Several years ago, I was teaching a Sunday school class about the nature of Jesus. I made the comment that of course, Jesus could not sin. I was stopped immediately. “What do you mean Jesus couldn’t sin? If He couldn’t sin, then His temptation wasn’t real!” I admit, I was a little surprised at the reaction. At the time, I sort of took it for granted that Jesus couldn’t sin. After the class, I did some research and found that there was quite a division over this issue. Even one of my favorite theologians said he thought Jesus could sin, but that of course He wouldn’t have sinned; in other words, He had the ability to sin.
Although that was quite a few years ago, the issue has always bugged me. While some might see this as about as important as knowing how many angels fit on the head of a pin, I actually think studying this issue that can help us as believers have a better understanding of God. It’s something about which we should be in agreement as Christians, but more importantly, it reveals something about the character and nature of God. Thankfully, Scripture gives us the answer.
There are several reasons why I believe Jesus could not sin. First, and perhaps most importantly, Jesus is God. Yes, He became a man, but He was not a man in the sense that we are now, nor even in the sense that Adam was. Adam was a creature, albeit initially without sin, but because of Adam’s sin, we are all born sinners (Romans 5). Jesus, however, had God as His Father. It is from our father by which we get our nature. Adam being our father, we were born like him as sinners, but God being Jesus’s Father, Jesus was born without sin.
Unlike Adam, a creature, Jesus was God, as well as a man (begotten, not made). By definition, God cannot sin. Indeed, everything God does is right. Psalm 145:17 says, “The Lord is righteous in all His ways And kind in all His deeds.” Deuteronomy 32:4 says, “The Rock! His work is perfect, For all His ways are just; A God of faithfulness and without injustice, Righteous and upright is He.” Therefore, if Jesus is God, and He is, then He cannot sin.
Second, from before the foundation of the world, it was God’s purpose for Jesus to die on the cross for our sins. Ephesians 1 says, “3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, 4 just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love 5 He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, 6 to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” Furthermore, Acts 2 says, “22 Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know— 23 this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death. 24 But God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power.”
The cross was always God’s plan. We were chosen from before the foundation of the world, and it was God who predetermined that Jesus would die on the cross. We know that whatever God decrees comes about. Isaiah 55:11 says, “So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty, Without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.” If Jesus could have sinned, then it was possible, theoretically, for God’s purposes to be thwarted. Since that is not possible, then Jesus could not have sinned.
Third, God made a covenant in blood with Abraham. Genesis 15 says:
“2 Abram said, “O Lord God, what will You give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “Since You have given no offspring to me, one born in my house is my heir.” 4 Then behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “This man will not be your heir; but one who will come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir.” 5 And He took him outside and said, “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6 Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness. 7 And He said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess it.” 8 He said, “O Lord God, how may I know that I will possess it?” 9 So He said to him, “Bring Me a three year old heifer, and a three year old female goat, and a three year old ram, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10 Then he brought all these to Him and cut them in two, and laid each half opposite the other; but he did not cut the birds. 11 The birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, and Abram drove them away. 12 Now when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and behold, terror and great darkness fell upon him. 13 God said to Abram, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. 14 But I will also judge the nation whom they will serve, and afterward they will come out with many possessions. 15 As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you will be buried at a good old age. 16 Then in the fourth generation they will return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.” 17 It came about when the sun had set, that it was very dark, and behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a flaming torch which passed between these pieces. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I have given this land, From the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates: 19 the Kenite and the Kenizzite and the Kadmonite 20 and the Hittite and the Perizzite and the Rephaim 21 and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Girgashite and the Jebusite.”
When God passed through the pieces of the animals, He was making a covenant that essentially said that if He did not keep it, may what happened to the animals happen to Him. Unlike man, when God makes a covenant, He always keeps it. The Abrahamic covenant was fulfilled in the new covenant, which, as we saw above, was something God planned before the foundation of the earth. If Jesus could sin, this covenant could not be fulfilled. Therefore, Jesus could not sin.
Back to my Sunday school class, the protest was, “if Jesus could not sin, then His temptations were a farce!” You can sort of see the logic here, right? What good are temptations if you can’t sin?
First of all, the temptations were real. In particular, Jesus’ temptations by the devil were so extreme, no human could withstand them. Consider that Adam, surrounded in the best possible environment, could not keep the one commandment God gave him. Although he had the ability to not sin, under the best circumstances his flesh gave in to the temptation to be like God.
On the other hand, Jesus’ flesh surely felt the impact of such severe temptations. As a human, even Jesus would be extremely weak from not eating for 40 days. But because He is God, Jesus can overcome all temptations. So, unlike us, whose spirit is willing but the flesh is weak (Mark 14:38), Jesus’ Spirit is in complete control of His flesh. He exhibits perfect obedience, as He truly loves God with all His heart, soul, mind and strength. His perfect righteousness is demonstrated, in part, by His ability to overcome the most extreme temptations.
More importantly, this issue highlights something that is difficult for us to fully comprehend. In this life, we may never realize just how holy God is and just how sinful we are. Indeed, God informs us that “8 For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord. 9 “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55)
We only see glimpses of God’s holiness in Scripture. In Isaiah 6, we read:
“1 In the year of King Uzziah’s death I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple. 2 Seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called out to another and said,
“Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts,
The whole earth is full of His glory.”
4 And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke. 5 Then I said,
“Woe is me, for I am ruined!
Because I am a man of unclean lips,
And I live among a people of unclean lips;
For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.”
Faced with the reality of the holiness of God, all Isaiah can do is say he is ruined because of his sin. The word ruined means to perish, to be destroyed, to be undone. How often do we have this fear of God in light of our own sin?
Peter also demonstrates this fear. After Jesus provides a miraculous catch of fish in Luke 5, Peter reacts: “8 But when Simon Peter saw that, he fell down at Jesus’ feet, saying, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” 9 For amazement had seized him and all his companions because of the catch of fish which they had taken; 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon.”
While these glimpses of God’s holiness are helpful, I can’t help but think how far short we must come in really knowing how great is the divide between God’s holiness and our sinfulness. We will only fully know how holy He is when we are in heaven (1 Corinthians 13:12).
The testimony of Scripture is that Jesus did not sin (e.g., Hebrews 4:15, 9:14; 1 Peter 1:19, 2:22; 2 Corinthians 5:21, 1 John 3:5). As shown above, Scripture also testifies that Jesus could not sin. That’s good news for us, because by faith in Christ, His righteousness is credited to us, and that is the only way we can be righteous. “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)