Recently a pastor friend asked me how I would have answered a question from a member of his congregation: “Wouldn’t Jesus’ death on the cross have been enough, without the resurrection?” I can see how someone with only a casual or beginning knowledge of the Bible could ask that question, since we often speak of Jesus dying for our sins, without reference to his resurrection. The questioner may well have thought, “The animal sacrifices for sin in the Old Testament period were sufficient for reconciling children of the Covenant to God, so why would not the perfect sacrifice of Christ not be sufficient to take care of all human sin?” I told my pastor friend that my initial answer to the questioner would be short and simple: “No, the death of Christ alone would not have been sufficient for our salvation!” But the question deserves a fuller answer, one that addresses the misconceptions and misunderstandings that the question embodies and makes clear the basic theological principles embedded in the statement, “Christ died for our sins.”
The bottom line about the necessity of Jesus’ resurrection is found in Paul’s exposition on the matter in I Cor. 15, where he concludes (addressing those who “say that there is no resurrection from the dead” [15:12]) that the resurrection of Jesus is at the core of the deliverance promised by the gospel. “If Christ has not been raised,” he explains, “your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. . . . If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied" (15:17, 19). The phrase “in this life only” launches us into a discussion of the key difference between sacrifice for sins under the Old Covenant and the sacrifice of Jesus for the sins of all humankind, a distinction which is the subject of the central block of chapters in the epistle to the Hebrews.
Hebrews 4-10 makes clear several key facts about the necessary function of animal sacrifices under the Law of Moses, but also about their insufficiency to deal completely with sin (“For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin” [10:4]). That insufficiency rested in their inability to cancel the ultimate penalty of sin, eternal death. To put it another way, sacrifice under the Law dealt only with temporal forgiveness for failing to live up to the standards of the Law. Obedience to the laws of sacrifice and penitence were sufficient to restore the worshiper to good standing with God, but neither that obedience nor that sacrifice had the power to cancel the ultimate consequence of sin, the death of both body and soul. Some biblical interpreters have said that the effect of animal sacrifice under the Law was to “roll forward” the sins of the people in anticipation of the perfect, complete sacrifice of the spotless “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Catholic doctrine speaks of two kinds of absolution, “de culpa,” from the guilt of sin, and “de poena,” from the penalty of sin. In those terms, forgiveness through animal sacrifice under the Law is only “de culpa,” whereas forgiveness through the death of the perfect Lamb of God is both “de culpa” and “de poena.” But for Jesus’ innocent death to overcome death as the penalty for sin, His body had to be resurrected to complete that victory, and for that victory over eternal death to be applied to those who accept Him as Savior.
The book of Hebrews also makes clear that the same Jesus who died in human form on the cross, in ultimate obedience to His Father, also became the heavenly High Priest for all who accept His sacrifice in faith and are thereby made to be children of God (see the whole of chapters 7 and 9, and chap. 10:1-23). We, like our dying and resurrected Savior, will achieve the final victory over death when we are clothed with a new body like His and are taken to dwell with Him, forever alive. Consequently, both now in anticipation and one day with all the saints in our eternal home, we can sing, “Thanks be to God, who gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” (I. Cor. 15:57). It is a glorious victory, won through efficacious dying turned into triumphant resurrection.