On Good Friday, we remember the death of the Son of God on a bloody and horrific cross. It seems paradoxical to call such a day Good Friday. How can a day focused on death and suffering be good? How can Jesus being rejected by his people and tortured on a Roman cross be good? To understand more of this mystery, and what Good Friday is all about, it might help to wade deeper into the pool of theology by considering the meaning of the cross. Ultimate victory was at work in initial defeat.
The doctrine of the atonementanswers the question, “Why did Jesus die on a cross?” It explains the meaning behind the Bible’s use of sacrificial language and the blood of Christ. It’s a precious word because it puts the good in GoodFriday, just as it makes the news of Jesus’ death goodnews.
“Atonement is commonly defined as the reparation of a broken relationship that exists between God and his people but that is restored through the death and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ.” The heart of “penal-substitution” is implicit in the name, with “penal” signifying Christ’s death was because of a legal penalty/punishment imposed and “substitution” signifying Christ died in our place taking that penalty. Bruce Demarest explains:
According to this view, sin, which is primarily a violation of God’s law, not his honor, results in the just penalty of death. But in love Jesus Christ, our substitute, in his life perfectly fulfilled the law and in death bore the just penalty for our sins. Expressed otherwise, on the cross Christ took our place and bore the equivalent punishment for our sins, thereby satisfying the just demands of the law and appeasing God’s wrath. As repentant sinners appropriate Christ’s vicarious sacrifice by faith, God forgives sins, imputes Christ’s righteousness, and reconciles the estranged to himself.
Notice two things. First, sin is seen as a violation of God’s law and a judicial matter. Our transgressions (sin or wrongdoing) before a just Judge and holy God bring condemnation and death upon us. Second, Jesus the God-Man bore the penal consequences and penalties of our sins, satisfied God’s wrath against sin, and provides reconciliation and righteousness for us. He is the substitute taking our deserved place and provides the undeserved gifts of righteousness and reconciliation with God—which is received through faith.
Wrath & Mercy Meet
Let’s consider one passage where God’s righteous wrath and his loving mercy meet at the cross. Romans 3:21-26 follows on the heels of Paul’s conclusion that all men are sinful and deserving of judgment, and no one can be made righteous through their good works (or works of the law). If our good deeds can’t make up for bad ones, and our behavior can’t earn God’s acceptance but demands judgment, what hope do we have? Well the good news (gospel) is we have great hope, but that hope is outside of us and must be given freely by grace.
“For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sin. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Rom. 3:22-26)
God demonstrates He is righteous in that He makes sure the penalty of sin (death) is paid in full. Jesus dies because we have broken the law of God and he takes our penalty upon himself. Jesus takes our sin and God the Father demonstrates He is righteous through His execution of judgment. At the same time God demonstrates his justice, righteousness, and holiness by punishing sin at the cross, He also shows the depths of his love, mercy, and grace by sending Jesus to rescue us back to Himself. Jesus loses his life so we can gain life. The Father is temporary estranged from His Son so He might eternally be reconciled to sons and daughters.
This wonderful passage brings both wrath and mercy together. God deals with sin fully in Christ so that we made be fully forgiven in Christ. God is both just and the justifier. He is both righteous, evidenced through His carrying out of the Law and punishing sin, and He is loving, demonstrated in the value and cost of the gift He sends in Jesus to save us.
4 Ways to Respond: Run. Reflect. Rejoice. Rest.
As we consider the cross and empty tomb, we’re compelled to runto Jesus, to believe in Jesus, to receive the free gift of salvation that only comes in Christ alone by his grace alone and through faith alone. You don’t have to earn it, deserve it, keep it, or work for it. You just have to repent and believe, to turn from your sins and living life your way and turn to Jesus to find forgiveness and a new king. It doesn’t matter how good or bad you’ve been because the best of us still can’t earn it and the worst of us are no more undeserving than anyone else. All of us are equals before the cross as sinners, helpless in ourselves.
This holds true not only to those fleeing to Christ for salvation but also to those who already have fled to Christ. We still run to him because we know how easily we stray away. We run to him because we know how tempted we are to trust in our own “good works.” We run to Christ daily because daily we sin and daily we need the blood that cleanses us, not just on the outside but all the way to the deepest core of who we are. And we run to Jesus because he is our refuge, covering us in his righteousness and assuring us we will be kept safe, no matter what.
We should also reflecton God’s mercy often. We are quick to imagine God to be against us or angry. It’s easy for many Christians to envision God’s wrath and they assume God is waiting to catch them in their sin. But the New Testament repeatedly reminds us that if we are in Christ, then all God’s wrath has been dealt with and all He has left for us mercy and grace. God is now our Father, the one who delights in us and longs to do good to us. Remember God’s mercy, seen most clearly in the gift of Jesus, and reflect on how that mercy covers your life.
It’s also good to reflect on God’s mercy in our relationships and interactions. God Is merciful, and we should help people see mercy on a daily basis by not giving people what they deserve, but giving grace and mercy. If we mirrored God’s mercy more and the world’s payback and performance mentality less, God’s glory would shine much brighter in the Church.
All of this should also cause to us to rejoice. We have many things to thank God for and many reasons to celebrate. Our failures and pasts do not define us. Our sins are forgiven, our shame is taken away, and our filth is washed away. Our future is certain and our salvation is secured. God is fully and forever for us. The Spirit gives us new life and Jesus give us a new identity. God not only saves us from our sin but He saves us into His family. All of God’s spiritual blessings belong to us in Jesus Christ. Apart from Christ’s work on the cross, none of this would be true. So reflection on Christ’s work leads to rejoicing in that work. Jesus’ death is news, but for all those who have received him, it is good news.
Understanding atonement and justification allow us to rest. When we sin, as believers, we’re tempted to turn back to a “gospel of works.” We think God cannot love me, accept me, or forgive me. Surely this time I’ve blown it or used up God’s patience and long-suffering. This raises doubts about our assurance or steals our comfort and peace. It keeps us from repenting and returning to God immediately because we think we need to put ourselves in the spiritual penalty box, feel guilty for a while, and beat ourselves up before going back to God. Or, if God seems distant from us we believe lies that maybe God is against me, or maybe he’s given up on me.
But the Gospel tells us if we are in Christ, then all of his work is applied to us. Justification means God’s final verdict over us has been pronounced in advance. Our sin is paid for and forgiven—past, present, and future—and we are clothed in the righteousness of Jesus. Jesus never sends away, casts out, divorces, or gives up on those who are one with him. We can never lose the righteousness and the status of justified given to us in Jesus.
If you are in Christ—by grace through faith—then you are forgiven, redeemed, reconciled, and accepted. All you will receive from God now flows to you through Christ, including God’s great love, kindness, goodness, and grace. Christ satisfies God’s justice against you so God can shower his mercy on you.
 Simon J. Kistemaker, “Atonement in Hebrews,” in The Glory of the Atonement ed. by Charles E. Hill and Frank A. James III (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004) 163.
 Bruce Demarest, The Cross and Salvation (Wheaton: Crossway, 1997) 158-59.