Could Jesus Have Sinned?

September 02, 2019

by Carlton Wynne

How one answers the question of whether Christ could have sinned does not determine one’s salvation, but the theological realities that inform our answer — Christ’s divine personhood and genuine humanity — are critical to the gospel. And together, they help us to see how Christ’s impeccability magnifies his glory as our Savior. With this goal in mind, let us turn, first, to the character of his incarnation.

Upholding Both Natures in the Divine Son

One challenge related to Christ’s two natures is to preserve the integrity of Christ’s human will as it functions via the divine Son. This is especially true when advocates of the peccability and impeccability positions describe the volitional activity of the God-man. Both camps run the risk of reaching their conclusions by expanding one nature beyond its proper limit such that it overtakes and diminishes the other. In this writer’s opinion, the most severe distortions are committed by peccability advocates who discount Christ’s divine person as the subject of Christ’s incarnate activity.

Orthodox christology maintains that each nature must retain properties unique to it.

For example, Michael Canham, a peccability advocate, has argued that “the exercise of his [i.e., Christ’s] human attribute of peccability apparently limited the exercise of His divine attribute of impeccability.” Canham’s thesis mistakenly conceives of Christ’s two natures as equally ultimate realities where one can occasionally trump the other. In doing so, his defense of Christ’s alleged peccability overlooks the role of the divine person behind and with the human nature at every point. Given that it is persons who are either peccable or impeccable, Christ’s divine personhood means that it is impossible to speak of the human nature as peccable in itself, for it does not, and never did, exist separately or independently from the divine in the person of the Son.

Unfortunately, on the other hand, impeccability advocates who appeal to the relationship between Christ’s two natures are also not immune from distortions. Mirroring Canham, William G.T. Shedd argues that Christ’s human nature was peccable, but then he adds that Christ in his human nature succumbed to his intervening divine nature such that he was, as a complete person, impeccable. Shedd writes,

The omnipotence of the Logos preserves the finite human nature from falling, however great may be the stress of temptation to which this finite nature is exposed. Consequently, Christ while having a peccable human nature in his constitution was an impeccable person. Impeccability characterizes the God-man as a totality, while peccability is a property of his humanity.

On the surface, Shedd’s explanation seems plausible. But the accuracy of his christology depends upon his use of the term preserves. Shedd clarifies that the divine nature “supports the human nature under all the temptations to sin that are presented to it” by “empower[ing] it with an energy of resistance.” While Shedd’s thesis is commendable in its effort to preserve the authenticity of Christ’s temptations while upholding Christ’s essential divinity, it suffers from a few defects.

First, by tracing Christ’s “energy of resistance” to the divine nature alone, Shedd disqualifies Christ’s earthly obedience from being robustly human in character. If, at the moment of Satan’s most powerful urging, Christ’s divine strength invaded, intercepted, and alleviated the agony of temptation, how may Christ’s triumph be that of a sinless man for other men who are sinful? From a redemptive-historical perspective, Shedd risks overturning the Adam-Christ parallel that frames the blessings lost by “one man’s trespass” and regained by “one man’s obedience” (Romans 5:17, 19; my emphasis).

Second, insofar as he understands Christ’s obedience as requisitely human, Shedd risks transferring to the human nature the divine attributes of immutability and omniscience to explain Christ’s overall impeccability. Contra Shedd, orthodox christology maintains that each nature must retain properties unique to it.

Finally, Shedd argues that Christ’s human peccability, in abstraction from its union to the divine Logos, explains his susceptibility to temptation. But, as noted above, the hypostatic union makes it impossible to draw any meaningful conclusions about temptability apart from Christ’s individual and individuating divine person. These errors call for more nuance in the relationship between the two natures of Christ and its impact on the fully human and impeccable character of his obedience.

Subject to the Divine Will

The very act of the Son’s incarnation ensured his lifelong impeccability from its inception.

The explanation most consistent with the limits and demands of orthodox (i.e., Chalcedonian) christology grounds Christ’s impeccability in terms of the solidarity or harmony enjoyed by Christ’s free human and divine wills in the hypostatic union of his two natures. As with Christ’s two natures, his two wills are not equally ultimate, but his human will was necessarily submissive to and reflective of his preexistent divine will as the Son obeyed his Father on earth. As a man, the incarnate Son necessarily expressed his inexhaustible purity as the second person of the Trinity, including his infallible divine desire to pursue only what is holy and righteous and good (cf. Romans 7:12), as he delighted in his Father’s good will regarding his messianic mission (see John 4:34; Hebrews 3:1–2).

While additional qualifications may be offered for Christ’s human obedience, the ultimate reason for his impeccability throughout his earthly life was the deity of his person as the incarnate Mediator. As Geerhardus Vos explains, “Will or intellect or emotion in the human nature could not have sinned unless the underlying person had fallen from a state of moral rectitude.” In other words, the very act of the Son’s incarnation ensured his lifelong impeccability from its inception. In assuming a human nature and all of its essential attributes, the divine Son lived, obeyed, and suffered as one whose human will was a creaturely organ of the eternal Son, assumed “inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly,” and “inseparably” to himself as a member of the Godhead.

Situating Christ’s impeccability as a consequence of his divine person’s having taken on a human mind and will in the incarnation carries significant advantages over alternative proposals by impeccability advocates. It does not consider the human nature in abstraction from the Logos, but recognizes the human nature’s place within the broader context of the hypostatic union. Just as crucially, it refuses to explain Christ’s victory over temptation in terms of divine assistance, as though his divine powers commandeered his humanity at the moment of severest anguish. Certainly, had he so desired, the one who “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3) could have drawn upon his supernatural strength to overcome the dreadful circumstances of his suffering. But the human Christ did not alleviate the pain of temptations by drawing upon his divinity, as one might expect him to do. Instead, as Owen writes, he “made bare his breast unto their strokes, and laid open his soul that they might soak into the inmost parts of it.”

Though Jesus developed his finite mind and exercised his human will in perfect conformity to his divine personality (cf. Luke 2:52), his humanity retained its creaturely integrity throughout his earthly life. This means that the same Son who enjoyed perfect fellowship with his Father had to endure every ounce of every trial he faced as a true man in order to achieve our salvation. As we will see, the Bible is resolute in affirming that the divine Son was truly tempted in his humanity, making his triumph over sin and suffering all the more glorious.


…continue reading at Desiring God.

Carlton Wynne

Dr. Wynne (PhD, Westminster) is assistant professor of systematic theology and apologetics at WTS.

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