Sinlessness

July 9, 2004 | 13 comments
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We often say that Christ was sinless, that he was the only sinless human being. Surprisingly, that isn’t a teaching that we find often in the scriptures. The word “sinless” doesn’t occur in the scriptures. Using the sacrificial type, two scriptures describe him as “without spot” (Hebrews 9:14, 1 Peter 1:19). We infer his sinlessness from other scriptures and, especially, from the teaching of latter-day prophets. But what does it mean to say that he was sinless?

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13 Responses to Sinlessness

  1. danithew on July 9, 2004 at 7:30 pm

    I’m not sure what it means to be sinless, except that he must have gained knowledge during his pre-mortal existence that normally the rest of us mortals have to gain during mortality. I draw this conclusion from the following verse:

    2 Nephi 2:23
    And they would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin.

    If I understand what Lehi is teaching here, Adam and Eve needed to become acquainted with sin so that they could discern the difference between good and evil and choose the good.

    Since we believe the Savior was sinless or spotless, my thinking is that he would have had to gain the knowledge that Lehi is talking about in some other way.

  2. clarkgoble on July 9, 2004 at 7:59 pm

    Related to the comments on Matt 5:48, I suspect part of the problem is a distinction between being in a world of sin and choosing sin. Perhaps that distinction would resolve the Matt 5:48 conundrum as well.

    It really is the same problem that our orthodox Christian friends face with the dual nature. If we say that Jesus was fully human and to be human is to have a body of sin, we say Jesus was in a state of sin. If we say that he wasn’t, was he really dual natured?

    I think we don’t want to say Jesus was in a state of sin because of the blurring between being in a state of sin and sinning. We have the same tension with respect to original sin. We reject original sin but adopt a lot of its ideas in terms of being fallen. Perhaps we ought rather keep sin as a word for intentionally choosing to sin and fallenness for what is sometimes also called sinfulness?

  3. john fowles on July 9, 2004 at 8:12 pm

    If we believe that Mary was literally Jesus’s mother and Heavenly Father his literal physical father, then we see that he inherited from his mother a physical body that was just as susceptible as ours is to the temptation to sin, as well as all other infirmities of the flesh. The scriptures tell us that Christ can succor his people. It seems that he would not be able to do this honestly or fairly unless he knew what it was like to be us–unless he suffered the same temptations but unlike us did not cave in to them.

    That is the sense in which he is spotless, perhaps. He is the only human being who, despite the pressures of the adversary and of the mortal tabernacle, with its accompanying biology, temptations, and infirmities, chose of his own free will not to succomb. It seems to me that to truly be able to succor us, he needs to have done this from our same level, i.e. not to “cheat” by using his divine powers to overcome these temptations and infirmities. If he did resort to his divine powers to overcome e.g. the temptation to lust after a woman to whom he was not married (see other thread), then he would not be able to succor us in our times of trouble, because we have no recourse to supernatural or superhuman powers from within ourselves to overcome these things.

    This makes Jesus’ sinlessness or spotlessness before God all the more amazing and instructive for us. He did it without recourse to powers that we generally do not have regular access to (because we all have two mortal, earthly parents and he has one mortal and one immortal parent of his physical body).

    In conjunction with the passages that talk about how Jesus grew in his understanding, perhaps there is something in that about his spotlessness. That is, perhaps we only start counting once he attained a level of understanding that allowed him to know good from evil and to consistently choose good for its own sake. In a sense, we are all also working towards this level, but we know that we cannot fully reach it until we obtain our resurrected physical bodies. Jesus just got there much faster and set the example for us while at the same time showing us the end goal of our strivings, a moral state of being in which we all, like him, choose good for its own sake, without any compulsion (or even inclination) in doing so.

  4. danithew on July 9, 2004 at 8:20 pm

    At least the scriptures give one basic description of Jesus being tempted but not giving into them:

    Doctrine and Covenants 20:21-24
    21 Wherefore, the Almighty God gave his Only Begotten Son, as it is written in those scriptures which have been given of him.
    22 He suffered temptations but gave no heed unto them.
    23 He was crucified, died, and rose again the third day;
    24 And ascended into heaven, to sit down on the right hand of the Father, to reign with almighty power according to the will of the Father;

  5. Kingsley on July 9, 2004 at 8:22 pm

    Wow, John Fowles, you have a way of cutting through complexity clearly, simply, and intelligently that I’m envious of. I think C.S. Lewis somewhere pithily states that Christ’s perfection is only really impressive if he had had, like us, to use entirely human means to attain it.

  6. Keith on July 9, 2004 at 9:05 pm

    Jim,

    “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15)

    I take “without sin” to be fundamentally the same as saying “sinless”? And, as you say, there have been numerous clear statements that this is the case.

    I think when we say sinless we mean there was no deviating from his Father’s will in action or thought or basic desire and direction of life. He was one with the Father, or when the Son wasn’t yet fully one with the Father, when he didn’t have the fullness yet (not because of sin, but simply for not having experienced some things), the Son submitted willingly and completely to the will of the Father. So though he was sinless, there were things he needed to do, learn, become, etc., to be fully like his Father. (That’s my reading of D&C 93, Alma 7 and so on, of his learning things, receiving grace for grace.)

    It seems to me that this is the amazing thing about the Son, that in every moment, both those of obvious decision and those that simply manifest who we are both in how we see the world and in how we respond to it, there was absolutely no wandering from love, holiness, obedience, faith, submission, etc. There was no moment when he knew to do good and did not do it. Such sounds impossibly fantastic to us who slip daily, hourly, even moment to moment. But there was someone like that and so we have our Exemplar and Judge. We can’t argue with him that living without sin is impossible or that we should be excused in our sin. And even if it were, in some sense, impossible for us to live our entire lives without sin, he offers a way out and a way to become sinless and sanctified. As it plays out in our day to day lives, this is, I think, at least part of what we mean when we say he was sinless.

  7. greenfrog on July 10, 2004 at 2:13 am

    If a child wet from the waters of baptism is perfect and sinless, what is the difference between the sinless condition of that child and the sinless condition of Christ?

  8. Keith on July 10, 2004 at 4:15 am

    Greenfrog,

    I take the situation of being “perfect” (or whole) and sinless at baptism to be the condition of being justified–cleansed from sin, forgiven, my past no longer a rift between me and God. But even if, as happens at baptism or in taking the sacrament, I am forgiven, I am not yet fully like the Father. I am not yet fully sanctified, not fully holy or possessing all the godlike attributes. I like to think of it in terms of having left Egypt but not having yet arrived at the promised land.

    I suppose the difference between Christ and the person newly washed by baptism might be described as there being one who was/is always clean compared to one who has been cleansed. The ultimate result looks much the same, but there is this difference.

  9. greenfrog on July 10, 2004 at 11:50 am

    That doesn’t seem to square with the idea that forgiven sins are no longer remembered, but I have never quite grasped how to understand that concept, as well.

  10. Measure on July 10, 2004 at 2:36 pm

    I used to think that Christ was our perfect example. He came to earth, and fulfilled all principles and ordinances of the Gospel, perfectly, to show us the path we should strive to follow.

    This kind of thinking led me to believe that Christ must have been sealed to a companion while on this earth.

    But one thing has come up that has become a roadblock to this understanding. If Christ was the perfect example to us, he would also have had to show us how to correctly repent. But with no sins, he couldn’t do this.

    My conclusion: Either Christ did sin and perfectly repent, or Christ did not sin and was not a perfect example for our lives.

    please don’t excommunicate me.

  11. Sheldon Lawrence on July 10, 2004 at 2:53 pm

    My wife and I are reading a book about Ghandi and we commented how his achievements were somehow more impressive because he started out a regular guy who was full of fear, fought with his wife, etc… and then overcame those things one by one through the disciplined application of correct principles. He started out miserable but overcame many things through faith. I believe this is more inspirational than hearing about one who was perfect from the beginning to the end.

    Which is why I don’t think Christ was. I think overdoing his sinlessness and perfection actually diminishes him and his teachings. I believe he actually suffered temptations in the true sense of the phrase. I think the verb “to tempt” requires the participation of both parties. Can one tempt a rock or a door knob? No, because the thing being tempted is not responsive. There is not element of struggle. How can we call something a victory if there is no struggle? How can we find a true exemplar and co-sufferer in Christ if he simply brushed off temptations life fleas? I believe there was an element of struggle in all his incredible moral victories. Was “Forgive them for they know not what they do” just the automatic response of a god, or the awe-inspiring phrase of a man who was becoming perfect?

  12. Gerald on July 13, 2004 at 3:07 pm

    I remember years ago when I worked for DI and I wanted to punish some of my employees. My manager reminded me of forgiveness and offered the cliche’ that the “first time is a mistake, the second time is a sin.” I wonder if our conception of sinlessness precludes or embraces the idea of mistakes. In my life, I am comforted by a Savior that learned, due to ignorance, from his human mistakes. This would help him learn righteous behavior through experience(D&C 122), never repeating the mistake again. This would explain Jesus’ perfect empathy with the human condition, while keeping him spotless in the eyes of God.

  13. Jack on July 13, 2004 at 4:22 pm

    I think the key to the Savior’s perfection is found in His love for the Father. In my view the only way of doing the right thing for the right reason is to do it for the right person for the right reason. In this the Savior never failed. His love for the Father was constant. It was His primary affection, and His love for His brethren was like unto it.

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