What is the central message of Christianity? This is a subject of timeless importance in a day when many insist that the central message is kindness in interpersonal relations; or that it is justice in its variegated societal implementation. However compelling the case may be made for either of these, the Apostle Paul gave us the divinely inspired center of the Christian message when he wrote, “I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). It is quite clear that the atoning death of Jesus stands at the center of the Christian message. “Christ died for sinners” is, in the words of Geerhadus Vos, “the center of gravity” in Christianity. But, this opens another question, namely, “How then should we view the resurrection?”
As a young Christian, I had a number of impassioned conversations with close friends about this subject. I would insist that the message of the cross was the center of the Gospel. They would insist, with the same emotional forcefulness, that the resurrection stood at the center since it culminated in the new creation. Citing Romans 4:24-25, one friend went so far as to say that the resurrection of Jesus was more important than His death on the cross. A number of years later, several colleagues in ministry encouraged me to read more Richard Gaffin, since he argued more persuasively that the resurrection, rather than the crucifixion of Jesus, was the epicenter of the Christian message. Interestingly, as I read Gaffin, I came across statements that seemed to go against that idea. Reflecting on Paul’s teaching in 1 Cor. 1:18-3:22 and Galatians 6:14, Gaffin makes the following assertion: “Paul’s exclusive and comprehensive epistemic commitment is to the crucified Christ.” This, of course, doesn’t mean that the cross is more important than the resurrection. In fact, I was imbalanced in my own understanding of the central message as a young Christian, because I didn’t yet understand that the saving work of Christ couldn’t be bifurcated without doing damage to the message of Christianity as a whole. This is why the Apostle Paul summarizes the heart of the Christian message in the following way when writing to the church in Corinth:
“I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3).
The wrath-propitiating, sin-atoning, Satan-conquering death of Jesus on the cross, together with His burial and His resurrection form the central message of the Christian faith. When the Apostle Paul said, “I determined not to know anything among you expect Jesus Christ and Him crucified,” he was utilizing a theological synecdoche (i.e. the part for the whole). Apart from the death of Jesus, the resurrection is a legal fiction. Apart from the witness of His resurrection, the death of Jesus is a tragic failure.
One of the greatest assurances of salvation that we can have during our pilgrimage in this world comes from our knowledge of the definitiveness of our redemption in Christ. The fact that Jesus’s death actually atoned for our sins, produces a confidence in believers that nothing will separate them from the love of God. If Jesus died for us, who can undo what Christ has done? Jesus would have to be dethroned and His body put back in the tomb, for His saving work to be emptied of its efficacy. The work of redemption can never be reversed or overthrown because it was accomplished by the infinite and eternal, sinless Son of God whose death on the cross was a perfect sacrifice of infinite and eternal value. The efficacious death of Jesus is captured by the writer of Hebrews in the benediction he pronoucnced over the members of a church that was tempted to turn away from Christ.
In Hebrews 13:20-21, we read,
“Now may the God of peace, who brought again from the dead, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, the Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep, make you complete, working in you what is well-pleasing in His sight, to whom be glory both now and forever. Amen.”
Though we could spend hours time meditating on each of the truths contained in this divine pronouncement of blessing, it will suffice to point out that the writer ties together the death of Jesus to the resurrection of Jesus, when he says that Jesus was “raised through the blood of the everlasting covenant.”
“God is said to bring Christ from the dead “through the blood of the covenant,” the shedding whereof was the means and the way of his entrance unto death. Now the mind of the Holy Ghost herein will appear in the ensuing considerations.
1st. By the blood of Christ, as it was the blood of the covenant, the whole will of God, as unto what he intended in all the institutions and sacrifices of the law, was accomplished and fulfilled. See chap. 10:5–9. And hereby an end was put unto the old covenant, with all its services and promises.
2dly. Hereby was atonement made for sin, the church was sanctified or dedicated to God, the law was fulfilled, the threatenings of death executed, eternal redemption obtained, the promises of the new covenant confirmed, and by one offering they who were sanctified are perfected for ever.
3dly. Hereon not only way was made for the dispensation of grace, but all grace, mercy, peace, and glory, were purchased for the church, and in the purpose of God were necessarily to ensue. Now the head and well-spring of the whole dispensation of grace, lies in the bringing of Christ again from the dead. That is the beginning of all grace to the church; the greatest and first instance of it, and the cause of all that doth ensue. The whole dispensation of grace, I say, began in, and depends on, the resurrection of Christ from the dead; which could not have been, had not the things before mentioned been effected and accomplished by the blood of the covenant. Without them he must have continued in the state and under the power of death. Had not the will of God been satisfied, atonement made for sin, the church sanctified, the law accomplished, and the threatenings satisfied, Christ could not have been brought again from the dead. It was therefore hereby that he was so, in that way was made for it unto the glory of God. The death of Christ, if he had not risen, would not have completed our redemption, we should have been “yet in our sins;” for evidence would have been given that atonement was not made. The bare resurrection of Christ, or the bringing him from the dead, would not have saved us; for so any other man may be raised by the power of God. But the bringing again of Christ from the dead, “through the blood of the everlasting covenant,” is that which gives assurance of the complete redemption and salvation of the church. Many expositors have filled this place with conjectures to no purpose, none of them so much as looking towards the mind of the Holy Ghost in the words. That which we learn from them is,—
That the bringing back of our Lord Jesus Christ, as the shepherd of the sheep, from the state of the dead, through the blood of the covenant, is the great pledge and assurance of peace with God, or the effecting of that peace which the God of peace had designed for the church.
The reduction of Christ from the dead, by the God of peace, is the spring and foundation of all dispensations and communications of grace to the church, or all the effects of the atonement and purchase made by his blood.—For he was so brought again, as the shepherd of the sheep, unto the exercise of his entire office towards the church. For hereon followed his exaltation, and the glorious exercise of his kingly power in its behalf, with all the benefits which ensue thereon, Acts 5:30, 31, Rom. 14:9, Phil. 2:8–11, Rev. 1:17, 18; and the completing of his prophetical office, by sending of his Holy Spirit to abide always with the church, for its instruction, Acts 2:33; and the discharge of what remains of his priestly office, in his intercession, Heb. 7:25, 26, and his ministering in the sanctuary, to make the services of the church acceptable unto God, Heb. 8:2; Rev. 8:3, 4. These are the springs of the administration of all mercy and grace unto the church, and they all follow on his reduction from the dead as the shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the covenant.
All legal sacrifices issued in blood and death; there was no recovery of any of them from that state.—There was no solemn pledge of their success. But their weakness was supplied by their frequent repetition.
There is, then, a blessed foundation laid of the communication of grace and mercy to the church, unto the eternal glory of God.”1
1. John Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, ed. W. H. Goold, vol. 24, Works of John Owen (Edinburgh: Johnstone and Hunter, 1854), 476–477.