The Sinlessness of Jesus

How Could Jesus, Born of a Sinful Woman, Be Sinless?

By James Harper D.D., L.L.D. (Formerly) Xenia Theological Seminary


There are two things assumed in this question, namely that Christ was sinless and that he was born of a sinful woman. It may be proper to present some explanation of both of these positions before proceeding to explain how Christ could, in the circumstances, be sinless.

That Christ was in himself absolutely untainted by sin and perfectly holy is clearly taught in Scripture. For explicit proof the following texts are adequate, Luke 1:35; Jno. 8:29, 55; 15:10, 25; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15; 7:26, 27; 1 Pet. 2:22; 1 Jno. 3:5.

In addition to this direct evidence it may be mentioned, as powerful collateral proof, that our Lord, lowly and humble though he was, never, during his sojourn in the world, acknowledged himself to be mistaken, or at fault, in any particular. He offered thanks to God, but never confession of sin. In no spirit of boastfulness, but in the calm consciousness of his perfect integrity and purity, did he give the challenge to his unscrupulous foes; “which of you convicteth me of sin?” (Jno. 8:46); and declare “He that sent me is with me, for I do always those things that please Him” (Jno. 8:29).

It may on the other hand be objected that in the Psalms which embody a forecast of his sentiments and feelings when he appeared among men, or which rather present him to us in the very act of uttering his inmost thoughts and emotions, he does confess and bewail his sins. Thus in Ps. 31:10, it is he who says, “My strength faileth because of mine iniquity,” and in Ps. 40:12 it is he who exclaims, “For innumerable evils have compassed me about; mine iniquities have taken hold upon me, so that I am not able to look up; they are more than the hairs of mine head; therefore mine heart faileth me”; while in Ps. 69:5 he cries, “O God, thou knowest my foolishness, and my sins are not hid from thee.”

In reply to this objection it may be said that in these psalms as well as in others he claims to be in perfect accord with God. See Ps. 31:5, 6; 40:7–10; 41:12; 69:4, 7–9; 109:3–5.

This seeming contradiction is proved to be only seeming when it is considered that sin was judicially charged, or imputed, to Christ. Viewing himself in the light of that fact, he might speak of his “sins.” They were his as to their guilt, but not as to their pollution; his to be answered for in our room, not his to be purged out of him; his by legal imputation, not his by infusion. The apparent contradictions of Scripture touching the character of Christ are resolved into a beautiful harmony by the consideration of the fact that, while in himself sinless, the guilt of a vast multitude was legally charged to him. The entire company of the saved can say, “The Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all”; “He hath made him to be sin for us who knew no sin.”

The other assumption in our question is that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a sinful woman. When we say that she was a “sinful” woman, we do not mean that she was an ungodly woman, but merely that she was a sharer in original sin, and that, although justified and in a large degree sanctified, she was still deficient in holiness; a saintly woman, indeed, yet not perfectly purified before the date of her death. We reject the Roman Catholic dogma of “The Immaculate Conception” of Mary, while gladly recognizing her as a holy and highly honored woman.

Thus we come round to the question proposed for discussion, “How could Jesus, born of a sinful, or imperfectly sanctified, woman, be sinless?” It seems appropriate at this stage to state that our belief in the fact of the perfect holiness of Christ’s human nature does not rest on our ability to explain how it could be so. We may believe a thing to be true, although unable to account for it. In the natural world there are many recognized facts which are inexplicable. Not otherwise is it in the religious sphere. Keeping in mind this caution, let us address ourselves to the solution of the problem which has been stated.

1. The human nature of Christ did not incur guilt and corruption from Adam because not represented by him. Our view on this point is expressed in the precise and cautious statement of the Shorter Catechism, “The covenant being made with Adam, not only for himself, but for his posterity, all mankind descending from him by ordinary generation sinned in him and fell with him in his first transgression.” But Christ did not descend from Adam by ordinary generation. The rule, or method, of ordinary generation is that every child born shall have two parents, a father and a mother. Dual human parentage is the ordinary condition of human childhood. Human childhood with single human parentage is supernatural, that is, miraculous. And such was the childhood of Christ. He had a human mother, but no human father. This is made abundantly clear in Matt. 1:18–25 and Luke 1:35 and seems to be hinted in the expression “made” (or born) “of a woman” which occurs in Gal. 4:4. On solid grounds, therefore, we hold, notwithstanding the learned rubbish advanced by Schleiermacher, Harnack, and others to the contrary, that Jesus of Nazareth, while descended from. Adam, did not proceed from him “by ordinary generation.”

The peculiar expression, moreover, addresed by Gabriel to Mary (Luke 1:35), “That holy thing which shall be born of thee,” or, as the Revisers put it, “That which is to be born shall be called holy, the Son of God,” or as it is in the American revision, “Wherefore also the holy thing which is begotten shall be called the Son of God” seems to suggest that Mary was to give birth not to a human person, but to a human nature. This tallies with the general teaching of Scripture that even after the incarnation, Christ was not bipersonal, but unipersonal. Adam, a person himself, represented persons. But Christ as to his human nature was not a person. Therefore Adam did not represent him. The human nature of Christ, therefore, was exempt from the guilt and pollution entailed from Adam upon his natural descendants.

This conclusion may be reached also in another way. There is no satisfactory ground for believing that the incarnation of the Son of God would have occurred but for the fall of man and God’s purpose of mercy toward men. I am aware that it was a favorite doctrine with Schleiermacher, in which he has many followers, that the Son of God would have become man, even if the fall had not occurred. But the doctrine is at variance with the plain teaching of the Bible. See in opposition to it, Gal. 4:4–5; Jno. 3:16, 17; Heb. 2:14–18; 10:5–7; 1 Pet. 1:20; 1 Jno. 3:8; 4:9, 10, 14. The occasion of the incarnation was not the creation, but the fall, of man. That is to say that had man not fallen, the Son of God would not have appeared in the flesh. But all for whom Adam stood as covenant head, or representative, must come into the world whether he stood or fell. The justice and the truth of God demanded this on the supposition that Adam broke the covenant and incurred the curse for himself and for all whom he represented. If Adam had kept the covenant, the goodness of God, as well as his veracity and justice, would have demanded that all for whom Adam had stood sponsor should come into being and receive the good to which they were entitled through his covenant-keeping. If Adam had represented Christ, then the latter must have come in the flesh whether the former stood or fell. But we have just seen that had not man fallen, Christ would not have come in the flesh. Therefore Adam did not in the covenant of works represent Christ. But if he did not represent Christ, the latter did not inherit from Adam guilt and moral impurity.

But the question may still recur, “If Christ was born of a mother who was not sinless, how could he escape the contamination of sin? Would not the virus of sin descend from mother to child, for ‘who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean?’ “We might answer by saying that, as Jesus had but one human parent, the law of heredity, as we see it operating through two human parents, a father and mother, did not apply to him. But a better answer in our opinion is this, that from Mary Jesus derived his body, not his soul; that the matter of which his infant body was composed proceeded from her, but that the soul with which it was joined in a vital union was directly from God. This solution, it is admitted, opens a further and very difficult field of inquiry, that, namely, as to the origin of human souls. Are they procreated, just as is the body, or are they immediately infused by God, or conjoined in vital union with their respective bodies? The former of these views is technically called “Traducianism”; the latter is styled “Creationism.” Grave difficulties attach to either view; but I prefer the latter, impelled in part to the acceptance of it by the apparent impossibility of Christ’s escaping the tincture of sin if he derived his soul, as well as his body, from a mother not free from the defilement of sin. Into the discussion of this abstruse question as to the origin of souls I do not propose to enter further than to say that Traducianism seems to me to involve the doctrine of Materialism and to be forbidden by the contrast indicated in Heb. 12:9 between “fathers of our flesh” and the “Father of spirits.”

But it may be asked, “Would not the difficulty remain, if you admit that the body of Christ proceeded from substance of his mother.” We answer “No.” Mere matter has no moral quality. Viewed in itself, it is out of the sphere of morality. It is true that matter embraced in the composite being called “man” may, while in union with the soul, be spoken of as sinful or as holy; for we are called upon to present our bodies as a living sacrifice to God and are to pray for our sanctification in body, soul and spirit. But matter separate from the soul has no moral quality. Now if the material substance of the virgin, and that alone, was appropriate for the production of the Saviour’s humanity, it had, when detached from her, no moral quality, any more than had the dust of the ground from which Adam was formed; but when in the mysterious process united with the pure soul of Jesus, the complex result could be called “holy.” The material contribution from the substance of the virgin whether at the beginning of his life, or in the subsequent process of nutrition, no more tainted him with sin than did his later participation of food and drink proceeding from the ground cursed for the sin of man.

No one has been more persistent than the late Dr. W. G. Shedd in asserting that the human nature which the Son of God assumed needed both justification and sanctification; in other words, that it was sinful in the instant of assumption and consequently needed both pardon and purification. The language of Dr. Shedd is sometimes vague, or even paradoxical; but it is sufficiently clear that he deemed the nature which Christ took to be tainted with sin and in need both of justification and of sanctification. Thus in his Systematic Theology, Vol. II, p. 81, we read, “He was ‘the seed of the woman,’ and ‘the seed of David.’ As such simply, his human nature was like that of David and of Mary, fallen and sinful. It is denominated ‘sinful flesh’ in Rom. 8:3. It required perfect sanctification before it could be assumed into union with the Second Trinitarian person and it obtained it through the miraculous conception.” Dr. Shedd, in his ardor, fails to show how a miraculous conception could sanctify; and, besides, he is inaccurate in quotation; for in Rom. 8:3 it is not said that God sent his Son in sinful flesh, but only “in the likeness of sinful flesh.”

“The idea of redemption,” says Dr. Shedd, “also includes both justification and sanctification, and it is conceded that that portion of the human nature which the Logos assumed into union with himself was redeemed. His own humanity was ‘the first-fruits’ of his redemptive work. ‘Christ the first-fruits, afterwards they that are Christs.’ 1 Cor. 15:23 * * * So far then as the guilt of Adam’s sin rested upon that unindividualized portion of the common fallen nature of Adam assumed by the Logos, it was expiated by the one sacrifice on Calvary.” Sys. Theol, II, p. 82.

These assertions and speculations may be confronted by two questions: —

First: Why was the birth of Jesus miraculous? What end was to be gained by deviation from the normal order according to which every child born has two human parents? Would not the Saviour have been brought nearer to us by being born of dual human parentage? If the nature assumed was sinful, why was there any deviation from the fixed method of human descent?

Second: If the human nature assumed by the Son of God was sinful, how was it freed from the guilt and pollution of its sin? Was it by the direct and sovereign will of God? If so, how was the justice of Deity satisfied? And why is atonement necessary in order to our salvation? If it be said that the human nature assumed was pardoned and purified on the ground of the prospective atonement of Christ, then it would follow that he redeemed himself. But the view which the Scriptures give of him is that he who redeems us “knew no sin,” was “holy, harmless, and undefiled and separate from sinners”; that “in him was no sin.” That “he was wounded for our transgressions,” not for his own; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 7:26; 1 Jno. 3:5; Is. 53:5.

But, however difficult it may be to account for the entire sinlessness of Christ, though born of a woman not sinless, we must hold with unrelaxing grasp the great principle that our Lord’s human nature was absolutely free from sin. He became sin, it is true, but only by imputation, or as a surety while in himself “he knew no sin.” He became a sin-bearer; but the sin he bore was that of others, not his own.