Sinlessness of Christ
If Jesus truly had no sin nature, how could he have suffered the temptations that nature carries? How can he help me overcome my sin nature, if he himself has experienced nothing of what it means to overcome a sin nature, never having had one himself?
HIGH VIEW OF SCRIPTURE
The inerrancy of the Bible means that every word originally written down is true and accurate. This is one of a few critical issues that a person must understand, or they will cast themselves on a sea of relativism with their own human logic as the final arbiter of truth.
A second critical issue is an understanding of who God reveals Himself to be–His attributes. Many errors in understanding the Bible can be headed off by realizing that a conclusion contradicts who God says He is.
A third point is that the Bible must always remain consistent with itself. It cannot say one thing in one verse, and then say something else later. If God is Truth, and the Bible is His Word, He cannot contradict Himself. Thus, care must be taken to subject human logic to the teaching of the entire Bible. This is known as “Scripture interprets scripture.” You may be acquainted with an excellent study reference called Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. While this book uses the King James Version, it lists every word in the Bible alphabetically and references the original Hebrew and Greek word used (which can be looked up in an appendix). This allows one to reference several verses throughout the Bible addressing a single topic. As we explore your comments, I will be using this principle of Scripture-interprets-scripture to address my understanding that a Holy God cannot have sin. Thus, Jesus, who is God, must be sinless. I'll develop my conclusion systematically so you can see how I arrived at it.
AN EXALTED VIEW OF GOD
I will make the assumption that you agree that Jesus is the Christ, and that Christ is fully God–eternally coexistent as one of the persons of the trinity.
One critical aspect of the persons of the Godhead, and their attributes, is that they always exhibit 100 percent of all the attributes all the time. God, who is One, does not suspend one attribute, while He exercises another. He also cannot do something that would make Him no longer God. God, and the Godhead, is infinite. Self-existent. Thus, if God did sin, He would separate Himself from Himself, and cease being God. This is impossible. Also, God cannot suddenly change who He is. This is the unchangableness of God, or His immutability. “For I, the Lord, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed” (Mal. 3:6). Perhaps the most direct argument against Jesus having the potential to sin during His incarnation is offered by the writer of Hebrews when commenting that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today, yes and forever” (Heb. 13:8).
God has revealed about Himself the attribute of holiness. He is utterly “set-apart” [from the Hebrew kadosh, to be set apart for special use]. He is utterly different from the creation, as revealed in Exodus 15:11-”Who is like Thee, majestic in holiness, Awesome in praises, working wonders?” Holiness is absolute purity as revealed in Habakkuk 1:13-” Thine eyes are too pure to approve evil, And Thou canst not look on wickedness with favor.” Job 34:12 tells us that “Surely, God will not act wickedly, and the Almighty will not pervert justice.”
The entire biblical record, and the entire hope it presents, is based on the truth that God is utterly different from His creation. He is omnipotent (power), omniscient (cognizance), omnipresent (location), omnisapient (wisdom), sovereign (superiority), holy (purity). For God to be otherwise is worthless. He chided the wicked in Psalm 50 saying: “You thought that I was altogether like you; But I will rebuke you” (Psa. 50:21).
SPECIFIC SCRIPTURE ON THE NATURE OF CHRIST
2 Cor. 5:21 says that Jesus “knew no sin” which is different than “never sinned”. This contrast is seen in the immediately following words of the verse, “He made Him...to be sin on our behalf.” God did not make Jesus sinful. Jesus “bore” sin and took it with Him on the cross. This amazing act was like matter and anti-matter coexisting. 1 John 3:5 specifically says of Christ that “in him is no sin.” In this passage the simple singular noun for sin is contrasted with the immediately preceding plural “take away the sins.” The full force of this key passage is that Jesus was manifested on the earth in order to take away sins, and the reason He is competent to do so is that He Himself is sinless. The clause could literally be translated “sin in Him is not.” Similarly, Heb. 4:15 says that Jesus was “put to the test [tempted] in all the same way” as us [“as us” is not in the Greek, but clearly implied from the idea of “sympathy with our weakness” which precedes], yet “without sin.” This is a simple singular noun use, not an action. The idea is “without sin” as opposed to “without giving in to sin” or “sinning.” The shared experience which Jesus endured with fellow humans–and which gives Him sympathy to our weakness–is the temptations that constantly assail us. The temptations brought Him suffering as He obediently waited for the Father's will. His obedience built up the empathetic understanding in the Creator Himself (cf. John 1:3) to what creatures feel.
His wilderness encounter with Satan in Matthew 4 was high pressure temptation. Satan was offering Him the same things He would ultimately receive if He just waited for His Father's will; but, He could have them immediately if He exercised His own will. As a human being, Jesus chose to obey God's timing and plan by remaining steadfast in the promise of the Word. By doing so His humanity experienced acute hunger and mental weariness. Yet, every time He answered Satan's offer by quoting written Scripture. Exercising one's own will, instead of God's will, is the essence of Adam's original Sin. Jesus did not eat what seemed good and did not listen to Satan's promises. Jesus, the Son of Man, was also the Son of God, Who could easily turn stone into bread. However, doing anything other than relying on God's promises and Will, would have been sin. The major point here is that temptation is not the same as sin. A sinless savior could still feel the temptation, understand the human condition that makes the temptation sound attractive, and experience the mental process of weighing alternatives.
The response to the question of whether Christ “did” sin is undeniably “No.” The question of whether Christ “could” sin begins a discussion of what the Scriptures say about His “humiliation” or “emptying”–that is, the nature of His incarnation. The key passage is Paul's comment in Philippians 2:5-7-”Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.” “Emptied Himself” uses a reflexive pronoun to emphasize self-limitation based on the Greek verb kenoo [this is why it is theologically known as Kenosis]. The word means to “give up power” or “make ineffective”. The context (and everywhere else in the New Testament) helps us see that Christ did not give up some of His Attributes–He is, and must eternally remain, fully God. He gave up His position in heaven to become a servant made in the likeness of men.
Jesus was never separated from the Father by sin. His wonderful prayer in John 17 (before He died on the cross) says: “as You, Father, in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us” (Jn. 17:21). The “they” in this prayer are those whom the Father has given Christ. They can be one with God because they are justified and made righteous. God's eyes no longer see sin, only the blood of Christ. God and sin cannot exist in relationship.
LIKENESS OF MEN
This “likeness of men” in Philippians 2:7 is a very interesting and important point to investigate. It is the single largest contributor to the great heresies of church history. How Jesus Christ could be divine and human at once rippled through the early church for over five centuries. Some form of separating His divine essence from His human body is at the core of Arianism, Apollinarianism, Docetism, Eutychianism, Gnosticism, and Nestorianism.
From Genesis we know that the “likeness of men” is “in Our likeness” (Gen. 1:26-”Then God said, 'Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness....”) Adam was fully human and without sin. The final creation was “very good” in God's eyes. Therefore, sinfulness is not a created part of man; it is an introduced condition. Yet, the supreme uniqueness of man was his freedom to choose to obey. Adam, in full enjoyment of his relationship with God in Eden, inherently contained the unexercised potential of disobedience. This is what makes the desire to obey so glorifying to God. Love is greatly enhanced in its free expression when it willingly excludes an opposite alternative. Thus, before sin ever entered the creation–initiating spiritual separation and death–there was great glory to God in the obedience of His sinless children. Obedience is the key to the Law (each point of which is simply a concrete expression of God's Attributes). It was given to Israel as a visible display to the world of their love for God through obedience. By obeying they declared the nature of God to the world. Deuteronomy 6:4-6 is known as the “Great Shema” (Hear!)-”Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart.” The purpose is expressed in Deut. 8:2-3-”And you shall remember all the way which the Lord your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. And He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord.” Jesus is the True Manna-”I am the bread which came down from heaven” (John 6:41).
Jesus came in the “likeness of men” as the Second Adam (Rom. 5:14-”...Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come”; Rom. 5:18-”So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men”). The Second Adam restores the relationship between man and God so that man can again walk in obedience (Rom. 6:11-”Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”) When the Spirit of God intervened on behalf of the Father to create a fertile cell within Mary, she carried a child in the type of Adam–perfect humanity without imputed sin. Jesus' father was God; his mother human–He was fully both, indivisibly one. Since Jesus did not descend from a human father, Adam's condemnation of original sin was not imparted to Him. His Adamic, pre-fall, human form was without sin. If the human side of Jesus' incarnation could be left to itself, it would contain the possibility of sin–as the first Adam did. However, Christ is not just God inhabiting a borrowed body; but, is God taking on His own physical body (just like the limitless God visibly located in the cloud, or pillar of fire, or over the ark in the Old Testament, or visiting earth as The Angel of The Lord). Therefore, this potential to sin could never actualize. This is the same issue we mentioned earlier: God is Holy, if He in any way had sin in His nature He would immediately cease being God. Which is impossible given His attribute of unchangeableness. This leads to another reason Christ came in human form.
He came to be a spotless sacrifice to take my place. The first Adam should have immediately and eternally perished. God shed blood and gave Adam and Eve a covering in Genesis 3:21. God provided an additional illustration in the Passover of the Angel of Death in Egypt. The blood of a slain male lamb, without blemish, was to cover the door posts of each house inhabited by the Chosen People, and the Angel would spare the death of all first born sheltered inside. Isaiah further develops the Substitute by revealing that He would bear my iniquity (Is. 53:6-” All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.”) Finally, this substitute must be in my place, so He must be a human whose death is so priceless that it pays the debt I really owe–my immediate and eternal death. “Then He said, 'Behold, I have come to do Thy will.' He takes away the first in order to establish the second. By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb. 10:9-10). Notice that it is the body of Christ that is the sufficient sacrifice.
You mentioned the Greek word for flesh, sarx, as an argument that Jesus had to have taken on a sin nature. But this is forcing the meaning of the word. Words have meaning only in context. This word actually has several meanings. You claim that sarx means “sinful flesh.” Thus, Hebrews 2:14 forces one into the position that Jesus must have been sinful. However, nothing in the context implies that sin is being assumed. I already demonstrated that flesh and blood was created totally devoid of sin in the case of Adam. The Septuagint (also known as the LXX, which is the Greek translation of the Old Testament that Jesus was acquainted with) uses the same word sarx in Genesis 2:23, saying of sinless Eve “flesh of my flesh.” This word is best translated simply “flesh.” unless the context clearly is coloring the meaning to specifically add the idea of “fallen” or “sinful.”
TEMPTATION AND SIN
Your point that unless Jesus was sinful He could not really sympathize with us is also not supported by Scripture. In fact, the very example you cited–Hebrews 2:17-18–seems to say differently. “For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” The phrase “in every way” is immediately qualified with “in order that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.” Hebrews 10:4 clearly says “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” Only a human can atone for a human. The issue is again that Christ was in every way human. However, human does not a priori imply sinful. In fact, no sinful sacrifice or priest can atone. Hebrews 9:11-12 points this out: “But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.” Going back to Heb. 2:18 we see further qualification of how Jesus can minister sympathetically for us. Because He experienced the “suffering” that occurs when a human makes a stand against temptation, He can effectively help His brethren when they experience the same.
Temptation does not presume a sin nature. Eve was tempted before she chose, and she was sinless at the time. Further, anyone who has a sin nature is dead and not a child of God. “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest” (Eph. 2:1-3). After salvation we are dead to sin (Rom. 6:2). If we are dead to sin, then the perfect example of Jesus' life of how to stand in the pressure of temptation is extremely relevant. The issue of sin's compulsion is removed. “Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11). Paul specifically tells the Corinthians in 10:6 and 13 of his first epistle to read the Old Testament and use the examples as admonitions not to sin. The issue is not the sin nature of the Corinthians; rather, the ability of God always to provide the ability to bear temptation in such a way that sin is not committed. “Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did.” “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.”
There is only one God, not three. The Godhead cannot split itself up. Thus, it is impossible for Christ to take upon Himself a sin nature and leave the Father and Spirit Holy. James 1:13 tells us, “Let no one say when he is tempted, 'I am tempted by God'; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone.” If Christ was sinful for a time, then so were the Father and the Spirit. That leaves no God to supply the grace to pull Him out. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)” (Eph. 2:4-5). If God ever sinned then He belonged to Satan as John tells us in his first epistle-”The one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning” (1 John 3:8). Was Jesus hiding the fact that He was of the same nature as the Pharisees when He said to them: “You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do”? Was Jesus being deceptive when He asked them: “But because I tell the truth, you do not believe Me. Which of you convicts Me of sin?” (John 8:44-46) The word “sin” does not differentiate between “having committed sin” from “having a sin nature.” If Jesus actually had a sin nature then, indeed, He was morally guilty. Your distinction that sin is only “yielding to temptation” is contradicted by the Bible. Paul tells us that we were “by nature children of wrath, just as the others” (Eph. 2:3). Paul also says in Romans: “So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men” (Rom. 5:18). Adam's sin condemned all mankind. David recognized that he was corrupt from the moment of conception as he laments in Psalm 51:5, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me.”
However, no one can overcome their sin nature. It is not possible. If Jesus somehow moves from sinner to God on His own power, then salvation is by works. Whole religions are built on this heresy. It's the Moral Example thesis. But it is contrary to Scripture: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:24). To have a sin nature is the opposite of glory. What glorified God was not overcoming a sin nature, but the resurrection of Christ from the dead. “Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). In fact, the glory of the Father was already the glory of Christ, as we see in John 17:24-”That they may behold My glory which You have given Me for You loved Me before the foundation of the world.”
I have developed this point because it illustrates that God is glorified through obedience. When Jesus prayed in John 17:5, “O Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was,” it was not as a result of some potential to sin. He was stressing that He was obedient to the Father's will. “Father, the hour has come. Glorify Your Son, that Your Son also may glorify You, as You have given Him authority over all flesh, that He should give eternal life to as many as You have given Him” (John 17:1-2).
NATURE OF A BELIEVER
Your statement that “the Bible is very clear, in Romans chapter eight, that when we trust Christ, we continue to have our sin nature” is surprising in light of Paul's actual words in that very chapter: “through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man” (Rom. 8:2-3). Apparently you are confusing a sin nature with the ability to still choose to sin. Chapter six of Romans addresses this: “Our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin....For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God” (Rom. 6:6-10).
SUMMARY IN 1 JOHN 3
As a conclusion, let's take a look at several verses in the First Epistle of John that you drew attention to in your email. Specifically, 1 John 3:4-9-”Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness. And you know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin. No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him. Little children, let no one deceive you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, that He might destroy the works of the devil. No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” This is a wonderful and powerful statement about the nature of sin, the nature of Christ, the nature of believers and unbelievers, and a very strong caution.
Sin is not simply breaking the law, it is rather a complete lawlessness toward God. This lawless character is what Jesus came to remove from His followers and the reason He could do so is that He Himself is totally sinless–demonstrating not even a suggestion of rebellion toward His Father. So complete is the work of Christ that a follower does not exhibit lawlessness by constantly sinning. [John already said in 1:9 that a follower may occasionally choose foolishly and commit an act of rebellion; but, this act of sin is already forgiven and cleansed by the blood of Jesus Christ if one recognizes the sin. The passage in chapter 3 is thus a bigger-picture comment on the essential nature of the person.] Children of God should clearly recognize that righteous people will practice righteousness. This leads one to the corollary, that one who is not practicing righteousness is lawless. This action associates him with Satan, who has from the very beginning loved rebellion toward God. Take heart children of God, for Jesus came to vitiate the power of lawlessness that Satan used to have over the world. So, as the physical offspring of God, with the power of Satan being taken away at your rebirth, and Christ taking up a material presence within you, lawlessness is thus foreign to your new nature.
This is a very serious warning to one who calls himself a Child of God. If it is easy and natural for someone to sin, then they should soberly examine their claim of rebirth. Peter proclaimed “but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, 'You shall be holy, for I am holy'.” (1 Pet. 1:15-16, cf. Lev. 20:7). The great contrast of the Scripture is centered around the Holiness of God compared to sin. If Christ is not Holy, He is not God. If Christ is not God than He cannot save us. If Christ is a sinful human who has accomplished salvation for himself, we are left with a savior who is only a good human model. Several false religions have sprung from such theology.