Pipe & Pencil (4): Could Jesus have sinned when he was tempted?

Never once, as we observe [Jesus] struggle with temptation, do we see him deriving comfort from the fact of his own impeccability.

Theology is at its best when it takes weighty concepts and makes the connection to Christian life. Consider the debate over Christ’s impeccability. If you’re an eminently practical Christian, jostling over abstractions (Was Jesus not able to sin? -OR- Was Jesus able not to sin?) seems like a huge waste of time. Who cares how you explain it?!? The bottom line is Jesus didn’t sin.

More often than not the problem isn’t that the heavy discussions don’t matter but that we don’t know why they matter. The following passage on Christ’s impeccability is a good example of why seemingly esoteric discussions matter in the day-to-day [emphasis added]:

We may link the subject ‘God’ with many predicates. The Son of God may suffer, may 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.

It does not follow, however, that when Christ was tempted he was always aware, at the human level, that the Tempter could never conquer him. We know that the devil could, on occasion, put a big if against his consciousness of sonship (Mt 4:3). He would have found it equally easy to question his sinlessness. It would certainly be unwise to conclude that at every single point Jesus was in full possession of the whole truth about himself.

It is helpful to recall here Dr. John A. Mackay’s distinction between the view from the balcony and the view from the road. To the angels on the balcony (as to theologians in their armchairs) it may have been perfectly clear that Jesus could never sin. To himself, engaging the devil on the road, the outcome may have been far from clear. Never once, as we observe him struggle with temptation, do we see him deriving comfort from the fact of his own impeccability. All that we see is his having recourse to the very same weapons as are available to ourselves: the company of fellow-believers (Mk 14:33), the word of God (Mt 4:4) and prayer (Mk 14:35).

-Donald Macleod, The Person of Christ, 230.

Pipe & Pencil (3): divine omniscience and human ignorance

How omniscience and ignorance coexist in one person is a mystery beyond my comprehension. And yet the mystery may be a profound comfort.

When God became man he took for himself “a human mind, subject to the same laws of perception, memory, logic and development as our own.” As the Son of God Christ knew all things, but as Son of Man he had to learn  (Luke 2:52; Heb 5:8). Omniscient in his divinity; ignorant in his humanity.

This human ignorance is attested by Christ himself: “But of that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone” (Mk 13:32). How omniscience and ignorance coexist in one person is a mystery beyond my comprehension. And yet the mystery may be a profound comfort. Like us, Jesus walked in darkness. Our Advocate knows firsthand the inner turmoil that accompanies our faith’s obedience as fear & ignorance whisper in our ear:

The other line of integration between the omniscience of the divine nature and the ignorance of the human is that just as Christ had to fulfill the office of Mediator within the limitations of a human body, so he had to fulfill it within the limitations of a human mind. Part of the truth here is suggested by the first of the three temptations in the desert: ‘tell these stones to become bread’ (Mt 4:3). The essence of the temptation was that the Lord disavow the conditions of the incarnation and draw on his omnipotence to alleviate the discomforts of his self-abasement. He could have turned the stones into bread; and he could (perhaps) have known the day and hour of his parousia. But the latter would have undone his work as surely as the former. Christ had to submit to knowing dependently and to knowing partially. He had to learn to obey without knowing all the facts and to believe without being in possession of full information. He had to forego the comfort which omniscience would sometimes have brought. This, surely, was a potent factor in the dereliction (Mk 15:34). The assurance of the Father’s love, the sense of his own sonship and the certainty of his victory were all eclipsed, and he had to complete his obedience as the one who walked in darkness, knowing only that he was sin and that he was banished to the outer darkness. He suffers as the one who does not have all the answers and who in his extremity has to ask, Why? The ignorance is not mere appearing. It is a reality. But it is a reality freely chosen, just as on the cross he chose not to summon twelve legions of angels. Omniscience was a luxury always within reach, but incompatible with his rules of engagement. He had to serve within the limitations of finitude.

-Donald Macleod, The Person of Christ, 169.
[emphasis added]

Pipe & Pencil (2): the felt weakness of Jesus

Christ has put on our feelings as well as our flesh.

Christ has put on our feelings as well as our flesh. -John Calvin

In his discussion of the incarnation, Macleod turns his attention to our Lord’s human emotions. Perhaps most poignant are his reflections on Christ’s experience through his time of suffering in Gethsemane and on the cross.

To think that all-powerful God submits to human fear & weakness! Macleod is worth quoting at length:

But the narrative [concerning Gethsemane] does not owe its force to the adjectives alone. The whole account resonates the acutest torment and anguish. This appears, for example, in the fact that he took Peter, James, and John with him, not merely for companionship but so that they might watch and pray with him. It was of paramount importance for himself, for the universe and for mankind that he should not fail in his task, and the temptations that beset him on the eve of his agony represented a real threat to the completion of his obedience. Hell would do — was doing — all in its power to divert him from the Father’s will. Hence the supreme urgency of watching and praying; and hence the need for the prayers of others. Could there be a more impressive witness to the felt weakness of Jesus than his turning to those frail human beings and saying to them, “I need your prayers!”?

In the event they failed him. He had to watch and pray alone. Had the redemption of the world depended on the diligence of the disciples (or even on their staying awake) it would never have been accomplished . . . But the impressive thing is that he turned to them at all. How deep must have been his need and his fear!

…It is clear from all the accounts that Jesus’ experience of turmoil and anguish was both real and profound. His sorrow was as great as a man could bear, his fear convulsive, his astonishment well-nigh paralyzing. He came within a hairsbreadth of break-down. He faced the will of God as raw holiness, the mysterium tremendum in its most acute form: and it terrified him…

When Moses saw the glory of God on Mt. Sinai so terrifying was the sight that he trembled with fear (Heb 12:21). But that was God in covenant: God in grace. What Christ saw in Gethsemane was God with sword raised (Zech 13:7; Mat 26:31). The sight was unbearable. In a few short hours, he, the Last Adam, would stand before that God answering for the sin of the world: indeed, identified with the sin of the world (2Cor 5:21). He became, as Luther said, ‘the greatest sinner that ever was’ (cf. Gal 3:13). Consequently, to quote Luther again, ‘No one ever feared death so much as this man.’ He feared it because for him it was no sleep (1Thess 4;13), but the wages of sin: death with the sting; death unmodified and unmitigated; death as involving all that sin deserved. He, alone, would face it without a [covering], providing by his dying the only covering for the world, but doing so as a holocaust, totally exposed to God’s abhorrence of sin.. And he would face death without God…deprived of the one solace and the one resource which had always been there.

The wonder of the love of Christ for his people is not that for their sake he faced death without fear, but that for their sake he faced it, terrified. Terrified by what he knew, and terrified by what he did not know, he took damnation lovingly. 

-Donald Macleod, The Person of Christ, 173-175.
(emphasis added)

Grab your pipe & your pencil

The transfiguration showed not only what he would become but what we would become.

For some time now I’ve felt the need to read through a good book on Christology–first, to push back the horizons of my ignorance; second, and more importantly, to feed my soul. In his introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, C. S. Lewis wrote:

I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others. I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.

This has certainly been true for me as I work my way through The Person of Christ by Donald Macleod. I honestly don’t know how many people would share my experience in this book–sometimes you “happen” to come along the right book at just the right time. Regardless, Macleod’s has been that book for me which is one of the reasons I’ll periodically pass on some of the more challenging and/or meaningful portions here.

One more thing. For those who might like to find their heart singing over some challenging theology but don’t know how or where to start, maybe look here or here.

Here, then, is an excerpt from the chapter “Christ, The Son of God” on the relevance of Jesus’ transfiguration (pipe & pencil not included):

…[the transfiguration] has an on-going ministry. For Jesus, the trauma is past: he has entered into his rest. For us, it is not past. We are still struggling and suffering. To that situation the transfiguration still speaks, because it discloses not only the glory eternally possessed by the Lord, and not only the glory for which, as incarnate Mediator, he was destined, but also the glory of his people . . . The transfiguration showed not only what he would become but what we would become. The New Testament makes this connection explicitly. We are to be where he is (Jn 17:24). Our bodies are to be conformed exactly to his (Phil 3:21). We, in him, are to become sharers in the divine nature (2Pet 1:4). For Jesus on the Mount, this vision of what lay beyond the cross, not only for himself but for his people, would have been an immeasurable encouragement.

A. M. Ramsey relates this to the twin concepts, opsis and theiosis. Opsis is the spiritual vision which beholds the glory of the Lord. Theiosis is the transfiguring process which results: we are changed into the same image (2Cor 3:18), transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom 12:2), and one day we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is (1Jn 3:2). This goes back to the core of God’s own redemptive determination: to conform all his people to the image of his Son (Rom 8:29). Yet, as the sequel to the transfiguration shows, neither opsis nor theiosis goes on in ideal circumstances. We have to go down from the Mount to the demon-possessed valley. It is there that we must practice opsis; and only there that we can experience theiosis.

-Donald Macleod, The Person of Christ, 107.
[emphasis added]