The Impeccability of Christ
Orthodox theologians all agree on two issues of Christology. 1.) Jesus Christ never sinned. Scripturally, that fact is indisputable due to His deity. Any divergence into an opinion that Christ did sin is unorthodox and heretical.
2.) Jesus Christ was indeed tempted to sin during His life on earth. Theologians agree He was tempted because He possessed a human nature as well as a divine nature and the human nature would by default be exposed to temptation.
What orthodoxy disagrees on is the theological answer to the inquiry: “Could Christ have sinned?” The answer is divided and the debate is not new in Christianity. Lightner writes, “The theological issue is whether He was merely able not to sin or manifestly not able to sin.” Ability or impossibility of sin? “In recent days the issue has been brought to the attention of the Christian laity through the Radio Bible Class broadcasts and the publication of a booklet entitled Could Jesus Sin? by Richard W. De Haan. DeHaan answered the question in the affirmative. In a direct response David Boyd Long wrote a booklet, Could God Incarnate Sin? His answer was a resounding ‘no’.”
Those who believe Christ did not sin, but during His temptation had the ability and potential to sin as a result of His human nature, view Christ as peccable. Those who differ with that opinion and believe that there never was and never will be a time when Christ had the potential to fall into temptation view Christ as impeccable. Arminians tend to hold to peccability, while Calvinists usually support impeccability. The issue is indeed divided, but the fact of division does not give equal status Biblically to both sides. The issue of Christ’s potential to sin versus His divine inability to sin needs to fall Scripturally on the firm side of Christ’s impeccability.
The Temptation Passages
Luke 4:1-13 and Matthew 4:1-11 give the narrative of Christ’s temptation by Satan in the wilderness. Satan tempted Him with the lust of the flesh with bread, the pride of life with proving His being the Son of God in a foolish way, and the lust of the eyes with the offer of Satan’s kingdom. Each time Christ responded with Scriptural truth and turned aside from the temptations of Satan presented through those three avenues. He did not give in despite His human physical weakness from fasting in the barren desert.
Other passages in the Synoptics and New Testament Epistles refer to His tempting He encountered in other times and areas and sources. For example, Luke 22:28 describes Christ in the upper room telling the disciples, “Ye are they which have continued with me in my temptations” as the ones greatest in the kingdom. Since none of them were present at His temptation in the wilderness, it is safe to assume He experienced other temptations while with the disciples. Another example is Mark 8:11 where John Mark writes, “And the Pharisees came forth, and began to question with him, seeking of him a sign from heaven, tempting him.” The Pharisees were another source of temptation and were so quite frequently. The next verse in that passage concludes that Christ sighed in His spirit as in disgust and annoyance at their attempt. A third example is in Matthew 16 where Satan used Christ’s own disciple Peter as one to distract Him from His divine purpose of a sacrificial death. He rebuked Satan and did not give in to this temptation. The best verse of Scripture that summarizes the experiences of Christ’s temptations in an encapsulating and succinct sentence is Hebrews 4:15, “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” Christ understood temptation to sin and was faced with an experiential knowledge of temptation, but never gave in to sin.
The Argument For Peccability
The entire argument of peccabillity falls on the premise that if Hebrews 4:15 says that Christ “has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin, then the potential to sin must have existed in order for the temptation to be legitimate and valid. In other words, the fact of temptation occurring assumes that one always has the ability to fall to that temptation, and if Christ was as fully human as He was divine, then he would have that ability to fall, as anyone with a true human nature would, though He did not fall,. Charles Hodge, the great Reformed theologian of Princeton agreed with this premise and expresses it best,
“This sinlessness of our Lord, however, does not amount to absolute impeccability. It was not a non potest peccare. If He was a true man He must have been capable of sinning. That He did not sin under the greatest provocation; that when He was reviled He blessed; when He suffered He threatened not; that He was dumb, as a sheep before the shearers, is held up to us as an example. Temptation implies the possibility of sin. If from the constitution of His person it was impossible for Christ to sin, then His temptation was unreal and without effect, and He cannot sympathize with His people.”
The Strength Of The Argument Of Peccability
The strength of the argument of peccability is that it stands firm logically. Paul Enns writes, “that it alone identifies Christ with humanity in His temptations- they were real temptations.” If one is being tempted who has a full human nature, then what is the point or purpose of the temptation, even if it is not given in to, if the one tempted could not choose to sin and give in to that temptation. An analogy would be if one was offered one hundred dollars, but did not accept it because he was unable to on some grounds, and the one offering understood this fact, then what would be the point of the offer? Why would one offer something to someone when it was understood that that individual could by no means be able to accept it? Those who hold to peccability turn to the same conclusion based on the appeals of human logic. If Christ could not have chosen to have sinned in a temptation, since the point of a temptation is a choice, then what worth would there be to experience temptation, even if one did not give in so the definition of temptation implicating a possibility of a wrong choice means that Christ must have been able to choose sin though He did not. This is the strength of the view of peccability: on the surface it appeals to human logic when viewing temptation as operating from that goal of possible choice.
The Problem With The Argument For Peccability
The view of Christ as being peccable is based on human logic operating from a perspective of temptation being faced from the only viewpoint man has- from an experiential perspective. That perspective of human experience has frequent familiarity with failure when faced with temptation and is therefore flawed. It is logical from a human perspective as its strength, but that is also the whole essence of weakness thereof that it lies in. It is all we know from experience: the always looming possibility of failure once temptation has arrived because of our sin nature that is being transferred further into a hypothetical situation with Christ’s experiences. Enns writes again, “The weaknesses of this view are that it does not sufficiently consider Christ in His Person as God as well as man.” Millard Erickson says of the consideration of Christ’s nature and sinlessness in a warning regarding logical conclusions arrived at, “We must remember that the empirical human nature with which we deal is distorted. It is possible that even some of the limitations of human nature which are not so obviously spiritual and moral were introduced or increased as the result of sin. For example, although human intelligence is presumably inherently limited, it may be that our sin limits our intelligence and its functioning further, hampering our understanding, especially insight into spiritual matters.”It is judging from empiricism and that is being done from a fallen human nature. As we will see in further discussion, the belief in Christ’s impeccability is from what Scripture has said, not from a logical conclusion of what we as man are frequented with in our experience as our basis for understanding.
The Argument For Impeccability
The premise for impeccability is based on James 1:13, “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man.”
Let us examine from The Expositor’s Bible Commentary the Greek word for ‘tempted’ that is used here. “The Greek noun peirasmos can refer either to an outward circumstance of trial or to a temptation to sin. The same is true of the verb form as well. Whereas the noun is used in vv. 2-3 of "trials" and "testing," in vv. 13-15, where the verb occurs, the obvious reference is to temptation. That this is the meaning is indicated by the words "evil" (v. 13), "evil desire" (v. 14), and "sin" (v. 15). The first reason why temptation does not come from God is that God "cannot be tempted by evil." That is, he cannot be successfully tempted. His omnipotent, holy will fully resists any invitation to sin. Furthermore, in him there is not the slightest moral depravity to which temptation may appeal. Therefore, it is inconsistent to think that God could be the author of temptation.” Theologians holding to peccability would even agree with these statements about God and even Christ’s divine nature. They would disagree however, by pointing out that they believe it was Christ’s human nature that had the potential to choose evil if He desired and would divorce the divine nature from the human nature.
In response to their argument, despite the already apparent and dangerous weakness of separating Christ’s natures, they need to be shown the next verse in James 1. Verses 14-16 say, “But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death. Do not err, my beloved brethren.” The source of temptation, James is expounding, is contained in the evil desires of man himself. Man’s sinful desire is the source of temptation as the seedbed and it grows as man’s sin nature grows more and more aware of it until it is full-grown and man responds to that temptation. So the essence of temptation is not of God, but deep in the heart of the sin nature of man, James reveals.
Having understood what James identifies as the source of temptation and God completely separate from the solicitation to evil, we come back to our original question. Could Christ have sinned? Maybe this is the wrong question. The correct question is this- If temptation comes from the sin nature of man, and Christ knew no sin (2 Cor. 5:21) and therefore had no sin nature, then Could Christ have sinned? The question has no become an obvious answer. Based on James’s statement that God cannot be tempted and temptation comes rooted in the seedbed of man’s sin nature, then Christ could have never sinned and did not have that potential because he never had that seedbed of the sin nature of man though He had a human nature.
Wayne Grudem gives the following arguments for understanding how Christ could not have sinned. 1.) If Christ’s human nature existed by itself as Adam’s, then there was a possibility to sin. 2.) But Jesus’ human nature never existed apart from His divine nature. They existed in a hypostatic union. 3.) Jesus did experience some things that were in His human nature alone such as thirst and other things, but an act of sin was not exclusive to His human nature, it would have involved the whole person. 4.) Then if Jesus had sinned, since it involves the whole of a person, then God would have sinned, since the whole person includes the divine nature fused with the human part. 5.) So if we accept that His human and divine natures were fused as one in unity, then it would not be possible to sin as His whole person would have prevented it.
Furthermore, in the realm of the Trinity, Christ was not the only member to be tempted. Peter in Acts 15:10 asked why some individuals were tempting God the Father. Paul tells the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 10:9 to not tempt Christ as the Israelites had tempted God in the wilderness with their unbelief. Hebrews 3:9 records that the Israelites also tempted the Holy Ghost in the wilderness. The word for tempted is the same word used of Christ in the New Testament. Paul Enns concludes from this that since nobody would say, though They were tempted, that the Father and Spirit could have sinned, then to be consistent with the character of the Trinity, temptation does not demand the ability to sin just as much with the Son of God. “The people genuinely tempted God the Father and the Holy Spirit, but there was no likelihood of those Persons of the Trinity sinning.
Walvoord boils down the question of peccability versus impeccability to this, “Is it possible to attempt the impossible?” He uses the illustration of a rowboat doing the possible, attacking a battleship, in the process of doing the impossible, conquering it. The crux of impeccability then is this, temptation does not mean susceptibility, and while “the temptation may be real, there may be infinite power to resist that temptation and if this power is infinite, the person is impeccable.” His argument is this: while the temptation for individuals might be the exact same temptation in form, it does not exercise the exact control and hold of one who is omnipotent and holy in pure character and the true definition of holiness. Therefore that omnipotent holy One is impeccable because the temptation has no power over Him and “ there is no essential relation between temptability and peccability.” William G. T. Shedd writes in agreement to this idea, “It is objected to the doctrine of Christ’s impeccability that it is inconsistent with his temptability. A person who cannot sin, it is said, cannot be tempted to sin. This is not correct; any more than it would be correct to say that because an army cannot be conquered, it cannot be attacked. Temptability depends on the constitutional susceptibility, while impeccability depends on the will. So far as his natural susceptibility, both physical and mental, was concerned, Jesus Christ was open to all forms of Human temptation excepting those that spring out of lust or corruption of nature. But his peccability, or the possibility of being overcome by those temptations, would depend upon the amount of voluntary resistance which he was able to bring to bear against them. Those temptations were very strong, but if the self determination of his holy will was stronger than they, then they could not induce him to sin, and he would be impeccable. And yet plainly he would be temptable. So in summary of Shedd, Christ was temptable in the truest sense, but yet impeccable and completely in control of Himself.
If Christ could sin in the past because of His human nature, then the possibility is always present of the potential to sin. However Hebrew 13:8 describes Him as immutable through time and eternity. If God cannot sin, then He never could and never can and never will.
His omnipotence renders Him powerful over sin as well. If he could sin, that would elicit weakness and cancel omnipotence and thereby remove deity.
Another attribute of Christ to consider is His omniscience. If He knows all things, and if sin occurs because of the ignorance of man frequently, then having infinite wisdom would give power over the temptation as well.
Another aspect that would remove the ability to sin was the volition of Christ. He always did the will of His Father. It was his driving force in life. In the Upper Room Discourse He said, “I always do the will of Him that sent Me.”
Also stacked against the ability to sin was His authority over all. He said “All exousia is given unto Me” in Matthew 28. “If Christ had authority over life and death, He certainly had authority over sin; if He could withhold death at will, He could also withhold sin at will.”
If He was insusceptible to all temptations, then did He really experience it? The answer to that question is “the person who resists knows the full force of temptation. Sinlessness points to a more intense rather than less intense temptation.” Leon Morris agrees and writes, “The man who yields to a particular temptation has not felt its full power. He has given in while the temptation has yet something in reserve. Only the man who does not yield to a temptation who, as regards that particular temptation, is sinless, knows the full extent of that temptation.”
The foundational bedrock of Christ’s impeccability then is this. What was the divine sovereign purpose of the temptations of Christ? Were they an untethered attempt by the Devil to rock the Creator’s plan for redemption? Well, yes, Satan would have liked to see them succeed. But could they have succeeded? The emphatic answer is no when you understand the theological purpose of the temptations of Christ. The purpose of the temptations of Christ was not to see if Christ could sin, but to demonstrate to the universe to the glory of God that He could not sin! This becomes evident as one examines the narrative of the Matthew 4 and Luke 4 temptation in the wilderness. The introduction to the narrative in both accounts begins “And He was led by the Spirit to the wilderness to be tempted. Was the Holy Spirit tempting Christ. No. He was displaying to the world that even in the weakness of His human nature physically, He could not sin because of the reasons we discussed. He was in fact the antithesis of sin and the answer for the sin of mankind. He demonstrated power of the devil and death (Heb. 2:15). He was free from original sin due to the virgin birth, and He had a uniquely close relationship with His Father that resulted in His will being always in tune with where and what the Holy Spirit led Him. And because of this, He could not turn from the path His Father had laid out in eternity past for Him, “but endured the cross, despising the shame and is now seated at the right hand of the throne of God for the joy that was set before Him” (Heb. 12:2). An analogy to help understand the purpose of the temptations is this. If an engineer designed a bridge across a chasm and had a train parked on the bridge, would he be displaying the weakness of the bridge or its strength? In the same way, the Lord Jesus Christ was tempted to not show his weakness, but to show it was impossible to sin.
In conclusion, the peccability of Christ is logically appealing from a human perspective as its strength, but that is also the whole essence of weakness thereof that it lies in. The impeccability of Christ rests in the fact that in temptations He revealed by the will of the Father in eternity past that He could not sin though He could be legitimately tempted, yet without sin!!
 Robert P. Lightner, Handbook of Evangelical Theology (Kregel Pub., 1995) p.95.
 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 2:457.
 Paul Enns, Doctrine of Christ Syllabus Notes, Tyndale Theological Seminary, p. 35.
 Ibid p. 36.
 Millard Erickson, The Word Became Flesh, (Baker, 1991) p. 549.
 The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, “James”, (Zondervan).
 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, (Zondervan, 1994) p. 538-539.
 Enns p. 36.
 John Walvoord, Jesus Christ Our Lord, (Moody, 1969) p. 147.
 William G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, II, p.336
 Walvoord p. 151.
 Enns p. 37.
 Walvoord p. 152.
 Enns p. 37.
 Enns p. 37
 Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, (Baker, 1998) p.539.
 Leon Morris, Lord from Heaven, pp. 51-52.
 Erickson, The Word . . . p. 563.