Did Jesus Sin? Impeccability vs Peccability

Question from a Site Viewer
Could Jesus have sinned? Isn’t this referred to as the impeccability or peccability of Christ?

Tim’s Answer
You ask the question whether Jesus could have sinned. All historic traditions of the Church affirm that Jesus did not sin. This is what Scripture states (John 8:46; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15; 1 John 3:5). And until recently, that was the end of the matter.

However, in modern times within evangelical and reformed Christianity, the issue has been raised as to whether Jesus could have sinned. This debate is largely unknown in other Christian religious traditions. And even within the evangelical and reformed traditions, if you read older theologies you will not find the issue addressed.

And you are right — in theological terms, the debate is over the peccability or impeccability of Christ. Peccability in theological circles is the position that one is capable of sin. Impeccability is that one is not capable of sin. The issue is sourced in the mystery of the hypostatic union (the nature of God joining with man as one indivisible person). Much of the debate on the impeccability side is from a legitimate desire to avoid tainting God with sin. Much of the debate on the peccability side is the legitimate desire to affirm the true humanity of Christ.

Those who defend impeccability assert that Christ was fully God and therefore by nature incapable of sinning. They rightly assert that Christ did not inherit a sinful nature. Therefore, all temptations for Him came from without and not from within. And given His deity, He was incapable of giving in to such external temptations. They argue that if before the incarnation He was incapable of sinning, after the incarnation He had that same nature. His divine nature never changed. Accordingly, He could not sin. He was impeccable.

Those who defend peccability often rely on Hebrews 4:15 and argue that true temptation contains within it the possibility of yielding. If Jesus could not have yielded to temptation, then He could not have been tempted like we are because we often find ourselves fighting on the edge of giving in. The intensity and character of our temptation would be qualitatively different from Jesus’ temptation if He, in fact, held the divine abhorrence to sin that we lack. So, for Scripture to state that He was tempted in all things as we are, the proponents of peccability would argue that this means that Jesus must have been able to give in to the temptation. Yet, they will quickly add, He never did.

To the impeccability proponents, this peccability position is seen as the incomprehensible thought that at any moment of His earthly life, Jesus could have given into that moment’s temptation and the plan of God would be forever thwarted, the nature of God forever changed, and humanity forever lost. Surely, God’s eternal purpose and plan could not have been based on so shaky a foundation.

Both positions rely on deductive logic. While Scripture affirms the sinlessness of Christ, Scripture nowhere affirms either peccability or impeccability with Christ. Thus, both positions start with theories and work toward an answer. One starts with the full deity of Christ and concludes that the possibility of sin is inconsistent with a divine nature. The other starts with the full humanity of Christ and concludes the impossibility of sin is inconsistent with a human nature.

Before I state my view, I want to affirm that I respect both sides of this debate. I do not want to divide from my brothers and sisters over an issue Scripture does not directly address. And my position may or may not be the right position, though it is the one I think is right.

For me, the issue begins with the nature of sin which in my view revolves around three premises. First, sin is always sourced in internal desire (James 1:14; Genesis 3:6). Desire itself is not sin. The Greek word translated “desire” or “lust” is a form of the same Greek word that is found in 1 Timothy 3:1 speaking of a person who desires to be an overseer, something Paul affirms is a good thing. It is the same word used in Matthew 13:17 where the prophets and righteous ones desired to see what the disciples had seen. It is the same word of the angels’ holy desires (1 Peter 1:12). And it is the same word to describe Jesus’ own desires (Luke 22:15). Desire is not bad. Paul had a desire to depart from this world (Philippians 1:23). Such a desire was not sin. Paul had a great desire to see the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 2:17).

But desire leads to temptation when the desire is misaligned with respect to the divine desire. If Paul’s desire to depart morphed into a desire to commit suicide, his desire would become a temptation to sin. I may have a desire to eat. Such desire is not a temptation to sin. But if my desire to eat tempts me to snatch food from my neighbor, then it becomes a temptation to sin. Desire then can be a prompting for good or a temptation for evil. Desires become temptations when they are misaligned with the desires of God.

Thus, in the garden, God told Adam and Eve that they could eat of any tree in the garden. Anything they desired, they could take. Such was not sin. But there was one tree in the midst of the garden that they could not eat. If they desired that tree, their desires would be misaligned with the divine desire and would constitute temptation.

Second, I do not believe that external matters are temptations. Again, I go back to James 1:14. Temptation comes from within. Certainly, external forces can work on internal desires, but external forces by themselves cannot be temptation. All temptation must be sourced in our own desire. For instance, if you place a $100 bill on the table and then walk out of the room, that $100 bill does not tempt me. It may become a temptation to me if I were in a different financial situation, but where I presently am if I want $100 I would take it from my bank account. I have no need nor desire for your $100. In fact, I would be far more likely to give you $100 than to take $100 from you or anyone. The $100 bill does not tempt me. Likewise, if you were to offer me a night of sex with another man, that would not be a temptation. The reason is because I have no inward desire for such things. But for someone else who has such an inward desires, such offers would be temptation. Temptation, as James and the rest of Scripture affirms, is sourced in our internal desire.

Let me provide one other bit of evidence to support this fact. Dead men cannot be tempted. Why is this? It is not because we cannot dangle an apple before them. Nor is it because we cannot offer them any sinful pleasure in the world. The reason is because they have no desire. Without desire, there cannot be any temptation.

If James is right that all temptation is sourced in internal desire, then Jesus could not be tempted unless He also had internal desire. And we already know both that Jesus had internal desires (Luke 22:15) and that He was tempted (Hebrews 4:15).

Third, I believe that there is a linkage between one’s desires and one’s will. The Greek word “will” can in many places easily be translated desire and we get the sense of the text. When we speak of God’s will being done on earth, we are speaking of His desire being done. When Scripture says that Joseph was not willing to make Mary a public example, we understand that he did not desire to to this (Matthew 1:19). When Jesus speaks of someone who would borrow from us, we understand Him to speak of one who desires to borrow from us (Matthew 5:42). When Jesus gives the golden rule, we understand that we should do for others what we would desire people to do for us (Matthew 7:12). When Scripture says that God wills mercy over sacrifice, we understand Scripture to be affirming that God desires mercy over sacrifice (Matthew 9:13). We might think of will as pulling the lever on desire. Desire is the thought. Will is the determination to act on the thought with intent to engage the thought either positively or negatively.

Thus, I can desire to take a siesta. I can then determine that I will take a siesta (a positive engagement of the desire) or I can determine not to take a siesta (a negative engagement of the desire). What I determine is my will. The will engages the desire and determines to move positively or negatively in relation to the desire. And, ultimately, if I engage negatively with the desire, it is because there is a counter-desire that is stronger. I do not take the siesta because I also have a desire to get some work done. Or I have a desire to please someone else who wants me not to take the siesta. Or I have a desire to please God and believe that He does not want me to take a siesta. Ultimately, however, I think we go where our strongest desires are. It is for this reason that God commands us to make our supreme desire to be Him. This, after all, is the first and great command.

So, if I am right that desire and will are interconnected matters within us, then I think I can safely say that Jesus not only had both His own internal desires and will, but that these desires and will were distinctive from those of the Father. I do not know how else to read passages such as John 5:30 where Jesus speaks of His own will and then speaks of the Father’s will and says that He does not seek to do His will but the will of the One who sent Him. This passage makes no sense to me if the Son and the Father shared the same will. He speaks of not doing one will and doing another. This, in my understanding, speaks of two wills that are not aligned with one another. If they were fully aligned with one another, then there would be no need for Him to make a distinction and His point that He does not do one and does the other is lost on me. The verse makes sense only if His will is not the same as the Father’s. He speaks of the same two wills again in John 6:38. But, perhaps, the place we see these two wills most sharply pitted one against the other is in the garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus’ own will is to avoid the cross, His Father’s will is the cross, and Jesus’ ultimate decision was to submit to the Father’s will (Matthew 26:39).

I see what marks Christ, then, is not that He did not have His own desires, nor is it that His own desires were never in conflict with the Father’s desires, but rather, what marks Him is that when there was a conflict He always submitted His will to the Father’s will. In this way, we see His temptation (an internal desire to avoid the cross), we see His response (a greater desire and determination to do the Father’s desire), and we see the result, the sinless life.

Based on the premise that sin is sourced in our desires and that our desires become temptations to sin when they are misaligned with the divine will, I come back to the question of whether Jesus was peccable or impeccable. For me, the question can be asked in a different way. Was Jesus capable of acting on His own desires or not? If He was not capable, then He would be impeccable. If He was capable, then in my view He would be peccable.

We know from Luke 22:15 that Jesus acted on His own desires. There His own desire was not in conflict with the Father’s desire. But nevertheless, the verse provides evidence that Jesus could act on His own desires. I find the garden scene also powerful evidence that Jesus could act on His own desires. The garden struggle was real and not illusionary. That it was a temptation is clear. Jesus uses it as a lesson to His disciples how they were to fight temptation (Matthew 26:41). If there was no inward battle over the choice He was to make, I do not understand the basis of His agony or the reasons for His words. The writer of Hebrews tells us that He “learned obedience” by the things He suffered. The concept of learning obedience tells me that obedience was not endowed on Him by His divine nature. Rather, it was something He had to learn. In the garden He struggled. He learned. He strove against sin, in the words of Hebrews 12:4. These are not words that go easily with the concept of impeccability. They strongly indicate a real choice facing Christ. What ultimately kept Him from choosing His own will was His overriding desire to please the Father.

Likewise, I see the temptation of Christ in the wilderness in the same light. I see that Jesus had a real desire for food, that He had a real desire to bypass the cross and assume the authority of the world, that He had a real desire to display Himself to be loved by the Father, and that He had a real desire for worship. I think these desires were internal, not external. There would be no temptation if Jesus had no inward desire for these things. If someone offered me the kingdoms of the world and I had no desire for them, I do not see how anyone can call that a temptation. I see in each of these situations that Jesus’ inward desires were not aligned with the Father’s will. In each case, Jesus’ ultimate will was to submit to the Father’s will. Stated yet another way, when Scripture says that Jesus was hungry (Matthew 4:2), I believe that we are to understand that Jesus had a real inward desire for food. This desire was not sin. But the desire provided the basis for a temptation that was internal; that is, whether Jesus would use His power to make bread from the stones to satisfy his real hunger, a temptation to do something at odds with the Father’s desire.

So, I come down on the side of the peccability of Christ. I think Jesus at any point could have chosen His own desires whether they were aligned or non-aligned with the Father’s will. Stated another way, I believe He had the ability to make a choice, just as Adam had the ability to make a choice. But in saying this, at no point do I find that our salvation was in jeopardy. The security of our salvation rested fully in the bond of love between the Father and the Son. The love of the Son for the Father was stronger than any other internal desire, and this strength of a greater desire prevented any sin. Thus, though Jesus strongly desired to avoid the cross, He more strongly desired to please the Father. The temptation was real and the choice was real, but the outcome sure because the love was strong. (And, by the way, I think the same can be true of us. If our love for God is truly supreme, then though our temptations are real and our choices are real, our outcomes will be sure.)

Now, I need to answer a couple of objections. The first objection is that Jesus could not have sinned because He did not have a sin nature and therefore had no inclination to sin. My response to this objection is that one does not need a sin nature to sin. The angels did not have a sin nature and they fell (2 Peter 2:4). Adam and Eve did not have sin natures and they sinned. All that is needed for sin is a decision to act on one’s desires when those desires are in conflict with the divine desire. The first Adam willed to act positively on his inward desire and he sinned. The second Adam, faced with what I see as being the identical temptation, willed to act negatively on His inward desire and He redeemed sin. The comparison between Christ and Adam is not lost on the pages of Scripture (Romans 5:12-19; 1 Corinthians 15:21-22, 45-49).

The second objection is that to affirm peccability is to deny the full deity of Christ. My answer is this. There are many things that Jesus did that God cannot do. For me, this is part of the mystery of the hypostatic union of the God-man. For instance, God cannot slumber or sleep (Psalm 121:4). Jesus was at all times fully God. Jesus slept (Matthew 8:24). Some dismiss this argument by saying that this was the “human Jesus” sleeping. I cannot get there with my theology. From the earliest days of the church, the people of God have affirmed that there was not a divine Christ and a human Jesus. The God-man was one person, not two, possessing two natures without commingling or separation. Thus, there is no human Jesus. There is a God-man, Jesus, who slept. Likewise, God cannot learn (Job 21:22; Isaiah 40:13-14). But Jesus, the God-man, learned (Luke 2:52; Hebrews 5:8). God knows all things (1 John 3:20). Jesus did not know the day and hour when the Son returns (Mark 13:32). God cannot be tempted (James 1:13). But Jesus, the God-man, was tempted (Matthew 4:1-10; Hebrews 4:15). God cannot die (Deuteronomy 32:40). But Jesus, the God-man, died (John 19:33). None of this denies the true deity of Jesus. But we cannot be faithful to the text of Scripture and come to any other conclusion but that Jesus as the God/man could do things that God alone could not do and did not know things that God apart from the hypostatic union knows.

Thus, I do not think it is sound reasoning to say that because God cannot sin and because Jesus is God, therefore Jesus could not sin. This simple A = B; B = C; therefore A = C argument found in philosophy and mathematics does not work with the hypostatic union. The union throws in a variable that is unaccounted for in the AB/BC/AC argument.

In conclusion, while I believe in peccability, I do so only in the sense of the real choice within Jesus. I do not do so from the perspective that the purity of Christ was ever in doubt. From the beginning we could know that Jesus would not sin. But the strength of that knowledge rested in His supreme love, not in some innate inability to choose. We could be assured that when His own desires most pulled on His will in ways contrary to the Father’s will, His great love for the Father would ultimately prevail. The clash of wills would always be resolved by the greater love.

I realize this is a long answer to a short question. I hope this helps.

May the great Shepherd continue to guide you as you seek to follow Him,


10 thoughts on “Did Jesus Sin? Impeccability vs Peccability”

  1. Oddly I agree with every word except I’m not sure it’s an affirmation of peccability, since you admit it was certain in advance Jesus would not sin. But the form of impeccability that denies that Jesus flesh ever pulled in the direction of sin certainly undermines the claim he was tempted as we are. Maybe we need a new name for our third way?

    1. I can understand the angst. Peccability and certainty seem opposites. To say that one could have but was certain not to seems slightly contradictory. But, theoretically, peccability and certainty can co-exist. One states that Christ could have sinned. The other states that Christ was certain not to sin. One looks at the ability. The other looks at the pre-known result. Just as we are able to sin but we can resist the temptation and thus not sin, so it is with Christ. Where we are peccable at every temptation, but only fall for some, Christ was peccable at every temptation but fell for none.

  2. Beautifully explained. I had to treat this after a question in my cell group on sunday and it would have helped if I had read this beforehand. My answer was basically the same but not as detailed. Thanks for this

  3. Thank you so much for this, this is a recent thing, I had a great churning in my spirit when hearin this and you. Have explained it succinctly in a way that I find peace. Previously I had not considers this issue.

  4. I would argue that Christ’s human nature is and was impeccable. We have by birth a fallen nature but by new birth we have a nature incapable of sinning. As ‘born of God’ we cannot sin. The new nature (or life, for nature is but the essence of the life) does not sin it is the old nature that sins. It is divine in nature, that is spiritual. The nature (or life) we receive at the new birth is the nature that Christ had in incarnation. He was, from conception, holy. True holiness is intrinsically antagonistic to sin. We have his nature for we have his life.

      1. Because we also have the flesh which is our old nature or humanity. The life of the flesh and the life of the Spirit are opposed. Gals 5.

        Sorry for taking three years to reply. Only as I read the comments did I realise I had previously commented.

  5. Hi Tim

    Since God can be tempted (though not with sin) I wonder how his temptation fits into your paradigm.

  6. Thank you for a well-stated, informative discussion of this potentially divisive argument in a clear and cogent manner. You gave me the language I needed to explain my position and to understand my friend’s objections. Even 9.5 years later, the soundness of your reasoning rings true and compelling. Thank you.

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