Theology: The Doctrine of God

Was Jesus Capable of Sinning?

By Dr. Paul M. Elliott
A reader asks, "I understand that Jesus never sinned. But was the 'human side' of Jesus capable of committing sin?"

From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase

A reader asks, "I understand that when God the Son came into the world as Jesus Christ, He was both fully human and fully God. I also understand that Jesus never sinned. But was the 'human side' of Jesus capable of committing sin?"

A Very Relevant Question for Our Time

Our reader's question is one that theologians have debated for centuries. The vast majority of orthodox theologians have held that Jesus the God-Man was incapable of sinning.

But the "Jesus" of postmodern Evangelicalism is a different matter. Reliable surveys show that today nearly half of self-professed Evangelical Christians not only believe that Jesus was capable of sinning while on earth, but that He did actually commit sin. A friend of mine told me that her doctor, a member of a postmodern Evangelical church, told her that his picture of "Jesus" was someone with whom he could go to the local bar and drink on a Saturday night. This is not the Christ of the Bible, but "another Jesus" (2 Corinthians 11:4).

Such thinking should not surprise us, because today it comes directly from reputedly conservative pulpits. Several years ago, I witnessed this myself. I sat in a service at a reputedly conservative Presbyterian church (in the Assocate Reformed Presbyterian Synod, of which I was not a member) and heard the preacher declare, during a sermon from Romans 8, that "Jesus Christ committed sin."

There was not even a murmur of protest from the hundreds of people present. I was the only person who confronted him about it after the service. I came to understand that this was not the first time he had uttered such blasphemy from the pulpit. Because the elders of the church refused to act, I obtained and sent a recording of the sermon to the presbytery's moderator, who initiated what turned out to be a half-hearted "investigation". In the end, the presbytery of this reputedly conservative denomination merely advised this preacher to "reconsider his position" but let him continue in the pulpit. He never did reconsider, much less cease his blasphemy, and has continued to teach this heresy openly. This is one of the more egregious cases, but it is not un-typical of the sad state of many churches in our time.

A Long-Standing Debate

Some noted Reformed and Evangelical men, such as Charles Hodge1 and E. H. Bancroft2 have affirmed the peccability of Christ - the possibility that He could have sinned after He was born in Bethlehem - although they are careful to add that Scripture teaches that He never sinned. However, most theologians, such as Louis Berkhof,3 Matthew Henry,4 and W. E. Vine,5 hold to the impeccability of the incarnate Son of God - that not only did He not sin, but was incapable of sin. Lewis Sperry Chafer stated the issue thus:

A serious question arises as to whether He was impeccable, that is, unable to sin. Though it is a hypothetical question because orthodox theology agrees that Christ did not sin, the question was, could He sin or was He peccable, that is, able to sin. On the other hand, it is affirmed that He is impeccable, that is, He was not able to sin though He was tempted in the sense of being tested.

The unity of His person here is involved, and while theologians have differed on their emphasis on this point, the impeccability of Christ becomes a central doctrine in connection with establishing His deity.

The question of sin and temptation in Christ from an orthodox point of view should be answered by the statement that He could not sin. As far as the divine nature is concerned, it is clear that God could not sin and that God could not be tempted. On the human side it is obvious that Christ could be tempted, and the human nature by itself could sin. But when the human and divine natures were united in Christ, that left the person of Christ in a situation where the Person could be tempted but where the Person cannot sin because of the presence of the divine nature. The immutability of God, His eternal holiness and righteousness, His omnipotent power all come to bear on the subject of the impeccability of Christ. The doctrine is not simply that Christ was not able to sin but that Christ was not able to sin because He is God.6

Scripture supports this position in three ways.

Christ's Divine Attributes Necessitate Impeccability

First of all, the divine attributes of Christ testify to this. Christ is unchangeable and immutable (Hebrews 13:8) and therefore could not sin on earth as He did not sin in heaven. If Christ could have sinned while on earth, then He could sin now at the right hand of the Father. Christ is omnipotent (Matthew 28:18) and therefore not susceptible to sin. Christ is omniscient (John 2:25) and therefore could not be deceived, which one of the principal ways that sin comes about (Genesis 3:13, 1 Timothy 2:14).

Sin is by nature an inward response to outward temptation (James 1:14-15), and Jesus had no inward sinful nature that could respond to outward temptation. Jesus possessed a singular will, to do the will of the Father (Matthew 26:39; John 5:30, 6:38, 10:37). In the incarnation, the divine Son of God had complete authority over His humanity (e.g., John 10:18).

Scripture's Descriptions of Christ Declare His Impeccability

Secondly, we have the Bible's descriptions of Christ. The angel Gabriel, in announcing the virgin birth to Mary in Luke 1, told her that the child born to her would be holy (verse 35: hagion, meaning separate and apart from sin). In Hebrews 7:26, Jesus is spoken of as "holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners." The writer of Hebrews piles one adjective upon another to emphasize not merely Christ's actual sinlessness, but His incapability of sinning. He is holy: hosios, religiously right and holy, as opposed to that which is unrighteous or polluted. He is harmless: akakos, void of evil. He is undefiled: amiantos, free from contamination. He is separate from sinners: kekorismenos apo ton hamart├?┬┤l├?┬┤n, literally, divided asunder from those who miss the mark.

Christ's Temptations Prove His Impeccability

Third, Jesus' resistance of all temptations, and the unproved accusations against Him, are the proofs of His impeccability. In John 8:46, Jesus asks His Jewish hearers, "Which of you convicts me of sin?" A form of the word elencho (the word translated "convict") is also used in James 2:9-10: ".you are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all."

The uses of elencho in John 8:46 and James 2:9-10 markedly contrast the status of Christ and the status of fallen man. We stand convicted of the whole law. He stands unconvicted, indeed incapable, of any violation. He was, as Hebrews 4:15 tells us, "in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin." The word translated "tempted" (pepeiramenon) denotes being tried or proven as well as being enticed. For man, temptation tests our obedience to our Lord. For Christ, temptation was the proving of His impeccability.

The same word is used in Hebrews 2:18: "For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are being tempted." W. E. Vine, commenting on this word, says that

the context [in Hebrews 2:18] shows that the temptation was the cause of suffering to Him, and only suffering, not a drawing away to sin, so that believers have the sympathy of Christ as their High Priest in the suffering which sin occasions to those who are in the enjoyment of communion with God; so in the similar passage in [Hebrews 4:15]; in all the temptations which Christ endured, there was nothing within Him that answered to sin.7

As God incarnate, Jesus Christ was not capable of sin, and the sinless perfection of His humanity was demonstrated by His perfect life. Only He could live the perfect life we could not live, so that He could die the death we deserved to die - a perfect death that propitiated the Father's wrath forever. Jesus is our perfect Redeemer in every sense of the word.

References:

1. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1968) Volume 2, pg. 357.

2. Emery H. Bancroft, Elemental Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1977), pg. 136; also Everett F. Harrison, A Short Life of Christ (Grand Rapids Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1968), pp. 80-81; Mark G. Cambron, Bible Doctrines (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1954), pg. 86.

3. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1996), pg. 318ff.

4. Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1920) at Hebrews 4:15.

5. W. E. Vine, The Expanded Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, John H. Kohlenberger III, editor (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 1984), pp 1128-1129.

6. Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology (Wheaton, Illinois: Victor Books, 1988), pp. 242-243.

7. Vine, pg. 231.

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