? In what sense was Christ “raised on account of our justification”?
On our way to answering the question it may be helpful to look at 1 Timothy 3:16.
Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.
Here Paul gives us a wonderful summary of the person and work of Christ. He was “manifested in the flesh” – that is, he became incarnate; God the Son became man. Next, he was “vindicated by the Spirit,” that is, in his resurrection. Third, he was “seen by angels” in his triumph. Fourth, he was “proclaimed among the nations” in the church’s great commission. Fifth, he was believed on in the world” in his successful gospel advance. And finally, he was “taken up in glory” in his ascension.
Notice that second statement: Christ was “vindicated by the Spirit.” This is the Holy Spirit’s activity in raising Jesus from the dead. In the New Testament Jesus’ resurrection is consistently spoken of in the passive voice – he “was raised” by God the Father, here, by means of the Spirit. And his resurrection here is described as his “vindication.” If you have the old KJV you’ll notice it’s translated, “he was justified by the Spirit.” That’s our word here – justified. Christ was “justified by the Spirit” in his resurrection.
The great hope of Israel was the resurrection of the righteous. Isaiah spoke of it, and Daniel prophesied it very explicitly also. There are traces of the resurrection hope as far back as Genesis. In the day of Messiah the righteous, so long oppressed, would be vindicated in resurrection. Before God they would be acknowledged as his, and all the world would know it. Finally, the tables would be turned, and the righteous would be acknowledged as such.
Jesus was the first to experience that resurrection. All the biblical passages that speak of Christ’s resurrection remind us that his resurrection was in fact the long-anticipated resurrection of the age to come. Others, like Lazarus, had been resuscitated only to die again. But not Jesus – his was the resurrection of the age to come, the eschatological resurrection. He emerged from the tomb with a glorified body – “in power” as Paul describes it in Romans 1:4. He, before all others, had entered the age to come.
And so Christ’s resurrection says something. It is the announcement of his justification. He was vindicated of all the unjust verdicts against him, and he was vindicated with reference to his death, as he said, for sinners. He said he would give his life a ransom for many. He said he would give his life for the sheep. He said that by his death he would effect their forgiveness and bring them into fellowship with God. He said that in his death he would accomplish salvation for his people. And now in his resurrection God publicly announces that it is so.
This idea echoes in Acts 17:30-31, where Paul declares that by the resurrection of Christ God has given notice that Christ will one day judge the world.
30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.
Jonathan Edwards explained it this way:
For if Christ were not risen, it would be evidence that God was not yet satisfied for [our] sins. Now the resurrection is God declaring his satisfaction; he thereby declared that it was enough; Christ was thereby released from his work; Christ, as he was Mediator, is thereby justified.2
Now of course Christ’s justification differs from ours in one very important way: his justification was not by imputation. No, the ground of our Lord’s justification was his very own righteousness. He had no need of a substitute righteousness. And in his resurrection his vindication before God was declared to the world.
All this informs and helps us understand Paul’s statement in Romans 4:25. Christ was “delivered up on account of our trespasses and raised on account of our justification.” Our sin was the reason for his death, and our justification was the reason for his resurrection. The unexpressed assumption in the second clause is his – Christ’s – justification. In his death he identified with us such that our punishment became his. So also in his resurrection he identified with us such that his vindication / justification became ours. He was accursed in death in union with his people, and he was raised in vindication in union with his people. And just as his resurrection declared his vindication, so also his resurrection declares all who are in union with him to be righteous. “He was raised on account of our justification.”
Very simply, the resurrection of Christ is the divine announcement of Christ’s vindication – and, so, ours.
This is reflected in Paul’s famous statement in 1 Corinthians 1:30, that “Christ is made unto us … righteousness.” All the passages that speak of our having the righteousness of Christ assume this – he died for our sins, and he was raised for our justification. Christ’s justification, declared in his resurrection, becomes ours when we are united to him by faith. His righteousness becomes ours. If Jesus was justified in his resurrection, and if in his resurrection he was in solidarity with us, then our own justification is caught up with his. Our justification is but a participation in Christ’s own resurrection-justification in which he himself was released from the verdict of condemnation by men. God vindicated him, and in association with him we are vindicated also.
Now of course there is more. The gospel promises more than justification. It promises renewal, transformation, and glorification also. These all hinge on Jesus’ resurrection also; indeed, our regeneration, our renewal, our transformation, and our eventual bodily resurrection and glorification all are but a participation with Christ in his resurrection. But this – justification – is basic. Declared righteous in Christ and therefore accepted by God, all other blessings follow.
That Sunday morning in Jerusalem when they found Jesus’ tomb empty a new era began, an era marked by the marvelous proclamation that sinners can be right with God. God the righteous judge declares us righteous by virtue of our union with his vindicated Son.
This is the glory of being in Christ – we are accepted in Christ (Eph. 1:6). Our whole hope before God is Jesus. Our hope of acceptance rests wholly on his acceptance. Our hope of vindication in final judgment rests wholly on his vindication. Our whole hope is Christ who “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”
And this is the message of the resurrection of Christ. When the Lord Jesus came from that tomb, he brought our justification with him.
On the Doctrine of Justification
- James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification,  (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1997). This edition includes an excellent introduction by J. I. Packer. Available online here.
- D. A. Carson, “The Vindication of Imputation: On Fields of Discourse and Semantic Fields”
- Philip H. Eveson, The Great Exchange: Justification by faith alone in the light of recent thought (Bromley, Kent: Day One Publications, 1996).
- Steven Lawson, “Justification by Faith Alone” (video)
- J. I. Packer, Sola Fide: The Reformed Doctrine of Justification (free eBook download).
- Thomas Schreiner, Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification
On the Relation of Justification and the Resurrection of Christ
- Gregory Beale, “Resurrection as Christ’s Vindication (and Ours)”
- Richard B. Gaffin, By Faith, Not By Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation
- Richard B. Gaffin, Resurrection and Redemption: A Study in Paul’s Soteriology
- Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology
- Geerhardus Vos, The Pauline Eschatology
- Lee Tankersley, “Raised for Our Justification: The Resurrection and Penal Substitution”
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