If Jesus is fully human, how could he have been sinless? This question has exercised Christian thinkers for centuries, and different conclusions have been drawn. The orthodox trinitrian perspective is that Jesus Christ is not only fully human, but also fully God. The man Christ Jesus is the eternal Son made flesh, taking on full humanity. In doing so he did not leave his divinity behind, but humbled himself, taking the form of a servant, and restricting the exercise of his divinity (John 1:1–14; Heb 1:1–12; 2:14–18; Col 1:15–22; Phil 2:5–11).
The non-trinitarian perspective posits Jesus as fully human, but with varying degrees of divine influence that allowed him in his enhanced spiritual strength to resist temptation and to not sin. Christadelphians, for example, believe that Jesus is “the Son of God but not God the Son,” specially enabled to overcome sin. Adoptionists and Unitarians who deny the divine Sonship of Jesus in any literal sense, asserting that Jesus was merely human with two human parents, understand his Sonship figuratively or in a bestowed sense.
There are two problems with these approaches. One is allowing enough divine influence on Jesus to enable him to be sinless without destroying his real humanity, or making him so unlike us as to render his atoning work irrelevant (Heb 2:16). The other is that by empowering Christ’s human nature to the extent that he could have overcome the divine influence and sinned, we leave his atoning work, and God’s whole redemptive plan to chance, in the event that Christ might have failed and committed even one sin. This view also makes Christ a mere representative of humanity and removes the divine substitutionary aspect so central to the atonement.
Scripture leaves us in no doubt that Christ is fully and genuinely human; the references in both Testaments are extensive. But there are two ways in which he differed from other men in his humanity. One is his conception in the womb of a virgin (Matt 1:18–23; Luke 1:26–35), the other is his sinlessness. Apart from Christ, all human beings since the fall have sinned (Rom 3:9–12; 5:12; Jas 1:14–15; 1 John 1:8–10). But Jesus Christ never sinned (John 8:29; 15:10; Acts 3:14; 2 Cor 5:21; Heb 4:15; 1 Pet 1:19; 2:22; 1 John 3:5). That Jesus was fully human and yet without sin is the essential prerequisite of both his atoning and his mediating work. Jesus came to do what no other man had ever done; to obey God perfectly, and to do so as a man. By condemning sin in the very flesh in which it normally held sway, he completely destroyed its power (Rom 8:3; Heb 2:14–15). By leading a sinless life in obedience to his Father, Jesus was able to offer himself as the perfect, spotless sacrifice, and was able to bear the sins of the world on the cross, the punishment humanity deserved (Isa 53:4–6). Also, Jesus’ sinlessness in the face of normal human temptation makes him both a sympathetic advocate and a righteous judge (Heb 4:14–16).
Luke tells us that as a child, Jesus grew in strength and wisdom, from a helpless babe to a twelve year old who could converse with the scholars in the temple, and then on to become a mature man. He grew in favor with God, God’s grace was upon him and at least by twelve years of age he knew who he was and the course his life would take. We are not privy to any more details than that, but throughout this process of growth — a very human experience and quite a limitation for one being “in the form of God” — he never sinned, despite being so tempted (Heb 4:15). What two year old never threw a tantrum in selfish indignation? What child never disobeyed his parents, or never acted selfishly toward his playmates? What adolescent was never self-absorbed, defiant or insolent? Only one child, one adolescent, one man, in the entire history of humanity: Jesus.
God in his divine perfection cannot be tempted, and certainly cannot sin (James 1:13, Isa 5:16; Hab 1:13) but Jesus in his humanity could be, and was, tempted yet did not yield to that temptation. Here is the essence of what it means for Christ to be both divine and human. If he was merely human, he could not have overcome temptation, he couldn’t have been sinless. If he were God but not also human he could not have been truly tempted. This is how the Bible presents Jesus’ conquering of sin; God himself entered humanity in the person of Jesus to do what we could not do for ourselves; lead a holy life, and conquer sin in the flesh in which it normally reigns. He is the second Adam, and he is God with us. On this rests the efficacy of his sacrifice (Rom 5:6–21; 8:3; 1 Cor 15:21–22; 2 Cor 5:18–21).
Those who reject the divinity of Christ and the incarnation struggle to explain how Jesus could have been sinless, without being God. The issue is approached in some Christadelphian writings but sidestepped, and usually attributed to a special awareness of God, or reliance on Scripture or sheer force of will in dedication to his calling. Alfred Nicholls (1) says that Jesus inherited Adam’s nature from his mother, and from God his Father he inherited a perfect character able to withstand temptation, and a keen spiritual insight. Harry Tennant (2) says “The obedience of the Lord Jesus Christ grew and was tested under the stress of chastisement and the allurement of temptation.” without discussing how this might happen in a boy whose character was “developing.” Tecwyn Morgan (3) introduces the element of uncertainty with his claim that “there was no certainty about the success of (Jesus’) mission. It depended upon him and his willingness to do the Father’s will . . . God caused a Son to be born and asked him to surrender his life in total obedience. This Jesus did, He did not have to do it; he chose to do it, and that is an important difference.” Alfred Norris (4) argues that it was not inevitable that Jesus was sinless, by virtue of being the Son of God, or his temptations would have been ineffectual. Jesus’ reward “was the fruit of high achievement, which in fact meant total self-abasement.” However, being the Son of God must have had some effect on Jesus’ sinlessness, otherwise any man could have done it.
“Without divine begettal we can safely suppose that the Lord could not have been a sinless man, and could not, if for that reason alone, have been our Savior . . . If, in achieving that end, it was needful that he be endowed with help which the rest of us have not, should we be envious on that account?”
Mr Norris goes on to suggest that because Jesus had been perfectly enlightened by God, he could not possibly have sinned through ignorance (which still doesn’t explain how the child Jesus was sinless whilst still growing in wisdom).
It would seem that far from “depriving Him of any real victory,” an appropriate balance of divine strength and human weakness is equally applicable to the concept of the incarnate Son, whose natures were perfectly unified.
In contrast to the rich Scriptural testimony of Christ’s eternal Sonship ( eg., John 5:23; 7:28–29; 8:42; 17:3, 8; Matt 11:27; Heb 1) Christadelphian understanding of what it meant to be the Son of God is focused entirely on his conception. Harry Tennant (5) states, “The marks of the Fatherhood of God were to be seen in Jesus. Jesus knew that God was his Father, and by this means he had an affinity with God which no other person had even known, even though he bore this affinity in the frailty of human flesh. His mind was wonderfully alert and active.” Ron Coleman (6) says that as God’s Son, Jesus had the perfect aptitude to learn, and his Father to teach, and “Jesus inherited from his Father the capacity to know Him, to be open to Him, to have a genius for Him . . . Because of (his) human inheritance Jesus could have thwarted or suppressed his divine genius, or allowed it to wither… But he took this human nature and hardened and tempered it in the fires of temptation until it became a new nature, complete, sinless, filled with the spirit and utterly tendered in loving obedience to God.”
But such theses do not really explain how the two year old, ten year old or fifteen year old Jesus (still in the process of tempering his nature) could have been sinless, without requiring the direct, coercive influence of God to override his natural (and immature) human tendencies. Granted that Jesus grew in his understanding of who he was, there would have been a time when his understanding was limited and how then was temptation to be overcome? Julian Clementson (7) observes:
“We must exercise caution when Jesus is made to seem “superhuman” by virtue of a special nature brought about by his virginal conception. There is a weakness in Christadelphian doctrine precisely at the point where it understands the “divinity” of Jesus in terms of special qualities present in his unique human nature, because it makes him too different from the rest of us to be a viable example for living.”
In other words, the more divine influence we must impose upon Jesus for him to be sinless, the less his humanity remains isolated. The more humanity we demand, undiluted from divinity, the less likely he could have overcome sin. This issue is resolved by recognizing the full humanity and full divinity of Christ, but is never truly resolved by Christadelphians. They deny any form of coercion or inevitability in Christ being able to live a sinless life and complete his saving work, which seems to imply there was at least a chance that Christ would fail. That hardly seems reassuring, nor consistent with the water-tight promises in the Old Testament that God would provide a Savior and that his work would succeed (Gen 3:15; Isa 53:11; 59:16; Heb 6:17–19).
Robert Roberts (8) allows, “How then . . . was he, with sinful flesh, to be sinless? God’s relation to the matter is the answer. God did it. The weak flesh could not do it.” And, “Surely he was made superior to man in some respects: Unquestionably. He was not a mere man — not a mere Jew — not mere flesh. He was the flesh of Abraham in a special form.”
But is this really good enough? Does this do justice to the complex imagery of the atonement, its richness, its depth? It is obvious that no mere human could overcome sin and lead a perfectly righteous life by their own power, yet Christadelphians generally explain it as being by Jesus’ own effort. For example, John Roberts (9) says, “Jesus was tested by sin. Human nature urged him to do the wrong things. Jesus resisted. He did not sin. He was sinless . . . These temptations were real. They would have had no point if Jesus had been unable to sin. The Bible shows us he had to fight to overcome them. It was a struggle, but Jesus was victorious.”
So we are left with a quandary. Without doubt, no human could be sinless without significant divine enabling. The influence of the Holy Spirit must have been absolute in order to override sin’s natural domination. For the man Christ Jesus to have never sinned, the Spirit, or in some other way the influence of God, must have absolutely dominated his human nature, which seems to contradict the clear assertions of Scripture that Jesus in his humanity was tempted in every way like us; he would cease to be truly representative. One cannot have it both ways, Christ being exactly like us, and yet not quite like us; the promises of a sovereign God guaranteed, and yet subject to a degree of uncertainty because Christ in his humanity might not have quite pulled it off.
However, there is a way of understanding the combination of true humanity with a divine influence strong enough to keep Jesus holy, harmless and undefiled without circumventing the reality of temptation. The Trinitarian, scriptural concept of two natures in Christ allows this. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. He came, not to do his own will, but the will of his Father. He overcame, he destroyed sin in human nature. As the spotless Lamb of God, he bore our sins, the sins of the world, and ever lives to make intercession for us. He is Immanuel, God with us.
1. Alfred Nicholls, editorial articles from The Christadelphian, 1977, republished as Remember the Days of Old. Birmingham: The Christadelphian, 60, 63.
2. Harry Tennant, The Christadelphians, What they Believe and Teach. Birmingham: The Christadelphian, 1998, 98.
3. Tecwyn Morgan, Understand the Bible: Work it out for yourself. Birmingham: Christadelphian Bible Mission, 2006, 109–11
4. Alfred Norris,. The Person of the Lord Jesus Christ. pamphlet. Birmingham: The Christadelphian, 1985, 23–25.
5. Harry Tennant, The Christadelphians, What they Believe and Teach. Birmingham: The Christadelphian, 1998, 97.
6. Coleman, Ron, “Jesus, Son of Man, Son of God,” part 4, Endeavour vol, 76 (1987) available from archive ) on request from the Editor, http://www.endeavourmagazine.org/contact.htm.
7. Julian Clementson,. “The Christadelphians and the Doctrine of the Trinity.” Evangelical Quarterly 75:2 (2003) 157–76.
8. Robert Roberts, The Blood of Christ (1895) Reprinted Birmingham: The Christadelphian, 2006, 19, 21.)
9. Roberts, John S. The Bible, The Lord Jesus and You. Birmingham: The Christadelphian, n.d., 54.