Could Christ Have Sinned?

We do a theology class for our congregation twice per month. We meet in the evenings for 90 minutes and discuss a few questions from the assigned reading. We use Grudem’s systematic theology. I’d prefer Erickson, but Grudem’s format is more user-friendly. This coming week, we’re discussing this question:

  • Do YOU think it is possible for Jesus to ever sin? If it isn’t possible, then how can Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-10 be true?

These are my preliminary reflections as I prepare for the class. They are not fully formed, but they point where I’m headed. To answer this question coherently, you need to competently pull together several strands of orthodox Christology. In short, this is a tough question.

First things first

We must understand two things up-front:

  1. Jesus never sinned
  2. Father, Son and Spirit decided that the incarnate Messiah would be a perfect representative man, so it is certain that He would not sin

But, if Jesus didn’t sin, can He really understand us? And if Jesus couldn’t have sinned, then isn’t the incarnation a farce?

Definitions

  1. Sin: an unholy thought (Ex 20:17; Mt 5:27-30) or action (“lawlessness,” 1 Jn 3:4).
  2. Temptation: an enticement, push or nudge to sin.1
  3. Nature: the constellation of attributes and capacities that give shape to a person; including will, mind, emotion, volition.2
  4. Person: the owner, possessor or master of a nature – the active subject of a nature. It’s the vehicle that owns and actuates a nature. 3

Two nature Christology

Jesus has eternally existed as a divine person with a divine nature. In the incarnation, Jesus added a human nature to His divine nature. So, He now eternally exists as one divine person with two natures; divine and human.

But, Jesus’ temptations aren’t like ours because His human nature is not like ours. Adam and Eve broke the mold, and our natures reflect this brokenness. However, Jesus’ human nature is like Adam and Eve’s original nature – morally neutral. This means temptation strikes us differently than it did Jesus; we’re tempted from within and Jesus was tempted from without.

 This means Jesus exercised more strength and fortitude, as our representative, to withstand the temptation. A champion weightlifter understands the crushing weight of the barbell more than the man who can’t lift anything.4 So, Jesus understands temptation better than we do, because he triumphed over it while we succumb to it.

Because Jesus had a real human nature, like the original Adam and Eve, this seems to mean Jesus’ human nature is theoretically able to sin because Adam and Eve were able to sin, too. Also, Adam and Jesus are two parallel representatives for humanity, so one would expect a correspondence between their capacities.

Thankfully, we don’t have to puzzle this out on our own. Very smart Christians have already done this.

Chalcedon

The Council of Chalcedon is the high-water mark for Christology.5 Here is what it says, with some comments:

Christ must “be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably …” This means the natures can never be confused or changed; as if they can be melded together or mistaken for each other. Also, Jesus’ divine and human natures can’t be disconnected from one another. In other words, they’re locked together but not mixed.

The Creed goes on, and explains, “the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved …” This means each nature remains what it is and each nature retains its constellation of attributes. Thus, the divine nature is truly divine, and the human nature is truly human (like Adam’s and Eve’s).

These two natures are “concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son …” So, in some unfathomable way, each nature concurs together in the God-Man.

The Calcedonian Creeds tells us several things:

  1. while the natures are not mixed, and they each retain their separate attributes,
  2. they still work in lock-step together, in some way,6 and you can’t downplay the role of either nature,
  3. therefore, to assume one nature has a controlling hold on another (as impeccability advocates often suggest) seems to go beyond Chalcedon7

The precise mechanics of this union of natures in Jesus must remain a mystery; to go any further is dangerous speculation. We can also toss in some other caveats:

  1. If Jesus is truly human, then He has a human will proper to His human nature.8 He has to make a meaningful and intelligent choice, as a man, to obey God the Father as our representative. To suggest otherwise is to impugn His humanity.
  2. However, natures cannot act. Only a person can act. This brings us back round to the metaphysical conundrum that Jesus the divine person acts; even if it’s in accordance with one nature and not the other. The Son is the acting subject of both His divine and human natures.

Scripture

Hebrews 4:14-16 tells us Jesus can sympathize9 with and understand10 our weaknesses. He can only do this because He was tempted in all points just like we are – but without sin.11 These words mean something. If the temptation does not mirror Adam and Eve’s, it’s difficult to see Jesus as a parallel representative.

Because of (οὖν) Jesus’ shared experience of suffering, the Scripture calls us to “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need,” (Heb 4:16). This suggests Jesus must really have been tempted to sin the same way as the original Adam and Eve.

In Hebrews 5:7-10, we read that, “in the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.” The best example of this is Gethsemane, where Jesus genuinely wanted to be freed from what was to come – but He resolved to do His Father’s will, anyway. Jesus the divine person expressed a purely human volition through His human nature. Like on many other occasions, Jesus seems to have “walled off” or compartmentalized His divine nature at this point.

We read that “although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered,” (Heb 5:8). Jesus learned experiential obedience to God by suffering and triumphing over sin. As a man, Jesus learned things. “And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him,” (Heb 5:19). Jesus’ suffering without sinning is what “completed” Him as our representative. In Hebrews 2:10, the Bible says it’s the suffering that was the means (διὰ) of this “completeness,” realized most fully in His unjust execution.

The problem

Here’s the conundrum:

  1. to suggest Jesus, as the God-Man, is unable to sin seems to denigrate His true humanity. This position seems to make the incarnation a farce – a foregone conclusion. It implies Jesus never felt the true force of the temptations. This position is known as impeccability.
  2. but, to suggest Jesus could sin seems to denigrate His deity. This position is known as peccability.

So, what to do? The solution seems to be a qualified form of peccability, as follows:12

  1. Jesus was genuinely tempted to sin,
  2. not like us, but like the original Adam and Eve (morally neutral),
  3. so, it was theoretically possible for Him to sin,
  4. but He chose not to sin

Why this solution?

To suggest otherwise seems to denigrate His humanity and make the divine nature override the human one – contra the Chalcedonian creed, which says “the property of each nature being preserved and concurring in one Person …”

R.L. Dabney even calls the hypostatic union “an absolute shield to the lower nature, against error.”13 The human nature is somehow captive to the divine. This also seems to violate dyothelitism. Shedd argues that Jesus as a person (with both natures) could not have sinned, the divine nature controls the human.14 This is the same error as Dabney’s; it seems to absorb the humanity into the divine.15 How, then, are Jesus’ temptations not all a farce?

Charles Hodge remarked, “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.”16

Anselm draws a distinction between temptation and will; the temptation may be there, but the will is not – so both options are true, in a way!17 Grudem acknowledges we can’t really understand how the two natures relate in the God-Man, but affirms Jesus as a man didn’t rely on His divinity as a backstop;18contra Dabney and Shedd. But, he observed:19

if we are asking if it was actually possible for Jesus to have sinned, it seems that we must conclude that it was not possible. The union of his human and divine natures in one person prevented it.

This seems to violate Chalcedon. But, he concludes, rightly: “His divine nature could not be tempted with evil, but his human nature could be tempted and was clearly tempted. How these two natures united in one person in facing temptations, Scripture does not clearly explain to us.”20

This is wise advice. This is where Scripture stops. Chalcedon is the high-water mark; everything else is just tinkering. The Third Council of Constantinople fleshed some of this out a bit:21

each nature wills and performs the things that are proper to it in a communion with the other; then in accord with this reasoning we hold that two natural wills and principles of action meet in correspondence for the salvation of the human race.

But, we really can’t say precisely how the two natures communicate together. Stephen Wellum has noted, “[s]ome kind of asymmetrical relationship between the Son’s living, speaking, and acting in and through his natures must be postulated, which is probably one of the most difficult areas for us to conceive.”22

Millard Erickson explains that “while he could have sinned, it was certain that he would not. There were genuine struggles and temptations, but the outcome was always certain.”23 This is perhaps the best answer, and it touches on yet another area of genuine mystery – a compatibilist concept of God’s sovereignty:

  1. Father, Son and Spirit decreed that Jesus would be the sinless representative,
  2. so, it was certain the incarnate Christ would not sin
  3. yet Jesus, acting in accordance with his true unspoiled humanity with His human will, theoretically could have sinned
  4. even though, according to the decree, it is certain he would not sin

This is the same conundrum we have as we consider whether Judas was a truly willing agent when he betrayed the Savior (Mk 14:21). Compatibalism assigns moral responsibility to the human agent, even as it upholds God’s decree. This helps us understand how Jesus theoretically could sin, and yet could not sin.

Wrapping up

I return to the questions I posed at the beginning:

  1. If Jesus didn’t sin, can He really understand us? He theoretically could have sinned, but He didn’t, so He does understand and can sympathize with our struggles.
  2. If Jesus couldn’t have sinned, then isn’t the incarnation a farce? But, He theoretically could have sinned, so it isn’t a farce.

I pray these imperfect reflections help you think through this important question!

Notes

1 This is a variation of a definition given by Robert Letham, Systematic Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), 524.

2 See especially the discussion by Stephen Wellum, God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 424ff.  

3 Ibid.  

4 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994; ePub 2015), 539.

5 One of the best short discussions on the Christological controversies is by Robert Reymond, A Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 583-622. See especially 608-622.  

6 The Third Council of Constantinople explained it well; “we say that he has two natures shining forth in his one subsistence in which he demonstrated the miracles and the sufferings throughout his entire providential dwelling here, not in appearance but in truth, the differences of the natures being made known in one and the same subsistence in that each nature wills and performs the things that are proper to it in a communion with the other; then in accord with this reasoning we hold that two natural wills and principles of action meet in correspondence for the salvation of the human race,” (Norman P. Tanner (ed.), Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, 2 vols. [Washington D.C., GUP, 1990], 1:129-130).

You cannot go further than this, perhaps the best expression of Chalcedon as applied to the will of each nature that mankind will ever formulate.

7 Even the Third Council of Constantinople, at it condemned the monothelite issue, seemed to hint at points beyond Chalcedon when it said “the two natural wills not in opposition, as the impious heretics said, far from it, but his human will following, and not resisting or struggling, rather and in fact subject to his divine and all powerful will,” (Ibid, 1:128). Yet, the Council then clarified this by a quotation of Jn 6:38, and suggested Jesus’ human nature always sought to do the will of the divine. The incident at Gethsemane certainly suggests a resistance and struggle (contra the Council, above), but nonetheless a successful submission to God’s will.

I am uncomfortable with the depths the Council went to as it suggested the human nature obeys the divine; this smacks of Nestorianism or a radical disjunction of the natures. The Oneness Pentecostals actually sound remarkably like this! This formulation seems to go too far into mystery.

8 This is dyothelitism; see the Third Council of Constantinople.  

9 Friberg defines the word here as “a disposition to help because of fellow feeling,” (25330 συμπαθέω).

10 Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines “sympathy” as “the act or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings or interests of another,” (sv. 3a).

11 Most commentators understand χωρὶς ἁμαρτίας as I interpreted it, above. These include Peter T. O’Brien (The Letter to the Hebrews, in PNTC [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010; Kindle ed.], KL 3681) and F.F. Bruce (The Epistle to the Hebrews, in NICNT [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990; Kindle ed.], KL 1392-1405) and William L. Lane (Hebrews 1-8, in WBC, vol. 47a [Dallas: Word, 1991], 114). Some commentators, such as Homer Kent (Hebrews, 92), believe the phrase refers to the manner of the testing; that is, Jesus was tempted like we are except in the manner of a sinful inclination or pull from within. This is theologically correct, but it isn’t the point the writer is making. Kent is incorrect.

12 For a good counter-argument for impeccability, see especially Robert Letham, Systematic Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), 520-526. He seems to generally follow Shedd.

13 R.L. Dabney, Systematic Theology (St. Louis: Presbyterian Publishing, 1878; reprint; Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 1996), 471.

14 “When these two natures are united in one theanthropic person, as they are in the incarnation, the divine determines and controls the human, not the human the divine,” (W.G.T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, ed. Alan W. Gomes, 3rd ed. [reprint; Phillipsburg: P&R, 2003], 660).

15 “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,” (Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, 661).

16  Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology [reprint; Peabody: Hendrickson, 2011], 2:457.

17 “We can therefore say of Christ that he could tell a lie, if this statement is recognized to contain the implication, ‘If it were his will’. And since he could not lie unwillingly and it could not be his will to tell a lie, it can equally be stated that he was incapable of lying. It follows that thus he both could, and could not, tell a lie,” (Why God Became Man, in Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works [Oxford: OUP, 1998; Kindle ed.], Book 2.10).

18 Grudem, Systematic, 539. “Jesus met every temptation to sin, not by his divine power, but on the strength of his human nature alone.”

19 Ibid, 539.  

20 Ibid.

21 Norman P. Tanner (ed.), Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, 2 vols. [Washington D.C., GUP, 1990], 1:129-130).

22 Wellum, God the Son Incarnate,  441.  

23 Erickson, Christian Theology, 657.  

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There are 5 Comments

AndyE's picture

The issue to me boils down to this – it is the person who sins, not the nature.  Even if a human nature is peccable by nature of it being human, it would not be possible for the 2nd person of the Trinity to exercise his human nature to sin.  That would mean it was possible for God the Son to deny his divine nature in favor of his human nature. If it was possible for Christ to sin, we would have to say that before the incarnation, God the Son was impeccable, but having taken on a human nature, it was then possible for the unchanging God to sin by submitting to temptations directed against his human nature.  I don’t think so.

Bruce Rettig's picture

Great summary Tyler, but are you taking the question a step too far? Is it necessary to conclude that Jesus was theoretically capable of sin? Should we stop at the point where we acknowledge, because that is what Scripture teaches, that the temptations Jesus experienced were real because he possesses a real human nature?

Bruce

O taste and see that the Lord is good:

Blessed is the man that trusteth in him. 

Psalm 34:8

TylerR's picture

Editor

Your response touches on yet another odd question; if God is immutable, then was that violated by the incarnation? We'll also be talking about that question at the next class!

The problem is that we really don't know how the two natures communicate and work in lock-step in the divine person, who is the active agent. Your position potentially impugns His full humanity. Mine potentially impugns His deity. I tried to hedge by discussing God's decree and compatibalism, and I do think this helps. Still, it's a puzzler, to be sure.

I don't intend to go this deep into the issue during class, by the way!

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

TylerR's picture

Editor

I think we need to go one step further, because it's the natural question that comes next! I  don't think Chalcedon and Constantinople III are inspired, but I do find them extraordinarily helpful as we think about these issues. I don't like to play the mystery card too soon. I'm fine with Erickson's answer, which I think is the best that can be said. I also appreciate Grudem's humility. I think the impeccability advocates do violate Chalcedon when they speak of the human will being subject to the divine. It's more complicated than that. And that, I believe, is when we ought to play the mystery card.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

AndyE's picture

The hypostatic union definitely creates some difficult questions, and I do think it is worthwhile to think through them.  I would try very hard not to use terminology like dyothelitism in a SS class if I could help it, though. Smile

Regarding immutability, this is where the concept of nature is very helpful.  The divine nature is immutable; a human nature is not.  Taking on a human nature does not impact or change the divine nature. Jesus could grow tired in his human nature and yet still be fully omnipotent in his divine nature, and at the same time. Jesus could not know some things in his him nature, while knowing all things via his human nature.  Now, how that works is not all that clear or easy to specify, but it is still true.

Same with the impeccability of Christ.  His human body obviously had the ability to do all sorts of sinful things – utter a lie, swing a sword and murder, grab an item and steal, etc.  But the Son of God could never do any of those things because he cannot deny himself. The mechanics of how this works is interesting but does not impact the truthfulness of it.

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