Head of Christ, by Rembrandt (1606-1669) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]
A Baptist friend of mine stated:
Jesus Himself was not unable to sin. I realize that God the Father is unable to sin; however, Jesus, though He was in nature God, was able to sin. This is evident in this verse “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” (Heb. 4:15, NRSV; cf. 2:18). If Jesus could be tempted, He could sin if He so chose. Satan clearly knew that Jesus could sin, as we see in the verses about Jesus’ temptation in the desert (Matthew 4:1-10). If Jesus could not sin, then there was no temptation in the first place, and He was not “tested as we are.”
God the Son also could not sin (what is called impeccability), simply by virtue of the fact that His Godhood or Divine Nature didn’t cease; He merely took on an additional Human Nature (theologians call that the Hypostatic Union). What you are asserting is the ancient heresy known as Nestorianism.
God the Father cannot sin or do evil. Things are not evil just because He says they are, but in and of themselves. Love is not love because God says so, but because it exists eternally, grounded in God’s character. God is Love. That is the key to ethics and the prevention against relativism and situation ethics. When God destroys nations, that isn’t murder, because God is Creator and Judge, and has the prerogative to give life or take it away. They are judged because of the evil they have done, and so there is no injustice. And if God commands the Israelites to destroy a nation, then they are aso acting rightly, since they have received divine guidance. Most wars, on the other hand, are not conducted justly and ethically.
The “rules” do indeed apply to God also, just as He is “bound” by the laws of logic. Otherwise we take away His goodness and end up with a “god” which is not the all-loving, all-good, all-wise God of the Bible. That is a radical existentialism or some other man-made religion and not Christianity. God neither determines the moral law, nor is He “under” it, rather, He is it; He embodies it: God is Love. Therefore, God cannot sin, because His essence is holiness and love. He cannot will or do something sinful because that contradicts His essence as a perfectly holy Being.
Moreover, God can’t break the law of non-contradiction because that is simply the way things are. If they weren’t, we would have a chaotic universe. Even an omnipotent God can’t make Himself not exist, or go back and prevent Himself from being eternal, because He is pure Existence. And Jesus (who is God) is also the Logos, or Word, and this is the very Greek word from which we get the word “logic.” So logic, like love is grounded in God – not above Him. God Himself is “bound to logic” in the sense that He can’t act contradictorily, or contrary to the laws of logic, but not in the sense that He is inferior to logic, since it is grounded in Him.
The laws of logic govern the relationships of propositions, theories, and facts. They have nothing to do with the content per se. The most airtight logic in the world will not make a false premise lead to a true conclusion. God understands and sees everything. Since we are neither out of time, nor omniscient, nor omnipresent, obviously we cannot know everything God knows. This is a limitation of knowledge, not logic. God can contradict neither Himself nor the laws of logic, nor the moral law of love. That is simply the divine reality. This does not equate with being “limited”. His glory is pure Love and Intelligence and Wisdom. God’s immutability is part of His essence. It cannot be otherwise with Him.
God is eternal; therefore, morality must have always existed, and is grounded in His Being and Essence. God is Love. That is the basis for love and Moral Law. If someone wants to claim that God created morality, then does that mean He was amoral before the time He created morality? That hardly makes any sense, since God doesn’t change (immutability). Likewise with the laws of logic. God was always a logical Being, since He is – and has always been – omniscient. God could never at any time have made a circle square, or 2+2=5, or make something exist and not exist at the same time, or make Himself not exist, and then create Himself out of nothing. The law of non-contradiction is eternal, and is simply Reality. That doesn’t make it greater than God; it is just the way things are, period.
The Incarnation does not entail the ability to sin. The mere fact of temptation does not presuppose the possibility of giving in to the temptation. The devil was just too stupid to know that his attempt to subvert Jesus was doomed from the start (just as he thought the crucifixion was his great victory, when in fact it was his utter defeat) .
God the Father can be tempted as well in this sense, since Jesus responded to the devil during His own temptation: It is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” (Mt 4:7; NRSV; or, Do not tempt the Lord your God). Since men and demons are warned not to do this, it must be possible to do it. Thus, if God the Father can be tempted while being unable to sin, so can Jesus, who is also God. We find God the Father being tempted or “tested” (or else spoken of as possibly being tempted) in passages such as Ex 17:2, 7, Num 14:22, Deut 6:16, Ps 78:18,41,56, 95:9, 106:14, Is 7:12, Mal 3:15, Acts 15:10, Heb 3:9. And the Holy Spirit, who is the third Person of the Holy Trinity, is tempted in Acts 5:9.
Obviously, then, God being sinless and being God does not mean, ipso facto, that creatures cannot try to tempt Him. Jesus was clearly tempted in the Garden of Gethsemane, yet without sin, as always. His inability to sin makes His death on the Cross on our behalf no less willful or utterly profound, does it? He still had to endure it, and freely chose to do so, for our sake.
Men (or demons) test/tempt God by defiantly challenging Him to prove Himself to be what He claims, and by questioning His goodness and justice. The devil offered Jesus what he offers other men (often — sadly — successfully), not knowing that Jesus had no need of such things. In other words, men and the devil can try to tempt God, as the above biblical evidences make clear, but they will not be successful, for God cannot be tempted by evil (Jas 1:13). Since Jesus is fully God, He, too, not only did not sin, but cannot sin, by nature.
Jesus had a free will. But we need not presuppose the necessity and real potentiality of contrary choice in our definition of free will. Jesus’ free will means that He possessed voluntary, uncoerced freedom of thought and action. Thus, God the Father and Jesus can possess free will even though it is not possible for them to sin. Any view contrary to this reduces God to a determined, mechanical, robotic, “deistic” being, no longer the biblical God. It is not true to say that God must have created the world, or us. He did it because He wanted to, and because He took pleasure in it, and sought to thereby express His love towards the creation which He freely chose to create. Nor will we be programmed robots in heaven, but rather, we will freely choose to love, worship, and serve God for eternity, just as angels and the saints in heaven now do.
Free will can be defined in two ways:
1) Necessity of contrary choice (i.e., evil),
2) Voluntary, uncoerced action.
One can freely and willingly always choose to do good. That’s what God the Father and God the Son do, and also the angels. Since they had this choice, they are not robots. Neither is Jesus, who always chose good, but also could not choose evil. Why? Well, it’s simple: creatures can rebel against their Creator, but how can the Creator rebel against Himself? The fact of the Incarnation changes absolutely nothing in that equation. The Hypostatic Union means that Jesus had two natures: fully God and fully Man.
Perhaps an analogy might be helpful here. If I were on an island with only one other person, who happened to be a beautiful woman, I could choose to “marry” her. There is no other choice if I am to be married. There is no “contrary choice,” for not marrying her is not so much a “contrary choice” as it is nothing at all: the lack of a choice rather than a choice. Yet if I chose to marry her, it would be the act of a free agent, not forced or coerced at all. Nor is either scenario good or evil. I didn’t have to have an “evil possibility” (say, marry a hog) in order to be free to marry her if I so chose. This isn’t a perfect analogy, but I think it is good enough. Likewise, God (and Jesus) always freely choose good, and they can no more choose evil than we can breathe underwater. The essence of God is to be holy, and He cannot violate His own essence.
It is not the essence of a human being to sin, or to be able to sin. Rather, our essence comes from being made in the image of God, in Whom there is no sin, nor can there be. The less we sin, the more human we are (we tend to think of “humanness” as fallibility and tragically flawed weakness, but that is not really true from God’s perspective). But getting back to the main topic: “could Jesus have possibly sinned?”:The temptation to sin and the appetite for it which leads to a strengthening of the desire, is a result of the fall of man. Catholics call this tendency to gravitate toward sin, concupiscence. Since Jesus is God and didn’t fall, He cannot sin, and He cannot possess the concupiscence that men are burdened by. Jesus also couldn’t doubt the way men do. He had perfect knowledge because He was God as well as man. Freedom from doubt flows out of freedom from ignorance. Therefore, Jesus couldn’t doubt and “mull over” the lies of Satan, or be tempted by them in some sense of internal, existential agony — as if He were actually influenced by Satanic lies.
Even in His human nature, Jesus possessed the Beatific Vision which all who go to heaven will one day possess. He could be tempted only insofar as the devil or persons can try to do that, but He never did and indeed never could succumb to the temptation in the least. He obviously suffered physical pain and emotional agony, as in His sorrow over Jerusalem, and on the cross and in the Garden of Gethsemane, but not the anguish of soul leading to doubt and sin. Many passages in the Bible prove that Jesus was without sin, which would include never giving into temptation (note especially Hebrews 4:15; verses now in RSV):
John 8:46: Which of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me?
Hebrews 4:15: For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.
Hebrews 7:26-28: For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, unstained, separated from sinners, exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people; he did this once for all when he offered up himself. Indeed, the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect for ever.
Hebrews 9:14: how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God.
1 Peter 1:19: but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.
1 Peter 2:22: He committed no sin; no guile was found on his lips.
1 John 3:5: You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin.
The Catholic Encyclopedia (1911: “Temptation of Christ”):
Like Adam, Christ (the second Adam) endured temptation only from without, inasmuch as His human nature was free from all concupiscence; but unlike Adam, He withstood the assaults of the Tempter on all points, thereby affording His mystical members a perfect model of resistance to their spiritual enemy, and a permanent source of victorious help (Hebrews 4:15-16).
Fernand Prat, S. J.:
Jesus is neither a sinner nor sin, personally, but as a member of a sinful family, with which he identifies himself. It is in the same sense that he is made a “curse,” like the branch of an accursed tree. Similarly, on account of our union with him who is justice itself, we participate in his “justice.” Jesus, being by his nature impeccable, cannot be made a sinner by his contact with sinners, while our moral union with the Just One par excellence renders us really just ourselves. And this justice, because it comes from grace and not from us, is rightly called the “justice of God.”
(The Theology of St. Paul, Westminster, Maryland: Newman Bookshop, 1952, Vol. II, 205)
Ludwig Ott (Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, translated by Patrick Lynch, edited in English by James Canon Bastible, Rockford, Illinois: TAN Books and Publishers, Inc., fourth edition, 1960, p. 169) says that Christ “could not sin” and based that on the Hypostatic Union: “His human actions are actions of a Divine Person.” He adds: “From the Hypostatic Union there arises a physical impossibility of sinning and from the Beatific Vision a moral impossibility . . .” Ott classifies this as a sententia fidei proxima doctrine (regarded generally by theologians as a truth of revelation). He adds (emphasis mine):
The Fifth General Council of Constantinople (553) condemned the teaching of Theodor of Mopsuestia, which asserted that Christ only became conpletely impeccable after the resurrection (Denzinger 224). It follows from this that He was already impeccable.
Likewise, Fr. John A. Hardon, S. J., in his Modern Catholic Dictionary (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1980, “Impeccability of Christ,” 269), states that this means the “absolute impossibility of Christ committing any sin.”
The bishops have rendered their authoritative opinion as well:
A. Examples of Inaccurate or Misleading Statements
1) The Impeccability of Jesus Christ
Catholicism insists that it is possible to hold the faith of the church while maintaining that Jesus Christ could have sinned. “It is not that Jesus Christ was absolutely incapable of sin, but rather that he was able not to sin and, in fact, did not sin” ( p. 547). The book argues that “both views – the one favoring impeccability and the one that does not – are within the range of Catholic orthodoxy” (p. 547). This position, however, cannot be reconciled with the Christology of the councils.
[Footnote 2: In the anathemas against the Three Chapters, the Second Council of Constantinople (553) condemned the opinion attributed to Theodore of Mopsuestia that Jesus attained impeccability only with the resurrection (Denzinger-Schonmetzer, Enchiridion Symbolorum 434).]
In two natures, Jesus Christ is only one hypostasis (or person), the hypostasis of the Word. With Christ there is no possible subject of the verb to sin. There are indeed two wills in Christ, but only one person, one subject. The contention that Jesus could have sinned, if followed to its logical conclusion, inevitably implies a Nestorian or an adoptionist Christology, though it must be said that Catholicism does not draw such extreme conclusions.
Fr. William Most, Comments on Richard McBrien, Catholicism, 3rd Edition:
The sinlessness of Jesus
He admits that Jesus did not sin, yet He was capable of sinning (p. 547). He as not immune to sexual desires (pp. 562-63).
McBrien grants that the Church does teach, as does the NT, that Jesus was without sin. But he has trouble about the impeccability, inability to sin, of Jesus. He quotes the Third Council of Constantinople (381) saying that His human will is “compliant, it does not resist or oppose, but rather submits to the divine and almighty will.” We grant this does not explicitly state impeccability. McBrien continues saying it seems better to conclude that it is the “clear and constant belief and teaching of the Church that Jesus Christ was perfect in his humanity.” He seems then to think of the Council of Chalcedon which he cited earlier saying He was “like us in every respect apart from sin,” and the similar statement of Hebrews.
So McBrien says the NT does not go in for theological speculation. And the official texts do not formally teach impeccability. This is true.
Nor are there many patristic texts on impeccability, not enough to satisfy the requirement of being practically unanimous. St. Cyril of Alexandria wrote (R 2141): “they are stupid, who affirm, I do not know how, that even Christ could have sinned.” St. John Damascene is more helpful (R 2386): “Because there is one person of Christ, and in Christ, there is one who wills through each nature: as God, in approving, and as man, being made obedient.” (Cf. also St. Athanasius in R 798).
But we can sharpen this up a bit: We do not say it is nature that sins, but a person sins. But in Christ there was only one Person, even though two natures. If He had sinned, the sin would have been attributed to the one Person, a Divine Person. Which of course is impossible.
Finally we mention Canon 12 of the second General Council of Constantinople, in 553 (DS 434) which spoke of Theodore of Mopsuestia as “impious” because he spoke of Christ as “suffering from passions of soul and desires of the flesh, and gradually going away from the worse things, and so becoming better by advancing in works . . . merited divine sonship . . .”
See also the related papers (Protestant):
Could Christ have Sinned?: peccability or impeccability, Mike Oppenheimer
The Impeccability of Christ, John W. McCormick
The Impeccability of Christ, John F. Walvoord