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D.A. Carson’s Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus is one of the most spiritually encouraging books I’ve read in quite a while. You can watch or listen to the original messages here.

When Jesus was hanging on the cross, the chief priests, scribes, and elders mocked Jesus, saying,  "He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.

Here’s an excerpt from the book, where Carson explores what would have happened if Jesus had taken them up on the challenge and came down from the cross.

This would be a pretty remarkable and convincing display of power, and the mockers would be back-peddling pretty fast. But in the full Christian sense, would they believe in him? Of course not! To believe in Jesus in the Christian sense means not less than trusting him utterly as the One who has borne our sin in his own body on the tree, as the One whose life and death and resurrection, offered up in our place, has reconciled us to God. If Jesus had leapt off the cross, the mockers and other onlookers could not have believed in Jesus in that sense, because he would not have sacrificed himself for us, so there would be nothing to trust, except our futile and empty self-righteousness.

But then Carson explores in deeper depth the meaning of their statement, “He saved others but he can't save himself."

The deeper irony is that, in a way they did not understand, they were speaking the truth. If he had saved himself, he could not have saved others; the only way he could save others was precisely by not saving himself. In the irony behind the irony that the mockers intended, they spoke the truth they themselves did not see. The man who can't save himself--saves others.

One of the reasons they were so blind is that they thought in terms of merely physical restraints. When they said "he can't save himself," they meant that the nails held him there, the soldiers prevented any possibility of rescue, his powerlessness and weakness guaranteed his death. For them, the words "he can't save himself" expressed a physical impossibility. But those who know who Jesus is are fully aware that nails and soldiers cannot stand in the way of Emmanuel. The truth of the matter is that Jesus could not save himself, not because of any physical constraint, but because of a moral imperative. He came to do his Father's will, and he would not be deflected from it. The One who cries in anguish in the garden of Gethsemane, "Not my will, but yours be done," is under such a divine moral imperative from his heavenly Father that disobedience is finally unthinkable. It was not nails that held Jesus to that wretched cross; it was his unqualified resolution, out of love for his Father, to do his Father's will--and, within that framework, it was his love for sinners like me. He really could not save himself.

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14 thoughts on “Why Jesus Couldn’t Save Himself”

  1. Since you’re on the topic of Easter I thought I would do some shameless self promotion:

    Thanks for the post Justin!

  2. Cornelius says:

    i have been reading this book the last couple of days. It’s so good!

  3. Tom says:

    Here’s a question I’ve been asked: “Did Jesus have to die on the cross for our sins?” In other words, was He forced to come to earth and die for our sins? It’s the “have to” versus “get to” question.

  4. Casey says:


    Regarding your question, John Murray’s first chapter in Redemption Accomplished and Applied, titled ‘The Necessity of the Atonement’ is excellent.

  5. Casey says:

    Forgot to mention, it can be read at Google books.

  6. Justin Taylor says:

    Tom, the answer is “yes,” but you have to define the nature of the “have to.”

    There’s a new book out on the Atonement that I received yesterday, where J.I. Packer addresses this in the first essay, “The Necessity of the Atonement.”

    I’ll see if I can find some time to blog on this question.


    1. Hebrews 12:2 seems to define the nature of “have to” some.

      The suffering He “had to endure” was the necessary path to the joy set before Him.

      Perhaps it’s an awkward, very insufficient analogy, but I looked at childbirth the same way. It was a necessary suffering, that I always looked to with fear, yet that I knew led to joy.

  7. Jeremiah Kim says:

    I love the insight Carson provides regarding the statement of the mockers.

  8. Tom says:

    Thanks, Justin. I’ll look forward to it. Is the answer “yes” based on God’s decretive will or are you referencing something else?

  9. Thanks for the great reminder of why I always learn when I read Carson.

  10. Niles says:

    Hi Tom and everybody. Not that I think I could add much to the conversation, but here’s my thoughts. It seems that Christ came because he had to and because he wanted to – in the sense that no one else could ever have done what he did and his great glory is tied to his life, death, and resurrection.

  11. This book sounds similar to the series of talks Carson did at Mark Driscoll’s church last year, which were phenomenal. I listened to the series on a usually long, tedious roadtrip between San Jose and Los Angeles, and was riveted. The section on Revelation was just that, a series of revelations.

  12. champ says:

    If I’m not mistaken the gist of this first chapter in Carson’s new book is also the theme of his song text, “On that Wretched Day.” It’s available on Carson’s second music CD: “For the Love of God.” Available at

  13. Jonny King says:

    Did I say something I shouldn’t in my previous comment, as it hasn’t been moderated?

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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