That the Son of God assumed or took on human flesh in what we call the incarnation is beyond dispute in orthodox Christian belief. But what kind of “flesh” did the Son of God assume unto himself when he became human? Was it fallen, sinful flesh, like yours and mine? Or was it unfallen flesh, devoid of the inherent sinful impulses that we all experience? In other words, were the temptations that Jesus encountered (Heb. 4:15) entirely external to himself, or did he resist promptings and temptations that arose from a fallen human nature within?
That it was a human nature or flesh susceptible to the ravages of sin is undeniable. Although it was a genuine human nature, with all its limitations, a nature that was subject to hunger, thirst, pain, fatigue, and ultimately physical death, I’m persuaded that it was a nature free from the taint of original sin, a nature that in no way was disposed to or prompted by internal sinful urges.
What Did Paul Mean?
So, what does Paul mean when he says this in Romans 8:3—“For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh”? There is much for our consideration in this text, but here I restrict myself to the phrase “in the likeness of sinful flesh.” What does this mean?
There is no doubt but that by “sinful flesh” Paul refers to fallen human nature. The question, then, is this: Why did he not simply say that God sent his Son “in the flesh”? That is what John says in John 1:14 (“and the Word became flesh”). Why did he include the adjective “sinful”? Had he said, “in sinful flesh” without qualification we would likely conclude that Jesus did in fact have a fallen, sinful human nature. Which raises the question, why does he include the word “likeness”?
Some argue that Paul introduced the word “likeness” because he wanted to avoid affirming the true humanity of Christ. This is one version of the ancient heresy known as Docetism. According to this view, Christ’s “flesh” or human nature only seemed (from the Greek, dokeō) to be human flesh. Rather, the body of Jesus was a phantom or took on a ghost-like appearance.
But in the second half of verse 3, Paul says that God condemned sin “in the flesh” and there is no qualification of the reality of the “flesh” that was condemned when Christ was nailed to the cross. Also, and even more explicitly, the apostle John says that “every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God” (1 John 4:2b) and that every spirit that does not make this confession is “the spirit of antichrist” (1 John 4:3). And then there are numerous other places in the New Testament where the reality of Christ’s human nature (his flesh) is clearly asserted.
Others contend that Paul makes use of the word “likeness” in Romans 8:3 to affirm that Jesus never committed an act of sin. Thus, he took on fallen human nature, like ours, but unlike ours in that he never actually acted on a sinful impulse. Unfortunately, though, that does not address the question of whether he experienced “sinful impulses” from within his own human nature.
We know that he was not guilty of human sin, like we are. Tom Schreiner also points out that whereas “likeness” may denote “mere similarity” it also has the notion of “identity,” such that “the Son did not merely resemble human flesh but participated fully in sinful flesh. Still, it doesn’t follow logically that the Son himself sinned” (Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, [Baker Books, 2nd Edition, 2018], 399).
My only concern here is with the phrase “participated fully in sinful flesh.” What precisely does that mean?
Also, if all that Paul intended was that Jesus never actually committed any act of sin, it reads quite awkwardly. To say that he came “in the likeness of sinful flesh” is an admittedly odd way of saying he never actually sinned. The word “likeness” more likely is used to indicate a difference between Christ’s human nature and ours, not what he did with or how he acted upon that nature.
C. E. B. Cranfield has yet another interpretation. He suggests that “the intention behind the use of homoiōma [‘likeness’] here . . . was to take account of the fact that the Son of God was not, in being sent by the Father, changed into a man, but rather assumed human nature while still remaining himself.”
The Son of God was not, in being sent by the Father, changed into a man, but rather assumed human nature while still remaining himself.
Thus “the intention is not in any way to call into question or to water down the reality of Christ’s sarx hamartias [‘sinful flesh’] but to draw attention to the fact that, while the Son of God truly assumed sarx hamartias, he never became sarx hamartias and nothing more” (The Epistle to the Romans, Volume 1 [T. & T. Clark Ltd., 1975] 1:381). Again, says Cranfield, “the Son of God assumed the selfsame fallen human nature that is ours, but that in his case that fallen human nature was never the whole of him—he never ceased to be the eternal Son of God” (1:382).
Then there are those, including me, who contend that Paul used the word “likeness” to avoid saying that Christ assumed fallen human nature. He took on flesh like ours, because it was really and truly human flesh, a genuine human nature. But it was only “like” ours, and not identical with it, because it was unfallen. He does not use the word “likeness” to deny or undermine the reality of Christ’s human nature, as if to say that his flesh only resembles ours but has no qualitative affinity with it. He uses “likeness” because he feels compelled to use the phrase “sinful flesh” instead of merely “flesh.” Had Paul omitted the word “sinful” he also would have omitted the word “likeness.”
The question, then, is why Paul includes the word “sinful” at all? John Murray explains:
He is concerned to show that when the Father sent the Son into this world of sin, of misery, and of death, he sent him in a manner that brought him into the closest relation to sinful humanity that it was possible for him to come without becoming himself sinful. He himself was holy and undefiled—the word “likeness” guards this truth. But he came in the same human nature. And that is the purpose of saying “sinful flesh.” No other combination of terms could have fulfilled these purposes so perfectly.” (The Epistle to the Romans, [Eerdmans, 1960], 1:280).
Similarly, Douglas J. Moo argues that homoiōma “probably has the nuance of ‘form’ rather than ‘likeness’ or ‘copy.’ In other words, the word does not suggest superficial or outward similarity, but inward and real participation or ‘expression’” (The Letter to the Romans, New International Commentary on the New Testament, [Eerdmans, 2018], 479). Paul, he suggests, “is walking a fine line here. On the one hand, he wants to insist that Christ fully entered into the human condition, became ‘in-fleshed’ (in-carnis), and, as such, exposed himself to the power of sin (cf. 6:8–10). On the other hand, he must avoid suggesting that Christ so participated in this realm that he became imprisoned ‘in the flesh’ . . . and became, thus, so subject to sin that he could be personally guilty of it” (479–80).
This leaves one fundamental question unanswered. Is it inherently “sinful” to experience sinful urges or inclinations, or is it only sinful to act upon them?
Is it inherently “sinful” to experience sinful urges or inclinations, or is it only sinful to act upon them?
Peter speaks of “the passions of the flesh, which wage war against” our souls (1 Pet. 2:11). Did Jesus experience such passions but simply refused to yield to them? Is the mere existence of such passions in a human soul an indictment, or must there be a choice to follow their promptings in concrete thought and action?
In the final analysis, I must concur with Murray and Moo. Jesus did not have a sinful nature. Although he was susceptible to the effects of the fall, insofar as he experienced physical weakness and, ultimately, physical death, he experienced no sinful or selfish passions.
One thing is certain and beyond debate. Jesus never committed an act of sin. The sinless life of Jesus is absolutely essential for his capacity to serve as our sacrificial substitute, an atoning death in which he was not dying for his own transgressions but for ours (see 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15).