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The Westminster Confession (8:2) says Jesus is of the substance of Mary:

The Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance and equal with the Father, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon Him man's nature, with all the essential properties, and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin; being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the virgin Mary, of her substance. So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion.

Calvin gives his interpretation of 1 Corinthians 15:22 in Institutes book 2 chapter 1 section 6:

Therefore, the only explanation which can be given of the expression, “in Adam all died,” is, that he by sinning not only brought disaster and ruin upon himself, but also plunged our nature into like destruction; and that not only in one fault, in a matter not pertaining to us, but by the corruption into which he himself fell, he infected his whole seed.

If Jesus is of the substance of Mary and Mary (a seed of Adam) is infected by Adam. How can Jesus have no sin?

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    How are you defining "original sin"? – guest37 Feb 8 '18 at 14:26
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    You might also define what you mean by "Immaculate Conception". Are you referring to the Roman Catholic definitions of Immaculate Conception and original sin? – guest37 Feb 8 '18 at 14:28
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    @guest37 yes, the Catholic definitions – aska123 Feb 8 '18 at 14:37
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    Incidentally, Protestants are not the only Christians who deny the Immaculate Conception. Swedenborgians, for example, also deny the Immaculate Conception, as well as Protestant doctrine on the Incarnation, and would likely have a different answer to the question than Protestants. – Lee Woofenden Feb 9 '18 at 19:22
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There are at least several ways that this is explained. Here are three common ones.

One approach, taken by early and medieval theologians before the doctrine of the immaculate conception was widely held, is described by Thomas Aquinas:

As Augustine says (Gen. ad lit. x, 20), Christ was in Adam and the other fathers not altogether as we were. For we were in Adam as regards both seminal virtue and bodily substance, since, as he goes on to say: "As in the seed there is a visible bulk and an invisible virtue, both have come from Adam. Now Christ took the visible substance of His flesh from the Virgin's flesh; but the virtue of His conception did not spring from the seed of man, but far otherwise—from on high." Hence He was not in Adam according to seminal virtue, but only according to bodily substance. And therefore Christ did not receive human nature from Adam actively, but only materially—and from the Holy Ghost actively; even as Adam received his body materially from the slime of the earth—actively from God. And thus Christ did not sin in Adam, in whom He was only as regards His matter. (Summa Theologica, 3rd part, Q15, Art. 1, reply to objection 2)

So to Augustine and Aquinas, the invisible, spiritual side of Christ's human nature came directly from God, not Adam.

This is somewhat similar to the view of the Anabaptists, which believe, as summarized by Louis Berkhof:

The prevailing opinion among the Anabaptists was that the Lord brought His human nature from heaven, and that Mary was merely the conduit or channel through which it passed. (Systematic Theology, 3.2.1.B)

But in the Reformed tradition, greater emphasis is placed on Christ's human nature coming from his mother, and as a result his sinlessness is instead attributed to the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. He thus has two roles in the conception of Jesus – first, as the "efficient cause" of the conception, and second:

He sanctified the human nature of Christ in its very inception, and thus kept it free from the pollution of sin. (Systematic Theology, 3.2.1.B)

So we see that there isn't a single answer to the question, but rather a variety of ways to explain how Jesus could have human nature and yet be sinless.

  • that was a beautiful answer – aska123 Feb 8 '18 at 14:39
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    Note that Aquinas did believe that Mary was sanctified as soon as she quickened in the womb. And that he also did not believe that it was necessary that Christ be born of a spotless (free of original sin) mother. – Matt Gutting Feb 8 '18 at 14:53
  • Correct, Aquinas denies the immaculate conception. Here's the reason. Mary was sanctified after animation (conception) while in the womb, but not at her conception. This is so because Christ sanctifies all. newadvent.org/summa/4027.htm – SLM Feb 8 '18 at 18:04
  • @MattGutting St. Thomas wrote in Super Sent., lib. 1 d. 44 q. 1 a. 3 ad 3: "Purity is increased by withdrawing from its opposite: hence there can be a creature than whom no more pure is possible in creation, if it be free from all contagion of sin: and such was the purity of the Blessed Virgin who was immune from original and actual sin." – Geremia Feb 8 '18 at 19:46
  • @SLM His views on the Immaculate Conception went through three phases; cf. also ch. 2, art. 2, § "St. Thomas and the Immaculate Conception" of Mother of the Saviour and Our Interior Life by Fr. Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. – Geremia Feb 8 '18 at 19:49
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Jehovah’s Witnesses are among those who deny Immaculate Conception but believe Jesus was born without any taint of Adamic sin.

One paragraph from Awake briefly explains how this was accomplished

The apostle John reveals that at the appointed time, God’s spirit Son “became flesh and resided among us.” (John 1:14) In order to accomplish this change in Jesus’ nature, God miraculously transferred Jesus’ life from heaven into the womb of the Jewish virgin girl Mary. In that way Jesus remained God’s Son, even though a human. Furthermore, since God, not any man, gave Jesus life, Jesus was born perfect, without sin. “What is born will be called holy, God’s Son,” said the angel Gabriel to Mary.​—Luke 1:35; Hebrews 7:26.

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Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception

The Eastern Orthodox Church denies the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, as it was proclaimed by a Bull of Pope Pius IX in 1854 (Ieffabilis Deus). The doctrine maintains that at the moment of Her conception, the Virgin Mary was cleansed of ancestral sin. In his encyclical, Pope Pius quotes from the 17th century Pope Alexander VII, "who authoritatively and decisively declared the mind of the Church":

Concerning the most Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, ancient indeed is that devotion of the faithful based on the belief that her soul, in the first instant of its creation and in the first instant of the soul’s infusion into the body, was, by a special grace and privilege of God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, her Son and the Redeemer of the human race, preserved free from all stain of original sin. And in this sense have the faithful ever solemnized and celebrated the Feast of the Conception.

Eastern vs. Western understanding of "original" sin and grace

From an Eastern Orthodox perspective, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception follows logically from the Roman Catholic doctrine of original sin. Orthodox theologian Protopresbyter Michael Pomazanski (1888-1988) explains:

According to the Roman teaching, the burden of the sin of our first ancestors consists in the removal from mankind of a supernatural gift of grace. But here there arose a theological question: if mankind had been deprived of the gifts of grace, then how is one to understand the words of the Archangel addressed to Mary: “Rejoice, thou that art full of Grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women.... Thou hast found Grace with God” (Luke 1: 28, 30)? One could only conclude that the Most Holy Virgin Mary had been removed from the general law of the “deprivation of grace” and of the guilt of the sin of Adam. And since her life was holy from her birth, consequently she received, in the form of an exception, a supernatural gift, a grace of sanctity, even before her birth, that is, at her conception. Such a deduction was made by the Latin theologians. They called this removal a “privilege” of the Mother of God.1

The Eastern Orthodox understanding of "original sin" (generally referred to as "ancestral" rather than "original") is completely different from that of the Roman Catholic Church. The difference lies in how grace is understood within Orthodox theology vis a vis Roman Catholic theology. The Roman Catholic Church understands grace as something that is essentially created, and thereby "dispensable", whereas the Orthodox understanding that grace is something uncreated. An old edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia (1911 ed.) defined grace as

... not a substance that exists by itself, or even apart from the soul; therefore it is a physical accident inhering in the soul ... Sanctifying grace may be philosophically termed a 'permanent, supernatural quality of the soul'"2

The Eastern Orthodox view, on the other hand, has been summarized by theologian Vladimir Lossky (1903-1958):

For Eastern tradition the created supernatural has no existence. That which Western theology calls the supernatural signifies for the East Uncreated - the Divine Energies ineffably distinct from the Essence of God. The difference consists in the fact that the Western conception of grace implies the idea of causality, grace being represented as an effect of the Divine Cause, exactly as in the act of creation; while for Eastern theology there is a natural procession, the Energies shining forth eternally from the Divine Essence. It is in creation alone that God acts as a cause, in producing a new subject called to participate in the Divine fullness; preserving it, saving it, granting Grace to it, and guiding it towards its final goal. In the Energies He is, He exists, He eternally manifests Himself.3

Eastern vs. Western understanding of the consequence of the Fall

These divergences in the understanding of grace and free will lead to completely different notions of how the Fall in the Garden impacted man's posterity.

In the Western understanding, it could be said that man's nature remained the same after the fall as before the fall, but that he was impaired by the privation of sanctifying grace.

By contrast, the Eastern understanding is not this grace itself was somehow taken away, but rather that man's nature itself had become corrupted to such an extent that grace could no longer dwell within it to the extent previously. "The deprivation of Grace is not the cause," wrote Lossky, "but rather the consequence of the decadence of our nature."4

Further divergences

I believe that practically any aspect of theology can be extrapolated from these foundational beliefs of grace and ancestral sin.

I think it is fair to say that the focus of Western Christianity is largely how to "get back" the sanctifying grace that was lost at the fall. Roman Catholicism and Protestantism may disagree on how this is to be accomplished, but I think it is fair to say that they share the same goal.

The focus of Eastern Christianity is essence appears to be the same. By contrast, however, the emphasis is not on how to "get God to give it back", so to speak, but rather on what one must do to one's self in order for the grace that is ever-present to return. Hence within Orthodoxy there is a strong emphasis on synergy (i.e. cooperation of man's free will with the will of God); and on askesis - self-abnegation that shifts the individual's focus from self to God and others. Salvation within Western Christianity lies mainly in restitution. Within Eastern Christianity it lies principally in restoration.

Although Eastern Orthodoxy is often thought to have close affinity with Roman Catholicism due to its sacramental and liturgical tradition, at the very core of their theologies, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism have much more in common with each other than either do with Eastern Orthodoxy.

Returning to the relation between original sin and the Immaculate Conception, in the Orthodox understanding there never was any privation of grace in the first place, as the Roman Catholic Church understands it. The Immaculate Conception becomes, then, in the words of former Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America, "an unnecessary solution to a nonexistent problem."


1. Orthodox Dogmatic Theology (3rd ed.; tr. from Russian, St. Herman of Alaska Press, 2005), pp.193-194.
2. Vol. 6, p.705
3. The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (tr. from French; St. Vladimir's Seminary Press), pp.88-89
4. Ibid.

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    While this answer provides a fine summary of Orthodox Christianity's differences from Roman Catholicism on the issues of grace and original sin, it doesn't answer the actual question asked, which is how Jesus could have no sin. Though the answer might be implied, and could potentially be extrapolated from the answer, that's not enough to make it an actual answer to the question. If this answer could be extended to apply the arguments it makes specifically to how Jesus had no sin, then it could be a good answer to the question. – Lee Woofenden Feb 10 '18 at 6:46

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