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The impeccability of Christ

May 1995 | by Michael Haykin

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‘… he is our Mediator, and … in God ‘s sight, he covers over with his innocence and perfect holiness the sinfulness in which I have been conceived.’ 

Charles Wesley has been described as ‘the supreme poet of love to Jesus in a revival context’, the revival in this case being the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century. A good example of his hymns of love to Christ is the one that begins ‘Let earth and heaven combine’, first published in 1745 in Hymns for the nativity of our Lord Throughout the hymn praise is offered to ‘the Incarnate Deity’, God ‘incomprehensibly made man’, who joins together the ‘widest extremes’ so that sinners can ultimately stand in his presence and ‘see his glorious face’. In dwelling thus on the mystery and marvel of the Incarnation Wesley is reflecting on one of the core doctrines of the Christian faith. Wesley rightly says that the Incarnation is incomprehensible to the mind of finite man; nonetheless his hymn is a powerful testimony to the fact that this vital truth is to be proclaimed and celebrated.

The truth of the Incarnation has two sides to it: Jesus Christ is fully God and Jesus Christ is fully man. The evidence for the first assertion can be seen throughout the warp and woof of the New Testament. There are explicit texts like Titus 2:13, where Jesus Christ is described as ‘our great God and Saviour’. Then he is set forth as the object of human and angelic worship (Philippians 2:911; Hebrews 1:6); he does what only God can do, such as the creation of the universe (Isaiah 44:24; John 1:3; Colossians 1:16), the forgiveness of sins (Mark 2:5-12; Colossians 3:13), the judging of mankind at the final judgement (John 5:22; Acts 10:42; 2 Corinthians 5:10; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9); he is addressed in prayer (Acts 7:59-60; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 16:22; 2 Corinthians 12:8); he possesses such divine attributes as omnipresence (Hebrews 1:3; Ephesians 4: 10), omniscience (Revelation 2:23), omnipotence (Matthew 28:18), and unchangeability (Hebrews 13:8); the fulness of the Godhead is said to indwell him (Colossians 1:19; 2:9); he bears titles and names given to Yahweh in the Old Testament (e.g. see Isaiah 44:6;and Revelation 1:17); he is the co-author of divine blessing (Revelation 1 :4-5; Titus 1:4); he can even describe the angels as his own (Matthew 13:41). In the words of Benjamin B. Warfield, the early twentieth-century Presbyterian scholar and theologian: ‘The deity of Christ is in solution in every page of the New Testament. Every work that is spoken of him, every word which he is reported to have spoken of himself, is spoken on the assumption that he is God.’

The New Testament also bears witness to another side of Christ, though – his humanity. As Paul puts it in 1 Timothy 2:5, he is ‘the man Christ Jesus’ (italics added), and throughout the Gospel records his humanity is evident: he experienced the pangs of hunger (Matthew 4:2);he knew weariness and thirst (John 4:6-7; 19:28); he wept genuine tears of sorrow (John 11:35); he went through human weakness and agony (Luke 22:43-44); he bled and died (John 19:30,34). Yet, while his humanness is so like ours in all of these aspects, there is one way in which it is totally unlike that of any other man or woman: it is sinless.

This affirmation first of all means that Christ never actually committed a sin. In the words of 1 Peter 2:22 Christ ‘committed no sin’. As we look at his life as it is recorded in the four Gospels, there is not one incident to which we can point and say, ‘Look, a sin.’ We never heard him asking for forgiveness, from God or from man. In fact, he can pointedly state in John 8:46: ‘Which of you convicts me of sin?’ This question bespeaks a conscience that is clear of sin and in unbroken fellowship with God the Father. During the moments leading up to his passion, Christ makes a similar declaration when he states that ‘the ruler of this world is coming, and he has nothing in me’ (John 14:30). The devil has no claim upon Christ, for Christ has never sinned.

In 2 Corinthians 5:21, the apostle Paul bears his own witness to this fact of Christ’s never having sinned when he states that Christ ‘knew (gnonta) no sin’. In both classical and koine Greek, the latter being the language of the New Testament, there are two verbs that can be translated ‘to know’. The one, oida, generally means to have possession of knowledge and is used to describe complete and full knowledge; the other, ginosko, usually depicts the acquisition of knowledge and represents that knowledge as incomplete and in the process of development. While the apostle Paul does not always make a definite distinction between these two verbs, of the 103 times where he employs oida, 90 are used with the above distinction in mind. And of the 50 occurrences of ginosko, 32 are used with the distinct meaning of this verb. In 2 Corinthians 5:21 Paul appears to be using this latter verb with its distinctive meaning. In other words, Christ did not gain or acquire a knowledge of human sinfulness by overt acts of sin.

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But we must go farther and affirm that the sinlessness of Jesus also means that Christ did not possess a nature bent and warped by the presence of sin. In Christ there was ‘no inherent sin’. 1 Peter 1:19 affirms that he was ‘without blemish and without spot’, that is, blameless and free from vice. 1 John 3:5 asserts that ‘in him there is no sin’. Hebrews 7:26 describes him as one ‘who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners’. In other words, Christ had no inner compulsion or desire to engage in sin. He always delighted in the will of God and in holiness. As he said in John 4:34: ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to finish his work.’

The Scriptures, therefore, deny not only the presence of sinful thinking and acts in the Incarnate Christ, but also, in the words of H. P. Liddon, the Victorian High Anglican, ‘any ultimate roots and sources of sin, of any propensities or inclinations, however latent and rudimentary, towards sin’. The words of James 1:14-15, which indicate that every man and woman is tempted to sin by an inner inclination towards sin, do not apply to Christ. It is our lusts that motivate and draw us into sin. But Christ knows absolutely nothing of this. To say that Christ had sinful inclinations is to assert nothing less than that Christ himself was in need of a Saviour! In other words, Christ could not sin.

What then of his temptation – was it real? We read of this temptation, of course, in the Gospel accounts and in a passage like Hebrews 4:15: ‘We do not have a high priest who cannot sympathise with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.’ Christ knows our frame intimately, for he has stood where we stand, ‘yet without sin’. As Donald MacLeod has noted in an article that appeared in The Monthly Record of the Free Church of Scotland in June 1984:

‘It is completely misguided to imagine that the agony of temptation overcome is less than the agony of temptation yielded to. On the contrary, to yield to temptation is to escape its full ferocity. The devil never has to do his utmost to secure our fall. A little of his power and cunning will suffice. But Christ did not yield and this made it necessary for the tempter to increase the pressure. Far from being the one who escapes temptation because he is sinless, he is the one who precisely because he is sinless alone experiences temptation in its full intensity. He alone took all the devil could throw at him.’

Finally, the role of the miraculous conception of Jesus needs to be taken into account here. Christ was born without the intervention of a human father. As we read in Luke 1:35, the Holy Spirit came upon Mary and made possible the uniting of the second person of the Godhead with the human nature of Christ. In thus securing this union of man and God in Christ, the Holy Spirit also prevented the transmission of a sin nature to Christ. The answer to question 36 of the Heidelberg Catechism puts this truth well. In answer to the question ‘What benefit do you receive from the holy conception and birth of Christ?’, we read this lovely answer about the sinless beauty of our Lord Jesus: ‘That he is our Mediator, and that, in God’s sight, he covers over with his innocence and perfect holiness the sinfulness in which I have been conceived.’

Michael A. G. Haykin