Could Jesus Christ sin? Was It possible that He could have succumbed to the temptations He faced in the world and at the instigation of Satan? All evangelical scholars affirm that Christ did not sin. But the question is whether He could have sinned. The problem centers on the question of Christ’s susceptibility to sin. Theologically, the question is whether the Savior is posse non peccare (able not to sin) or non posse peccare (not able to sin). In other words, is it only that the Lord Jesus was able to overcome sin and temptation or rather that He could not be overcome by them? 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.
The Significance of the Problem
Is such a discussion purely an academic exercise with no genuine significance? After all, the Lord Jesus Christ did not sin and, in fact, He remained sinless, so what is the difference whether He was posse non peccare or non posse peccare? Actually, the problem makes a big difference. Besides a proper understanding of the person of Christ and the character of God Himself, several other doctrines are involved.
First, since the Lord Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8), whatever attributes were true of Him during His earthly existence also must be true in His preincarnate state, as well as in His present state of glory. Therefore, any possibility that He could sin has ramifications for the eternal character of God.
Second, the virgin birth, the Incarnation, and the hypostatic union, are all influenced by one’s understanding of the question concerning the impeccability of Jesus Christ. Christ, the God-Man, had a divine nature and human nature that were inseparably linked without confusion. This union demonstrated the humanity of the God-Man prepared by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35; Heb. 10:5). If Christ could sin, then deity was capable of sinning.
Third, this doctrine has ramifications for angelology. The Scriptures affirm the existence of a personal being known as Satan, who is the primary instigator and sole originator of evil within the universe. Yet, if the Lord Jesus Christ is not impeccable, one can begin to question the temptation accounts or the Lord in the wilderness. If it is possible that He could sin or be overcome by temptation, what assurance does one have that these temptations were not just self-induced lustful thoughts within His human intellect and were not attacks by Satan?
Fourth, the question of the impeccability of Jesus Christ also has implications for biblical inerrancy and integrity. Without a doubt, at times within His earthly life, the Lord Jesus spoke from within the limits of His unfallen humanity. For example, He declared His thirst (John 19:28) or His lack of information on the exact time of His return (Matt. 24:36). If it is possible that the Lord Jesus Christ could succumb to or be deceived by sin, then one must also conclude that it is possible for Him to have given inaccurate information about eternal things when He was growing in wisdom and stature and favor with God and man (Luke 2:52). Yet, in actuality the Scriptures paint a much loftier concept of the only begotten Son of God. As the God-Man, He is said to be incapable of sinning even though He faced the extremes of temptation during His earthly life. Therefore, this present discussion will seek to set forth the biblical position of the Lord’s non posse peccare while at the same time seeking to refute the posse non peccare position.
Arguments for Christ’s Peccability
Three arguments are given in support of the peccability of Jesus Christ. (1) Since Christ’s temptations were genuine, He had to be peccable. (2) Since Christ was truly human, He had to be peccable. (3) Since Christ as the second Adam corresponds to the first Adam, He had to be peccable.
THE TEMPTATION OF CHRIST
The Scriptures make it clear the Savior was indeed tempted. “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matt. 4:1). “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). Therefore, since the Scriptures affirm the reality of His temptations, some conclude that for the temptations to be genuine He must have been capable of sinning. If a person has no susceptibility to sin or if sin has no appeal for him, the temptation is a farce.
Several answers may be given to this argument. First, the Greek word “to tempt” does not mean to induce to evil. The word πειϱάζω means “to try, make a trial of, put to the test.”1 According to Homer, the basic idea is “to make proof of.”2 Thus the word came “to signify the trying intentionally … with the purpose of discovering what of good or evil, of power or weakness, was in a person or thing (Matt. 16:1; 19:3; 22:18; 1 Kings 10:1); or, where this was already known to the trier, revealing the same to the tried themselves…”3 Temptation, rather than inducement to evil, is a problematic experience God uses to manifest a person’s true condition and character. That is why Job could declare in the midst of his temptation, “But He knows the way I take; when He has tried me, I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:10). Surely the Savior was “proven, assayed, tested” in all the circumstances and ways in which man is tested, and he was shown to be impeccable.
Second, temptation to sin does not necessitate susceptibility to sin. As Walvoord stated, “It is possible for a rowboat to attack a battleship, even though it is conceivably impossible for the rowboat to conquer the battleship. The idea that temptability implies susceptibility is unsound. While the temptation may be real, there may be infinite power to resist that temptation; and if that power is infinite, the person is impeccable.”4 Certainly the temptations of Jesus Christ were real and strenuous. While His temptations were similar to those of ordinary human beings, they were infinitely greater in magnitude. When an object is tested to determine its strength or character, the testing ends once the point of breaking is reached. As the Almighty One, Jesus would have endured testing beyond what frail, weak men can even comprehend.
Third, temptability does not rule out one’s ability to sympathize with others. Could Jesus associate with man’s weaknesses if He had no possibility of succumbing to His temptations? Hodge, believing that Christ could sin, says no. “If from the constitution of His Person it was impossible for Christ to sin, then His temptation was unreal and without effect, and He cannot sympathize with His people.”5 However, the ability to sympathize is unrelated to susceptibility to sin. A person not involved in some sin can give help and compassion to another person in that sin. In fact, he can do so more capably than someone who has been enticed by it. If one is drawn into sin, he is less able than others to comfort and succor. Thus Christ is the only One who can most adequately and completely aid and console believers when they face attacks by Satan.
Must Christ, in order to sympathize with man, be inwardly polluted by sin? Certainly not, because the Scriptures affirm both His sympathizing ability (Heb. 4:15), and His total absence of any taint of sin. Though He was a man, He was not a sinner (Rom. 8:3). He was “without sin” (Heb. 4:15), He “knew no sin” (2 Cor. 5:21), and “in Him there is no darkness” (1 John 1:5). Man “is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust” (James 1:14), but such was not true of Christ. To suggest that Christ had to have an inward struggle with the lustful desires that reside within sinful man is totally foreign to the Scriptures.
THE HUMANITY OF CHRIST
Those who believe Christ was capable of sinning seek to support their view from His humanity. Hodge states, “This sinlessness of our Lord, however, does not amount to absolute impeccability. It was not a non potest peccare. If He was a true man, He must have been capable of sinning.”6 In responding to this argument, one must first be careful to establish and maintain the biblical teaching concerning the humanity of Jesus Christ. The Scriptures do provide abundant testimony that He was genuinely human and was, thereby, subject to the sinless limitations that are associated with true humanity. He grew (Luke 2:52), hungered (Matt. 4:2), slept (Matt. 8:24-25), was tired (John 4:6), thirsted (John 19:28), had flesh and bones (Luke 24:39), and died (1 Cor. 15:20).
However, one must remember that the Scriptures also affirm His deity. In the Incarnation the eternal Son of God was inseparably united to an unfallen human nature. Thus He is unique from all other men not only in that He was kept from the consequences of Adam’s sin in His perfect humanity but also in that He was the God-Man. In this way one Person, the Lord Jesus Christ, possessed a divine nature as well as a human nature. Though the divine nature of Christ had eternal existence apart from the humanity of Jesus Christ (Heb. 10:5), that was not true of His human nature. His humanity exists only in union with His deity. Thus the personality expressed in the humanity of Jesus Christ was nothing less than that personality of God the Son, the Eternal Word who became flesh. As Dabney states, “It is the unanimous testimony of the Apostles, as it is the creed of the church, that the human nature never had its separate personality. It never existed, and never will exist for an instant, save in personal union with the Word.”7 When Philip asked to see God the Father, Christ replied, “Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how do you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (John 14:9). Christ thereby affirmed that the divine personality of the Eternal Son which was flowing through His perfect humanity was beheld by the disciples.
The foundation of Christ’s person was His divine nature not His human nature. He was the God-Man and not the Man-God.
It is the divine nature, and not the human which is the basis of Christ’s person. The second Trinitarian person is the root and stock into which the human nature is grafted. The wild olive be grafted into the good olive, and partakes of its root and fullness. The Eternal Son, or the Word, is personal per se. He is from everlasting to everlasting conscious of Himself as distinct from the Father and from the Holy Spirit. He did not acquire personality by union with a human nature. The incarnation was not necessary in order that the Trinitarian Son of God might be self-conscious. On the contrary, the human nature which He assumed to Himself acquired personality by its union with Him. by becoming a constituent factor in the one theanthropic person of Christ, the previously impersonal human nature, “the seed of the woman” was personalized. If the Logos had obtained personality by uniting with a human nature. He must have previously been impersonal. The incarnation would then have made an essential change in the Logos, and thereby in the Trinity God-head, even by so remarkable an act as the incarnation.”8
Though Christ was of both human and divine desires, He had only one determinative Will. That determinative will is in the eternal Logos and continuously follows the will or the Father. Therefore, statements one may make about what the humanity of Christ could or could not do must always be tempered by this understanding of the theanthropic Person.
This understanding of the person of Jesus Christ is essential to evaluate adequately the argument that since Jesus Christ was human he had to be peccable. Succumbing to sin or susceptibility to sin is a reality for a person, but not for a nature. Dabney states, “Since the humanity never was, in fact, alone, the question whether, if alone, it would not have been peccable, like Adam, is idle … it is impossible that the person constituted in union with the eternal and immutable Word can sin: for this is an absolute shield to the lower nature, against error?”9
It is the person, the rational being, who sins against God. Man is a sinner and, therefore, sins. The person, not just a nature within the person, is held accountable for sin. Thus one is wrong in suggesting that Christ could sin because He possessed a human nature. Instead one must ask what the person of Jesus Christ can do. He possessed a genuine sinless human nature, and as a person He was impeccable. To state anything else is to impugn the character of God. As Chafer stated, “Since this bond of union which unites Christ’s two natures – for He is one Person – is so complete, the humanity of Christ could not sin. Should His humanity sin, God would sin.”10
THE HEADSHIP OF CHRIST
A third argument used to support the peccability of Jesus Christ is His correspondence with Adam. Some argue that since Christ the second Adam corresponds to the first Adam, He had to be peccable.
The Scriptures do state that Jesus Christ has a correspondence does not imply nor demand peccability. Adam was the head over all humanity, and Christ is the Head over redeemed humanity. Adam was created in holiness without the inward compulsion toward sin that now characterizes his progeny, and so Jesus Christ came in holiness without any taint of sin. Adam was given every natural faculty which constituted him human, as one reflecting the image of the true God; also Christ possessed every natural faculty of true humanity as one perfectly manifesting God Himself.
But those promoting Christ’s peccability add that for Jesus Christ to be a true representative for man, He also had to be free to choose between good and evil. They say if He were impeccable, He would have no real choice and He would thereby no longer be a proper Substitute for men. Thus, from this theological perspective, it is implied that only through a mutable will is one able to be free in his choice or actions. Therefore, it is argued, Jesus Christ had to be peccable.
The error in such an argument involves more than an evaluation of Christ’s impeccability. It also reveals a misunderstanding of true moral freedom and the operation of man’s will.
Moral freedom is not based on opportunities to choose between good and evil or right and wrong. Rather, it is found in the ability to determine what is good and right without any coercion toward evil. In an ultimate sense, then, God alone is free. He alone has neither taint of will within nor inward compulsion urging Him away from what is good. Obviously that is not so with the fallen human race. They are carried away by their own lusts (James 1:14), and because of sin within, they are unable to do the good they know they should perform (Rom. 7:18-20). If the Son sets a person free, he is free indeed (John 8:32). Thus moral freedom for the Savior does not necessitate peccability.
Those believing in Christ’s peccability reason that if He were impeccable, He could not be a moral agent in the same sense as man, since His will was infallibly inclined to holiness. Yet is such an evaluation valid? Is it not also true that the freedom of man’s volition is seen only in relationship to external pressures? The will cannot be free from an individual’s basic constitution. All men exercise their wills in accordance with their moral nature. Thus though their choices are free, they are still determined with certainty, based on men’s character. In the same way, God Himself, while immutable, is a moral agent. It is the same with the Lord Jesus Christ. His moral actions were based on the uncoerced decisions of His will acting within the confines of His impeccable nature. This is also Dabney’s conclusion.
. . . a holy will may be perfectly free, and yet determined with absolute certainty to the right. Such is God’s will, He cannot lie. Yet, He speaks truth freely. The sinner represents the counterpart case when his eyes are full of adultery, and he cannot cease from sin. Yet, is this sinner free in continuing his course of sin and rejecting the monitions of duty? This case sufficiently explains, by contrast, the impeccability of Jesus. He has every natural faculty which, in Adam’s case, was abused to the perpetration of his first sin. But they were infallibly regulated by what Adam had not, a certain, yet most free, determination of His disposition to holiness alone.11
As God, Christ is certain to do only good, and yet He is a moral agent making uncoerced choices. He need not have the capacity to sin.
Arguments for Christ’s Impeccability
The Scriptures. by affirming Christ’s deity, also affirm His impeccability. As God Himself, it is not possible for Him to sin. He cannot be tempted with evil (James 1:13). In fact, sin itself is abhorrent to Him; He finds only holiness and righteousness His chief delight (Psa. 45:6-7; Heb. 1:1-3).
HIS UNIQUE PERSON
The uniqueness of the person of Jesus Christ establishes His impeccability. He was the eternal Son who took to Himself a perfect human nature (Isa. 9:6; John 1:1-14; Heb. 1:1-6; 10:5; 1 John 1:1-3). This hypostatic union of the divine nature and the human nature welded them together in an inseparable bond within His one person without altering His essential essence. Thus the God-Man always expressed the determinative will of the eternal Word and thereby was impeccable.
HIS OMNIPOTENT DESIRE
The chief desire of the Lord Jesus Christ, with His omnipotent capability to perform that desire, assures His impeccability. His chief desire was to do the will of the Father. “Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do Thy will, O God’” (Heb. 10:7). The psalm, from which this quotation was taken, emphasizes that the Savior not only was determined to do the Father’s will but also delighted to do it. “I delight to do Thy will, O my God; Thy Law is within my heart” (Psa. 40:8).
Thus Jesus declared that He always does the Father’s will. For example, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to accomplish His work” (John 4:34). The desires, delights, and motivations of the Lord Jesus Christ would have a determinative power of His will, as is true with any moral creature. In His case, since His motivation and delight were eternal, He would be impeccable. He had no inner desire for or compulsion toward sin.
HIS SUBMISSION TO THE DIVINE WILL
God’s eternal plan assures the impeccability of the Savior. The Father’s will for the Son was His sacrificial death to secure the eternal salvation of His elect. He experienced sorrow and suffering but not sin (Isa. 53:2-3). As Shedd states, “The Logos could consent to suffering in a human nature, but not to sin in a human nature. The God-Man was commissioned to suffer (John 10:18) but was not commissioned to sin.”12 In contrast to sinful and helpless man, the Savior must be sinless and mighty to save in order to keep His people from stumbling and to present them before the throne of His glory without any spot or taint of sin (Jude 1:24). Thus the eternal plan of God assures that Christ must be impeccable.
HIS PERSONAL DECLARATION
Christ Himself declared that He was unable to sin. When He healed the paralyzed man, He demonstrated His ability to do what only God can do. namely, forgive sins (Mark 2:1-12). While addressing the nation at the Feast of Tabernacles, He asserted His righteousness: “He who speaks from Himself seeks his own glory; but He who is seeking the glory of the one who sent Him, He is true, and there is no unrighteousness in Him” (John 7:18). As He was debating with the religious leaders, He affirmed His righteous character and also His distinction from sinful man. He said, “He Who sent Me is with Me; He has not left Me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to Him” (John 8:29). “If I say that I do not know Him, I shall be a liar like you, but I do know Him, and keep His word” (John 8:55). Then, when speaking to Thomas concerning eternal life, He said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me” (John 14:6). He was a witness to truth, and also Truth itself. Yes, He is none other than the infallible, inerrant, invincible Truth of God, which cannot be broken nor rendered void. He is the impeccable Savior who saves His people from their sins.
Could Jesus Christ have sinned? When a child of God is asked that question, he can take comfort in the fact that the Scriptures declare that the God-Man is the impeccable Savior. Because He as God was incapable of sinning, He is able to save completely all who come to God through Him (Heb. 7:25). When on earth, He was the same as He was in eternity past – the sinless, eternal Son of God. Therefore, He is able to keep those who trust Him. As the Lamb of God, He is worthy to receive all praise, honor, glory, and power (Rev. 5:13)!
- William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), p. 616.
- G. Abbott-Smith, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, 3rd ed. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1937), p. 351.
- Richard C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1975), p. 280.
- John F. Walvoord, Jesus Christ Our Lord (Chicago: Moody Press, 1976), p. 147.
- Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979), 2:457.
- Robert L. Dabney, Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976), p. 471.
- William G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, 3 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1889 reprint. Minneapolis: Klock and Klock Christian Publishers, 1979), 2:269.
- Dabney, Lectures in Systematic Theology, p. 471.
- Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, 8 vols. (Dallas: Dallas Theological Seminary Press, 1971), 5:78.
- Dabney, Lectures in Systematic Theology, p. 473.
- Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, p. 334.
Joseph G. Sahl
Bibliotheca Sacra, Vol. 140, No. 557
(January – March 1983) :11-20.