Monday, May 23, 2022

Confessing the Son's impeccability

In an earlier post I argued, 'No, Jesus could not have sinned, but he was tempted'. The Second London Baptist Confession of Faith does not explicitly rule on whether Jesus could have sinned. Although it clearly states that he did not, 'The Son of God... [took] upon Him man's nature, with all the essential properties and common infirmities of it, yet without sin'. (2LBC 8:2). But there are resources in the confession that help to throw light on the matter and point in the direction that the incarnate Son of God could not have sinned. See Chapter 8 of the 2LBC: 'Of Christ the Mediator'.

The confession acts as an aid to theological reflection by erecting a fence around the mysteries of the gospel, lest we stray out of bounds. Its teaching will help us think through whether Jesus could have sinned in the light of classic orthodox Christology. The Puritans who drew up the Westminster Confession of Faith and its offspring the Savoy Declaration and Second London Baptist Confession were not reckless revisionists. They were Reformed Catholics, who happily confessed the truths laid down in earlier creedal documents such as the Nicaean Creed and the Chalcedonian Definition. 

The Doctrinal Basis of the FIEC doesn't help us either way. It simply says, 'The Lord Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of a virgin, and lived a sinless life in obedience to the Father.' (4. The Lord Jesus Christ). Traces of Nicaea and Chalcedon can be detected in the wider statement, but they are much more faint than in the 2LBC. 

Clear echoes of Nicaea may be heard in the language the 2LBC uses to describe our Lord. He is God's 'only begotten Son' (8:1), 'the second person in the Holy Trinity, being very and eternal God, the brightness of the Father's glory, of one substance and equal with Him who made the world' (8:2). The confession's account of the hypostatic union is thoroughly Chalcedonian, 'so that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures [divine and human] were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion; which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ, the only mediator between God and man.' (8:2). 

The doctrine of 'communion of attributes' is clearly spelled out, 'Christ, in the work of mediation, acts according to both natures, by each nature doing that which is proper to itself; yet by reason of the unity of the person, that which is proper to one nature is sometimes in Scripture, attributed to the person denominated by the other nature.' (8:7). This helps to explain statements in Scripture which seem to suggest that the divine Son suffered and died for his people: 'crucified the Lord of glory' (2 Corinthians 2:8), 'the Son of God loved me and gave himself for me' (Galatians 2:20). Those things clearly happened to Jesus' as man, but we do not say that his human nature died for us, but the person of the Son gave himself to the cross in the mode of his human nature. 

What do these statements have to say to the question of whether or not Jesus could have sinned? Quite a lot. For Christ to have sinned his human nature would have needed to unhitch itself from the divine person of the Son, who cannot be party to sin, Hebrews 1:8-9. The confession rules that out by saying the two distinct natures 'were inseparably joined together in one person' (8:2). The communion of attributes also comes into play by underlining that all actions of the incarnate Son, according to both his  divine and human natures were actions of the person of the Son of God in whom they were united. That means any sin committed by Jesus' human nature would necessarily have been the sin of the Son of God, which is unthinkable. Christ could not have sinned by reason of his human nature's unbreakable union with his divine person. 

Paragraph 3 is also relevant, which I quote in full:

The Lord Jesus, in His human nature thus united to the divine, in the person of the Son, was sanctified and anointed with the Holy Spirit above measure, having in Him all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge; in whom it pleased the Father that all fullness should dwell, to the end that being holy, harmless, undefiled, and full of grace and truth, He might be thoroughly furnished to execute the office of mediator and surety; which office He took not upon himself, but was thereunto called by His Father; who also put all power and judgement in His hand, and gave Him commandment to execute the same.

Here attention is given to the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus' human nature. The Spirit is given him 'above measure... to the end that being holy, harmless, undefiled, and full of grace and truth, He might be thoroughly furnished to execute the office of mediator and surety'. The Spirit's task was to fit Jesus to accomplish the work of redemption. Had Jesus sinned he would have disqualified himself from the office of mediator and surety. It was impossible that the Spirit should have failed in his work. It was impossible therefore for Jesus to sin. The Spirit-anointed Son finished the work the Father gave him to accomplish. 

The Lord Jesus, by His perfect obedience and sacrifice of Himself, which He through the eternal Spirit once offered up to God, has fully satisfied the justice of God, procured reconciliation, and purchased an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for all those whom the Father has given unto Him. (8:5) 

That the our Particular Baptist forefathers were Reformed Catholics is seen in the distinctively Reformed flavour of their treatment of Christ the Mediator. His work is placed in the context of the covenant of redemption, a hallmark of seventeenth century Orthodox Reformed theology,

It pleased God, in His eternal purpose, to choose and ordain the Lord Jesus, His only begotten Son, according to the covenant made between them both, to be the mediator between God and man (8:1)

Taking a lead from John Calvin, Christ's saving work is set out in terms of his biblically assigned offices of prophet, priest and king. Contra Rome, no other mediator between God and man is recognised.  

This office of mediator between God and man is proper only to Christ, who is the prophet, priest, and king of the church of God; and may not be either in whole, or any part thereof, transferred from Him to any other. (8:9) 

They were not called 'Particular Baptists' for nothing: Christ's atoning work procured reconciliation 'for all those whom the Father had given him' (8:5). The benefit of his redeeming work is 'communicated to the elect in all ages' (8:6). 

Had Christ sinned the covenant of redemption between the persons of the Trinity would have been broken. The Lord will have failed in his work as mediator and surety of the covenant. Jesus the priest would need atonement for his own sin. The prophet of our God will have proven false. Christ the king will have been defeated. The Father also will have failed to uphold his incarnate Son by the power of the Spirit. Due to inseparable operations a failure of one person of the Trinity would necessarily involve the other two, which is unthinkable. With that in mind we have to say that the Son simply could not have failed to accomplish the work of redemption. In other words, it was impossible for him to sin.

Although there are differences of emphasis, the Second London Baptist Confession is in agreement with the Westminster Confession and Savoy Declaration on these main points, see here. It is unsettling, then to find that no less a 'Westminster man' than Charles Hodge arguing, 
This sinlessness of our Lord, however, does not amount to absolute impeccability. It was not a non potest peccare [not possible to sin]. If He was a true man He must have been capable of sinning. Systematic Theology: The Complete Three Volumes, Kindle Edition, location 20205. 

Of course,  Hodge makes it clear that Jesus did not in fact sin, but he goes on to say,

Temptation implies the possibility of sin. If from the constitution of his person it was impossible for Christ to sin, then his temptation was unreal and without effect, and He cannot sympathize with his people. (Systematic Theology, location 20205-20212). 

But later the Princeton divine states,

All Christ’s acts and sufferings in the execution of his mediatorial work were, therefore, the acts and sufferings of a divine person. (Systematic Theology, location 20232). 

Quite how that chimes with it being necessary for Jesus to be able to sin for him to face temptation I am at a loss to explain. I guess that 'even Homer sometimes nods' and great theologians don't always perceive the inconsistency of their arguments. 

But  why is this matter even important? Advocates of the view that Jesus could have sinned insist that in reality he did not. Supporters of the impeccability of Christ argue that the doctrine does not imply that his temptations were a sham. Very good. But it is important because admitting the possibility that Jesus could have sinned plays havoc with orthodox Christology. The union between the person of the Son and his human nature is rendered uncertain, rather than unbreakable. Due to the inseparable operations of the Trinity, a failure of the incarnate Son would have constituted a failure of the Father and Holy Spirit too. To be consistent Hodge and those who argue like him would have to say,
All Christ’s acts, sufferings [and any possible sins committed] in the execution of his mediatorial work were, therefore, the acts, sufferings [and sins] of a divine person. 

 You see the problem? 

Friday, May 20, 2022

No, Jesus could not have sinned, but he was genuinely tempted

Contrary to what John Stevens said in his tweet, I believe that Jesus was impeccable. Not only was he without sin, it was impossible for him to sin. Yet I also insist that Christ was not impervious to temptation. He 'suffered, when tempted' (Hebrews 2:18), experiencing the full force of Satan's attacks. How can both those points be true? 

1. The incarnate Son was a divine person with a human nature 

At the incarnation the Son of God took a human nature into union with himself. That personal union is unbreakable. For Jesus to have sinned his human nature would have needed to be able to detach itself from the person of the Son, for the Son as God cannot be party to sin.

The human nature of Jesus cannot act independently of the Son, for it is his human nature. Speaking abstractly, Christ's human nature is impersonal. It his no personhood of its own. But speaking concretely of the incarnate Christ, his human nature was in-personal. It existed in union with the person of the Son from the moment of its conception by the Holy Spirit in Mary's womb.  With that in mind we do not say that the human nature of the Son died for our  sins, but that the Son of God died for us in the mode of his human nature.

That is why Christ cannot sin according to either nature; divine or human. The two natures are united in the person of the Son. To say otherwise and suggest that the human nature could act independently smacks of Nestorianism, the idea that the incarnate Son was an alliance of two persons, divine and human, rather than a divine person with a human nature. 

Donald Macleod cites W. G. T. Shedd to this end, saying, 'When the Logos goes into union with a human nature, so as to constitute a single person with it, he becomes responsible for all that this person does through the instrumentality of this nature... Should Jesus Christ sin, the incarnate God would sin.' (The Person of Christ, IVP, 1988, p. 230). Similarly, Oliver Crisp spells out the logical implication of holding that while Christ was sinless, he could have sinned, 'In short, if Christ really could have sinned - but did not - then he must have been able to choose to sin as the God-Man. (God Incarnate: Explorations in Christology, T&T Clark, 2009, p. 134). 

2. The Father promised the incarnate Son the help of the Holy Spirit 

Jesus was conceived in the virgin's womb by the power of the Spirit so that the nature he assumed might be fully human and yet without sin, Luke 1:35. Also, the Father promised his Son the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit to enable him to accomplish the work of redemption, Isaiah 42:1, 61:1, Luke 3:21-22. The Holy Spirit empowered Jesus to live in obedience to the Father's will, that he might offer himself without blemish to God, Heb 9:13-14. 

It is inconceivable that Jesus could have sinned, as that would have constituted a massive failure in the work of the Spirit of God whom Christ received without measure from the Father. Not only the indissoluble union of Son to his human nature, but also the inseparable operations of the Trinity stand against the idea that Jesus could have sinned.

3. What the Son could not do as God he could do as man, but not sin

The incarnate Son did many things that God in himself could not do. That is the point of the incarnation. For human beings to be saved it was necessary for the Son to become man to suffer and die in our place. It fully consistent with God's character for the Son to become man to redeem us by his blood. Indeed, the cross is the great revelation of God's justice and love, Romans 3:25-26, 5:8. But it would have been inconsistent with God's character had Jesus sinned. God is love, but he also light and in him there is no darkness at all, 1 John 1:5. Again, Donald Macleod this time in his own words, 

We may link the subject 'God' with many predicates. The Son of God may suffer, be tempted, may be ignorant and may even die. But we cannot link God with the predicate 'sin'. God cannot in any situation or for any purpose commit a transgression of his own will. He absolutely cannot be guilty of lawlessness. (The Person of Christ, p. 230). 

4. The the incarnate Son needed no capacity to sin to be truly human 

In the original article tweeted by Stevens, Matthew Corey asks, "What kind of humanity is Jesus redeeming if there is no capacity for sin?" (Unionized Perfection). This assumes that having a capacity to sin is a mark of authentic humanity. Presumably resurrected and glorified humanity will be incapable of sinning. That does not mean that in saving us God rescues us from being human, rather than redeeming humanity from its fallen state.  As Robert Letham points out,
If the quintessence of being human is found in heaven and consists., among other things, in freedom from the possibility of sinning, it follows that impeccability itself does not undermine the humanity of Christ in his state of incarnate weakness prior to the resurrection. (Systematic Theology, Crossway, 2019, p. 525)
Jesus was the 'Word made flesh' (John 1:14). He came, said Paul 'in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin' (Romans 8:3). The flesh he assumed was weak and mortal like ours, but it was the flesh of the Son of God and so was incapable of sinning for the reasons already given. Corey questions, 'If Jesus has no capacity for sin how was able to “become sin for us” (2 Cor 5:21).' But this it a category mistake. Paul was not saying that Jesus  "became capable of sinning for us" by virtue of his incarnation. Rather, he 'who knew no sin' bore the judicial penalty of sin on behalf of his people that 'so that in him we might become the righteousness of God'. Similarly in Romans 8:3, driving idea is the judicial condemnation of sin in Christ's flesh, not that he had a capacity for sin, 'by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he [God] condemned sin in the flesh'. 

Robert Letham concludes his discussion of whether it possible for Jesus to sin saying,  'that since a sinful condition is not essential to human nature, the argument that impeccability undermines the reality of Christ's humanity and the genuineness of his temptations fails.' (Systematic Theology, p. 526). 

5. The incarnate Son was impeccable, but not impervious to temptation

The incarnate Son was impeccable from the moment of his conception. But that does not mean he was impervious to temptation, Luke 4:1-13, Hebrews 2:18. Adam was so made that it was possible for him not to sin, but he did sin. For Jesus it was not possible to sin, but that does not mean his temptations were like water off a duck's back. We do not find him resisting the devil by saying, 'You must be joking, I'm the Son of God and therefore impeccable, don't you know?' 

Jesus 'suffered when tempted' (Hebrews 2:18), combatting the evil one by wielding the sword of the Spirit (Matthew 4:4). While Satan sought to tempt Christ by appealing to his unique divine identity, 'if you are the Son of God...' (Matthew 4:3, 5), Jesus responded as one who had 'taken the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men' saying, 'Man shall not live by bread alone...', (Matthew 4:4). The incarnate Son 'learned obedience through what he suffered' (Hebrews 5:8) in the arena of temptation. Satan did did his worst, but 'full of the Holy Spirit' (Luke 4:1), and in humble dependence on the Father, Jesus vanquished the foe. As Hebrews insists, in Jesus our great High Priest we have 'one who was tempted in all points as we are, yet without sin'. (Hebrews 4:15). Kevin Vanhoozer reflects,

There is no necessary contradiction between Jesus being "open" to temptation and the certainty of never sinning. The temptation was no sham, for it is precisely because Jesus resisted temptation that he could "feel" its full force. He was impeccable yet subject to real temptation in the way that an invincible army is subject to real attack. (Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship, Cambridge University Press, 2010, p. 432. 

Could Jesus have sinned? No, but 'because he has himself suffered when tempted, he is able help those who are tempted.' (Hebrews 2:18). 

Monday, May 09, 2022

Ten Points on Reformed Baptist Federal Theology

1. God made a covenant of life with Adam, whom he appointed federal head of all humanity. This was a covenant of works, under which if Adam obeyed the Lord he and all in him would live for ever and enter God's Sabbath rest. If Adam disobeyed, he and all in him would die under God's judgement. (Gen 2-3, Rom 5:12-21, 2LBC 7:1).

2. God made a covenant of grace with his elect people, who were chosen in Christ for salvation before the foundation of the world and redeemed by his blood in the fullness of time. The covenant of grace is made effective by the power of the Spirit, (Ephesians 1:3-14).

3. The Abrahamic, Mosaic and Davidic covenants were not administrations of the covenant of grace. They were 'covenants of promise' (Ephesians 2:12) in which the covenant of grace was progressively revealed 'until the full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament' (2LBC 7:3).

4. The old covenant (the collective name for the Abrahamic, Mosaic and Davidic covenants) was not a republication of the covenant of works. The law 'was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made'. (Galatians 3:19). The law also served as a rule of life for Israel, setting out their covenant obligations to the Lord. In her idolatrous disobedience Israel broke the covenant and brought upon herself its terrible curses, Leviticus 26:14-39. Unlike the covenant of works with Adam, for Israel there was a way back to God from the dark paths of sin, Leviticus 26:40-45. The Lord's deliverance of his people from captivity was typical of the greater exodus accomplished by the redeeming work of Christ (Jeremiah 23:7-8, Luke 9:31, Colossians 1:12-14).

5. Abraham was the federal head of the Abrahamic covenant in whom blessing was received (Genesis 12:2-3, 17:1-8). Moses was the mediator of the Sinai covenant (Exodus 20:18-21, 33:12-17), of which David and his royal line served as federal heads. As went the king, so went the people for good or ill, (1 Kings 9:4-9).

6. While the old covenant foreshadowed the covenant of grace, it was only in the new covenant that the covenant of grace was fully enacted. (Jeremiah 31:31-34, Colossians 2:16-17, Hebrews 8, 9:15-22). Christ is both mediator and federal head of the new covenant, (1 Timothy 2:5-6, Romans 5:12-21).

7. During the Old Testament period people were saved by faith in the Christ who was yet to appear as mediator of a new and better covenant. (Hebrews 8:6, 9:15). Under the new covenant people are saved by faith in Christ who has come and accomplished the work of our redemption (Galatians 2:16, Ephesians 2:8).

8. The old covenant was with Abraham and his offspring, which is why all males descended from the patriarch were circumcised. But not all who belonged to Israel through descent from Abraham and circumcision believed and were saved (Romans 9:6, 27). Only a godly remnant knew 'circumcision of the heart' of which circumcision in the flesh was a sign (Deuteronomy 30:6, Romans 2:28-29).

9. As the historical enactment of the covenant of grace the new covenant is between God and the elect in Christ. The law is written on the hearts all new covenant people of God by the Spirit of Christ (Jeremiah 31:33, 2 Corinthians 3:3). All who believe in Jesus belong to the Israel of God, whether Jew or Gentile. Baptism is the sign that believers have been savingly united to Christ by the Spirit. (Galatians 3:27-29, 6:16). That is why according to the New Testament baptism invariably follows repentance and faith, and is linked to church membership. (Acts 2:38-39, 41-42).

10. As federal head of the new covenant, Jesus takes us not back to the beginning, but to the end of the road that Adam had to walk. (Herman Bavinck). In fact, we receive more in Christ than we ever would have had in Adam. For the riches of God's grace and the depths of his glory are  fully revealed only in Jesus, the last Adam, Romans 5:21, 1 Corinthians 15:42-49, Ephesians 1:7-10, Colossians 1:27. 

Wednesday, May 04, 2022

Banner of Truth Minsiters' Conference 2022

I first attended the Banner of Truth Ministers' Conference as a student at the London Seminary from 1988-90. The academic year began in October, so I guess my first conference must have been April 1989. Back then I was young enough to attend the Youth Conference over the weekend and then stay on for the Ministers' event from Monday to Thursday. 

The conference used to be held on the campus of Leicester University. There was something special about 'Banner' in the 1990s and early 2000s. Some of the speakers were marvellously helped and the presence of God seemed near. Al Martin with his 'fire & fury' awakened us. Stuart Olyott pointedly called us to ministerial zeal and faithfulness. One year Sinclair Ferguson gave three addresses on sanctification. Outstanding examples of theology on fire, practically applied. Plus, Ted Donnelley at the height of his powers spoke on the temptation of Jesus. Donnelley's ministry was characterised by the exegetical insight of a biblical scholar, wedded to the pathos of a pastor's heart. Then there were gripping biographical papers by Iain Murray on the likes of Archibald Brown and Geoff Thomas on Howell Harris. There were giants in those days. At least that's how it seemed to me. 

The pandemic put paid to the 2020 & 21 Banner Ministers' Conferences, so it was good to be back in Yarnfield Park Conference Centre, Staffordshire for the 2022 event. I enjoyed catching up with old friends, many of whom I hadn't seen since 2019. Nice to bump into some new people from the UK and beyond too. The programme of speakers and subjects can be found here. I was especially helped by Conrad Mbewe's (featured above) three addresses on 1 John 1, exploring various aspects of communion with God. Robert McCollum Jr preached on what Jesus walking on water (Mark 6:45-52) has to teach us about communion with God exemplified and experienced. Those were the highlights for me. 

I didn't buy any books this year, but that doesn't mean I returned home without anything to read. The confessional Baptist publisher Broken Warfe  had several titles on display in the exhibition room, including the ones pictured below, by Samuel D. Renihan. Both books had been on my 'wish list' for a while and I was grateful for the freebie review copies.   

Sunday, May 01, 2022

Growing old gracefully

No, this is not an autobiographical article. It was prompted by reading a thoughtful piece in the Sunday Times the other weekJeremy Clarkson on growing old and his fear of death. He's 'only' 62, which is older than me, but not exactly what you might call geriatric. That’s not how it seems for Clarkson, though. He is definitely feeling his age. And then some. The writer laments the effects of the passing of time. Knees need replacing and ears boosting with hearing aids. Eyes grow dim and you can’t remember where you put your spectacles. ‘We are all dead men walking’, he laments. Faced with increasing weakness of body and mind, the writer is not cheered with the hope that at death he will be going to a better place, “I know I’m going to be in a hole where I shall rot. And I shall be there for ever”. More a case of growing old grumpily than gracefully.

Jeremy Clarkson has had a hugely successful career as a TV presenter, journalist and author. Millions tuned in to watch him, Richard Hammond and James May on BBC’s Top Gear, before the team made the move to Grand Tour on Amazon Prime. The presenter’s Clarkson’s Farm was also a big hit, with Season 2 in the offing. Most weeks Clarkson has not one, but two columns in the Sunday Times. Yet his movingly honest reflections on the ravages of time put me in mind of a sobering passage in the Bible's book of Ecclesiastes. With unblinking realism the author reviews his many life achievements and concludes, “I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.

Clarkson is grappling with the fact that death deprives us of our achievements and stops us fulfilling our dreams. But is nothing left when we reach the autumn of our days than to rage against the dying of the light? The Christian faith puts a different perspective on things. Paul writes, “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.” The believer’s inner life is being rejuvenated by the power of God’s grace, even as their bodies are wearing out with age. The Christian has hope in the face of death, that although their bodies will rot in a hole, their spirits will be present with the Lord in heaven. Beyond that, we look for the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come. By the grace of God it is possible to grow old gracefully, with hearts full of hope rather than despair.  

*For the May edition of various local parish magazines