Did Jesus Have a Sin Nature?
Question from a reader:
Did Jesus have a sin nature?
Answer from Randy Alcorn and Julia Stager:
First, we need to define sin nature. The “nature” of a person or object is commonly thought of as its essential qualities or attributes; that which makes it what it is. Therefore if something has a “sin nature” sin is a defining attribute of that thing.
Hebrews 4:15 tells us Jesus is “without sin.” Since He is without sin, sin cannot be one of His essential qualities or attributes. You cannot have a sin nature, and be without sin. Christ’s nature is not sinful. Hebrews also tells us about Jesus’ pure nature. He is “holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens” (Hebrews 7:26).
Part of the misunderstanding is that a human nature is synonymous with a sin nature, or that one must have a sin nature to be genuinely tempted. Both points are wrong. The proof is Adam was fully human, and though he had no sin nature he was genuinely tempted. So the Last Adam, Jesus, had no sin nature and was genuinely tempted, the difference being that Adam sinned and Jesus didn’t.
There have always been cults, such as the Christadelphians, that teach Jesus had a sin nature. However, some mainstream Christians see the sin nature of Jesus as necessary because He was “like us in every respect,” a “real man” and “tempted in all ways like us,” as Hebrews says (Heb. 2:17-18; 4:15). So how could these verses be true if He didn’t have a sin nature?
Some argue that the sin nature is passed on to a child through the father, not the mother. They point out that we are all said to have sinned in Adam, not in Eve (Romans 5:12), even though Eve sinned first. Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes: one member of each pair inherited from the mother and the other from the father. This suggests that when the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary (Luke 1:35), and Jesus was conceived in His mother, God miraculously supplied the other 23 chromosomes to make the matched pair with Mary’s. These would normally have come from a human father.
If it is true that the sin nature is passed on by the father (there is no biblical proof of this, it is only a supposition based on the human race sinning in Adam), in the case of Jesus there was no human father to pass it on. This might be (we can’t be sure, but it’s possible) what allowed him to be the only human being conceived since Adam and Eve’s fall not to have a sin nature.
Theologian Bruce Ware argues for this position:
Notice, it is the sins of the fathers visited upon the third and fourth generation. Notice, when Adam and Eve sinned in the garden, Eve sinned first and Adam is held accountable for it. And notice the virgin birth of Christ. This accomplishes, in my judgment, at least two things. One, he was fully God and fully man. So the Holy Spirit took the place of a human father and brought about this conception so that the one born would be called the Son of God (Luke 1:35). The second thing was, it prevented the sinful line of Adam from being passed on from the father. Every other human being born, you and me included, had a dad; at least at the point of conception there was a human father involved and sin is passed on. Not with Christ; there was no human father. http://www.biblicaltraining.org/library/human-nature-soul/systematic-theology-i/bruce-ware
Karl Barth taught that Jesus had a FALLEN nature, as all people do, but not a SIN nature. But that’s a distinction hard to make. Obviously he lived under many of the effects of the Fall, including stress and suffering and mortality, but that’s not the same as having a fallen nature.
This is a good article about the extent of Jesus’ humanity:
My research assistant, Julia Stager, doesn’t think there is a strong biblical argument for the idea that the sin nature is passed on through the Father. I asked her to explain why, and she makes some very good points to consider. Here’s what she says:
I have a couple hesitations with the idea that sin is passed through the father alone. First, if we’re making a physical or biological argument, how could male chromosomes carry sin? Wouldn’t a woman born of a man only have tainted DNA to pass on? Or is it that female gametes are the only part of humanity that escaped sin nature? And what about the complexities of defining male and female in the case of sex chromosome abnormalities, hermaphrodites, etc.? Sin isn’t a physical trait, it’s a spiritual condition.
Perhaps those who hold the position that sin is passed through the father and not the mother believe it to be representational and not physical. But at that point, what does it mean to inherit sin representationally from my immediate biological father?
I do believe I (and all humans) inherited sin from Adam, who is my original human father, but I see no biblical evidence to believe that after the fall of humanity sin is passed on either representatively or physically through any male other than Adam. It’s a clever argument that supports Jesus being without sin nature, but to me it seems to be an idea imposed on Scripture rather than on that originates there.
Romans 5:12 tells us all sinned in Adam. Romans 5:18 seems to describe the spread of sin as more of an instantaneous state-of-all-humanity event (“…as one trespass led to condemnation for all men…”) as opposed to presenting the idea of continual seeding of sin by fathers into humanity.
Also, Ephesians 2:3 says we were “by nature children of wrath,” not by our “father’s nature children of wrath” and 1 Corinthians 5:22 says, “in Adam all die…” not “in our fathers, all die.” Yes, these are arguments from silence, but it makes the point that believing sin to be passed through the father is not overt in Scripture.
Additionally, there is no Scripture pointing to the virgin birth as an explanation of Jesus’ sinlessness. He’s not sinless because He was born of a virgin, He’s sinless because He’s the God-man.
The virgin birth shows us the beauty of God taking initiative to incarnate Himself for the salvation for His image-bearers. It’s the beginning of Jesus’ earthly life that would culminate in overcoming death and defeating sin while being like us in every respect. It reveals Jesus to be the child of promise.
Though nothing in Scripture proves the “sin is from the father” theory wrong, there is equally nothing in Scripture proving it right. And I feel just fine not believing something the Bible doesn’t teach, especially when (at least for me) it really doesn’t make much sense and seems to create more problems than it solves.
Julia (Stager) Mayo holds a Master of Arts in Biblical and Theological Studies from Western Seminary, where she works as an administrative assistant. She was previously part of the Eternal Perspective Ministries staff, and still does occasional research work for Randy Alcorn.