Did Jesus Ever Sin?

Most Christians’ first reaction to this question is to answer this with a resounding “Of course not!” After all, he was the Son of God; he had to be blameless in order to be the perfect sacrifice…right?

But what if we consider Jesus crucifixion and resurrection differently? Many today believe Jesus died because of the sins of humanity, but not necessarily as a sacrificial substitute for our sins. But regardless of your beliefs about atonement, what about the fact that Jesus was tempted in the desert after his baptism? And it seems that the Gospels indicate he lived the life fully as any man, with all the same temptations. And then if we consider the text from Matthew 5:28 that says anyone who lusts in their heart has already committed adultery…so how (if at all) is lusting in one’s heart different than being tempted?

I decided to put this question to my panel of expert respondents in book two of my “Banned Questions” series, “Banned Questions About Jesus.”

After Jesus’ baptism, he is tempted in the desert several times. How is this different than when he teaches in Matthew 5:28 that “…anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart”? Aren’t these basically the same thing?

Becky Garrison: In the desert, Satan tried to get Jesus to follow him by appealing to his physical humanity by offering him bread. When that failed, he tried to force Jesus to perform a miracle as though he was some trained devotional doggie who could use the power given to him by God at will. After Jesus blew him off, Satan tried unsuccessfully to lure him in by promising a kingdom here on earth. While these three options must have been mighty tempting, Jesus didn’t let these temptations enter his heart and influence his thinking.

Compare that to a man who might claim he’s not sinning because he’s not doing the dirty deed. But his mind is corrupted because he keeps thinking about doing the dirty deed with another dude’s lady. While someone in a relationship might not be having an actual affair by sending steamy emails, flirting on Facebook and posting titillating tweets to another party, they’ve definitely crossed into that gray area where commandments might not be actually broken, but boundaries were definitely crossed.

Phil Snider: In the highly controversial film The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus imagines what life might be like if he chose a path that didn’t lead to the cross but instead to a comfortable family life. This is similar to the temptation that many people still face today. While such temptations aren’t necessarily relegated to the choice of dying on a cross or raising a family, the basic idea still remains; certain risks are involved when one chooses to follow the call that God places on one’s life, and most of us tend to prefer a more comfortable life instead. The temptations that Jesus faced in the desert serve as an overture to Jesus’ entire ministry, for they symbolically emphasize the ways that he – in contrast to most of us – refused a comfortable life in order to be faithful to his calling, no matter the consequence.

This is very different from what takes place in Matthew 5:28. In this passage, Jesus is highlighting the dignity of women, implying that they should be treated as human beings and not mere objects. Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 – combined with several of his other teachings – provocatively challenge the customs and laws of the times, so much so that religious and political authorities wanted to take action in order to get rid of him. Yet he refused to give in, no matter the consequence. So you might say that the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert is connected to Matthew 5:28, but not in the way this question implies.

Joan Ball: When tempting Jesus in the desert, Satan went out of his way to create scenarios that would distract and confuse. This was an active and malevolent effort on the part of Satan meant to sideline Jesus and insult the Father. Jesus faced each challenge prayerfully, intelligently and with self-control and, as a result, Satan was foiled.

For the second scenario to be the same this generic woman in Matthew must be cast in the role of malicious “temptress” (aka Satan) and the man’s inability to seek God, engage the Spirit and grow in self-control as Jesus did (i.e. not look at the woman lustfully) must be ignored. I’m not buying it. God is bigger than the male libido.

Lee C. Camp: Though it is often assumed that Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness entailed a period of intense testing with the “lust of the flesh, lust of the eye, and the vain-glorious pride of life,” numerous New Testament scholars these days believe that the temptation in the wilderness was concerned with what sort of Messiah Jesus was going to be.

Nonetheless, it seems a fair and important question to ask the difference between a “temptation” and a “lustful thought”?  If a man looks at a woman and thinks a lustful thought, has he as much as committed adultery?  But perhaps a more helpful question is to ask this: what is the function or purpose of the Sermon on the Mount?  Therein Jesus provides a description of a way of life oriented toward the Kingdom of Heaven.  What does it look like to live life in the Kingdom of Heaven that has come among us, that has invaded human history?

The beatitudes announce, for example, that the presence of the kingdom entails comfort to the oppressed and the poor and the persecuted faithful.  Then the six “antitheses” (“you have heard it said, but I say…”) announce certain skills or practices that characterize life in the Kingdom:  reconciliation with estranged parties, rooting out any form of objectification or lust, chastity and preservation of marriage vows, speaking the truth without obfuscation, overcoming evil with good, and doing good to one’s enemies.  These are holistic, lifestyle and community-embraced practices, not merely new legalistic rules.

One last note:  as Martin Luther, I think it was, once said with regard to temptation and tempting thoughts:  we cannot control what birds fly over our heads.  We can only control whether they build nests in our hair.

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  • What about if those birds poop on their way by?

    (I have no idea what kind of question that is.)

    Nice post, Christian-and-everybody

  • “In this passage, Jesus is highlighting the dignity of women, implying that they should be treated as human beings and not mere objects.” Amen to this. I think another important question to consider is the definition of lust. There’s a difference between sexual attraction (which is totally natural and out of one’s control) and lust (which is objectifying someone- taking another human being made in the image of God and thinking of them only as a sex object).

  • What if we framed your question in Jesus’ command to not point out the sin in an others life before examining the sin in one’s own. So, instead of Matt 5:28 (and others like it) being examples of Jesus naming sin in lives outside of his own, what if Jesus is actually just going from experience? What if he effectively had already worked out the “log in his own eye”, and now he’s spreading the wisdom?

  • FROM THE ARTICLE: …as Martin Luther, I think it was, once said with regard to temptation and tempting thoughts: we cannot control what birds fly over our heads. We can only control whether they build nests in our hair.

    MY RESPONSE: Though you’ve slightly misquoted it; and though it was really the re-hashing of a proverb that was old even in Luther’s day, it was, indeed, Luther who is most famous for it. That said, it has variously been attributed to Martin Luther King, to Spurgeon, to Confucius, to being an old proverb from any of a number of Asian cultures, and many other sources. It was Luther, though, who kept using it across many of his writings to illustrate various things, but mostly in connection with temptation… a recurring problem in his own life.

    In the process of making a larger point, Luther would frequently refer to it in the form of a story about a young man, confessing to a hermit, his lust for women. Though the precise language of it sometimes changes ever-so-slightly from writing to writing, the most commonly expanded form is the old hermit saying to the young man: “You cannot prevent the birds from flying over your head. But let them only fly, and do not let them build a nest in the hair of your head. Let them be thoughts, and remain such; but do not let them become conclusions.”

    Once Luther’s years as an Augustinian monk, and his self-recrimination and self-flagellation are better understood, it’s easy to imagine that this story which ran, as a repeating theme, through so many of his writings, is auto-biographical, with the hermit (or Father as he’s called in other versions) being a higher-up in his order, and the young man (or brother, as he’s called in other versions) being Luther, himself. Or so, at least, it has always been my suspicion.

    Luther often used the story to comment on temptation and our response to it, such as in the case of Rachel’s theft of the household gods in Genesis 31:33-35; or to make the point that both God and Satan play with people as exemplified, Luther said, in the story of Jacob wrestling with God in Genesis 32:24.

    In his “An Exposition of the Lord’s Prayer for Simple Laymen,” Luther wrote: “Thus we read in the book of hermits (such as Jerome’s “Lives of the Hermits”) how a young brother longed to rid himself of his evil thoughts. The aged father said to him, ‘Dear Brother, you cannot prevent the birds from flying over your head, but you can certainly keep them from building a nest in your hair.'”

    Similarly, in the “The Lord’s Prayer Explained” section of “Luther’s Catechetical Writings: God’s Call to Repentance, Faith and Prayer, Volume 1,” item 161, we find: “Thus you see that temptation can be avoided by no one; but resistance may be made and, with prayer and recourse to divine aid, we can put ourselves in readiness to meet such designs. In the book of an old father we read that a young brother expressed a desire to be rid of this thoughts. Thereupon the old Father said: ‘Dear Brother, you cannot prevent the birds from flying in the air over your head, but you can prevent them from building a nest in your hair.’ So, as St. Augustine says, we cannot prevent offenses and temptations, but by prayer and invocation of the help of God, we can prevent them from overcoming us.”

    Another example is from Luther’s “Faith Alone – A Daily Devotional,” where he wrote under the “On Controlling our Thoughts” heading: “Because of human nature and weak faith, people can’t keep from having these kinds of thoughts any more than they can avoid other emotions, such as impatience, anger, and lust. You can’t keep thoughts and temptations from coming into your head. Just don’t let these thoughts become fixed in your mind so that they begin to affect your judgment.

    “You should follow the advice of a hermit who was approached by a young man complaining of having lustful thoughts and other temptations. The old man told him, ‘You can’t stop the birds from flying over your head, but only let them fly. Don’t let them nest in your hair.’ It’s all right to have these thoughts, but let them remain just that–thoughts. Don’t let them grow to the point where you have to act on these thoughts.”

    And, again, there are many other examples, including in Luther’s Table Talks, and in other of his writinegs. Most or all of them remind us, in keeping with the Pauline doctrine or “reckoning,” that we have the power to identify and dismiss “wrong” thoughts, to separate them from our “selves,” and thus by grace to escape them.

    Luther, though, believed that such thoughts were no accident; that between God testing and Satan tempting, a Christian has much for which to be watchful. More conservative (typically WELS and LC-MS) Lutherans weave this notion into much of their preaching. Here, for example, is a piece of a February 26, 2012 sermon by LC-MS Pastor Kurt Onken, of Messiah Lutheran Church in Marysville, Washington:

    It’s clear from Scripture that God does give us tests. He causes or allows certain things to come into our lives to test our faith. As we consider this, we need to remember that he will never tempt us to sin. The Small Catechism, in the explanation to the 6th Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, says, “God tempts no one.” We heard this from the apostle James earlier today: “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one” (James 1:13). Satan is the one who tempts us to sin, just like he tempted Jesus in the wilderness. But James doesn’t even go so far as to bring Satan into the mix. He says, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:14). We have enough problems dealing with our sinful nature alone, which tempts us with sinful thoughts and attitudes. Remember, also, that it’s not a sin to be tempted, even by our own fallen mind. It’s what we do with those thoughts and attitudes. Here’s what Luther said: “You cannot prevent the birds from flying over your head. But let them only fly and do not let them build nests in the hair of your head. Let them be thoughts and remain such; but do not let them become conclusions”

    My discomfort with it all, though, is how this entire subject — and Luther’s quote — is often leveraged by evangelicals and others of both socio-politically and theologically conservative bent to castigate homosexuals, often leading to “love the sinner, hate the sin” dismissals, to even “sexual reorientation therapy” (aka, “conversion therapy” or “reparative therapy”) which tries to convert a person from being a homosexual to being straight. Such ridiculous therapy has been discredited by virtually all major American medical, psychiatric, psychological and professional counseling organizations because those who have endured it frequently report increased anxiety, depression and, in some cases, suicidal ideation. And Luther is frequently invoked.

    From “A Christian Perspective on Homosexuality” by Sue Bohlin: “Many homosexuals claim, “I never asked for these feelings. I didn’t choose them.” This may be true. The Bible never condemns undeveloped homosexual feelings, only homosexual practices. In reference to impure sexual thoughts, Martin Luther said, ‘You can’t stop the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.’ Unasked-for, uncultivated sexual desires for a person of the same sex constitute temptation, not sin. The Lord Jesus was “tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin” (Heb. 4:15). That means He endured the full force of homosexual temptation. The line between temptation and sexual sin is the same for homosexuals and heterosexuals. It is the point at which our conscious will gets involved. Sin begins with internal lusting and creating fantasies, choosing to concentrate on sexual attraction and feed it.”

    [sigh] Oy. [shakes head in disbelief]

    Hope that helps!

    Gregg L. DesElms
    Napa, California USA
    gregg at greggdeselms dot com

    • I agree with your assessment of temptation vs. sin. The term “coupling” has been used to describe the difference between the unbidden temptation and the point where the temptation is internalized and becomes sin. We are assaulted by temptations on a nearly second-by-second basis. Part of what we are called to do as Christians is become more and more “dispassionate.” Dispassion is a “state” (not a very good word, but there you are) in which the voice of temptations begins to fall on deaf ears. When we become more and more dispassionate, temptations continue to assault us— indeed, they may be sent our way in an ever increasing amount— but they have nothing to “hook on to.” They can’t get a fingerhold on us because we no longer are willing to engage, or “couple,” with them. In essence, this is true holiness.

      This can only become a reality for us as we grow in Christ and allow His life and power to become our sole source for living. It is hard work and will only become that reality by His grace.

      Fr James

  • Tony

    “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” … Another, probably seen as heretical, take on this passage is simply that it is plain wrong! There’s a whole world of difference between thinking ‘wow, she’s a really beautiful girl’ and jumping into bed with her. Just ask your wife which she’d prefer!

  • Steve Martin

    He never caved-in to temptation as we do (all the time).

    He was truly the right man to die for us and to forgive us.

    Thanks be to God.


  • DominickG

    I commented on the same article in the Huffington Post website.
    In the gospel of Mark, there are six interlinked but different types on sins within the Passion narrative exhibited by Judas, Peter, Pilate, the High Priest, the crowd AND Jesus.

    The sin of Jesus is that he didn’t listen, he didn’t explain, he was dogmatic and he was deliberately provocative in his language,

    It’s a brilliant book with sophisticated teaching but to unlock the understanding of Mark, you really need to have some idea of the ancient Greek concept of the tripartite soul.

  • Concerned citizen of heaven

    Really!? Temptation is all around but not having a desire to give into the temptation keeps the heart from sinning ex: weed is all around (temptation) but not desiring it in your heart (lust) keeps the heart from sinning I assume whoever wrote this is not christian due to the complete lack of recognition of the divinity of Christ luckily The Lord said on Matthew 12:31 for all here who applaud this blaspheme
    -God bless and may the truth set you free