Was Jesus Christ Capable of Sinning?

 

As a teenager, very early in my study of the Bible, I once approached a person several years older than I was whom I respected as knowledgeable in the Scriptures (at least more knowledgeable than I was at that time) with a question that had occurred to me. Having just read chapter 4 of Matthew’€™s Gospel, I questioned what would have happened if Jesus had given in to Satan’€™s offer of the kingdoms of the world in exchange for an act of worship. My friend thought about it for a moment and said, “Well, I suppose that the whole universe would have come under Satan’s control.” That seemed at the time like a staggering concept, and I didn’t pursue the matter any further for many years. In retrospect, however, the conversation seems to raise an important question: Was Jesus Christ really subject to the possibility of failure in His mission? Did Satan actually have an opportunity to turn the tide of affairs in his favor if he could only coax Jesus into sinning?

It is unanimously accepted among evangelical Christians that Jesus Christ, while on earth, lived a life completely free from any taint of sin. Scripture is explicit on this point. Peter states, “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth” (1 Peter 2:22). Similarly, John affirms that “in him is no sin” (1 John 3:5). Jesus Himself said that, with regard to His heavenly Father, “I always do what pleases him” (John 8:29). His sinless human life was necessary in order that He could serve as the sacrifice for our sins and so that He could serve as our perfect High Priest, “holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens” (Hebrews 7:26).

What is still controversial among Christians is, not the question of whether Jesus did sin, but whether it is at all possible that He could have sinned while on earth. According to Joseph Sahl, “Theologically, the question is whether the Savior is posse non peccare (able not to sin) or non posse peccare (not able to sin) […] Peccability refers to Christ’€™s being liable to or prone to sin, and impeccability speaks of His not being liable to sin and being incapable of sinning”[1] [bold type mine].

To arrive at an answer to this question, we must consider the nature of Christ’€™s existence as a human being on earth.

Fully God and Fully Man

God’€™s chief revelation of Himself to mankind came in the form of an act that is known as the Incarnation, in which the second Person of the Holy Trinity actually took the form of a human being, becoming one of us. Through a miracle of the Holy Spirit, He was implanted into the womb of a Jewish virgin and was born as a human child. Paul writes that in doing this, Jesus “emptied himself”:

“Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!”

This does not mean, however, that Jesus ceased to be God while on earth. Rather, He repeatedly made statements that would be clearly understood by His first-century Jewish audience as strong claims to deity -€“ strong enough claims that on certain occasions the crowd attempted to stone Him for blasphemy (e.g., John 8:58, 9; 10:30, 31).

At the same time, Jesus was fully human. His favorite title for Himself was “Son of Man,” a title which His audience would recognize as a scriptural designation for the Messiah, but which also emphasized His humanity. The apostle John, years after Jesus’€™ ascension to heaven, would condemn as “deceivers” and “antichrist” those heretics who “do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh” (2 John 7).

Jesus had to be fully God in order for the value of His life to pay the penalty for the sins of all mankind; He had to be fully human in order to represent us as our great High Priest, One who is able to “sympathize with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15). Nonetheless, Jesus was clearly one person, possessing both a divine and a human nature. The union of these two natures in the one person is known as the hypostatic union.

Grudem’€™s Dilemma

In his Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem poses a seeming dilemma which results from considering the question of Christ’€™s ability to sin in relation to His dual nature. His argument consists of three premises:

1. Scripture clearly affirms that Christ never sinned.

2. Jesus was tempted and His temptations were real.

3. “God cannot be tempted with evil” (James 1:13).[2]

If all three of these statements are true, as Scripture clearly affirms that they are, and if Jesus Christ is truly God, as Scripture also affirms, we must question how it is that He, as God, could be truly tempted to sin.

James’€™ words noted above make it clear that Jesus could never be tempted to sin in His nature of deity. The character of God is the very definition of what is good. There is no outside standard apart from God by which good and evil are judged. Because God is perfect and holy, it would be impossible for Him to act in a manner inconsistent with His righteous character (as sinful humans sometimes do). Therefore, it is unthinkable that Jesus could have sinned, or been tempted to sin, in His divine nature.

In support of this argument, Hank Hanegraaff cites John 5:19, in which Jesus states, “”I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.”

Hanegraaff comments, “If Jesus can’€™t do anything that God wouldn’t do, then Jesus can’€™t sin. Notice Jesus didn’t say, “He shouldn’t” or ‘€™He didn’t,’€™ He said He couldn’t.”[3]

Real Temptation?

If Jesus was actually incapable of sinning in His deity, or even being tempted by sin, as James 1:13 asserts, then whatever temptation came upon Jesus must have been experienced in His human nature. This understanding, however, leads to further problems, for in the next verses of his letter, James states: “but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (James 1:14, 15).  Should we, then, understand that Jesus had some evil desire or a sinful nature within Himself that allowed Him to be tempted? Scripture does not seem to allow for that possibility, since 1 John 3:5 plainly states, “In him is no sin.” Even the demons recognized Jesus as “the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24). While Jesus does fully possess a human nature, He does not possess a sinful nature.

In what sense, then, can it really be said that He was tempted? It may seem to us that, if He was incapable of sinning, then the temptations that He experienced could have had no real force. However, in His human nature, Jesus faced every frailty that comes upon mankind. He became hungry at times (Mark 11:12). He became tired (John 4:6). He suffered in the flesh (Hebrews 5:8). Though no sin existed within Him, it was a natural thing, as a human, that He should desire the fulfillment of human needs. Possessing the power of God, He knew that at any moment He could relieve these human needs by the self-centered use of that divine power. Yet He refrained from doing so, because it was not within His Father’€™s will for Him to do so.

One of the temptations levied by Satan in the wilderness focused upon these human physical needs: “The tempter came to him and said, ‘€™If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.’€™ Jesus answered, ‘€™It is written: “€™Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God”‘” (Matthew 4:3, 4). Though Jesus had the power to alleviate His hunger, He regarded His Father’s will as paramount.

Satan’s further temptations in the wilderness involved, not only Jesus’€™ physical human needs, but His divine rights, as Baker points out:

He was tempted to achieve the kingdoms of the world (that will someday be His by divine right – €”Luke 4:5-6), but to achieve them in a sinful way. Finally, He was tempted to use His divine power (to leap from the pinnacle of the temple – Luke 4:9), but in a sinful manner, acting presumptuously and apart from the purpose of His Father. In summary, He was tempted to bring about rightful ends by sinful means.[4]

It was not any sinful inclination in Jesus that caused these temptations, but the desire for the fulfillment of His human needs and of His Father’€™s purpose. The recognition of His ability to satisfy these in a manner incompatible with His Father’€™s will presented very real temptation. As Baker further comments: “Being exposed to sinful alternatives is not sin, but the experience is nevertheless painful because it involves legitimate needs or goals.”[5]

Because Jesus was subjected to the full range of human experience as we are, it could legitimately be said of Him that He “has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).

If Jesus Could Have Sinned

There are a number of other implications that arise if we accept the possibility of Jesus’ peccability.  First, such a teaching fails to maintain the unity of His person. If Jesus had sinned, the sin would have involved His divine nature as well as His human nature, since the two natures are united in one person. However, while Jesus’€™ human nature was subject to the frailties of life on earth, His divine nature could never be subject to sin. To allow for Him to be subject to sin, it would be necessary to somehow separate the human from the divine nature and there is no allowance for this in Scripture.

The further implication of the above argument is that, logically, if Jesus could have sinned, then God Himself could have sinned and that is clearly contraindicated in the Bible (e.g., James 1:13).

Finally, as Sanders indicates, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). Jesus retained His human nature upon His resurrection and return to heaven. If Jesus could have sinned while He was on earth, then there is no reason to believe that He could not sin now. Such a belief would, in Sanders’€™ words, “place the whole work of redemption on a very shaky foundation.”[6] As unthinkable as it is that Jesus could sin while sitting at His Father’€™s right hand in heaven, it is equally unthinkable that He could have sinned while on earth. He is the same person now as He was then, with the same unity of divine and human natures.

The Impeccable Christ

As the One who was sent by God, Jesus Christ lived a perfect, sinless life in His humanity and then gave His life as a sacrifice for our sins. He ascended to heaven, where He has become our perfect High Priest. Because He suffered the frailties of human existence, He can sympathize with us by experience in our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15). It is awe-inspiring to consider that the Almighty, infinite God who came to earth considers each of us believers in Him to be His “brothers,” but that is what He called us (Matthew 25:40, 45).

Because of His sinless life, the great wall of separation between man and God that was created by sin has been breached. It is in Him alone and because of His great, self-sacrificing love, that we can “approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). Meditating upon our own sinfulness and His sinlessness should move us to great humility and to a sincere desire to extend His amazing grace to all whom we encounter. 

Bibliography

Anonymous. “Could Christ Have Sinned?” Found online at www.letusreason.org/Doct3.htm. March 9, 2008.

Anonymous. “Could Jesus have sinned (peccability or impeccability)?” Found online at http://www.gotquestions.org/could-Jesus-have-sinned.html. March 9, 2008

Baker, William H. Survey of Theology 1 Study Guide. Chicago, IL: Moody Bible Institute, 2004 rev.

Barker, Kenneth, Gen. Ed. The NIV Study Bible, 10th Anniversary Ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995.

Dorman, Ted M. Faith for all Seasons, Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001.

Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000 rev.

Hanegraaff, Hank. “Does ‘The Son Can Do Nothing of Himself’ (John 5:19) Mean that Jesus is Not God?” Found online at http://www.equip.org/site/c.muI1LaMNJrE/b.2876615/k.BE67/CP1404.htm. March 9, 2008.

Sahl, Joseph G. “The Impeccability of Jesus Christ.” Bibliotheca Sacra 557 (January-March 1983):  11-20.

Sanders, J. Oswald. The Incomparable Christ. Chicago: Moody Press, 1971.

Thiessen, Henry C. Lectures in Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999.

Notes

[1]  Joseph G. Sahl. “The Impeccability of Jesus Christ.” Bibliotheca Sacra 557 (January-March 1983), p. 11.

[2] Wayne Grudem. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000 rev., p. 538.

[3] Hank Hanegraaff. “Does ‘€™The Son Can Do Nothing of Himself’€™ (John 5:19) Mean that Jesus is Not God?” Found online at http://www.equip.org/site/c.muI1LaMNJrE/b.2876615/k.BE67/CP1404.htm. March 9, 2008.

[4] William H. Baker. Survey of Theology 1 Study Guide. Chicago, IL: Moody Bible Institute, 2004 rev., p. 89.

[5] Ibid.

[6] J. Oswald Sanders. The Incomparable Christ. Chicago: Moody Press, 1971, p. 86.