“Could Jesus have sinned?” The Scripture that usually prompts this question for Bible students is Hebrews 4:15, “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.”
Being “tempted in all points as we are”, is it possible that He might have yielded to one of those temptations, and what would that have resulted in? The mind begins to spin.
We’re dealing here with the doctrine of Christ’s impeccability. There are several ways this question has been approached; and I think that firstly we have to get one of the suggested answers out of the way:
An Answer That Just Won’t Fly
Sometimes people have dodged the question by a line of reasoning which goes something like this: “What IS sin? It is falling short of God’s standards. Who sets those standards? God does … they’re HIS standards. Holiness is conforming to HIS nature. Therefore, if Jesus had committed a ‘sin’ it would no longer BE sinful. It would be right, because it is God who decides what is right. So, for example, if Jesus told a lie, then lying would not be wrong.”
So, by that way of thinking, it is quite impossible for Jesus to sin. As God, He can do what He wants and it is never sinful. He “defines” sinfulness – it’s whatever He doesn’t do!
Well, it’s quite obvious that we have to reject this whole argument outright, because it raises so many more problems than it attempts to solve. It would be in contradiction to a whole host of Scriptures.
The main problem with it is that it makes right and wrong merely “relative”. You no longer have an absolute standard, and therefore all statements about the “holiness” and “righteousness” and “justice” of God become entirely meaningless. His “holiness” would then be merely God doing anything at all and calling it holy. You start to think of the ramifications of that, and it’s a truly terrifying view of God!
No, we must reject that idea, and so we are still left with the question: Could Jesus Have Sinned?
Let me attempt to answer this reasonably and Biblically.
There Are 2 tensions That We Have To Deal With In This Question.
On the one hand, Jesus is God and the Bible is clear that there is no darkness in God at all (1 John 1:5). Furthermore, He “cannot be tempted by evil” (James 1:13). That seems straightforward, doesn’t it!
BUT, on the other hand, Hebrews 4:15 becomes quite meaningless if the temptation Jesus endured had no real effect on Him. (In the same way that Superman could not understand my fear of bullets when they all just bounce off him!) The whole point of the verse is to encourage us that we have a High Priest who DOES understand our struggle.
The answer has to do with the 2 natures of Christ. That He is truly God (100%) and at the same time, since His incarnation, He is truly human (100%). Don’t fudge on this, or you’ll fall into heresy. He clothed Himself with a fully human nature. One Person, but with both a Divine and a human nature.
Now be careful here. Saying Jesus is fully human does not suggest “sinful” humanity (which is all that we have any experience of, and therefore all that we can really conceptualize). Only three human beings have ever lived on planet earth having no bias to sin whatsoever … Adam and Eve (prior to their fall), and Jesus. So Jesus is “perfect humanity”.
All that to simply point out that the very real temptation of Jesus (and this is surely part of the great mystery of the incarnation) was directed at His human nature.
Jesus experienced all of the non-sinful infirmities of being a man in a real body with all it’s human limitations. He became weary (John 4:6), hungry (Matthew 4:2), and thirsty (John 19:28). He sweat as He prayed in Gethsemane, and He certainly felt pain upon the cross. With a truly human nature, He experienced every part of this exactly as you and I do.
At the same time, however, He never ceased being truly God, and as such continues to have all the moral attributes of God: love and holiness and goodness, etc. So the theologian Millard Erickson (echoing many before him) has put the answer to the question very helpfully like this …
“While He could have sinned, it was certain that He would not. There were genuine struggles and temptations, but the outcome was always certain.” (Christian Theology, 1990. p720.)
Now, some have protested that if a person never succumbs to temptation, they have not really felt it. This is so clearly false, however …
Leon Morris points out that, actually, the opposite is true! The person who resists is the one who knows the full force of temptation. Question: When did you stop feeling the pressure of temptation? Answer: The moment you gave in to it!
The sinlessness of Jesus points to a more intense rather than any lesser temptation. So Morris writes:
“The man who yields to a particular temptation has not felt its full power. He has given in while the temptation has yet something in reserve. Only the man who does not yield to a temptation, who, as regards that particular temptation, is sinless, knows the full extent of that temptation.” (Christian Theology, 1990. p720.)
And so, Jesus, in His truly human nature, felt the full force of actual temptation to sin, which (in order for the temptation to be meaningful) means He could have yielded, but because of His Divine nature never would have done. Let’s be clear: the outcome was never in doubt! And the result is that He actually experienced temptation to a degree that we (who so often yield at some point) will never experience. This is my High Priest! What a Savior!
(Inset picture: “The Temptations of Christ”, 12th century mosaic at St Mark’s Basilica, Venice.)