Could Jesus Have Sinned?

by | Faith and Reason | 9 comments

Could Jesus have sinned?. The Bible clearly says that he didn’t:

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” (Hebrews 4:15)

But what we really want to know is whether he could have sinned. After all, if he couldn’t aren’t we kind of left with a Jesus who can’t relate to us. How can he “empathize” after all if he never experienced what we experience? This is a pretty important question. But answering requires that we recognize some crucial considerations.

Jesus’ Dual Nature:

It’s important to remember that Jesus is both God and Man. He is the second person of the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). This means he is distinct in his person, but shares fully in God’s nature in every way that the Father and Holy Spirit do. To put it plainly, Jesus is God. But Jesus is also a man born from a human mother like us. While his conception was miraculous and unique, (see. Luke 1:35) he is fully human in every way that we are, except for one that we will discuss shortly.

This uniting of God and Man in Jesus therefore means that he is at one and the same time fully God and fully man. His divine nature as God is not diminished or altered in any way by him taking on human nature. Nor does his human nature become more than human by being united with his divine nature. While he remains one person the miracle of the incarnation is that Jesus will forever possess the dual natures of God and Man.

Jesus Sinless Nature:

We mentioned that Jesus shares our humanity in every way except one. Unlike us, Jesus was not born with a sinful nature. We are born with what theologians call “original sin”. It’s not called “original” because Adam and Eve’s sin was first but because of the sinful condition that came as a result of it. They became sinful by nature which means that sin wasn’t simply what they had done, but what they became. 

This original sin nature has therefore been passed down to every human born after them; everyone except for Jesus that is. He was born without an original sin nature because being conceived in Mary by the Holy Spirit he was the Son of God, not the son of Adam. As such he was like Adam at Creation before he sinned; a perfect human being.

The difference between “Could” and “Would”:

So, could a perfect human being sin? The obvious answer is ‘yes’ since both Adam and Eve were created perfect and yet sinned. We must remember however, that human choices are always driven by two factors: capacity and desire. In order to make any choice we must both be able to make that choice and want to make it. Obviously for Adam and Eve God created them with the capacity to sin, otherwise forbidding the fruit from the one tree would have been meaningless. (see Gen. 2:16-17) But he did not create them with the desire to sin. That part he left for them to govern. Satan’s efforts therefore were directed at tipping the scales of their desire in favour of breaking God’s command. His tactic was to make breaking God’s command look more desirable than keeping it. Tragically he succeeded.

Not surprisingly Satan tried the same tactic with Jesus in the wilderness. (See Luke 4:1-13) Finding him in a weakened state of hunger, thirst and loneliness Satan pulled out the same bag of tricks he used on Adam and Eve in the garden: the temptation to satisfy legitimate desires by illegitimate means.

  • Satisfying hunger with a selfish exercise of divine power. (4:3)
  • Bringing his rule of peace to the earth through an unholy alliance. (4:6)
  • Displaying trust in God with a presumptuous and manipulative test. (4:9-11)

But did Jesus really have the capacity as a human to make these choices? Did he really feel the hunger pains? Did his mouth salivate at the thought of bread? Did he understand that being given rule of the world would instantly allow him to make earth into a paradise for everyone? Did he perceive the enticement of Satan’s offers? Of course he did. In his full humanity therefore Jesus possessed the capacity for sin just as we do which is what makes him our faithful high priest. As the writer of Hebrews says above: “…he was tempted in every way, just as we are.” In this sense therefore, we may say that Jesus could have sinned because in his humanity he possessed the capacity (i.e. understanding, reason, emotion, feeling, volition) to make these sinful choices just as Adam and Eve did in the garden.

Does this mean that God’s eternal plan of salvation was teetering on the edge of a knife, waiting for the uncertain outcome of Jesus’ testing in the wilderness? ‘No’. There was never a risk of Jesus sinning. Not because he didn’t have the capacity to sin, but because he would never have the desire to sin. Jesus’ human nature was so perfectly united with God’s divine nature that he could never will anything other than what God wills. Jesus expresses this clearly in John 4:34 when he says to his disciples: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.”

So Where Does This Leave Us?

So in one sense Jesus could have sinned because he possessed the same human capacities that we do to understand, feel and appreciate want, loss, pain, sorrow, anxiety, etc. Like us he fully experienced these burdens and the struggle brought by temptation’s offer to alleviate them.

But in another sense Jesus couldn’t sin because he wouldn’t sin. He would never desire to relieve himself from any struggle against temptation by disobeying his Father. He could certainly feel his human need from whatever temptation sought to exploit, be it hunger, thirst, pain avoidance or I’m sure even sexual arousal. But he could never want that need to be relieved by disobeying even the least of his Father’s commands. And this actually makes Jesus’ suffering through temptation far greater than anything we have ever faced, and here’s why.

When we are tempted we feel the struggle. We may wrestle with it and resist it and call on God to help us overcome it. But so often we give into temptation. And when we do the struggle ends because we are no longer fighting. We have raised the white flag and surrendered. But for Jesus this never happened. He never gave in to temptation which means that whatever temptation he battled against he battled with it to the very end; even to the point of his death. On this point C. S. Lewis remarked: “Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full extent what temptation means.”  

Christ Our Only Comfort Through Temptation:

Do you feel like there are some temptations you will never win the battle with? Are you carrying a load of shame and a sense of failure? Take heart! Jesus is a friend who knows what your struggle feels like. He is not standing over you clucking his tongue in disgust. He is saying “I know how you feel” and he really means it. But even greater comfort than that is in knowing that having suffered through every temptation you have and more, Jesus achieved victory over sin on the cross. He beat the enemy that’s beating you, for you. It’s done. The battle with temptation and sin that you think you are losing has actually already been decided. You win because Jesus won! There is therefore no defeat for you when you put your trust in him.  

So put aside any feelings of failure or defeat. Turn your eyes toward Jesus and call on him again to give you the victory in your remaining battle with sin which he has already secured for you in eternity.

Worth Memorizing:

14Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16)

9 Comments

  1. Bonnie

    Exodus 20:5 KJV
    Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.
    Is it possible that Jesus could not have had a biological earthly father, otherwise he would have inherited a sinful nature?

    Reply
    • Scott Stein

      That’s a good question Bonnie.

      I’m reluctant to say that he couldn’t have had an earthly father for biological reasons. (i.e. If he shared Joseph’s biology he would have shared his sin nature) Jesus shared Mary’s biology, and yet didn’t share in her sin nature so obviously God did something miraculous to keep Mary’s sin nature from passing on to Jesus. Who’s to say he couldn’t have done the same if Jesus did have a biological father.

      I think the greater concern had to do with who Jesus is. The angel Gabriel told Mary that he would be called “the Son of God”. The waters would certainly get muddy if Jesus was also the son of Joseph.

      In addition to who Jesus was it was also crucial what he was. As Paul clearly teaches us in Romans and 1 Corinthians, Jesus was to be the second or last Adam. In other words, where Adam was the first representative head of humanity, and from that head death reigned through sin, Christ is now the last (and ultimate) “Adam”, that is the last representative head of a new humanity born out of sin through him. I think that this fact about Jesus more than anything else informs us why he could not have a human father. He could not become and fulfill his mission as the second or last Adam if he was a direct descendant of the first Adam. Conversely, he also couldn’t serve as the last Adam if he also did not really share in our humanity; hence his real need for a human mother. It seems as though God thought of everything. Amazing!

      Reply
    • Peter Bolton

      Good question. However, the next verse (Ex 20:6) speaks of passing along blessings to the generations of those who fear the Lord. So verse 5 doesn’t seem to be about the passing along of the sinful nature, but of the consequences that come to the households of those who don’t seek the Lord. (This was meant to be a warning to Israel so that they would take sin–and God–seriously.)

      Reply
  2. Phil

    Scott, thanks for the post. This question of whether Jesus (or God) could sin puzzles me when we understand ‘possibility’ in terms of what philosophers call ‘possible worlds’. On the one hand, I’m inclined to agree with you: that Jesus could sin, he just wouldn’t sin. On the other hand, if we talk in terms of possible worlds, there’s no possible world in which Jesus (or God) does sin, implying that it was impossible for Jesus to sin – i.e. that he couldn’t sin. Talk of possible worlds generally makes sense to me, but I’m uncomfortable with what it seems to say about the question of whether Jesus could sin. Thoughts?

    Reply
  3. Scott Stein

    Hi Phil. I am versed enough with the “possible worlds” argument to get myself into trouble, so I’ll have to defer to you for any clarifications or corrections to my reasoning, on this point. Unless I’m missing something in terms of the nuance supplied by the possible worlds argument it still seems to me that in the end we are still left asking “in what sense” is it not possible for Jesus to sin in any possible world. The “could” vs. “would” distinction (which is not original to me…R. C. Sproul was one writer who I came across using it) seemed useful to me not as a way to quibble over whether Jesus could have actually ever sinned. I would affirm wholeheartedly that this could never have actually been possible. What arguing for the real possibility that he could sin (in terms of his human capacities) seemed helpful in doing was to resolve the tension that the actual impossibility implied that the burden and suffering of temptation wasn’t real to Jesus. Does that make any sense?

    Reply
    • Phil

      Thanks for your reply, Scott. The thought that a possible worlds analysis still leaves us asking ‘in what sense’ Jesus can’t sin hadn’t occurred to me before. I still feel unsettled, but that seems right and is helpful. Thanks again.

      Reply
  4. Achillo Briglio

    I do not believe Jesus could have sinned because Jesus is God and God is Jesus. They are one. If Jesus could have sinned He would have ceased to be God and that would go against His sovereignty, and dirty.
    Achillo Briglio
    briglioaj@gmail.com

    Reply
  5. james hobbs

    j.o.hobbs@hotmail.com

    you where talking my mother and to her to give me some things thank you .
    now i i have all four courer in my room with a bible of which I can pick up and read

    Reply
    • Scott Stein

      You’re very welcome James. I’m glad we could be a help to you. God bless! – Scott Stein

      Reply

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