by James W. Alexander
New York, November 18, 1852

Holy submission of Christ's will—a source of consolation

The very name Gethsemane carries remembrances which sadden the demeanor and fill the eyes. How can we draw near to it? Especially, how can we withdraw the curtain and expose the divine humiliations of that hour, when we know so well how many have already gazed carelessly on every pang of the Son of God, until they are hardened like the nether millstone? And this is one reason why we shall not attempt a picture of that scene; but after a hurried glance at the series of events, will single out one expression as our theme.

Every reader will remember that the disciples had risen from their couches in the guest chamber of Jerusalem, and joining in a hymn, had descended into the little valley, which on the east separates the city from Olivet; and in that valley had found, at the foot of the hill, the garden now so memorable. It was just outside of Jerusalem, over the brook Kedron, between the brook and the place where the mount begins to ascend. It was a spot to which Jesus was accustomed to resort for solitude and devotion—and the fact is connected with his betrayal. He caused the eleven to sit down and pray, while he went further onward to pray also. Three of the number were more privileged. They went to his more secluded retirement, and were witnesses of his agony. The terms which describe this have an solemnness which belongs to no other words in Scripture. "His soul was exceeding sorrowful;" immersed in sorrow; in death-sorrow. It was an indescribable and unearthly suffering, mingled with tears, and cries, and blood, and angelic appearance.

It was an hour of agony—the hour. Mark 14:35. He was fallen on the ground, and the unseen cup was at his lips. All the struggles and wrestlings of the universe are nothing to this. Here is Divinity in conflict with itself. Here is the Father bruising the Son. Here is God the Savior, as it were, contending with God the Just, lest the sinner should have what he deserves. Here is manhood exalted to be the vehicle of divine atonements, and Godhead upholding the only nature that could die. Here is the fainting, sinking, forsaken Messiah, still looking up, and crying, "Abba, Father!"

"Abba." It is the word of the babe, when first in that dialect he knows the filial language, and reads the father's soul in his eyes; the simplest articulation of language; the most trustful outburst of affection—"Abba, Father." It is the recognition of supreme power and Godhead—"All things are possible to you." It is the cry of nature suffering in its profoundest depths, and exclaiming for help, or rescue, or alleviation, in the moment of anguish, and pressed by unutterable woes. "Take away this cup from me!" It is, nevertheless, the total, instant, absolute subjection of the whole spirit to Jehovah, "Nevertheless, not what I will—but what you will!" The proposition to be considered is this—The submission of Christ's will to the will of God is the great atoning act, and the motive and pattern for our submission, and the source of our consolation.

1. The person here humbled is to be regarded. It is not the absolute Jehovah, who has neither parts nor passions, and who is to all eternity insusceptible of change or pain. It is not any one person of the adorable Triune Godhead, considered absolutely, separately, and in respect to his divine nature. Such acts and sufferings as those to which we ascribe atonement seem to have required a suffering adjunct, that is, a human body and soul, in order to be possible; and such acts and sufferings alone vindicate the Incarnation. Nor yet was it man, simple, naked man—no, not the greatest, best, purest, holiest, loveliest, heavenliest of mere men; priest, king, or prophet;—it was not a bare teacher, a superior Jew, Jesus, son of Mary, who was subjecting himself to God. Such subjection as this would indeed have been good and admirable—but finite, and unworthy of occupying this distinct, prominent, and mysterious place in the gospel annals. A thousand martyrs have suffered, without a murmur, like this; yet their sufferings had nothing vicarious, nothing penal, nothing meritorious.

The personage who here submits his will to the will of absolute Divinity, that is to Law, in its sublimest sense; to infinite right; the personage who endures and obeys; who shrinks in torture, and yet looks up in love; who dies of a thousand griefs, yet bathes with tears the Father's hand which smites, is without any complete parallel in heaven or earth, in time or eternity. He stands alone; for the exempt case, the unprecedented juncture in the world's history, demanded the appearance of one unlike all others. Hence the impossibility of explanation in regard to this mystery. All explanation lifts up the mind to the desired height by means of some truth of likeness, some analogy, some similitude. Here there is no analogy, no similitude—likeness fails, and so does explanation. God may be likened to God, and man to man; but the resulting Christ—God and man in one ever-abiding union—is comparable, in regard to this union, to nothing in this world or that which is to come.

The very term Person, not found in Scripture—but adopted by popular usage, from a very early age, testifies to the necessity felt for some new phrase to mark a new relation, and guard against a new error. Hence the early creeds multiplied words to prevent anyone from supposing either that there was but one nature in Christ, as if the divine and the human were intermingled, so as to leave no human nature and no divine nature—but a third essence between the two; or that there are two persons, a personal Godhead united to a personal manhood—a God and a man; these early formularies opposed themselves to both errors, maintaining the truth with a fullness which savored of tautology. "Who, although he be God and Man, yet he is not two—but one Christ. One, not by the conversion of the Godhead into flesh—but by taking of the manhood into God. One altogether, not by confusion of substance—but by unity of Person."

In contemplating this holy mystery we must not look too closely into the ark, nor endeavor with niceness of scholastic distinctions to separate what is divine from what is human in the person or the work of our Lord Jesus Christ. To us, and for our salvation, he is "One Lord," and it is enough for us to look on his deeds and atonement as proceeding from one indivisible and glorious Person, the Lord Jesus Christ. In a sense, all he does and all he suffers is divine, inasmuch as the divinity sustains all, the divinity concurs in all, and the divinity gives merit and infinitude to all. It is the Son of God, who prays. Standing as Mediator, between all that is purely God, and all that is purely man, himself God-man, he offers up the tribute of a will absolutely and unspeakably surrendered to the infinite will. The prayer which He himself prompted was never so uttered as by him in the garden, "Your will be done!" Which leads me to remark,

2. There was in our Lord, in the garden, a struggle between his innocent nature and the will of the Almighty Father. The words are plain —"Take away this cup from me; nevertheless, not what I will, but what You will." If there was no struggle there could be no meaning in such words. There was a cup, brought to his lips, which he was expected to drink, and which the Almighty Father commanded him to drink—but which nevertheless was so repugnant to all the instinctive feelings of nature, as to be the cause of those ineffable fears and griefs and astonishments. There was present a suffering nature, a part which could sigh and grieve; a voluntary nature, which could accept or reject; a loving nature, which could yearn with godlike affection and pity for the salvation of a world of believers; and a subdued and holy nature, which gave up all for the honor and glory of infinite justice.

It was a vicarious work from first to last in which Christ was engaged; that is, he was acting for others, not for himself. Human nature would never have been assumed, unless to lift up that human nature from its sunken condition. To carry man up to God, it was necessary for God to become man. It was not enough that God should decree the sanctification of the fallen. Something besides sanctification was demanded, something more than the present, actual holiness of the creature. This, it is true, was intended, as a grand result; but before this something must be done. A legal obstacle lies in the way, which must be removed. There is a claim of Law, which must be satisfied. For this sanctification the Son of God became man; to satisfy in the nature which had offended. The will of the race has become opposed to the will of God—this is only another way of saying the race has sinned. There is an solemn and irreversible penalty.

Not for an instant will I admit that God's threatenings are meant only for alarm and not for execution. They are executed, with direful condign vengeance in the fall of Lucifer, in the fall of Adam, in the Deluge, in the cities of the plain—as they will be in the retributions of the Last Judgment. In all and each of these, Divine Justice burns forth to the execution of threatened penalty. In none of these instances would such penalty be inflicted, if threatening could be set aside without fulfillment. Perfect subjection of will in our Surety, without any struggle, would have been infinitely holy, would have been immeasurable obedience, and would have fulfilled the law in a way of active righteousness; but it would not have been endurance of legal pains; it would not have answered the vindicatory part of the law, and it would not have exhibited to the universe the high spectacle of the Son of God subjected to anguish for the sinner's sake. Hence the necessity for the struggle of which we have spoken. The yoke is borne, and it is felt to be a yoke. The cup is bitter, or it would not be a cup of atonement. The genuine though perfect humanity of the Redeemer, having all the instinctive love of ease and hatred of pain which belongs to humanity, turns pale and shudders, and sinks and groans and dissolves in blood, before it drinks this cup—yet drinks it!

A total instantaneous subjugation of Christ's will to the will of God, of such a nature as to overwhelm and drink up the native propensities, such as to cast out all pain—would not have been endurance of penalty. Hence the need of shrinking, repugnance, and struggle, in the suffering subject. Hence was there wrung from our divine Redeemer the cry—"Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me!" In our view, that which is essential to atonement is the bearing of sin, that is, the bearing of penalty. And we stop short, and content ourselves with light, insufficient views of the part sustained by Christ, when we do not include in our thoughts the crushing of the human nature (which would have been its annihilation but for the sustaining power of divinity), under the weight of legal pains endured representatively and vicariously. There was a force drawing the will of Jesus away from the cup of anguish, which force we must in some degree appreciate, before we can duly esteem the glory of his drinking it up. This was the struggle of Christ's will, in Gethsemane.

3. Notwithstanding this struggle, there was a perfect submission of Christ's will to the will of the Father. "Nevertheless, not what I will—but what you will." The length of foregoing repugnance is a matter not revealed. That there was no moment in which the holy submission of our Savior gave way, is certain. That the grace of a loving subjugation to law transfused itself through the whole of the sinkings and agonies of nature, so that the two coexisted at every instant, is most probable. Through the whole, there was so much of weakness as to insure pain, our sacrificial pain—through the whole, there was so much of acquiescence as to insure obedience, our vicarious obedience. And who does not know that even in the lesser world of human affection, and in many a domestic hour, love and pain may be so blended as to be the very warp and woof of our heart's existence; pain being still pain, yet embraced even with transport, and chosen without a lingering hesitation, for the sake of the beloved object; as when the mother suffers for her offspring—the father for the son—the wife for the husband—the brother for the brother!

And shall we wonder when He in whom are gathered up the glory and beauty of all virtues, graces, and exalted benignities, stoops to taste the cup which our sins had prepared! It is the crowning act of his life of submission, on which he is now entering. In a certain sense, the whole period, from his birth until his resurrection, was one series of humiliation, one subjection to covenant, one tribute of obedience, one satisfaction to law, and one Righteousness. In the same sense, this whole period was one submission of will; because there is no obedience but of will. But, nevertheless, this permanent obedience of our Mediator for our sakes does at certain epochs reach a point of overflowing, which reveals the same more fully to us; as in the garden, the arrest, the trial, and the cross. Infinite are the mysteries of that holy suffering and submission, which were passing within the darkened chamber of Christ's soul, and which no finite mind can ever comprehend! Not more private and inaccessible was the Sanctum Sanctorum, than this Holy of Holies of our Atoning God and Elder Brother. The little that we know is, that he suffers and submits. This is enough. This is the bowing down of the will, the federal, vicarious, mediatory will, to the law which we had injured; to the law in its twofold power, as commanding and as smiting.

It is the will, the stubborn, impious will, which in us fights against God, and by all human power is unconquerable. It is the will which sins, which rejects salvation, and that damns the soul. It is the will, the God-defying will, which now, this day, in some who read, deliberately sets itself against the Most High God. It is the will which Jesus Christ, amidst an ocean of contending griefs, offers up, steeped in death and humbling, pure and unresisting, unto God for us. And though he made this offering a thousand and a thousand times during the course of his mediatory tabernacling among us, and though there was no instant in which he made it not; yet at certain moments he did more formally and observably consummate this surrender of self; and this is one of them.

It is the most complete, as it is the most stupendous, sacrifice unto God which the universe has beheld. In all its parts, it forms the theme of eternal thought and songs. "Not my will—but yours be done." In a certain sense it might have been avoided; for God the Father is omnipotent; but not in any sense which would not have left us in hell. In regard to the manner of help, it might have been avoided. "Do you think that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels?" Matt. 26:53. "Put up your sword into the sheath; the cup which my Father has given me, shall I not drink it?" John 18:11. It might have been avoided, in respect to power—but not in respect to love.

"Abba, Father, all things are possible unto you—take away this cup from me; nevertheless, not what I will—but what you will!" What YOU will! Here is the supreme and infinite and eternal will which binds the universe. What YOU will! Here is the divine will which, if unopposed, would have kept an eternal universe in happiness—but which was violated by sin. Here is the will, which all nature obeys—but which devils and men have outraged and defied. Here is the will which is dear to all holy intelligences, and infinitely dear to the Son of God, the holiest of intelligences; to this will, therefore, he submits himself at once and irrevocably, though it costs him the greatest sacrifice which has been known in all worlds. This obedience, even unto death, is the ATONEMENT. It is a satisfaction of infinite value made to the will of Jehovah, that is, to Justice. It is an oblation both of doing and of suffering. It fills the cup of duty; it exhausts the cup of penalty. It meekly says to Almighty Justice, "Your will be done." It does this, not in some remote planet, or distant circle of heaven; though in such regions there are perpetual tributes to the Infinite Will. Such would have been pleasing to God—but would have availed nothing to our earth. Here, on this accursed orb, the satisfaction was rendered. It is not a submission of will, by some super angelic being unrelated to ourselves, nor a declaration solely of God's hatred against sin—it is an offering up of an immaculate, law-fulfilling, covenanted obedience of act and suffering, in our human nature, by one who is chosen as the head of our human nature; who assumed our human nature for this very end, and who in every deed, groan, tear, pang, and drop of blood, acts in and for our human nature; so that for all purposes of atonement, we then and there obey and suffer in Christ, as truly as in Eden we disobeyed and suffered in Adam.

So far, therefore, from being unjust for God to impute to us the acts and expiatory pains of Christ, his subjection of will to God as if they were our own acts and pains, it is beautifully and gloriously and infinitely just, inasmuch as these are the acts and pains of One who is our Head. Christ performs the whole mediatory work as the head of a great moral person, his Church. He is as truly connected with all the members as our head or heart is with our extremities. Christ's satisfaction is our satisfaction. "If one died for all, then all died." If one lives, all live. When that glorious submission of will to God takes place, the law is satisfied by a federal compliance, which forever cuts off all payment of that debt by those means.

4. The submission of our Lord amidst this inconceivable struggle is the pattern and motive for our submission to God's will. So beautiful a sight, to those who account moral perfection the greatest beauty, was never presented, as in the spotless obedience of Jesus; and so pre-eminent a part of that obedience is nowhere displayed as in this closing night and day of his life of humiliation; and in these hours of agony, no single moment is more intensely hallowed and subduing than that in which he cried, "Nevertheless, not what I will—but what you will."

I seem to behold all heaven bending down towards a world on which for forty centuries there has not been one immaculate object, to concentrate its gaze on the "Man of Sorrows." "These things the angels desire to look into," they cannot imitate, though they admire. They "adore and burn;" but such stretches of benevolence are beyond their reach. Angels cannot suffer—they have not become incarnate. Such struggles are wondrous to them. Gladly does one of them descend to Gethsemane, and appear "strengthening him." This is a love which has been the grand attraction of the church in all ages, and which we celebrate in a sacrament. It is love in its highest exaltation; suffering love; tearful, bleeding, dying love. As you drew near and meditated on it at that table, did your heart melt, O my brother! to consider that it was for you and for your sins that this unexampled act of submission was put forth? And as you ventured to stretch out your hand to the bread of the sacrament and the cup of blessing, did you try to measure your obligation? Ah, you found it immeasurable! By all the legal submissions of Jesus Christ your Lord, and especially by all the untold agonies of that hour of darkness, when the sword of Jehovah awoke against his fellow, and smote the Shepherd; by all his profound obedience of soul, you lie bound also to obey. From every drop of that precious blood, the voice comes to you, "Submit yourselves unto God." No thunder of Sinai can so move the will as these gentle groans of your beloved Savior in his woe.

That rebellious will, which is perpetually offending and resisting, and which you mourn over as your chief calamity, the plague of your heart, the serpent in your bosom, never, never yields to bare Law. Obligation may be felt; it is felt in hell; it produces the fear of hell—"the devils also believe and tremble;" but obligation does not convert. If you have ever fled to Jesus with the intolerable burden of your sins, you know this. You know that the denunciations of penal vengeance, often repeated, produced only sullen aversion, and maddened your sense of inability, sometimes even to despair. You became afraid to look toward the fiery mount and the tables of the law; for so often as you looked, you sinned; and so often as you strove to amend, you sinned the more; and though your conscience was lashed into exacerbation of remorse, your heart acknowledged no true submission to the God whom you had offended. But when from the mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire, and blackness, and darkness, and tempest, and trumpet, and terrible words, which made you exceedingly fear and quake, you were gently led aside, and brought to this Zion, to Jesus the Mediator of the New Covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling; when here you were made to behold the incarnate Son of God bending his will (at vast, unspeakable cost of glory and happiness) to that law which you would not fulfill, obeying that precept which you had trampled under foot; and himself enduring those pangs which you had merited; and when, in addition to all this, and above all this, you saw this same Jesus turning to you, (ungodly and rejecting sinner as you were,) and as it were, drenched in the blood which you had shed, and offering to you the full value of the atonement to which you had constrained him; then, then, the mountain of ice began to melt; then the full soul began to flow down in rivers of penitential tenderness.

Christ had conquered, and you were his; and as he bore you away in triumph, subdued by the power of his compassions, you vowed that after the example of this divine submission, you also would submit your will to God. For Christ's submission is not only our motive—but our pattern. Here is our example; here we learn that greatest, hardest lesson of Christianity, to say, "Not as I will—but as you will." It is particularly learned in time of affliction and bereavement; in the chamber of illness and mourning; in the altered scenes of sudden depression and overthrow; in the downhill of friendless old age and poverty. Then you hear God saying—"Should it be according to your mind?" If God had let you have your own way; if he had let your riches remain; if he had spared those whom you are now mourning for; if he had confirmed your health; if he had put an end to your fears; if he had granted you all your fond desires, how, I pray, my dear, suffering fellow-Christian, could you ever have learned that lesson which you are now learning? How could you ever have had any sympathy with the submissive Son of God?

You sometimes think thus, I dare say—"O if I could only do some great work for Christ! If I could only strike some blow, achieve some exploit, brave some peril." But let me assure you, you may as certainly and fully glorify Christ by submission, as by some heroic act. Make sure that you are called to suffer, and you may even glory in it by submission. I could repeat to you the famous old heathen saying, that "a good man struggling with adversity is a sight worthy of the gods;" but I prefer to say, that you are never so pleasing to God, and hence so like your adorable Redeemer, as when you are surrendering yourself unreservedly to the providential hand of Him who does all things well. Still say, though all his waves and his billows go over you, "Though he slays me, yet will I trust in him!" When trials grow heavier and more frequent, remember Him, who under the greatest and heaviest trial, still looked up, and said, "Abba, Father, all things are possible unto you—take away this cup from me; nevertheless not as I will—but as You will!"

Let me, in conclusion, entreat those who feel themselves ignorant of these experiences, to reflect on the opposition of their will to God. See what a change has yet to be wrought in you. Is it not time to begin? Is there not motive to begin? What is it that is ruining you? If (as is probable from your present habit of mind) your soul should be among those at the left hand of the Judge at the last day, what, so far as you now can judge, will have been the cause of your condemnation? What is it that is now dragging you hellward with so dire a fascination? What is it for which you are selling your soul? Seek for it in your morning thoughts; seek for it in your musings by the way; seek for it in your watches and your dreams. Bring out to view that which you are choosing before Christ; and when you have looked at the idol, whether of lust, or pride, or power, or money—ask yourselves whether in this you have reasonable cause to trample on the blood of a dying Redeemer, and to refuse the heaven which he has purchased by his submission.