Christ’s Incarnation: 2 Primary Lessons on Human Nature

The challenge in our age is not so much in answering the question of who God is. The Church has sufficiently tackled this question in by-gone generations. Our challenge, if we are to rightly understand the Christian faith, is to learn what a human is.

It seems to me that we Christians would do well to reflect on the orthodox doctrine of the incarnation: Christ is (was) one Person with two natures – i.e. the “God-Man.” In part, this doctrine holds that Jesus was both God and man in that He possessed both the divine will and a human will, yet remained one, undivided Person. There are two important views of human nature that should be gleaned from the incarnation of Christ:

1.) Jesus possessed a human will; a will which was free to follow or not follow God. Therefore humans have free-will.

If one holds to this doctrine as outlined in the great Ecumenical Councils of the Church then it reveals to us some essential characteristics of human nature. For Jesus to have been truly human, and therefore truly able to redeem mankind, He must have truly possessed a human will. And what do we see concerning Jesus’ human will as recorded in the gospels? We see a man who struggled with the temptation of sin in the wilderness, as well as a man who struggled with the divine will in the Garden of Gethsemane. In both circumstances Jesus had to exert his human will to submit to the divine will (“not My will, but Yours, be done” –Luke 22:42). It was not automatic, nor was it a matter of the divine will usurping the human will by divine fiat, i.e. “making” Jesus fulfill God’s righteousness.

This does serious damage to some western views of redemption. It is often taught, primarily from the Reformed view, that mankind has no free-will. God simply chooses who will be redeemed and who will suffer eternal torment without regard to the actions, mental or physical, of any given person. In short, one need not, or better put – cannot – cooperate with God in the process of redemption because man’s supposed “total depravity” makes him/her incapable of such. In addition, if man could somehow cooperate with redemption it would nullify the Reformed doctrine of irresistible grace and God’s sovereignty, among others.

But a proper understanding the incarnation of Christ demonstrates that Christ’s human nature was truly free to decide whether or not to follow the divine will. So the first step in forming an orthodox view of man requires one to acknowledge man’s part to play in his relationship with God. It is incorrect to see man through the lens of determinism, whether that determinism is of the scientific, the Gnostic (in the case of the early Valentinianism), or the Reformed varieties.

2.) If Christ was truly human then He must have been born with the same capacity to sin as the rest of us. Yet Christ remained sinless and could not have been sinless if He was born with the sin-guilt of Adam. Therefore, mankind does not inherit the sin-guilt of Adam.

The above statement does not imply that humanity did not inherit death from Adam, but rather the “sin-guilt” of Adam. If Jesus did not have a human will – i.e. free-will – just as we have, it could be said that Jesus had an advantage over other humans which made His life “easier” to live sinless. But this is not the case as Scripture makes plain: “He was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15). But if He was somehow immune to sin in the same way as, say, Superman was immune to bullets then His life no more reflects our actual trials with sin than Superman reflects our actual trials with bullets.

But what is commonly said in this respect is that as a consequence of being born of a virgin Christ was born sinless, just as Adam was born sinless. Therefore His advantage rests in the fact that He was born without “Original Sin” (i.e. sin-guilt). But again, if Jesus was born without this supposed quintessentially human attribute, then how exactly can we claim that Jesus was fully human just as we are? One must wonder if Adam was any less susceptible to sin than the rest of us? Did he not sin even while living in perfect circumstances in the Garden?

Jesus was indeed every bit as capable of sinning as we are yet He remained sinless. And if He remained sinless then He could not have been born in sin. In short, He was not born with the guilt of Adams sin; and neither are we! This is one of the major theological differences between the Eastern and Western traditions.

I’m fully conscious of the fact that this is a big admission, primarily because western theology has taught for centuries that the human race inherits the sin-guilt of Adam and is thereby guilty of sin at birth. Under this view it’s easy to see how the doctrine of “total depravity” gained credence and why salvific grace is conceived as irresistible; and hence the creation of the doctrine of double pre-destination: those who are redeemed were created for redemption and those who are damned were created for destruction. But one need not accept this view merely because it abounds in the West. There is an entire world of Christian faith that contradicts this western view; a faith whose theological tradition extends back to the Apostolic age and has always been the measure, not the deviation, of orthodox Christian teaching – i.e. Eastern Orthodoxy.

3 thoughts on “Christ’s Incarnation: 2 Primary Lessons on Human Nature

  1. I have not checked this quote so forgive me for my version but I think it will suffice for my question, if I may put it to you? What is meant by the sins of the fathers visited upon the sons? (I know it also works in reverse). How does this fit into this particular musing of yours?

    • Without looking up the verse and getting all Greeky with it, there is a very real “visiting” that sins pay to the sons of sinful fathers. In extreme general terms, we all inherit a world tainted by the generations that went before us and have to suffer the repercussions of that tainting – starting with our first primordial parents and the fall. I cannot see this idea of sons being punished for their father’s sins in the sense that they take on the guilt of their fathers in that Christ seemed to routinely deny such a thought (the verse I’m thinking of is the one about a tower falling on a number of people and killing them and Jesus is asked if it was the victim’s sins or their parents sins which caused this disaster to befall them, and Christ essentially says “neither.”).

      That’s the best I can do without digging further into it. Interesting question, though. What made you think of it?

    • Religious doctrine is such as complex subject for a layman. This is why I appreciate your unusual approach. I have never studied theology and have, therefore, only been in receipt of views which seemed to conflict with one another, without knowing their origins and then recognising the corollaries. This is why I like your work and hope you’ll write a book one day to help to unravel and clarify these inconsistencies for us interested laymen. This does of course, make me understand why some like the idea of an ‘effortless’ Christianity!! But, I have tried to use Christ’s simple admonition to understand and abide by the first two commandments.

      As to why this verse came to mind. I was trying to grasp and clarify the distinction you have made, when it just popped into my mind (no doubt because it appears to relate, in some way, to the same concept) and I tried to see if it shed any light on the subject. I thought that if it has been deemed relevant, in any way, to your issue, you will certainly be able to comment. With further thought myself, I do not find it contributing to the distinction you make and I feel confident that I have grasped your meaning and stand in agreement with it. I cannot see God’s justice in any other way.

      Thanks for your reply and your question provoking me to give further thought.

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