If we don't want to make a mistake in asking if an article that describes the perfection of Christ is even necessary, we must recall the narrative nature of the Thirty-Nine Articles. Article 15 has been implied previously in Article 2. Article 9 explained our depth of our sinful nature and how that original sin continues to infect the regenerate believer. Article 11 sets out our justification in Christ’s merit alone. Articles 12-14 explained the nature of our good works. Sin, in its very nature, is blinding, so we don't detect its presence. Cranmer’s pastoral and theological genius we see here is to reorient the believer in Christ alone in whom all our hope is found and to remind us that the presence of sin that remains must be put to death every day.
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 Saint 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.
The article we have is nearly identical to Cranmer’s 1553 original. It is important to note the contrast with the article that precedes it. The believer not only is unable to go beyond God’s requirements, but he cannot even reach those requirements. The original title makes this point clearly: “No one is without sin, but Christ alone.” The Latin says it simply: a quo prorsus erat immunis, tum in carne tum in spiritu, “from which he was clearly void, both in his flesh and in his spirit.” Notice the four doctrines concerning Christ that Cranmer lists here.
First, there is the true humanity of Christ, Christ in the truth of our nature was made like unto us in all things. This is a reference to article 2 and Chalcedon. Jesus was sinless because as a human being, he was perfectly obedient to the will of his heavenly Father. As article 2 affirms, we must not think that because he was the Son of God, that this obedience was natural to him. As Hebrews 5:8 tells us, it is through the suffering that he was called to endure, in other words, the Lord Jesus still had to strive in his human life in his obedience. The clearest example was in the Garden of Gethsemane when he had to submit his natural human desire to live to the will of his Father so that he should die for our sins, "Not my will, but your will be done" (Mark 14:36). We must not make light of his struggle to submit to his heavenly Father's will. The Scripture tells us that he sweated blood in those hours. But submit he did. Every believer should be thankful for the active obedience of the Lord Jesus Christ. He remained sinless even as he became sin for us on the cross.
Second, there is the sinlessness of Christ, Sin only except, from which he was clearly void, both in his flesh, and in his spirit. When taken with the preceding, we can see that there is an allusion here to the Virgin Mary. When we take what is said here and compare it to the points in the Book of Common Prayer where the Virgin Mary occurs, Anglican theology is profoundly biblical, following the New Testament concerning Mary, that there is no suggestion that she was a sinless woman. Mary was a sinner just like everyone else who had ever lived. The sinlessness of her son had nothing to do with her at all.
Third is the sacrifice of Christ; He came to be the Lamb without spot, who, by the sacrifice of himself once made, should take away the sins of the world, and sin, as Saint John saith, was not in him. The article states that the purpose of Christ is to fulfill the office of Mediator, quoting 1 John 3:5 to reinforce this point, "You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him, there is no sin." John makes an important point that the article wants to highlight. Our sins are taken away not in the same sense that we become sinless as the Lord Jesus was in his earthly life, but in the sense that we are joined to him as our Mediator, in union with Christ we no longer stand in fear with sin blocking our access to God. We continue sinning, but our confidence in union with him remains eternal. The "old Adam" may shape the devices and desires of our hearts, we may leave undone those things which we ought to have done and done those things which we ought not to have done, but before the throne of God, we stand in the "new Adam," the perfect Mediator.
Fourth is the consequence of the last, the sinfulness of us all, 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. This statement echoes article 9 in describing how our condition remains one where we are still prone to sin so that without Christ, judgment on the Last Day should still fill us with dread. The continuance of sin in the believer is the important doctrine to learn when faced with today's neo/post/evangelicalism that has forgotten Christ's office of Mediator extends through his entire life. As Christian believers, we are not called to do what Jesus did, or what we might think he would do if he were alive today. We are saved by God's grace alone; the Lord Jesus certainly was not. His life was lived for a different purpose. He is our Savior and Lord, not a person who gained a deeper awareness of God that he shared with us by his example. For a minister to say, "Be more like Jesus," is the most oppressive and least pastorally sensitive remark he could make! There is a chasm of difference between us because we are still sinners and we must continue to depend upon our union with him for the grace to help in our times of need (Heb. 4:16). The only way believers can grow to be more like the Lord Jesus is to deepen our understanding and awareness through Word and sacrament in how unlike him we truly remain and therefore run to submit to him all the more (Gal. 2:20).
For previous articles in this series, see:
- One God in Trinity, Trinity in Unity (Art. 1)
- The Incarnation and Atonement (Art. 2)
- The Work of Christ (Arts. 3-4)
- The Holy Spirit (Art. 5)
- The Rule of Faith: Part 1 (Art. 6)
- The Rule of Faith: Part 2 (Art. 7)
- The Rule of Faith: Part 3 (Art. 8)
- Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 1 (Art. 9)
- Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 2 (Art. 10)
- Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 3 (Art. 11)
- Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 4 (Art. 12)
- Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 5 (Arts. 13-14)