Jesus, born of Mary, without sin

Tue, 06/11/2018 - 10:55 -- James Oakley
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, The Immaculate Conception of Mary

Yesterday, I had a discussion with a group of friends on Facebook (as one does), along with a number of others whom I've not had the pleasure of meeting. It started with someone posing what should be a solved puzzle in Christology, and therefore easy to answer. But between us we initially had a bit of trouble articulating the necessary categories and distinctions to solve this one. Others were well ahead of me, but eventually I think we got there. Or, at least, I am now a lot clearer. I may not be exactly correct, but I'm a lot more thought through than I was.

So, with thanks to my disputation partners, I thought I'd put this up here, so I've got something to refer back to at a later date.

The Puzzle

Here is the opener: How did the Logos assume a human nature from Mary that was free of both the guilt and corruption of original sin?

We can elaborate. We want to hold on to three key doctrines. The challenge is how to hold onto all 3 at the same time. Yes, we could simply assert that all 3 are true, and not puzzle over the logic of how. Sometimes, as we seek to sit faithful to Scripture, that is precisely what we need to do when we reach the limit of understanding how these things can be so. But it's always good to look again at the biblical data, from every possible angle, to see if we can close the gap as far as we can.

Here are the three doctrines

1. Original Sin

Every human being this side of Eden is born in a state of sin. When Adam sinned, he did so as the federal (covenant) head of the whole human race. We are implicated in his sin. Crucially, we are not just saying that all human beings will eventually sin, as Adam did. We're saying that we are born in a state of sin, corrupted and guilty before we do anything wrong ourselves.

This must be so. For example, in Romans 5 we learn that

Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:18-19)

Suppose we inherited Adam's sin only in the sense that we did the same things he did, so became guilty as he was. Paul's analogy would therefore require that we inherit Christ's righteousness only in the sense that we do the same things he did, so became righteous as he is. You don't have to know a lot about Romans to realise that Paul cannot mean that!

Article IX of the Church of England's 39 Articles says this:

ORIGINAL sin standeth not in the following of Adam (as the Pelagians do vainly talk), but it is the fault and corruption of the nature of every man that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation. And this infection of nature doth remain, yea, in them that are regenerated, whereby the lust of the flesh, called in Greek phronema sarkos (which some do expound the wisdom, some sensuality, some the affection, some the desire of the flesh), is not subject to the law of God. And although there is no condemnation for them that believe and are baptized, yet the Apostle doth confess that concupiscence and lust hath itself the nature of sin.

That's a pretty good articulation of this. Those new to this doctrine could usefully start with Henri Blocher's book, Original Sin.

2. Jesus Without Sin

The New Testament is pretty clear that Jesus is without sin.

"He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth." (1 Peter 2:22)

"Such a high priest truly meets our need – one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself." (Hebrews 7:26-27)

… and so on.

That means Jesus never committed sin of his own, and was also free of guilt concerning original sin.

3. Jesus, our brother

Jesus was fully human. He had a full human nature. This is clear from the New Testament, and the early church councils thrashed this one out thoroughly, most notably (but not exclusively) at Chalcedon in 451AD.

But here's the key thing here: It is not sufficient for him to have a human nature. He had to have our human nature.

Luke 3 deliberately traces Jesus' genealogy back to Adam. In order to be the saviour of the human race, he had to be from our own family tree. The only one who can take our place and bear our sin is one of us. There are several ways in which it is important to articulate the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement with great care if one is to avoid a miscarriage of justice. One of those points of care is to stress that Jesus was truly one of us.

"Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human 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." (Hebrews 2:14-17)

He didn't come to help angels. He came to help us, so he has to become one of us.

The Challenge of All 3

So we need to hold onto all 3 of these, but it's tricky to do so.

If children born to a son of Adam and daughter of Eve is born with Adam's guilt, and if Jesus inherited his mother's human nature, surely Jesus is born guilty of Adam's sin.

If Jesus was born free of the guilt and corruption of sin, and he was part of Adam's family line, surely that means that original sin breaks down, because here was one human being born into that family but without the corruption of sin.

Or, if not, then Jesus was born free of the guilt and corruption of sin, but he was a special case, he had a full humanity but not our humanity.

Either way, we've let go of one.

Immaculate Conception?

One proposed solution is the Roman Catholic doctrine of the "immaculate conception". So, here's Pope Pius IX:

"The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin." Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus (1854)

Not only is there no biblical warrant for this view, crucially it also fails to solve our puzzle. All it does is push the puzzle up one generation. We're not left asking how Jesus came to be born of Adam's line, and yet himself without stain of original sin; we're now asking how Mary came to be. What's more, we've made the problem trickier. Jesus had a human nature and a divine nature, existing sinlessly for all eternity before he became a man. Some people suggest, unconvincingly in my opinion, that original sin is inherited only from one's father, which is why Jesus is different. Mary simply had two human parents, so it's going to be even harder to explain how she did not inherit her parent's sin.

So that's not going to help us.

Instead, we have to remember two further things about the way that sin and original sin work.

Sin is not essential to human nature

Sin is not essential to human nature.

That is to say: You could have a sinless human being, and they'd be no less human for it. And I'm talking about the human family of Adam here, not some hypothetical other human family.

Otherwise Jesus would not be human, and we know that he shared in our humanity.

But also, otherwise we would not be fully human at the resurrection. 1 Corinthians 15 is very clear: Christians will be raised with new resurrection bodies. We will be changed, but we will still be human. We will still be us.

God's plan was to have his creation ruled by human beings. That plan will not fail. By installing Jesus as king now, and then having him return as the head of a renewed human race, God's plan will succeed. We will reign as human rulers, just as God intended.

So if it were the case that Jesus were born without sin, original and actual, that would not make him any less human.

Original sin is federal

In our Facebook conversation, someone asked how it is just for me to inherit the sin committed by another, Adam.

The traditional answer within reformed theology is that Adam is not just any old "other". He's the federal head of the human race. The idea here is that a group of people can have a representative head, one member of the group that can speak and act for the whole group. The actions of that one person have consequences for the whole people; that person can make promises, enter into a covenant, and the whole people are then in a covenant relationship.

You meet this idea in Israel's history when the nation's king stands for the people as their head. In 2 Samuel 24, King David incurs God's anger by taking a census of his people, and as a result judgement falls on the whole nation. Later, King David offers a sacrifice, and because of David's offering the whole nation is declared not guilty.

So with Adam. God does not arbitrarily thrash out in anger at members of Adam's family, because of what Adam did wrong. Rather, Adam was acting as the representative head of the whole human race. When he chose to disobey God, we as a race chose to disobey God. God is not punishing us for Adam's sin. He is punishing us for our sin, committed by Adam on our behalf. Adam's actions bound us all, and had consequences for us all, because we are "in him".

Christ is not in Adam

Here is the key distinction I think we need. Christ shared in Adam's human nature, but he was not bound in a federal relationship with Adam whereby Adam is his representative head.

This is because people are in federal relationships, not natures. Jesus had lived for all eternity as the eternal Son of God. He was not a member of Adam's race at that point. When Jesus took on our human nature, he did not automatically acquire Adam as his federal head. He cannot have done, otherwise he would be implicated in Adam's disobedience.

Adam's guilt is passed on to his descendants because of that covenant / federal relationship, whereby Adam is our head. Jesus is not in that kind of relationship with Adam, therefore did not inherit Adam's guilt.

But, because sinfulness, corruption and guilt are not an essential part of what it means to be human, Jesus is no less human as a result.

Jesus, the Second Adam

Instead, 1 Corinthians 15 speaks of Jesus as the "last Adam".

Adam was in a covenant with God, which reformed theologians call the "covenant of works". If he had obeyed God's command, he and his descendants would have ruled a glorious earth flawlessly. Instead, we disobeyed, for which we must pay the penalty.

Jesus is in a covenant with God, the "covenant of redemption". He has two conditions to fulfil. Like Adam, he must obey God's commands. But he must now also bear the penalty of Adam's (and his offsprings') disobedience. Where Adam failed, Jesus succeeded. He fulfilled both of those conditions.

As a result, every Christian believer is now "in Christ", just as we are in Adam. And just as we bear the likeness of the first Adam, so we will come to bear the likeness of Jesus Christ, the last Adam.

Jesus did not inherit Adam's guilt, as he is not in a federal relationship whereby Adam is his covenant, representative head. Instead, he did something far more wonderful. He found himself in an analogous position to Adam, pre-fall, and where Adam failed he was faithful. And instead of inheriting Adam's guilt, he voluntarily bore it himself, so that Jesus' descendants might be freed from the sin, guilt and corruption into which we have been born.

O loving wisdom of our God!
When all was sin and shame,
A second Adam to the fight
And to the rescue came.

O wisest love! that flesh and blood,
Which did in Adam fail,
Should strive afresh against their foe,
Should strive and should prevail.

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