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? 


Reformed Apologist said...

Guy Davies said...

Helpful article, thanks for the link