Was It Possible for Jesus To Sin?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Sunday, December 27, 2009 at 2:53pm
THE QUESTION IS OFTEN ASKED, could Jesus have sinned? We know that in fact he DID not sin (John 8:46; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 John 3:5; Heb. 4:15), and we know that he was TEMPTED to sin (Heb. 2:18; 4:15). But was it actually possible for him to sin? (I have addressed this question briefly in my book, “The Faith Once for All,” pp. 228-229. I am reproducing that discussion below.)
MY REPLY: 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, Heb. 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 Peter 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 Joseph Stump says, 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 Peter 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 Peter 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 (James 2:10). In such a case he could not be our Savior, but would himself need a savior.