The resurrection of Jesus Christ changes everything. It is earth shattering, nothing like this event had ever happened before. It is religion altering, the entire Old Testament law takes on a new meaning. It is life-giving, there is a new way to be human now in light of all that Christ has accomplished. The resurrection changes everything for those who are followers of Jesus, but it also has direct implications for Jesus himself. The apostle Paul says that the resurrection is the means of Jesus becoming the Son of God. This is a strange and disconcerting phrase in some sense. This Easter it is worthwhile to reflect on what Paul means in Romans 1:4.
Romans 1:1-4 poses to conservative Evangelical Christians a serious question about the nature of Jesus. In our church we affirm the Orthodox confession of the Triune nature of God. But strangely enough, Romans 1:1-4 can seem to suggest that Jesus did not become the “Son of God” until after his resurrection from the dead. Here’s what the text says:
1 Paul, a servantof Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, 3 concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord
According to Paul, then, Jesus was “declared to be the Son of God…by his resurrection”. It changes the meaning of Easter if Jesus was not the eternal Son of God prior to his death. It changes the hope we have in the gospel if Jesus did not become the divine Son of God until after he was raised from the dead, for then his death was simply another human crucifixion at the hands of the Romans. We need to dig deep into this passage to be able to justify our celebrations of Easter.
The particular difficulty of this passage, in relation to eternal generation, is its apparent linking of divine sonship with the resurrection. The “linking” suggests that Jesus became the Son of God as a result of His resurrection, a troubling issue for anyone who holds to the eternality of Christ. A variety of interpretations have arisen to explain the “link”. Two interpretations stand out in particular as significant.
The first interpretation identifies the contrast as one between Jesus’ human and divine nature. So the parallel expressions “according to the flesh,” and “according to the Spirit of Holiness” refer to the human nature and the divine nature respectively. In verse 4, the Greek word translated as “appointed” should really be translated as “shown,” it is said. This interpretation has a noble pedigree. It was the accepted understanding of Chrysostom, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Charles Hodge, B.B. Warfield, and Robert Haldane. It seems like a good interpretation, but the common translation of the Greek word “Oristhentos” as “appointed” is no longer accepted. New Testament scholar, Tom Schreiner writes:
The first interpretation is almost universally rejected today. The assigning of an improbable meaning to the word [“orizein”] shows its inadequacy. This word does not mean “to declare” or “to show.” In the [New Testament] it consistently means “appoint,” “determine,” or “fix”. (Baker Exegetical Commentary: Romans, 42)
So it would seem that a more accurate translation of the Greek does not allow for an interpretation in which the resurrection “showed” Jesus to be what He all along was, namely the Son of God. The link between the resurrection and divine sonship is not accurately resolved here.
The Second interpretation takes aim at the “link” by offering a different distinction. Paul is not here distinguishing between the two natures of the Christ, but between two stages of the ministry of Christ. On earth, pre-resurrection, Jesus was the son of David in the flesh. But post-resurrection He was the Son of God in power. So, it would appear, by virtue of His “resurrection from the dead” Jesus was “appointed the Son of God in power.” Stated simply like this, such an interpretation should raise up immediate red flags for Protestants who hold to the eternality of the Son. Because of the dangers of false teachings like Adoptionism, it is important that we pay attention to the details of this passage, or we will completely misunderstand the very nature of Jesus.
One way in which we can avoid this heresy is to note the subject of the entire passage is the Son. So, as Douglas Moo words it, “It is the Son who is appointed Son” (The Epistle to the Romans, 48). Paul’s own language states that the Gospel is concerning God’s “own Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was appointed to be the Son of God in power.” The Son of God is descended from David, and the Son of God is appointed to be the Son of God in power. Paul clearly has in mind here a pre-existent Christ. Moo states that the “appointment” has to do with a change, not in essence, but in function. An interpretation dealing with a change in function brings us closer to a compatibility with Eternal Generation, but there is an even more pressing phrase.
No other phrase in this passage is as crucial to the preservation of the Pre-Existence of the Son as is the phrase “in power.” These two simple words indicate that Jesus was not made the Son of God by virtue of His resurrection from the dead, but that He was made Son of God “in power” by virtue of His resurrection. Tom Schreiner explains:
The appointment of Jesus being described here is his appointment as the messianic king. In order to make this point clear an explanation of the phrase [Son of God in power] is necessary. The title [Son of God] in verse 3 is a reference not to Jesus’ deity but to his messianic kingship as the descendant of David (cf. 2 Sam. 7:14; Ps. 2:7…). In addition, most commentators rightly argue that the words [in power] modify [Son of God]. The joining of the words [in power] to [Son of God] signals that Jesus did not become the Son of God or the Messiah at His resurrection. When He lived on earth, He was the Son of God as the seed of David (v. 3). Upon His resurrection, however, he was enthroned as the messianic king. (Romans, 42)
The new dimension was not His sonship but His heavenly installation as God’s Son by virtue of His Davidic sonship. In other words, the Son reigned with the Father from all eternity, but as a result of His incarnation and atoning work He was appointed to be the Son of God as one who was now both God and man. (Romans, 39)
This phrase “in power,” then, stands out as quite significant for affirming the eternal sonship of Christ in this passage.
The Bible as a whole presents its Christology in two ways: (1) Jesus is Lord by virtue of who He is- the eternal Son of God, the second person of the Trinity; and (2) Jesus is Lord by virtue of what He does. This passage, in particular, is focusing on the second of these two Biblical emphases. Schreiner clarifies that “The title [Son of God] in verse 3 is a reference not to Jesus’ deity but to His messianic kingship as the descendant of David” (42). The emphasis of Romans 1:3-4 is on Jesus’ resurrection which designates Him the Son of God in the second of the two Christological expressions of the New Testament (Jesus is Lord by virtue of what He does).
Our celebration of Easter is a rejoicing in both who Jesus is as the eternal Son of God, become man, and a rejoicing in what he has done. It is a celebration of his person and function. The resurrection is the event that appointed Jesus to be the Son of God in power, not because He wasn’t already the Son, but because he was fulfilling His earthly role as the Messiah. This Easter rejoice in the Son of God.
(Much of this content was taken from my article “Orthodoxy is in the Details” at The Southern Ohio Pastor’s Coalition Blog).