Christ’s sinlessness is vital to the biblical understanding of redemption
Written by R.C. Sproul | Tuesday, December 15, 2015
“If Jesus is to be our mediator, if He is to be our redeemer, it’s essential that He be sinless. How could His atoning life have any significance if He committed even one sin? He’s called the lamb without blemish because His perfection is integral to His redemptive role as the mediator.”
Over the past two centuries, much has been written in evangelical circles on the deity of Christ. This has been good and necessary, for many people deny that Jesus is the Son of God incarnate. Sometimes I fear, however, that this emphasis on Christ’s deity has led to an imbalance in our doctrine of Christ. It’s proper to highlight our Lord’s deity, but Scripture also emphasizes His humanity. If Jesus were only God and not truly man, He could not save us. His humanity is inseparable from His being the second Adam, fulfilling all righteousness, and taking upon Himself all the obligations of God’s law that must be fulfilled for us to receive life eternal (Lev. 18:5; Rom. 2:13).
The New Testament proclaims Jesus Christ as vera homo, truly human, as well as vera Deus, truly God. References to Jesus’ true humanity abound. John numbers those who deny a real incarnation with the antichrist (2 John 1:7). Paul speaks of Christ as “born of a woman” (1 Cor. 11:12; Gal. 4:4). The Gospels reveal Christ as having the basic characteristics of humanity. He walks, He talks, He becomes tired, He eats, He drinks, He cries, He manifests every human emotion and every dimension of the physical aspect of mankind (see, for example, Matt. 8:24; Luke 7:34; John 11:35). There’s a full identification of Jesus with humanity—except with respect to one vital distinction: the moral distinction. Christ perfectly obeys the Father; we don’t.
Christ’s sinlessness is vital to the biblical understanding of redemption. If Jesus is to be our mediator, if He is to be our redeemer, it’s essential that He be sinless. How could His atoning life have any significance if He committed even one sin? He’s called the lamb without blemish because His perfection is integral to His redemptive role as the mediator who offers up a perfect sacrifice to the Father to fulfill the old covenant and satisfy the wrath of God. The sinlessness of Jesus is critical to the full biblical understanding of His sacrificial death. Not only does Christ take what should be ours—namely, punishment for sin—but through imputation He gives to those who are in Him by faith alone the inheritance He receives for His perfect obedience (Rom. 3:21–26).
Some have denied the sinlessness of Christ in the name of protecting His humanity. If there’s anything that binds us together in common humanity, if there’s anything true of all men of all races and creeds, it’s that we fall short of our standards. We transgress our own laws, not to mention the laws of God. I don’t know anything more common to humanity than sin. If one man in this world today lived ten minutes in perfect obedience to God, that would be nothing less than astonishing. But Christ’s entire life was marked by sinlessness (1 Peter 2:22). So, how could a sinless Christ be truly human if sinlessness violates what is so common to human behavior?
What we’re really asking is this: Is sinfulness intrinsic to true humanity? We can answer only in the negative. To say that sinfulness is intrinsic to authentic humanity requires two conclusions: first, that Adam before the fall was not a human being; second, and more seriously, that Christians in a state of perfected glory in heaven will no longer be human.
Everything Scripture says about human beings and sin suggests that men and women, as originally created, were without sin but were nevertheless truly human. Moreover, the Bible teaches that when we are glorified, we will be without sin but yet truly human. Sin isn’t a necessary attribute of true humanity; it’s a foreign intrusion into humanity as created by God. To affirm that sin is intrinsic to our humanity denies the true humanity both of our origins and of our destiny.
Christ’s sinlessness is vindicated most powerfully in His resurrection. The penalty of sin, biblically speaking, is death (Gen. 2:15–17; Rom. 6:23). But it was impossible for death to hold Him (Acts 2:24). Why? Since Jesus was guilty of no personal sin, death had no rightful claim over Him. He bore our sin and guilt, and that is why He died; but once our debt of sin was canceled, there was nothing left to keep Him buried (Col. 2:13–15). Jesus, being perfectly righteous, had to be raised, for it would have been unjust for God to allow a sinless man to rot in the grave. Christ was raised for our justification, resurrected to prove that He fully satisfied God’s demands on behalf of His people (Rom. 4:25).
When we confess the sinlessness of Jesus, we are not confessing merely that Jesus is a good man, nor a very good man, nor the best man who has ever lived. We are confessing that Jesus is the perfect man. There’s a significant difference between the good, the better, the best, and the perfect. It amazes me that many people will say that Jesus is a good man but not that He is the perfect man. But how can Jesus be a good man if He has falsely claimed to be a perfect man? Only a bad man would claim to be perfect if he was not perfect. To be equal with the Father, to be sent from God, to be the Savior of the world—a good man would not claim such things of himself if they were not true. Jesus can’t be merely a good man. He is either the perfect man or He’s not a good man.
Christ is not only truly human—He is perfectly human. Only He has fulfilled the vocation of human beings to love the Lord above all else. That makes Him the most human person who has ever lived, because only He has done what human beings were made to do.
This article previously appeared on Ligonier.org.