When you hear the word gospel, what image pops into your mind? For many, perhaps most believers, it’s the Cross. And that’s not surprising, given the emphasis in many evangelical churches today. How often have you heard a sermon about the “good news,” and come away with vivid images of Christ’s suffering and humiliating death on the Cross?
But something’s missing. The Resurrection!
In many minds, the Resurrection is a footnote to the Crucifixion. Yet the Resurrection stands at the heart of the Christian faith and was front and center in the early church’s messages. The Crucifixion and Resurrection are like two sides of a coin. One without the other is incomplete and ineffective. The early church took every opportunity to tell people about their risen Lord, who not only died for us but also conquered death.
And though they found no cause for death in Him, they
asked Pilate that He should be put to death. Now when they
had fulfilled all that was written concerning Him, they took
Him down from the tree and laid Him in a tomb. But God
raised Him from the dead” (Acts 13:28–30).
In his first message recorded in Acts, the Apostle Paul focused his attention on the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The remaining verses of his sermon highlight Old Testament prophecies that the Messiah would not remain in the grave. That’s what the apostles wanted the world to hear.
When someone points this out to the average Christian, they are quick to admit that, yes, of course the apostles emphasized the gospel everywhere they went (see below). So why would anyone object when a modern church leader calls on the church to get its focus back on the Resurrection?
A Risen Savior—An Essential Part of the Gospel
Wherever he traveled, Paul preached about the risen Lord, even among Greek audiences who viewed the concept of a physical resurrection as absurd (Acts 17:18, 32). He repeatedly wrote about the fact that Jesus had risen from the dead. At times, it seems that Paul could not finish a thought without mentioning that Jesus had conquered death (Galatians 1:1; 1 Thessalonians 1:10).
Every sermon delivered by an apostle in the book of Acts centered on the Resurrection. Peter opened his first letter by stating that God the Father “has begotten us to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3).
The apostles’ strong emphasis on the Easter event demonstrates sound theology. If Christ has not risen, then our faith is futile and we are still in our sins (1 Corinthians 15:17–18). Yet, because Christ has risen, believers can be comforted that we will see our believing loved ones again (1 Thessalonians 4:14–18). Our bodies will one day be transformed into incorruptible and immortal bodies, and we will dwell with Him eternally (1 Corinthians 15:54; Revelation 21:3–4). Death will finally die (1 Corinthians 15:26).
Stressing the Resurrection models the Lord’s own practice. Jesus was asked what sign He would show to demonstrate His authority, and He replied by prophesying that He would rise from the dead: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). Later, when the scribes and Pharisees asked for a sign, Jesus pointed to His coming Resurrection as the only sign He would give (Matthew 12:39–40). In Revelation, the Lord twice identified Himself as the one who was dead, but was now alive forevermore (Revelation 1:18, 2:8).
Finally, the apostles’ dedication to the Resurrection makes perfect sense in light of their circumstances. Following Christ’s Crucifixion, the disciples wallowed in despair. Fearing the authorities and ashamed that they had pinned all their hopes on a man condemned to die on a cross, the disciples (sans John) abandoned their Master. Everything changed when they met the risen Savior. Unbelief vanished in undeniable sight. Timidity changed to unquenchable boldness. Empowered by the Holy Spirit and inspired by the truth that their Savior had risen, the disciples tirelessly preached the gospel in the face of persecution and death.
Out of Balance?
“I would ask preachers and pastors . . . to get the spotlight off the Bible and back on the Resurrection.”
Pastor of North Point Community Church
Recently, a well-known pastor, Andy Stanley, raised quite a stir among Bible-believing Christians when he stated that Christians need to emphasize the Resurrection again. It was not necessarily highlighting this event that caused the controversy. Instead, during an interview with Russell Moore, Stanley encouraged his listeners to simultaneously take their focus off the Bible.
“I would ask preachers and pastors and student pastors in their communications to get the spotlight off the Bible and back on the Resurrection.”1
This provocative statement sparked responses from many conservative Christians who pointed out some potentially troublesome implications of Stanley’s words. Since the days of the Reformation the concept of Sola Scriptura (the Bible alone) has been a cornerstone of conservative Christian belief. That is, the 66 books of the Bible are the only infallible and sufficient rule for matters of faith and practice. If that is the case, then why did Stanley seem to deemphasize Scripture?
Pastor Stanley hastened to explain that this statement had more to do with a practical approach to preaching to a secular culture than with his own personal beliefs about the Bible. He recommended that Christians “leverage the authority we have in the Resurrection as opposed to Scripture—not because I don’t believe Scripture is inspired—in terms of reaching this culture.” Stanley affirmed his own belief in the inspiration of the Bible and elaborated on the rationale behind his approach.
“When you’re dealing with secular people, as soon as you say ‘the Bible,’ everybody now knows all the problems with the Bible. And when I say problems, the problems in terms of the culture’s view of the Bible, in terms of six-day creation, no geological evidence for a worldwide Flood, and there’s no evidence for the Exodus . . . And when they, in their minds, can discredit parts, it discredits the whole . . . But the foundation of our faith isn’t the Bible; the foundation of our faith is an event—the Resurrection.”
Stanley accurately describes the reactions of many people to the Bible’s record that the earth is only a few thousand years old and was destroyed by a global Flood. He is also correct in pointing out that the Resurrection (along with the Crucifixion) is the foundation of the Christian faith. However, the attempt to shift the focus away from Scripture, even for strategic purposes, has had disastrous results in the past.
Theological liberalism arose in the nineteenth century, for example, largely because leaders in the church were embarrassed by the early passages in Genesis that seemed to contradict the claims of modern geology that the earth’s layers formed slowly over millions of years. They shifted their focus away from the Bible’s history to emphasize its moral and spiritual teaching in an effort to keep Christianity relevant in an academic culture that had recently rejected the history recorded in the Bible.
Admittedly, Stanley did not deny the truths of Scripture, but his approach tends to separate the historical facts of the Resurrection recorded in the four Gospels from the historical facts found in the rest of Scripture. How can you ask people to believe some of the Bible’s revealed history and not the rest?
“For the first 300 years, the debate centered on an event, not a book. The question was not . . . is the Bible true? The question was, Did Jesus rise from the dead? . . . Matthew said, ‘Oh yes, He did,’ and Mark said, ‘Oh yes, He did,’ and Luke said, ‘Oh yes, He did,’ and John said, ‘Oh yes, He did,’ and Peter said, ‘Oh yes, He did,’ and James the brother of Jesus said, “Oh yes, He did.’”2
These statements are largely accurate, although there were other critical debates about the Trinity and Christ’s deity, too. For the most part, the early discussions did not center on the scientific and historical accuracy of the Old Testament, as they often do today. Yet one thing remains in common: the primary reason we believe these events are true is their record in the Bible.
Stanley suggests that in our efforts to reach a postmodern and secular culture, we should set aside these controversial aspects of Christian belief and focus on the events surrounding the Crucifixion and Resurrection as described by Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, James, and Paul. After all, it is easier to defend a smaller section of Scripture written by eyewitnesses and their contemporaries than it is to defend the entirety of the Bible. This strategy may appeal to some pastors and others who specialize in disciplines other than apologetics, but what are the dangers?
Perhaps the greatest danger with this approach is the perceived inconsistency of trusting and emphasizing one part of Scripture while avoiding other parts of the Bible that happen to be unpopular today. An apologist’s defense of the Christian faith need not be limited to an “either/or” approach (focus on one part or the whole); we can hold to a “both/and” strategy. Why not strive to counter attacks on every part of Scripture, including those that are launched against the historical and scientific accuracy of the Old Testament?
As mentioned earlier, the Apostle Paul stressed the Resurrection repeatedly, yet he also told the Ephesian elders that he had not failed to teach them “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). Surely, this counsel included powerful instruction in the Scriptures, even those Old Testament passages that may have seemed quite strange to a predominantly Gentile church.
At the same time, apologists must be careful not to become so engrossed in the defense of the entirety of Scripture that they neglect to share the gospel—the heart of Christianity. Paul stated that the gospel “is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). What have we accomplished if we convince people about the truth of the Bible’s creation account but fail to introduce them to the Creator, the Lord Jesus Christ, who died and rose again?
The Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ must be foremost in our efforts, but we should also do our best to answer questions about the Bible to remove the stumbling blocks.
Ultimately, our goal must be to clearly present the gospel. Apologetic arguments can help in removing stumbling blocks to the faith, but the Holy Spirit is the only one who can bring about the conviction in a sinner’s heart that leads to faith.
This process of humans working with God has been compared to Christ’s raising of Lazarus in John 11. Jesus instructed some people to move the stone covering the tomb of Lazarus, but the Lord is the one who did the supernatural work of raising Lazarus from the dead. We can make every effort to remove the stones that block a person’s view of the Savior, but God is the only one who renews a person’s heart.
The Savior’s View of Scripture
We do not possess exhaustive records of everything Jesus did or said (John 21:25), but the four Gospels provide enough detail for us to know that He acknowledged the accuracy and historicity of the Old Testament. He often referred His listeners back to Scripture, because He knew that Scripture carried divine authority. This is true even of the Bible’s earliest chapters that are often disputed today. Jesus spoke of the creation of the first man and woman (Matthew 19:4–5), of Abel (Matthew 23:35), and of Noah and the Flood (Matthew 24:37–39).
The Lord’s view of Scripture did not waver after He rose from the dead. In His discussion with two disciples on the road to Emmaus, He reassured them that the Messiah needed to suffer and die by showing them passages from the Old Testament that prophesied these facts (see Daniel 9:26 and Isaiah 53).
Christians who believe that the Old Testament contains scientific and historical errors might point out that Jesus never directly addressed many of the challenges to belief facing modern Christians. It is true that we don’t have any record of Jesus speaking against geological uniformitarianism (slow formation of rock layers over millions of years), Darwinian evolution, and other secular views of history. However, the Lord set the pattern of treating Genesis as literal history, and the whole New Testament makes clear that Christ’s central purpose in coming to earth is grounded in the realities explained in the Bible’s first few chapters.
Consider 1 Corinthians 15:45, where Christ is called the last Adam. The reason the Son of God’s physical death and subsequent physical Resurrection solves humanity’s sin problem is founded in Genesis 1–3. The sin of the first man, Adam, brought death into this world. If Adam was not a real person and his sin did not actually bring physical death into God’s creation, then why did Jesus need to die on the Cross and rise from the dead? Genesis must be a true record of our origins, and Adam’s fall must be a reality, not merely myth, allegory, or fable, for Christ’s sacrificial death to make sense.
Yes, as Andy Stanley implied, we can avoid getting into Genesis when we try to help people realize that they are guilty of sinning against God, but if we are unwilling to take our listeners back to the beginning, how do we explain why death is the punishment for that sin?
On the one hand, it is encouraging to see Stanley emphasize the historicity of the Resurrection, particularly in light of the way the modern church has neglected this vital event. However, some pastors avoid unpopular biblical accounts in Genesis that many people readily dismiss, and some pastors even undermine these accounts by dismissing their historicity. These actions neglect foundational elements of the Christian faith that make the gospel a coherent message.
Let us practice a “both/and” approach to the way we share our faith with an unbelieving world, trusting God that His Word truly is “living and powerful,” and can convince hearts in every matter it speaks on (Hebrews 4:12). The Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ must be foremost in our efforts, but we should also do our best to answer questions about the Bible to remove the stumbling blocks that may be preventing people from understanding and receiving the soul-saving gospel.