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It’s a powerful, gut-wrenching experience to attend a Good Friday service, hear afresh the crucifixion accounts of John, and sing the lyrics of “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?”:

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?

Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?

Were you there when they rolled the stone away?

Indeed, such images can make believers’ hearts tremble and their eyes well up with tears. So often we talk about the cross in abstraction to the point of aloofness and distance from the concrete reality of God’s suffering Son. On Good Friday we’re reminded that Jesus underwent an excruciating death, and experienced all of hell’s wrath in that victorious moment.

When it comes to ministry to young people, however, it can be easy for us to talk about the love and mercy of God in a way that omits the cross. Yet a crossless gospel will only yield flimsy, even spineless Christians in an already challenging world.

Don’t Teach a Sacrifice-Free Gospel

Some sectors of the church deny substitutionary atonement. They ignore this doctrine that starts in Genesis 3, dominates Leviticus, emerges more prominently in the psalms and the prophets, and forms the heart and climax of Christ’s mission.

Some suggest Jesus is a helpless victim of a cruel world’s injustices. Reducing his death to mere symbolism, they strip away what the New Testament identifies as Calvary’s central function: to atone for the sins of God’s people. This view only obscures the fullness of his self-giving love.

In evangelical circles, the cross is rarely omitted on purpose, but it can happen far more often than it should. Perhaps it’s a matter of wanting to avoid a hard topic. Maybe it’s just a matter of forgetting.

Regardless, too often the gospel is simply communicated to kids as “God loves you,” “Jesus cares about your life,” or “God forgives your sins.” Such statements are true, but God’s love runs deeper than bloodless sentiment. His love shines brightest at the cross.

Jesus’s death entailed profound sacrifice. He endured the physical pain of torture and crucifixion. He experienced the emotional and social pain of public humiliation, betrayal, and mockery from those he came to save. Most of all, though, he absorbed God’s eternal judgment as he bore his people’s sins.

Herein lies the real meaning of the love of God. It’s found in the cost of the cross.

Give Them the Whole Cross

When talking about the gospel with young people, we must constantly connect God’s love to the cross. Help them see the full cost at the physical, emotional, social, and spiritual levels. The pain of the whips and nails were only a fraction of Jesus’s misery. Let’s teach young people the full consequence of Christ’s death, not to shame them, but to demonstrate the substance and depth of God’s love for them.

As children mature into teenagers, young adults, and grownups, their own faith will become more personally costly. Remaining faithful to Jesus will require greater sacrifices and rejection. When faced with the difficulties of obeying the Lord Jesus, why would a person stick to him? Because they know he sacrificed so much for them.

When we connect God’s love to Christ’s cross, we build for kids a paradigm of love that involves sacrifice. A cross-rich gospel helps them tightly associate love and cost; the two naturally go hand in hand. And they understand that loving God and others will also involve cost.

Avoid Squishy Sentimentalism

A crossless gospel amounts to sentimentalism. Sentimental love can feel good, but it’s ultimately shallow. No one endures the life-altering and exceedingly uncomfortable call to follow Christ because of something they read in a Hallmark card.

No one endures the life-altering and exceedingly uncomfortable call to follow Christ because of something they read in a Hallmark card.

A college friend of mine, inspired by his mother’s efforts to subsidize his education, modeled the commitment that flows from sacrificial love. He worked tirelessly, enduring the challenges of a grueling accountancy track at Wake Forest without wavering or complaining. He’d often say, “My mom is working an extra job at night for me to be here. I’m giving it my all and I’m grateful to do so.” His mother’s sacrifice for his education shaped his attitude and solidified his resolve to face the challenges of college.

The true love of God, rooted in the sacrifice of the cross, leads to perseverance in adhering to Christ’s call. It forms Christians who take hard stands in the face of unpopular views. It produces young people who stick with Christ for the long haul. It yields disciples with enduring faith.

Cost and love go together in God’s love for us. Cost and love go together in our love for him. Let’s proclaim the scandal of the cross and raise up young people who are gritty, for the glory of the crucified King.