Thursday, June 26, 2014

Could Jesus Have Sinned?

Could Jesus have sinned? That is not to ask if Jesus was guilty of sin, but given the real temptations he faced, could Jesus have sinned? The question reflects a major challenge in understanding the incarnation of our Lord. It forces us to seemingly pit his absolute deity - God is holy and thus he cannot and does not sin - and his absolute humanity - we frail humans sin every day.

In this regard, theologians debate whether Jesus was peccable or impeccable. I raised the issue some time ago as I was blogging through Millard Erickson's excellent systematic theology (read it here). Though we will return to Erickson in a minute, let us consider Paul Enns helpful framing of the issue in his book The Moody Handbook of Theology.

He begins by suggesting that, for the most part, the debate separates Calvinists and Arminians. Usually, Calvinists affirm Christ's impeccability (he could not have sinned) while Arminians affirm Christ's peccability (he could have sinned).

Enns notes that Those who hold to the peccability of Christ do so on the basis of Hebrews 4:15 . . . If the temptation was genuine then Christ had to be able to sin; otherwise the temptation was not a genuine temptation (249). In other words, all of Christ's temptations - especially the most famous temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4 and parallels)  - were real temptations. They were not illusory.

But this position has its weakness. First, being that Christ is eternal and fully divine - the second person of the Trinity - imagine if we asked the same question regarding God the Father or the Holy Spirit. Clearly they are each impeccable.* Peccability suggests a weakening of Christ's deity.

Regarding impeccability, Enns writes:
The purpose of the temptations was not to see if Christ could sin, but to show that He could not sin. The temptation came at a critical time, the beginning of Christ's public ministry. The temptation came at a critical time: the beginning of Christ’s public ministry. The temptation was designed to show the nation what a unique Savior she had: the impeccable Son of God. It is also noteworthy that it was not Satan who initiated the temptation but the Holy Spirit (Matt 4:1). If Christ could have sinned, then the Holy Spirit solicited Christ to sin, but that is something God does not do. (James 1:3). (250)
He then proceeds to point to other evidence for Christ's impeccability. He points specifically to Christ's immutability, his omnipotence, omniscience, deity, will, and authority. He also points to the nature of temptation. He writes:
The temptation that came to Christ was from without. However, for sin to take place, there must be an inner response to the outward temptation. Since Jesus did not possess a sin nature, there was nothing within Him to respond to the temptation. people sin because there is an inner response to the outer temptation. (251)
I will add to the above evidence the following argument from Millard Erickson:
But the question remains, "Is a person who does not sin truly human?" If we say no, we are maintaining that sin is part of the essence of one who believes that the human has been created by God, since God would then be the cause of sin, the creator of a nature that is essentially evil. Inasmuch as we hold that, on the contrary, sin is not part of the essence of human nature, instead of asking, "Is Jesus as human as we are?" we might better ask, "Are we as human as Jesus?" For the type of true humanity created by God has n our case been corrupted and spoiled. There have been only three pure human beings: Adam and Eve (Before the fall, and Jesus. All the rest of us are but broken, corrupted versions of humanity. Jesus is not only as human as we are; he is more human. Our humanity is not a standard by which we are to measure his. His humanity, true and unadulterated is the standard by which we are to be measured. (737)
In the end, I would point to Russell Moore's helpful discussion of this issue in his book Tempted and Tried: Temptation and the Triumph of Christ:
In any discussion of Jesus' temptations, someone will typically ask, "Could Jesus have sinned?" To answer that, I would simply ay that it depends on what you mean by "could." I’ll respond with another question. Think of the person you love the most. While you have this loved one’s face before your mind, let me ask you: “Could you murder that person?” Your response would probably be, “Of course not!” You would then tell me how much you love the person, what the person means to you, and so forth. You’re incapable of murdering this person because the very act is opposed to everything that you’re about. (Note: If you answered with a cheery, “Boy, could I!” to that question, please put down this book and seek professional help.)

In your response to my question, you would be assuming “could” to mean a moral capability. But “could” here could also mean a natural ability. You tell me you “couldn’t” murder your loved one, but that’s no sign that you are saying you couldn’t physically take this person on. You're saying you would never do such a thing.

Jesus is himself the union of God and man, with both a human and a divine nature. God is, of course, morally incapable of sinning. But Jesus, in his human nature, really desires those things humanity’s been designed to desire. Could he have sinned—is his nature one that is capable of being both light and darkness? No. Could he have sinned—was he physically capable of eating bread, of throwing himself from a temple, of bowing his knee and verbalizing the words “Satan is lord”? Yes, of course.

It’s at this point that we often further misunderstand Jesus’ solidarity with us. We too often assume our current sinful status is what it means to be “real.” That’s because we’ve never known a world in which there is no sin. If you grow up all your life on a coastline near an uncapped oil spill, you might conclude that seagulls are covered in tar. As you read or travel, though, and see the birds in their natural state, you’ll discover your experience was abnormal; that’s not the way it’s meant to be. Too often we dismiss as “all too human” what is not human at all; it’s a satanic nature parasitically imposed on the human after the fall of Eden.

Jesus “sympathizes” with us in our temptations, the Bible tells us (Heb. 4:15). Yet we err when we think of this sympathy as some kind of psychologically motivated dismissal or minimizing of sin. Just think about the reactions if you were to sit around with your friends as you all talk about your temptations. One friend might confess to lust, and many in the group would nod heads in understanding. Another might confess an unforgiving spirit or a tendency toward hotheadedness. Again several would offer the words “I know how that is” as a means of encouragement. Probably, though, if someone were to say, “I have this persistent desire to throw kittens in a wood chipper,” the nods and affirmations would end. You’d probably be nudging the person next to you under the table in disbelief and exchanging looks with the person across from you that would mean something along the lines of, “Man, is this a sick one or what!” We often are most able to justify the sins in others if they correspond with our own failings, because we understand them. (43-44)

* Though I believe this is a helpful argument against peccability, it does have its limitations. Those who affirm the peccability of Christ would rightly respond by reminding us that what makes Christ unique is his incarnation. God, who is Spirit (John 4) does not tempt nor is He given into temptation.


For more:
"Christian Theology": Blogging Through Erickson - Christology 7
John Knox on the Threefold Office of Christ
John Knox on the Importance of the Ascension
The God Who Became Man: Millard Erickson on the Implications of the Humanity of Christ 
Alumni Academy Christology Lectures From Dr. Bruce Ware
"The Jesus We Missed" by Patrick Henry Reardon   
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