Growing up, I knew of “Good Friday” mainly as one of the Easter-related traditions we didn’t really celebrate – kinda like the day the Catholic kids would come to school with dirty foreheads. I later learned, of course, that Good Friday was the day when Christians historically remembered the crucifixion and death of Jesus.
I remember thinking that was a strange name for what’s often a very solemn remembrance. Yes, the darkness and misery of Jesus’ death ultimately was good news for me, but it still seemed odd to call that day itself “Good.” Maybe it would be more appropriate to call it “Black Friday,” followed by “Good Easter.”
The Great Exchange
If you’ve spent much time around Christians, you probably have heard that the whole point of Jesus dying on the cross was that he died for our sins. Indeed, Paul describes Jesus’ death as accomplishing an exchange of our sin for Jesus’ righteousness: “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor. 15:20-21.)
This is what’s sometimes referred to as the Great Exchange: even though Jesus never sinned, God treated Jesus as having done so, punishing him in our place; at the same time, even though we did not live a righteous life, God treats us as having Jesus’ perfect righteousness. Or, as Peter put it, Jesus “bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. . . . For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 2:24, 3:18).
The Problem: It’s Not Fair
I will concede, that sounds pretty good. But we’re not out of the woods quite yet. Proverbs 17:15 says, “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the LORD.” According to God’s just standards, it is decidedly NOT good or fair to punish an innocent man in the place of a guilty man, and it is NOT good or fair to treat a guilty man as if he were innocent. Rather, the guilty must be condemned, and the righteous vindicated.
Again, though, the point of the Great Exchange is that God justifies us (the wicked) and condemns Jesus (the righteous). If God calls that an “abomination” (really strong word), how can it be good?
The Solution: Just and the Justifier
The key is in who Jesus was. He wasn’t just a good man who volunteered to be punished in the place of the bad. That, according to Proverbs 17:15, would be an abomination to God. God’s perfect justice had to be satisfied, or the cross would be worthless to you and me.
The really good thing about the cross was that Jesus was the divine Son of God – fully God and fully man. His death therefore accomplished God’s justice in that God himself took on his own just punishment for our sins, and in turn freely gave us his own righteousness. In that way, God showed us his own righteousness by being both just and the justifier of the sinful:
[F]or 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. . . . It was to show his righteousness as the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Rom. 3:23-26)
So yeah, thanks to who Jesus was, that was a really Good Friday.