“It Is Finished”: Teaching Jesus’ Words of the Cross to Teenagers

“Jesus forgives your sins, and if you do your best and get through all the hard things in life, God will give you good things in the end. That’s Christianity. That’s the gospel.”

Some version of these words is the number one answer I hear from teenagers when I ask them what they think the gospel is. I hear it from adults as well. I’ve heard it from believers and nonbelievers as a description of Christianity. It may be the most clever and destructive lie about Christianity ever told. 

This lie is dangerously close to the truth. Jesus does save us from our sins! The new heavens and the new earth where sin, sorrow, and death are gone forevermore, is the promised future for those in Christ. 

It is also true that we are not there yet. There is still sin and sorrow in this life. We live in the already of Christ’s accomplished salvation on the cross and the not yet of his promised future. We have been given prayer, the fellowship of believers, and the living and active Word of God as the means for navigating this in-between life.

We do indeed strive to be more like Christ in every circumstance, as the Holy Spirit resides in us, comforts, assures, sustains, and transforms us to be more like Christ until we see him face to face. 

So, what’s the problem with this explanation of Christianity— especially as it pertains to the lives of teenagers? 

The Dangerous Lie

This subtle, dangerous lie is the one our hearts are most tempted to believe – that the work of Christ isn’t finished until we earn it. The lie is found in a mere two letters, but they are powerful enough to make us doubt the love of God, even turn us against him: “If.” 

If we do our best . . .  If we do enough good works. . .  If we are good enough people…  If we do this, then God will love us… If we do well enough then God will give us something good. 

How terrible and cruel it is to dangle the love and forgiveness of God before teenagers or even our own selves, and then put a barrier of worthiness between us and God’s free gift. 

Some of our teenagers have only ever heard this flawed version of the gospel. Others would never describe the gospel this way out loud, but they live and relate to God and others as though they believed it to be true. Sometimes, they don’t realize this is why they feel so distant from God, because they’ve put a barrier of “if” between God and them. 

When we want teenagers to understand the gospel, or when they are doubting the love and goodness of God, we need to encourage them to look at Christ on the cross. God is love. He has defined the highest form of love as laying down your life for another, and he has given his life for us (1 John 4; Rom 5). That is how much God loves us. 

When teenagers struggle with “if,” we can encourage them to hear the truth from the cross – “It is finished” (John 19:30). These words of Christ are the remedy to all their “ifs.”

“It Is Finished” for Teenagers

Jesus’s declaration, “It is finished,” illuminates the true gospel and sets it straight in our hearts. The promise of a redeemer from all of the Old Testament prophets, the mystery of salvation that Paul speaks of, the shepherd of Psalm 23, the love of God that we can never be separated from in Romans 8, all of the promises of Scripture are finished according to Christ! 

Look at the thief on the cross in Luke 23:42-43:

 And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And [Jesus] said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.’” 

What “if” could that man offer? He was nailed to a cross and near death. All he could do was ask Christ to “remember” him. He didn’t even have a “proper” prayer of salvation. And yet we know this man was loved and saved, because Christ declared and accomplished it, not because a crucified thief did enough to earn it. 

When our teenagers hear Christ declare, “It is finished,” they can fully surrender to the gracious love of God. Let them pray like the tax collector of Luke 18 who can only pray, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Then, let them hear Jesus declare, I tell you, this man went down to his house justified. . .” 

It was not the Pharisee with his list of accomplished “ifs” who found the peace and mercy of God. It was the one who surrendered and accepted his only hope: the free gift of God’s forgiveness.

These words from the cross remind teenagers that they do not earn God’s love if they read their Bibles and pray more, if they meet social expectations of the “good Christian,” or if they avoid certain sins. They already have all of God’s love secured in Christ.

The Joy of Obedience

I believe in the goodness of God’s law and our obedience to it. Christians are called to do good works. We are called to be salt and light and care for widows and orphans. We try to be more Christlike even as the Spirit of God works in us to make us so. 

All Christians stand with Paul in Romans 6 when he declares that we should by no means sin more so that more grace can be given. “It is finished” does not mean that teenagers get a free pass to disobedience. We want to show them that they obey because they love him and trust that he has promised that forgiveness and adoption in him is finished. He has said that no one can take them out of his hand and nothing in all of creation can separate them from his love. 

Because this is the gospel truth, they can delight to be in prayer and his Word, to pursue the fruit of the Spirit, and become the aroma of Christ to their family, friends, and community. “It is finished” empowers them put sin to death because they despise all that put Jesus on the cross.

With these words from the cross, we can tell teenagers to abandon their “ifs.” These “ifs” cannot save them. When teenagers forget that God’s love for them is secured in the finished work of Christ, they lose the beauty and the hope of the gospel.

Do you long for your students to know the light burden and easy yoke of Christ in Matthew 11? Are they weary and heavy laden? Do you long for rest for their weary souls? Teach teenagers to run to Christ, to see him on the cross, and hear him declare to them: “It is finished.” 

With these words, teenagers can look at the finished work of Christ and his empty tomb and rejoice! The gospel does not demand that they be better at looking like a Christian. The gospel does not come with the performance standards of social media or elite arts and athletics. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a free gift of grace paid in full by him. May we use these words to help teenagers remember the truth he has declared – “It is finished!”

Luke Paiva has a B.A. in English and an M.Ed. from The University of Tennessee Knoxville, and is currently working on his MDiv through Reformed Theological Seminary. He has been married for sixteen years to his wife Johannah, and has four children – Jack, Benjamin, Lucy, and Grace. He began his career teaching high school English and has returned to the classroom after a decade in law enforcement. He currently teaches Biblical Studies at a Christian high school in Nashville, TN.

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