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Some Thoughts On the Sinlessness of Christ

27 May, 2009

brannansmall1Over the past two days I’ve been on a study trip with the faculty and postgraduates in the Divinity department at Aberdeen. Every year we bring in someone to read a paper, interact with our papers and discussions, and give us their overall opinion of how things seem to stand with us based on the study trip. This year it was Kate Sonderegger from Virginia Seminary, and her excellent paper was on the sinlessness of Christ — I’d like to muse about and build on some of the things brought up in and after her paper.

The Christian tradition has classically taught that Jesus Christ, who is fully God and fully man (two natures in one person, without separation or confusion) is in his humanity totally free from sin — whether a sinful nature because of Adam, or any sinful thoughts or actions of his own, or any personal guilt before God because of sin. Born of the virgin Mary, Jesus is fully man, but born by the Holy Spirit, not a sinful son of Adam, but the incarnate Son of God. The author to the Hebrews is quite clear:

We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. (Heb 4:15)

This builds upon what he said earlier:

But surely it is not angels that he helps [as the everlasting high priest], but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Heb 2:17-18)

The spotless and representative humanity of Jesus our high priest and intercessor is a continual theme of Hebrews, and it all has to do with Jesus’ sinlessness. Or what about Paul, speaking of God’s reconciling work in Christ in 2 Corinthians:

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor 5:21)

This is a remarkable claim in light of the sinlessness of Christ: that he became sin for our sake (although Hebrews certainly says this as well, Heb 9:28). Christ’s own sinlessness is crucial for his taking our sin upon himself, for our sake and our salvation. He must be the Lamb without spot or blemish, the servant who suffers not for his own sins but for those of others, on their behalf. Both aspects are front and center in Isaiah 53:

He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief…

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows…

But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed…

…and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all…

…although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth…

Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his sould makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days…

Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities…

…he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors. (Is 53:3, 4, 5, 6, 9, 10, 11, 12)

Again, it’s crucial that Christ is sinless as our sinbearer. He is the perfect man who ‘became sin’ on our behalf, bearing on the cross our curse and death — despising its shame — so that the chastisement of the Lord that was upon him brings us the peace of his righteousness and therefore victory. Our righteousness is not simply a fruit of the cross-bearing of Christ, but more fully of Christ’s bearing the cross as a cursed yet perfectly righteous man, obedient even unto death on a cross (Phil 2:8). On our behalf Christ lived the life we should have lived, and died the death we should have died, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

But from these passages we see just as clearly that the suffering of the suffering servant is absolutely necessary; the temptation in every way is not incidental to his being an effectual high priest and intercessor. And although the church has from earliest times confessed the necessity of recognizing the importance of Christ’s sinlessness and suffering, sometimes the two have been explained in such a way as to create tension. For some, the divine-human glory of Christ’s person is so encompassing that Christ’s perfect and sinless humanity was understood to mean that in his human nature he was in a constant state of utter bliss and tranquility. There is more that could be said, but in sum, often Christ’s real suffering and real temptation as a real human being seem to be in danger of being compromised.

Some more recently have attempted to address this concern by in some way or another doing away with a confession of the sinlessness of Christ’s human nature. How can he be ‘fully man’ if his is an utterly perfect and impeccable humanity, not simply not sinning but unable to sin? Unfortunately in their desire to protect the reality of Christ’s human suffering and temptation, this actually comes at the expense of the person of Christ himself. If we are willing to say even that Christ ‘could’ have sinned, then we are willing to say that Christ’s human nature is somehow able to ‘go its own way’ from his divine nature. The cost, in other words, is Chalcedon (and the Westminster Standards, and the Belgic Confession…).

So are we stuck between an impeccable Christ who is not only sinless and unable to sin, but seemingly unable really to suffer or be tempted either — or on the other hand a Christ who is in some way subject to sin like we are, who can ‘sympathize with our weakness’ but who could never ‘make propitiation for the sins of the people’?

On this question, it’s clear that we must affirm the sinlessness and even the inability to sin that belongs to the human nature of the spotless Lamb of God. But that doesn’t mean we should in any way assume that makes him not really human, or not really able to suffer or be tempted. In fact, it is a testimony to our sinfulness that we can scarcely imagine such a perfectly sinless yet perfectly human being. We are so rooted in sin and its ways and its consequences that we think it must be part and parcel of what it means to be human. Can you imagine a thirty-year-old man, wholly pure and yet full of experience; wholly innocent yet full of knowledge; completely holy and yet completely wise; constantly in the midst of sin and sinners, and never sinning, yet truly loving them? It is a sad irony that we are such sinful humans that we recognize this sinless perfect man as not quite human.

And what about the reality of Christ’s temptation and suffering? Can someone who is perfectly sinless and unable to sin actually be tempted? Can a perfect person suffer? In fact, Christ the perfectly sinless man is the only one in this fallen world of ours who has ever recognized temptation for what it truly is. He truly knows its heinousness because in him there is no guile. He truly knows its deceit because unlike us he is not self-deceived. We justify ourselves in so many ways when temptation comes, and the more often they come, and we give in, the duller our consciences are; but Christ took every one head on in his spotless and innocent purity — which made it that much more acute — and won. Every moment of his life.

When we suffer, we try to avoid it, or blame God or someone else, or take solace in the fact that we can get someone back for what’s happening, or take comfort in our despair. But Christ suffered as the holy one, the innocent one, the righteous and true and faithful one. He bore the curse and everlasting death, all on purpose, and all in our place. That’s why Hebrews, immediately after speaking of Christ’s sinlessness through all weakness and temptation, can go on to say:

Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

  1. 30 May, 2009 4:09 am

    Looks like a helpful paper and discussion.
    I have long been bothered by the interplay between suffering, Christ as the Image of God, and our being conformed to his glorious image. Your assessment of the tension between Christ’s sinlessness and his suffering is a real gem – “We are so rooted in sin and its ways and its consequences that we think it must be part and parcel of what it means to be human.”

    I wonder though, is this the essence of renewed humanity – that all who seek after righteousness will know a different kind of suffering? The kind of suffering that deepens their relationship with Christ, through participation, becoming like him in his death?

  2. creedorchaos permalink*
    1 June, 2009 2:14 am

    Jedi Rev~

    Two things:

    1) Best profile pic ever.

    2) I’m not entirely sure what you’re getting at, although I would say that the essence of renewed humanity is not *located*, as it were, at Calvary, but seated at the right hand of God. In other words, not Christ’s crucifixion but his resurrection is the inbreaking of the life of the age to come (see esp. 1 Cor 15). His suffering and death are integral to his accomplished work (and our walking with him), to be sure, but they are with his resurrection what *gain* our renewal in his image, not what *constitute* the character of that consummate life. Finally, I’d hesitate to say anything about the essence of renewed humanity that wasn’t as thoroughly concrete as the crucified and risen Jew, Jesus of Nazareth. Our participation in his suffering (and victory!) is real and true and important, but his objective and final suffering and victory *on our behalf* must always be primary and constitutive.


    • 1 June, 2009 3:41 am

      The profile pic was the wok of my very talented friend Iain MacKinnon. He’s a mac user, so knows about trendy things, but I’m a PC.

      I totally agree about seeing the the whole of Christ’s work – life, death and resurrection – as the basis for our renewal. The passages I’m trying to grapple with are ones like Romans 8:17, Colossians 1:24 & Philippians 3:10. They seem to suggest that image bearing in this sin-soaked world essentially not only leads to, but demands suffering. It just seems that the Father’s objective is to have a people conformed to the Image of His Son – and that image is of one who bears the marks of suffering.

      I was reading Moisés Silva (Philippians, Baker, 1992) who writes, “The stinging reality of Christian suffering is our reminder that we have been united with Christ. More than that, it is the very means God uses to transform us into the image of his Son.” I just wonder if we can go a step further, and say that suffering is in some way part of what it means to bear the image of the Son?

      Jedi Rev.

  3. creedorchaos permalink*
    1 June, 2009 5:46 am

    Jedi Rev~

    Okay, now I’m with you. One more thing: as long as by ‘image of his Son’ in this context we mean the Son incarnate in his humiliation and exhaltation (a la Phil 2), I totally agree, and I do think this is important, esp. for those of us who live in the more prosperous and less blatantly hostile parts of the world.

    Good thoughts.

  4. 1 June, 2009 7:46 am

    Very interesting post. For the longest time, I always assumed that the sinlessness of Christ meant that it was a non potest peccare. After reading Hodge, I began to do a little reassessment. Here are few thoughts I have on the matter, you can tell me what you think:

    1. Christ is identified as the second Adam. We know that Adam was able to sin, but presumably if he had kept the covenant of works he would have received the promised reward of eternal life and thus made perfect and unable to sin. Christ as he was on earth was made presumably like Adam with the ability to sin, but he kept the law perfectly and now as he is in heaven, he is unable to sin, and his sinlessness is now imputed to us through the God’s act of justification by faith, and his perfection and inability to sin will one day become our perfection and inability to sin when we are glorified.

    2. That the human nature of Christ was able to sin is not inconsistent with orthodox doctrine since the sixth ecumenical council of Constaninople (681 AD), which ruled against the Monothelites, claimed that there were two wills in the person of Christ, the divine and human wills. They ruled, however, that the human will of Christ was always subject to the divine will. This ruling, as far as I know, has never been challenged by Roman, Eastern, or Protestant Churches.

  5. creedorchaos permalink*
    1 June, 2009 2:08 pm


    I see what you mean, but I think the *impeccability* of Christ is very important to uphold, mainly for the reasons I mentioned in the post. So, as applied to your points, I’d say:

    1. Christ is the second Adam, certainly, but his *human nature* is, together with his divine nature, united in *one Subject*, the one person of the God-man Jesus. They’re not confused, but they’re not separated either, and it’s God the Son who became incarnate as the God-man who’s the one doing things here. In other words, God the Son took up our humanity in all its fullness and representatively, but he in no way took up *a human being*, an additional Subject. (I know you’re not saying this, but I think as much clarity as possible in such language helps a lot.) So to say that Jesus *could* have sinned is, in effect, to say either that God the Son incarnate could have sinned in and through his humanity, or that that the humanity of Jesus could have ‘gone its own way’ from his deity.

    2. Along the same lines, yes Jesus is fully God and fully man, and so he lacks nothing proper to human *nature*, but again to say he’s fully man is in no way meant to imply that his human nature itself is *a man*, so speak, on its own terms. So again, to say that Christ has a human will that is distinct by nature is simply to affirm the wonderful and awful reality of Gethsemane; but to say that the Lord’s human will *could* have gone astray from his divine is to say that the ‘carnis’ of the incarnate Son could have itself rebelled.

    As I was trying to get at in the post, a large part of the beauty and majesty of Christ’s sinlessness is how utterly foreign his *impeccability* is to everything we sinners feel is to be human — and yet we *Christians* look at Christ, and look to Christ, and confess him to be true and perfect man, and true and perfect God.

    Hope this helps,

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