In the past semester I’ve had something of an epiphany regarding the nature of the atonement, and as I reflect back on it, it seems to me that what really lay at the heart of it all was a shift in my understanding of the sinlessness of Jesus. This issue illuminates a great deal of what exactly happened on the cross and in the resurrection, and all of our theology that issues from that event will be decisively colored by our grasp of just exactly how God, in Jesus his Son, somehow bore the problem of sin in himself, as a sinless human being.
To the question, “Was Jesus sinless?” the Christian answer has always been (and must be) an unequivocal “Yes”; but the church tradition has given more than one answer to the further question, “How was Jesus sinless?” From about the fourth century onward, mainly in the western Latin theological tradition, the sinlessness of Jesus has been treated as an attribute of Jesus’ “essential” humanity—something intrinsic to his “human nature,” as distinct from your human nature or mine. In other words, Jesus’ humanity was not touched in any way by the fall, but represented humanity in its original state: sinless in a qualitative and ontological (not just an active and moral) sense. Following Augustine, this got bound up with the church’s understanding of “original sin,” and together with Augustine’s somewhat dubious notion of original sin’s transmission through sexual intercourse, came to form part of the tradition’s basic apologetic for the virgin birth: the reason Jesus had to be conceived of the Spirit in the virgin Mary is that he would otherwise have been tainted by original sin, and would therefore have been a sinner. (Later on in the Roman Catholic tradition this impulse created a felt need to remove that taint even from Mary, and so it was concluded that her own conception was also free from original sin—this is the doctrine of the “immaculate conception.”)
My own view of Jesus’ sinlessness is different, and more comparable to the early (particularly Greek) church fathers, as well as some notable theologians of the twentieth century like Karl Barth and T.F. Torrance. Among the earliest church fathers, it was generally recognized that the incarnation was not only God’s act of putting himself in the right “position”—that of a human being—to deal with the broken relationship of humanity to God. More profoundly, the incarnation was God’s assuming of the problem of our corrupted human condition to himself, in order to deal with that problem in his very own existence through the events of his life, death, and resurrection. In Jesus of Nazareth, God draws near to us not in an immaculate “humanity” different from ours, but in the selfsame broken, corruptible, fallen human existence in which we all live, and that is precisely the context in which his own sinlessness becomes all-important.
This second view is, in my opinion, much more in accord with the apostolic mind as we see it in the New Testament. The apostles didn’t regard human beings chiefly in terms of their individual “natures” in distinction from others around them, such that one human being could be “fallen” and another might not be. Rather, they saw all of humanity, and the rest of the created order along with them, as sharing in a mode of existence in the present age called “the flesh”—the natural and corruptible array of relationships and dynamics in which our whole created reality consists, and according to which it operates. This reality of “the flesh” is the creation as God has made it—originally good, but now because of the invasion of sin through human disobedience, utterly pervaded by sin, broken by a “missing of the mark” within created existence that has hijacked the world and taken it off into slavery to evil, sin and death. Within this picture, to be personally sinful is, quite simply, to be an agent who operates independently and self-reliantly according to this reality in which we are all bound up—a way of life that, despite the temporary satisfactions and delights it may afford, is actually a form of slavery to the broken world in which we live.
That’s a biblical anthropology as I see it. And, I might add, at this point the growing majority of biblical scholars (including those of the evangelical stripe) see the same thing in the apostolic writings. We humans are “of the flesh, sold under sin” (Rom 7:14), subject to a condition in which sin’s power is pervasively at work ruining, perverting, misleading, and polluting. We have nothing in ourselves with which to escape, to get to God, or to give ourselves true life as we were made to have it. The best we can manage is to fabricate idols in the world that we feel can serve our own ends, that can provide us with ultimate security and satisfaction; but in reality we are blinded by ourselves—enthroned at the center of our own universes, but ultimately as much slaves to futility and death as everything around us. But into this bleak picture steps Jesus of Nazareth, the Word of God who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). Precisely where the power of sin in the flesh made it impossible for us to have life, God did the impossible: “having sent his Son in the exact likeness of sinful flesh and for a sin-offering, he condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom 8:4); “our old humanity was crucified with [Jesus], so that the body of sin might be destroyed, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Rom 6:6); “he has now reconciled [us] in his body of flesh through his death” (Col 1:21); “God made him who knew no sin to become sin for our sake, so that in him we would become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). In Jesus of Nazareth, God has taken the flesh of this present evil age to himself, and made its burden his own. He has worn the garment of our stained humanity; he has shouldered the weight of our corruption and ruin and captivity to the present evil age; and in astonishing grace and mercy, he has sinlessly borne it to its destruction at the cross, and to its renewal in the resurrection. Standing in our place, Jesus has done within our broken humanity what Adam was unwilling to do, and what we were incapable of doing: saying to God in the power of the Spirit, “Not my will, but yours be done.” By putting to death the reality of our fleshly existence at the cross, and by raising Jesus from the dead to a new and transformed mode of embodied life by the Spirit, God has brought the old age of sin and death to an end and inaugurated the new age of God’s kingdom in Jesus’ very body—in which all may share by faith, through the Holy Spirit, for the forgiveness of sins and for release from the bondage of the present age. That is atonement.
The sinlessness of Jesus, in other words, is not a feature of his incarnate humanity considered in itself, but rather is a statement about how he, in the power of the Holy Spirit, lived his life blamelessly before God in perfect fidelity to the Father, in the face of all the temptations that sin resident in the flesh posed against him. Because our humanity was what needed saving, God made the problem of the human condition his own in the incarnation, in order as our substitute to restore it to reconciled fellowship with himself. In this picture, reconciliation between God and man takes place in the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth, for the sake of all, and is then shared with the world through the gospel proclamation of the church in the power of the Spirit. In Jesus, God has met our deepest needs by doing in our broken condition what none of us could do: bear that condition before him and offer it up in love and faithfulness and obedience to him as our Abba, “father.”
In the next post on this topic, we’ll look further at the implications for this understanding of Jesus’ sinlessness, not least at how it affects our understanding of God’s self-substitution for us in his death, and how this action on God’s part reveals to us who God really is in the depths of his own identity.
List of relevant sources for further reading:
- T.F. Torrance’s lectures on Christology: (vol. 1) Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ; (vol. 1) Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ (vol. 2)
- T.F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ
- Robert C. Tannehill, Dying and Rising with Christ
- Susan Grove Eastman, “Apocalypse and Incarnation: The Participatory Logic of Paul’s Gospel,” in Apocalyptic and the Future of Theology: With and Beyond J. Louis Martyn (Joshua B. Davis & Douglas Harink, eds.)
- James Dunn, “Paul’s Understanding of the Death of Jesus“
- J. Louis Martyn, Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul