Could Jesus Have Sinned?
Let us not pretend that we will ever truly understand how Jesus came to Earth in the flesh and was, at the same time, both 100% human and 100% God. Such thoughts are too wonderful for us and beyond our capacity to fully comprehend. Yet, even though we cannot know all that was involved in Jesus’ incarnation, the Bible gives us enough information to understand certain aspects of it. One key aspect of Jesus’ character while on Earth was the fact that He was sinless, completely and entirely innocent of any wrongdoing. The inspired apostle Peter explained that Christ showed us the perfect example, “that you should follow in His steps: Who committed no sin, nor was guile found in His mouth” (1 Peter 2:22).1 Just one chapter earlier, Peter explained that Jesus’ sacrificial blood was that of “a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1:19). The Hebrews writer emphasized the fact that Jesus “was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
Often, to summarize this idea of sinlessness, Jesus is described as being perfect. The idea of perfection, however, carries some baggage with it that the biblical text does not include. When many of us think of the word “perfect,” we imagine a person who does not make any mistakes. A baseball pitcher may pitch a perfect game. A professional bowler may achieve a perfect score. A football quarterback may play a game in which he connects with his receivers on every pass. Such perfection, however, is not how the Bible describes Jesus. Jesus’ perfection would not have meant that if He played a game of basketball, then He would have made every shot He took. It would not suggest that He never fell down when learning to walk, or that He never made an errant cut on the boards He worked with as a carpenter. Jesus was (and is) morally perfect and sinless, but His time on Earth would have included cuts, bruises, scrapes, falls, and less than perfect attempts at childhood games He may have played.
In view of Jesus being “perfect,” some have suggested His perfection would extend to the idea that He could not sin. The thought is that, if Jesus as God in the flesh was perfect, it would be impossible for God to sin, because that would violate His nature (Habakkuk 1:13). This line of thought admits that Jesus truly was tempted, but that at no point could He have actually sinned by giving in to the temptation. Was it possible for Jesus to sin in the same way humans choose to sin, or was His nature while on Earth such that it was impossible for Him to sin?
Christ Emptied Himself
The Bible clearly explains that God cannot be tempted (James 1:13). Yet the text just as clearly and boldly proclaims that Jesus was tempted in all ways like humans (Hebrews 4:15). What do we do with such seemingly contradictory statements? If Jesus is God, and God cannot be tempted, then Jesus cannot be tempted. Jesus is God, yet He was tempted, so where does that leave us? The answer can be found in Philippians 2:7, where the Bible explains that Christ “emptied Himself” (KJV) or “made Himself of no reputation” (NKJV), “coming in the likeness of men.” All that this entails cannot be understood, but it extends to the fact that somehow Jesus kept the nature of God, but put Himself in a subordinated position to the Father, and at the same time took the “likeness” of humanity.2 Jesus was God, but at the same time could be tempted. This situation would extend to other concepts that would be “impossible” for God, but not for Jesus during His time on Earth. Luke explains that Jesus grew in wisdom (Luke 2:52). Yet, an all-knowing God cannot grow in wisdom, since He has possessed it from before time began (Proverbs 8:22-23). Titus explains that God “cannot lie” (Titus 1:2). Christ, in His emptied “likeness-of-man” state, however, would be able to lie, just as He could be tempted and needed to grow in wisdom. By taking on the likeness of man, Jesus opened Himself up to the real possibility to sin.
Tempted in All Ways As We Are
The writer of Hebrews explicitly stated that Jesus “was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (4:15). If Jesus really did not have the capability to sin, how would this provide any comfort, hope, or encouragement to sinful humans? Humans have the ability to make the correct choice when they are tempted. God never allows us to be tempted beyond what we are capable of handling, and He always provides a way of escape (1 Corinthians 10:13). It is theoretically possible for humans to live sinless lives. We all know, however, that none of us has achieved that goal (Romans 3:23). At some point in our lives, we have chosen to sin. For Jesus’ temptation to be “in all points” like ours, He must have had the capability to choose sin, just as we do. Think of how hollow the statement in Hebrews would be if Jesus were incapable of sin. If He could not sin, then His temptation could not be like ours. To illustrate, imagine a boxer going up against the heavy weight world champion. His manager explains that this opponent can be beaten. The boxer asks how he knows. The manager tells his boxer that a previous fighter recently beat the opponent. As a side note, however, the manager explains that the other guy who won had a magic force field that made it impossible for him to get hit at all. How much encouragement would that give the anxious fighter? When Satan tempted Jesus to turn stones into bread, Jesus had both the power necessary to actually turn the stones to bread, and the capability to choose the sin. Jesus could have turned the stones to bread, or jumped from the Temple, or bowed down to Satan. He simply chose not to yield to temptation (Matthew 4:1-10).
Sin and Human Nature
It is common to hear the idea put forth that people are born with a “sinful human nature” and that humans cannot really keep from sinning. Supposedly, from the time of Adam and Eve’s Fall in the Garden of Eden, all humans born after the Fall have inherited some aspect of a corrupt human nature that is incapable of resisting all temptation. The problem with this concept is twofold. First, if Jesus came in the “likeness of man,” His nature would have contained some aspect of this corruption, since His human body was the combined product of the Holy Spirit and Mary. Second, the idea of a “corrupt” human nature does not explain how sin entered the world. Adam and Eve did not have a sinful, corrupt nature. On the contrary, God created them “very good” (Genesis 1:31), yet they still chose to sin. The capacity God gave to the first humans to choose to obey God or to sin was “very good.” There is nothing inherently corrupt or bad with the capacity to sin. In theory, Adam could have chosen never to sin. He did not. That is why the apostle Paul explained that Christ, when He came to Earth, was the “second” Adam (Romans 5:12-21). Both Adam and Jesus had the capacity to sin. Both were tempted. Adam yielded to temptation and ushered in the Fall and death that resulted from sin entering the world. Jesus did not yield to sin, though He had that capacity. “Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life” (Romans 5:18). Adam could have resisted, but he didn’t. Jesus could have sinned, but He didn’t. Jesus provided the example of what Adam and all humans should have done, but what none of us choose to do. “Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For in that He Himself suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted” (Hebrews 2:18). Praise God that our Savior never gave in to temptation!
1 All emphasis in Bible verses is added by the author unless otherwise noted.