Christ’s Conquest: At the Cross or the Empty Tomb?

Christus VictorHaving just completed Holy Week and Easter, I am concerned that some of the sermons and hymnody used in these services are imbalanced.  The issue is that the victory of Jesus over sin and Satan is declared at Easter but not at Good Friday.  In other words, it is communicated, sometimes explicitly but usually implicitly, that the death of Jesus was not the event of conquest over these enemies.

Now please know that I believe it is completely appropriate for Christ’s conquest to be proclaimed at the Feast of the Resurrection.  With full crescendo I join with the church in singing “Jesus Lives! The Victory’s Won” (LSB 490).  The joyous proclamation of this truth at Easter is not my concern.  Let it continue and increase!

What is troubling to me is the communication that Christ’s conquest over sin and Satan was not achieved at the cross.  I note this because I continue to preach regularly and in fact did so on Good Friday and Easter.  In my preparation for preaching I read Good Friday and Easter sermons which have been prepared by others (both online and in printed homiletical resources).  Several of these sermons conveyed the message that the Lord’s victory over his age-old adversaries happened only at the resurrection and not beforehand (i.e., at the cross).

Moreover, some hymns imply this.  Take for example the Easter hymn by Paul Gerhardt, “Awake, My Heart, with Gladness” (LSB 467).  The lyrics of this hymn state:

The foe in triumph shouted when Christ lay in the tomb;
But lo, he now is routed, his boast is turned to gloom.
For Christ again is free; in glorious victory
He who is strong to save has triumphed o’er the grave.

The implication of these lyrics is that the routing of Satan didn’t occur until Jesus rose from the dead.  A similar message is conveyed in the hymn by C. F. W. Walther, “He’s Risen, He’s Risen” (LSB 480):

The foe was triumphant when on Calvary
the Lord of creation was nailed to the tree.
In Satan’s domain did the hosts shout and jeer,
for Jesus was slain whom the evil ones fear.

But short was their triumph: the Savior arose,
and death, hell, and Satan He vanquished, His foes.
The conquering Lord lifts His banner on high;
He lives, yes, He lives, and will nevermore die.

I reluctantly criticize these giants of faith, Gerhardt and Walther.  I acknowledge that some poetic license is to be permitted with hymn writing.  I also grant that these hymns could be interpreted to mean that between Christ’s death and resurrection the foe thought he had triumphed when in reality he hadn’t.  That depiction may be possible, although there is no scriptural evidence that this happened.  Nevertheless, I doubt that many who sing these verses understand them to mean this.

In addition, I don’t want to name names regarding preachers who fall under my critique, since I heed the wise admonition: “Let him who is without (homiletical) sin cast stones.”  I admit that in the past I have preached in such a manner as to diminish Christ’s conquest at the cross and to reserve victory only for the resurrection.  But it is in fact in reflecting on the content of my own preaching that I have come to view this as a significant deficiency.

Scripture abundantly attests to the fact that it was at the cross that sin was denuded and Satan was bested.  The protoevangelium predicted such:  “He will crush your head, and you shall strike his heel” (Gen. 3:15).  In other words, the promised seed of the woman would render the fatal blow to Satan while simultaneously being wounded by the enemy, a promise fulfilled at the cross.  This prophecy is admittedly cryptic, but other passages are more explicit.  In John 12:31-32, Jesus refers to his crucifixion (“when I am lifted up from the earth”) as the occasion for Satan’s downfall (“the ruler of this world will be cast out”). The Apostle Paul connects Christ’s triumph over the powers of evil explicitly to the cross: “He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us that that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross.  And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Col 2:13-15).  Similarly, the writer to the Hebrews points to the death of Jesus as the event at which Satan was conquered:  “He [Christ] too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb. 2:14-15).  It was by Christ’s death that Satan and his power were undone.

In light of this and other biblical evidence, John R. W. Stott affirmed the death of Jesus Christ, as well as his resurrection, as the locus of triumph over sin, evil, and death.  He wrote:

We are not to regard the cross as defeat and the resurrection as victory.  Rather, the cross was the victory won, and the resurrection the victory endorsed, proclaimed and demonstrated. “It was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” [Acts 2:24], because death had already been defeated.  The evil principalities and powers, which had been deprived of their weapons and their dignity at the cross, were now in consequence put under his feet and made subject to him.  (The Cross of Christ, 235-236)

The Christus Victor motif certainly is manifested in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  But it is also revealed in the death of Jesus.  Gustaf Aulen’s book by that title appropriately emphasizes that both the cross and the empty tomb are places of victory where sin and Satan, devils and death were vanquished.   This “both-and” rather than “either-or” approach should be ours as well.  For indeed it was upon the cross that Jesus made his victory cry: “It is finished!” (John 19:30, see also Matt. 27:50, Mark 15:37, Luke 44:46).

Sin was dealt a decisive blow at the cross.  Its penalty—death—was paid in full.  Its power, guilt, was nullified.  Its agent, Satan, was bested.  The resurrection demonstrates the efficacy of this, vindicates Jesus’ claims and promises, and declares with power that Jesus is the Son of God who is Lord of all.  The empty tomb is the Father’s endorsement of the finished work of his Son.  This is why Christ’s death and resurrection are, to use a colloquialism, a “package deal.”  The Apostle Paul emphasizes that the Gospel of God’s triumph over sin and our deliverance from sin is delivered in the messages of Jesus’ death and resurrection together (1 Cor. 15:1-5).

To summarize, I encourage us as witnesses of the Gospel to declare with confidence the victory that is in the death of Christ as well as that which is in his resurrection.  We need not, we should not, neglect the announcement that Jesus triumphed over his foes—and ours—at the cross as well as at the empty tomb. “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:57) –in both his death and resurrection.

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  1. Timothy Winterstein April 6, 2016

    “Sing, My Tongue” (LSB 454) explicitly endorses the victory of the cross in stanza 1.

  2. Kyle Fittje April 6, 2016

    Dr. Peter, thank you for helping us think through this. I’ve wondered the same myself. Here’s where my thought process is at right now. I might suggest that Good Friday and Easter Sunday are two sides of the same event. So, is it Good Friday or Easter? YES! I have found the term “Paschal Mystery” to be exceedingly helpful in my thinking in this regard. This term encourages me to view it as one event. Good Friday is not good without Easter, and without Good Friday, Easter has no joy “for us.”

  3. Rev. Ben Roberts April 6, 2016

    Great article, Dr. Peter! I think one of the issues here is the all too often “separation” of Good Friday and Easter, as this happens during our worship cycle. Since a preacher is called upon to proclaim Good News every sermon, on Good Friday, the preacher almost feels compelled to proclaim the cross as victory. I remember Dr. Maxwell’s symposium presentation which detailed the various motifs of the resurrection and only one of them proclaimed the cross as a “defeat”. I suppose one way to see the crucifixion as both a defeat and a victory is what is happening to Jesus and to us. God is laying all of our sin on Jesus at the cross (victory) while the Son of God dies a horrible death He shouldn’t have (defeat). I also like how many Easter sermons, though they focus on the resurrection, always tie it back to the crucifixion, usually in the language of defeat, but ending with “death is not the end!” I believe the tension lies in the separateness of the occasions for proclaiming the Good News.

    • David Peter April 7, 2016

      Ben and Kyle,
      Thanks for your insightful comments. You both get to the heart of the issue, which is that the death and resurrection of Jesus are inherently indivisible. One could even add to this unified “package deal” his righteous life, his ascension, his current reign, his future glorious return, and his everlasting rule in the new creation. These are all of one fabric, and in every aspect of Christ’s mission he is triumphant. Of course, we must DISTINGUISH between these episodes of the saving work of the Son of God, but we cannot SEPARATE them from one another (just like we distinguish but do not separate the persons of the Trinity, the natures of Christ, the two realms, etc.). My point in this essay, and I think your comments affirm this as well, is that the incarnate Christ was at no point bested by the devil, not even at the cross.

  4. Harold King July 2, 2016

    What about victorious from before the foundation of the world?

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