I recently took part in a lively discussion about this question.
In an area (the Hypostatic Union of Christ) bristling with difficulties, I will keep my words few. I’d simply like to offer a couple points of clarification and then I’ll quote an expert.
Some people may wonder why this is a difficult question. They will say God cannot sin, so of course Jesus could not sin. And that’s true. But a tension still exists. Scripture makes two claims that are difficult to combine. Scripture records Jesus being tempted (Luke 4:2), and Scripture informs us God cannot be tempted (James 1:13). So in what sense was Jesus tempted? If Jesus is God, then how can we say he was tempted? But he was tempted. Does this mean, theoretically, during the incarnation, Jesus could have sinned? If not, how can we say he was tempted? We’re not saying these assertions are contradictory, but they are difficult to understand and combine.1
What We’re NOT Considering
We’re not questioning if Jesus sinned. We are told Jesus was blameless, tempted but without sin (Hebrews 4:15).
We’re also not questioning whether Jesus would have sinned. The question is could Jesus have sinned. Theologian Millard Erickson writes, “…[I]t is fitting for us to point out here that while [Jesus] could have sinned, it was certain that he would not.”2 No one is suggesting Jesus was ever on the brink of sinning. Like many other theological discussions, we are considering something very abstract and theoretical.3
So how should we think about this question? How should we resolve these tensions?
What the Experts Say
Theologian Wayne Grudem outlines, in my opinion, the best way of thinking through this question. To be fair to Grudem, we should first hear his opening caution:
At this point, then, we pass beyond the clear affirmations of Scripture and attempt to suggest a solution to the problem of whether Christ could have sinned. But it is important to recognize that the following solution is more in the nature of a suggested means of combining various biblical teaching and is not directly supported by explicit statements of Scripture.
Does his caution give you a sense of just how knotty this question is? We are trying to look behind the curtain of the hypostatic union of Christ. Even if we could glimpse the pulleys and levers, we probably wouldn’t understand anyway. (C.S. Lewis once said that in heaven we’ll realize many of our questions were nonsensical in the first place, like asking what does blue smell like).
So here is how Grudem outlines thinking about this question:
- If Jesus’ human nature had existed by itself, independent of his divine nature, then it would have been a human nature just like that which God gave Adam and Eve. It would have been free from sin but nonetheless able to sin. Therefore, if Jesus’ human nature had existed by itself, there was the abstract or theoretical possibility that Jesus could have sinned, just as Adam and Eve’s human natures were able to sin.
- But Jesus’ human nature never existed apart from union with his divine nature. From the moment of his conception, he existed as truly God and truly man as well. Both his human nature and his divine nature existed united in one person.
- Although there were some things (such as being hungry or thirsty or weak) that Jesus experienced in his human nature alone and were not experienced in his divine nature…nonetheless, an act of sin would have been a moral act that would apparently have involved the whole person of Christ. Therefore, if he had sinned, it would have involved both his human and divine natures.
- But if Jesus as a person had sinned, involving both his human and divine natures in sin, then God himself would have sinned, and he would have ceased to be God. Yet that is clearly impossible because of the infinite holiness of God’s nature.
- Therefore, if we are asking if it was actually possible for Jesus to have sinned, it seems that we must conclude that it was not possible. The union of his human and divine natures in one person prevented it. 4
I think that makes sense. Note, the way he worded it, both with point one and emphasizing “actually” in point five, he and Erickson would likely agree.
So in what sense was Jesus tempted if he would not sin and could not actually sin?
Christian thinkers have suggested the experience of temptation does not require the experience or possibility of sin. However, we should not think this fact lessens the experience of temptation. Actually, just the opposite is true. Erickson writes, “The person who resists knows the full force of temptation. Sinlessness points to a more intense rather than less intense temptation.” 5 So the one who resists fully knows a unique fight.
Grudem offers the illustration of a weightlifter trying to raise and hold a certain weight. He points out the one who fully lifts and holds the weight is the one who feels it most, not the one who partially lifts and drops the weight. So though Christ would not and could not actually sin, he felt the force of temptation in a way we never will.
Anyway, I hope these quotes are helpful for you.