Was it Possible for Jesus to Sin?
Was it possible for Jesus to sin? Some might contend that such a question is pointless to ask in light of the historical fact that Jesus did not sin (John 8:46; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15; 7:26; 1 Peter 2:22; 1 John 3:5). Admittedly, this is not the most pressing of questions we need to consider, but nevertheless, it has value for our understanding of the person of Christ--specifically to what extent He identified with us in our humanity, and the identity of His person.
Seeing that Scripture only affirms the historical fact of Christ's sinlessness, determining whether it was theoretically possible for Him to have sinned cannot be settled by an appeal to Scripture. It must be settled via larger theological categories, considerations, and concerns.
The Reality of Christ's Temptations
A genuine possibility for sin requires a genuine experience of temptation. Some Christians deny the genuineness of Christ's temptations in order to safeguard His deity. They reason that since God cannot be tempted (James 1:13), Jesus could not be God if He experienced genuine temptation. While the theological motivations for this view are clear and understandable, it is not borne out by the data. The author of Hebrews said Jesus "has suffered being tempted" (Hebrews 2:18), and "was in all points tempted like as we are" (Hebrews 4:15). Matthew tells us Jesus was "led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil" (Matthew 4:1). It would have been pointless for the Spirit to lead Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted if Jesus was incapable of experiencing temptation. This encounter with Satan was not some facade or charade.
Temptation is not Sin
Others feel it necessary to deny the genuineness of Christ's temptations because they falsely suppose the experience of temptation is itself sin. Such is not the case. Temptation is a prerequisite for sin, but is not sinful in itself. Sin is conceived only if/when we act on a temptation. As James said, "But each one is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desires. Then when desire conceives, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is full grown, it gives birth to death" (James 1:14-15). While we have established the fact that Jesus could and did experience temptation, it still remains to be seen whether He had the capacity to succumb to the temptations He experienced.
Could Jesus Have Sinned?
Human beings are capable of experiencing temptation, as well as committing sin. If Jesus was fully human, and if Jesus experienced temptation, wouldn't He be capable of sin as well? On the one hand, denying that Christ was peccable seems to entail a denial of the completeness or genuineness of His human existence. .After all, if He could not sin, and yet humans can, how could He be fully human? One might even question the meaningfulness of His temptations. How could Christ be tempted in any meaningful sense of the word, if it was not possible for Him to succumb to that temptation? What point would there be in subjecting Jesus to Satan's temptations? What victory was gained by overcoming those temptations, if overcoming was the only possible outcome?
On the other hand, denying Christ's impeccability has disastrous Christological and soteriological implications: it destroys the unity of Christ's person, and undermines His ability to atone for our sins. Let me explain. If God is not capable of sin, and yet Jesus was capable of sin, then Christ must be two persons--the divine person, and a separate human person--only the latter of whom was capable of sin. But in postulating such a Christ, Jesus ceases to be God. He becomes an ordinary man who is indwelt by the Spirit of God, differing from us only in a quantitative sense (He possesses a greater measure of the Spirit), not a qualitative sense. Such an individual is not God, but a mere man who happens to be in a very close relationship with God. And if Jesus is not God, He cannot make atonement for the sins of mankind (for an explanation of why this is so, read the section titled A Denial of Christ's Essential Deity and of a True Incarnation in my article, "Avoiding the Achilles Heels of Trinitarianism, Modalistic Monarchianism, and Nestorianism: The Acknowledgement and Proper Placement of the Distinction Between Father and Son").
The incarnation was not a mere indwelling of God in a man, but God's coming to be man.1 He took on human existence by bringing human nature into union with His divine person, not by uniting Himself to, or simply indwelling an existing and separate human person. Because He assumed a human nature and not a human person, Jesus' humanity is not a person in itself. There is only one person in Christ: the divine person. God is the lone personal subject in Christ; the solitary active agent. Understanding a nature as a "what," and a person as a "who," we would say Christ is one who (the divine person) subsisting in two whats (divine nature, human nature).2 Christ differs from us in that He has two natures, not in that He has two persons. Whereas we are human persons with a human nature, Jesus is the divine person with a divine and human nature. Just as we are the subject of all our acts, likewise God is the subject of all Christ's acts. There is, then, no separate human person in Christ who is capable of sin.
Some, recognizing that Christ is one person in two natures rather than two persons in two natures, argue that Jesus could have sinned in His human nature. This solution will not do, however. While human nature has the property of peccability, natures themselves lack volitional power; i.e. they cannot act. Only persons possess volitional power, and thus an act of sin must originate with the person to whom the nature belongs, not the nature itself.3 While Jesus possessed human nature, and human nature has the property of peccability, without the presence of a peccable person to actualize such a property, the act of sin is impossible. To be peccable, Jesus' nature and person must be capable of sin. Seeing that Christ's person is the divine person, and the divine person is not capable of sin, then it follows logically that Christ was not capable of sin. So the mere fact that Jesus possessed a complete human nature does not, in itself, make Him peccable.
It is Christ's personal identity, then, that necessitates His impeccability. Who he is dictates what He has the potential to do. This is made clear when we ask the question, If Jesus would have sinned, who would have sinned? Since natures cannot act/sin, and since the divine person is the lone personal subject of Christ, it would be the divine person who sinned. And yet it is impossible for God to sin, ergo it was ultimately impossible for Jesus to sin. Jesus' divine identity requires that He be impeccable.4
Was God Tempted?
If God is the lone personal subject in Christ, and only persons can be tempted, would it not follow that God was tempted? No. Because God came to exist and be conscious as man, Jesus' temptations are not God being tempted as God, but God being tempted as man through His human mode of existence. God was tempted insofar as he is man, not insofar as He is God, for God is the subject of Christ's acts only insofar as He is man, not insofar as He is God.5
Because God came to exist as man, complete with a genuine human consciousness/ mind, He had the ability to experience temptation. He experienced the same kind of temptations all men experience (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus was not tempted because He was God, but because He was man. If it was not for Christ's genuine human existence He could not have experienced temptation, because God cannot be tempted (James 1:13). In His divine mode of existence God cannot be tempted, but in His human mode of existence He can be, and was tempted. So in a human way, and in a genuine human existence, Jesus was tempted as are all men.
While God cannot be tempted as He exists in Himself as God, God can be tempted in His human mode of existence as man. If God can be tempted in His human mode of existence could He also sin in His human mode of existence? No. God cannot sin in His existence as God or in His existence as man because of His holy nature.
This might be compared to a righteous man who is so opposed to a certain sin that, though he may be tempted by it from time to time, he will never submit to that temptation because it goes against his holy spirit. In the same manner, Jesus' divine nature was holy, and thus He would not submit to sin. His temptations were real, but ultimately He overcame them because of His holy hatred for sin, and complete reliance on the Holy Spirit. Had Jesus ever reached the point where He was willing to succumb to temptation and commit sin, His divine nature would have intervened, not permitting Him to do so.
Would such an intervention undermine Jesus' free will, and hence the genuineness of His choice of the good? I do not think so. William Lane Craig offers an insightful thought experiment demonstrating that one's inability to choose B does not make his choice of A determined and meaningless:
Imagine a man with electrodes secretly implanted in his brain who is presented with a choice of doing either A or B. The electrodes are inactive so long as the man chooses A; but if he were going to choose B, then the electrodes would switch on and force him to choose A. If the electrodes fire, causing him to choose A, his choice of A is clearly not a free choice. But supposed that the man really wants to do A and chooses it of his own volition. In that case his choosing A is entirely free, even though the man is literally unable to choose B, since the electrodes do not function at all and have no effect on his choice of A. What makes his choice free is the absence of any causally determining factors of his choosing A. This conception of libertarian freedom has the advantage of explaining how it is that God's choosing to do good is free, even though it is impossible for God to choose sin, namely, His choosing is undetermined by causal constraints. Thus, libertarian freedom of the will does not require the ability to choose other than as one chooses.6
What matters is not that Jesus was ultimately incapable of choosing evil, but that He was tempted to do evil, and yet freely chose the good.
If Jesus Could not Sin, Were His Temptations a Sham?
Those who think Christ is peccable often argue that Christ's temptations would be rendered a meaningless sham if He was impeccable. But how does the fact of impeccability render Christ's experience of temptation a sham? The impossibility of a particular end does not eliminate the experience of the journey. An analogy might be helpful. My teenage nephew likes to wrestle me. I know I cannot be beaten by him (a particular end), but that does not mean I do not genuinely experience the fight (the journey). Indeed, I feel the force of his strength during the fight. It just isn't enough to overcome my strength. Likewise, it does not follow that if Jesus could not succumb to temptation (a particular end), that His victory over temptation is meaningless. While Jesus' divine identity guaranteed His ultimate victory over temptation, it did not preclude Him from feeling the force of temptation, and struggling against it. The ability to lose the battle against temptation is not a prerequisite for the battle itself.
I would offer the following counter-argument against the peccabilist's argument that the temptations of an impeccable Christ are a sham:
1 Only persons can commit sin
2 Jesus is God's person incarnate
3 God cannot sin
4 If Jesus sinned, God's person would be the active agent
5 Therefore Jesus cannot sin
6 And yet Jesus faced genuine temptation
7 Since Jesus experienced temptation but could not sin, it is not true that one must be capable of sinning to experience genuine temptation
So long as this argument is valid and sound, there is no reason to think Jesus' impeccability counts against the genuineness of His temptations. Indeed, I think this argument shows that the burden of proof is on those who claim impeccability eliminates the possibility of temptation.
Given what we know about the genuineness of Christ's humanity, we have every reason to think His experience of temptation was genuine. While Jesus' person was divine, through His union with human nature He functioned in a thoroughly human way. As such, Jesus' experience of temptation was like our own (absent the experience of being overcome by it). He felt its force, and overcame it in the same manner we do: relying on the Holy Spirit to empower our wills to withstand it. As such, His temptations were meaningful, not a sham.
While Jesus' experience of temptation may be genuine, does His impeccability lessen the force of His temptations? No, it seems the opposite is true. Successfully resisting temptation requires a battle of the mind, spirit, and will. The longer one resists, the greater the force of the temptation becomes. While we often prematurely succumb to temptation, Jesus resisted to the end, and thus felt its force in full.
Is Christ's example undermined if He was impeccable?
Some think that if Christ was impeccable, the force of His moral example in overcoming temptation is undermined. I disagree. It is fallacious to think that when faced with the dichotomous choice of Q or R, if Jesus cannot choose R, His choice of Q is meaningless. How does that follow? Could it not be that He freely and willingly chose Q? Of course. And a free choice is a meaningful choice. Let me illustrate this with an analogy. Suppose person P is shopping online for a specific theology book. While searching for the book he is presented with an advertisement for pornographic material. Person P is tempted to buy the pornographic material, but ultimately prevails over this temptation, choosing to buy the theology book instead. Unbeknownst to person P, however, the bookseller no longer carries pornographic material, but failed to remove the advertisements from their website. Is person P's choice to buy the theology book rather than the pornographic material morally meaningful, even though it was impossible for him to actually purchase the pornographic material? Of course. Likewise, Jesus' free choice to do the good rather than the evil is morally meaningful, even if He was impeccable, and thus ultimately incapable of choosing evil should He have desired to do so.
We could push the analogy even further. Let's say person P made a volitional decision to purchase the pornographic material, but was prevented from making His intended purchase at checkout because the material was no longer in stock. In response, person P purchased the theology book. Does the fact that he was prevented from purchasing the pornographic material render his choice to purchase the theology book meaningless? No. Likewise, even if there were instances in which Jesus was prevented from sinning, His moral example would not be undermined.
Regardless of Jesus' capacity to sin, the fact remains that He did not. That is what is most important. Adam sinned because He allowed His human will to stray from the will of God, pondered the temptation, and gave in to its influence. Jesus succeeded where Adam failed. Jesus did not sin because His human will and mind was perfectly submitted to the will and mind of God. He always did those things that pleased the Father (John 8:29), thereby accomplishing salvation on our behalf.
1. God's "coming to be man" does not imply a transmutation of God into a man. God remained who He was both in and after the incarnation. If God had changed into a man He would cease being God, or at least cease being the same God He was prior to the incarnation. This would take away any meaning to the notion that "Jesus is God" because the God who became man ceased being God when He became that man, and thus the man He became is no longer God, but man. Even Jesus' humanity could not be considered to be completely human, because it would have experienced changed through its association with deity. Any transmutation of God into man would demand that Jesus is a third something (tertium quid) that is neither fully God nor fully man, but some hybrid of the two.
2. A nature is the generic substance that is common to all men, being that which makes humanity what it is. It is a set of essential characteristics or properties which mark off what sort of thing an individual is. A person, however, is immaterial conscious substance, a personality, a self; a person is a particular individual who consists of a certain nature, or the particularization of a generic substance. A simple way of distinguishing a nature from a person, then, is to consider the former a what, and the latter a who.
3. While natures define the range of possibilities, only persons can actualize the possibilities inherent to the nature.
4. One might wonder if Christ was cognizant of His impeccability. Surely this question is of less importance than the fact of His impeccability, but it is interesting nonetheless. Having said that, I would argue that Jesus was cognizant of His impeccability. If Jesus knew He was God, and knew God could not sin, then by deductive reasoning He must have recognized He was incapable of sin. I would question Jesus' rationality if He could not follow this line of reasoning. Surely Jesus' rationality excelled beyond our own!
5. Thomas G. Weinandy, Does God Change?: The Word's Becoming in the Incarnation, Studies in Historical Theology, Vol. IV (Still River, MA: St. Bede's Publications, 1985), 31.
6. William Lane Craig, Time and Eternity: Exploring God's Relationship to Time (Crossway Books: Wheaton, IL, 2001), 261-2. The analogy is the brainchild of philosopher Harry Frankfurt.
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