Traditional Christianity has long held that what happened in the garden of Gethsemane was an important even. But in relation to the atonement, the focus of the Christian Gospel is not on Gethsemane but on the cross. This is certainly also the focus of the Bible as will be pointed out further below.
Mormonism, however, teaches that Christ’s atonement was in Gethsemane, or at the very least began in Gethsemane. In Mormonism, therefore, the ultimate focus of the atonement is not what happened at the cross, but what happened at Gethsemane. Here are a few representative quotes by Mormon leaders on this subject:
"It was in Gethsemane that Jesus took on Himself the sins of the world, in Gethsemane that His pain was equivalent to the cumulative burden of all men, in Gethsemane that He descended below all things so that all could repent and come to Him" (Ezra Taft Benson, Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, p.15).
"Forgiveness is available because Christ the Lord sweat great drops of blood in Gethsemane as he bore the incalculable weight of the sins of all who ever had or ever would repent" (Bruce R. McConkie, The Promised Messiah, p. 337).
"And as he came out of the Garden, delivering himself voluntarily into the hands of wicked men, the victory had been won. There remained yet the shame and the pain of his attest, his trials, and his cross. But all these were overshadowed by the agonies and sufferings in Gethsemane. It was on the cross that he 'suffered death in the flesh,' even as many have suffered agonizing deaths, but it was in Gethsemane that "he suffered the pain of all men, that all men might repent and come unto him." (Bruce R. McConkie, The Mortal Messiah, pp. 127-128).
Interestingly, this doctrine seems to have been getting toned down somewhat in recent years by the LDS Church, probably in an attempt to make the Church appear more like a mainstream Christian denomination. This is illustrated in recent editions of the official LDS Church book Gospel Principles.
The 1978 edition of Gospel Principles puts the focus of the atonement on Gethsemane:
"In the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ atoned for the sins of all mankind." (Page 58, item 7, italics added).At the cross it is simply stated that Jesus died there:
"Christ died on the cross at Calvary." (Page 58, Item 8).
The 1997 edition of Gospel Principles now seems to be drawing away from the focus of Gethsemane and is putting greater emphasis on the cross:
"In the Garden of Gethsemane, the Savior took upon himself the sins of all mankind." (Page 58, item 7, italics added).
The sentence about the cross has now been expanded to include the words "our sins":
"Jesus died for our sins on the cross at Calvary." (Item 8, italics added).
It appears that the main biblical passage offered in support of the view that Christ atoned for our sins in Gethsemane is Luke 22:39-44, which reads as follows:
"And he came out, and went, as he was wont, to the mount of Olives; and his disciples also followed him. And when he was at the place, he said unto them, Pray that ye enter not into temptation. And he was withdrawn from them about a stone's cast, and kneeled down, and prayed, Saying, Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done. And there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground."
In the above passage, the main focus of attention is on the description of Jesus’ blood being like great drops of sweat falling from Him as He prayed ferevently. Certainly, some Christians have believed that Jesus did indeed sweat blood during this time of intense prayer. But despite there being some traditional Christians who believe in the possibility of this phenomena, Christians do not believe that Christ atoned for our sins with the blood (if it was indeed blood) that fell from Him at Gethsemane. More improtantly, the text itself actually says that Jesus’ sweat was "like" great drops of blood. That is to say, His sweat was so heavy that it dripped like blood would drip. Whatever we may feel about the exact interpretation of this description, one thing is for sure, there is no mention at all, in the entire Bible, of Jesus atoning for our sins in Gethsemane.
For the Christian, the cross is absolutely central to the atoning work of Jesus. The whole point of Jesus’ death was to atone for our sins, as the animal sacrifices made in Old Testament were to atone for the sins of the people at that time. These sacrifices pointed towards Jesus’ ultimate atonement, death, and sacrifice. Hebrews 9:22 declares that "without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sins." It was so important what happened at the cross that the entire Bible is focused on that event. The Old Testament points to it as the ultimate sacrifice that was to come, and the New Testament letters point back to it. When we look at the Gospels themselves, we find that we have Jesus’ birth, very little on His childhood, Jesus is baptised and His ministry begins, then He begins to speak of His death, the last few days before going to the cross He speaks more and more of His death, then at the cross, we are down to hours, then minutes, then seconds. Clearly, the major focus for Christians is the cross of Christ, and His atonement for our sins there. In contrast Gethsemane is only mentioned twice in the Gospels. The lack of focus upon the cross, in Mormonism, is probably one of the reasons why there is not a single Christian cross anywhere, in any Mormon temple in the world.
The New Testament witness to Christ’s atonement at the cross is very clear:
"But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life." (Rom. 5:8-10)It is sad that Mormonism has failed to see the simple truth of this central doctrine. Rather than focusing on the cross they are looking to Gethsemane. May our Mormon friends know that Christ died for their sins, at the cross, so that they can be assured of God's free gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ.
"For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures..." (1 Cor. 15:3)
"And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven. And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled In the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight." (Col. 1:20-22)
"And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross..." (Col. 2:13-14)
"But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building; Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us. For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance. For where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. For a testament is of force after men are dead: otherwise it is of no strength at all while the testator liveth. Whereupon neither the first testament was dedicated without blood. For when Moses had spoken every precept to all the people according to the law, he took the blood of calves and of goats, with water, and scarlet wool, and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book, and all the people, Saying, This is the blood of the testament which God hath enjoined unto you. Moreover he sprinkled with blood both the tabernacle, and all the vessels of the ministry. And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission. It was therefore necessary that the patterns of things in the heavens should be purified with these; but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us: Nor yet that he should offer himself often, as the high priest entereth into the holy place every year with blood of others; For then must he often have suffered since the foundation of the world: but now once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment: So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation." (Heb. 9:11-28)
"Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed." (1 Pet. 2:24)
"For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit..." (1 Pet. 3:18)
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