Did Christ Assume a Fallen Human Nature?

Did Christ, in his incarnation, assume a fallen human nature? Most Christians I think would answer no to this question. Attempting to preserve the sinlessness of Christ have we gone too far in the other direction? I want to offer two commentary selections on Romans 8:3 and then recommend a book on the subject.

Romans 8:3 reads “For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh” (NIV) The critical phrase is “likeness of sinful flesh.”

Here’s a selection from C.K. Barrett’s commentary on Romans in the Black’s New Testament Commentary series.

“One possible suggestion is that Paul distinguished between flesh as it was created by God, and ‘flesh of sin’, that is, flesh which had fallen under the dominion of sin. Christ (on this view) had perfect, unfallen flesh, which nevertheless was indistinguishable in appearance from ‘flesh of sin’; he came in flesh, so that the incarnation was perfectly real, but only in the likeness of ‘flesh of sin’, so that he remained sinless.

It is doubtful, however, whether this is what Paul means. The word ‘form’ or llikeness’ (ὁμοίωμα) has already been used several times in the epistle (i. 23; v. 14; vi. 5), and in none of these places does it mean simply ‘imitation’. Compare also Phil. ii. 7, where Paul certainly does not mean to say that Christ only appeared to be a man. We are probably justified therefore in our translation, and in deducing that Christ took precisely the same fallen nature that we ourselves have, and that he remained sinless because he constantly overcame a proclivity to sin. It must be remembered that for Paul flesh (σάρξ) in theological use does not refer to material constituent of human existence but to the manner of human existence as it has, since the entry of sin, come in fact to be. It is the nature of fallen man, living in this world, to be wrapped up in himself. He is conditioned to this kind of existence by the human environment in which he finds himself. Christ found himself in the same human environment as all his fellow men and experienced the same pressures that they feel; yet he remained without sin, living a theocentric existence in an anthropocentric, egocentric, environment. It was in this environment—in the flesh—that sin had to be condemned and defeated if it was to be condemned and defeated at all.” (147)

More recently, consider this passage from Frank Matera’s commentary on Romans in the Paideia Commentary on the New Testament series.

“The precise meaning of the phrase Paul employs here, ‘in the likeness of sinful flesh’ (en homoiōmati sarkos hamaritias), is elusive for two reasons. First, as Florence Morgan Gillman notes (1987, 599), the noun homoiōma could imply ‘similarity but not full identity’ as it does in 1:23; 5:14; 6:5; or ‘full identity’ as it does in Phil. 2:7. Secondly, as Vincent Branick (1985) has argued, sarkos hamaritias can be taken in either an ethical or cosmic sense. Taken in an ethical sense, it suggests that Christ became human to the point of sinning. Taken in a cosmic sense, it means Christ entered into the cosmic situation of sin and death that afflicted Adam’s descendents. Given Paul’s insistence on Jesus humanity (Rom. 1:3; Gal. 4:4), it is unlikely that Paul employs ‘likeness’ in the sense of similarity but not full identity. And since Paul has already spoken of sin and death as cosmic forces and affirms Christ’s sinlessness in 2 Cor. 5:21, the phrase ‘sinful humanity’ is best taken as a description of the cosmic condition into which Christ entered rather than his sinfulness. In a word, Paul affirms that the preexistent Son, whom the Father ‘sent’ into the world, possessed the very ‘form,’ ‘image,’ and ‘likeness’ that defines the human condition. Accordingly, the Son entered the realm of sinful flesh—a realm determined by the cosmic powers of sin and death—as one totally human, but not a sinner. For had the Son of God sinned, he would have been no different than those whom he came to redeem. Instead of defeating sin in the realm of sinful flesh, he would have been defeated by sin.” (192)

One of the best treatments on this topic which answers our question in the affirmative is In the Likeness of Sinful Flesh by Thomas Weinandy. He writes:

“While Christian theologians have stressed that the Son of God became like us in every way, what they have almost universally neglected and ignored, both in the present and the past, is that in the Incarnation, the Son took upon himself, not some generic humanity, but our own sinful humanity. While he never sinned personally, or, as we will see, had an inner propensity to sin (concupiscence), nonetheless his humanity was of the race of Adam and he experienced, of necessity, many of the effects of sin which permeate the world and plague human beings—hunger and thirst, sickness and sorrow, temptation and harassment by Satan, being hated and despised, fear and loneliness, even death and separation from God. The eternal Son of God functioned within the confines of a humanity altered by sin and the Fall. ‘He was both God and the son of Eve.’ This then is what we mean, when throughout this study, we speak of ‘Jesus’ sinful humanity,’ his ‘sinful flesh,’ or his ‘sinful human nature.’” (17-18)

Weinandy treats the subject historically (finding it affirmed by Thomas Aquinas, Karl Barth, and Edward Irving [who was condemned for espousing the doctrine] among others), Biblically and theologically. It is a minority position but one that ought to be considered more carefully.



About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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6 Responses to Did Christ Assume a Fallen Human Nature?

  1. Terrance Tiessen says:

    Thanks for sharing those lucid commentaries arguing that Jesus had a sinful nature, i.e., the same proclivity to sin with which we come to be as humans. My main question in regard to that approach is how the incarnate Word came to have a corrupt nature. In my own understanding of the original sin of Adam and Eve, their proclivity to sin after their fall derived from their guilt which alienated from God, the source of the goodness in which they were originally created. All of us who are “in Adam” begin our human lives corrupted and hence with a proclivity to sin because we are born guilty by virtue of our solidarity with Adam. As in the case of Adam after the fall, we are corrupt because we are guilty and hence alienated from God who alone is inherently good. As the second Adam, Jesus was (in my understanding) the head of a new race and hence began in the same goodness that Adam had before his fall. Being completely at peace with the Father, the incarnate Son therefore had none of the proclivity to sin that derives from the alienation brought about by guilt. Certainly, however, the second Adam had to live his life of perfect obedience in a much more difficult situation than did the first Adam, because, as your commentators noted, he lived in an environment drastically changed by sin.

    That is my take on it, but I appreciate your careful citation of an alternative view. What I’d like to hear them explain is the mechanism by which the second Adam received the corruption of original sin.


    • Louis says:

      Thanks Terrance for your comment. Since Weinandy is a Catholic he holds to the Immaculate Conception. Colin Gunton in the Forward questions whether Weinandy can affirm his thesis and still maintain the Immaculate Conception. Weinandy provides an answer in the author’s postscript which I won’t go into here but suffice it to say I think he comes fairly close to answering your question. He says, “It is evident then that I do not see that my thesis that Jesus’ possessed a humanity of the fallen race of Adam is in any way incompatible with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. What I have said of Jesus’ humanity can equally be said of Mary’s, except that her sinless humanity was the fruit of her son’s death and resurrection. While Mary was preserved from the moral corruption of sin with its crippling spiritual aftermath, yet it was from her that Jesus, in direct line with Adam, inherited a humanity marred and disfigured by sin.” (156)


  2. Cody Lee says:

    Terrance, I wouldn’t say that ‘alienation’ is brought about by ‘guilt. The ‘guilt’ aspect that you are referring to seems to be Augustinian. Augustine believed that we are all guilty of Adam and Eve’s sin in the garden. The Eastern Orthodox, and actually I think some Catholics now hold that what we inherit from Adam and Eve is a corrupt human nature, and not guilt in a legal sense. We inherit a fallen and broken humanity that includes and ‘alienated mind’, corrupt will, and flesh that dies, etc. These things lead us to commit acts of sin, and away from God. That would mean that the problem is ‘ontological’ and not ‘legal’ primarily. The early Fathers such as Athanasius, and Cyril, spoke of the Incarnation as a redeeming act. Christ by taking our humanity, broken by sin, lifted it up into union with God. He lived out His Sonship in that flesh, thereby redeeming and judging it in one act. In this way, and following Gregory Nazianzen ‘the unasumed is unhealed’, would mean that it is integral that Christ assume the same humanity that we partake of if we are to be saved, and He does this through union with it, and dying and rising, recreating it. I think staying away from the Augustinian approach to guilt helps in better understanding how this is possible.


  3. Mark Ciraulo says:

    Christ is the (second) adam. This reference alone describes His sinless nature.
    Jesus was fully man when He walked the earth, although He wad and is the Word, He became flesh.
    He laid aside all of His Diety in order to live as a man completely subject to the Father and His will.
    One does not have to possess a sin nature in order to be tempted. Adam and Eve had no sin nature when they were tempted.
    The sin nature became alive in the human race when Adam and Eve submitted to sin.
    All men that have a fallen nature are unable to live a perfect life without sin.
    The sin nature means that it is your nature to sin.
    You don’t have to teach a child to do bad, they will automatically do this by nature.
    Jesus did not rely on His divinity to live without sin. Jesus was the Word (made) Flesh.
    Adam was also flesh but did not have a sin nature.
    The sin nature is passed down through the man, not the woman, because the man is the one tht carries the seed, the woman only has a womb waiting to br fertilized.
    The proof of this is in Romans 5:12
    Hence, the necessity of Jesus being born of a woman, but not of a man.
    Jesus was born of the Holy Ghost. Mary was impregnated with the seed of God, not the seed of a man, and was born of a human mother, thereby intoducing Him into the human race without a fallen nature, just like the first Adam. Gal 4:4
    Jesus had a Divine nature, as did Adam, but unlike Adam, he chose to be obediant and faithful to God.
    We obtain the same divine nature when we become born-again, but because of our flesh we will fight our fallen nature until we die.
    So here is the del
    Jesus had a divine nature, not fallen.
    All men without Christ have only a fallen nature.
    Those thatbare born-again have two natures, the divine-which resides in the spirit and the fallen-which resides in our flesh thanks to adam.
    Christians are ever learnibg ho to walk in the spirot-the divine nature
    And ever lernibpng and struggling with the flesh-our fallen nature.
    You will find much study on the two natures existing in a christian’s life, the struggle between the flesh and the Spirit. The mind of the spirit and the mind of the flesh.
    If we follow the instruction and dictates of our divine nature we will be transformed into the image and likeness of Christ.
    God is still at work today creating man in His Image and likenedd, when Jesus walked the earth as a man completely willingly subject to the Father, He was the exact representation of the image and likeness of God. He even said Himself,he that hath seen me, hath seen the Father.
    Hope this small study helps.
    Mark Ciraulo


  4. Steve says:

    What kind of human being was Jesus? What kind of inheritance did Jesus receive from Mary? Was He exempt from the laws of inheritance by which we are born? Did His nature pull Him toward sin like ours does?

    What flesh did Jesus take?

    “God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh.” Romans 8:3

    True___ False___ Jesus came in the likeness of sinful flesh.

    The first thing to understand is that the word “flesh” in this text, and in many other New Testament references, means fallen nature as we know it in our own natures. It refers to the basic equipment we all inherit as a result of Adam’s sin. Sinful flesh in this verse means the fallen nature which we all share from our birth.

    But what does it mean when we read that Christ came “in the likeness of sinful flesh? What does “likeness” mean? Does it mean “real” or “similar to”?

    What likeness was Jesus made in?

    “And took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men.” Philippians 2:7

    (A) ______ Jesus was made in the likeness of angels.
    (B) ______ Jesus was made in the likeness of princes.
    (C) ______ Jesus was made in the likeness of normal men.

    The same Greek word for “likeness” is used in both verses. Was Jesus made similar to human beings or did He become a real human being? I think all would agree that when Jesus came down to this earth He became a real man. But we don’t have to rely on our common sense or deductions here.

    How did Jesus come to earth?

    “Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.” 1 John 4:2,3

    (A) _____ Those who believe that Jesus came in the flesh are wrong.
    (B) _____ The spirit of antichrist says that Jesus came in the flesh.
    (C) _____ Those who are of God say that Jesus came in the flesh.

    Remember that flesh in the New Testament means our fallen nature. Here we have conclusive evidence that Jesus was not only a real flesh-and-blood human being, but that He really did take our flesh. In Philippians 2:7 we read that Jesus took the likeness of man. Clearly this means that Jesus really became a human being. Here “likeness” means “real.” In Romans 8:3 we read that He came “in the likeness of sinful flesh.” Did Jesus just look as if He had sinful flesh, or did He actually have sinful flesh?

    The Expositors Greek Testament comments on this verse: “But the emphasis…is on Christ’s likeness to us, not His unlikeness;…what he (Paul) means by it is that God sent His Son in that nature which in us is identified with sin.” (Vol. 2, pp. 645,646) It would seem that if we are to interpret likeness in Philippians 2:7 as our actual human nature, then we must interpret likeness in Romans 8:3 as actual sinful flesh.

    What did Jesus actually take?

    “Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same.” Hebrews 2:14

    True___ False___ Jesus did not take our flesh and blood.

    Jesus actually took the same flesh and blood that we receive at our birth. This debate about the nature of Christ could easily be settled with some basic questions. Was Jesus born with the same “flesh” with which we are born? Does the Bible teach that He had a special exemption from our “flesh” so that He could have a perfectly sinless nature?

    How much like us was Jesus made?

    “For verily he took not on him the nature of angels; but he took on him the seed of Abraham. Wherefore in all things it behooved him to be made like unto his brethren.” Hebrews 2:16,17

    (A) ______ Jesus took the nature of angels.
    (B) ______ Jesus took the nature of Adam.
    (C) ______ Jesus took the seed of Abraham.

    If Jesus was born in the seed of Abraham, then we only have to ask the question, What nature did all the seed (descendants) of Abraham receive? Clearly they all received fallen nature as a birthright. Notice also that the text says that Jesus was made like his brethren (us) in all things.

    Another inspired reference supports this conclusion. “It would have been an almost infinite humiliation for the Son of God to take man’s nature, even when Adam stood in his innocence in Eden. But Jesus accepted humanity when the race had been weakened by four thousand years of sin. Like every child of Adam He accepted the results of the working of the great law of heredity. What these results were is shown in the history of His earthly ancestors. He came with such a heredity to share our sorrows and temptations, and to give us the example of a sinless life.” The Desire of Ages, p. 49. (Emphasis supplied)

    What are the results of the law of heredity for us? What nature did Jesus’ ancestors inherit? The answer to these questions is all too obvious. The only possible conclusion is that Jesus came with the same heredity that David and Abraham had.

    Conclusion: There is no inspired evidence that Jesus inherited only the physical results of the fall, such as hunger, weakness, thirst, and mortality, but that He did not inherit dispositional traits. These areas cannot be separated. If the law of heredity was operative, it was operative totally. If we receive traits of character from our parents, then Jesus received traits of character from His mother, for she was a fully human mother. If we do not believe that she was immaculately conceived, then we must believe that she had the same fallen nature than all human beings possess, and that she passed that nature on to her Son. There is no inspired evidence to suggest that the chain of heredity was broken between Mary and Jesus.

    The only reason that this clear Biblical evidence is denied is because many Christians believe that to have a fallen nature is to be a condemned sinner. Therefore, they say, it would have been impossible for Jesus to have received a fallen nature from Mary, because that would have made Him a sinner, too, and He could not have been our sinless Saviour. This is the reason for the doctrine of the immaculate conception of Mary–to protect Jesus from any stain of sin. This is why many Christians talk about Christ being “exempted” from the normal laws of heredity. The real issue here is the nature of sin (Lessons 1-4) . This is why we began this series of lessons on righteousness by faith with the study of sin. If we do not understand the Biblical definition of sin, we cannot understand the Incarnation of Christ, and we will develop a false gospel, based on false premises about sin.

    If Christ did not fully descend to our level, Satan would have cried “Foul” immediately, and nothing in the name of justice would have been accomplished in answering basic questions in the plan of salvation. To place Him above our nature, living in Adam’s perfect nature, is to obscure the amazing victory He gained for us.

    Where does the strength of our temptations lie? Surely within our fallen nature. Christ knows by experience what it means to be tempted from within. We can rejoice that Jesus did not sidestep the ugliness of being born into a fallen world, to fallen parents, with a fallen nature. We indeed have a Saviour who is very near to us. He did not quarantine Himself from the disease of a fallen nature, giving us instructions by long distance communication, but He stepped right into the battle zone with us. He takes our hand and will lead us out of the quagmire in which we find ourselves, if only we do not resist. Praise God for such a Saviour!


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