1 Corinthians 15:3–11 (NKJV)
3 For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. 6 After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. 7 After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. 8 Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. 11 Therefore, whether it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.
The American Presbyterian historian and theologian J. Gresham Machen wrote his classic work Christianity and Liberalismto expose the fundamental differences between Christianity historically understood and liberalism. In his day liberalism was beginning its conquest of the American mainline churches, a conquest which in our day is largely complete. Machen insisted that liberalism is not merely a corrupted Christianity, it is no Christianity at all. It is a new belief system that teaches that whether or not Jesus actually rose from the dead is insignificant. What really matters is our subjective experience of Jesus, that Jesus lives on in our hearts.
As Machen correctly perceived, this notion is entirely foreign to the message that Paul preached and that Christianity has preached. The Gospel that Paul preached was rooted in history, rooted in reality. Christ died for our sins, was buried, and rose again the third day. The very thing that distinguishes Christianity from every other religious system is that Christianity is rooted in reality, centered on God’s actions in space and time, in history. It is not merely a system of dogmas but a declaration of events that have dogmatic significance.
Note, therefore, that Christiantiy is, as Machen insisted, founded upon a combination of historical events and their theological significance. Christ died. This is history. He did not get spirited away or exchange places with someone else as Islam teaches. He actually died on a cross outside Jerusalem while Pontius Pilate served as prefect of the Roman Empire in Judea. And why did Christ die? He died, Paul says, for our sins; he died to endure the punishment that our sins deserve. That is theology.
This same combination of historical reality and theological significance characterizes Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus rose from the dead on the third day. This is history; and note that Paul emphasizes the historicity of this event by appealing to witnesses. The Risen Christ was seen by Cephas, the Twelve, 500 brethren at one time, James, the Apostles, and Paul himself. And, Paul implies, if you want to verify the truth of all this, go ask them since most of them were still alive in Paul’s day. In the rest of the chapter, Paul goes on to unfold the theological significance of Jesus’ resurrection.
As Christians we are often led astray by the theological liberalism that pervades our social institutions – both religious and political – ino believing that religion is just a subjective phenomenon. No one religion is superior to another; each has it adherents; each meets the subjective needs of its followers; each is merely a private, personal experience; so who are you to judge? But this is to subvert completely the very meaning of the word Gospel – good news. The Gospel is an announcement of something that objectively happened and that objectively changed the course of human history. Christianity is not just a private religious matter but a public announcement: Jesus died, was buried, and then rose again; so all men and nations are called to confess that Jesus is Lord; Jesus is God’s Anointed One.
So reminded that if we are to approach God it must be on the basis of truth, something that really happened, and not just on the basis of our sincerity; reminded that we must approach God through Jesus who died and rose again for our sins, died and rose again to reconcile us to God, let us kneel and confess our sins to God.