The Gospel and the Historical Christ
Earthly history is important, but none so much as the history of Jesus Christ. In fact, without the historical Christ as recorded in Scripture, life is absolutely empty. This is brought home in 1 Corinthians 15, where St. Paul clarifies that the Gospel of free forgiveness is inseparably tied to the history of Christ: “Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you…” (then comes the historical part) “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1-4). It is critical to grasp that the Gospel is rooted in history—in the historical life, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as detailed in the writings of St. Paul and the other New Testament writers. It is Christ’s life alone, lived out in time and space, which achieved real and complete forgiveness. Apart from this historical life of Christ, there is no forgiveness.
But when this Gospel is stood upon and firmly held to, when it is sincerely believed unto death, it saves.
This historical description of Christ’s life written in the Scriptures has been lifted and transplanted into the creeds of the Church. Note, for example, that most of the second article of the Apostles’ Creed is dedicated to historical events:
I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord; Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; ascended into heaven…
St. Paul, the apostles and the formulators of the creeds did not just say, “I believe in Jesus Christ and the forgiveness of sins.” No, they described the history of when and how this was accomplished.
The Historical Christ Is the Resurrected Christ
This truth is crucial to understand, because in our day hordes of “Christian” pastors, theologians, and seminaries proclaim a Gospel of forgiveness without carefully tying it—often purposely—to the historical and biblical Christ. They do this most often by leaving out any reference to a real physical resurrection of Christ. Look at this modern creedal statement used in a liberal church as a substitute for the second article of the Apostles’ Creed:
I believe in Jesus Christ who was ridiculed, tortured and executed for the sins of humankind. He has overthrown the rule of evil and injustice and continues to judge and redeem the hatred and arrogance of human beings.
It mentions a crucifixion, even the forgiveness of sins. But unlike the historic creeds (not to mention the Bible itself), the bodily resurrection of the Son of God is curiously missing. The congregation that confessed it that day (I was there) seemed to be ignorantly comfortable with it.
But St. Paul is absolutely clear on the necessity of Christ’s historical resurrection: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17). Jesus Himself made it clear that His claims about His person and work would be ultimately substantiated by His bodily resurrection (John 2:18–21). Jesus’ words on the cross, “It is finished,” are meaningless unless He also rose from the dead. If He did not rise, then the real historical Jesus is not the Jesus of the Bible. And those of us who worship the Jesus of Scripture worship nothing but a fraud; we “are to be pitied more than all men” (1 Corinthians 15:19).
Victory in This Historical Christ
But the testimony of the eyewitnesses is perfectly clear: “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:20). With that resurrection comes victory—a complete victory. No enemy remains unconquered, even if it does not seem so at present. Christians live on this side of the grave. Therefore, they struggle with sin daily. They struggle with a deteriorating and dying body; they struggle with exasperating relationships; they struggle with an increasingly sinful world; they struggle because Satan is hell-bent on dragging them down. But none of these enemies will win, for they have all been conquered. Christians, with St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, stand on and hold firmly to the gospel grounded in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. They are able to confess with him, “Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57).
When we confess the creeds, we, along with the apostles and God’s Church throughout history, confess the historical Christ of Scripture. And we don’t do it merely to sound pious on Sunday mornings. We do it because we are confessing Christ’s victory, a victory of the greatest possible kind.
David Thompson is pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Audubon, Minnesota.
The Gospel and the Historical Christ