Read Part 1.
Could Jesus Have Sinned?
In other words, should we refer to Christ during his state of humiliation as impeccable or peccable? The terms “impeccable” and “peccable” do not, in this context, refer to the commission of sin but simply to the ability or susceptibility to sin. Thus, the question is not whether Jesus was born with a sinful nature. Nor is the question whether or not Jesus ever committed any actual sin. The Scriptures in no uncertain terms affirm the purity and sinlessness of Christ (2 Cor 5:21; Heb 4:15; 7:26; 1 John 3:5). The question is, rather, was the human nature of Christ able or susceptible to sin during Jesus’ earthly ministry?
I believe the correct answer is both “no” and (a qualified) “yes.” Let me explain.
No, It Was Not Possible.
At the incarnation, Jesus’ divine nature was forever united to a human nature. Since Jesus’ human nature could not be separated from His divine nature, it would be impossible for Him as the God-man to ever commit sin since God “cannot be tempted” (James 1:13). In this sense, we should affirm the impeccability of Christ, i.e., his inability to sin. Moreover, we might argue that the divine decree makes certain his sinlessness–especially in light of the eternal covenant of redemption (John 17:1-26; Rev 13:8). Additionally, we could highlight Jesus’s unique endowment with the Holy Spirit (John 3:34) as a contributing factor to his impeccability (John 3:34). Could Jesus sin? The biblical realities above contains us to answer, “No!”
Some theologians believe our answer needs to stop there and go no further.6 I don’t agree.
Yes, It Was Possible.
Impeccability certainly constitutes a large part of the answer to the question, “Could Jesus have sinned?” But I’m not convinced it provides a full answer–especially if we focus on the nature of Jesus’s humanity in his state of humiliation.
For example, we’ve already established the fact that Jesus’s humanity made him capable of being tempted. With this in view, Charles Hodge argues that his susceptibility to temptation vis-à-vis his human nature implies the possibility of sin. Writes Hodge,
This sinlessness of our Lord, however, does not amount to absolute impeccability. It was not a non potest peccare [inability to sin]. If He was a true man He must have been capable of sinning…. Temptation implies the possibility of sin. 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.7
Hodge is not denying the sinlessness of Christ. Moreover, he’s not suggesting that Jesus’ divine nature was susceptible to sin anymore than his divine nature was susceptible to temptation. He is simply focusing on the kind of human nature Jesus assumed at the incarnation.
Likewise, R. C. Sproul answers the question of Christ’s peccability “no” and “yes.” As he puts it,
Obviously, the divine nature cannot sin. But if Christ’s divine nature prevented him from sinning, in what sense did he obey the law of God as the second Adam? At his birth, Jesus’ human nature was exactly the same as Adam’s before the fall, with respect to his moral capabilities…. Adam sinned; Jesus did not. Satan did everything in his power to corrupt Jesus and tempt him to sin. That would have been an exercise in futility had he been trying to tempt a divine person to sin. Satan was not trying to get God to sin. He was trying to get the human nature of Christ to sin, so that he would not be qualified to be the Savior.8
That is, while Jesus’s divine nature and the eternal decree made it certain that Jesus “would not sin,” Jesus did not resist temptation in the strength of his divine nature.9 He prayed to God for strength. He fully relied on God’s grace. Nevertheless, Jesus did not resist temptation by the omnipotence of his deity, but rather by the moral strength of his humanity. And that humanity was not yet a glorified humanity but one made in the likeness of the First Adam.
Let’s elaborate the insights of Hodge and Sproul.
Jesus Resists Temptation as a Man
I believe Jesus’ response to Satan alludes to this reality:
And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But [Jesus] answered, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matt 4:3-4).
There were times when Jesus unveiled his divinity and employed his divine power—walking on water, calming a storm, healing the sick, and so on. In the ordeal described by Matthew and Luke, it seems the devil was tempting Jesus to utilize and rely upon His divine power. But Jesus refused to rely upon His divine power. He was determined to endure this ordeal as a man, and not as God. Wayne Grudem describes it this way:
The moral strength of [Jesus’] divine nature was there as a sort of “backstop” that would have prevented Him from sinning in any case (and therefore we can say that it was not possible for him to sin), but He did not rely on the strength of His divine nature to make it easier for Him to face temptations.10
To be sure, Jesus was full of faith (Heb 12:2-3) and the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:1; John 3:34). Moreover, our Lord did not possess any inward proclivity toward sin, as do regenerate believers with remaining sin (James 1:14-15). But according to these theologians–and I agree with them–Jesus did not resist temptation in the strength of his divinity but in the capacity of his humanity!
Jesus’ Humanity Was Not Yet Glorified
Furthermore, Jesus resisted temptation not as a man perfected in holiness, but rather as a man who, like Adam in the Garden, was still growing in holiness. At this point, it’s important to remember that the Bible speaks of two kinds of moral perfection relative to humans.
First, there is the relative moral perfection that characterized Adam and Eve before the fall. They were created morally perfect in the sense that they did not possess a sinful nature. Their hearts and consciences were originally pure (Gen 1:31; 2:25; Eccl 7:29). However, though Adam and Eve did not have sinful natures, it was still possible for them to sin. Possible doesn’t mean necessary.11 Hence, theologians sometimes describe the original state of humans as posse non pecarre et posse pecarre (able not to sin and able to sin).12 That’s the first kind of moral perfection.
Second, there is the consummate moral perfection that will characterize all Christians once they are glorified in heaven. At that time, not only will our sin be completely removed and our hearts made completely pure, but also we’ll no longer have the capacity to sin and we’ll be beyond the reach of temptation. Our Confession of Faith refers to this in 9.5, which reads: “[The] will of man is made perfectly and immutably free to good alone in the state of glory” (see Eph. 4:13-14; Heb. 12:23; 1 John 3:2-3; Rev. 21:4, 27; 22:3).13
Which of these two states of human nature characterized Jesus Christ in his earthly ministry? Was Jesus’ human nature fully matured in holiness like our natures will be in glory? Or was Jesus’ human nature still in the process of ethical maturation like Adam’s nature in the Garden of Eden?
There are certain texts of Scripture that incline me to the position that Jesus’ human nature was not yet perfected in holiness.14 Take, for example, Luke 2:52, which describes Jesus as growing not only in stature but also in wisdom and favor with God. More relevant for this study is Hebrews 5:8-9:
Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect [as a reward for his obedience], he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.
According to the author of Hebrews, Jesus, like Adam, had to learn obedience. It was not until He successfully learned and proved obedience through suffering that He was “made perfect.” And what kind of perfection is in view? Philip Hughes answers correctly, when he writes:
[Christ’s] perfection consisted in the retention of his integrity, in the face of every kind of assault on his integrity [i.e., temptation], and thereby the establishment of his integrity. Had he failed at any point, his integrity would have been impaired and his perfection lost, with the consequence that he would have been disqualified to act as mediator and redeemer. What was essential was that, starting, like Adam, with a pure human nature, he should succeed where Adam had failed. His sufferings both tested and, victoriously endured, attested his perfection, free from failure and defeat.15
With these observations in view, I would summarize the biblical data as follows: first, Jesus in the capacity of his humanity was genuinely tempted by Satan (Matt 4:1-11; 16:23). In this sense, Jesus’s temptations resemble ours. Unlike us, however, Jesus was not enticed by any indwelling sin.16 Second, Jesus, unlike Adam and unlike you and me, successfully resisted all of His temptations. Third, Jesus resisted those temptations neither by the might of omnipotent deity nor by the strength of glorified humanity. Rather, Jesus resisted the strongest temptations the devil could throw His way with a human nature not yet perfected in holiness.17
(More to come.)
7 Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (Reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 2:457.
8 Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession, 3 vols. (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2006), 251. Sproul asks Sinclair Ferguson to answer the question at a Ligonier Conference. Click here and move to 57:15 for Ferguson’s response.
9 Millard Erickson seems to agree. As he puts it, “Here we are encountering one of the great mysteries of the faith, Jesus’s two natures,… Nonetheless, it is fitting for us to point out here that while he could have sinned, it was certain he would not.” Christian Theology, 3rd edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2013), 657.
10 Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 539.
11 Of course, since God has ordained everything that comes to pass, we may say that Adam’s and Eve’s sin was necessary in terms of God’s decree. But this is not the same as saying Adam’s and Eve’s sin was necessary due to their human nature as originally created.
12 Thomas Boston describes this in some detail in his Human Nature In Its Fourfold State (1720; reprint, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1964), 39-56.
13 For the four states of human nature, i.e., pre-fallen, fallen, regenerate, and glorified, see Boston’s work referenced above.
14 Of course, if we define “holiness” and “sanctification” in simple terms of moral innocence and purity, then Jesus was completely holy. But I’m using the terminology more broadly to include ethical and spiritual maturity.
15 A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 187-88.
16 On the one hand, Jesus never experienced any inward impulses toward evil, as believers with remaining sin may experience. On the other hand, temptation sometimes consists of a solicitation to take prematurely or on our own (autonomous) terms what God may intend eventually and under his terms. Hence, when the Devil offers Christ “the kingdoms of this world,” he was soliciting Christ to obtain what the Father had promised him (see Psalm 2:7). Moreover, I believe that Jesus would have rightly desired what his Father had promised. So the Devil was appealing to an inward desire when he tempted Christ. But what Jesus did not desire is to obtain the Father’s prize prematurely and on Jesus’s own (or the Devil’s) terms. Our Savior’s overriding desire was always and only to do the will of the Father who sent him.
17 For a fuller and more robust defense of the position defended in this article, see Michael Canham, “Potuit Non Peccare or Non Potuit Pecarre: Evangelicals, Hermeneutics, and the Impeccability Debate,” The Master’s Seminary Journal 11/1 (Spring 2000): 93-114.
Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological Review, The Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.