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An examination of the question of the impeccability of Jesus Christ
The New Testament authors had no qualms about declaring that Jesus was truly human and telling us that Jesus committed no sin. Bible passages such as 2 Corinthians 5:21, Hebrews 4:15, 1 Peter 2:22 and 1 John 3:5 “witness that He [Jesus] did not give in to temptation, nor violate the moral standards of God, nor was He inconsistent with the nature of his character.” That is, Jesus was sinless.
It is vital to our theology that Jesus was sinless. For only if Jesus was sinless could His death have been a vicarious substitution and fulfil God’s redemptive plan for man. If Jesus had not been sinless, then it would mean that He died for His own sins and not those of mankind. Had Jesus died for His own sins then His death could not have been accepted by the Father as a vicariously substitution for the punishment and judgement each of us are entitled to receive. Even though there is no serious debate that Jesus was anything but sinless, theologians have discussed the question of whether Jesus could have sinned if He had wanted. This is called the peccability of Christ. The opposing argument, i.e., impeccability, being that even if He had wanted, Jesus could not have sinned. Upon first consideration, one might view this question as being trivial; something to simply keep the theologians “out of mischief” when they have nothing better to do. However, there are some very appropriate reasons for examining this issue.
The first reason to examine the issue of Christ’s peccability/impeccability is so that we might obtain a better understanding and a more in depth knowledge about both Jesus Christ and God, just as God has invited us. This is the same reason that we study Theology proper. When we arrive at an answer to this question, we will have additional knowledge about Jesus’ preincarnate state and a better understanding of the meaning of the statement “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever .”
Second, some theologians have argued that the peccability of Jesus has a direct impact on the humanity of Christ. That is, if Jesus was not peccable then just how “human” was he? Could he have been “true man” if he were not able to sin like the rest of mankind? (Note: this is a question of whether Christ could have sinned; not that Christ had to have sinned in order to be human.) Morris indirectly asks if Jesus’ impeccability implied that he was lacking a part of the human condition that the rest of mankind have, viz., the consciousness of past sin? If this is the case, Christ may not have been truly human because he only took on most of the “qualities” of human nature but shielded himself from the consciousness of sin.
Third, Sahl tells us that “the virgin birth, the Incarnation, and the hypostatic union, are all influenced by the impeccability of Jesus Christ .” Therefore, if we are to have a full understanding of these doctrines, we need to study the question of Christ’s peccability/impeccability.
Fourth, an understanding of the peccability/impeccability of Jesus Christ will have an impact on our understanding of angels in general and Lucifer/Satan in particular . That is, by examining the peccability/impeccability of Jesus (and the related issue of the temptability of Jesus) we will come to have a better understanding of the realm of angels, especially the fallen angels. Furthermore, by examining the temptations that Satan makes to Christ, we will also have a deeper awareness of the powers of Satan and his followers.
Fifth, because the Bible tells us that Jesus did not sin, the question of Jesus’ peccability or impeccability will have an impact on biblical inerrancy and integrity. As Sahl states, “ if it is possible that the Lord Jesus Christ could succumb to or be deceived by sin, then one must also conclude that it is possible for Him to have given inaccurate information about eternal things when He was growing in wisdom and stature and favour with God and man .”
And finally, Christ’s peccability/impeccability will have an impact on the victory over temptation and sin that the Redeemer accomplished . For if it was impossible for Jesus to have ever sinned then it is indeed a hallow victory: there was no chance of his ever not winning the battle. Thus, the victory is a very mute point and raises the question if the victory has any real impact on mankind under these circumstances.
Thus, we can see that the peccability or impeccability of Jesus is more than simply an academic debate. The outcome of such a debate could have far reaching implications on our view and knowledge of God, our doctrine of the humanity of Jesus, the doctrines of the virgin birth, the Incarnation and the hypostatic union, our theology of angelology, the question of biblical inerrancy and integrity and finally, our view of Jesus’ victory over temptation and sin.
I would now like to turn to the arguments for the peccability of Jesus, i.e., Jesus could have sinned if he had wanted to sin. As stated earlier, a positive result of this investigation does not imply that Jesus had to have sinned during his earthly life. Only that it was possible for Jesus to have sinned.
Our first argument that Jesus was peccable centres on the question of the temptations of Jesus. Charles Hodge has been quoted as “summarizing this teaching in these words: This sinlessness of our Lord, however, does not amount to absolute impeccability. It was not a non potent peccare. If He was a true man, He must have been capable of sinning. That he did not sin under the greatest provocation ... is held up to us as an example. Temptation implies the possibility of sin .” Sahl states this as “if a person has no susceptibility to sin or if sin has no appeal for him, the temptation is a farce .” In short, this means that if Jesus was not capable of being tempted by sin and capable of sinning and then He was not truly human. For temptability and the ability to sin are part of being human.
In order to fully understand and respond to this argument based on temptability we must examine the nature of temptability. Sahl argues that the problem with this argument is that we have a misconception of the nature of temptability. Specifically, he says, “the Greek word “to tempt” does not mean to induce evil. The word means ‘to try, make a trial of, put to the test ... to signify the trying intentionally with the purpose of discovering what of good or evil, of power or weakness was in a person or thing,’ ” or “to have an appeal. ” In this regard, Sahl concludes that the temptations of Christ were real: Christ faced real challenges in the desert where he proved the good that was in Him and also in the Garden of Gethsemani and on Calvary where he demonstrated His power.
Towns notes that temptability may be defined as “Generally understood as the enticement of a person to commit sin by offering some seeming enticement. ... In this sense our sinless Redeemer was absolutely untemptible and impeccable. ” That is, because Jesus was God and possessed the attributes of God, there was nothing that Jesus could be enticed to have or obtain. Therefore, he could not be tempted. However, on the opposite side of the question, Towns also notes that “[t]he nature of Christ’s temptation was that He was asked to do the things He could do and the things He wanted: the results of which would have come from doing what Satan asked. The nature of His temptation was ... the fact that He as God was tempted to do the things He could do. The things Christ is asked to do ... appear to be valid requests .” Therefore, because Satan asked Christ to do the things he was capable of, e.g., turning stones to bread, etc., we can see that the temptations Christ faced were real. However, the temptations Jesus faced were different from those other men would endure; “[Jesus] was tried as no other was ever tried. Added to the nature of the temptation itself was the greater sensitivity of Christ ”. It is possible that the ultimate and most severe temptation of Jesus came in the Garden of Gethsemani. Here Jesus was tempted to abandon the plan of God and to “let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39). Clearly, “Jesus experienced worse temptations than we do.” Hence, the temptations Christ faced were real precisely because they were tests of and trials to His power. That is, “when [the Bible tells us Jesus] was tempted ... it implies He was tempted in all His thinking, desires (emotions) and decision-making ability. Christ was tempted in every part of His being as a person is tempted in every part of human nature .”
Another point we must remember in disputing the argument of peccability from temptability is that “temptation to sin does not necessitate susceptibility to sin ”. The impossible can always be attempted. While success may not be likely, or the attempt may be impractical this does not in and of itself mean that such an attempt cannot be done. Walvoord states “while the temptation may be real, there may be infinite power to resist that temptation and if the power is infinite, the person is impeccable .” As an example, Walvoord quotes Shedd’s example of an army: “[it is not correct] to say that because an army cannot be conquered, it cannot be attacked. ”
There is also Biblical evidence that Jesus was truly tempted as we read in Hebrews “for we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but one who was tempted in every way that we are” (4:15).
In summary then we can see that the argument of Jesus Christ’s peccability cannot be supported by the temptation argument. For one to be tempted does not necessarily imply that one must be susceptible to the temptation. Furthermore, Jesus was tempted in every aspect of the term. True, His temptations were different from those we experience, but they were none the less real temptations. And Finally, just because Jesus was tempted does not imply that He was capable of sin. It is possible for Satan to try the impossible, i.e., tempt Jesus, even though there is no chance of success.
The second argument in support of the peccability of Jesus rests on the humanity of Jesus, i.e., “[i]f He was a true man He must have been capable of sinning .” This argument rests on two fallacies. First, it fails to recognize that while Jesus was true man, He was also true God. He was the God-man. Even though a man, Jesus still retained all of the attributes of His divine nature (even though through the kenosis, or self-emptying, He willingly did not exercise all of His divine attributes.) “Jesus Christ possessed all the divine attributes of the Father ... In humanity, Christ was totally human; in deity, Jesus was unalterably God. Yet in Jesus Christ was a single, undivided personality in whom these two natures are vitally and undividedly united, so that Jesus Christ is not God and man, but the God-man. ” The second fallacy is that, Jesus was first God and subsequently took on human manhood. “The second Trinitarian person [Jesus Christ] is the root and stock into which the human nature is grafted ” or “God in becoming man did not diminish His deity, but added a human nature to the divine nature. “>From these two rebuttals we can see that even though Jesus was truly man, He maintained His divine attribute of holiness. It was this holiness which supplied the strength and will power to ensure that Christ avoided sin and could not sin. In other words, “[t]hough Christ was of both human and divine desires, He had only one determinative will. That determinative will is in the eternal Logos.” Thus, even though Jesus was truly human, His divine will was more powerful and prevented Him from sinning because “a holy will may be perfectly free, and yet determined with absolute certainty to the right. Such is God’s will .” Therefore, “as God, Christ is certain to do only good, and yet He is a moral agent making choices. He need not have the capacity to sin .”
The third argument in support of the peccability of Jesus is based on the Scriptural statements that Jesus is the second or New Adam and corresponds to the first Adam. Thus, if Jesus was the second Adam he had to have all the qualities and characteristics of the first Adam. The proponents of this argument then proceed to conclude that one of the characteristics of Adam was the ability to sin.
However, in actual fact, this argument misses the point. The first Adam was a perfect man when he was created by God. “Adam was created in holiness without the inward compulsion toward sin that now characterizes his progeny ” or “Jesus did not possess a sin nature because it was not a part of the original nature of man .” In the garden Adam knew neither sin nor the consequences of sin. “[Adam] had no experience of sin ” before the Serpent and Eve presented him the apple from the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. It was only when Adam disobeyed God that Adam added sin to his perfect nature. This is a case of arguing from the present condition to a past condition which is then applicable to Jesus. It “make[s] the mistake of taking our imperfect lives as the standard, and regarding Christ as human only as He conforms to our failures. [Rather,] He is the standard, and He shows us what a genuine humanity can be .” Thus, the perfect human is without sin and is capable of not sinning (even though the perfect human will still have inherited a sin nature and original sin from Adam). Therefore, Christ can be the second or New Adam and still not have a peccable nature.
In the chapter entitled “The Sinlessness of Christ” in Berkouwer’s book The Person of Christ, the author presents three unique arguments for the peccability of Christ. I did not find mention of these arguments in any other source and, therefore, am sceptical of the weight they carry. However, I have decided to summarize them below in the interest of completeness. All three of his arguments are based on Biblical passages.
Berkouwer’s first argument centres on Christ words “Why do you call me good? None is good but God alone” (Luke 18:19, Mark 10:18 and a similar reference in Matthew 19:17). According to Berkouwer, this statement brings the peccability of Christ into question because “people have inferred that Christ himself did not proceed from his absolute sinlessness or holiness but rather places himself in the rank of sinful human beings. ” However, to read this passage in this manner is clearly a case of poor interpretation. The Jerome Biblical Commentary tells us that the phrase “good teacher” is “a rarely used epithet for a rabbi ” and that Jesus’ answer “implies that the epithet ‘good’ being proper to God, should not be used indiscriminately and casually .” Berkouwer, on the other hand, suggests that this is a different type of misinterpretation. He argues that in the early church and at the time these three Gospels were written, there was no question of the sinlessness of Christ. The sinlessness of Christ is a theological concept which developed later in history: “an explicit attestation to [Jesus’] sense of sinlessness we do not find until we encounter them, as the fruit of the Logos-theology, in the pronouncements of the Johannine Christ .”
While I am not personally convinced with Berkouwer’s interpretation and prefer to base the rejection of this argument for Jesus’ peccability on the correct interpretation of the passage, I will grant that Berkouwer presents a logical and plausible argument given what we know about the development of the New Testament writings.
The second argument Berkouwer presents is based on the story of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. In Matthew’s account of this incident, John the Baptist recognizes the holiness of Christ and tries to avoid baptising Him. However, Christ instructs John the Baptist to “give in for now ” (Matthew 3:15). From this, the argument arises that if Jesus was sinless why was it He had to be baptized and repent His sins? The Jerome Biblical Commentary points out that the dialogue between John the Baptist and Jesus is not found in the accounts of either Mark or Luke and proposes that it is an addition by Matthew because “it was necessary to explain how Jesus could submit to a rite of repentance and confession of sin .” Berkouwer has a more fuller explanation saying “Christ was obedient to the divine law in precisely this manner ... To this law Christ was already subject in his circumcision and in his presentation in the temple and in nothing was he distinguished from the other children of his [i.e., the Jewish] people. “He was born of a woman, born under the law” (Gal. 4:4) ”. In other words, Jesus was simply fulfilling the Judaic law and being a good Jew. Like all other Jews of His time, He was keeping the precepts and following the rules. It was not an attempt to deny his holiness or to claim that He was sinful. It was simply a rite of passage. Had He not followed through with the baptism it is possible that Jesus would have been condemned by the Jewish leaders and banned from the Temple.
Therefore, we can see that the baptism of Jesus does not carry any weight as an attempt to prove the peccability of Jesus.
Berkouwer’s third unique approach of the peccability of Jesus is based on Hebrews 5:7-8. In this passage we are told by the apostolic author that “[Jesus] learned obedience from what he suffered.” This statement has lead people (at least according to Berkouwer) to question if there was “a stage in which Christ was not yet obedient ... a stage antedating Christ’s obedience.” In countering this argument Berkouwer points out that Hebrew 5 is related precisely to the suffering of Christ in Gethsemani ” where Christ is tempted to derail the divine plan, His cross, death and resurrection. However, Christ was obedient in the sense that He accepted the divine will and accepted the will of the Father. This passage does not relate to the whole life of Christ, but merely to a single episode.. Therefore, this passage is not supportive of the peccability theory.
In summary therefore, we have seen that the question of the peccability of Jesus, i.e., Jesus could have sinned if He had wished to sin, cannot be supported by appealing to the following arguments:
a) that in order to have a true human nature Jesus had to be able to sin;
b) that in order to be really tempted as man is tempted Jesus had to be able to sin;
c) that temptability necessitates susceptibility to sin;
d) that if Jesus were a true man he would have to be able to sin because sin is part of the human condition;
e) that if Jesus were really the Second or New Adam he had to have been able to sin;
f) that Jesus statement in Luke 18:19, Mark 10:18 and Matthew 19:17 (“None is good but God alone”) implies that Jesus had to have been able to sin;
g) that Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist implies Jesus’ sin nature and hence the ability to sin; and
h) that Biblical passage of Hebrews 5:7-8 implies that Jesus was notalways obedient and thus, able to sin.
Therefore, we can conclude that there is no argument that would require us to admit or concur with the peccability of Jesus.
Having determined the lack of evidence to support the peccability of Jesus, I now wish to examine the arguments in support of the impeccability of Jesus.
The first argument to support the impeccability of Jesus is based on Jesus’ divine nature. Towns tells us “Jesus was unalterably God ” and to back up this statement he presents nine proofs. Sahl tells us that it is precisely because Jesus is God that “it is not possible for Him to sin ”. Pannenberg explains this more fully, saying, “if sin is essentially life in contradiction to God, in self-centred closing of our ego against God, then Jesus’ unity with God in his personal community with the Father and in his identity with the person of the Son of God means immediately his separation from all sin .” That is, “the concept of peccability in the person of Christ is contradicted principally by the attributes of immutability .” Pannenberg notes that “for Tertullian, Jesus is ... sinless ... because he is one with the sinless God .” In other words, both Pannenberg and Tertullian conclude that it is impossible for Christ to be peccable because to do so would fly in the face of God’s (including Jesus’) immutability.
For Christ to be able to sin there would have to be a substantial change to the very nature of God. However, God himself has clearly revealed that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8) and “you [Jesus] are the same, and your years will have no end” (Hebrews 1:12). Walvoord has extrapolated these verses to imply, “it is unthinkable that God could sin [in] eternity past, it must also be true that it is impossible for God to sin in the person of Christ incarnate. The nature of His person forbids susceptibility to sin .” Towns states this as “To rob God of any attributes would be to rob God of deity. It would mean that God is no longer immutable (unchanging), and therefore, causes Him to be less than God .” Therefore, based on the above, it is clear that Jesus could not have been able to sin.
Second, it has also been argued that since Jesus was God, His omnipotence, even though he chose not to exercise this attribute through the kenosis, would guarantee His impeccability: “peccability always implies weakness on the part of the one tempted. ... On the part of Christ, this is clearly out of the question .” Bechtle states this argument as “falling to temptation shows moral weakness or lack of power and ability. Christ had infinite power, and was therefore not susceptible to sin .”
Third, it is argued that because Christ was omniscient He could not have sinned: sin frequently appeals to the ignorance of the one tempted. ... In the case of Christ, the effects of sin were perfectly known, with all the contributing factors. It was impossible for Christ having omniscience to commit that which he knew could only bring eternal woe to Himself and to the race. Having at once infinite wisdom to see sin in its true light and at the same time infinite power to resist temptation, it is evident that Christ was impeccable.
Towns takes this argument based on the definition and attributes of God one step further and presents a fourth argument which includes the fact that Jesus was omnipresent as a proof of His impeccability: “Christ is omnipresent (His presence in heaven at the time of the temptation disallows sin), therefore, Christ could not sin for He lived a perfect life in heaven at the moment of the temptation .”
The fifth argument in supporting the view that Christ was impeccable appeals to the statement “God cannot be tempted with evil ” which is found in James 1:13. However, this is an inaccurate translation of the original manuscript. A more correct translation would be “Surely God, who is beyond the grasp of evil, tempts no one .” This latter interpretation is supported by the Jerome Biblical Commentary . Thus, the passage in James 1:13 is not appropriate to the current discussion and does not prove either the peccability or impeccability of Jesus.
The sixth argument in support of the impeccability is what Sahl refers to as the “unique person of Jesus “ or the hypostatic union. Under the doctrine of the hypostatic union Jesus “had one intellect, one set of emotions, and one volitional ability to make decisions .” However, some theologians, such as Shedd, believe that “the divinity [of Jesus] is dominant in his person. ... the divinity is the dominant factor in Christ’s complex person .” Walvoord concurs with this opinion: “In the person of Christ, however, the human will was always subservient to the divine will and could never act independently .” While such an argument would seem to support the impeccability of Christ, I am not sure that it does not erroneously interpret the two natures of Christ. Under the doctrine of the hypostatic union we know that “the two natures [of Jesus] are bound together ... by a bond unique and inscrutable, which constitutes them one person with a single consciousness and will .” This means that “the human and divine natures did not mingle or merge together into a third nature with a different expression .” However, if Christ had only one single will (a position which “the Third Council of Constantinople in 681 condemned ’) which was in fact dominated (and hence controlled) by his divine will, does this not imply that there is a blending of the wills or the creation of a third nature? Accordingly, while I would like to say that this argument supports the claim of Christ’s immpeccability, to do so would be to accept an inaccurate definition of the hypostatic union. Therefore, this argument is not applicable to this discussion.
The seventh argument in support of the impeccability is that Christ could not sin because he was doing the will of the Father, i.e., arguments from Jesus’ omnipotent desire [and] His submission to the divine will. ” We know that Christ was doing the will of the Father because the Bible clearly states this: “Then [Jesus] said, ‘As is written of me in the book, I have come to do your will, O God’ “(Hebrews 10:7);“ Jesus explained to them: Doing the will of him who sent me and bringing his work to completion is my food” (John 4:34) and “I have come down from heaven, but to do the will of him who sent me.” (John 6:38). The will of the Father is also clearly stated in the Bible: “[God] has sent his Son as an offering for our sins.” (1 John 4:10). As an offering for our sins, “Christ is a substitute for sin .” However, the only way that Christ could be a substitute for our sin would be if Christ had no sin himself. “It would only have taken one sin to make Jesus a sinner. ... In that case, he would be unable to save Himself, let alone be the sinless substitute for the sins of the world .”Therefore, if Christ were to fulfill the will of the Father, there would have to be an assurance that He remained sinless throughout his entire life. The only way to guarantee that Christ would remain sinless would be if Christ could not sin. Therefore, Christ had to be impeccable.
The eighth argument for the impeccability of Christ is presented by Sahl and is based solely on the Biblical statements of Christ and the fact that the Bible is inerrant, accurate and authoritative. Sahl extracts the following verses: Mark 2:1-12 (the account of the Paralytic at Capernaum), John 7:18 (Whoever speaks on his own is bent on self-glorification. The man who seeks glory for him who sent him is truthful; there is no dishonesty in his heart.), John 8:29 (The One who sent me is with me. He has not deserted me since I always do what pleases him.), and John 14:6 (Jesus told him: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me) and then concludes Jesus “is the impeccable Saviour who saves His people from their sins .”
In summary therefore we have seen that:
i) the fact that Jesus, who is God, is holy means that He his impeccable because for Him to sin would mean that God is capable of change;
j) the fact that Jesus, who is God, is omniscient implies that He is impeccable;
k) the fact that Jesus, who is God, is omnipotent implies that He is impeccable;
l) the fact that Jesus, who is God, is omnipresent implies that He is impeccable;
m) the fact that Jesus is a unique person who has an omnipotent desire and is submissive to the divine will implies He is impeccable;
n) the fact that Jesus is the offering and sacrifice for man’s sin implies that Jesus is impeccable; and
o) the fact that Jesus own statements concerning Himself in the Bible, which is inerrant, implies that Jesus is impeccable.
Thus we can conclude that Jesus was impeccable, i.e., he could not sin.
This assignment requires that after having examined the question of Christ’s peccability or impeccability that the author select a view and defend it. There is no doubt that I would like to take the view that Jesus is peccable and could have sinned if he had wanted to sin. For some reason, I cannot fully express why the peccability of Jesus is very comforting for me. Perhaps it is because such a view would mean that it might be possible for me to also live my life without sin. That is, if the perfect man, Jesus Christ, could live his life without sin, then there is at least the possibility that I could do likewise. There may also be comfort in the fact that it always easier to deal with another person who is similar to ourselves and who is not superior, i.e., without sin. Or maybe, it is because I find myself being tempted so often the idea of a Saviour who can also undergo temptation and who is peccable seems to be less threatening and more approachable than the alternative.
However, after reviewing the above material and searching my heart, I would have to select the view that Christ is impeccable as my stand on this issue. While the Bible passages which proclaim Jesus’ sinlessness and His impeccability are compelling, the ultimate arguments which convince me is the nature of Jesus, the God-man. For me, Jesus is clearly both God and man; fully the two natures and never separable. If Jesus is God then it means that He must be holy, omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresence. Given these attributes and the fact that God is, by definition, immutable then I must conclude that Jesus is impeccable. In conclusion therefore, we have seen that there are several arguments which attempt to prove peccability of Jesus. However, all of these arguments fail to be convincing and have inherent fallacies. On the other hand, we have seen that there are several arguments which prove beyond a doubt that Jesus Christ is impeccable. Each of these arguments, by their very definition and by logical conclusions they lead to, show us that Jesus was impeccable.
For myself, while I would like to believe that Jesus is peccable, the evidence and weight of conviction is clearly proves that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Second Person of the Trinity, the true God-man, is impeccable.