In the Easter story, Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane before he is about to be betrayed by Judas and arrested, brought to trial, and shortly thereafter, crucified.
All three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) record that when Jesus was in Gethsemane He prayed "Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done." (Luke 22:42).
But isn't this rather strange? Why does Jesus seem tempted to avoid God's plan for him to be crucified? Shouldn't Jesus automatically and instantly agree with God?
Since Christians have always accepted that Jesus was divine, why does it seem here that Jesus briefly has a different will than the will of the Father?
Maximus the Confessor
One of the early church theologians who addressed this issue was Maximus the Confessor, who lived in Constantinople from 580-662 A.D.1 He is called "the Confessor", because this was a title given to early Christians who suffered for their faith but did not die for their faith, and thus were not considered to be martyrs.
At the time, although most theologians had agreed at previous Ecumenical Councils that Jesus had both a human nature and a divine nature, the question was how these two natures could be united into one person. One solution was to say Jesus only had one 'will'.2
Because if Jesus had two wills, the reasoning went, then there was a chance that Jesus could sin, or at least, He would be torn in His decision making between His two wills.
We can imagine this sort of conflict if we picture a person with both a shopaholic 'will' and a frugal 'will' trying to choose whether to buy a new pair of shoes:
The shopaholic 'will' says "Yes, these are great, I love them, I neeeed them!" The frugal 'will' says "No, we can't afford them, we already have tons of shoes at home!". Since the two are equally matched, the debate goes on and on; "Yes!", "No!", "Yes!", "No", and the person who has these two wills struggling within themselves never actually makes any decision at all.
They may still be standing there when the shop turns off its lights and locks its doors.
Maximus insisted that Jesus did indeed have two wills: one human, and one divine. He saw Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane as the proof of his theory.
After all, Maximus argued, Jesus must have had a human will, if the human will can be saved.3 This was based on Gregory of Nazianzus' earlier argument in 382-383 A.D. that "that which he [Jesus] has not assumed he has not healed; but that which is united to his Godhead is also saved."4
Gregory was arguing against an earlier heresy which claimed that Jesus could not have had a truly human mind. Gregory said if Jesus did not have a human mind, then the human mind cannot be redeemed. This statement can be expanded to say that whatever humans have (a human soul, mind, body, spirit, will, etc.), Jesus also had, in order to redeem all parts of the human person.
So Maximus argued that Gethsemane shows Jesus had two wills.
But Gethsemane did not show that Jesus was using his 'divine' will (which was to accept his forthcoming suffering and death), to override or ignore his 'human' will (which was to not experience physical suffering and death). Instead, it just shows that Jesus was going through the process of harmonizing his two wills.5
Since Jesus was not sinful, there was never any question that he would ultimately choose to obey the Father's will (which is, in some way, his own will, for the Father and the Son (Jesus) are 'one' (John 10:30), even though they are distinct divine Persons - see John 6:38).
So what Gethsemane shows then is not that Jesus was considering disobeying God's will for his life (and thus, sinning), but that Jesus was experiencing the typical human decision process which requires time and deliberation to consider all options, our desires, our beliefs and values, and come to a final choice on how to act based on what we deem is 'best'.
Through this temporal human process of decision making, Jesus aligned His human will with His divine will. There was never a chance that His human will might not agree with His divine will. But to bring His human will into agreement with His divine will took time, because humans are temporal creatures.
So Jesus did have a real human fear of suffering and death, but He knew it was best to obey the Father, for the sake of humanity's eternal salvation.
I think the main difference between humans and God which makes humans prone to sin, is that unlike God who has infinite wisdom, humans do not inherently know what is 'best' for us, since we don't have a perfect understanding of the world and the likely consequences of all our actions. Thus, if we ignore God's guidance we can be misled into thinking something which is not good for us is actually the best thing to choose.
For example, Adam and Eve became convinced by the Serpent's lies that eating the fruit of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was actually going to lead to a better future for them than following God's will for their lives (Gen. 3:6). And they were horribly wrong.
Maximus' views were affirmed as correct at the Third Council of Constantinople in 680-681 A.D. But by then he had died a while after he had both his tongue and right hand cut off for being accused of wrongly teaching that Jesus had two wills.6
The Difference Between Temptation and Sin
Based on the above, the idea that Jesus had two wills can then also make sense of how Jesus was 'tempted' in the desert by Satan (Mark 1:13, Matt. 4:1, Luke 4:1-2).
These temptations did not mean that Jesus might sin, for He is God, and God is perfectly holy and sinless.
Instead, again, Jesus had to go through the temporal human decision making process, which involved actually considering the ideas that Satan was proposing as a possible course of action, weighing the pros and cons of such action through rational and moral thought processes, and choosing which option was best.
Therefore, since Jesus never sinned (because if he did, then since death is the penalty for sin as in Rom 6:23 and Gen. 2:17, it would have meant Jesus would have been worthy of death himself, and could not have been the perfect atoning sacrifice for humanity's sin), we can say that temptation (i.e. considering the possibility of acting in a sinful way) is not the same as actual sin, and being tempted is not sinful in itself. For Jesus was tempted, but never sinned (Heb. 4:15).
Therefore, since even Jesus was tempted by sin, we can be confident that even if we're tempted to do something sinful, it is not because we're such awful, sinful, corrupt humans, but it's because that's how the human decision making process works: an idea must first be considered before we choose whether to act that way or not. It is the acting on the idea that is sinful, not the considering of it.
In fact, it could be that one way to avoid sinning is to take the time to really carefully consider the temptation we're facing, and imagining the possible negative future consequences of giving in to that temptation, which should help discourage us from pursuing that course of action.
And ideally, as we gain more life experience, we should realize that sinning tends to lead to negative consequences, and learn to avoid it. Thus, in heaven, I think we'll finally see clearly how harmful sin is and we will have no desire to ever act in a sinful way ever again.
Jonathan Edwards on God's Foreknowledge and Jesus' Sinless Choices
Since I'm studying Edwards for my PhD dissertation, I just wanted to add a little about his views on this issue.
One rather weird argument in Jonathan Edwards' book Freedom of the Will for why God must have perfect foreknowledge of the future, is the claim that God had to foreknow that Jesus would not sin, in order to accurately foretell all the Old Testament prophecies regarding the Messiah's future success at redeeming the world from sin.7
Edwards uses this idea to support his overall argument that 'determined' actions which could not have turned out otherwise can still be done 'freely' and are worthy to be praised or blamed and punished or rewarded.
Edwards says, "Hence that great promise and oath of God to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, so much celebrated in Scripture, both in the Old Testament and the New, namely, 'that in their seed all the nations and families of the earth should be blessed,' must be made on uncertainties, if God does not certainly foreknow the Volitions of moral Agents. For the fulfillment of this promise consists in that success of Christ in the work of redemption, and that setting up of his spiritual kingdom over the nations of the world, which has been spoken of."8 (emphasis mine)
So it seems that Edwards has some underlying fear that if God did not foreknow that Jesus would succeed in his mission as the Messiah, and if Jesus had the same sort of non-deterministic free will that all humans have, then there would be a chance that Jesus could fail.
He says "If it was possible for Christ to have failed of doing the Will of his Father, and so to have failed of effectually working out redemption for sinners, then the salvation of all the saints, who were saved from the beginning of the world, to the death of Christ, was not built on a firm foundation."9
Therefore, if God was not entirely confident that Jesus would resist temptations to sin and freely choose to die on the cross for our sins, then all God's promises of salvation were uncertain.
However, it seems that Edwards puts more emphasis on God's foreknowledge than on Jesus' divine nature as his method to explain how God can prophesy/promise that the Messiah would actually succeed.
Edwards does correctly say that "The same thing is evident from all the promises which God made to the Messiah, of his future glory, kingdom, and success, in his office and character of a Mediator: which glory could not have been obtained, if his holiness had failed, and he had been guilty of sin. God's absolute promise makes the things promised necessary, and their failing to take place absolutely impossible."10 (emphasis mine)
Open theists (who believe it is impossible for anyone, even God, to foreknow the outcome of a free human choice) would certainly agree with Edwards that if God promises He will achieve something in the future then it does make it impossible that these things should not happen.
But, open theists say this is because God is omnipotent and flexible like a master-chess player who can coordinate for these things to happen, even without having perfect foreknowledge of future free choices of all humans. You can read more about this in my post on Open Theism and Bible Prophecy.
Based on Maximus' arguments above, open theists can say that because of Jesus' perfect divine nature which included a perfectly holy divine will, God could still confidently guarantee that Jesus would not sin and would fulfill all the requirements to be the Messiah even without perfectly foreknowing the future!
And thus, open theists can completely agree with all the scriptural citations Edwards lists about the necessity of the Messiah's success, but without having to endorse the philosophically difficult idea that God foreknows all future 'free' actions.
So Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane is actually quite useful theologically. From it, we can see that Jesus was in fact fully human, even down to the human decision making process he had to go through, just like any of us do.
Also, we see that Jesus was actually tempted, because he had genuine human desires which made sin appealing. Yet because He was perfectly holy, He never failed to align His human will with His divine will. Thus, when we're tempted, we can know that we do not have to yield to temptation, even if we do have to spend time in a decision making process which considers the tempting idea and the possible outcomes from such an idea.
And finally, Maximus' provides one more argument which can support the open theist idea that God does not need perfect foreknowledge in order to bring his promises about the Messiah's success to fulfillment. Instead, we can trust that Jesus' divine nature was enough to ensure he would not sin and would fulfill God's will by dying for our sins to show us God's love:
"In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins." (1 John 4:10, NRSV).
- 1. Stephen Need, Truly Divine & Truly Human (Boston, MA: Hendrickson, 2008), 123.
- 2. Need, 121.
- 3. Need, 125.
- 4. Gregory Nazianzen, "Epistle 101 To Cledonius against Apollinaris", in Church and Society in Documents, 100-600 A.D., ed. Alan L. Hayes (Toronto: Canadian Scholars' Press, 1995), 153. Hayes notes this letter was written around 382-383 A.D. (p.149).
- 5. Need, 125.
- 6. Need, 123.
- 7. Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2012), 120-132 (Part III, Section 2).
- 8. Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 93.
- 9. Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 127.
- 10. Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 122.