Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles – Article XV

Article XV.

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 St. John saith) was not in Him. But all we the rest, although baptized 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.

De Christo, qui solus est sine peccato.

CHRISTUS, in nostræ naturæ, veritate, per omnia similis factus est nobis, excepto peccato, a quo prorsus erat immunis, tum in carne, tum in Spiritu. Venit ut Agnus, absque macula, qui mundi peccata per immolationem sui semel factam tolleret, et peccatum (ut inquit Johannes) in eo non erat: sed nos reliqui etiam baptizati, et in Christo regenerati, in multis tamen offendimus omnes. Et si dixerimus, quia peccatum non habemus, nos ipsos seducimus, et veritas in nobis non est.

Section I. — History.

THE history of the greater part of the doctrine contained in this Article may be considered as involved in the history of some of the preceding Articles, especially of the ninth. We spoke there of the Pelagian heresy, and observed that Pelagius held that it was possible for a man, even without the grace of God, to keep God’s law, and live a life of perfect holiness. St. Augustine, we saw in his arguments against Pelagianism, still expressed unwillingness to discuss the question of the sinfulness of the blessed Virgin Mary, out of reverence to her Son and Lord. Pelagius had held that it was necessary for our religion that we should confess the Virgin to be sinless (i. e. that we might not hold our Saviour to be born in sin). St. Augustine answers, “Concerning the Virgin Mary, I am not willing, for the honour of our Lord, to hold any dispute, when we are talking about sin. For how do we know what more grace was bestowed on her to overcome all sin, who had the honour to conceive and bring forth Him who certainly had no sin?”[1]

This scruple, which early prevailed about the Virgin, in the course of years grew into a doctrine. But for a length of time the doctrine was privately held, not publicly expressed. In the year 1136 the Canons of Lyons brought the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin into the ecclesiastical offices; for which act of rashness they were severely censured by St. Bernard. But about the year 1300, the celebrated Schoolman, John Duns Scotus, a Franciscan Friar, strenuously maintained the total exemption from sin of the Blessed Virgin, and grounded it upon the omnipotency of God, who could free her from sin, if He chose. Thenceforward the Scotists and Franciscans ever advocated the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.[2]

At the Council of Trent this question was hotly debated; the Franciscans excepting the Virgin from all taint of sin, the Dominicans labouring to comprehend her name under the common law. The pope commanded that the contention on the subject should be omitted, for fear of causing a schism. Both parties acquiesced in silence, on the condition that when the decrees were made it should merely be added that there was no intention to include the Blessed Virgin in the decrees concerning original sin.[3] It was therefore left an open question, although the Franciscans had the better reason of the two parties to be satisfied.[4]

It was also decreed in the Council of Trent that all the taint of original sin is washed away in baptism.[5] And the Lutherans were condemned for saying that God’s commands were not possible to the just.[6] From these canons of the council it might naturally follow, that a person baptized and justified may fully keep God’s commands, and live a life of spotless holiness. But what is even more to the purpose still, is the Romish doctrine of works of supererogation. For, if such works are possible, it must first be possible that he who does them should be perfectly sinless. Otherwise he could not do, not only his duty, but more than his duty. Accordingly this Article of our Church, “Of Christ alone without sin,” follows immediately on that concerning Works of Supererogation. The one is very probably intended as a supplement and strengthener to the other; so that, whereas in the last Article it was said that no man can do more than God’s law requires, so in this it is added, that no man in this life can fully live up to its requirements, but all offend many times; and none, even of the baptized and regenerate, is quite free from sin.

That part of the Article which alleges that Christ was free from sin need not be considered historically, for none but those who deny His Divinity can deny His sinlessness. And the greatest heretics, even mere Humanitarians, have respected the Saviour as a pure and holy Being.

Section II. — Scriptural Proof.

THE subjects treated on in the Article are, —

I. That Christ was without sin, although in all other things made like unto us.

II. That all other men (even though baptized and born again in Christ) yet offend in many things.

I. That Christ, though perfect man, was yet free from sin, properly forms a part of the doctrine of the Incarnation, and is therefore intimately connected with Article II.

The eternal Son of God, the second Person in the Godhead, took into that Person the perfect nature of man. That nature of man had become defiled and debased. And it was that He might purify and restore it that He took it into Himself. But the question is, whether, when He took the nature, He was obliged to take its corruption with it. If so, we may well believe that the Incarnation would have been impossible. God is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity. Much less can we suppose that God would take iniquity and corruption to Himself, into union with His own spotless purity and holiness.

But though human nature, in all naturally engendered of Adam, is stained with the sin of Adam, yet sin is not a part of human nature, but a fault of it.[7] The Manicheans held that matter was essentially evil, and so human nature was evil, because matter was a part of it. But matter as well as spirit comes from God, and so is of itself, like all His creatures, “very good.” Sin, therefore, which we all inherit, is a corruption and evil addition to our nature, not an essential and integral part of it. Whether it consists in a withdrawal of the indwelling and presence of God, and a consequent rebellion of the lower principles of man’s nature,[8] or whether there be moreover a kind of taint or poison, which, working in him, produces sin, and renders him liable to death; in either case original sin is not human nature, but an accident of that nature; a quality as distinct from humanity as is any particular bodily disease, such as madness, or consumption, or neuralgia.

When therefore Christ took our nature, it was not essential to its perfection that He should take our sinfulness. Sin not being a part, but a fault of nature, He might be “made in all things like unto us,” even though sin were excepted. Our liability to sin indeed He must have taken; for else He could not have been “in all things tempted like as we are.” Adam had a liability to sin, and therefore was susceptible of temptation, before he was actually guilty of sin, and so defiled and corrupted by it. And Christ, who was the second Adam, who came on purpose that He might conquer where Adam had fallen, and so restore that nature which Adam had debased, was, by the constitution of that nature which He adopted, liable to be assailed by the same dangers that Adam had been assailed by. But His own essential holiness and the supporting power of his Godhead enabled Him to endure temptation, and so made it impossible that He should fall under it. Thus He became a fit representative of our race, as much as Adam was. He had all our nature, with all its natural weaknesses; and all that He lacked was that which was no proper part of, but only a vicious addition to our nature, namely, our sin. Nay, He even condescended to take our sicknesses. He was liable to hunger and weariness, and death. Many indeed of our sicknesses are the natural results of sin, of gluttony or intemperance, anger or passion. These He, who had no sin, could not have. Yet He took, not only human nature, but mortal nature; and though He was too holy to defile Himself with our sin, yet He was not too glorious to submit to our death.

The passages of Scripture which prove this part of the doctrine of the Article, are sufficiently numerous and familiar. Thus it is announced to Mary, “That Holy Thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God” (Luke i. 35). “The prince of this world,” said our Lord, “hath nothing in Me” (John xiv. 30). He was “the Holy One, and the just” (Acts iii. 14). God “made Him to be sin for us who knew no sin” (2 Cor. v. 21). “He was in all things tempted like as we are, yet without, sin” (Heb. iv. 15). “An High Priest, holy, harmless, undefined, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens;” not like those “high priests who have infirmity,” and needing to “offer up sacrifices, first for their own sins, and then for the people’s” (Heb. vii. 26, 27, 28). He “did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth” (1 Pet. ii. 22). He “was manifested to take away our sins, and in Him is no sin” (1 John iii. 5).

The words of the Article, that “He came to be the Lamb without spot” are from the following:

“He was led as a Lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so He openeth not His mouth” (Isai. liii. 7). “The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world” (John i. 29). “Christ, who through the Eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God” (Heb. ix. 14). Redeemed “with the precious Blood of Christ, as of a Lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Pet i. 19. Comp. Exod. xii. 5; Lev. xxii. 19, 20, 21).

II. The second part of the Article, that “all other men offend in many things, even though baptized and born again,” has been already considered at some length under the ninth Article. It was there shown that the taint of sin pervaded the whole human race, and that every one naturally born of Adam was subject to it; that even the regenerate had still the remains of such corruption; and that that concupiscence, which still remains in them, has the nature of sin.[9]

It may be sufficient here to recite a few of the passages of Scripture on which more especially the proof of this assertion depends.

“If they sin against thee,” says Solomon, “for there is no man that sinneth not” (1 Kings viii. 46). “In Thy sight,” says David, “shall no man living be justified” (Ps. cxliii. 2). “Who can say,” asks the wise man, “I have made my heart clean, I am pure from my sin?” (Prov. xx. 9). “We have proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin” (Rom. iii. 9). “Death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (Rom. v. 12). “The Scripture hath concluded all under sin” (Gal. iii. 22). “In many things we offend, all” (James iii. 2). “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John i. 8). “Let not sin reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof” (Rom. vi. 12). “I had not known sin but by the Law: for I had not known lust except the Law had said, Thou shalt not covet” (Rom. vii. 7). So “the flesh lusteth against the Spirit” (Gal. v. 17).

The last two passages show that lust or concupiscence hath the nature of sin.

2. The principal objections which may be urged against this part of the doctrine of the Article, are such as the following.

In some passages of Scripture people are called blameless: as (Luke i. 6), Zacharias and Elizabeth are spoken of as “both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord, blameless.” In a like manner St. Paul speaks of himself as having “lived in all good conscience before God to this day” (Acts xxiii. 1); as exercising himself “to have a conscience void of offence toward God and toward man” (Acts xxiv. 16); as having been before his conversion, “touching the righteousness which is in the Law, blameless” (Phil. iii. 6).

Such passages seem to argue blameless perfection. But we may answer that Zacharias could not have been perfect, or he would not have disbelieved the Angel when he promised him a son, and so have been smitten with dumbness for his want of faith (Luke i. 20). St. Paul, when he speaks of himself as blameless touching the righteousness of the Law, was a persecutor of the Church, and though he did it ignorantly in unbelief, and so obtained mercy, yet we can hardly consider it as consistent with perfection: and though he speaks of himself as exercising himself to have a conscience void of offence, yet we know that he did “not count himself to have apprehended,” that he was sensible of “infirmities” (see 2 Cor. xi. 30 ; xii. 10, &c.); that he felt it necessary to “keep under his body, and bring it into subjection” (1 Cor. ix. 27). Nay, we know that he was liable to infirmity, for so sharp a contention rose between him and Barnabas, that they could not continue together in the work of the Gospel, but were obliged to separate one from another. We must therefore understand the word blameless in a more popular sense, not as if those of whom it is predicated were free from all stain of sin, but as meaning that they lived an upright, godly life, ever striving to keep a conscience free from offence, and never yielding to those wilful sins which offend society, or destroy the work of God’s grace in the soul, or even give cause of deep and bitter regret to him who yields to them.

Again, it is said of the Christian under grace, that “the law of the Spirit of life makes him free from the law of sin and death” (Rom. viii. 2). This is true of all good Christians, but it does not mean that they are made perfect and wholly free from sin, but that the Spirit of God sets them free from the bondage and slavery of sin, and gives them freedom and strength to “fulfil the righteousness of the Law.”

The same reasoning nearly applies to the words of St. John, “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin” (1 John iii. 9). This is true of every regenerate man as regards his new nature, the new man created in him. That new man is pure and holy, hating sin and avoiding it. Still however there are the remains of the old man, causing in him those infirmities which more or less are common to all. A regenerate man does not live in admitted sin. If he does, his new life has failed and is stifled. But, he still “in many things offends,” and, “if he says he has no sin, he deceives himself;” because, in this world, the old nature may be kept in subjection and bondage, but is never thoroughly extinguished, until the last enemy has been destroyed, and all things are put in subjection under the feet of Christ.

It is true, we are bid to be holy, as Christ is holy (1 Pet. i. 15); to “be perfect, as our Father which is in Heaven is perfect” (Matt. v. 48). But we can infer from these exhortations no more than this. It is our part to set before us the highest possible standard at which to aim. Christ took our nature, that He might make us partakers of His nature; and we are never to be satisfied, unless we grow daily more and more like to Him. But it does not follow, that we shall ever attain to such perfect conformity to His Image, until we become “like Him, by seeing Him as He is.”

We come, lastly, to consider the case of the Blessed Virgin. That she was a person of most singular holiness, most highly honoured of God, and most affectionately beloved by her Divine Son, no candid reader of Scripture can doubt. The Angel salutes her, “Hail, thou that art highly favoured:[10] the Lord is with thee; Blessed art thou among women” (Luke i. 28). Her cousin Elizabeth saluted her, by the Holy Ghost, saying, “Blessed art thou among women;” and though she was her near kinswoman, yet wondered at the honour done to herself in that “the Mother of her Lord should come unto her” (Luke i. 42, 43). Mary herself said of herself, that “all generations should call her blessed” (Luke i. 48). The Lord in His youth was subject to her (Luke ii. 51). At His death, and with His dying accents, He commended her to the care and guardianship of His most devoted and best loved disciple (John xix. 26, 27). We learn of her, that she was the first who, hearing the blessed teaching of her Son, “kept all His sayings in her heart” (Luke ii. 51). We find her following Him, with unwearied and dauntless affection, to the foot of His Cross (John xix. 25); and, when all but His most faithful followers were dispersed, continuing with the Apostles “with one accord in prayer and supplication” (Acts i. 14).

All this is but what we should expect. Doubtless among women there never lived a holier than she who was chosen to the highest honour that ever befel created being. That honour, indeed, to be the tabernacle of Incarnate Godhead, to cherish the infant years, minister to the wants, and soothe, if such there were, the early sufferings of the Redeemer of mankind, to be the only earthly instrument by which God wrought the mystery of the Incarnation, is an honour so high that we can hardly wonder if ages of ignorance gave undue reverence to her who had such favour of God.[11]

Yet it has been remarked that on three separate occasions our Lord and her Lord used of, and to her, language at least bordering on censure. At the marriage in Cana, the words, “Woman, what have I to do with thee?” (John ii. 4) (though not sounding so strong in the Greek as in the English language) have been esteemed in all ages as words of rebuke.[12] Before this, when He was but twelve years old (Luke ii. 49), as His mother and Joseph sought for Him, He reproves them for not knowing the high mission on which He came: “How is it that ye sought Me? Wist ye not that I must be about My Father’s business?” Lastly, when His mother and His brethren sought to speak with Him, the answer to those who told Him of it was, “Who are My mother and My brethren? And He stretched forth His hand towards His disciples and said, Behold My mother and My brethren! For, whosoever shall do the will of My Father which is in Heaven, the same is My brother, and sister, and mother” (Matt. xii. 48, 49, 50).

Very similar to this was that saying, when a certain woman “lifted up her voice and said unto Him, Blessed is the womb that bare Thee, and the paps which Thou hast sucked. But He said, Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God and keep it” (Luke xi. 27, 28). There was indeed no denial of the blessedness of being His mother; still less was there any denial that His mother was blessed. But the privilege of being the mother of Jesus was not in itself so great as the blessing of doing the will of God. Now those who argue that the Virgin was perfectly free from sin, argue so from the very fact of her being the mother of the Immaculate Saviour. But surely, if the fact of being His mother proved that she was sinless, it would have brought with it, or have been the proof of, a blessing so great that there could have been no room for the “Yea! rather blessed.”

We may conclude, therefore, that the Virgin Mary, though “highly favoured,” “blessed among women,” and, doubtless, unusually sanctified, was yet no exception to the rule that all mankind, Christ only excepted, are stained with sin, and liable to offend in many things.[13]


  1. August. De Natura et Gratia. Wall, Inf. Bapt. I. p. 404. The passage from Augustine is from c. 42. Tom. x. p. 144: — Excepta itaque sancta virgine Maria, de qua propter honorem Domini nullam prorsus cum de peccatis agitur, haberi volo quæstionem. Unde enim scimus, quid ei plus gratiæ collatum fuerit ad vincendum omni ex parte peccatum? &c.
  2. Sarpi, Council of Trent, p. 178.
  3. Sarpi, pp. 164, 169, 171.
  4. [Some further historical details may properly be added, relating to the action of the papacy. In 1476, Sixtus IV. issued the Bull Cum Præcelsa. In it he encouraged the celebration of the Festival of the Immaculate Conception. In 1488, by the Bull Grave nimis, he forbade that either those who hold the opinion of the immaculate conception, or those who hold its contrary, should be charged with heresy or mortal sin. These two Bulls were formally accepted by the Council of Trent. Sess. V. Decree concerning Original Sin. In 1570, Pius V. issued the Bull Super Speculam. This Bull allowed either opinion, and forbade all controversy in public, though it allowed discussion in the schools. In 1617, Paul IV. issued the Bull Beati pacifici, in which, under heavy penalties, he renewed the constitutions of Sixtus IV. and Pius V. In 1622, Gregory XV. took a step in advance, by forbidding any one, till it should be otherwise ordered, to assert in public that the Virgin was conceived in original sin, though he declared that he did not deny or controvert the opinion that she was. At the same time he allowed any one to assert the immaculate conception, only not attacking the other opinions, while, without permission from the Holy See, no one was permitted to assert the conception in original sin at all. In the same year another Bull, Eximii atque Singularis, allowed the Dominicans, in their own schools, to discuss the opinion. Alexander VII., in 1671, issued the Bull Solicitudo omnium Ecclesiarum, which, while it favoured the opinion of the immaculate conception, yet forbade those who held the opposite opinion to be charged with heresy. Finally, on the 8th of December, 1854, Pius IX. by the Bull Ineffabilis, created this opinion into an Article of the Faith, without even the pretence of consulting a General Council, consolidating and concentrating in himself a power, in spiritualibus, which neither Hildebrand nor Innocent had ever attempted to exercise, and accepting, or rather demanding, assent to the most ultramontane theory of the papal authority. There the matter rests at present, but the end is not yet. Already the claim is advanced, that the Blessed Virgin merited this grace of the immaculate conception, because of her holiness in a preëxistent state. How long will it take to extend that preëxistence to eternity, and then to argue from eternal existence, participation in the Divine Nature? The Abbè Laborde, On the Impossibility of the Immaculate Conception, may well be consulted; while, to see the weakness of the arguments in defence of this fearful novelty, one need only read the Treatise of the Cardinal Lambruschini. — J. W.]
  5. Sess. V. Can. 5.
  6. Sess. VI. Can. 18.
  7. The Manichees held that sin was a natura non a culpa: i. e. because they thought one portion of our nature (i. e. the body) essentially evil. But the fathers taught that it was not τῆς ϕύσεως, ἀλλὰ τῆς κακῆς προαιρέσεως: “not of nature, but of an evil determination of the will:” (see History of Art. IX. note). And our ninth Article teaches, not that it is part of our nature, but “the fault and corruption of our nature.”
  8. “Man’s corruption consists, first, in the deprivation of the Divine guidance, which he has rejected, for ‘the light shined in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not;’ and secondly, in the correspondent rebellion of the lower principles of his body and his soul.” —Wilberforce on The Incarnation, p. 74.
  9. Ανθρώπων οὐδεὶς ἀναμάρτητος, ἑνὶ γὰρ μαρτυρεῖται, ὅτι ἁμαρτίαν οὐκ ἐποίησε. Basil M. Orat. de Pœnitentia. Suicer. I. 207.
  10. Κεχαριτωμένη. The margin has “Or, graciously accepted, or, much graced.”
  11. “Man is a creature of extremes . . . . Because Papists have made too much of things, Protestants have made too little of them . . . . Because one party has exalted the Virgin Mary to a divinity, the other can scarcely think of that most highly favoured among women with common respect.” — Remains of the Rev. Richard Cecil, p. 364. Ninth Edition. Lond. 1830.
  12. τἱ ἐμοὶ καὶ σοὶ γύναι; the word γύναι may easily be used as a term of respect, and might as well have been rendered “lady” as “woman.” Every one knows that ladies of the highest rank would have been so addressed in Greek. But the fathers all acknowledged rebuke in the sentence. ἐπέπληττε τῇ μητρί, says Athanasius (Contra Arian. Orat. 4); ἐπετίμησεν ἀκαίρως αἰτούσῃ, says Chrysostom (In Matt. hom. 45); Ὁ δὲ ἐπιτιμᾷ αὐτῇ οὐκ ἀλόγως, says Theophylact. See Beveridge on this Article. Epiphanius says that these words were used that no one might esteem the Blessed Virgin of a higher nature than woman, with special view to the heresies which would one day arise (Hæres. 79, Collyridiani).
  13. The subject of the Perpetual Virginity of the Virgin Mary, which has some affinity to the question discussed in the text, may be seen treated at length by Pearson On the Creed, Article, “Born of the Virgin Mary.” See especially the notes. See also Jer. Taylor’s Life of Christ, § 2. Bp. Bull’s Works, I. Serm. IV.; and Professor Mill’s Accounts of our Lord’s Brethren.

E. Harold Browne

(Edward) Harold Browne was an English bishop, born at Aylesbury and educated at Eton and Cambridge. He was ordained in 1836, and two years later was elected senior tutor of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. From 1843 to 1849 he was vice-principal of St David’s College, Lampeter, and in 1854 was appointed Norrisian professor of divinity at Cambridge. His best-known book is the Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles (vol. i., Cambridge, 1850; vol. ii., London, 1853), which remained for many years a standard work on the subject and is still beloved today. In 1864 he was consecrated bishop of Ely.

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