Putting Resurrection Back Into Grace

Yesterday was Holy Saturday: the day we commemorate Christ’s time in the grave. The day Christ rested from his finished work on the cross. The day all of Christ’s followers wondered if everything they put their faith, hope, and love in was lost to them forever. For three years, Jesus’ followers had feasted on a gracious banquet of love, and truth, and power. And even on the day of his death, they witnessed the gracious act of the Lamb of God, slain for them. But as Jesus lay in the grave on that Sabbath day, his followers had nothing left to hold onto, for Holy Saturday was the day God’s grace was silent.

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Grace is a word we use a lot in evangelical circles, and for good reason. God’s unmerited favor toward sinners is the object of our faith, the lifeblood of our hope, and the reason for our love. Yet when we speak of God’s grace in Christ, we almost always center that grace in Christ’s death on the cross as our substitute. And why wouldn’t we? Surely God’s grace is most beautifully expressed in his own death on our behalf, partaking of our sin and suffering and shame so that we might suffer sin no longer. Surely Christ’s purchase of our forgiveness by his perfect blood is nothing short of marvelous grace, grace that is greater than all our sin. For us, Good Friday is the day God’s grace spoke the loudest. And yet, if we solely center our understanding of God’s grace on the cross, we are left with an incomplete perspective on how God’s grace has been given in Christ.

The Apostle Paul goes right to the heart of the issue in Romans 6: “What shall we say then?” he asks. “Shall we sin so that grace may abound?” If God’s grace finds its sole meaning in the cross, this is a reasonable question. If God’s grace purchases our forgiveness and God’s grace is most clearly manifested in God’s forgiveness, then why should we not continue sinning? The grace of Good Friday removes the punishment for our sin, so what’s the big deal about sinning?

To answer this question, Paul introduces two concepts: death and life. “How can we who have died to sin still live in it?” he asks. For the next 12 verses, Paul explores this dual reality of death and life, taking the reader on a complex exploration of our union with Adam and our union with Christ, our old nature and our new nature, the power of sin and the power of obedience. In essence, he’s telling his readers that their understanding of grace is one-sided: Christ’s death, and therefore the death of sin and its consequences, has solely shaped their understanding of God’s grace in Christ. They’ve forgotten that we can’t discuss death without discussing life as well. But to understand that, Paul takes us back to the beginning, which is always the best place to start.

* * *

To understand how death and life go together (and how this helps us understand grace and sin and obedience), we must first look at what Adam had and what Adam lost. Adam, as king and image-bearer, was both the Covenant head of the human race as well as the father of all living. Because of that, whatever he did affected all those under his leadership and all those who came from his loins.

Before the fall, Adam and Eve enjoyed true, full, and complete life in God. Garden life was the ultimate life of grace as the man and woman partook of perfect fellowship with God, with each other, and with the created world. In the fullest sense of the word, they were alive. And this life-gift, the reality of complete shalom given as a gracious gift from God, was symbolized by the Tree of Life in the center of the Garden.

It comes as no surprise, then, that life and death are attached to God’s command not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge. As long as they were obedient, theirs was life. But upon disobedience, God promised certain death: separation from himself, from each other, and from the created world. To sin was to die, and the life of obedience and fellowship would be lost. Of course, Adam did eat and plunged the whole human race into death. But this was no ordinary death. By the power of sin, death came alive in the human heart, producing in mankind a living death that has shaped our spiritual DNA ever since. In Adam, we all died to God and became alive to sin. In Adam, we became the walking dead.

Through Adam, sin not only became part of our DNA: it also became our king. At the tree, Adam gave up his crown and handed it over to Satan, submitting himself and the human race to the wicked rule of Satan, sin, and death. Sin began to reign in our death-bound bodies, commanding us to obey its passions and giving us nothing but sorrow and suffering in return for our service.

Ever since, the human race has needed a new king and a new nature; but first, the old king and old nature needed to be put to death.

And this brings us back to Paul’s argument in Romans 6. Just as our union with Adam brought us into a living death in sin, so our union with Christ has put to death the life of sin within us: “We know that our old man was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.” At the tree, the Second Adam broke sin’s crown, and at the tree, He put sin to death. And so the sin that once reigned within us and coursed through our veins died when we died with Christ on that Friday we call Good. 

And yet, it is not enough to simply put to death our old nature and the sin that lived within us. While death can kill what is wrong with us, it does us no good if we stay dead. The power of sin might be broken, but what good is that if we do not have the power to do anything at all? This is the question of Holy Saturday. If Christ remains in the grave, then we are as good as dead. Dead to sin, surely. But dead nonetheless. God’s grace on Good Friday is a marvelous grace, indeed. But if that is all that grace means, then we still abide in the tomb: we are Holy Saturday people.

But praise be to God that this is not all that Christ came to do and this is not all that grace means. Christ did not come simply to put our sin to death: he came to bring us back to life. Christ was not born simply to die: he was born so that we might be born again. For Christ to be our Second Adam, he must restore to us the life we had in Eden, not simply dead to sin, but alive to God. For us to step back into a grace-relationship with God, Christ could not stay dead. Holy Saturday must give way to Easter Sunday.

* * *

And this leads us back to Paul’s dual discussion of death and life: they must go together. Just as when we died to God, we lived to sin, so our death to sin must produce a new life within us. And this is precisely what Paul says: “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” Just as we died with Christ on the cross, so we rose with Christ at the tomb. On the cross, Christ put sin to death, but at the empty tomb Christ gave us newness of life. On Good Friday, Christ crucified our old nature, but on Easter Sunday Christ gave us a new nature. At the cross, we died to sin, but at the empty tomb we live to God (Rom. 6:10-11). On Good Friday, Christ died east of Jerusalem at “the place of the skull,” cursed and hanging on a tree as he put to death the curse we all bear, cast east of Eden into the land of living death for the sin of Adam at that tree long ago. But on Easter Sunday, Christ came back to life in a garden (John 19:41), mistaken as a gardener himself (John 20:15), and making the way for us to come back into the life-giving relationship of Eden once again. At the cross, sin’s reign ended; at the empty tomb, Christ’s reign began. 

What Paul is trying to help his readers understand is that we need to put resurrection back into grace. God’s grace is not simply the gift of forgiveness from sins, nor the death of sin’s brutal reign within us. His grace is also the gift of new life in the resurrected Christ, the power of Christ’s Spirit that enables us to walk in obedience and relationship with God once again. The grace of Christ’s resurrection enables us no longer to be the walking dead, but be those who walk in newness of life, enjoying a restored relationship with God, others, and his created world, empowered to obey and worship and rest. Why should we not sin so that grace may abound? Because God’s grace abounds through our obedience to Christ the King, as we take part not simply in Christ’s death, but as we live day by day in Christ’s resurrection. As resurrected people, we are to “present ourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and our members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over us, since we are not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:13-14). The law cannot give us the power to obey; it cannot give us life: it can only give us the eyes to see our death in sin. But grace, resurrection grace, gives us the very power the law could never give. Resurrection grace gives us the power to obey. Resurrection grace restores us to life (Rom. 6:22). 

* * *

Of course, we still sin, as Paul makes clear in Romans 7. Sin still wages war within us, now as our enemy rather than our king. But because of Christ’s death, sin is slowly dying; and because of Christ’s resurrection, we are slowly coming back to life. This is the call of sanctification: to work out our resurrection with fear and trembling. To wake up each morning with our eyes fixed on Easter Sunday, not content to remain in the tomb of Holy Saturday. To daily walk in resurrection grace, feasting on the fruit of our Tree of Life and bearing fruit of our own through the power of Christ’s life-giving Spirit within us (1 Cor. 15:45). To put to death the deadly sin within, and to put on the life of our risen Lord.

We are resurrection people. We walk in resurrection grace. And we look forward in hope to that second resurrection when Satan, sin, and death will die for good and we will fully share in Christ’s resurrection, partaking of a new Tree of Life and enjoying the life-giving grace of God’s dwelling place with man.

We are Risen. We are risen, indeed.

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