Why is it Called “Good” Friday?

If while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. (Rom. 5:10)

Before I was a Christian, and even for a while after my conversion, I couldn’t figure out why we call it Good Friday. What on earth could be good about the day on which the hands of godless men nailed Jesus to the cross? But as time has progressed, and with it my knowledge of Scripture, I have come to see that it is indeed good Friday – the best Friday in human history.

Jesus did indeed die on what we call Friday – the next to last day of the Jewish week, of which the seventh day was the sabbath. We use essentially the same week, though instead of paying special attention to the seventh day, we give heed to the first day of the week; instead of the sabbath, we celebrate the Lord’s Day. But whatever we call the day – Friday in English, el viernes in Spanish, other names in the other languages of the world – on this particular Friday, Good Friday, we turn our minds to the infinite good that took place on another Friday, 2,000 years ago.

Of course if we look at the cross with purely secular eyes, we don’t see the wonderful aspect of it. All we see is the martyrdom of a good man. Such eyes are those which Judas Iscariot possessed. You’ll remember that his regret was that “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” (Matt. 27:4) Now that’s true – Jesus was innocent not only of the crimes and sins with which the Romans and the Jews charged Him, but of all sin against God, and if He committed any crime against the secular law, it was only because “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29) God made Him both Lord and Christ, and to the Roman emperors His claim to being the Lord and the King of heaven was in fact treason – just as submitting to Christ rather than to Kim Jong-un is legally treason under North Korean law today.

But Jesus wasn’t merely an innocent man. Judas was right in saying that he had betrayed innocent blood, but that was only the beginning of the matter. Jesus was an innocent man, but He wasn’t just an innocent man. He was also God manifest in the flesh, as the Nicene Creed says: “Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance[essence] with the Father; who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” This is merely a restatement of what John wrote:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.M/span> John 1:1, 14

This being true – and either it is true, or else we might as well toss the entire Bible out, and eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we’ll die – Judas’ betrayal of Jesus was the betrayal of the Creator and Lord of the universe, a betrayal of the same God who led Israel out of Egypt, and was the most heinous crime and sin in history.

But it is precisely because of that vast crime that we’re saved. Peter said,

“this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death.” Acts 2:23

It is true that godless men nailed Jesus to the cross. It is true that they did this by their own choice – their free will operated to destroy their own Creator. But they made their free choices “by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God.” Every choice they made was free – and it was precisely what God had determined in eternity they would freely choose. Every act of human will that led to the cross was a free act – yet it was exactly the free act, in exactly the series of free acts, that God had decreed would come to pass before the foundation of the world.

And why did God do this? Why did God make the determination that Jesus would die at the hands of wicked rebels? Why is Jesus the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world? God didn’t make this determination – in a phrase I’ve been using for years, having picked it up from my good friend and brother in the Lord, Dr. Mike Reynolds – just for grins and giggles. He didn’t do it, in a popular cliche, for His health. It wasn’t a momentary whim, and it wasn’t a pointless gesture. God eternally determined that Jesus would die for a very good reason. As Paul said in the text, “we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son.”

Reconciliation! That’s one of what I’ve come to call the “-tion words,” because they end in that syllable. Reconciliation! We were in great need of reconciliation. We were enemies of God. We were “by nature children of wrath.” (Eph. 2:3) No one is born good, and then becomes an enemy of God – we’re His enemies by nature. Just as a pear tree produces pears because that is its nature, and just as a cactus grows thorns because that is its nature, so human being sin against God because that is our nature. Years ago the pastor of the church of which I was a member at the time said something that sounds simple and superficial, but is in fact a statement of a profound theological truth – you don’t have to teach children to sin. I’ve raised two children, and I’ve had a fairly large hand in the upbringing of my granddaughter, and I can testify to this from experience. The first word both my daughters ever spoke wasn’t “mama” or “daddy,” but “no,” partly because my wife and I had to incessantly tell them that to teach them not to do things that they shouldn’t do, and partly from the natural rebelliousness that is the heritage of every human being.

From birth every person is a sinner. Babies are incredibly cute, and they call forth every maternal and paternal instinct we possess, but in honest reality a baby is the most selfish creature in the house. All a baby knows or cares about is that it’s hungry, or tired, or needs changing, or just wants attention. The needs and fatigue of the parents don’t enter into a baby’s mind at all. The fact that demanding what it wants at the instant it wants it is a great inconvenience to others, doesn’t penetrate a baby’s heart. It is a great effort – a joy, yes, but a great effort – to teach a child patience, kindness, goodness, and other virtues. And when a child doesn’t get such teaching, invariably the result is something more resembling a wild animal in its ferocity and selfishness, than a human being.

Sin is part of us. We’re born with it. And this sinful nature is automatically at odds with the Lord God.

Your eyes are too pure to approve evil,/And You can not look on wickedness with favor. Habakkuk 1:13

The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness. Romans 1:18

God’s “wrath” is, in Koine Greek, orgh (orge), and it doesn’t mean that God loses His temper. Divine wrath is, rather, the settled, natural, inevitable reaction of the epitome of holiness, justice, and righteousness against all unholiness, injustice, and unrighteousness. We are sinners by nature, and God is unalterably opposed to sin by nature. We sin because we’re sinners; God is wrathful against us because He is holy. We must be careful when we use language of this sort, because we must never detract from God’s omnipotence, but it is nevertheless theologically true that God can’t let sin go. He must be angry with sin. Just as our eyes automatically close against a light that is too bright, so God’s nature “automatically” reacts with fury and destruction against sin.

And this means that if we are to first avoid punishment at the hands of this infinitely offended God, and second to receive His positive favor, there must be reconciliation. There must, in some way, be a removing of the sin which doesn’t merely cover us, but which spews from our hearts more violently than lava from a Hawaiian fire fountain. There must be something which takes away the barrier between us and God, and restores us to the fellowship that Adam had with God before the fall.

And that reconciliation comes by Jesus’ death. “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” (1 Tim. 1:15) His purpose wasn’t merely to set us a good example, though He did do that. He didn’t come just to provide eminently excellent moral teaching, though of course He did that too. He didn’t come only to heal physical sickness, though that was certainly a visible part of His ministry. He came to save sinners. He came to reconcile to God those who didn’t deserve such mercy.

While we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly…But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us…while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son. Romans 5:6, 8, 10

What does Paul say here? Christ died for us while we were

    1) helpless
    2) ungodly
    3) sinners
    4) enemies

Any one of these things would have thoroughly justified God in rejecting us, casting us away, thrusting us down to the pit. Jonathan Edwards’ words to the wicked people of Enfield, Connecticut apply just as well to us:

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked…” ~“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” The Works of Jonathan Edwards 2:1)

We deserve death. We deserve destruction. We deserve the lake of fire and brimstone. We deserve to remain the unredeemed and unreconciled enemies of a God who with perfect justice could have destroyed us from His presence forever.

But Jesus died to reconcile us to God. “For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16 HCSB) Jesus would never have died, were it not that God had determined from eternity to reconcile men to Himself. Before the foundation of the world the three Persons of the Godhead – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – covenanted among themselves to save a people for God, out of the mass of wicked men, to the praise of the glory of His grace. And the means of achieving this purpose was the death of Christ.

Without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. Hebrews 9:22

For anyone to be saved – for even one human being out of all history to be saved – Jesus had to shed His blood. The cross was an absolute necessity of there was ever to be an uncountable multitude in the New Jerusalem.

And so God gave His Son. The cross wasn’t an afterthought. It wasn’t an accident. It wasn’t something that men did and God then turned to serve His purposes. It was, rather, exactly what God had always intended would happen. It was the means He had decreed from eternity for the salvation of His people.

So when we survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died, we do, yes, mourn the utter injustice of it, and we become angry at the wicked murder of an innocent Man. But we then turn our mourning to joy, and our anger to praise, for it was precisely that injustice and that murder which bring salvation to us. What the Romans intended as the most painful and humiliating death possible, and what the Jews intended as a gory example of what happened to those who threatened their power, God had long before made into the means of saving for Himself a people who would glorify Him forever.

And that is why we call it Good Friday.