Christ's Impossible Prayer in Gethsemane

Brent McGuire
Wednesday, May 2nd 2007
May/Jun 2007

The conventional account-at least the one this writer encounters most often-is that in Gethsemane Jesus demonstrates his humanity, by shrinking (as any of us would) from the painful death ahead of him. Jesus is deeply distressed by the prospect not only of dying but of being killed in a cruel and violent manner. He knows what is about to happen and he is afraid.

What leads people to think this way of Gethsemane? Perhaps graphic Good Friday sermons and dramatizations such as The Passion of the Christ are to blame-visual and rhetorical portrayals of the brutal scourging, the pounding of the nails, and the thrusting in of the spear. Though true and faithful to the biblical record and to what we know of ancient Roman crucifixion, such an emphasis on the physicality of the cross often serves to obscure the full significance of Jesus' suffering and death. After all, what is true physically about Jesus' crucifixion may also be said of the crucifixions that occurred left and right of him. And while we do not know what anguish of soul the two malefactors experienced beforehand, we know of many martyrs-Christian and otherwise-who faced their violent end with little or no spiritual torment.

Eleazar, a Jewish scribe martyred in the second century b.c., "welcomed death with honor" and "went to the rack of his own accord" (2 Macc. 6:19). The Roman philosopher Seneca, in the moments leading up to his suicide, was unmoved, showing no signs of fear or sadness (Tacitus, Annals XV.61-2). St. Peter was so bold as to insist he be crucified upside down. The early Christian bishop Polycarp received his death sentence with a courage and joy that amazed his executioner (Eusebius, Church History IV.25). To say Jesus' soul is "overwhelmed to the point of death" because he fears being crucified is to regard him as of weaker stuff than these others.

No, Jesus' agony is over something other than the prospect of physical suffering and death. We learn what that is from the words he prays. His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, in fact, gives us the full meaning of what he is about to do. And the Father's answer, in turn, reveals that the world could be saved in no other way.

The Cup

"My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will" (Matt. 26:39). And again he prayed, "My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done" (Matt. 26:42). What does Jesus mean by "this cup"?

In Psalm 75 we read,

In the hand of the Lord is a cupfull of foaming wine mixed with spices;he pours it out, and all the wicked of the earthdrink it down to its very dregs. (Ps. 75:8)

Isaiah, too, speaks of this "cup of the Lord's wrath" (Isa. 51:17) and Jeremiah of the "cup filled with the wine of My wrath" (Jer. 25:15). The cup that Christ asks be taken from him is the cup of God's judgment against sinners. Here is why the Son of God began to be sorrowful and troubled. Here is what caused Christ's sweat to fall like drops of blood to the ground. It is not at pain and death that Christ flinches. In Gethsemane Christ shudders before the cup of God's wrath upon sin.

There are many today who refuse to believe that God actually gets angry with sinners. They think that God is never wroth with his creatures.

Some there are who tellOf one who threatens he will toss to hellThe luckless pots he marr'd in making-Pish!He's a Good Fellow, and 'twill all be well- Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

God made us, warts and all, and there is no way a God who is just would ever punish sinners for being exactly how he made them. Or so the prevailing view would have it.

Holy Scripture tells a different story. God is certainly just, but we are not as God made us. Our sinful nature, inherited from our first parents, is a perversion of God's good creation, an offense for which we are held no less accountable for having been born with it: "I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation" (Exod. 20:4).

Since God is holy and righteous by nature, he can have no communion with sinners. "I am the Lord your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy" (Lev. 11:44). "Men of perverse heart shall be far from me; I will have nothing to do with evil" (Ps. 101:3). Those who do not live in perfect obedience to the standard he establishes for his creation are subject to his just sentence: "Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law" (Gal. 3:10). Furthermore, the curse is eternal: "It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where 'their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched'" (Mark 9:47-8). In short, "there is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy" (James 4:12).

How often it is asked, "How could a loving God send anyone to hell?" Yet our inborn sense of justice betrays us when we understand and sympathize with the father who says, "I will not, I cannot forgive the man who murdered my daughter." We do not say, "How unloving!" He loves his daughter; he hates her killer. God loves his creation; therefore he justly hates those who by sin have destroyed it. All the human reasons for which we might urge the father to forgive his daughter's killer nonetheless-the father's own sinful fallibility, the psychological cost of pent-up anger, and more-none of these has any claim upon God.

The fact is, despite all our attempts at denying the justice of God's wrath on sin, the conscience is rarely, if ever, so completely suppressed that it does not have its doubts. When people reflect on their actions, when they see the sorrow and unhappiness their sins bring into their own and other lives, when in a great emergency they come to face death, then all the complacent ideas of sin and guilt melt away. They feel pangs of conscience which no sop like "God hates the sin but loves the sinner" can ease. Even a mind unenlightened by the Spirit entertains the thought that God not only hates the sinner but is right to do so.

If It Is Possible

In the Gospel of Mark, we hear Jesus saying, "Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will" (Mark 14:36). Everything is possible for God. Contrary to the medieval theologian Anselm-and contrary to many of Anselm's critics, who would reduce the cross to a mere demonstration of God's love-there was no necessity on God's part for him to deliver humanity from sin. God did not have to save us. He would not have contradicted his nature had he chosen not to send his Son and left sinners to their just reward. Everything is possible for God.

Our sin made the cross necessary. If we were to be saved, if sinners were to be spared the just penalty for their sins, God himself would have to will it. "My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done" (Matt. 26:42). It proved not possible for the cup to be taken away from Christ, because God did in fact will humans to be saved. God willed before the foundation of the world to remove the cup of his wrath upon sin by sending his Son to drink it in the place of sinners (1 Pet. 1:20).

And so the Lord laid on Christ the "iniquity of us all" (Isa. 53:6). "God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished-he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus" (Rom. 3:25-6).

God's wrath is real. But it was also really borne by Jesus Christ. "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21). Jesus was judged. Jesus was damned. For us.

Back to the Garden

The church has long recognized Psalm 69 as a description of Christ's suffering. We know the Psalm is about Christ, because Christ himself and his apostles say so. The fourth verse of the Psalm, Jesus tells his disciples, is fulfilled by the world's rejection of him: "They hate me without reason" (John 15:25). When Christ cleared the temple, he was fulfilling the first half of Psalm 69:9, which reads, "Zeal for your house consumes me" (John 2:17). The Apostle Paul applied the second half of the verse to Christ as well: "For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: 'The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me'" (Rom. 15:3).

We easily identify Christ's suffering and death in the other verses of the Psalm. "I endure shame for your sake, and shame covers my face" (v. 7). "I am a stranger to my brothers, an alien to my own mother's sons" (v. 8, Mark 3:21). "They put gall in my food and gave me vinegar for my thirst" (v. 21; Matt. 27:34, 48; Mark 15:23, 36; Luke 23:36; John 19:28). The curse on the psalmist's enemies-"May their place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in their tents"-Jesus pronounces on unbelieving Jerusalem: "Look, your house is left to you desolate" (Luke 13:35).

But toward the beginning of the Psalm is an anomaly, a verse we hesitate to interpret as coming from the mouth of Christ: "You know my folly, O God; my guilt is not hidden from you" (v. 5). Yet there it is as part of a Psalm otherwise so clearly about Jesus Christ and him alone. How can the innocent Christ say this about himself? How can the innocent Christ say that he knows his own folly (the Hebrew word connotes moral deficiency, wickedness) and that his guilt is not hidden from God?

Christ of himself is sinless, "without blemish and without spot" (1 Pet. 1:19). But Christ stands before the Father representing in his person the whole of sinful humanity. And as he bears the world's sin, he experiences in his soul the consciousness of sin's guilt. He feels in his inmost being God's verdict of condemnation, as if he has personally committed all of these sins. In the words of Martin Chemnitz,

How miserably the saints often complain about the pangs of death and the sorrows of hell, although each drinks only his own cup into which God has not yet poured all His wrath! But upon Christ the Father laid the sins and penalties which were brought about by the sins of the whole world, and He poured out all His wrath upon Him. (Two Natures in Christ, p. 62)

Here then is the deep distress that causes Christ to pray, "If it is possible, may this cup be taken from me" and "If it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done."

Christ's Suffering for Sinners, the Object of Faith

We could not effect a reconciliation with the just and holy God, so Christ accomplished it for us. Christ became the one great universal sinner and was dealt with accordingly by God. And so our guilt, no mere figment or social creation but the felt weight of divine justice and holiness, has been removed. The cup has been taken away, because Christ drank it for us. What cause for praise! What unspeakable joy this brings to the troubled conscience!

But such faith in Christ, such knowledge of one's salvation the devil conspires to obstruct. The devil uses the various human objections to Christ's vicarious suffering to prevent men from finding refuge from their sins in Christ alone. We should be on our guard. Any theory that seeks to supplant the doctrine that Christ suffered God's righteous wrath against sinners in sinners' places robs Christ of his glory as the redeemer of the world and deprives sinners of the assurance of their salvation. All such theories can make no sense of what happens at Gethsemane.

A thread that runs through so many of these alternative accounts, from Abelard's moral influence view to Gerhard Forde's crucifixion-as-car-wreck, is the reduction of the cross to a revelation of divine attributes. In Abelard's case, God is love. In Albrecht Ritschl's case, God is loving Father. In Forde's case, God is merciful. These and other theologians claim to have succeeded where their predecessors failed in fully presenting the good news of salvation. But the gospel is not simply a revelation of God's being. The gospel is about what God does and what God wills. As Luther puts it, it is about God's fatherly heart rather than about the divine essence. All the talk in the world of God being love will not overcome the sinner's consciousness of guilt for failing to love as God does.

Gerhard Forde's view reveals in particular the shortcomings of seeing the cross mainly if not exclusively in terms of its physicality. The Luther Seminary professor contends that, rather than bearing God's wrath upon sin, Jesus seeks to persuade people that God's wrath doesn't really exist. Jesus sits there and takes it as "the world that will not have a God that forgives" beats up on him. Forde's Jesus tries to disprove God's wrath by subjecting himself to the wrath of man.

But the problem is the one with which we began: Jesus doesn't really undergo more brutality from other human beings than many other unfortunate human beings have undergone. Forde's is a woefully inadequate explanation for the kind of travail of soul that Christ suffers in Gethsemane. Like many others who refuse to see Christ as bearing the wrath of God, Forde ends up directing people back to a god of Greek philosophy, God as God is in his essence. The attribute Forde would emphasize, of course, is God's mercy, but we are still left with guilt for not being as merciful as God is.

Perhaps it should not surprise us that several of the theologians who opposed the vicarious atonement in their teaching reversed themselves on their deathbeds. The Dutch jurist and Arminian theologian Hugo Grotius (d. 1645) promoted the view that Christ suffered on the Cross not to bear God's wrath in sinners' stead but to prove to men how much God hates sin and to fill men with a hatred thereof. The repentance to which people are then moved becomes the basis for God's forgiveness of their sin. Although Grotius speaks of God's justice and hatred for sin, the cross for him is, like the other moral influence theories of the atonement, truly and only demonstrative, a demonstration of God's justice. By the Grotian theory, Christ's death is not a substitute. It is an example.

Grotius, however, did not take this belief into death. As Grotius lay dying, he bid a Lutheran minister visit him. When the minister commended Grotius to Christ, "besides whom there is no salvation," Grotius responded, "All my hope is placed in Christ alone." The minister then prayed the following hymn,

Lord Jesus Christ, true Man and God,You who suffered torture, anguish, and shame,At the end also died for me on the CrossAnd won for me Your Father's favor.I ask, through Your bitter suffering:Be merciful to me, a sinner.

The minister asked if Grotius had understood him. Grotius said that he had understood well and a little afterwards gave up the ghost.

The Baptist theologian Augustus Hopkins Strong, in his Systematic Theology (1907), shares similar accounts of Horace Bushnell, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and Albrecht Ritschl. Each of them in his own way denied Christ's vicarious satisfaction of sins and taught in its place a kind of moral influence theory-that Christ's suffering is the most convincing proof of God's love and serves to awaken in man a love for God, which, in turn, reconciles us to God. But each of these theologians reverted in his last hours to the view he had rejected throughout his career.


For the convicted sinner, no greater comfort can be found than in the joyous exchange of the cross-"For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God" (1 Pet. 3:18). In the end God the Father denied his Son's request that the cup be taken from him. It was the Father's will for Christ to receive on sinners' behalf death, hell, rejection by God. But the cup that at Gethsemane he shuddered to drink he willingly drank on the cross.

Jesus' humble prayer in Gethsemane is part of Jesus' suffering for us. Christ is praying for himself, that he might be strengthened for the hours ahead. But the event's record in Scripture is for us. We are given to know not only the intense agony Jesus felt in the moments immediately before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion, but also why he felt it. A cruel and violent death impends, and more than that, the cup of the Lord's wrath upon sin. The Holy Spirit wants us to know this so that we may use Christ's suffering and death against our own. There was no sin not died for at Calvary. No sin which Jesus' shed blood did not cover. And because Jesus drained the cup of the Father's wrath, he gives us to drink with joy the cup of salvation in his blood.

Wednesday, May 2nd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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