Tonight's question for the Question Box is, "Was Christ capable of sinning?" The issue is this – if Christ was not able to sin then he was not really human as we are. In this case, Jesus does not really know what it is to be in our situation, and his perfect obedience before the Father was not a real and meritorious achievement.
Let me answer the question directly, therefore. "Was Christ capable of sinning?" The answer is Yes and No. The way we answer the question is going to depend on what we mean by saying Christ was "able".
In one vital sense, Jesus was capable of sinning because he had all the equipment necessary for sin. He had a mouth and a tongue, and so he could lie. He had arms and hands, and so he could murder. To plow a bit deeper, he had a human nature, he had a heart and a mind, and so he was fully capable of envy or greed or lust. There was no physical barrier or liability in his nature that prevented Jesus from sinning. He was fully capable of committing every sin in the book.
Furthermore, the Scripture makes it plain that Jesus was genuinely tempted to sin. Hebrews 4:15 states this unequivocably: "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin." So when Jesus was tempted by the devil in the wilderness, these were real temptations. He was really hungry and so Satan's suggestion to use his power illegitimately really tempted him. So also for the other temptations, and every sort of temptation we can be exposed to. Jesus not only was tempted, but he was tempted more deeply than any of us could ever be, because long after we would have given in to temptation he did not yield but continued to feel its torment.
This may lead you to wonder if I am suggesting that Jesus had a fully human nature. That is exactly what I am asserting. Jesus was fully human. He was not a fake. In his humanity, Jesus was just like everybody else, just like you and me, with one difference: our humanity is corrupted by sin; his humanity is perfect in holiness. As a man, Jesus was fully subject to the capacity to sin, and the temptation to sin, and the torment of resisting those temptations, but he was sustained and empowered by his divine nature. Because of his divine and holy nature, Jesus did not sin although sin was a course of action fully open to him.
This leads us to the other side of the answer. In another important sense Jesus was not capable of sinning. If the question is, "What were the odds of Jesus sinning?" The answer is "Zero." How likely was Jesus to have sinned? The answer is "Not likely at all." Even if we are going to affirm that Christ was able to sin because of his fully human nature, we must add that even in this human nature, and certainly in his divine nature, Jesus had no inner disposition to sin. Jesus had no motivation to sin, and therefore he did not sin; in this sense he could not sin. If the same were true of us we also would not sin; the reason we sin, after all, is that we are motivated to sin.
There are any number of biblical statements to back this up. Paul writes in 2 Cor. 5:21, "God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us." Christ did not "know" sin; he had no familiarity with its logic and motives; he never wanted to sin or to try it out. Because of his divine nature, Jesus was perfectly holy, just as God the Father in heaven is holy. What John says of God could be perfectly applied to him: "God is light; in him there is no darkness at all" (1 Jn. 1:5). He is repeatedly referred to as "the Holy One of God" (Acts 3:14; 4:27, 30), and even the demons addressed him with this title.
Jesus Christ, though capable of sinning in his human nature, possessed a divine nature that made such a thing unquestionable. Not because he could not sin, but because he would not sin. Jesus hated sin. His desires were holy and perfect. Jesus gave no mind to sin, because his thoughts were holy and perfect. His motives and his will were perfect, and so he never would have chosen to sin. "My food," said Jesus, "is to do the will of him who sent me" (Jn. 4:34).
This analysis helps us to understand our own relationship to sin. We are capable of sin because we, too, have all the equipment. But that is not the issue. The issue is why we are motivated to sin. The answer is that our thoughts and desires, our minds and our hearts, are impure and unholy. Our thoughts are warped and foolish and darkened. Our desires are perverted and evil. This is why we sin. Therefore, to turn from sin we need new minds and hearts, a transformation that is the project of every Christian's life. Therefore Paul tells us to "put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness" (Eph. 4:22-24). As we submit our minds and hearts to God, through his Word and in prayer, even though we remain able to sin, we love the desire and the motive to sin. As Paul says in Romans 6:4, faith in Christ makes possible a whole new way of life, a life like his: "We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life."
Christ was able to sin, but possessed an overpowering holiness that enabled and even ensured a perfectly sinless life. This does not make his experience irrelevant to ours; far from it. Rather, because Christ was able to face but also conquer sin, he is perfectly suited to be our Savior. To save us he had to come into our condition with all its weakness; but into our weakness he brought spiritual power so the he could rescue us. Charles Hodge writes, "He is just the Savior we need… As God He is ever present, almighty and infinite in all His resources to save and to bless; and as man, or as also a man, He can be touched with a sense of our infirmities, was tempted as we are, was subject to the law which we violated, and endured the penalty which we had incurred."1 In his life he knew no sin, but in his death he bore our sin, so that, as Paul says in 2 Cor. 5:21, "in him we might become the righteousness of God."
1. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 2, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993. p. 396.
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