Clean Flesh?

Christians understand the man Jesus Christ to be both fully God and fully human, the two natures combined in perfect unity as a result of the miraculous incarnation of the Son in the woman Mary (Gal 4:4). In this way, God himself stepped into his creation to redeem it, to propitiate his own wrath, to ransom us from the power of sin by bearing our sins in a fully human body on the cross. He had to be genuinely human, to experience and overcome temptation and frailty and to triumph over sin in the very flesh in which it normally reigns. Jesus’ flesh was the same as ours and in his humanity he could have sinned. Yet because of his divinity he could overcome temptation and be our Saviour; the Saviour had to be both human and divine. The nature and genuineness of Jesus’ temptations has been discussed in a previous blog, and it is important to note that the Trinitarian understanding of Christ does not in any way detract from the reality of his temptations, nor his sinlessness in the face of them.

The subject is difficult for Christadelphians, however, because their Christ is fully human but not divine. This creates a paradox, whereby to overcome sin as a mere human, Jesus had to have special divine help, but they cannot allow him too much divine influence or he ceases to be merely human, just like us. The Christadelphian model must allow for uncertainty as to whether Christ could have remained sinless, and attribute his sinlessness to his own effort. His sinlessness thus becomes a model to be emulated by our own human effort; a very dangerous prelude to a works-based soteriology. The Christadelphian model of non-substitutionary atonement is inextricably linked with their non-trinitarian view of Christ, just as the Christian understanding of substitutionary atonement is inextricably linked with a Trinitarian concept of Christ. That the nature of Christ’s humanity, the paradox of his sinlessness and the degree of divine influence attributable to his success in overcoming sin, are problematic for Christadelphians is borne out by the numerous misunderstandings and schisms within the community over the years, concerning this very topic. The Statement of Faith, which forms the basis of fellowship for Christadelphians, requires decisive rejection of the idea that “there is no sin in the flesh.” In other words, rejection of the doctrine that Christ had what they term “clean flesh.” What does that mean?

The dispute arises over one translation (the KJV) of one passage; Romans 8:3, which reads,
“For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh.” Now it is very dangerous to create a foundational doctrine on the basis of one verse, especially one translation of one verse. In the original Greek, the term “likeness of sinful flesh” is en homoiomati sarkos hamartias, homoioma meaning likeness, form or appearance; close similarity but not full identity. It doesn’t mean that Christ’s flesh was sinful, it means his flesh was like ours, which is sinful. There is nothing intrinsically sinful, unclean or evil about Christ’s humanity, per se, although it would have been a different matter if he had succumbed to the weakness of human nature and actually sinned. When Adam was created, he was pronounced “very good,” before sin entered the world, that is, before he succumbed to the temptation which his humanity permitted. The term “sin-in-the flesh,” which  Christadelphians uphold as a property of human nature, including Christ’s, is a misinterpretation of this passage in Romans. In the Greek it reads, katekrinen (he condemned) ten hamartiav (the sin) en te sarki (in the flesh). The grammar explains the meaning. “The sin” (accusative case) is the direct object of “he condemned.” The sentence could be left there; “he condemned sin.” The phrase, “In the flesh,” is in the dative case; that is the location or site in which he condemned sin. There is no essential grammatical connection to make “sin in the flesh” an entity itself. The sinless Christ, with flesh like ours in all points except not actually hosting sin (Heb 4:15), thus represents and substitutes for, sinful mankind. Christ’s death brings to an end the era of sin’s domination, allowing a life which walks not according to flesh but to spirit.

Does that mean that Christ’s flesh was “clean?” The problem with this question is that “clean flesh” is not a scriptural term, so it is open to whatever interpretation one wants (hence all the arguments). If by “clean flesh” it is meant that Christ in his humanity remained “holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners,” (Heb 7:26) then yes. His flesh was clean. But if it means that in his humanity he was incapable of sinning, that must be rejected. But the deeper question is actually about where the doctrine leads Christaadelphians, and that is the issue of whether Christ benefited from his own death.

To assert that Christ benefited from his own death is a very strange idea for mainstream Christians, but it is foundational to the Christadelphian understanding of atonement. In fact, it is part of a circular argument which goes, Christ is not God, he is only human. Therefore he himself needed redemption from his fleshly nature which is intrinsically “sin” (sin-in-the flesh, i.e. not “clean” flesh). Because he was in this situation, he cannot be God. This circular reasoning can be seen in Christadelphian arguments against substitutionary atonement, for example,

The popular view is that Christ’s blood was shed that we might go free, on the principle on which a man about to be beheaded has been supposed to go free if some one comes and takes his place . . . the substitute is beheaded, and the other goes free: so Christ’s blood is shed, and we go free from our condemnation. Now this cannot be the right view, for this remarkable reason, that Christ himself is exhibited to us as coming under the beneficial operation of his own death.” [1]

The idea that Christ himself needed redemption from his own nature is problematic on several levels, one of which is that the Son willingly took on this nature.(John 10:17–1814:31; 2 Cor 5:21; Phil 2:5–8; Heb 10:7–9). Roberts supports his assertion by tenuously coupling Hebrews 13:20 (God brought Jesus from the dead through the blood of the everlasting covenant) with Hebrews 9:12 ( Jesus entered the Most Holy Place by means of his own blood, “thus securing an eternal redemption”). Roberts argues, that this “redemption” MUST include Christ himself, although that seems a rather tenuous inference, given all the other references to the redemption of humanity and the sinlessness of Christ. Additional verses cited [2] in support of Christ’s self-redemption are Romans 6:9, “death no longer has dominion over him,” implying that it once did and he had to submit to death and be raised in order to escape the thing he was submitting to. This is paired with Hebrews 5:7, speaking of Jesus’ prayers “to him who was able to save him from death.” This is to argue that Jesus had to die because he was human, rather than that the Son became human so that he could die.

The context of Hebrews 5:7 is “in the days of his flesh,” stating that his suffering was for the purpose of learning obedience. Jesus willingly submitted to death, to its “dominion” in order to destroy “him who had the power of death.” It is important to recognise that at no stage did Jesus lose control (John 10:18; 19:10–11; Acts 2:24). He was no helpless victim. Christadelphians also argue that Jesus, although sinless, was not perfected “until the potential for sin was removed from him,” [3] by dying on the cross and being raised. What does this perfecting entail? Note the context of these passages from Hebrews, a letter which exalts and emphasises the supremacy and divinity of Christ throughout. It cannot mean that Christ was deficient in any way.

For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering” (Heb 2:10).
“And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Heb 5:9).
“For the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever” (Heb 7:28).

The Christadelphian implication drawn from these verses is that Jesus was “imperfect” until he had suffered, died and risen again. The words “make perfect” in each of these are the verb teleioo, which means to complete, bring to an end, finish, accomplish, fulfill or make perfect. The cognate noun is telos, meaning the end-point or completion. It is the same word as in 1 Corinthians 13:10 “when the perfect comes,” which is accepted (by Christadelphians!) to mean “the complete.” When Jesus died on the cross, his last words were a cry of triumph, Tetelestai, “It is finished!” When Jesus suffered in our place, died and rose again and was exalted to “the highest place,” his work was finished; he was perfected. All was fulfilled, all was completed.

The Christadelphian idea is that because Jesus was fully human, he was subject to death, as the inevitable consequence of possessing fallen human nature — even though Jesus personally did not sin. The only way to escape from this imperfection was to live a sinless life and willingly submit to death, and thereby “condemn sin in the flesh,” (Rom 8:3). The Christadelphian view is not that the Son had to be made human in order to die, but that the Son had to die because he was human (had “sin-in-the-flesh”). “His victory can ultimately be ours. He is freed from sin, and no longer under death’s dominion. For Christ’s sake, and because of his sinless life, we can become related to his victory, and not to Adam’s failure.” [4]

Christadelphians do not use the term “original sin,” (an ambiguous and non-biblical term which has had many interpretations over the centuries). They assert that Adam broke a “law by which the continuance of his life was contingent upon obedience,” hence he was sentenced to death, “a sentence which defiled and became a physical law of his being, and was transmitted to all his posterity.” Jesus Christ “though wearing (humanity’s) condemned nature, was to obtain a title to resurrection by perfect obedience, and, by dying, abrogate the law of condemnation for himself and all who should believe and obey him.” [5]

Sin could not have been condemned in the body of Jesus, if it had not existed there. His body was as unclean as the bodies of those for whom he died; for he was born of a woman, and “not one” can bring a clean body out of a defiled body; for “that”, says Jesus himself, “which is born of the flesh is flesh.” [6]

This statement by the Christadelphian founder contradicts Hebrews 7:26, which describes Christ (in all his humanity) as “holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners.” Furthermore, if the whole argument of Hebrews 7 through 10 is considered, it can be seen that the priesthood and sacrifice of Jesus is in every way superior to that of the Mosaic rituals. They do not limit or define him; he surpasses and fulfills them. The Levitical high priest had limited access to God’s presence in the Most Holy Place, had to offer sacrifice first for himself and then for the nation, and entered with blood that was not his own. Jesus was offered once for all, was worthy to enter the Most Holy Place (heaven) through a single offering of his own blood and obtained redemption for all. There is no sense here that Jesus needed to make atonement for himself, nor that his offering was in any way “imperfect.” Rather, this is what Scripture teaches about the perfect Man, the Lord Jesus Christ:

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).
“He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth . . . He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pet 2:22–24).

Jesus had to be “made sin”, for he knew no sin; sin was not intrinsically part of him; it was OUR sins he bore in his body. He achieved victory over sin in the very flesh in which sin normally reigns. Jesus was and is holy (Luke 1:35; Mark 1:24; John 6:69; Acts 2:27, 3:14, 4:27, 30; Heb 7:26; Rev 3:7). Sharing our nature did not intrinsically defile him or require him to redeem himself. It is sin that defiles and requires a sinner to be redeemed (Isa 59:2; Mark 7:20 –23; Jas 1:15); Jesus had no sin. The circular argument by which Jesus’ non-divinity, non-substitutionary atonement and need for his own redemption prop each other up falls like a house of cards as each card is shown to have no Scriptural basis.

 

References

  1. Roberts, Robert. The Blood of Christ. 1895. Repr., West Beach SA: Logos, 1984, 5.
  2. Benson, Richard.“Monotheism and the Atonement,” in One God, The Father, ed. Thomas Gaston. East Boldon, UK: Willow, 2013, 261–2
  3. Norris, Alfred. The Person of the Lord Jesus Christ. Birmingham: The Christadelphian, 1985, 37.
  4. Ashton, Michael, ed. Studies in the Statement of Faith. Birmingham: The Christadelphian, 1991, 44.
  5. Christadelphian Statement of Faith articles IV, V and VIII http://www.christadelphia.org/basf.htm
  6. Thomas, John. Elpis Israel: An Exposition of the Kingdom of God. 1849. Repr.., 15th ed. Birmingham: The Christadelphian, 2000, 137.
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