Preaching Christ and him crucified is central to the job of any gospel minister (1 Cor. 2:2). Good Friday drives this home perhaps more than any other day in the church calendar. On that day, the preacher’s task is to proclaim and explain why the bloody spectacle of the murdered Son of God is “good news.” How is such an apparent moral rupture the centerpiece of God’s great act of atonement, of reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor. 5:19)?
Christ’s cross has always provoked hostility and scorn. It confronts us with our sins, bidding the old self to come and die so that the new self may rise and live. But that’s not the only difficulty involved.
Many have rightly recoiled at some of the defective ways pastors have preached the cross, especially its penal and substitutionary dimensions. When we misstep in this area, it gives people a distorted and damaging view of both God and his gospel. This is tragic not only because we deprive people of the gospel’s beauty, but also because, as C. S. Lewis observed, the more powerful and good something is, the more destructive it can be if it goes wrong. Just as a doctor cannot carelessly wield a scalpel, so pastors cannot carelessly preach the cross, lest we bring death instead of life.
While preaching the cross can go wrong in many ways, here are three key mistakes to avoid tomorrow.
1. Don’t Break Up the Trinity
One common mistake is to speak as if the cross momentarily divided the Trinity. We sing rich hymns with lines like “the Father turned his face away” and mistakenly gain the impression that, on the cross, God unleashed his judgment on Jesus in such a way that ontologically separated the Father from the Son. This suggests a split in the being of the eternal, unchangeable, perfect life of Father, Son, and Spirit.
What’s more, this isn’t the historic orthodox view of penal substitution—at least not as we encounter it in Calvin. He’s quite clear:
Yet we do not suggest that God was ever inimical or angry toward [Jesus]. How could he be angry toward his beloved Son, “in whom his heart reposed” [cf. Matt. 3:17]? How could Christ by his intercession appease the Father toward others, if he were himself hateful to God? This is what we are saying: he bore the weight of divine severity, since he was “stricken and afflicted” [cf. Isa. 53:5] by God’s hand, and experienced all the signs of a wrathful and avenging God. (Institutes of the Christian Religion, II.xvi.11)
Here is where good Chalcedonian Christology can save your favorite hymns. We must remember Christ the mediator is neither solely divine nor solely human; he’s fully both. Scripture teaches the divine, eternal, perfect Son added human nature to himself in the incarnation in order that he might live, die, and rise on our behalf as man (John 1:1–14; Col. 1:15–20; 2:8; Heb. 2:14). This is why Calvin—along with the church fathers as well as more recent theologians such as B. B. Warfield—said it’s appropriate to speak of some realities “according to” his divine nature (eternality, omnipotence) and others according to his human nature (hunger, thirst, sleepiness).
When we speak of the Son suffering the consequences of sin or judgment or wrath or God’s abandonment, we speak truly but we speak according to his human nature. We have to be able to say the divine Son suffered these things because Jesus is the divine Son. We confess according to Scripture that “God purchased the church with his blood” (Acts 20:28). But we also have to say the Son suffered according to, or by virtue of, his human nature. This is why Reformed Orthodox stalwarts like Francis Turretin insisted Christ is our mediator according to both natures with “each nature contributing what is its own—the human indeed the substance of the work (or passion); the divine, its infinite value and price” (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 14, Q. II, V). Or as Wilhelmus à Brakel put it, “It was an infinite person who suffered according to his human nature, and thus his suffering was of infinite efficacy and value, ‘having obtained eternal redemption for us’ (Heb. 9:12)” (The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Vol. 1: God, Man, and Christ, 482).
This isn’t a dodge or over-subtle logic chopping. This is the metaphysical logic of the incarnation. God is by nature unchangeable and impassible. He cannot suffer in his nature, so in the incarnation the divine Son really assumes our nature in order to suffer with and for us (Heb. 2:14). God the Son truly suffers and dies. The infinitely worthy Son bears the judgment of God in his own human body and soul for us and our salvation. As we understand this truth we grasp the glorious grace of God who, though rich, for our sakes became poor in Christ (2 Cor. 8:9).
In other words, if you forget orthodox Christology in your preaching, you’ll be in danger of losing the Godhead and the gospel itself.
2. Don’t Forget Love Came First
A second mistake is connected to the first. Many have rejected the atonement as the satisfaction of God’s justice because they’ve gotten the impression that Calvary is about a loving Jesus satisfying an angry Father out for blood. Even when not explicitly taught this way, many in the pews can get this impression.
But this isn’t what we see in Scripture. Instead, we see the triune God of holy love purposing from all eternity to redeem sinners for himself. Before it ever entered our minds to repent, God looked to embrace us in Christ (Eph. 1:4–5; 1 Pet. 1:20). He reveals his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Jesus died for us (Rom. 5:8). The Father doesn’t need to be convinced or persuaded by the Son to love us.
Indeed, the Father loves the Son because the Son willingly lays down his life for his sheep, just as the Father desires (John 10:14–18). Hebrews makes clear that the Son does so in the power of the Spirit (9:14). This is the triune shape of the gospel—Father, Son, and Spirit together accomplishing the salvation of sinners.
God isn’t moved from wrath to love because of Christ’s death. He’s moved by love to satisfy his wrath against us by removing our guilt and enmity through the blood of his cross. Whatever else our people understand, they must see that mercy and grace are God’s idea and accomplishment.
3. Don’t Assume Wrath Is Everything
I’ve focused on issues connected to wrath and punishment because Reformed evangelical preaching tends to rightly focus on penal substitution in its preaching of the cross. Penal substitution is central and foundational. Don’t forget, though, that the cross achieved even more. Christ accomplishes a lot in his life, death, and resurrection. Herman Bavinck notes the diversity of the New Testament witness: “Like the person, the work of Christ is so multifaceted that it cannot be captured in a single word nor summarized in a single formula.” We must remember not to sideline the various other aspects of Christ’s cross-work.
For instance, when was the last time you preached on Christ’s victory over the powers of sin, death, and Satan? The drama of the gospel isn’t just about interpersonal reconciliation between God and humanity, as glorious as that is, but also about its payout in liberating God’s people from the clutches of his enemies. The apostle John tells us the same Christ who came to make atonement for sin (1 John 2:2) also came to destroy the Devil’s works (1 John 3:8).
Indeed, these are not disconnected realities, since penal substitution functions as the organic, integrating center of Christ’s atoning work. Paul says it is precisely through his death for sin that Christ removed the record of transgressions that stood against us, securing our forgiveness and thereby disarming the powers and principalities (Col. 2:13–15). Because of his penal death Satan can no longer accuse the saints; they have been cleared by his blood (Rev. 12:10–12). In just this way our Lord Jesus liberates us from guilt as well as the fear of death (Heb. 2:14).
We need to be careful, then, to avoid giving people a lopsided view of the cross. As J. I. Packer has pointed out, addressing the various aspects of Christ’s cross-work like his victory is another way of preaching the fullness of Christ’s death for sins. Follow Calvin in displaying for them Christ’s multifaceted work, and they will begin to see the height, breath, and depth of the good news of Good Friday.