Was Jesus Morally Depraved? An Assessment

Carlton Wynne
Nephrologists will tell you that healthy kidneys are vital to human life. Their primary function is to filter out waste in the bloodstream that, if not removed, will kill the whole body. They will also tell you that failed kidneys cannot heal themselves. They need a healthy substitute--either a healthy kidney that is donated or a well-functioning dialysis machine--for pre-mature death to be avoided. It would be folly to think that substituting an equally failed kidney for those already failed could heal the body.
Contrary to that reality for the human body, some in the broadly Reformed theological world have advanced the notion that the spiritually unhealthy can only be healed by One who is equally unhealthy. More specifically, the idea is that for Christ to atone for the depraved, he must in his incarnation have taken on a human nature that was, itself, totally depraved or "fallen."

To be clear, traditional Westminster theology holds that the Son assumed a nature beset with the "common infirmities" (WCF 8.3; cf. WSC 27, WLC 46-50) of our accursed humanity and thereby was subject to the mortality, weakness, dishonor, hunger, thirst, anguish, sorrow, dread, and every other sinless human emotion and liability to evil that accrued to him during his earthly ministry. This life-long temptation through suffering in weakness as the God-man was indispensible to his atoning work and now renders him an all-sympathetic and sufficient Savior in heaven (Heb 2:17-18; 4:15-16; 7:26-27). 

But those in view here who hold that Christ assumed a "fallen" human nature advocate for a stronger sense of "fallenness," asserting that Christ also entered personally into the moral corruption, enslavement, and bondage to sin that plagues sinners' human nature--only to heal that nature from the inside out by bending it back towards God through lifelong obedience. By taking to himself a fallen (i.e., corrupt, enslaved) nature and yet never committing sinful acts, it is supposed, the Son of God implicated himself fully into our actual condition and emerged victorious as our Savior. On this account, to deny that Christ's human nature was fallen (i.e., corrupt, enslaved) is to insulate Christ from the sinful, fleshly (sarkic) matrix from which fallen man needs to be redeemed and deprives his human nature of the full equivalency with those needing atonement that, it is contended, is necessary for atonement to be achieved. Relatedly, it is argued that to deny that Christ's human nature was fallen (i.e., corrupt, enslaved) is to render the incarnation merely an instrumental prelude to the atonement rather than, as proponents often insist, intrinsically atoning, itself.

Those tracking with my general description of this position will recognize that its most able defenders were the 20th century giants Karl Barth and T. F. Torrance. The position finds more recent expression in Clark and Johnson's The Incarnation of God: The Mystery of the Gospel as the Foundation of Evangelical Theology (Crossway, 2015). To their credit, these thinkers have recognized that, in order to save, Christ had to be "made like his brothers in every respect" (Heb 2:17) and they have therefore sought to promote a thoroughgoing incarnation that includes inherent depravity and enslavement to sin. But what does this notion that Christ took a fallen/corrupt/depraved humanity actually entail?

In the case of Barth and Torrance, Jesus' assumption of a fallen (i.e., corrupt, enslaved) human nature is organically linked with broader redefinitions of (a) revelation, (b) the purpose of Israel's history, (c) the believer's union with Christ, and (d) the nature of Scripture (for more on these themes, see, e.g., Kevin Chiarot's The Unassumed is the Unhealed [Pickwick, 2013]). Critical as these issues are, my focus here is on other, equally serious consequences that ensue from the notion that our Lord assumed a fallen/depraved/corrupt/enslaved human nature:

(1) A Savior who needs saving. An incarnate Savior beset with original sin--if original sin means anything--is a Savior caught in bondage to the corrupting and enslaving power of sin (cf. Rom 6:6). This means that Christ, along with the rest of mankind, was at some definite point in bondage to Satan's dominion (Eph 2:2), that he was plagued to the core by "the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life" (1 John 2:16), and that he was personally darkened in his human understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that was in him, due to his hardness of heart (Eph 4:18). That being said, it is particularly vexing how a depraved and therefore spiritually helpless Jesus could be of any help to sinners. 

One might evade this conclusion by claiming that in his incarnation either the Son's divine nature or the Holy Spirit (or both) immediately sanctified his fallen flesh. Thus in some sense Christ would be enabled to act freely in obedience to God, despite his native corruption. But, if this were the case, then he would not really be enslaved to sin like the rest of mankind, and the claim that he entered fully into our fallen condition would fall flat. For if a fallen Christ actualizes any spiritual capacity to obey and thereby heal his own fallen nature, then, in the words of Miracle Max, Christ would have arrived on earth only "mostly dead," not "all dead," in his spiritual condition. And the Reformed have long seen a big difference between being mostly dead and all dead (Rom 7:18, 24; Rom 8:7-8; Eph 2:1; Titus 1:15). To be mostly dead is to be slightly alive--something that is never true of spiritually moribund people.

(2) The denial of the guilt of original sin. An inherent disposition to sin, such as Christ is supposed to have assumed, is not only sinful and morally debilitating. It is also culpable. To say otherwise--for example to affirm original sin but deny the guilt annexed to it--strikes me as an untenable truncating of the nature of sin, which for Paul inevitably renders sinners liable to guilt and therefore condemnation (Rom 5:12-19). This point deserves all the emphasis we can give it: there is no pollution without guilt, no guilt without condemnation, and no reversal of the guilty verdict without expiating that guilt. Even were we to sideline the imputed guilt of Adam's first sin to his posterity (Rom 5:16, 18), the personal guilt adhering to our existential corruption would remain. The Westminster divines agreed, writing that "[e]very sin, both original and actual" is "a transgression of the righteous law of God, and contrary unto, [and] doth in its own nature, bring guilt upon the sinner" (WCF 6.6). For this reason, our inherent corruption must be "pardoned" in Christ, not just the sinning that flows from it, because both the corruption itself and all actual sins proceeding from it "are truly and properly sin." (WCF 6.5). Richard Gaffin puts it well: "Paul knows of no sin, whether imputed, inborn disposition or actual commission, that does not entail guilt and judicial liability for its consequences" (By Faith Not By Sight, p.32). 
Here again, but from another angle, a Christ who assumed a fallen (i.e., corrupt, enslaved) nature is not only spiritually impotent to save but also liable to condemnation, himself, on account of the guilt owing to his own sinful corruption. To presume that Christ assumed a fallen nature is to assume too little regarding sin and to presume too much upon divine justice. To put it mildly, this is hardly conducive to gospel health.

(3) A transforming of sin into a metaphysical reality, not an ethical problem. In addition to diminishing the debilitating and condemning power of original sin, the notion that Christ must have assumed a fallen (i.e., corrupt, enslaved) human nature in order to be "made like his brothers in every respect" (Heb 2:17) subtly transforms sin into a constituent of human nature per se rather than an acquired status and condition by virtue of man's failed ethical response to God and his covenant revelation. By contrast, those who maintain (against Barth; see CD, 4/1, pp. 478-513) a genuine transition from man's original state of innocence to an estate of sin and misery through Adam's historical fall hold that human nature as such is necessarily finite but not fallen. To put it differently, original sin is not a given of created humanity, but came upon humanity in the fall. It is, therefore, an ethical, not a metaphysical, aspect of the post-fall condition of man prior to his ethical resurrection in regeneration. 
It is precisely this that underscores the necessity of our redemption by Christ (cf. John 3:36) who took to himself a complete human nature but not a corrupt human nature. This is how Gregory of Nazianzus' famous maxim, "the unassumed is the unhealed"--a phrase specifically designed to refute the Apollinarian heresy--ought to be understood. In fact, Christ's moral integrity of soul across every phase of his fully human development (Luke 2:40, 46, 49, 52; Heb 5:8-10) combined with his physical mortality to qualify him as the perfectly suited Savior of fallen sinners (Heb 4:15; WLC 38-39). As Warfield reminds us, it is not for nothing that Paul said Christ came, not in sinful flesh, but "in the likeness of sinful flesh" (Rom 8:3). He who was not under a curse for being a man, nevertheless as a man became a curse for us (Gal 3:13). An entailment of this glorious reality is that he was tempted like us in every way except that he was "without sin" (Heb 4:15)--utterly--not that he merely refrained from committing sin out of an intrinsic depravity.

(4) Pastoral misfires for the hurting. Any distortion of sin's scope, power, and nature is bound to rob Christ of his redeeming glory. Additionally attributing innate depravity to Christ robs him of redemption itself. But it will also introduce pastoral counseling that is detrimental to Christians who are struggling with sin. For example, a well-meaning pastor recently told a believer wrestling with same-sex attraction that, if we take Heb 4:15 "at face value," we must say that Jesus struggled with same-sex attraction, too. This counsel flows logically from the idea that Jesus possessed an internal disposition to sin. But, in my view, it tragically misses how Jesus' genuine temptations were never born, as the KJV puts it, "of his own lust" (James 1:14). As Owen writes, "It is not with us as it was with Christ when Satan came to tempt him. He declares that he 'had nothing in him,' John 14:30. It is otherwise with us: he hath, for the compassing of most of his ends, a sure party within our own breasts, James 1:14, 15." (Works, 6:95). Far from disqualifying him as our Savior, this asymmetrical parallel between our often being tempted out of an indwelling affinity towards sin and Christ's always prevailing against temptation out of his moral purity is integral to his being our successful and sympathetic high priest. So committed was he to completing his heavenly task, so staggeringly holy was his moral disposition throughout his life in the face of intensifying temptations, that his victory over sin and Satan's schemes are all the more praiseworthy and his grace for those who come to him all the more true and effective (Heb 2:18). 

Our spiritual health requires fixing our eyes of faith upon the divine Son of God who made himself nothing by hypostatically uniting to a complete human nature, yet without sin. Only by thus preserving Christ's biblically conditioned solidarity with fallen sinners can they truly worship him as redeemed saints. 

Guilty, vile, and helpless we;
Spotless Lamb of God was He;
"Full atonement!" can it be?
Hallelujah! What a Savior!