temptationHebrews 2:18 “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”

Hebrews 4:15 “For we do not have 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.”

That Jesus was tempted just as we were is intended by scripture to bring us great comfort. When we face temptation, we are assured that we have a sympathetic savior, one who himself faced temptation. The more we reflect upon this, however, we begin to see implications with which we must wrestle.

Was Jesus really tempted just as we were? Didn’t his divine nature give him a confidence in his victory over temptation that we lack? Or was Jesus capable of sinning? Certainly he didn’t sin, but was he able to sin? Was he peccable?

Lest one dismiss such a notion as only something held among liberals, none less than Charles Hodge argued that Christ was peccable. “Temptation,” Hodge argues, “implies the possibility of sin.” Though Christ did not sin, he was capable of sinning in Hodge’s view. Readers wishing to delve more into his argument can consult his volume 2 of his venerable Systematic Theology. I mention it only to show that this is not a question to be dismissed too quickly.

It is, however, a question that I believe we should answer in the negative: though truly human, and though facing real temptation, Christ was not capable of sinning. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve found two books that are fine resources defending this position.

First is Bryan Holstrom’s Thinking Rightly of Christ: What Scripture Really Says About Him – And Why it Matters. Chapter 7, entitled “He Was Tempted (Heb. 4:15),” is an excellent primer to this topic. By providing a sort of “prolegomena to temptation” (pgs. 102-105), Holstrom makes a unique contribution to this topic that allows one to read the temptation narratives with better clarity and understanding. He proceeds to walk through those narratives in light of a temptation rubric, demonstrating the kind of temptation Jesus faced – how it was like our own and what made his unique. Holstrom then discusses the matter of Christ’s impeccability (pgs. 109-112), providing a very logical and compelling presentation of this topic.

A second resource is Donald Macleod’s book, The Person of Christ, published in the Contours of Christian Theology series. Chapter 9 is entitled “The Sinlessness of Christ” which makes another compelling case for the impeccability of Christ. I wanted to post some notable quotes from this chapter:

But in one crucial respect Christ was not like us. He was not tempted by anything within himself. He was not dragged away by his own evil desire and enticed (Jas. 1:14). There was no law of sin in his members (Rom. 7:23). There was no predisposition to sin, no love of sin and no affinity with sin. The ‘prince of this world’ had no foot-hold on him (Jn. 14:30).

What, then, did the devil work on? Part of the answer is that although Jesus had no vices he did have sinless human weaknesses. He could be tempted (and clearly was) through hunger, through the fear of pain and through love for a friend. It is not a mark of fallenness to feel any of these, and yet each of them could generate strong pressure to deviate from the path prescribed for him.

Jesus also had holy affections, feelings and longings which, in the course of his work, he had to thwart. Foremost among these was the longing for communion with God. Is it any wonder that in the Garden of Gethsemane the prospect of losing this communion almost overwhelmed him? He was not being called upon to mortify a lust. He was being called upon to frustrate the holiest aspiration of which man is capable. What he wanted and what his Father directed were in conflict. Pg. 226.

Macleod proceeds to describe how Christ’s sinlessness does not undermine the existential experience he faced while being tempted:    

We must be careful not to misconstrue the effect of Jesus’ sinless integrity at this point. Far from meaning a shorter, painless struggle with temptation it involved him in protracted resistance. Precisely because he did not yield easily and was not, like us, an easy prey, the devil had to deploy all his wiles and use all his resources. The very fact that he was invincible meant that he endured the full force of temptation’s ferocity, until hell slunk away, defeated and exhausted. Against us, a little temptation suffices. Against him, Satan found himself forced to push himself to his limits. Pgs. 227-228.

From here, like Holstrom, Macleod proceeds to the question of whether Christ was able to sin. His answer is where the rubber meets the road:    

The crucial issue is whether Christ could have willed to sin? The answer rests entirely on his identity. He was the Son of God, ‘very God of very God’. If he sinned, God sinned. At this level, the impeccability of Christ is absolute. It rests not upon his unique endowment with the Spirit nor upon the indefectibility of God’s redemptive purpose, but upon fact that he is who he is. ‘When the Logos’, wrote W.G.T. Shedd, ‘goes into union with a human nature, so as to constitute a single person with it, he becomes responsible for all that this person does through the instrumentality of this nature … Should Jesus Christ sin, incarnate God would sin.’ Pgs. 229-230.

This is really the key: Christ was unable to sin because Christ was the God-man. Though he had a true human nature, one which ordinarily might have been capable of sin as was pre-fall Adam’s, this true human nature was united by virtue of the hypostatic union to a divine nature. Again, this does not call into question the “trueness” of Christ’s human nature, but it does call into question the criteria Hodge uses in defining what makes a human nature true.

But there is one final thought. Some derive great comfort from Christ’s purported “peccability” since they worry that had Christ been unable to sin, he wouldn’t have really worried about the temptation. This is sort of like knowing you are invincible while playing a video game. You can run straight into the bad guys because they simply can’t do anything to you! But Christ’s impeccability did not equal a lack of anguish or wrestling with temptation. Macleod writes:

 It does not follow, however, that when Christ was tempted he was always aware, at the human level, that the Tempter could never conquer him. We know that the devil could, on occasion, put a big if against his consciousness of sonship (Mt. 4:3). He would have found it equally easy to question his sinlessness. It would certainly be unwise to conclude that at every single point Jesus was in full possession of the whole truth about himself. Pg. 230

It is easy to misconstrue the intensity of Christ’s temptation because we neglect the truth of Christ’s limited human knowledge. There were things of which Christ, in his human nature, was simply unaware. Our Lord admitted as much (see Matt. 24:36 and Mark 13:32).

This why we can defend the absolute impeccability of Christ and still derive great comfort from the fact that Christ was tempted in every way. His impeccability means, however, that there is no question about whether he was able to withstand the temptation, even though with us this is not the case.What a powerful Lord! What a mighty King! As the hymn writer wrote: “Hallelujah, what a Savior!”

This article was written by Andrew Compton, Pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Anaheim, CA and originally appeared at The Reformed Reader. It is here re-posted with permission.