At first sight it might appear that the fifteenth Article introduces a wholly new topic for consideration. We switch from the consideration of the merit of works to the concept of the sinlessness of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Concerning the fact of our Lord’s sinlessness there is happily no controversy. The positive assertion that He was clearly void of sin in His flesh and in His spirit is thankfully accepted by all sections in the stormy days of the Reformation. It is important to notice these concordances. They clearly evince that certain facts of Scripture are so clearly demonstrated as to remove all reasonable doubt. Positively the Article asserts that Christ was without sin. Concerning this there is no ground of controversy. Negatively the Article asserts that Christ alone was without sin. Here there emerges an acute difference of opinion.
The Pelagians maintained that it was necessary to hold that the Blessed Virgin was sinless. Augustine while repudiating Pelagian error, declined to discuss this question “on account of the honour of our Lord.” This hesitancy set on foot a movement of a more positive character and weakened the witness to man’s sinfulness leading to the theories already indicated.
The Church of England takes a strong attitude on this question. The heading of the Article in Latin could be translated, “No one except Christ is without sin.”
The Bible is very explicit on the fact of universal sinfulness. In the prayer of Solomon we read, “There is no man that sinneth not”; David declares, “In Thy sight shall no man living be justified”; Paul asserts, “We have proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin”; John is responsible for the passage quoted in the Article, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Bishop Beveridge who is a diligent reader of the ancient Fathers cites Augustine, Anselm and John of Damascus to prove that the Blessed Virgin was conceived in sin. He also contends that the words, “What have I to do with thee ?” were interpreted by Ireneaus, Athanasius and Chrysostom as a rebuke, adding, “If He had cause to reprove her . . . she must needs have done something she ought not to have done.” Bishop Burnett in his commentary on the Thirty-Nine Articles is more emphatic against the idea of works of supererogation. He states that no one can perform a series of works over and above the commands of God unless he or she is free from all sin. He says, “That doctrine (or works of supererogation) with the consequences of it, having given the first occasion to the Reformation, it was thought necessary to overthrow it entirely.”
It is important to notice that freedom from sin attaches to the flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ as well as to His Spirit. As Dr. Moule tersely expresses it, “Our Blessed Lord was really tempted: our Blessed Lord could not sin.”
This Special Dignity.
We are justified in saying that in reserving this special dignity to the humanity of our Lord the Church of England is following the practice of all antiquity. Although, as has been said, Augustine declined to discuss the question of the freedom from sin of the Blessed Virgin when disputing with Pelagius, he quite definitely asserts that because our Lord had not been conceived in the same manner as the Blessed Virgin. He was not born in the flesh of sin but in the likeness of the flesh of sin. Scripture and tradition alike bear witness to the truth of the latter portion of the Article, “All we the rest, though baptised and born again in Christ, yet offend in many things.”
But there is a closer connection than appears at first sight. The theory of works of supererogation has behind it the notion that men not only can perform good works but that they can acquire greater merit than is found by the performance of God’s commands.
In order to establish this doctrine the Council of Trent condemned those who taught “that the commandments of God are, even for one that is justified and constituted in grace, impossible to keep” (Sess. VI. Canon XVIII). Further, while it is true that the dogma of The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary was not defined as an Article of faith until December 1854, the whole question was hotly debated ever since the beginning of the fourteenth century. There were ample reasons, therefore, why the Church of England should closely connect the Bible doctrine of the complete sinlessness of our Lord with the statements regarding the nature and extent of good works.
Apart from the theory of The Immaculate Conception of The Blessed Virgin the decree which declared that original sin was wholly removed by baptism; the opinion that a justified man could keep perfectly God’s commandments: and the view that a saint might exceed what was required of him: tended to weaken the Scripture evidence concerning the uniqueness of our Lord in relation to His complete freedom from sin.
39 Articles: Article 15 – Of Christ Alone Without Sin
Christ in the truth of our nature was made like unto us in all things, sin only except, from which he was clearly void, both in his flesh, and in his spirit. He came to be the Lamb without spot, who, by sacrifice of himself once made, should take away the sins of the world, and sin, as Saint John saith, was not in him. But all we the rest, although baptised, and born again in Christ, yet offend in many things; and if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
From the Vault of the Australian Church Record, October 11, 1956.This article is part of our Articulate series, listening to T.C. Hammond unpack the 39 Articles one by one.