There was a discussion at one of our Wednesday night Bible studies over this question. The pastor said it was impossible for Jesus to have sinned, but not all agreed.
While the majority focused on Jesus’ deity, some focused on His humanity. It helped them to identify with Jesus’ temptation to know that Jesus could have sinned.
For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
– Hebrews 2:18 1
Here’s my view on this question:
Jesus had a human body just like ours. It had the same “tools” that we use to commit sin: Jesus had a tongue that was able to lie, hands that could steal, and a brain that could think lustful thoughts. There were no physical restrictions on His body to prevent Him from doing these things.
However, Jesus was always in continuous fellowship with His Father in heaven, walking in the Spirit. Those who walk in the Spirit cannot sin:
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.
– Galatians 5:16
So I, too, focus on Jesus’ deity to say that He could not sin. But this may not be convincing if you think otherwise, so I’ll take a different approach, which revolves around this question.
Was God taking a risk when He sent His Son to earth? Was He risking the possibility that His Son might sin.
My answer to this question is no, and here is my reason: God is omniscient, meaning He knows everything, including what the future holds. There is nothing hidden from His knowledge, so we have a wrong view of God if we think He can risk anything. The life of Jesus was also not hidden to God before it happened. The Father knew everything that the Son would do on earth before it happened. He knew Jesus would live a sinless life.
So, what if Jesus had sinned? Then He would no longer have been righteous. He would not have been able to save us by taking our sin upon Himself on the cross, and imputing to us His non-existent righteousness. We would be hopelessly and eternally lost.
But more importantly as pertains this question, all of the Old Testament prophecies about the Christ who would save us from our sins would never be fulfilled. Hence, God would have lied in giving us those failed promises.
But we know that God does not lie. Hebrews 6:13-20 says:
For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, saying, “Surely I will bless you and multiply you.” And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise. For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.
– Hebrews 6:13-20
The word “impossible” is important here, for it not only means God cannot tell a lie, it also means it was impossible for all the pre-incarnation prophecies to fail to come to pass. God “guaranteed it with an oath” beforehand. Therefore it was impossible for Jesus to sin.
This impossibility was not rooted in Jesus’ physical nature, for He had a body that was capable of sinning. Instead it was rooted in God’s eternal purpose and foreknowledge of what Jesus was going to do, as well as Jesus’ continuous oneness with the Father and Holy Spirit.
However, this does not mean that when Satan tempted Jesus it was like water off a duck’s back. It took effort for Jesus to resist temptation. This effort is best seen in what is commonly known as the last temptation of Christ. Jesus was in agony and sweated great drops of blood during this time. It was difficult, but He was sure to come through the temptation without failing.
What we forget is that resisting temptation takes much effort and many times results in greater discomfort (at first) than giving in. I think this is where our identification with Jesus’ temptation applies (Hebrews 2:18). It is not that when He was tempted, He felt that sinning was something that He might choose to do, but that He suffered when He resisted temptation.
So, I believe that while Jesus had the physical capability of sinning, His relationship to His Father prevented that from happening. 2
- Jesus’ temptation was different than ours in one major respect: we are tempted in ways that appeal to our sin nature, but Jesus did not have a sin nature to appeal to. His temptation was more along the lines of Adam’s temptation. Adam did not have a sin nature when he was in the garden. He did not have our internal bias to choose to sin. ↩
- There was also an argument based on Jesus having free will. If He had free will, then He was able to choose to sin. But free will is also a primary characteristic of God (i.e. sovereignty), and yet we know that God cannot sin (James 1:13: …God cannot be tempted with evil…). (Of course, sin is what goes against God’s will, so no matter what He does, it cannot be called sin. However, He could not do what He has called evil (the moral variety) and still be called “good”. If the words “good”, “righteous”, etc. can be arbitrarily redefined, then they have no real meaning.) ↩