The Incarnation and Christian Perfection
The incarnation must be considered in the light of God's law. When we understand the nature of the law and the extent of its requirements, we will have a better appreciation of Christ's mission in the flesh.
The law of God is not something created, but something made known (see 1 B.C.1104). It is a revelation of what God eternally is. That great classic on The Conflict of the Ages opens with these simple and sublime words, "'God is love.' His nature, His law, is love." P.P. 33. P. T. Forsyth has well said, "The holy law is not a creation of God but His nature." The Atonement in Modern Religious Thought, p.79.
Not only is the law an expression of God's holy nature but it is an expression of the kind of nature that is required of man. When God created man, he was in the image of God—he was an expression of God (Gen. 1:26, 27). Not only in outward deportment, but in his very nature, Adam was in harmony with God's law. The law could not condemn him, for there was nothing in Adam to condemn.
Therefore we can set it down as a most primary and certain truth that the law of God is an expression of two things:
1. It is an expression of God's holy nature.
2. It is an expression of the kind of nature man must have in order to meet its approval.
The Fall and Original Sin
In the Fall, Adam not only acquired a sinful record he acquired a sinful nature. We are told that the angels warned Adam and Eve, "Should they once yield to temptation, their nature would become so depraved that in themselves they would have no power, and no disposition, to resist Satan." P.P.53.
The law of God condemned Adam not just for what he did, but more especially for what he was. His whole state of being— his nature—was out of harmony with the divine law. Were it not for this he could have been reinstated to the Garden immediately after repentance, confession and forgiveness. But Adam's nature was so changed that it was impossible for him to have fellowship with a holy God—except as we will see, through a Mediator.
However, Adam's sin was not only a private matter between him and God. Adam was the Federal head and Representative of the race. He stood before God as the whole human race for all his progeny are legally united to him as the head of the human family. When he fell, it was the same as if all had fallen. "By one man's disobedience many were made sinners" Rom.5:l9. Thus "in Adam all die." 1 Cor. 15:22.
Because of Adam's sin, every son and daughter of Adam is born a sinner. He is not born to be a sinner. He is a sinner the moment he is born; and furthermore, this fallen sinful condition is transmitted at the moment of conception. Thus David confessed, "Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me." Ps.51:5 Consequently, children come forth into the world as the natural enemies of God. "The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray as soon as they be born." Psalm 58:3 Notice that they are not enemies because they go astray. They go astray because they are enemies first. Which is to say, we are not sinners because we have committed sin: rather we have committed sin because we are conceived and born as sinners by nature. So Paul declares: "We... were by nature the children of wrath, even as others." Eph.2:3 And God says through Isaiah, "I knew that thou wouldest deal very treacherously, and was called a transgressor from the womb." Isaiah 48:8
From this we must conclude that even if we never committed any single act of sin, we could not escape the universal condemnation of the law. That holy law requires of us such holiness of inward being (i.e. nature) that it condemns our state. Every child of Adam is condemned and is a child of wrath even apart from any personal act of sin. Sin is conceived and bred into our nature; and so God regards us as sinners through and through, as altogether corrupt and estranged from His holy nature even before we think one thought or perform one deed. In theology this state, transmitted to us in consequence of Adam's fall, is called original sin—or in more common parlance, it is called the corrupt, carnal, sinful, or depraved nature.
The understanding that sin was a state rather than just an act was the foundation of the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith. This concept was written into all of the great Reformation confessions. We cite two by way of examples:
"Sin. By sin we understand that innate corruption of man which has been derived or propagated in us all from our first parents, by which we, immersed in perverse desires and averse to all good, are inclined to all evil. Full of all wickedness, distrust, contempt and hatred of God, we are unable to do or even to think anything good of ourselves." The Second Helvetic Confession, 1566, Article 8.
"We believe that, through the disobedience of Adam, original sin is extended to all mankind; which is a corruption of the whole nature, and an hereditary disease, wherewith infants themselves are infected even in their mother's womb, and which produceth in man all sorts of sin, being in him as a root thereof; and therefore is so vile and abominable in the sight of God that it is sufficient to condemn all mankind." The Belgic Confession of Faith, 1561, Article 15.
Unfortunately, much of our Adventist heritage has been notoriously weak on the concept of sin. Even the Lord Jesus especially testifies that we are unaware of our wretchedness Rev. 3:14-17. It is a terrible blindness to suppose that we measure up to the requirements of the law if only we refrain from those acts of sin which it condemns. That law is spiritual (Rom.7:14), and reaches down to the innate dispositions, tendencies and affections of the heart. Dr. Strong has truly said:
" . . . the divine law requires moral likeness to God in the affections and tendencies of the nature, as well as in its outward activities. It therefore considers lack of conformity to the divine holiness in disposition or state as a violation of law, equally with the outward act of transgression." A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology, p.538.
Now let us consider what this means in the light of being justified before God. Justification is a legal word and is inseparably connected to the law of God. In fact "justification is setting one right before law" (Strong, Ibid, p.856). The law requires holiness—not only in actions but in the inmost being and dispositions. It demands not only a record without sin, but a nature without sin. The law demands perfection of our persons as well as of our works. This fact underlines our hopeless condemnation under the law except by the gracious interposition of God through Jesus Christ. How could any of our works contribute in the least degree to our acceptance with God if our very persons are sinful in nature?
The Substitution of Jesus Christ
A consideration of our sinful condition — of person as well as actions — shows us our need of a Saviour, and such a Saviour who is adapted to our most primary need.
We need an Example, yes, but before that we need a Saviour—a Substitute to take our place before the consuming holiness of that divine law. We are utterly unable to fulfill its demands (S.C.62). Even if our past sins were taken care of, we would still be condemned because of the condition of our nature just as surely as we were condemned before we had any record of sin.
If Jesus is only an example to us poor sinners, that would only heap condemnation upon condemnation. His life was the law of God lived out in human flesh. And "by the law is the knowledge of sin" Rom.3:20. When the example of Jesus is set before needy sinners, the thunders and lightnings of Mount Sinai become more distinct and more awful than ever. We are not saying that the presentation of our Exemplar has no place here. To increase conviction of sin, to be a schoolmaster to lead us to Christ the Substitute — yes! But in the matter of salvation, which is a free gift of God, we must first see Jesus as a Substitutionary Saviour.
It is to be lamented that Christ has been so treated as our Example that He has been presented as a Model more than as a Saviour. As far as the New Testament is concerned Christ is presented first and foremost as the redeeming Substitute for the race. Christ the Example occupies a very subordinate role.
We are saved, not because we follow Christ's example. Salvation comes as a gift of God because Jesus took our place before the law; and wonder of wonders, in our place and in our name He did for us, on our behalf, that which we were unable to do. And what was that? He fulfilled and satisfied all that God's law required of us (Romans 8:3).
"By His perfect obedience He has satisfied the claims of the law, and my only hope is found in looking to Him as my Substitute and Surety, who obeyed the law perfectly for me." 1 S.M. 396 (See also S.D. 240)
This is the most primary and personal truth of the gospel. Christ became our Substitute—the One who stood in our place. While the word Substitute is not used in the Bible, the concept is not only repeatedly taught in the types of the Old Testament (e.g. see Gen.22:13), but in clear gospel statements of the New Testament. To Timothy Paul wrote that Christ "gave Himself a ransom for all." 1 Tim.2:6 The word translated ransom is not just from the word lutron which means ransom. Paul uses the peculiar combination anti-lutron, which Girdlestone translates substitutionary ransom. Again, Paul says that "Christ died for our sins". The little word for is from huper which means in behalf of. Just to take a concordance and see how many times that the Word declares Jesus lived, died, rose and intercedes for us is a revelation of the gospel. Jesus said that He came "to give His life a ransom for many." Matthew 20:28 This time the word for is from anti, which clearly means, in this instance, in the stead of. (Compare Luke 11:11 where the same word is used)
Whatever the law requires of us, Jesus gave to the law as our Substitute. We have seen that the law, being an expression of God's holy nature, requires that our natures be holy. To be our Substitute it was necessary for Jesus to possess a holy human nature. If the human nature of Jesus was carnal, sinful and depraved like the rest of men who are conceived in sin, then we have no Substitute to satisfy the divine law on our behalf. To propose, as some have done, that Jesus' nature was sinful like other men, only His deeds were holy, is to take the position that the law only goes as deep as actions, that sin is only an act rather than a state of being. Then it would have to be argued that children when born are not sinners at all since they have done neither good nor evil.
But what is the truth of the humanity of Jesus as set forth in the unambiguous statements of Holy Writ? We have seen that every son of Adam is conceived in sin (Ps.51:5). Therefore, he is born in sin,"a transgressor from the womb" Isa.48:8. Jesus said: "That which is born of the flesh is flesh" John 3:6, and Paul declares, "the mind of the flesh is enmity against God...so then they that are in the flesh cannot please God" Rom.8:7, 8 (A.S.V.A.V.). Look at the facts—every son of Adam is,
conceived in sin (Ps.51:5)
estranged from birth (Ps.58:3)
born a transgressor (Isa.48:8)
is flesh—enmity against God (Rom.8:7; John 3:6)
by nature the child of wrath (Eph.2:3)
Now let us look at the humanity of the Son of God. Just as we have looked not so much at the deeds of men, but as they are by nature before they commit any deeds, so let us look at the human nature of the Lord Jesus Christ.
While the eternal Word became truly man, possessing the substance and essence of human nature, we shall see without any shadow of doubt that as touching sin and sinfulness, He was distinctly "separate from sinners" Heb. 7:26.
Firstly, We are all "the seed of men". He was "the seed of the woman", having no human father.
Secondly, Whereas we are all conceived in sin, the angel said to Joseph, "That which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost" Matt. 1:20. The angel said also to Mary, "The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God" Luke 1:35.
Consider the vast difference of being conceived in sin by natural human generation and being conceived by the Holy Ghost in a supernatural generation. Our humanity was generated from a sinful source; His was from a sinless source.
Some may reason: The Holy Spirit created Christ's divine nature and Mary created Christ's human nature. But this is fallacious reasoning. Christ's divine nature was not, could not be created. He was Himself the uncreated eternal Word, One in substance and essence with God the Father. Look carefully at the scriptural declarations and it will be seen that the Holy Spirit generated Christ's human nature in the womb of the Virgin Mary. We grant that Mary was a sinner by nature, and that a sinful nature could be transmitted by one human parent as by two. But the other fact to consider is that the human nature of Christ was divinely conceived and overshadowed by the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary. The Holy Spirit is holiness personified. He "prepared" (Heb.10:5) and sanctified the human nature which was taken into union with divinity in the person of Christ. So the angel referred to Christ's humanity as "that holy thing"—something that could never be said of our human nature.
The Catholic Church, in its Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, credits Mary for the unique sinlessness of Jesus' human nature. This great heresy proposes that Mary was immaculately conceived by sanctified parents. The Word of God, however, shows that the Spirit of holiness was the generator and reason for Christ's unique sinlessness.
Thirdly, Christ was not born of the flesh (John 1:13; 3:6) —for that which is born of the flesh is enmity against God. He was born of the Spirit, and thereby became the new Head of a new race.
Consider these explicit statements:
"He was born without a taint of sin..." Q.D.657
". . . no trace of sin marred the image of God within Him." D.A. 71
"He is a brother in our infirmities, but not in possessing like passions. As the sinless One, His nature recoiled from evil." 2T 202
"He (Christ) was to take His position at the head of humanity by taking the nature but not the sinfulness of man." 7 B.C. 925
"We should have no misgivings in regard to the perfect sinlessness of the human nature of Christ... This holy Substitute is able to save to the uttermost." 1 S.M. 256
"Do not set Him before the people as a man with the propensities of sin... not for one moment was there in Him an evil propensity." 5 B.C. 1128
"Never, in any way, leave the slightest impression upon human minds that a taint of, or inclination to, corruption rested upon Christ." ibid.
"It is a mystery that is left unexplained to mortals that Christ could be tempted in all points like as we are, and yet be without sin." 5 B. C. 1128, 1129
It will be noticed that these statements are all talking about the sinless nature of the man Christ Jesus. All this He had to be in order to be our Substitute before God. The holy God cannot be in fellowship with sinful nature. If God dealt directly with us, we would be consumed by the fires of His infinite holiness. God, therefore, gave us a Substitute; and mercifully He deals with humanity through Jesus Christ. If Christ's humanity was not immaculately sinless in nature as well as deed, He would not have been pleasing in the sight of the law. But in and through our sinless Substitute we can have fellowship with God.
Behold how wonderfully extensive is the Substitution of Christ. He died in our place, bearing the full penalty of a broken law. More than that, He substituted for us a holy manhood so that God could look at us as robed in His perfection. He lived in our place a stainless youth so that God could look back on our past and remember not the sins of our youth. But our birth was corrupt, and if God is to see us as having always been pure, we need a Substitute whose birth was pure. But more than all this, our sinfulness reaches back to conception ("In sin did my mother conceive me.") Here Jesus is also our Substitute, for in our place, and in our behalf He was conceived of the Holy Ghost. And more yet—His victory reaches back to the head of the race. He stood in Adam's place as our new Representative and substituted absolute victory for Adam's total failure. Thus the substitution of Jesus is complete. He not only substituted a sinless record for a sinful record, but a holy, spotless nature for an unholy, defiled nature. God gave us a Man to stand in our place—a Man who was all that the law required us to be in nature as well as works.
"But", someone is always asking, "if Christ's human nature was sinless—without taint, inclination, propensity to sin—and our human nature is sinful—full of taint, inclination and propensity to sin—then how can Christ be our example?" Alas, how does this question betray the crass legalism and unbelief that operates below our consciousness. Example! Example! Example! As if our salvation is rooted in our competing with Christ's example! We act as if we were required to run a race against Christ, and being anxious to boost our chance of a dead heat, we insist He come down to our level in everything—or we loudly complain to God that the race is unfair.
There is something radically wrong when the first thing we ask is, "How could He be our Example?" Christ's example is perfect obedience to the law of God. We are not justified by efforts to follow this example, for by the deeds of the law there shall be no flesh justified in the sight of God (Romans 3:20). Before we can live the life of sanctified obedience after the example of Christ, we need justification. It is Christ our Substitute that justifies us. Therefore we ought always to cry out first of all, "How can He be my Substitute?"
To those who declare that Christ had a corrupt, depraved, sinful nature like ours (it seems a shame to even suggest such a shocking thing), we ask, "How can He be our Substitute?" For remember, Jesus must first be our Redeemer and Saviour.
Christ our Representative
Now let us consider the incarnation in the light of Christ our Representative. God sees every believer not as he is in himself, but as he appears in his Representative.(2) A Christ with a sinful, depraved human nature would be a poor Representative for sinners—indeed, God would have rejected Him and all of us if we had no better Representative than that. As our Representative He must stand as Adam stood in perfection and innocence, otherwise He could be no second Adam. Consider these declarations:
"Christ is called the second Adam. In purity and holiness, connected with God and beloved by God, He began where the first Adam began. Willingly He passed over the ground where Adam fell, and redeemed Adam's failure." Q.D. 650
"Christ came to the earth, taking humanity and standing as man 's representative, to show in the controversy with Satan that man, as God created him, connected with the Father and the Son, could obey every divine requirement." ibid.
"When Christ bowed His head and died, He bore the pillars of Satan 's kingdom with Him to the earth. He vanquished Satan in the same nature over which in Eden Satan obtained the victory. The enemy was overcome by Christ in His human nature. The power of the Saviour's Godhead was hidden. He overcame the human nature, relying upon God for power. Q.D. 651
If we would only properly consider two things there could be no misgivings about the sinlessness of Christ's human nature. These two things are the extent of the law's requirements and the nature of sin.
The Human Inheritance of Christ
Besides teaching us about Christ's unique sinlessness, the inspired writers direct us to the true manhood of Christ. He was of the "seed of David according to the flesh", "made of a woman", and partook of the same flesh and blood as all of the children of Adam (Rom. l:3; Gal.4:4; Hebrews 2:14). His was not a make-believe human nature. He was the real son of Mary by human inheritance, and was like us in everything except sin.
In the Spirit of Prophecy, there are two classes of statements. One class of statement shows how Christ's human nature was different from ours. We have already considered some of those. Then there is another class of statements which show that Christ's human nature was the same as ours in substance and essence. We are told that He accepted the workings of the great law of heredity, that He too bore the infirmities, degeneracy and weaknesses of the race as they existed after four thousand years from Eden. To briefly cite a representative group of statements:
"Christ . . . . took our nature in its deteriorated condition". Q.D. 657
" . . . He accepted the results of the working of the great law of heredity". D.A. 49
" . . . subject to the weaknesses of humanity." D.A. 49
". . . took upon Him the infirmities of degenerate humanity." D. A. 22?
" . . . bore the infirmities and degeneracy of the race." Q.D. 656
"He condescended to connect our fallen human nature with His divinity." Q.D. 657
Now these statements are to be given full weight. There is no justification for saying that these infirmities and weaknesses were only imputed to Christ on the cross.(3) He bore them as an empirical reality throughout His life on earth. But we are not justified in pushing these statements to mean sinfulness. When we are considering the likeness of Christ's humanity to ours we must remember that there is one great and decisive exception—He was like us in all things, sin excepted. Notice:
"He... became like one of us except in sin..." Q.D. 657
"He is a brother in our infirmities, but not in possessing like passions." Q.D. 659
"...taking the nature but not the sinfulness of man." 7 B.C. 925
"Because of sin his (Adam 's) posterity was born with inherent propensities of disobedience . . . . . but not for one moment was there in Him (Christ) one evil propensity." 5 B.C. 1728
We submit that these buts are so plain that he that runs may read. Although Christ's human nature was like ours in the weaknesses and infirmities of all the human faculties, He was not like us in sinfulness—either inherited sinfulness or cultivated sinfulness.
Some have been ready to grant that Christ's human nature was different from ordinary men in respect to sin, but propose that His human nature was like that of "born again saints". But this proposition is easily overthrown. Born again believers are not sinless, as is abundantly testified in Old and New Testaments. Although they do not live in the practice of sin (1 John 3:9), they are warned not to entertain the thought that they are sinless (1 John 1:8). In Romans 7, the Spirit-filled apostle confessed that the law of sin was deep in his members, even though he hated sin and loved the law of God. Speaking of his inward corruption of nature he declared: "Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me" Romans 7:17. In theology this is called indwelling sin or inbred sin. The great apostle did not hesitate to confess that sin dwelt in him. But what of Jesus Christ?
John declares, "and in Him is no sin" 1 John 3:5. This can be said of none of the saints. Jesus is unique in His absolute sinlessness. He is called "the Holy One of Israel" —the solitary One, yet all who are united to Him by faith are partakers of His holiness and are constituted holy in their great Head.
Paul also declares that Jesus "knew no sin" 2 Cor. 5:21, —an expression pertaining to His absolute sinlessness. Christ confessed His sinlessness and was perfectly conscious of it. Could such a thing ever be said of the greatest saints here below? Never!
"None of the apostles and prophets ever claimed to be without sin. Men who have lived the nearest to God, men who would sacrifice life itself rather than knowingly commit a wrong act, men whom God has honored with divine light and power, have confessed the sinfulness of their nature." A.A. 561
There is one incarnation — only one. The union of the divine and the human exists in Him as in no other.(4) We may draw some parallels, some likenesses; but the peerless Christ stands yet above all comparisons. There is one sinless Substitute, one Representative, one Life which measures with all the greatness and grandeur of God's law. He stands unrivalled, unequalled, unduplicated, the Holy One of Israel. As P. T. Forsyth has said:
"It is better to trust Christ and His work than even to imitate Him. He is worth infinitely more to the world as its Saviour than as its Model; as God's promise than a man 's Ideal. He is more to be admired than copied, more to be loved than to be admired, and He is to be trusted more than all. This trust of Christ is the highest thing a man can do."
Christ Our Example
When we accept our holy Substitute as a gift and put Him on as a gift (Gal. 3:27), then are we justified. Then we are ready to put on Christ as an Example.
"For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps: who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously: who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed." 2 Peter 2:21-24
When the apostle Peter would call us to imitate our great Captain of Salvation, he would have us lift up our minds to His atonement—"Christ also suffered for us... bare our sins in His own body on the tree." The example Jesus left us is His atonement which climaxed on the cross. His humiliation, suffering and self-denying love was nothing short of infinite. It never ceases to amaze the angels and will be the song and wonder of the redeemed for eternity. Surely we can appreciate why Ellen White says, "We cannot equal the pattern...". But she also adds "We shall not be approved of God if we do not copy it, and, according to the ability which God has given, resemble it." 2T 549
God's people in whose heart is God's law will delight in the law of God as revealed in the example of Jesus Christ, yet they will mourn only because they fall so far short of it (S.L. 81). Indeed, the more closely they imitate Him the more they will discern how far short they fall from this glory of God. "The noblest and most gentle among men are but a faint reflection" of "the divine beauty of the character of Christ." M.B. 79 Only in the merciful reckoning of God will any saint here on earth reflect the image of Jesus fully.
Yes, Christ became our example; but surely we can see this has limitations. He made an atonement for the sins of the world. Can we follow that example? He forgave sins. Can we follow that example? He read people's hearts and secret motives. Unfortunately we are too prone to try following that example. He confessed the absolute sinlessness of His person and work. Can we follow that example?
Above all, we must remember that our justification and reception of the Spirit does not come by the works of the law (that is by following the example of Christ) but by the hearing of faith (Gal. 3:1-3). Instead of trying to get the Spirit by an attainment to the example of Christ, it is our privilege to receive the Spirit as a free gift through faith in our Substitute. Then we will follow Christ's example not to get the Spirit but because we have the Spirit. The motivation is altogether different. One is the way of legalism; the other is the way of the gospel.
Tempted in All Points
Some will say, "If Jesus did not actually have my carnal inclinations and tendencies, how could He have been tempted in all points like me?" (See Heb. 4:15) If that question is reasonable, why not other questions based on the same reasoning? Another could ask, "How could Christ be tempted in all points like a woman if He was a man?" Or, "How could Christ be tempted in all points like an old man unless He became an old man?"
In many cases, the little word, how, is not a sign of faith, but of unbelief. Jesus told Nicodemus that he needed to be born again. Rather than face the humiliating truth, Nicodemus would rather ask for an explanation of its whys and wherefores. "How can these things be?" he incredulously asked Jesus. Jesus did not answer his question, but exhorted him to look, believe and live. Faith is the key of knowledge. Those who insist on an explanation of truth before they believe on the authority of God's Word will never believe. The Word says that the sinless Christ was tempted in all points like as we are. Let us believe it whether we can explain the mystery or not. We must frankly confess that we cannot explain this mystery - and it certainly would not be a mystery if we could explain it. Listen:
"It is a mystery that is left unexplained to mortals that Christ could be tempted in all points like as we are, and yet be without sin." 5 B. C. 1128,1129
"There is no one who can explain the mystery of the incarnation of Christ." ibid
Two paradoxical truths are mysteriously blended in Christ:
1. He was tempted in all points like as we are
2. Yet He was without sin—(note, sin, not sins; that is to say, He was without a sinful nature.)
What foolishness to reason that Christ was tempted like us because He had a sinful nature like us when the text explicitly says He was without sin. And if one objects by saying that the sinful nature is not sin, let him explain why a new-born baby is full of sin before he has thought or done anything. Let it be considered further that those who say that the sinful nature is not sin are in harmony with the Pelagian and Catholic view of sin and are opposed to all the great Reformation confessions.
Let us not be like those Israelites in the wilderness who refused to look at the brazen serpent unless an explanation of its healing power was forthcoming. Faith says, "God says it, and I'll believe it even if I can't understand it. And by believing I'll get all the blessed benefit of it." It makes a lot of difference whether we try to live by the Tree of Life or the Tree of Knowledge.
As one final word of comfort: the Spirit of Prophecy often tells us that Christ was tempted many times more severely than any human being was ever tempted. The strength of His temptations were in proportion to His exalted purity, and not, as some would have it, in proportion to how far He came down to the level of our depraved natures. He was tempted to use His divine power in His own behalf. (See 7 B.C. 930)
Likeness of Sinful Flesh
"For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh." Romans 8:3
Some would like to make Paul a little more explicit. They declare that Christ came in "sinful flesh". But the apostle does not use the word "likeness" for nothing. Never in one single instance does Ellen White dispense with that important qualification, "likeness".
What does the word likeness mean? Is there some illustration that throws light on the meaning of "likeness of sinful flesh"? Yes, there is an inspired illustration that settles the issue forever.
"As the image made in the likeness of the destroying serpents was lifted up for their healing, so One made 'in the likeness of sinful flesh' was to be their Redeemer." D.A. 174,175
Was the brass serpent a destroying serpent or was it the likeness of a destroying serpent? Obviously it was the likeness of a serpent. So also was Christ made in the likeness of sinful flesh.
In Pauline terminology sinful flesh means sinful humanity, sinful human nature, old man, carnal mind. It does not refer to the body apart from the mind, but includes the whole man as he is in his natural, corrupt and sinful state. What infinite and appalling humiliation to think that Jesus consented to be made in that likeness. But likeness does not mean sameness.
" . . . let every human being be warned from the ground of making Christ altogether human, such an one as ourselves; for it cannot be." 5 B.C. 1129
"What about the teaching of the pioneers?" says one. "Let us stick to the teachings of our pioneers", says another. We admit that this approach sounds impressive. Being contrary to the pioneers is like being against mother and country. But if we were ever guilty of excusing wooly thinking under the aura of "the faith of the pioneers" it is in this area of the incarnation.
In the first place the pioneers of the Advent Movement said practically nothing significant on these doctrinal issues. The most exhaustive research by different people has not been able to uncover any significant pioneer writings on the subject.
Furthermore, whatever the pioneers said about Christology would be open to question. On some of the great eternal verities of the Christian faith, on those great cardinal doctrines that had been unassailably established for centuries in the Christian church, some of the pioneers were very poor exponents. Some of them were not even settled on the faith of the complete divinity of Jesus Christ. Some advocated the heresy of Arianism. James White at one time cast grave doubts on the Christian church's doctrine of the Trinity. Not a few denied the divine Personality of the Holy Spirit. Nearly all of them were poor exponents of the great doctrine of justification by faith, and the years 1844-1888 gave full proof of it.
We need to get the contribution of the pioneers into right perspective. When Jesus chose His disciples they weren't noted for any great theological knowledge. When we look back on them we don't glory in the splendid gifts that these men possessed, but we admire what grace was able to do with such very ordinary material.
As far as theological knowledge is concerned, the pioneers were not giants, but children. In some important areas (like Christology— the divinity of Christ, the humanity of Christ; and Pneumatolcgy—the Person and work of the Holy Spirit) to compare them with the theological giants of the Christian church would be ridiculous. To ask us to return to the first lispings of the pioneers on some of the cardinal truths of the Christian church is to give them idolatrous regard, not to mention setting the clock back more than 120 years. In any case, the great scholars of the Christian church, including the Reformers, have all made such glaring mistakes in certain areas that it should teach us not to give human beings idolatrous regard by following them in all things. The pioneers are no exception.
In 1888 God had more light for His people. It was high time that the ministry as well as people had clearer, more exalted views of the person and work of Christ, and of the efficacy of His righteousness which is imputed to those who believe, and of the cleansing power of the Holy Spirit imparted to those who follow Jesus. But it was not an easy matter to shake men loose from their restricted thought patterns. There was alarm at the new lines of thought suggested by Jones and Waggoner. There was much talk about standing by the old landmarks (the faith of the pioneers). What did Mrs. White say:
"The passing of the time in 1844 was a period of great events, opening to our astonished eyes the cleansing of the sanctuary transpiring in heaven, and having decided relation to God's people upon the earth, (also) the first and second angels' messages and the third, unfurling the banner on which was inscribed, 'The commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.' One of the landmarks under this message was the temple of God, seen by His truth-loving people in heaven, and the ark containing the low of God. The light of the Sabbath of the fourth commandment flashed its strong rays in the pathway of the transgressors of God's law. The non-immortality of the wicked is an old landmark. I can call to mind nothing more that can come under the head of the old landmarks. All this cry about changing the old landmarks is all imaginary." C. W. E. 30
What is also quite astounding is that the brethren in 1888 were arguing whether the law in Galatians was the ceremonial or moral law. Most of them had taken the position that it was only the ceremonial law of Moses; and Waggoner's view that it included the moral law of ten commandments was startlingly new and very unsettling to them. But this whole question was well settled by all the Reformers more than three hundred years before 1888. The leading thinkers in Adventism had not even caught up with Luther and Calvin. In fact the arguments brought against Waggoner were the same arguments that the Roman Catholics used concerning the law in Galatians. So they were more than three hundred years behind in catching up to the Reformers on the law in Galatians and justification by faith; but they were more than one thousand years behind in getting settled on the great truths of the Trinity and the Divinity of Christ. In the third, fourth and fifth centuries the Church went through these controversies and those questions were fully settled. The Reformation fully settled the truth of justification by faith alone. But here were the leading thinkers in Adventism still trying to settle these points in 1888.
Part of the problem arose from our suspicion of every doctrine held by the Christian church. After all they had sounded the message, "Babylon is fallen". The pioneers were led to see that the accepted teachings on the Lord's Day and the immortal soul were pagan corruptions. But there was a tendency to be suspicious of the entire doctrinal heritage of the church—divinity of Christ, Trinity, atonement on the cross, justification by faith only, etc. Consequently the movement grew up without any strong roots in the past, without a proper estimation of the value of historical theology. The temple of truth has been going up for centuries. It took the church three hundred years to become settled on the divinity of Christ, four or five hundred years to be settled on the unity of two natures in one person, and nearly as long to settle the arguments on the Trinity. The church could not appreciate the Pauline truth of justification by faith until after 1500 years had passed. We cannot despise what God has caused the Christian church to unanimously accept. Considering that Adventism grew up with so few historical roots, it is no wonder that it took a generation or two to get settled on such fundamental things as Christ's divinity and the Trinity. In fact, compared to the early church, it learned exceedingly quickly to make those first steps within the century!
Now in reference to the incarnation: Most of those who read this paper will know that certain points on the human nature of Christ have been in hot dispute within Adventism since about 1956. It seems that we have come to the point where we are getting some things settled. But it is rather humbling to know that the Christian church has disputed and settled these points centuries ago. The heresies of Eutychianism, Monophysitism, Monotheletism, and Apollinarianism have all been explored, argued, and settled. As Dr. Buchanan points out, church history proves that it is almost impossible to invent a new heresy. The church in the Reformation age reconsidered the great truth of the incarnation in the light of original sin and justification by faith. Some of the clearest statements on the incarnation were made in the great Confessions at the time of the Reformation. And what is more, the Reformers were united on the re-affirmation of this ancient truth. Consider the accuracy and clarity of these great Reformation statements taken from the historic confessions:
" . . . the Son of the living, true God, has assumed flesh which is holy through its unity with the Godhead in all things like unto our flesh yet without sin . . . " First Helvetic Confession, Article II, in Reformed Confessions of the 16th Century. p. 103.
"(Christ was) of the seed of Abraham, since he took upon him the seed of Abraham, and became like unto his brethren in all things, sin excepted." Belgic Confession of Faith, Article 18, p.20l.
"(Christ) took upon him the form of a servant, and became like unto men, really assuming the true human nature, with all its infirmities, sin excepted, being conceived in the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary, by the power of the Holy Ghost." Ibid, p.200
"That the eternal Son of God, who is and remains true and eternal God, took upon himself our true manhood from the flesh and blood of the Virgin Mary through the action of the Holy Spirit, so that he might also be the true seed of David, like his fellow men in all things, except for sin." Heidelberg Catechism, Question 35, Ibid, p.311.
The later Westminster Confession is excellently stated:
"When the fullness of time was come, take upon Him man's nature, with all the essential properties and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin, being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost in the womb of the virgin Mary, of her substance." Westminster Confession Article 8.
The Lutheran Formula of Concord (drawn up shortly after the death of Luther) declares:
"Secondly, in the article of Redemption the Scriptures testify forcibly that God's Son assumed our human nature without sin, so that He was in all things, sin excepted, made like unto us, His brethren, Heb. 2:14. Hence all the old orthodox teachers have maintained that Christ, according to His assumed humanity, is of one essence with us, His brethren; for He has assumed His human nature, which in all respects (sin alone excepted) is like our human nature in its essence and all essential attributes; and they have condemned the contrary doctrine as manifest heresy." Formula of Concord, p. 239.
Louis Berkhof expresses the position of all Reformed Christology when he says:
"Christ assumed human nature with all its weaknesses, as it exists after the fall, and thus became like us in all things, sin only excepted." Systematic Theology, p.339.
There is no question but that this was also Ellen White's position. "He...became like one of us except in sin." Q.D. 657 She took the orthodox doctrine and expanded it in beautiful balance.
The Advent Movement is supposed to complete the work of the Reformation begun in the 16th century. We can't do that if we ignore what was begun by the Reformers and go about to lay another foundation altogether. We have been far too prone to imagine we are so far ahead of these men who lived more than 400 years ago, that they could teach us nothing or very little. It is therefore humbling to compare some of the crude lispings on the incarnation found in some of our own books with the mature and accurate theology of men who lived so long ago.
"Questions on Doctrine"
Questions on Doctrine stunned many in the church because of its forthright affirmation of the absolute sinlessness of Jesus' human nature. Elder M. L. Andreasen declared that it was " . . . .contrary to what Seventh-day Adventists have always taught and believed." Letters to the Churches, No. 1, p.5 Although the responsible men would be reticent about admitting that publicly, few would deny it privately. When Andreasen called the view set forth in Questions on Doctrine "the acme of all heresy" he wasn't saying anything new in Adventist circles. Some of the greatest names in Adventist literature — W. W. Prescott, W. A. Spicer, the authors of Bible Readings, A. T. Jones, H. L. Wilcox, Christian Edwardson, Carlyle B. Haynes and many others — had called the same view the doctrine of antichrist (1 John 4:3). The Review & Herald of Dec. 21, 1905, calls it "the doctrine of the papacy."
Although Andreasen could marshall a lot of Adventist tradition to his side, he was dead wrong in opposing Questions on Doctrine for its teaching that Christ ". . . was exempt from the inherited passions and pollutions that corrupt the natural descendants of Adam." p.383 Andreasen's opposition on this point was indefensible.
It is interesting to get down to Andreasen's basic philosophy of the incarnation. It is based on his major premise that Christ is our example; i.e. He possessed our sinful human nature but showed us how to live a sinless life. This gave us the hope of reaching sinlessness and being among the 144,000. But as we have already pointed out, anyone who approaches Christology with the major premise of Christ being our example, has missed the central theme of the gospel. To teach that salvation is obtained by following the example of Christ is legalism. If Elder Andreasen had approached the subject from the standpoint of Christ being our Substitute, he would have rejoiced to see that Christ substituted a sinless human nature in the place of our sinful human nature.
Questions on Doctrine's forthright affirmation of the absolute sinlessness of Christ's human nature was a great contribution and step forward in Adventist Christology. Opposition to the truth it championed on this point was a manifestation of a subconscious hatred to the true evangelical faith.
Having said this, we would be evading our conviction of truth if we did not also point out a weakness in the presentation of the incarnation. In dealing with the "weaknesses, frailties, infirmities" of Christ's human nature, the book declares that Jesus bore these in the same way as He bore our sins, i.e. by imputation (see page 59 and the statements arranged under the significant heading on page 655). Not only is this contrary to the Spirit of Prophecy which says He bore these infirmities inherently (D.A. 49; 117), but it is contrary to the established teaching of the early church and the Reformation. The Reformers as well as the best Biblical scholars down through the centuries were united in their belief that Jesus partook of the substance and essence of human nature as that human nature was after the fall.
Dr. L. Berkhof correctly says:
" . . . Christ assumed human nature with all its weaknesses, as it exists after the fall, and thus became like us in all things, sin only excepted." p. 339
We submit that Ellen G. White's writings are fully in harmony with the orthodox Reformed doctrine which is stated above. There are two things we must bear in mind:
1. Christ partook of the substance and essence of human nature as it was after the fall.
2. Sin is not an essential property of human nature. Sinfulness is not to be confounded with the substance of human nature. (This point is brilliantly argued in the Lutheran Formula of Concord, 1576).
However, we should remember that the authors of Questions on Doctrine were writing for the benefit of those who had serious questions about Seventh-day Adventist Christology. Numerous statements had appeared in Adventist books saying that Christ had a sinful human nature with all the tendencies to sin that other men have. These statements were rightly considered by non-Adventists to be heresy and disparaging to the person of Christ. Such statements helped to give Seventh-day Adventists a very poor image among evangelically minded Christians.
The immediate task of Questions on Doctrine was to convince other Christians that Seventh-day Adventists had no misgivings about the absolute sinlessness of Christ's human nature. The authors of the book certainly succeeded. The failure to be equally as decided on the reality of the infirmities of Christ's human nature is understandable because of the circumstances.
We accept the view of the perfect sinlessness of Christ's human nature because:
1. The law being an expression of God's holy nature, requires that man be sinless in nature as well as deed.
2. Christ stood in our place to fulfill and satisfy the law's demand on our behalf. Unless His human nature was sinless He could not have done this for us.
3. The sinlessness of Christ's human nature establishes the principle of salvation by an imputation.
We reject the view that Jesus had a depraved, sinful nature because:
1. It is disparaging to the person of our exalted Lord who was always in respect to sin, "separate from sinners".
2. It is an ancient and proven heresy, condemned by the early church, rejected by all the Reformers, and never taught by the true line of godly Christian teachers throughout the history of the Church.
3. It leads to a superficial view of God's law because it is based on the premise that the law only condemns sinful actions. It fails to see that the law requires holiness of the disposition and tendencies of the nature.
4. It leads to a superficial view of sin. It proposes that sinful inclinations and tendencies are not sin unless they find expression in the life. Sin is therefore thought of as an act rather than a state. This is a Pelagian element.(5)
5. It leads to a refutation of the Bible doctrine that all men are born sinners. For it must be plain that if inherited sinfulness is not sin unless it finds expression by sinful deeds, then newborn infants are not sinners. This is Pelagian heresy.(5)
6. It leads either to neglecting or rejecting the central gospel principle of salvation by Representation, Substitution and Imputation. Instead it declares, "Christ had a sinful human nature like ours. He kept the evil inclinations and propensities of this nature in check by the Holy Spirit. Thus He set us our example how we may do the same with the same help of the Holy Spirit. This is how we attain salvation." In trying to find salvation by following Christ's example rather than through faith in His substitution, it falls into the error of legalism and perfectionism.
This ancient heresy of "the sinful human nature" of Christ has been resurrected in modern times by Schleiermacher, Edward Irving, Menken, and Stier; and unfortunately it crept into Adventism, was for many years the accepted view, although never really officially a doctrine of the Church. Because it majors on example rather than substitution, in the real Pauline and Reformation sense "it knows of no justification, and conceives of salvation as consisting in subjective sanctification." Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p.390. Dr. Strong also says, "In Irving's(6) theory there is no imputation, or representation, or substitution." Systematic Theology, p.746.
7. "It necessitates the surrender of the doctrine of justification as a merely declaratory act of God; and requires such a view of the divine holiness, expressed only through the order of nature, as can be maintained only upon principles of pantheism." Ibid, p.747
Dr. Strong's statement throws great light on the events in the Seventh-day Adventist Church between 1888 and 1905. Waggoner and Jones taught Irving's theory of the sinful human nature of Christ. Some have therefore drawn the conclusion that the doctrine of Christ's sinful human nature must have been the foundation of the 1888 message of justification by faith. There was a time when we at Present Truth Magazine made this deduction too. But a more careful study of Church history shows that this imperfect view of truth was one of the means whereby Jones and Waggoner grew farther and farther away from the truth of justification by faith. Just as Dr. Strong points out from his review of historic theology, this erroneous theory of the incarnation leads away from justification and eventually into pantheism. This is precisely what happened, especially to Waggoner. With him, justification lost its imputative, declaratory and objective nature. He came to see it more and more as a subjective process. Salvation by substitution and representation had no place in his thinking. The theory of "God in Christ's sinful flesh" ended up meaning "God in everyone's sinful flesh"—and that is pantheism.
For many years after 1888 Jones became quite popular in the church. Ministers and Bible teachers copied his teachings, even his very expressions, on the incarnation—without realizing this teaching nullifies the truth of justification by faith and lays a basis for pantheism. Ministers and Bible teachers went on teaching the erroneous Irvingian view of the incarnation until it was corrected by the history-making review of the subject by Elder R. A. Anderson and Dr. Froom around 1956.
8. It fails to recognize that Christ broke the chain of sinful heredity. Every child of Adam had been born with a sinful heredity. There was no hope for the race unless Someone could come, break that line and establish a new inheritance of sinlessness. But those who teach the depravity of Christ's human nature want to see the chain of sinful inheritance maintained. They are so swallowed up with their idea of being saved by Christ's example and the hope of duplicating His life, that they think that salvation depends on making Him a sharer of our depravity.(7)
.(2) "Justification in Christ is the birthright of humanity; but in order to possess and enjoy it, each of us must claim and appropriate it by faith." A.H. Strong, Systematic Theology, p.803.
(3) See Q.D. p.59 and some of the statements arranged under the heading on p.655.
(4) The divine and the human natures were mysteriously united in Jesus; yet Jesus was one Person. If we think that this union of the divine and human in Jesus is an exact pattern of our union with the Divine nature, we are in real trouble. The union of God and the believer does not constitute them as one Person like the union of the Divine and human in the one Person of Christ. This is the great error of mysticism. By union with Christ the worshipper loses his personal identity, and it leads on to the pantheistic or spiritualistic view of absorption of the human personality into the Divine Personality. The same type of error is taught when holiness theology says, "It is Christ who obeys the law in me." All this tends to destroy individuality and personal identity. True union with Christ strengthens personal identity and restores man to his true individuality. We repeat: There is only one incarnation. Some theories sound like 144,000 incarnations and are plainly anti-Christian in this respect.
(5) Pelagius was a contemporary of Augustine who denied that men are born sinners. He taught that they became sinners by following the sinful example of Adam, and conversely become righteous by following the example of Christ. Pelagianism was universally rejected by the church as a gross form of legalism. The Roman Catholic Church gradually tended toward Pelagianism,. The Reformers weeded every bit of Pelagianism from their teachings.
(6) Edward Irving was a talented Presbyterian preacher who revived the ancient heresy of the sinful human nature of Christ in about 1830, an error for which he was condemned by his church. He was also a powerful preacher of the imminent second coming of Christ. His movement ran into fanaticism and Irving died a rather broken man at the age of 42.
(7) 1 John 4:3 has often been used in past Adventist literature to refer to the so-called Papal doctrine of Christ's sinless human nature. According to some of the best Biblical scholars, the apostle John was writing against the Ebbionite heresy which denied, not the true humanity of Jesus, but His divinity (See Strong's Systematic Theology, p.669). Ellen G. White seems to take the same view—See S.L. 63-64