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Could Jesus Have Sinned?

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Written by R. Carlton Wynne | Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Majestic though Christ’s provision for us is, it is also mysterious. It leaves us with significant Christological questions: For Christ’s temptations to parallel our own, must he have been able to sin? In theological terms, was he peccable?2 Or was Christ impeccable — that is, incapable of sinning?3 If so, how can he truly sympathize with his tempted disciples?

ABSTRACT: The author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus was “in every respect . . . tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus Christ, the God-man, was truly tempted in his humanity, though not in all the same ways as sinners are. Temptations came at him from without, while inside he remained “without sin.” Though Satan and a rebellious world assaulted him, temptation never found a home within him. He is, therefore, both impeccable in his moral purity and sympathetic to tempted sinners.

Scripture is clear that Jesus, the sinless Son of God, was tempted to sin (Matthew 4:1–11Mark 1:13Luke 4:222:28Hebrews 2:18).1 In addition, the author of the book of Hebrews assures Christians that it is because he was “tempted as we are” (Hebrews 4:15) that our ascended Savior is able to sympathize with our weaknesses as fallen people. However, the same verse adds that the tempted Christ was also “without sin.” That is, we Christians have a Savior who has shared our experience with temptation, but who, as the spotless Lamb of God, was perfectly suited to be our substitutionary sacrifice at Calvary and now lives as our High Priest in heaven. All who look for divine sympathy and relief from the persistently alluring hand of sin may be supremely comforted.

Majestic though Christ’s provision for us is, it is also mysterious. It leaves us with significant Christological questions: For Christ’s temptations to parallel our own, must he have been able to sin? In theological terms, was he peccable?2 Or was Christ impeccable — that is, incapable of sinning?3 If so, how can he truly sympathize with his tempted disciples? At a more basic level, how does Jesus’s deity relate to his human nature in temptation? Is there a way through this theological conundrum that extols the Savior and comforts our souls?

This article contends that the eternal Son was impeccable, that his assumption of a true human nature — with its creaturely understanding, genuine feeling, and responsible will — entailed (or necessarily implied) that he would be sinless during his earthly life without diminishing the authenticity of his temptations. Specifically, the Son’s incarnation entailed a harmony between his divine and human wills4 that precluded any possibility that he would ever fail to obey his Father in heaven. Yet, at the same time, the holiness of Jesus’s humanity had to be worked out through a progressively intense, and ultimately excruciating, struggle against the temptation to sin and in the face of his genuine dread of divine judgment and death. Together, these truths commend to needy sinners an all-sufficient Christ who, exalted in heaven, is both sinless and sympathetic, both majestic and merciful.

Two central concerns will guide our reflections on the impeccable yet tempted God-man. First, we will consider Christ’s human will within the context of the union of the eternal Logos with his human nature, showing that the final ground of Christ’s impeccability was his personal identity as the divine Son of God. We will observe how Jesus’s will as a man necessarily reflected the moral purity of his underlying person, including his indefectible divine will to save sinners in submission to his Father. Second, we will see how Christ’s impeccability as a man did not undermine his temptability, even though his sinlessness confined the category of the temptations he faced to external enticements alone. Far from diluting his experiential awareness of human weakness, his sinless humanity meant that he endured the full force of temptation during his earthly ministry, so that he now possesses maximum sympathy for tempted sinners.

How one answers the question of whether Christ could have sinned does not determine one’s salvation, but the theological realities that inform our answer — Christ’s divine personhood and genuine humanity — are critical to the gospel. And together, they help us to see how Christ’s impeccability magnifies his glory as our Savior. With this goal in mind, let us turn, first, to the character of his incarnation.

Incarnation and Impeccability

Proponents on both sides of the peccability/impeccability debate wrestle with the fact that Christ’s humanity does not exist in a vacuum; it is rather forever united to his divine person by the power of the Spirit (cf. Luke 1:35Philippians 2:6–7). As Michael Canham puts it, “The difference between the peccability and impeccability positions essentially boils down to how one explains the relationship between the two natures of Christ.”5 What exactly is this relationship?

At a minimum, orthodox christology affirms that in the incarnation the divine Son of God did not convert his deity into humanity, but rather assumed our human nature to himself, with no alteration or diminution of his deity or personal identity as the Son, so that, in the words of Herman Bavinck, his human nature became “the splendid, willing organ of his deity.”6 Though the efficient power that enabled Christ’s assumption of his human nature was precisely the divine nature that belongs equally to the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, the assumption itself was an act in and upon the human nature in the person of the Son.7 The result is a mysterious coinherence of two distinct natures, one divine and the other human, in the same person, constituting a relation that is fittingly called the hypostatic union (from the Greek hypostatikē, or “personal”). It is the singular privilege of Christ’s human nature to be joined to the eternally divine Son, the second person of the Trinity, who at every point upholds and gives personal existence to the human nature, including all of Jesus’s creaturely thoughts and emotions.

Upholding Both Natures in the Divine Son

One challenge related to Christ’s two natures is to preserve the integrity of Christ’s human will as it functions via the divine Son. This is especially true when advocates of the peccability and impeccability positions describe the volitional activity of the God-man. Both camps run the risk of reaching their conclusions by expanding one nature beyond its proper limit such that it overtakes and diminishes the other. In this writer’s opinion, the most severe distortions are committed by peccability advocates who discount Christ’s divine person as the subject of Christ’s incarnate activity.

For example, Michael Canham, a peccability advocate, has argued that “the exercise of his [i.e., Christ’s] human attribute of peccability apparently limited the exercise of His divine attribute of impeccability.”8 Canham’s thesis mistakenly conceives of Christ’s two natures as equally ultimate realities where one can occasionally trump the other. In doing so, his defense of Christ’s alleged peccability overlooks the role of the divine person behind and with the human nature at every point. Given that it is persons who are either peccable or impeccable, Christ’s divine personhood means that it is impossible to speak of the human nature as peccable in itself, for it does not, and never did, exist separately or independently from the divine in the person of the Son.

Unfortunately, on the other hand, impeccability advocates who appeal to the relationship between Christ’s two natures are also not immune from distortions. Mirroring Canham, William G.T. Shedd argues that Christ’s human nature was peccable, but then he adds that Christ in his human nature succumbed to his intervening divine nature such that he was, as a complete person, impeccable. Shedd writes,

The omnipotence of the Logos preserves the finite human nature from falling, however great may be the stress of temptation to which this finite nature is exposed. Consequently, Christ while having a peccable human nature in his constitution was an impeccable person. Impeccability characterizes the God-man as a totality, while peccability is a property of his humanity.9

On the surface, Shedd’s explanation seems plausible. But the accuracy of his christology depends upon his use of the term preserves. Shedd clarifies that the divine nature “supports the human nature under all the temptations to sin that are presented to it” by “empower[ing] it with an energy of resistance.”10 While Shedd’s thesis is commendable in its effort to preserve the authenticity of Christ’s temptations while upholding Christ’s essential divinity, it suffers from a few defects.

First, by tracing Christ’s “energy of resistance” to the divine nature alone, Shedd disqualifies Christ’s earthly obedience from being robustly human in character. If, at the moment of Satan’s most powerful urging, Christ’s divine strength invaded, intercepted, and alleviated the agony of temptation, how may Christ’s triumph be that of a sinless man for other men who are sinful? From a redemptive-historical perspective, Shedd risks overturning the Adam-Christ parallel that frames the blessings lost by “one man’s trespass” and regained by “one man’s obedience” (Romans 5:1719; my emphasis).

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