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The sinlessness of Christ

March 2003 | by Peter Barnes

The cutting edge
An occasional series on doctrinal issues today

The early biblical critics were often quite cavalier in their treatment of the book of Genesis or the teachings of Paul, but they hesitated to criticise the person of Christ. Sadly, this is no longer the case.

T

o give one example, Friedrich Schleiermacher — not altogether consistently — did not believe in the full authority of Scripture, but he did believe in the sinlessness of Christ. So for 1900 years this doctrine was rarely questioned within the boundaries of the professing church, but that situation has changed radically in recent times.

Double talk

In the 1930s the Presbyterian Church in New South Wales, Australia, was troubled by attempts to try Rev. Professor Samuel Angus for heresy. Angus taught the denomination’s ministerial students at St Andrews College, Sydney University.

As an old-fashioned liberal, Angus wrote in 1934 that ‘the Man of Nazareth was conscious of his own short-comings from his own high ideals’.

Angus was somewhat contradictory regarding Christ’s sinlessness, claiming that ‘It is repeatedly asserted that I deny the “sinlessness” of Jesus. I do not “deny” the sinlessness; I simply do not operate with such a negative conception’.

He added: ‘It is not the sinlessness of Jesus but the supreme glory of his moral character and moral conquests that make him Lord to me’. Clearly, Angus, who was a master in the art of doubletalk, did not believe in the sinlessness of Christ but wanted to hide his unbelief under an avalanche of pious-sounding words.

The Holy One

Certainly, during his public ministry, Christ was treated by his enemies as one who could not possibly be good. He was regarded as a glutton and a drunkard (Luke 7:33-34); as a Sabbath-breaker (Mark 3:1-6; John 9); as a blasphemer (Mark 14:62-64); and as one who died accursed of God (Galatians 3:10-13).

More charitably, his own family simply thought that he was out of his mind (Mark 3:21).

Yet from the beginning, the followers of Christ all affirmed the sinlessness of the one in whom they placed their trust. Christ is portrayed as being without sin or moral blemish of any sort (2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15; 7:26; 1 Peter 2:22; 1 John 3:5).

He was tempted, but never crossed the boundary into sin (Matthew 4:1-11; Hebrews 4:15).

It is also true that Jesus was often very close to sinners — even notorious ones (Luke 7:36-50; 15:1-2). Indeed, he allowed them to eat with him and touch him. That, however, does not detract from the consistent affirmation that Jesus is the Holy One.

He is declared to be such by the apostles (John 6:69; Acts 3:14; 4:27, 30), by angels (Luke 1:35), and even by demons (Luke 4:34).

When John saw Jesus coming to the River Jordan to be baptised by him, he tried to stop him (Matthew 3:13-15). A baptism of repentance is appropriate for sinners, but not for Jesus.

Jesus was obliged to argue with John — in being baptised, he was not confessing to being a sinner, but identifying with sinners to ‘fulfil all righteousness’.

Constant threat

Such a unified biblical testimony to the sinlessness of Jesus is indeed extraordinary. Usually, the more we find out about a person the more we realise that we all have feet of clay.

Hero worship is an activity fraught with dangers whenever it actually confronts reality. Not so with the followers of Jesus. For three years the apostles lived with Jesus in onerous conditions — under the hot Palestinian sun, moving from one place to another, with no place for Jesus to lay his head, and under constant threat from the authorities.

They heard his every word, and saw him react to a multitude of situations. Like all human beings, they were quick to pick up on other people’s sins. They were not tardy in becoming displeased with James and John, for example, when they expressed the desire to be exalted in glory with Christ (Mark 10:41). The disciples obviously got on each other’s nerves!

Furthermore, these men knew of Christ’s anger at the Pharisees who were so hard-hearted that they could not rejoice when a man with a withered hand was healed on the Sabbath (Mark 3:5).

They also knew about his cleansings of the temple, both at the beginning of his public ministry (John 2:13-17) and near the end (Mark 11:15-18). Neither event was mild. Jesus was filled with moral indignation.

Anger without sin

Nevertheless, the disciples in no way interpreted these acts as outbursts of temper. They preached that anger was almost invariably wrong (Ephesians 4:31) — a work of the flesh (Galatians 5:20).

Yet they also knew that there is an anger which is not sinful (Psalm 4:4) because it reflects something of God’s wrath against the ungodliness and unrighteousness of men (Romans 1:18). The anger of Jesus clearly belonged in that category, so that he was without sin.

The apostles also knew of Christ’s meeting with a rich young ruler. He addressed Christ as ‘Good Teacher’, but Jesus’ responded: ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but One, that is, God’ (Mark 10:18).

Context can mean everything in interpreting a text. The Bible is not so rigorously pedantic that it will never refer to a human being as ‘good’. Barnabas, for example, is said to be ‘a good man’ (Acts 11:24).

But in the absolute sense only God is good. In his dealing with the rich young ruler, Jesus is not denying his deity or his goodness. Rather, he is saying: ‘We are dealing with salvation and goodness before God. You should only refer to me as “good” in that sense if you understand that I am God’.

Later, Jesus was to tell Thomas that he was blessed for calling him ‘Lord and God’ (John 20:28-29).

Seeing our sin

The apostles knew their own sinful hearts. Peter once became so distressed in the presence of Christ, that he pleaded: ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!’ (Luke 5:8). Paul called himself the chief of sinners — after his conversion, not before (1 Timothy 1:15).

Sin is so universal that only those who deceive themselves think they are without sin (1 John 1:8, 10).

The closer we are to God, the more we see our own sins. Yet that is not true of Christ himself. Christ taught his disciples to pray that their sins would be forgiven, but he himself never prayed such a prayer.

In his final great prayer, the night before the crucifixion, there is no hint of any consciousness of sin. In fact, Christ says calmly: ‘I have glorified you on the earth. I have finished the work which you have given me to do’ (John 17:4).

Earlier, Christ had uttered the challenge: ‘Which of you can convict me of sin?’ (John 8:46). The one who is lowly and humble in heart (Matthew 11:29) declared: ‘I always do those things that please [the Father]’ (John 8:29).

Normally, we are embarrassed or annoyed when someone makes outlandish claims for himself. Muhammad Ali used to brag: ‘I am the greatest!’ Anthony Mundine (the footballer-turned-boxer) compared his mind to that of Albert Einstein.

Shirley MacLaine stood on the shores of the Pacific Ocean and shouted: ‘I am God, I am God, I am God’. We cringe — and feel sorry for such deluded people.

Dostoyevsky once commented that it was virtually impossible for a novelist to portray perfection in a realistic way. Yet in Christ we have perfection and reality in one.

The sinless one

Not that the unbeliever is convinced. Sebastian Moore says that a sinless Christ is ‘Docetic’, lacking in true humanity. He thinks that it makes Jesus ‘a puppet in a theologian’s puppet show’.

Moore thinks that to be human is to sin, but this disregards the Bible’s teaching on the Fall. Adam was truly human before he fell into sin.

It also disregards the incarnation. We will never fully understand how human and divine natures can combine in the one person — but the Bible says they did in Jesus Christ.

Perhaps P. T. Forsyth puts it as well as any: ‘Because Christ was true man he could be truly tempted: because he was true God he could not truly sin’.

The 18th century Scottish historian, William Robertson, claimed optimistically that if ‘Virtue’ were to appear in all its beauty, all men would worship it. Dr John Erskine of Greyfriars replied that it had — and men crucified him!

Christianity is not a series of uplifting principles by which one can order one’s life. It stands or falls by the person of Jesus Christ.

If Christ is not sinless, he is not divine, nor is his death on the cross any help to sinners like ourselves. But he was indeed the sinless one who bore our sins, ‘that we might become the righteousness of God in him’ (2 Corinthians 5:21).