Could Jesus have sinned?
E.R. from the US wrote in response to a Creation magazine article, ‘The Victory of the Last Adam’ 42(4):20–22:
I enjoyed the nice article on the Victory of the Last Adam by Lita Sanders, as I enjoy most articles in Creation. It’s one of my favorite magazines, and you do so well putting it together.
I was a little taken aback, however, by a statement in the box at the end, “Could Jesus Have Failed?” Lita states, “It was impossible for Jesus to sin, because Jesus is God.” I have no question that Jesus is God and that God cannot sin. However, Jesus was also 100% man as well as 100% God, despite the mathematical incongruency of these statements. In an article about Jesus as the Last Adam, there should be no equivocation that just as Adam could fail and sin, Jesus could also have failed and sinned. If it were impossible for Jesus in His Humanity to be unable to sin, His incarnation would be a farcical and meaningless exercise rather than a real sacrifice and trial with a great victory. Rather than give Satan the opportunity to mock God for a sham show in which Jesus could not fail, Jesus gained a real victory over Satan’s best temptations far beyond that which Adam had to endure in the Garden of Eden.
Philippians 2:5–7 reveals that Jesus did not cling to the divine prerogatives but emptied Himself of them in His incarnation. Hebrews 2:17–18 states, “Therefore, in all things He had to made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation [atonement] for the sins of the people. For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted” (NKJV). He had to go through what we go through, yet without sinning. If that were not real but only in pretense, it would be a sick joke. Hebrews 5:7–9 declares that Christ, “in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear, though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered. And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him” (NKJV).
All of this would have been just a meaningless fraud unless it were real, expressive of the genuineness of His humanity, of the same nature as ours, dependent on God for strength and all things. “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15 NKJV).
Lita Sanders, CMI-US, responds:
Thanks for writing in. The question “Could Jesus have sinned?” is important, and our answer to that question goes to the heart of Jesus’ very nature and how He was able to save us.
First, Jesus is fully God, but it is not His divine righteousness that saves us; if divine righteousness could save us, Jesus would not have needed to live a righteous human life to attain a righteousness that could be imputed to us to bring us into fellowship with God. We need to examine Jesus’ human nature, and the human righteousness He gained by His holy, sinless life.
We might begin by looking at other people in Scripture who are said to be righteous and even to enjoy an unusually close relationship with God. Abraham was called God’s friend (James 2:23); yet he sinned with Hagar, and Ishmael’s descendants plagued Israel. Moses spoke with God face-to-face (Exodus 33:11), yet his disobedience disqualified him from entering the Promised Land. David was called a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14), but his rape of Bathsheba and murder of Uriah ensured that his family would suffer murder and strife for the rest of his life. Solomon was granted wisdom from God Himself (1 Kings 3), but was led astray at the end of his life into idolatry, leading God to take most of the nation from his son. The Bible’s record is clear: A man that can sin, will.
We might also think about the nature of sin itself. Sin isn’t just an action that is against God’s will, or anything that falls short of it. It is the nature within us that causes us to do those things in the first place. We are all born with it. No one has to teach a child how to lie, or how to be selfish, or how to rebel. That is part of our nature, and why so much of childhood discipline is about teaching honesty, gratitude, and obedience. Anyone who has this nature will act on it if they live long enough to act on that capacity to sin.
Jesus’ conception was absolutely unique: the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary so that she conceived as a virgin. There was obviously a biological aspect to this miracle. But just as importantly, there was a spiritual aspect. For the first time since God directly created Adam and Eve, a person came into the world who was not conceived with a sinful nature. This holy child was not automatically destined to sin and rebel against God. In that sense, He was the only man since Adam who even had a chance to be holy.
But did He have the choice to sin? Adam shows us that a man who can sin, even if he’s not born with a sin nature, will sin. Adam was in the best circumstances imaginable, in a pleasant garden with daily direct communion with God, and he still sinned. What made Jesus different? Jesus would not carry out His obedience in a perfect paradise, but in a wilderness with no food or water. He would live a life of poverty. And that obedience would culminate in a painful, humiliating death.
But Jesus was not just a man, He is God as well. And God cannot sin.
As a man, Jesus has the capacity not to sin because He was born without the sinful nature every other person has inherited from Adam. As God, Jesus has no capacity to sin, because God cannot sin. There would be no way for Jesus to sin as a man without corrupting His divine nature as well, and that could never happen.
Does this mean that “His incarnation was a farcical and meaningless exercise rather than a real sacrifice and trial with a great victory”? To quote the Apostle Paul, “May it never be!” Jesus suffered more in His life and death than we can ever imagine. The holy Son of God came down to earth, laying aside His divine glory and the independent exercise of His divine power. He became a poor man, the one who was worshiped by angels became despised and mocked by men. The one who had never sinned was in the continual presence of sinful people, and these sinful people ultimately killed Him. The fact that Jesus’ obedience was guaranteed doesn’t mean it wasn’t costly. The fact that the result was certain beforehand doesn’t make it a farce or pretense. To say so indicates a fundamental lack of understanding of what was actually happening.
Why would Satan tempt Jesus if Jesus couldn’t sin? It’s possible Satan was stupid enough to believe Jesus could sin. It’s possible that Satan wanted to impose whatever suffering or mental anguish possible. Maybe it was the last desperate death throes because he knew what Jesus had come to do. Maybe it shows the insanity of sin. But Jesus’ victory was real, and it was a victory that no other descendant of Adam could have won.