December 08, 2022

What Does It Mean That the Son Can Do Nothing of His Own Accord?

Nathan W. Bingham & Stephen Nichols
What Does It Mean That the Son Can Do Nothing of His Own Accord?

Can Jesus do anything without consulting the Father? Today on the Ask Ligonier podcast, listen as Stephen Nichols offers two theological starting points to consider when studying Scripture passages that delve into the person and work of Christ.


NATHAN W. BINGHAM: I’m joined in the studio by one of our teaching fellows and the president of Reformation Bible College, Dr. Stephen Nichols. Dr. Nichols, in the fifth chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus said that He can do nothing of His own accord. What did He mean by that?

DR. STEPHEN NICHOLS: Let’s get a few things established first. So, we’re talking about Christ and we’re talking about His incarnation, so we are talking about what we call two-nature Christology. Jesus is truly God and He is truly man. He is those two natures in one person. We have to understand that the divine nature, however, does not communicate with the human nature. What theologians mean by communicate is to transfer over the being, or transfer over those attributes. So, it’s not as if there is some kind of perforation between the two natures and the deity can slide into Jesus. We have to maintain the distinction of the two natures of Christ. That’s the first thing we have to keep as a pole, as an established theological pole for navigating this.

The second pole is what theologians sometimes call the messianic mission. This goes back to what some theologians see as the pact, the covenant, within the Godhead for the providing of redemption. In that pact, God the Father elects, God the Son is covenanting to accomplish redemption, and then God the Holy Spirit is the One who applies Christ’s work of redemption to the individual through regeneration. That is the work of our triune God in salvation. Jesus, as the incarnate One, as the Messiah sent to redeem, was sent on a mission, and we see this throughout the Gospels. Jesus constantly refers to His mission, that He is sent from the Father, that He is here to do the Father’s will. This reaches a climax in the Gospels at that agonizing moment of Christ’s struggle in prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, where He is pleading with God to take this cup. Nevertheless, Christ will do God’s will.

We’ve got the two-nature Christology, and we’ve got to maintain a distinction between those two natures, and we’ve got the messianic mission. Now with that, let’s plug in to John 5. At John 5:19, the text says: “So Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing on his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise.” This looks as if Jesus is utterly powerless. Well, in His incarnate state, in His human nature, He is. He is dependent upon the Father, and He looks to the Father, and He obeys the will of the Father.

We see how this is tied into the messianic mission if we move down to verse 30. A very similar thing is stated here in verse 30, where Jesus says, “I can do nothing on My own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because”—and this is very key—“because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.” Who is the will of Him? That’s, of course, God the Father, and it’s very clear. Jesus says, “God sent Me.”

When we see verses like that, we have to remember again the integrity of the two natures of Christ. We have to fully understand this notion of the messianic mission. In His incarnate state, Jesus the God-man is subordinate to the Father in this mission. He is equal, co-equal with the Father in His divine nature. He is worthy of worship. He is worthy of glory in His divine nature. We are only talking about a subordination of His function of the messianic mission. We see verses like this, and we see things like this all through the Gospels, and we can easily get tripped up here and end up with a faulty Christology, so we have to be careful not to do that. I think understanding it through the lens of these two things will help us.