Here’s an exploration of a theological conundrum that will have occurred to some people (after all, it occurred to me) and perhaps troubled them. If Jesus is truly human, having taken on the “very nature” [morphe] of man (Philippians 2:7), is “like his brothers in every way” (Hebrews 2:17), and was “tempted in every way, just as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15), did he not inherit original sin, and hence incur the penalty of death?
If he did not (one could argue) then he was not like us in every way. And if he did, how can he be counted sinless, and how can his death atone for our sin rather than just his own original sin?
Romans 8:3 says that God sent his own Son “in the likeness of sinful flesh, to be a sin offering.” Now, “likeness” [homoioma] is a fairly non-committal Greek word:
It does not itself imply, still less does it exclude or diminish, the reality of the nature which Christ assumed. (Vine’s Expository Dictionary).
Still, since we know from other Scriptures that the “flesh” he took on was truly human, would it not also have been “truly sinful”?
As far as I can tell, the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary was intended to free Jesus from the suspicion of the taint of original sin, though I’m not clear how it helps to push the miracle back a generation, unless the real aim was to make Mary sinless and quasi-divine. But it shows that others have considered this a problem.
Here’s my thinking. The doctrine of original/inherited sin actually has two components.
The first, more controversial, component is that the whole race is counted as sinning in the first trespass of Adam, and so became subject to death, a teaching that is indeed implied in a careful reading of Romans 5. This seems unfair to us, because it seems entirely unavoidable on our part, and independent of anything we might do individually thousands of years after the event. There are a couple of ways to view it that might be helpful (and no doubt there are more).
The first is a variation of an idea that Josh Swamidass proposed in his book The Genealogical Adam and Eve, whether original to him or derived from elsewhere. He reasons that if the just penalty for sin is death, then the speedy execution of the sentence would preclude the sinner’s bearing any offspring: the death of the sinner logically entails the non-existence of all his or her potential descendants. In the case of Adam, who was warned that “On the day you eat of the fruit, you will surely die,” that progeny is the entire human race. God’s suspension of the immediate death sentence on Adam, then, is also a suspended sentence on us, to be brought to full execution if there is no answer to the problem of sin, or else God would deny his own just warning to Adam and Eve.
But if that still seems a moral problem, a second solution rests on one of my own favourite interpretive themes of biblical theology, that of the first Creation’s evident perishability from the start, as opposed to the New Creation which is eternal, spiritual, and imperishable (1 Corinthians 15:42-50). Adam was taken out of that first, perishable creation, into a garden which was the first manifestation of God’s New Creation (Genesis 2:7-8), intended to be fully achieved through mankind. The abolition of natural death is represented by the tree of life, to which Adam and Eve had free access. God’s intention was that this new spiritual order should spread through Adam’s offspring to the whole world, mankind becoming the co-heirs of all things (see Psalm 8: I deal in detail with Irenaeus’s handling of this fascinating theme in my Generations of Heaven and Earth.)
In the event, as we know, Adam and Eve fell at the first hurdle, this failure occasioning the whole drama of salvation history culminating in Christ, the Second Adam, bringing God’s original purpose to fruition as well as cleaning up te mess of sin and condemning the devil. But that’s another story. Their immediate punishment included being exiled back to the perishable world of the physical Creation, separated from the tree of life (Genesis 3:22). So as a simple matter of fact, unless sin is somehow dealt with, the human race descended from them is subject to natural death. Indeed, Irenaeus’s emphasis is on the metaphor of children born to parents in prison, a result of their parents’ sin rather than their own corruption.
Now, it seems to me that in taking on actual, earthy, human flesh, Jesus also took on the mortality of that flesh, as appears to be implied in Romans 5:3. By taking on a natural human body – which had to be so even to be capable of death on the Cross – Jesus indeed took on the penalty of death for Adam’s sin with the whole of the rest of Adam’s race. But the key point is that although God, he took this on himself voluntarily, as expressed in Philippians 2, together with the other weaknesses of human existence. Moreover, if baptism into Christ by water and Spirit brings us into spiritual union with him, as our physical descent from Adam brought us into union with Adam, then the physical death of Christ frees us from the penalty of physical death. Our actual deaths become no longer a sharing in the penalty of Adam, but an act of willing solidarity with Jesus’s undeserved suffering (Romans 6:6-8).
The second component of original sin, though, is the corruption of every human heart (Romans 3:23). Only the Pelagian heresy denies this, though exactly how it comes to be the case is another matter. Augustine, famously and probably wrongly, proposed inheritance from the act of sexual intercourse leading to procreation. In Generations of Heaven and Earth I speculated on the role of enculturation into families and societies beset by sin: as we learn to speak, so we learn to sin.
Whatever the process, though, our inability to act righteously has the peculiar property of being a voluntary inability. We are compelled by the sinful nature to do what is wrong, and yet each act of evil is a willful choice. This is shown quite clearly by the fact that on many occasions we do resist the temptation to do evil, even before we are redeemed (Romans 2:14). Both religious and civil laws, and natural conscience itself, are often obeyed, and that is sometimes out of fear of consequences, but often out of goodwill. In theory, if we can resist temptation sometimes, we could resist it always – but our problem is that we do not, and neither does anybody else, and so by habitual voluntary sin we form a sinful character, and incur the wrath of God.
Now, God is not tempted by evil (James 1:13), but Jesus was (Hebrews 4:15, Matthew 4:1). This implies that he literally did take on sinful flesh, meaning liability to temptations of the “lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life,” which three are manifested in the wilderness temptations of Jesus. But to be tempted is an affliction, not a sin – and Jesus, unlike us, invariably chose to obey his Father when so afflicted, rather than succumb to temptation. Through his entire life, he remained, by godly choice, sinless, so that he was able to challenge his enemies, “Which of you can convict me of sin?” (John 8:46).
And therefore he was not liable to the judgement of God, and could become what Hebrews 9 describes – an unblemished and perfect offering to God on our behalf. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21), because “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6).
And so we can say that, in the Incarnation, Jesus voluntarily took on himself the hereditary penalty of physical death for Adam’s transgression, without personal guilt, and by giving his life as the progenitor of a new, spiritual, race abolished that penalty for all who believe.
And we can also say that, though the nature Jesus took on was weakened by the sin of the whole human race, by his perfect submission to the will of his Father he withstood every temptation, and thereby became the propitiation and high priest for our own reprehensible sins past, present, and future – again as we are united to him by faith.
To return to the title of this piece, does that mean that in taking on human nature “warts and all” Jesus would have suffered the usual childhood illnesses, cut his thumb when learning to saw wood, or indeed had viral warts and all? I have no idea. There’s no doubt that our state of mind affects our susceptibility to disease, and one comes across the occasional person who claims never to have had a day’s illness in their lives. Jesus certainly had an immune system that would require training by exposure to the pathogens circulating. But actually, I don’t think it matters, once we’ve reached a good understanding on the question of original sin in the life of the Lord.
He took on all our weaknesses, but never succumbed to our failures. That should be enough for us.