WAS IT POSSIBLE FOR JESUS TO SIN?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Thursday, July 19, 2012 at 9:13am
QUESTION: In a book I read recently, the author says that since Jesus was God in the flesh he was incapable of sinning. Obviously, Jesus was really tempted by Satan. Doesn’t this mean that he was actually capable of sinning? What are the implications for the Godhead had he sinned?
ANSWER: In answer to this question, I am reprinting below a section called “The Sinlessness of Jesus,” from chapter 13 of my book, The Faith Once for All, (pp. 228-229).
Scripture testifies that Christ “has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15). This means that he never willed to do anything sinful; he never did or thought anything contrary to divine law. He “committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth” (1 Pet 2:22). To his enemies he cried out, “Which one of you convicts Me of sin?” (John 8:46; see John 8:29; 15:29). He “knew no sin” (2 Cor 5:21); “in Him there is no sin” (1 John 3:5). He came in real flesh, but only in the “likeness” of sinful flesh (Rom 8:3). The phrase “sinful flesh” alludes to the fact that the human body has come under the power of sin, but this did not apply to Christ’s body. His body was fully human in the truest sense, but it did not have any of the corruption caused by sin.
Someone may think that the absence of sin somehow means that Christ was less than human, since in fact all human beings do sin (Rom 3:10, 23). Indeed, we often use our humanness as an excuse for sin (“I’m only human”; “To err is human”), as if sin were natural and expected from anyone truly human. The implication is that if Jesus were really human, he would have sinned! But this reasoning is seriously flawed. Sin is not natural for human beings; God made us as free-will creatures who are able to sin, but who are also able not to sin and indeed are commanded and expected not to sin. Rather than being a mark of true humanity, sin is a gap in or deviation from true humanness. The fact is that Jesus, just because he is the only one who never participated in sin either in body or spirit, is the only one who has a truly perfect human nature.
A question that often arises concerning Jesus’ sinlessness is whether or not it was possible for him to sin. This question cannot be answered with certainty. Many assume that he could have sinned since he was truly human; others (including myself) reason that he could not sin since he was truly God. What complicates the issue is that, although he had two natures (human and divine), Jesus was just one person with one center of consciousness and one will. His sinlessness therefore was just as much an accomplishment of his human nature as his divine nature.
Those who aver that Jesus could have sinned use two basic arguments. One, Hebrews 4:15 says that he was “tempted in all things as we are.” If he was not able to sin, then the temptation would not have been real and similar to ours. Two, if he was unable to sin, then his value as an example for our own holy living is negated. What is the use of trying to follow “in his steps” (1 Pet 2:21-22) if his sinless steps were the result of a divine nature that we do not share?
In my judgment, even if Jesus could have sinned, this cannot be established by these two arguments, since they are not conclusive. That Jesus was truly tempted cannot be denied (Matt 4:1-11; Heb 2:18; 4:15), and he surely felt the force of the temptations whether he could have succumbed to them or not. As is often said, we can subject pure gold to the most extreme test, all the while knowing it will stand the test because we know it is pure gold. The test is no less real, even if the result is not in doubt.
Likewise, that Jesus’ sinless life was in some sense an example for us cannot be denied (Matt 11:29; 16:24; John 13:15; Eph 4:20; Phil 2:5; 1 Pet 2:21-22). But this does not imply that Jesus lived a sinless life just for the purpose of providing us with an example, i.e., just to show us that it could be done. This is in fact a false notion, and is an aspect of the Christological fallacy. Jesus did not come for the purpose of showing us how to live a sinless life but to be the sacrifice for our sins. Some aspects of his life, e.g., his attitude of unselfishness (Phil 2:5), do provide us with an example; but the crucial aspects of his life are those things that are unique about him and that we cannot imitate, e.g., the incarnation itself (Phil 2:6-7), his atoning death (Phil 2:8), and his efficacious resurrection and victorious enthronement (Phil 2:9-11).
The fact that Jesus’ life was an example for us at all is actually incidental to the main purpose of both his incarnation and his sinlessness. In particular, the sinlessness of Jesus’ life was necessary so that he could be an acceptable sacrifice for our sins. He was “a lamb unblemished and spotless” (1 Pet 1:19) who “offered Himself without blemish to God” (Heb 9:14). If he had committed even the least sin, he would have been a guilty sinner (Jas 2:10). In such a case he could not be our Savior, but would himself need a savior.