Thursday, March 14, 2019

Simply Impeccable

 The premise for Quest Forums is that everyone has questions, and I mean that when I say it. I don’t ask people to send me questions because I have all the answers. I do it because we all have different areas of attention. I’ve been able to study theology, but obviously, that study does not mean I have learned everything. I still have questions of my own. Recently, I had the opportunity to ask a few of someone with much more expertise than me.

Asking Greg Strand

Greg Strand is the Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing for the Evangelical Free Church of America, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Pastoral Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He was the speaker at a conference I recently attended, the subject of which was the human condition. One of the things he focused on was the human nature of Jesus Christ, and how the Lord’s life is the ultimate example of what we were (and are) meant to look like.

As I was thinking through his comments, it brought a touchy subject to mind. There is a split among Christians, sometimes contentious, over exactly what it means that Jesus took on our human nature at His incarnation. Does that include our fallen nature? In other words, could He have sinned? When we read that Jesus was “tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15), what does that mean?

I know where I stand on this. For me, the idea that Jesus even had the capacity to sin is a circle I cannot square. But I wanted to ask Mr. Strand’s opinion because I knew he had more background in the discussion and hoped that he would have new ways for me to think and talk about the issue. I only had a few minutes of his time between sessions, but I was not disappointed.

Impeccability of Christ

The first thing I learned was a name for what I believe. The doctrine is called the “Impeccability of Christ,” in which impeccability literally means “not capable of sin.” That doesn’t answer the question, of course, but it is always good to have a label. Mr. Strand helped to illustrate it with an example, though. He asked me a question that he had heard at another conference, namely, did Jesus struggle with same-sex attraction?

I honestly did not know what to answer. There’s a lot that goes through your mind in a moment of time. I already knew that Jesus did not sin, and already believed that He could not have done so. But I also know that He was tempted to sin. Was it possible that He experienced this as one of the attacks of Satan? In the moment, I didn’t know. I said so, and that I had never even given it any thought.

My confusion was not a surprise, fortunately. The question had not exactly been an easy one for a room full of experts, and Mr. Strand did not seem disappointed that I failed to have an answer ready at hand. Instead, he walked me through the logic of impeccability. For Jesus to be the perfect sacrifice on behalf of humanity, He had to be the perfect representative of humanity. That meant His nature, unlike ours as we experience it after the Fall from the Garden of Eden, had to be without the flaws and blemishes that are an element of our curse. Sin is something we do, but the desire to sin is also something within each of us. It is what responds to, and even creates, temptation.

Homosexuality is a perfect example of this point because it is such an interior thing, but also because it is so unnatural. I do not mean “disgusting” in this context, I mean unnatural in the sense that it has no natural purpose in God’s plan for the way our species operates. For Christ to be perfect, He could not have had something inherent to Himself that defied God’s purpose in humanity. And of course, you can extrapolate from there. In a different sense, no sin is natural because all sin is rebellion from God’s will. Even the desire to sin is not something He intended for us in the beginning, so if Jesus had had it, He would not have been perfect.

Two Natures, One Person

Now, there are some objections to this. I am not going to dive into them all, but the primary one (I think) is the argument that Jesus had a nature like Adam. If so, then Jesus had the ability to sin or not to sin. We fallen members of the human race, on the other hand, do not have the ability not to sin. We will eventually do it, while Adam and Jesus were free to choose.

Fortunately for the attempt to find some clarity, Jesus’ abilities as a human being are not the only piece of the puzzle. What must be remembered is that Jesus was also God. That is not my way of saying those who disagree with me must doubt the divinity of Christ. I am saying that they might be making too much of a distinction between His human and divine natures, as though He had a human mind separated from His godly mind. If (as everyone agrees) God cannot sin, but the human part of Jesus could sin, then the human part had to be a separate entity from the God part. That position is not biblically supported, though. There is nothing to suggest such disunity in Jesus Christ.

The doctrine of the Trinity, which is also a tough one to explain and understand, states that God exists as one nature in three Persons. The doctrine of Jesus is almost the reverse of that, though not in contradiction to it. He is two natures in one Person. There is no dividing line or schism, no way to separate the two in who He is. Once the Son of God took on human flesh, He made it a perfect incorporation.

Which, of course, further guarantees the impossibility of His sinning. God cannot sin. Jesus was the God Man, not a man with God inside of Him. Therefore, Jesus could not sin. If He could have, then He could not have been God.

My Argument for Christ's Impeccability 

That ties into one of the things that has always made Christ’s impeccability obvious to me, but that I have never felt I could successfully explain. I tried with Mr. Strand and thankfully, he saw where I was coming from. He already agreed with me, though, so that probably helped. I will still try it here, anyway.

Two of the other things we believe about God are that He is omniscient and omnipotent. He knows everything from beyond both ends of history, and He has all power such that no purpose of His can ever be permanently thwarted. It was the will of God from before time began to redeem humanity through Christ. That means nothing could prevent it, not even Christ Himself, because God has no contradictions. Jesus did not have the option to sin because He was the predestined perfect sacrifice for the sins of others. That does not take the power of choice away from Him. It means His choice was made from eternity as God the Son who is always in perfect harmony with God the Father.

The Nature We Have, the Nature We Want

I realize why this can be so tough to swallow. If Jesus could not sin, then maybe He was not really like us. If He was beyond the reach of temptation, then He did not struggle as we do. It makes Him more remote. But do we want a God who is just like us? Or should we want a God who we are supposed to be like? I believe that is what the Bible describes Jesus to be.

Satan tried the impossible when He tempted the Lord (Matt. 4:1–11). The fact that Jesus was tempted from the outside did not mean He had the propensity to succumb to it on the inside, and I am grateful for that fact. Some are not inclined to see it that way because they feel it makes Jesus too different. But He was different. Nothing changes who God is, and therefore nothing can change who Jesus had to have been from the moment of His human birth. That’s solid ground to be on, and it is where I am going to stand.

Freedom in Secondary Matters

With that said, we need a closing word on the debate to note that contention should not result from it. Rather, we all have to admit that what unites us is more important than what divides. Both sides take a slightly different view of the nuances in Heb. 4:15. One looks at the temptation of Jesus as something totally external to Himself. The other sees the temptation as something that resonated with Him and made Him sympathetic to our self-inflicted wounds.

However we take the hypothetical possibility of His sinning, what really counts is the undisputed fact that He never actually did. He was sinless until He took all sin upon Himself to pay the penalty of it on the cross (2 Cor. 5:21). So I would say the debate matters, but it does not matter most. When we talk about these ideas, we need to be guided by that truth so we do not introduce division. It is a curiosity, not an essential component of the Christian faith. Let’s be careful not to treat it like one. The conversation can be lively without being self-destructive. That’s always a good goal to have.

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