Could Jesus have sinned?

The proverbial late night college dorm room question, “Could Jesus have sinned?” (the question of Jesus’ impeccability), is one that I recently came across in a section of theology written by the preeminent Orthodox theologian Bishop Kallistos Ware of Oxford, who by the way gave lectures at North Park last year. In an essay entitled “Salvation and Theosis in Orthodox Theology” Bishop Ware writes

How far was Christ subject to temptation? The testimony of Scripture is explicit: ‘in every respect as we are, only without sinning’ (Heb. 4:15). A human will and human freedom imply liability to human temptation. We are to affirm of the incarnate Christ, not that he was incapable of sinning, but that he was capable of not sinning; not non posse peccare, but posse non peccare. His sinlessness was moral, not ontological; as regards his humanity, he was sinless by virtue of his will, not of his nature. Sin was a real possibility for him as man.

I find Ware’s remarks, particularly his preference for the idea of “capable of not sinning” over “incapable of sinning”, a useful statement on the matter that well reflects the New Testament witness to Christ’s humanity.

  • http://covenantoflove.net/ Derek

    You know, Joel, back in Bible College days the class was discussing original sin and Jesus’ sinlessness. I remember well raising my hand and asking, “the Bible says that Jesus was tempted in every way that we are, yet was without sin. Could this mean that Jesus could have sinned by was capable not to, and in fact didn’t’?” Immediately wishers of “heresy” swirled around the room as every student was shocked at even the suggestion of such non-sense. I felt as though I had committed the unforgivable sin. I slumped deep in my seat from the murmurs of “heresy” that was followed up by a quick chastisement from the teacher. (Questions not tolerated apparently.)

    Come to think of it, I don’t think my hypothesis was that far off. Not at all heresy. I love the way Ware puts it: “capable of not sinning” rather than “incapable of sinning”. As an aside, would that have been the same for Adam? Capable of not sinning, yet chose to rebel anyways.

    • http://creativefidelity.wordpress.com/ Dan F.

      Christ is the New Adam according to the rest of the New Testament writers. Also, if you deny that Adam was capable of not sinning it would completely negate the doctrines of Original Sin and likely make this question moot.

    • Joel Haas

      Ware is wiser than I (and a bishop!), so I will trust his answer. I never came down on one side or the other of that specific choice (‘capable of not../not capable of..’). As far as I know, the Church Fathers of the Orthodox tradition (I believe St. Maximus the Confessor, et al, concerning the 6th Ecumenical Council against monothelitism) taught that Christ had a genuine human will (thus maybe the ‘capable of not..’) but that his will was operated by a divine person and not a human person. Thus Jesus of Nazareth was never confused as to the proper end of his will but rather could see clearly every time what the proper end was, and obviously was faithful every time to operate his will in faithfulness to His Father. We, on the other hand, have a ‘gnomic will’ which, by being operated by a post-fall human person, is confused about its proper end and thus inevitably sins. Thus perhaps Christ, by virtue of having a truly and fully human will was ‘capable of not sinning’ (and capable of being tempted!) in that he was truly free to choose, but by virtue of His divine hypostasis it was never in doubt (from our perspective, looking back) that He would remain faithful to His Father.

      As for all of this being the same for pre-fall Adam….this is an area of the Church Fathers’ teaching that I haven’t learned much of yet. I know that many thought of Adam and Eve as ‘immature’ (like children) humans who were meant to grow into the full stature of Christ (the image of God) but failed to do so. Christ Himself grew in wisdom and stature. But obviously Adam did not have two natures, or a divine hypostasis – and he *did* sin – so not everything is the same for Adam. Both pre-fall Adam and Christ would both be the same in the sense that both could freely operate their will, both were ‘capable of not sinning.’ But whether Adam had a ‘gnomic will,’ of that I am not sure. Whether Adam could clearly and without any distortion see his will’s proper end (as Christ could) and chose sin anyways – of that I am also not sure.

      If you know all of this already, or if I am butchering the perspective of the Tradition of the Church Fathers, then please forgive me. I am reaching the outer limits of my measly knowledge here, so don’t push back too hard… :)

  • lt

    I think this fails because Christ was not only human. He was God, and it is impossible for God to sin by his nature.

    We can never make the mistake of separating the natures of Christ. Yes Christ was capable of not sinning, as was Adam. But more than that, Christ was incapable of sinning. To deny that seems to functionally deny the deity of Christ.

  • Ken Schenck

    I’ve also been told to pay special attention to the words “for him as a man.” My local theologian tells me that the divine part of him could not have sinned. My theological “number of angels on a pin” meter begins to go off at that point. So you’re telling me that as a human he could have sinned but as divine he couldn’t? Sounds like we’ve long left the NT building before we get to this sort of question.

    • jwillitts

      Ken I don’t think you can accuse the Orthodox of denying Chalcedon, which I’m sure you’re not suggesting here. What’s more, Ware is clear that it is here where dogma ends and “theologoumena” begins. In the context Ware is discussing what he calls two basic principles of the “exchange – The sharing that is fundamental to his conception of salvation. He is discussing the idea “He became man, that we might be made god” (Athanasius). The principle that (1) only God can save, and (2) God’s salvation has to reach to the point of human need.

  • Jeff Martin

    I am afraid these statements do not go far enough. I like what Millard Erickson said. He said that if Jesus would have sinned, the moment before he would have his divine side would have left the human side and the human would have continued his existence as a sinful human being, and God would have started over. Not because God is limited but because he limited himself for the sake of having someone who could really be tempted and really could have sinned

    • Ken Schenck

      I can’t support it theologically, but I like to think that Jesus in his humanity could have sinned, but it would have ripped the very fabric of the universe apart. It’s at this point that my theologian colleagues tell me to “shut up,” in Christian love, as Mark said… ;-)

      • Jeff Martin

        I am not sure why you could not support it theologically. As you yourself said this kind of question gets more into the philosophical than theological. It is a mystery no doubt, but I hope there can be room for healthy discussion.

        In discussing how Jesus could have grown in wisdom and yet know everything, again for me, it is helpful, however speculative, to say that God had put Jesus’ divine knowledge into Jesus’ subconscious only to slowly be placed into his conscious part later on in life and even then not fully. ALl I am arguing is that these things are plausible.

  • Mark

    There are at least two concerns here; both dealing with the doctrine of the incarnation: (1) Jesus was fully God & fully man; and (2) the roll of the humanity and the Divinity of Jesus. The confusion may be caused by assuming that Christ was acting out of His divinity 100% of the time but this denies scripture, at least the passage found in Matthew 24:36. Theologians and Bible scholars have pondered this passage for years. How can an omniscient being (Christ qua God) “not know” something? There is an excellent work by Thomas V. Morris (The Logic of God Incarnate) that deals with rather well; but, no matter here. If Christ can express some limitation, at a moment, in His deity then why believe that God’s moral perfection is any different? Paul is correct: this is a great mystery. My experience and reading tell me that today we use the word heresy instead of the words “shut up.” Most making the heresy claim understand very little about what is entailed by the term orthodoxy. As for me? I am revisiting this notion.

  • EricW

    Since your previous post was about Daniel Wallace, your readers might want to look at Dr. Wallace’s discussion of the subject:

    http://bible.org/article/preliminary-exegesis-hebrews-415-view-toward-solving-peccabilityimpeccability-issue

  • Joel Haas

    It is important in this question to keep in mind two things concerning Christ: 1) That Christ was in fact in two natures, and thus had two wills because will is a property of nature; AND 2) that Christ was ONE PERSON/HYPOSTASIS (the divine hypostasis of the eternal logos).

    Christ wasn’t two people (‘his human [nature?] could have sinned but the divine [nature?] would have left him right before this would have occurred’, etc). He was one person. Sin is a property of ‘persons.’ Sin is not a property of ‘nature’ (herein lies the seeds of a huge difference between Reformed and Orthodox anthropology). He could not ever be without one of his natures in his one person. Anyways, I am not an expert in Orthodox Christology, but I have learned from the Orthodox that the biggest error in Protestant thinking (especially of the Reformed variety) is that it does not understand the properties of and relations between ‘person’ and ‘nature’ in Christ our God and in the rest of us (and thus has a faulty Christology, not to mention anthropology, hamartiology, etc — at least from the Nicean/Chalcedonian perspective).

  • http://twitter.com/Scripturalist Scripturalist

    This is foolishness. God predestines everything. Christ was not able to sin because it was the will of God from eternity that He would not sin.

    Psalm 115:3 Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.
    Psalm 135:6 Whatsoever the LORD pleased, that did he in heaven, and in earth, in the seas, and all deep places.

    Everything God pleases necessarily happens. That is what it means to be omnipotent.

    Read your Bibles.

    Calvinism is Christianity. Read Ephesians 1 and Romans 8-9.

    • John Inglis

      Gee, such deep thoughts. Any relation to Jack Handy?

  • http://johngreenview.wordpress.com/ John Thomson

    I do not think this question is best addressed by philosophical theorizing about relationship between the two natures for the simple reason that there are imponderables here.

    Far better to look at what Scripture actually says and presents and submit to that. For me, Scripture points very definitely in the direction of impeccability.

    1. OT prediction. Isa 42. My servant shall not fail… This text bases its certainty in part on the sustaining strength of God himself in and through his Spirit.

    2. NT portraits of Christ. We are never given the impression that failure was a possibility. The narrative never leads us to think that moral collapse was ever a danger. Even in the temptation the narrative points to a Christ who though physically weak and at his most vulnerable was morally strong. He answers Satan immediately and unequivocally.

    3. The nature of Christ. He is unique (signalled by his virgin birth) and declared before birth (as no other was) to be ‘that holy thing’. He was not like Adam (innocent) but like God (holy). In fact, the life that he had within himself was the life of God. His ‘life’ that he gives to his own is a life that cannot sin. When believers sin, this sin does not arise from their new nature (the indwelling Christ) but from the old nature (the flesh). The new nature is ‘of God’ and cannot sin. If Christ could sin then presumably our new nature is susceptible to sin and indeed a glorified Christ and glorified saints are capable of sinning.

    4. Tempted in all points such as we ‘apart from sinning’. This text is itself open to various translations. One, such as, ‘ tempted in all things in like manner, sin apart’, immediately puts a different complexion on the thrust of the text. Temptation in ‘all points’ needs weighing too. Are we to imagine Jesus was tempted by paedophilia or incest or pornography? There are temptations to gross sin that many of us are not tempted by and are revolted at the thought of, should we imagine these appealed in some way to Jesus – the Holy One. The nature of holiness is not the absence of sin but revulsion by sin. To be holy is to ‘hate sin and love righteousness’. Holiness is revulsed by sin a reaction in our own more holy moments we share.

    No ‘capable of not sinning’ is a lot better than Barth’s insistyence that Christ had a sinful nature yet did not sin but falls short of the biblical witness to a Christ who was no more open to sin than he was to the voice of the devil or the blandishments of the world. His invincible opposition to these at whatever personal cost in terms of suffering is what makes him our champion.

    • Joel Haas

      Forgive me John, but your comment reveals EXACTLY why this *is* best addressed by *Christological* [philosophical? what!?] concerns of nature , person and will. You throw your verses out (seemingly lining up nicely with the anathematized mono-thelitists and the mono-energists contra St. Maximus the Confessor and the Church’s statements at the ecumenical councils), but you are re-inventing the wheel that the Church has already addressed. You speak of ‘natures’ in a very Reformed/evangelical way, but it would have been considered heretical in the first millennium of Christianity (and up to the present day in the Orthodox Church). Natures don’t change. What is not assumed is not healed (assumed ‘without change’ – Chalcedon). Sin is not a property of nature. Sin is a property of persons. Will is a property of nature. If Christ did not have a free will (as the mono-thelitists denied), then we are still in our sins.

      Being tempted in every way does not mean “by every potential object of temptation,” and it doesn’t mean that Jesus ‘almost sinned’ in all these areas. It means that he was susceptible to temptation as we are. If he wasn’t, then we are still in our sins.

      I’ll bow out now. Perhaps I am above my pay grade.

      • Joel Haas

        Last sentence of first paragraph should read: If Christ did not have a free *human* will (…), then we are still in our sins.

  • http://johngreenview.wordpress.com/ John Thomson

    Joel

    Thanks for feedback. Don’t you think that a number of your assertions re nature/will etc need some biblical backup otherwise they are merely philosophical opinions? E.g

    ‘Natures don’t change. What is not assumed is not healed (assumed ‘without change’ – Chalcedon). Sin is not a property of nature. Sin is a property of persons. Will is a property of nature. If Christ did not have a free will (as the mono-thelitists denied), then we are still in our sins. ‘

    Who says natures don’t change? What nature will we have in heaven/new creation? Will we be able to sin? If not, then our nature has changed. Yet we remain truly human. It is possible to be human and have different states (natures). Adam was innocent and capable of not sinning; we are fallen and incapable of sinning (the natural man is oppsed to God’s law and will not submit to it); Christ and renewed humanity in Christ is incapable of sinning. Glorification and humiliation are different states/natures of being but in both we are human. What Christ ‘assumed’ was humanity, not a particular nature (innocent or fallen).

    ‘Sin is a property of persons.’ Yes and no. Persons are responsible but they act according to their nature. A good tree brings forth good fruit and a bad tree bad fruit. Apple trees produce apples.

    ‘If Christ did not have a free will…’ Of course Christ had a free will – free to act according to the nature of his being. The question is what that nature is. In heaven I will have a free will – it will be free in the best sense, free only to obey which will be its deepest and only desire. ‘Free will’ cries out for definition. If ‘free’ means free to do what our nature desires to do then a holy nature is free only to be holy. God is free but he is free only to do what his nature permits. He is free only to be good.

    Why must orthodox views re natures be right and reformed views wrong?

    Dan F

    Christ is the new Adam but that does not mean that his nature must be the same as that of Adam. Clearly (since Christ had the knowledge of good and evil) his nature was not that of a pre-fall Adam. Since he was holy and did not sin then his nature was not that of a fallen Adam for whom not sinning was by nature impossible (fallen humans are slaves of sin). To be a new or last Adam is simply to designate that Christ is the head of a new humanity. In fact, 1 Cor 15 (where the Adam/Christ comparison is found) shows clearly that the reality is one of contrast rather than comparison. Adam, the first man, is of the earth and earthy whereas Christ, the second man, is the Lord from heaven. Distinction could scarcely be starker.

    • Joel Haas

      Lord, have mercy. I am speaking of mysteries beyond my comprehension and perhaps I should simply keep my mouth shut. I am in the process of learning about all of this (I became a catechumen in the Orthodox Church a month ago, and I come from a Calvinist background). Forgive me if I cause any offence with tone or misrepresentation; I only mean to engage in honest dialogue.

      {{Joel. Thanks for feedback. Don’t you think that a number of your assertions re nature/will etc need some biblical backup otherwise they are merely philosophical opinions? }}

      Well, this won’t really help our discussion, but I am coming to believe that Holy Scripture can only be read rightly within the context of Holy Tradition, so there are going to be some differences in hermeneutical method.

      {{ Who says natures don’t change? }}

      Scripture never says that natures change. ‘Sinful nature’ is not in the Greek.

      {{What nature will we have in heaven/new creation? Will we be able to sin? If not, then our nature has changed.}}

      You are simply asserting what you believe without any evidence. Who says that ‘if we will be able not to sin then our nature has changed.’ Why wouldn’t it be that our person has been changed (into the likeness of Christ)? The distinction between ‘natural’ man and ‘spiritual’ man is not a distinction of ‘nature’ but one of ‘source of strength’ or ‘source of life’ or something of the like. One man draws life and strength and meaning from creation; the other draws this from the Creator.

      {{Yet we remain truly human. }}

      Does Scripture say that?

      {{It is possible to be human and have different states (natures). }}

      Where does it say that? Are you using ‘nature’ as the apostles use it? Or as the Church Fathers use it? Or both? Were they speaking of the same concepts?

      {{Adam was innocent and capable of not sinning; we are fallen and incapable of sinning (the natural man is opposed to God’s law and will not submit to it); Christ and renewed humanity in Christ is incapable of sinning.}}

      Who says Christ is incapable of sinning? And if so, why? Christ had a fully human nature. Fully. Human. Chalcedon says that Christ is ‘consubstantial/homoousios with us as regards his humanity; like us in all respects except for sin. [He took His mother Mary's human nature - that is the only place from which he could have gotten it. Was her human nature the same as yours and mine? If 'except for sin' means 'except for our nature,' then he is hardly 'like us'! And if he did not take the same nature as *US* post-fall humans, then we are still in our sins, and only pre-fall Adam and any others currently operating out of that 'nature' - i.e. nobody - has been saved.]

      Chalcedon continues…[in his humanity and divinity] “one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, acknowledged in two natures which undergo no confusion, NO CHANGE, no division, no separation; at no point was the difference between the natures taken away through the union, but rather the property of both natures is preserved and comes together into a single person and a single subsistent being…” [he took our 'nature' which underwent 'no change']

      Anybody who “thinks or teaches differently” at any time is anathematized by the Fathers of the Council. This teaching was received as Truth by the whole Church – east and west. You obviously won’t consider this final and effective evidence, but I simply wanted to show that historical, universal Christian orthodoxy would anathematize you if you don’t line up with this defence of the mystery of Christ – which the greatest teachers of that era of the Church (and beyond) all affirmed as essential to defend and protect and proclaim the mystery of Christ and our salvation.

      {{Glorification and humiliation are different states/natures of being but in both we are human. }}

      Who says? Are states of being and ‘natures of being’ (?) different things? A poor, slum-living boy in Brazil and a rich, mansion-living boy in America find themselves in two different ‘states of being.’ They are both boys, but one’s ‘state’ is much different than the other’s. But they both share the same nature. Or are you using ‘state’ in a different way than I am?

      {{What Christ ‘assumed’ was humanity, not a particular nature (innocent or fallen).}}

      This seems to me a scary statement considering the aforementioned Chalcedonian definition (not just as a ‘definition’ but as something considered a faithful witness by the Church east and west – apart, obviously from the Coptic Church which, I gather, you don’t want to associate yourself with). And how does this make any sense? What is this ‘humanity’ of which you speak? If ‘humanity’ isn’t the ‘person,’ and also not the ‘nature’ then what does ‘humanity’ consist of?

      {{‘Sin is a property of persons.’ Yes and no. Persons are responsible but they act according to their nature.}}

      This sounds very ‘Edwardsian’… So did pre-fall Adam act ‘according to his nature.’ Or is this only a ‘post-fall’ state? If so, why the sudden major difference and who says? I can’t address the Edwardsian stuff adequately, but you should check out ‘http://energeticprocession.wordpress.com’ and either search ‘Edwards’ in the search bar on the right or browse through their ‘free will’ posts on the ‘subjects’ tab on the right.

      {{A good tree brings forth good fruit and a bad tree bad fruit. Apple trees produce apples.}}

      Sure. I agree.

      {{‘If Christ did not have a free will…’ Of course Christ had a free will – free to act according to the nature of his being.}}

      I though you said that Christ didn’t assume a nature? By ‘being’ do you mean what the Christian tradition has spoken of as ‘person/hypostasis’? If so, are you speaking of Christ acting ‘according to the nature of his person’? Is Christ’s person the same as his nature? Historical Christian orthodoxy demands that we understand Christ as ‘in two natures.’ So do you mean that Christ was free to act according to his divine nature, his human nature, or both? And if the second, then according to a ‘pre-fall’ nature (which only two people have ever known) or a post-fall nature (which according to your perspective is ‘sinful’) or a nature that no other human has ever known? Or are you seeking to do away with the historical categories altogether?

      {{The question is what that nature is. In heaven I will have a free will – it will be free in the best sense, free only to obey which will be its deepest and only desire. ‘Free will’ cries out for definition. If ‘free’ means free to do what our nature desires to do then a holy nature is free only to be holy.}}

      But then why do we need a ‘free’ will? Why doesn’t God do us a merciful favour by coercing us to do good only and all the time (in the eschaton)? That would be equivalent to being free, so a ‘free’ will wouldn’t actually matter. Why use the word ‘free’ when you don’t really mean what the word in English is used to mean? When an actual human slave is ‘freed’ (obviously the analogy behind its usage), does that mean that now the slave will never ever do anything that resembles submitting to somebody else because their ‘nature’ is that of a ‘free person’? Why use ‘free’? Just say what you mean? ‘A will acting according to nature whether done with or without coercion (because ultimately, it doesn’t matter, as long as will and nature are in harmony).’

      {{God is free but he is free only to do what his nature permits. He is free only to be good.}}

      So what you are actually saying (despite the tricky terminology) is that God is *bound* by his nature, and thus not ‘free’ in any recognizable English usage of the term (actually an inversion of the term). Sorry to push this so hard, but I just think it is important to use honest terminology instead of making it sound like something it is not. You can’t take an English word and make it mean something that it can’t mean, and that other words actually already mean.

      {{Why must orthodox views re natures be right and reformed views wrong?}}

      This is a supremely odd question. Orthodox views ‘must’ not be right and ‘must’ not be wrong. They either are right or they are wrong. I would suggest – if you haven’t already – giving St. Maximus the Confessor’s works a good read. He dedicated his life (and actually *gave* his life, and his physical tongue via his torturer’s knife!) to an exposition and defence of the relationship between nature, person and will in our Lord Jesus Christ, and his views, like Chalcedon, were received by the whole Church both east and west as a faithful witness to the mystery of Christ once for all delivered to the Saints.

      • http://johngreenview.wordpress.com/ John Thomson

        Joel

        Again thanks for full response. I will pick up on only two points at the moment.

        ‘Free’ in biblical terms is free only to live as God intended. And yes I do think will acts according to nature… hence bad tree bad fruit. God is not ‘free’ in some arbitrary philosophical sense to do anything. He is bound by his nature. He is the God who cannot lie or be tempted by evil.

        I did not say Christ did not have a human nature. I said he did not assume a fallen human nature. I insist that Adam’s nature prefall was different from that postfall. Humanity admits of different states (and here I mean internal nature as well as external circumstances).

        The ‘no change’ in natures mean no change in Christ. It means that Christ’s human nature was unchanged by his divine nature and vice versa. Chalcedon is not affirming that Christ’s human nature was the same as fallen human nature.

        I do say that Christ did not have Mary’s nature. He had her humanity but not her fleshly hostility to God. How this can be I do not know. Christ was holy even before birth. This is true of no-one else. We are holy only by new birth. New birth is a new life and nature within. It is life of a different kind and from a different source. We become ‘partaker’s of the divine nature’.

        I must stop for now but may return later.

        • Joel Haas

          So since God is not ‘free’ but can act only according to nature, then would it have gone against God’s nature to refrain from creating the world? Was creation *necessary* in order for God to be God? Was God free to refrain from promising us redemption at the fall of Adam and Eve, or was it *necessary* for God to do so, such that God would not be God if he did not create (or before he created) the world or redeem the world?

          John, this is a crucial point. The Lord Christ is homoousios/consubstantial with the Father in his divinity, and homoousios/consubstantial with *us* according to his humanity, which he received *without change* FROM MARY (emphasis, not shouting). The Scriptures and the Church have always vehemently held (and many of the anathematized heretics were considered such on exactly this point) that the only-begotten Son and immortal Word of God took on human flesh in the womb of the virgin. Jesus got his human nature *from Mary.* There was nowhere else from which he got it, and he didn’t take it ‘in part.’ He received Mary’s exact human nature into his divine person/hypostasis. The reason why this does not make Jesus sinful is because natures are not sinful. He received our ‘fallen’ nature (subject to hunger, thirst, death, etc), but not a ‘sinful nature’ because nobody has one of these.

          If Jesus received Adam’s pre-fall nature, then please show me from whence he would have received this? Do you believe in the immaculate conception?

          You are right that the ‘without change’ is seeking to show that Christ’s divine nature did not change his human nature, but the whole point is that Christ is consubstantial with *US* (and this document was not written before the fall of Adam).

          I appreciate the discussion, John.

  • Rogers98

    Of course Jesus didn’t sin


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