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In one of the most famous chapters in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he asserts, “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3). This statement occurs with a series of assertions about the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, as a sharp confessional summary of matters of first importance regarding the gospel. In his own words, Paul asserted that he was making known to the Corinthians the gospel that they received, by which they were saved, and in which they stood. In 1 Cor. 15:3, Paul continues asserting the cross and the resurrection of Jesus are gospel matters of the first order.

As I’ve argued in detail elsewhere,[1] gospel vocabulary and gospel concepts in the bible must be carefully analyzed in order to offer an accurate biblical understanding of the gospel. My own analysis reveals that the category of gospel is much bigger than many Christians have traditionally understood, including both entry language (how one becomes a Christian [e.g. Rom. 3:21-26]) and maintenance language (Spirit-empowered living [e.g. Gal. 5:16-26]).

In 1 Cor. 15:3-4, however, Paul overtly confirms that the gospel’s most important elements are the cross and resurrection. As a result, he emphasizes the most fundamental elements of the gospel that make it possible for sinners to be saved from their sins by faith in the gospel. But what kind of death does Paul suggest that Jesus died in 1 Cor. 15:3, and why does his resurrection make this kind of death efficacious for those for whom the death was offered?

Substitution

For centuries, Christians have debated the nature of Jesus’ death. In my view, Jesus’ death in Paul’s theology has many features to it. However, he especially teaches in 1 Cor. 15:3 that Jesus died as a substitute for sinners. A substitutionary death in 1 Cor. 15:3 would suggest that Jesus took upon himself judgment for sins so that the sinners for whom he died would experience the reward of salvation if they repent and believe.

The above interpretation seems supported by Paul’s remarks in vv. 1-2. There he states that the gospel “saved” the Corinthians when they “received” it (1 Cor. 15:1). By “received,” Paul means that the Corinthians believed the gospel. He confirms this interpretation in 1 Cor. 15:2 when he warns them by saying “unless you believed in vain.” Those who respond in genuine faith and repentance to the gospel are the only ones who experience the saving benefits of the gospel. But if they believed in vain, which means they never believed, the gospel will condemn them in their sin.

In 1 Cor. 15:3, Paul’s first summary statement about the first principles of the gospel state why the Corinthians could in fact experience the saving benefits of the gospel by receiving/believing the gospel: namely, because “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures.” Jesus’ death “for sins” dealt with the effects of sins and the penalty that God requires because of sins; Jesus’ death provided salvation for those for whom he died, evident by the fact that the Corinthians personally experienced salvation when they received/believed the gospel. Thus, their participation in the gospel by receiving/believing provided for them the saving benefits of the gospel because Jesus died for their sins to transfer saving benefits to the sinners for whose sins he died.

Resurrection

But how does the payment offered by the substitutionary death of another transfer a saving benefit to those who believe the gospel? I think Paul’s answer occurs in 1 Cor. 15:4: namely, the resurrection.

Paul’s remarks in 1 Cor. 15:4 assert that Jesus was raised from the dead. Both in v. 3 and in v. 4, Paul announces the death and resurrection of Jesus happened in history “according to the scriptures.” These scriptures could at least refer to Old Testament texts like Psalm 22, which emphasizes the suffering of the Lord’s servant, and Isaiah 53, which emphasizes both the suffering of the Lord’s servant and his resurrection (Isa. 53:5, 8, 10).

Without the resurrection, Jesus’ death would be a tragedy regardless of the substitutionary nature of it. But because of the resurrection, his death was triumphant. Paul drives home this point throughout 1 Cor. 15:12-57 when he emphasizes the various saving benefits that come to those who receive/believe the gospel because of Jesus’ physical and historic resurrection from the dead.

Conclusion

This Maundy Thursday and this resurrection season, we Christians should remind ourselves afresh of the absolute necessity of both Jesus’ substitutionary death for our sins and his own physical resurrection from the dead to achieve the saving benefits for us who receive/believe the gospel. The resurrection season is not about bunnies, candy, pretty dresses, and handsome suits. The resurrection season is about God satisfying his wrath on the cross of Jesus for the sins of sinners and God raising Jesus up from the dead to prove that Jesus’ death has accomplished salvation for all who receive/believe in the gospel.

May Christians live in the power of the cross and the resurrection this Maundy Thursday, this resurrection Sunday, and every waking moment of our lives.

 

 

[1]Jarvis J. Williams, For Whom Did Christ Die? The Extent of the Atonement in Paul’s Theology. Paternoster Biblical Monograph Series. (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2012).

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