In the sermon on Sunday I toed up to this question, opened the can of worms, and then slowly walked away. It’s a difficult question which has good theologians on both sides of the argument. Some hold to what is called the impeccability of Christ. This is the view that it was not possible for Christ to have sinned. Other believe that if Jesus were not able to sin then his temptations would have been a farce. How can temptation be real if you couldn’t fall?
How do we answer questions like this?
I like to think of a fire tower. If you’ve never been up one of these scary dudes, let me explain. A fire tower provides an absolutely beautiful view of the landscape. It’s kind of like a back porch but it’s high above the ground, jutting above all the trees in the forest. As you can imagine it has guard rails on all sides.
Theology is similar. It provides a beautiful scene but if you fall outside those guardrails it’s not quite as beautiful—it’s deadly even. When we come to difficult theological question like this one it’s helpful for us to first affirm all the guard rails.
1. Jesus never sinned.
2. Jesus was genuinely tempted.
3. God cannot be tempted to do evil.
As we answer this question we have to be certain not to fall over any of these guardrails. But there is a great deal of freedom upon the fire tower. Some folks will hold a position where they are hugging a particular guardrail and viewing the scenery from that position. Others will be on the other side of the fire tower.
This illustration isn’t to say that there isn’t an actually true answer to this question. Somebody is viewing the question at hand correctly. He/she is holding the most beautiful view. This illustration helps us to see that there are limits to our understanding and we can hold divergent views and still be on the fire tower of orthodoxy.
So Could Jesus Have Sinned?
I honestly, don’t know for certain because Scripture does not clearly say. I think we are far better to press deeply into both truths; namely, that Christ fully understands our temptations and that Christ the Divine does not desire sin and never fell into it.
This seems to be the main thrust of the author of Hebrews. He emphasizes the fact that Christ is able, as a faithful high priest, to sympathize with our weaknesses. In fact he even uses a stronger word there in 4:15 than he does of the other high priests in 5:2. Christ sympathizing with our weakness is his entering into suffering with us. The high priest who “deals gently” with the wayward and ignorant is a tad more distant. The author of Hebrews wants us to understand that Jesus enters into the suffering of humanity in a way that is unique.
But he also wants us to understand that another point where Christ is unique is that he never gave in to sin. As such he feels the full weight and force of hell against him. He knows temptation deeper and more fully than we ever will. We give in. He never did. As such he has a unique experience with temptation.
Which leads me to my conclusion on the question. Part of the reason we have such a difficult with answering this question is because it enters into one of the greatest mysteries of the Christian faith—the hypostatic union. Christ is unique in that he is fully human and fully divine. As the Chalcedonian creed states his “two natures are without confusion, without change, without division, and without separation.”
For me, I think those who affirm that Jesus could have sinned end up a bit too close to dividing the natures of Christ. But I also understand their argument that if sin was not possible for Jesus, then it couldn’t have been real temptation. But I would still prefer to say that Christ was tempted “just as we are” so that he truly understands the lure of fleeting pleasures and the emotional anguish that goes with being fully human. Yet, he was also the unique Son of God whose love for the glory of God was of such that the lure of sin could never win.
I appreciate Stephen Wellum’s treatment of this question: Could Christ Have Sinned? His view is probably closest to my own.
This is one of those places where we do well to passionately affirm what God has revealed and be careful about falling off into speculation trying to tie up loose ends that the Lord Himself didn’t see fit to solve for us. I’ve always appreciated John Calvin on this point:
Indeed, vanity joined with pride can be detected in the fact that, in seeking God, miserable men do not rise above themselves as they should, but measure him by the yardstick of their own carnal stupidity, and neglect sound investigation; thus out of curiosity they fly off into empty speculations. They do not therefore apprehend God as he offers himself, but imagine him as they have fashioned him in their own presumption. When this gulf opens, in whatever direction they move their feet, they cannot but plunge headlong into ruin
Could Jesus have sinned? I’m not totally certain. But I do know that he didn’t sin and also that he was fully tempted just as we are.
This article originally appeared here.