Sunday, May 13, 2018

Could Jesus Have Sinned?

When considering the temptations of Jesus one can hardly resist asking the hypothetical question, Could Jesus have sinned? The fact that Jesus is fully God would seem to preclude this, for God cannot sin. But the fact that Jesus is fully human, and that He undeniably was tempted, might seem to demand the possibility that He could have sinned; for if He could not have sinned, how could He have been tempted. How could He have been fully human?

Charles Hodge, the great Reformed theologian of the nineteenth century, seems to be among those who affirm that Jesus could possibly have sinned. He says, “The sinlessness of our Lord, however, does not amount to absolute impeccability.… 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” (Systematic Theology, Vol. II, p. 457).

In denying to Christ an absolute impeccability, Hodge is not representative of all Reformed theologians. Berkhof (Systematic Theology, pp. 318, 338), Boettner (Studies in Theology, p. 211) and Dabney (Lectures in Systematic Theology, pp. 470f.) may serve as contrasts. As is often the case with questions like this, the difficulty lies in the mystery of how the divine and human natures are related within the unity of Christ’s person.

There is, however, a way of approaching and answering this question which bypasses these difficulties. Jonathan Edwards (Freedom of the Will, Part III, Sec. 2) points out that it was impossible for Christ to have sinned and thus failed in His mission to redeem His elect people because “God had promised so effectually to preserve and uphold Him by His Spirit, under all His temptations, that He should not fail of reaching the end for which He came into the world …” Numerous promises are cited by Edwards in proving this point. For our purposes here, we need only illustrate the argument with one such promise: “And you shall call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). 

Clearly, it is God’s promise that Jesus will save His people from their sins, not just His hope that He will save His people from their sins. Many, many such promises are quoted by Edwards, and what God promises He can and will surely bring to pass. Hence we must conclude that it was impossible for Jesus to have sinned, else we must say that it was possible for God’s promises to have failed.

Now the Scriptures emphatically teach and show that Jesus was tempted and that He was human. Hodge and others have assumed that these alone are sufficient to establish the possibility of Christ’s sinning. But what proof is there that the possibility of sinning, of yielding to temptation, must exist for there to be a possibility of being tempted? On the contrary, given the promises of God, the example of Christ decisively refutes this assumption. Moreover, our own hope is that God shall uphold us in heaven so that we shall forever be free of sin and incapable of it; and He will do so without destroying either our freedom or our humanity, but rather so strengthening us by His Spirit that we shall not fall.

If then we still find it difficult to conceive how a person who could not have sinned could nevertheless be tempted, we must rest in the testimony of the Scriptures and believe that it is. For the Bible just as clearly teaches the reality of Christ’s humanity and temptations, indeed the agony of His temptations (Luke 22:44), as it does the impossibility that He might have failed in those temptations. We need not fear, then, that Christ is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses. He can and does. He was tempted in all things as we are. But neither must we think that to preserve us in eternity God must destroy our humanity and freedom. He need not and will not.

Our hope, then, is sure and steadfast, and it has been so from all eternity. It is a trustworthy statement and worthy of full acceptance that Jesus came into the world to save sinners, and there was no possibility He could have failed to do so.