Could Jesus have Sinned? (2 Cor. 5:21)
I “know” sin. I say this not because I can define sin, although I can. I say this not because I can identify sin when I see it, although I can also do that. I say it because I am a sinner. I “know” sin because I commit it, sadly, on a daily basis. My acquaintance with sin, therefore, does not come from associating with others who transgress or from reading a book on Hamartiology (the technical, theological term for the study of Sin). I “know” sin, as I said, because I, like David, was “brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). I “know” sin because I sin.
Jesus, on the other hand, “knew no sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Again, the apostle Paul doesn’t mean by this that Jesus was unaware of the existence of sin or that he lived in isolation from those who commit sin. He was not intellectually ignorant of sin or unacquainted with its devastating consequences. He “knew no sin” in the sense that he never personally committed one. He was sinless.
How often do we pause and give thanks for the sinlessness of Christ? Were he not sinless, the entire scheme of reconciliation that Paul outlines in 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 would fall flat on its face. The glorious and gracious work of God in reconciling the world to himself hinges on God “not counting” our trespasses against us because he has counted our trespasses against Christ. But this would be to no avail if Christ himself had committed trespasses which ought to have been “counted” against him. The reckoning or imputing of our guilt to Jesus, for which he then suffers the wrath of God in our stead, is only redemptive if he is himself personally guilt free.
The New Testament is crystal clear on this point. Although 2 Corinthians 5:21 is the only explicit affirmation of Christ’s sinlessness in Paul’s writings, we should also take note of his reference to the “obedience” of the Son in both Romans 5:19 and Philippians 2:8.
Jesus gave the religious leaders of his day every opportunity to identify some sin in his life. “Which one of you convicts me of sin?” he asked them in public (John 8:46a). The author of Hebrews reminds us that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). Jesus, he later tells us, was “holy, innocent, [and] unstained” (Heb. 7:26). He was “a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:19) and “committed no sin” (1 Peter 2:22).
That he didn’t sin is a settled and undeniable fact. But could he have sinned? Was it in any way a possibility for him to have sinned or was it in every way impossible that he should ever have transgressed? Or, to use theological terms, was Jesus impeccable (incapable of sinning), or peccable (capable of sinning, although remaining sinless)?
I intentionally avoid technical theological language in these meditations, but bear with me for a moment as I appeal to four Latin phrases that shed light on this issue. The first is non posse non peccare, which means "not able not to sin". This describes unregenerate people and the fallen angels (i.e., demons). In other words, they necessarily sin.
Two other phrases are posse peccare (“able to sin”) and posse non peccare ("able not to sin"). These describe Adam before the fall, regenerate people, and Jesus, if one denies his impeccability. Finally, there is non posse peccare, or "not able to sin". This would be true of God, the saints in heaven, and Jesus, if one affirms his impeccability.
My question is this: Was Jesus Christ sinless because he could not sin (non posse peccare) or because he would not sin? Was he constitutionally incapable of sinning or merely volitionally unwilling to sin? To say that Jesus could have sinned, even though he did not, is to say he was peccable. To say that Jesus could not have sinned, and therefore didn’t, is to say he was impeccable.
The most helpful concrete illustration of this issue is the confrontation Jesus had with Satan in the wilderness (cf. Luke 4:1-13). When Satan came to him with those three temptations, could Jesus have succumbed? We know he didn’t, and we are eternally grateful. But was it possible for him not to have resisted? Those who affirm impeccability respond with a definitive “No”! Those who deny impeccability counter with three observations, only two of which, in my opinion, are helpful.
First, those who deny impeccability argue that if he could not sin, he was not truly human. After all, “to err is human.” This argument is weak, for it is not necessary to human nature that one be capable of sinning. When finally in heaven, having been glorified, the saints will be incapable of sinning, but they will not for that reason be less human then than they are now on earth.
A second argument often heard is that if Jesus could not have sinned, he was not genuinely tempted. True temptation requires the possibility of sinning. That he refused to yield to Satan’s temptations no one denies. But yielding must have been possible or the encounter was a sham.
Some respond by saying that perhaps Jesus didn’t know he was impeccable. In other words, even though he couldn’t yield to temptation, he was unaware of the impossibility. Therefore, at least so far as his own conscious experience is concerned, the temptation would have been quite genuine. But I find it hard to believe that Jesus lacked such self-awareness. Even if he did, we don’t, so what benefit is there to us in his having resisted the Devil’s overtures? In other words, we find encouragement in Jesus’ example only if we know he could have sinned, but didn’t (1 Peter 2:21-23). So long as we know that his sinning was absolutely impossible, the force of his example is undermined, regardless of what he may have known.
A third and final argument by those who deny impeccability is that the doctrine is based on the belief that Jesus resisted the devil from the strength of his divine nature. Satan was tempting God and God, by definition, cannot sin. Regardless of the strength of his seductive appeals, Satan didn’t stand a chance. After all, the finite cannot conquer the infinite. The presence within the incarnate Second Person of the Godhead of a holy and omnipotent divine nature made it impossible for him to have yielded to Satan’s overtures.
For many years I strongly advocated the impeccability of Christ, insisting that because he was God incarnate he was incapable of sinning. Now, make no mistake, he was and forever is God incarnate. But I’m not so sure about his impeccability, and here’s why.
As I have argued extensively elsewhere (http://www.samstorms.com/, “Kenotic View” in Christology, Theological Studies), I believe Jesus lived and ministered as a human, dependent on the power of the Holy Spirit. As a human, the possibility existed that he could have sinned, but by virtue of his unceasing reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit he did not sin. Like the first Adam, Jesus could have sinned. But as the second Adam, he chose not to.
This means that in becoming a man “the Son of God willed to renounce the exercise of his divine powers, attributes, prerogatives, so that he might live fully within those limitations which inhere in being truly human” (Hawthorne, The Presence and the Power, 208). That which he had (all the divine attributes), by virtue of what he was (the second person of the Trinity), he willingly chose not to use. Thus we see a human being doing super-human things and ask “How?” The answer is: Not from the power of his own divine nature, but through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Thus the Son chose to experience the world through the limitations imposed by human consciousness and an authentic human nature. The attributes of omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience were not lost or laid aside, but became latent and potential within the confines of his human nature. They are “present in Jesus in all their fullness, but no longer in exercise” (Hawthorne, 208). The incarnation thus means that Jesus “actually thought and acted, viewed the world, and experienced time and space events strictly within the confines of a normally developing human person” (210).
Look again at the various accounts of Jesus’ temptation by Satan. We are told that he was not only led into the wilderness by the Spirit (Mt. 4:1) but was also being led by the Spirit in the wilderness during the entire course of the forty days (Luke 4:1; it was, no doubt, the Spirit who led Jesus to fast). “If he was being tempted by Satan for forty days (Mark 1:13), he was being led by the Spirit for those same forty days (Luke 4:1). It is impossible to escape the conclusion that these Gospel writers want their readers to understand that Jesus met and conquered the usurping enemy of God not by his own power alone but was aided in his victory by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Hawthorne, 139). He was fortified and energized by the continual infusion of divine power from the Spirit of God (see also John 3:34).
If someone should ask, “But why or how did the human Jesus always choose to rely on the power of the Spirit and thereby not sin?” The answer would be that the Spirit was always antecedent to any choice that Jesus was to make, enabling and energizing him to continue in his conscious reliance on the power the Spirit was providing. Is that not also the case with us? To whatever degree and however frequently we choose not to sin, it is because the Spirit antecedently empowered us to choose to avail ourselves of his presence and supply.
It could conceivably be said, therefore, that Jesus was peccable when it came to the metaphysical potential for sin in his own human nature (in other words, there was nothing inherent within the person of Christ that made it impossible for him to sin, any more than it was so in the case of Adam), but impeccable insofar as it was impossible for the Spirit to fail to energize Jesus’ will to depend upon the power that the Spirit supplied.
The implications of this for you and me are profound, and I defer, in conclusion, to the words of Hawthorne to make the point:
“Not only is Jesus their [our] Savior because of who he was and because of his own complete obedience to the Father’s will (cf. Heb. 10:5-7), but he is the supreme example for them of what is possible in a human life because of his own total dependence upon the Spirit of God. Jesus is living proof of how those who are his followers may exceed the limitations of their humanness in order that they, like him, might carry to completion against all odds their God-given mission in life – by the Holy Spirit. Jesus demonstrated clearly that God’s intended way for human beings to live, the ideal way to live, the supremely successful way to live, is in conjunction with God, in harmony with God, in touch with the power of God, and not apart from God, not independent of God, not without God. The Spirit was the presence and power of God in Jesus, and fully so” (234).