Was Jesus Christ totally without sin? Does it matter?
THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:
Christian tradition says yes, and yes.
This month, related discussions with weighty implications popped up online, so The Religion Guy takes a look at this belief, which dates from the very earliest days of church history. But we begin with the fact, perhaps surprising to Christians, that Jesus’ sinlessness is also taught by Islam. These two faiths combined engage upwards of 4 billion people.
In the Quran’s account of Jesus’ birth, older English translations of verse 19:19 say the child is “holy,” but modern versions by Majid Fakhry (endorsed by the authoritative Al-Azhar University), A.S. Abdel Haleem, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s team understand the Arabic adjective to mean the somewhat stronger “pure.”
The Muslim belief is reinforced by a standard hadith saying of the Prophet Muhammad that “no child is born but that Satan touches, but when it is born it starts crying loudly because of being touched by Satan, except Mary and her Son.: (Sahih Al-Bukhari, 6.65.4550). Muslim commentators explain that Jesus, Muhammad and the other prophets may have made simple human mistakes but never sinned, that is, consciously violated the will of God.
Muhammad’s mention of Mary befits Catholicism’s Immaculate Conception, made mandatory dogma by Pope Pius IX in 1854. The Catholic Catechism states that “from the instant of her conception, she was totally preserved from the stain of original sin and she remained pure from all personal sin throughout her life.”
Protestants dissent. But all Christians unite on Jesus’ sinlessness, which is taught in four of the New Testament books:
— “For our sake he [God] made him [Jesus Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
— “We have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
— “He committed no sin” (1 Peter 2:22).
— “In him there is no sin” (1 John 3:5).
If Jesus did not sin, was it impossible in theory that he ever could? This concept of “impeccability” is defended for The Gospel Coalition by theologian D. Blair Smith of Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte. Why? Jesus “is the eternal Son of God who assumed a human nature” with his divine nature “united without division or confusion within one person.” Though fully human, sin is “impossible for the Holy One of God.”
If so, wasn’t his human nature less than complete? Smith answers that though we all sin after the Fall, this is not “essential to our humanity” as God created it, and “the Christian’s eternal hope is to live sinlessly” with a glorified human nature. “While the Son’s first step was to become like us, it was in order to make us like him.”
Smith says it’s “comforting” to know Jesus “shares our humanity completely” and “walked a similar path to ours,” including “his experience of human temptation.” As our Savior, “he can relate to the weakness of our condition from the inside” and “our ability to be tempted by sin,” yet show that it can be overcome.
Then there’s the ruckus over a Good Friday article posted by the leading evangelical magazine Christianity Today, written by Bible scholars Nijay Gupta of Northern Seminary and A.J. Swoboda of Bushnell University, co-author of the new book “After Doubt: How to Question Your Faith Without Losing It.” Seeking to be pastoral and sympathetic, they propose that Jesus himself experienced “doubt” and because he was sinless this means we can be assured our doubt is not sinful.
They write that “Jesus was born into the fullness of humanity” with “the complete mortal experience, . . . and doubt he did.” When tempted by the Devil in the wilderness he “comes face to face with doubts about his identity” but does not give in. Before the crucifixion he says “may this cup be taken from me” and yet “not as I will but as You will,” which the writers think “is not faith replacing doubt; it is faith moving forward in spite of doubt.” Crying on the cross “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus “steeped himself in all our doubts and questions” but showed “how to trust God in faith and doubt.”
Those disagreeing with this approach included Madison Pierce of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Brandon Smith of Cedarville University, writing jointly for a Christianity Today blog. Among other things, they contend that Jesus’ saying on the cross was “not a last-ditch hope of a doubting sufferer, but rather a cry driven by faith — even assuredness — that he would be answered.” Yes, they say, Jesus’ full humanity brought “weaknesses and frailty” but sinlessness means “to glorify God unfailingly and without hesitation.”
Replying to hundreds of such complaints, Gupta admits “doubt” is an ambiguous word and that Jesus never doubted if that means “distrust” or “unbelief.” But he says it applies if simply by being human a person sinlessly experiences uncertainty, reluctance, hesitancy, restlessness, inner turmoil or rejected temptations.
But then, skeptics insist, the New Testament is confused about this. So contends Paul Carlson in “New Testament Contradictions,” a standard online resource for atheists. Catholic writer Dave Armstrong responded to this and Carlson’s 50 other challenges in a Patheos.com article of interest at www.patheos.com/blogs/davearmstrong/2021/04/refutation-of-atheist-paul-carlsons-51-bible-contradictions.html/.
Carlson contends that “Jesus did not consider himself sinless” because he said “why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” (Mark 10:18, paralleled in Luke 18:19). Armstrong explains that Jesus here uses a typical “rhetorical retort” to emphasize God’s unique goodness, knowing that this questioner did not believe Jesus himself was God (which Jesus asserted in many other instances).
Carlson’s other point says John the Baptist baptized “for repentance” (Matthew 3:11), so why baptize Jesus if he was “supposedly” sinless with nothing to repent of? John himself wondered about this and thought Jesus needed no baptism. The common answer is that Jesus was setting the example that his followers would be baptized to join his church. And so they have.
CONTINUE READING: “Was Jesus sinless? Did he doubt? Does it matter?”, by Richard Ostling at Patheos.