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Jesus prays to the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane, distressing over the impending cup of wrath to come. The weight of bearing the sins of people and alienation from the Father put him such spiritual agony that he asked not once but three times that if there were any other way, for the Father to take this cup from him. Nevertheless, he eventually submits to the will of the Father and chooses to go.

As the God-man, could Jesus have refused to go to the cross?

If he could have, then wouldn't that mean that he disobeyed the Father and would have sinned which would have been against his very nature? Would that have meant that the triune God would've been broken?

If he couldn't have, then he wouldn't have willingly gone to the cross but would have been forced to by God the Father. It wouldn't have a sacrifice out of love but out of obligation.

Help me understand what the right doctrine is here regarding Jesus' own free will and nature.

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    "Would that have meant that the [Godhead] would've been broken?". Not simply broken. Had he sinned, Jesus would have earned the death penalty, and would have died without being resurrected, three days later, or ever. Remember John 3:16: God was willing to risk his son's life. Jesus in turn was willing to risk his own immortal life. Without this possibility, how was Jesus's life and Crucifixion a sacrifice? Commented Apr 9, 2022 at 21:17
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    Refusing to die on the cross is not a sin. Jesus did it voluntarily, not out of compulsion. Christ could have refused to drink the Cup. It would not have been sin. Besides Christ had life in Himself, He is not dependent on the Father for His life unlike us. So no one has the authority to Judge Christ including the Father. We are subject to judgment because God has lent us His life, therefore the accountability. God is above all law, though the law is His character.
    – One Face
    Commented Mar 7 at 16:23
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    “No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father. ” John 10:18 KJV
    – One Face
    Commented Mar 7 at 16:24

7 Answers 7

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Could Jesus have refused to go to the cross?

The short answer is no.

Jesus’ human will was so united to that of the Divine Trinity that this would have been an impossibility.

It was the will of the Divine Trinity that Jesus should offer his life on the Cross in order to save mankind from sin and restore mankind to to grace and sanctifying grace. In no uncertain words , would Jesus have disobeyed the will of the Father.

In his human nature, Jesus feared what was about to happen, but he subjugated his will to that of the Father’s will. Although Jesus had not been crucified or resurrected, he still was united totally to the Holy Trinity and he already, in his human nature possessed the Beatific Vision.

Being a perfect Son, he was obedient unto death.

Jesus went the distance, despite the gearing of the bystanders to dare him to come down from the cross. Christ had a mission to complete and his love of the Father in his human nature knew no bounds.

The gospels contain an account of the time the disciples and Jesus spent in the Garden of Gethsemane, just before Jesus was arrested. In the garden Jesus prayed to his Father three times, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will”—the KJV says, “Let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39). A little later, Jesus prays, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done” (Matthew 26:42). These prayers reveal Jesus’ mindset just before the crucifixion and His total submission to the will of God.

The “cup” to which Jesus refers is the suffering He was about to endure. It’s as if Jesus were being handed a cup full of bitterness with the expectation that He drink all of it. Jesus had used the same metaphor in Matthew 20:22 when prophesying of the future suffering of James and John. When Jesus petitions the Father, “Let this cup pass from me,” He expresses the natural human desire to avoid pain and suffering.

Jesus is fully God, but He is also fully human. His human nature, though perfect, still struggled with the need to accept the torture and shame that awaited Him; His flesh recoiled from the cross. In the same context, Jesus says to His disciples, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mathew 26:41). In praying, “Let this cup pass from me,” Jesus was battling the flesh and its desire for self-preservation and comfort. The struggle was intense: Jesus was “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Matthew 26:38), and Luke the physician observed that Jesus was sweating blood—a sign of extreme anguish (Luke 22:44). If anything shows that Jesus was indeed fully man, this prayer is it.

Jesus knew of what was to come (see Mark 8:31). The agony He faced was going to be more than physical; it would be spiritual and emotional, as well. Jesus knew that God’s will was to crush Him, to allow Him to be “pierced for our transgressions” and wounded for our healing (Isaiah 53:5–10). Jesus loves mankind, but His humanity dreaded the pain and sorrow He faced, and it drove Him to ask His Father, “Let this cup pass from me.”

Jesus’ prayer to “let this cup pass from me” contains two important qualifications. First, He prays, “If it is possible.” If there was any other way to redeem mankind, Jesus asks to take that other way. The events following His prayer show that there was no other way; Jesus Christ is the only possible sacrifice to redeem the world (John 1:29; Acts 4:12; Hebrews 10:14; Revelation 5:9). Second, Jesus prays, “Yet not as I will, but as you will.” Jesus was committed to the will of God, body, mind, and soul. The prayer of the righteous is always dependent on the will of God (see Matthew 6:10).

In Gethsemane, Jesus conquered the flesh and kept it in subjection to the spirit. He did this through earnest prayer and intense, willful submission to God’s plan. It is good to know that, when we face trials, Jesus knows what it’s like to want God’s will and yet not to want it; to act out of love yet dread the hurt that often results; to desire righteousness and obedience, even when the flesh is screaming out against it. This conflict is not sinful; it is human. Our Savior was “fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God” (Hebrews 2:17). He had come “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10), and He accomplished His mission, even though it meant drinking the cup of suffering to the bitter end. - Why did Jesus ask God to “let this cup pass from me”?

Jesus makes his unity with the Father quite clear: I and the Father are one.

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As the God-man, could Jesus have refused to go to the cross?

Yes, He could have. He was always free to choose, otherwise His sacrifice would have been only involuntary, or a charade. It was no charade. The hardest thing to do is not only to endure suffering, but to face an undeserved punishment when you know you could choose not to. That is the ultimate miracle.

For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4:15)

If he could have, then wouldn't that mean that he disobeyed the Father and would have sinned which would have been against his very nature?

It would be contrary to the love of the Father for His Son, and the love of the Son for the Father.

Would that have meant that the triune God would've been broken?

Thank goodness we don't have to unpack this.

If he couldn't have, then he wouldn't have willingly gone to the cross but would have been forced to by God the Father. It wouldn't have a sacrifice out of love but out of obligation.

Not even obligation, but it would have really been predeterminism, which is the opposite of the liberty that God offers us.

Help me understand what the right doctrine is here regarding Jesus' own free will and nature.

One Scriptural observation is that God uses the word "if" with all of His servants and all the prophets, but He never uses conditional language for His Only Begotten Son, even once. What this expresses is that the love and the trust between the Father and the Son was and is so complete, so full and so perfect that God the Father never entertained such a thing as a backup plan, even though He knew His Son was always able to choose for Himself. Jesus was and is the plan. He is the way.

How I want to have such a father-son relationship, that there is no question even when there is a supremely tempting choice!

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A massive distinction lives between "could have" and "would have". We can see by "Nevertheless, not my will but Yours be done" that a decision was made but not when it was made. His thrice repeated petition to remove this cup if there be any other way does not indicate a willingness to go against the Father's plan. Rather, "if there be" sounds more like Jesus making known, by prayer and petition, his requests (as Philippians 4 exhorts us).

True Jesus "could have" said, "I won't do it but, if there's any other way,...". But He did not express any negation of the Father's will and He "would not have" because, as He oft repeated, "I and the Father are one".

In Luke 9 we see Jesus' resolution:

And it came to pass, when the time was come that he should be received up, he stedfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem

And in Isaiah 50 we see similar language regarding the Lord's servant:

The Lord GOD hath opened mine ear, and I was not rebellious, neither turned away back. I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not my face from shame and spitting. For the Lord GOD will help me; therefore shall I not be confounded: therefore have I set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be ashamed.

In eternal council God the Father sends God the Son. God the Son is willing because He and the Father are one. His face is set like a flint toward Jerusalem (and the cross) from the very beginning.

Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour. Father, glorify thy name. Then came there a voice from heaven, saying, I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again. The people therefore, that stood by, and heard it, said that it thundered: others said, An angel spake to him. Jesus answered and said, This voice came not because of me, but for your sakes. Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me. - John 12:27-32

Those who would have the Son wrestling against the desire to disobey the Father in the garden of Gethsemame are conflating "could" with "would". "Could He have"? Sure, if the semantics are necessary for understanding choice and temptation. "Would He have"? Absolutely not for the choice was made long before there was a garden in Gethsemane.

His face is set like a flint to save His people! When was His decision made? From the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8).

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    You too are confusing will with intent and purpose - they are not all the same
    – steveowen
    Commented Apr 12, 2022 at 2:48
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    @steveowen Aren't intent and purpose necessary parts of will? Commented Apr 12, 2022 at 11:38
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    We start the day with the best intentions, esp. after prayer. God's spirit in a person directs their life - the thoughts, desires, attitudes, etc. Yet it's our will that wants to do what we want - even knowing that it isn't the best way to go, our conscience tells us so. We often obey, not from love or trust, but out of guilt - the will is still contrary to God, even if the actions are (supposedly) aligned. Jesus was at one with God - no Q. Yet his will differed. The aligning of his will with the desire to please / love God is obedience.
    – steveowen
    Commented Apr 12, 2022 at 12:01
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    @steveowen We who have the Spirit have two wills struggling within us: (Galatians 5:17). Are you suggesting that within Jesus the Spirit lusted against the flesh and the flesh against the Spirit so that He could not do what He wanted... like us? Or perhaps the will of Jesus' sinless flesh was not at odds with the Spirit...unlike us sinners, so that He always did what both He and the Father wanted? Two wills and no difference therein. Commented Apr 12, 2022 at 12:13
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    @steveowen I want to lift a 20 foot plank onto staging. I cannot do it alone so I ask for help from my boss, who told me to set up the staging. Asking for help does not prove that my will is different...it actually demonstrates sameness of will and humility. Commented Apr 12, 2022 at 12:21
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Jesus had a golden opportunity to avoid the horror and the shame of death by crucifixion shortly after his baptism. That was when the devil tempted him in the wilderness to receive "all the kingdoms of the world" if he would but worship the devil. When Jesus emphatically castigated the devil by saying, "Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve", then the devil left him. Angels came and ministered to Jesus. (Matthew 4:1-11 A.V.)

Of note is that the previous two temptations were designed to put doubts into Jesus' mind as to God the Father declaring at his baptism, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." Jesus did not fall for such doubts any more than he fell for receiving kingship over the world by worshiping Satan.

He knew that God alone had sovereign rights over the creation; that Satan was a would-be-usurper, and that the way of the cross would crush that deceiver. He knew that he was the only-begotten of the Father. He knew angelic help was always a second away. How did he know? Because he understood the scriptures and he knew who he was - the logos made flesh, come to destroy the works of the devil by way of the cross. All those points came into play in the wilderness and in Gethsemane.

He might (in theory) have backed out of actually going to the cross, but given that he was the Son of God come into the world to do the Father's will, he would no more fall at the last hurdle than at the first. His sole purpose was to do the will of the Father, to glorify the Father, to fulfil all the scriptures about what Messiah would do. And given that he was not simply a perfect man, but the logos made flesh, he could never avoid the cross. That was the whole reason why he came into the world! Nor did he come as his own idea. Before the creation of the world, God purposed the way sin would be dealt with, in due time. "According to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Ephesians 3:11). Father, Son and Holy Spirit took counsel in the Godhead, that the Father would send the Son, the Son would willingly go and be "obedient to death, even the death of the cross" (Philippians 2:8) and be resurrected.

What enabled him to continue resisting the temptation to avoid the cross? Loving the Father and us sinners, being one with the Father in mind, spirit and purpose, and "For the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising its shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God." Hebrews 12:2)

As this is not about theory, but about the facts of what actually happened, I conclude that Jesus had set his face towards the cross when tempted in the wilderness, and none of the agonizing pressures on him in Gethsemane could ever succeed where the tempter had failed in the wilderness. He faced up to what he knew would imminently happen, and continued steadfast in his resolve. He could not refuse the Father's will as his will accorded perfectly. Then angels came and ministered to him.

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What about what he says to the disciples just before they take him? I understand that Jesus committed to this mission before the foundation of the world, but this passage seems to imply that if at any time Jesus decided we were no longer worth saving that He could have crushed us before or even from the cross.

This makes me love Jesus even more, knowing the choice was always His, and yet he went obediently to death, “even to death on a cross.” Why did Paul put it like that in Philippians 2:8? It sounds like Paul even saw it this way. That this was single-handedly the greatest act of mercy we could ever know.

Matthew 26:52-54

52 Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword. 53 Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But how then shall the scriptures be fulfilled, that thus it must be?

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    – agarza
    Commented Mar 7 at 15:07
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In a cursory reading of the already posted answers, I did not find an answer that included the following scripture:

Revelation 13:8 - All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose names have not been written in the Lamb’s book of life, the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world.

In a sense, the death of Christ was a fait accompli in the mind of God from eternity past. The plan of salvation which he brought to fulfillment in the fullness of time was his Plan A from the very beginning, when God the Son was in his pre-incarnate state. God never had a Plan B.

This means that Jesus could not have (and would not have) refused to go to the cross. This eternal plan, which the apostle Paul expatiates upon in Ephesians 1:4-14, could not be altered. The entrance of sin into the universe did not take God by surprise. He did not have to change gears, so to speak, and come up with an alternative plan because Satan and God's image bearers messed things up!

In short, Jesus's apparent reluctance to go to the Cross was a reflection of his humanness. He was not a masochist. Like virtually every human being, he took no pleasure in pain. In light of his ultimate exaltation and glorification, Jesus

. . . endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:2b).

For the joy that was set before him--a joy that Jesus knew he would experience by submitting to his Father's will, he chose to endure the cross. He disdained the shame. He held it in contempt. In other words, he kept his eye on the prize. His love for his Father and his love for fallen humankind led him to the cross and kept him on the cross, until he breathed his last.

As the hymn goes:

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In your description you said:

As the God-man, could Jesus have refused to go to the cross?

The short answer to this is, Yes of course He could have refused. As a God of love no forcing of the will exists in Him and He does not expect this of His Son. He does not force His Son in any way. My reasons for saying this are, among other things, informed by the typology of the crucifixion as found in Gen. 22.

It is clear that Isaac had to willingly offer himself. No young man of his age would have allowed himself to be bound to an altar by a weak old man like Abraham would have been at this point in the story.

You then said:

If he could have, then wouldn't that mean that he disobeyed the Father and would have sinned which would have been against his very nature? Would that have meant that the triune God would've been broken?

Here is where it may get tricky for some to understand. There are two things that could have happened here - the one would not have been a sin and the other would.

  1. Jesus would not have sinned if He simply chose to not go to the cross for us, for the same reason that it is not an offense of the law if you decide not to pay someone else's traffic fine. The law will still demand that the penalty be paid by the offender. It will not come after the one who wanted to step in and pay it on the offender's behalf but who, for some reason, decided not to.

If Jesus decided not to die on the cross, we would be damned indeed. Damned to the bondage of Satan with no hope of escape.

  1. Jesus would have sinned if, at any point in His life on earth as a human being, He cherished selfishness instead of unselfishness as the motive of any of His actions. If He did this, then the Godhead would have been broken up. Why? Because He would have chosen to operate on selfish principles instead of the unselfish principles that are the very nature of God.

Now you would say, But wouldn't it be selfish of Him to refuse to die on the cross for us? No, it wouldn't. Just as it is not selfish for a parent to decide not to serve the sentence of their child that got locked up for breaking the law. The parent is not required to do so BUT can do so from free choice.

The good thing about unselfishness is that it cannot be required (forced). It can only be allowed to intervene or not. If God did not intervene by dying on the cross, no one could accuse Him of being selfish. The fact that He did is what makes the gospel such good news - He did not have to - BUT HE DID!

You then said:

If he couldn't have, then he wouldn't have willingly gone to the cross but would have been forced to by God the Father. It wouldn't have a sacrifice out of love but out of obligation.

Exactly! I would add to this that if Christ was in any way forced to sacrifice Himself then the beauty of the gospel ceases because God is in no way obligated to us. This concept is what Jesus teaches in the parable of the unprofitable servants.

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  • your points 1 and 2 contradict. If J didn't go to the cross, he would have been avoiding God's will for his own - selfishness.
    – steveowen
    Commented Apr 12, 2022 at 12:11
  • I believe they don't contradict each other because for me they account for the freedom of choice that Jesus has and the true unselfish nature of God's love. Jesus was not obliged to die for us by the Father - He chose to do so out of pure unselfish freedom. In this sense it was impossible for Him NOT to go through with the cross but in my answer I seek to point out the very real fact that it would not have been a sin if He chose not to.
    – user58803
    Commented Apr 12, 2022 at 12:27
  • Jesus was sent into the world to die on the cross. As God he is sovereign and could choose not to die on the cross, but if that was the case he would not have been sent by the Father since their wills are united. When he was in earth, he was already sent by the Father so at that point he could only submit. He did not have a choice to refuse.
    – Tim Wilson
    Commented Oct 2, 2023 at 0:40

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