Discussing in a sermon the “fruits and benefits” of Jesus Christ’s resurrection, Martin Luther once pointed to Paul’s statement in Romans 4:25: “Christ was delivered up for our trespasses, and was raised for our justification.” The doctrine of justification by faith was central to the theology of Martin Luther, and indeed not only to Luther, but to all of the Reformers. This passage was precious to Luther because it explained how our justification before God could not have been accomplished apart from Christ being raised from the dead.
Christ coming back to life, resulting in our being forgiven of all our sins, was a fulfillment, Luther said, of what John the Baptist had foretold about him: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” (John 1:29). It was necessary for Christ to die an atoning death for our sins; otherwise, we could never hope to be forgiven. However, the gospel is not merely the news that Christ died, but also that he rose again. This is the constant theme of Peter’s and the other apostles’ preaching in the book of Acts. Because of Christ’s resurrection, we can be justified before God. As Luther said, “For all those who believe in him, hell, death, and the devil and sin have been destroyed.”
Luther stressed the importance of making the Easter message personal, saying that it would do no good to merely know intellectually that Christ died and was raised. One has to come to understand that this work of Christ was done for us. As long as Christ’s death remains an abstract concept for us, we won’t grasp how good the good news is supposed to be.
A theme that runs throughout Luther’s writings is the importance of clinging to the objective facts of what Christ has accomplished for us, rather than relying on our feelings of devoutness or piety. Luther, therefore, has much to teach modern evangelicals, who are prone to overemphasize the emotional side of conversion. Although some believers do have dramatic, emotional conversion experiences, our hope of heaven is not based on these. Feelings, by definition, are transient and fickle. Commenting on Romans 4:25, Luther said:
“Here Paul turns my eyes away from my sins and directs them to Christ, for if I look at my sins, they will destroy me. Therefore, I must look unto Christ, who has taken my sins upon himself, crushed the head of the serpent, and become the blessing. Now they no longer burden my conscience, but rest upon Christ whom they desire to destroy. Let us see how they treat him. They hurl him to the ground and kill him… But then God appears, delivers Christ, and makes him alive; and not only does he make him alive, but he translates him into heaven and let him rule over all.”
The resurrection of Christ, therefore, is not merely a remote historical fact, like the Revolutionary War or fall of Rome. Rather, the resurrection of Christ is the grounds upon which we hope that Christ’s work on our behalf has succeeded and been ratified by God himself. Christ claimed to be our sin bearer. By raising him from the dead, God vindicated Christ, proving him before all the world to be precisely who and what he had claimed to be.
Christians who have placed their faith in Christ’s death and resurrection are not, overnight, perfect saints, though. How do we reconcile our profession of faith in Christ with our ongoing struggle with sin? Luther addresses this:
“What has now become of sin? There it lies under Christ’s feet. If I then cling to this, I have a cheerful conscience like Christ, because I am without sin. Now I can defy death, the devil, sin, and hell to do me any harm.”
This brings us to Luther’s famous (and controversial) phrase, “Simultaneously a sinner and saint.” What does it mean? As far as they themselves are concerned, Christians are still sinners in that they still have a sinful nature, still frequently fail to do what God expects of them, and regularly find themselves not loving God with all their hearts or their neighbors as themselves. As far as their status before God is concerned, though, they are in Christ, meaning that what is true of Christ is true of them. If a beggar woman who is drowning in debt and owns nothing whatsoever marries a prince, immediately everything that belongs to the prince belongs to the new princess alike. Similarly, in ourselves, we the church have nothing but filthy rags to offer Christ, our husband. However, insofar as we are one flesh with Christ, as husband and wife are, everything belonging to Christ belongs to us. The debt of our sin has been canceled and insofar as we are Christ’s, we stand blameless before God.
It easy to forget that we are “married” to Christ. We do not feel all the power and glory we would expect to feel if our groom was the resurrected, immortal King of the Universe. We go through this world, often bedraggled and beaten down, beset with temptations, and suffering injustice at the hands of enemies. As Paul said in 2 Corinthians, though we have a heavenly message to share, we ourselves are “jars of clay”, fragile and frail. However, if we could but remember that the Christ we are “married to” is alive—as alive now as he was that first Easter morning—and that he ever lives to make intercession for us, as the book of Hebrews says, we would not cave into despair. Our enemies may hate us and may seek to harm us, but the One who is on our side has all authority in heaven and earth. In the words of C.S. Lewis, it may look like the White Witch still has all the power, but “Aslan is on the move.”
Orthodox Christians are celebrating Easter today, May 1 (the rest of Christendom celebrated it March 27). This Easter season, let us bring to mind the great blessing that is ours because of Christ’s resurrection. Let us not, through over familiarity with it, let the Easter message become dull to us. Let us affirm Luther’s words:
“Since Christ has taken my sins upon himself, has died for them, has suffered himself to be slain on account of my sins, they can no longer harm me; for Christ is too strong for them, they cannot keep him; He breaks forth and overpowers them, ascends into heaven, takes sin and sorrow captive, and rules there over all throughout eternity.”