Then cometh Jesus with them unto a place called Gethsemane, and saith unto the disciples, Sit ye here, while I go and pray yonder. And he took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be sorrowful and very heavy. Then saith he unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me. And he went a little further, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt. — MATTHEW 26:36-39
When Scripture speaks to us of our salvation it proposes to us three aims. One is that we recognize the inestimable love God has shown toward us, so that He may be glorified by us as He deserves. Another, that we hold our sin in such detestation as is proper, and that we be sufficiently ashamed to humble ourselves before the majesty of our God. The third, that we value our salvation in such a manner that it makes us forsake the world and all that pertains to this frail life, and that we be overjoyed with that inheritance which has been acquired for us at such a price. This is what we ought to fix our attention upon and apply our minds to when it is mentioned to us how the Son of God has redeemed us from eternal death and has acquired for us the heavenly life. We ought, then, in the first place to learn to give God the praise He deserves. In fact, He was well able to rescue us from the unfathomable depths of death in another fashion, but He willed to display the treasures of His infinite goodness when He spared not His only Son. And our Lord Jesus in this matter willed to give us a sure pledge of the care which He had for us when He offered Himself voluntarily to death. For we never shall be keenly touched nor set on fire to praise our God, unless on the other hand we examine our condition, and see that we are as sunk in hell, and know what it is to have provoked the wrath of God and to have Him for a mortal enemy and a judge so terrible and appalling that it would be much better if heaven and earth and all creatures would conspire against us then to approach His majesty while it is unfavorable toward us. So it is very necessary that sinners should be broken-hearted with a feeling and an understanding of their faults, and that they should know themselves to be worse than wretched, so that they may have a horror at their condition, in order that in this way they may know how much they are indebted and obligated to God, that He has pitied them, that He sees them in despair, and that He has been kind enough to help them; not because He sees in them any dignity, but only because He looks upon their wretchedness. Now the fact is also (as we have said), forasmuch as we are surrounded by too much here below and that when God has called us to Himself we are held back by our affection and covetousness, that it is necessary to prize the heavenly life as it deserves, that we may know at how great an expense it was bought for us. . . .
Now it still remains to note that when the Son of God agonized in such a way it was not because He had to leave the world. For if it had only been the separation of body and soul, with the torments which He had to endure in His body, that would not have borne Him down to such a degree. But we must observe the quality of His death and even trace its origin. For death is not only to dissolve man, but to make him feel the curse of God. Beyond the fact that God takes us out of this world and that we are as annihilated with respect to this life, death is to us an entrance, as it were, into the abyss of hell. We would be alienated from God and devoid of all hope of salvation when death is spoken of to us unless we have this remedy — that our Lord Jesus Christ endured it for our sakes in order that now the wound which was there shall not be fatal. For without Him we would be so frightened by death that there would no longer be hope of salvation for us, but now its sting is broken. Even the poison is so cleansed that death in humiliating us serves us today like medicine and is no longer fatal now that Jesus Christ swallowed all the poison that was in it.
This, then, is what we must bear in mind, that the Son of God in crying out “Father, if it be possible, let this drink be removed from me” considers not only what He had to suffer in His body, nor the disgrace of men, nor leaving the earth (for that was easy enough for Him), but He considers that He is before God and before His judicial throne to answer for all our sins, to see there all the curses of God which are ready to fall upon us. For even if there be only a single sinner, what would the wrath of God be? When it is said that God is against us, that He wants to display His power to destroy us, alas! where are we then? Now it was necessary for Jesus Christ to fight not only against such a terror but against all the cruelties one could inflict. When, then, we see that God summons all those who have deserved eternal damnation and who are guilty of sin and that He is there to pronounce sentence such as they have deserved, who would not conceive in full measure all the deaths, doubts and terrors which could be in each one? And what a depth will there be in that! Now it was necessary that our Lord Jesus Christ by Himself without aid sustained such a burden. So then, let us judge the sorrow of the Son of God by its true cause. Let us now return to what we have already discussed — that in one respect we may realize how costly our salvation was to Him and how precious our souls were to Him when He was willing to go to such an extremity for our sakes, and knowing what we deserved let us look at what would have been our condition — if we had not been rescued by Him. And yet let us rejoice that death has no more power over us that could hurt us. It is true that always we naturally fear death and we run away from it, but that is in order to make us think of this inestimable benefit which has been acquired for us by the death of the Son of God. This is in order to make us always consider what death is in itself, how it involves the wrath of God, and it is, as it were, the pit of hell. Besides, when we have to fight against such fear may we know that our Lord Jesus Christ has so provided for all those fears that in the midst of death we can come before God with uplifted heads.
It is true that we have to humble ourselves before all things, as we have already said, that it is very necessary in order that we should hate our sins and be displeased with ourselves that we be touched by the judgment of God to be frightened by it. But still we must raise our heads when God calls us to Himself. And this is also the courage which is given to all believers! So we see that St. Paul says, Jesus Christ has prepared a crown for all those who wait for His coming.
– John Calvin,
selections from his “First Sermon on the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ”