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7. The Impeccability of Christ

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[Editor’s Note: This article is the seventh in a series on the “Person and Work of Christ.”]

Orthodox theologians generally agree that Jesus Christ never committed any sin. This seems to be a natural corollary to His deity and an absolute prerequisite to His work of substitution on the cross. Any affirmation of moral failure on the part of Christ requires a doctrine of His person which would deny in some sense His absolute deity.

A question has been raised, however, by orthodox theologians whether the sinlessness of Christ was the same as that of Adam before the fall or whether it possessed a peculiar character because of the presence of the divine nature. In a word, could the Son of God be tempted as Adam was tempted and could He have sinned as Adam sinned? While most orthodox theologians agree that Christ could be tempted because of the presence of a human nature, a division occurs on the question as to whether being tempted He could sin.

Definition of Impeccability

The point of view that Christ could sin is designated by the term peccability, and the doctrine that Christ could not sin is referred to as the impeccability of Christ. Adherents of both views agree that Christ did not sin, but those who affirm peccability hold that He could have sinned, whereas those who declare the impeccability of Christ believe that He could not sin due to the presence of the divine nature.

The doctrine of impeccability has been questioned especially on the point of whether an impeccable person can be tempted in any proper sense. If Christ had a human nature which was subject to temptation, was this not in itself evidence that He could have sinned? The point of view of those who believe that Christ could have sinned is expressed by Charles Hodge who has summarized this teaching in these words: “This sinlessness of our Lord, however, does not amount to absolute impeccability. It was not a non potest peccare. If He was a true man, He must have been capable of sinning. That He did not sin under the greatest provocations; that when He was reviled He blessed; when He suffered He threatened not; that He was dumb as a sheep before its shearers, is held up to us as an example. Temptation implies the possibility of sin. If from the constitution of his person it was impossible for Christ to sin, then his temptation was unreal and without effect and He cannot sympathize with his people.”1

The problem that Hodge raises is very real, and, judging by our own experience, temptation is always associated with peccability. Hodge, however, assumes certain points in his argument which are subject to question. In order to solve the problem as to whether Christ is peccable, it is necessary, first of all, to examine the character of temptation itself to ascertain whether peccability is inevitably involved in any real temptation and, second, to determine the unique factor in Christ, i.e., that He had two natures, one a divine nature and the other a sinless human nature.

Can an Impeccable Person Be Tempted?

It is generally agreed by those who hold that Christ did not commit sin that He had no sin nature. Whatever temptation could come to Him, then, would be from without and not from within. Whatever may have been the natural impulses of a sinless nature which might have led to sin if not held in control, there was no sin nature to suggest sin from within and form a favorable basis for temptation. It must be admitted by Hodge, who denies impeccability, that in any case the temptation of Christ is different than that of sinful men.

Not only is there agreement on the fact that Christ had no sin nature, but it is also agreed on the other hand, that as to His person He was tempted. This is plainly stated in Hebrews: “For we have not a high priest that cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but one that hath been in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (4:15 ).

It is also clear that this temptation came to Christ in virtue of the fact that He possessed a human nature, as James states: “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God; for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempteth no man” (1:13 ). On the one hand, Christ was tempted in all points except through that of a sin nature, and on the other hand His divine nature could not be tempted because God cannot be tempted. While His human nature is temptable, His divine nature is not temptable. On these points all can agree. The question is, then, can such a person as Christ is, possessing both human and divine natures, be tempted if He is impeccable?

The answer must be in the affirmative. The question is simply, is it possible to attempt the impossible? To this all would agree. It is possible for a rowboat to attack a battleship, even though it is conceivably impossible for the rowboat to conquer the battleship. The idea that temptability implies susceptibility is unsound. While the temptation may be real, there may be infinite power to resist that temptation and if this power is infinite, the person is impeccable. It will be observed that the same temptation which would be easily resisted by one of sound character may be embraced by one of weak character. The temptation of a drunken debauch would have little chance of causing one to fall who had developed an abhorrence of drink, while a habitual drunkard would be easily led astray. The temptation might be the same in both cases, but the ones tempted would have contrasting powers of resistance. It is thus demonstrated that there is no essential relation between temptability and peccability. Hodge’s viewpoint that temptation must be unreal if the person tempted is impeccable is, therefore, not accurate.

As Shedd points out, temptability depends upon a constitutional susceptibility to sin, whereas impeccability depends upon omnipotent will not to sin. Shedd writes: “It is objected to the doctrine of Christ’s impeccability that it is inconsistent with his temptability. A person who cannot sin, it is said, cannot be tempted to sin. This is not correct; any more than it would be correct to say that because an army cannot be conquered, it cannot be attacked. Temptability depends upon the constitutional susceptibility, while impeccability depends upon the will. So far as his natural susceptibility, both physical and mental, was concerned, Jesus Christ was open to all forms of human temptation excepting those that spring out of lust, or corruption of nature. But his peccability, or the possibility of being overcome by those temptations, would depend upon the amount of voluntary resistance which he was able to bring to bear against them. Those temptations were very strong, but if the self-determination of his holy will was stronger than they, then they could not induce him to sin, and he would be impeccable. And yet plainly he would be temptable.”2

The question of whether an impeccable person can be tempted is illustrated by the example of the elect angels. This is brought out by Shedd in his continued discussion on the matter of impeccability: “That an impeccable being can be tempted, is proved by the instance of the elect angels. Having ‘kept their first estate,’ they are now impeccable, not by their own inherent power, but by the power of God bestowed upon them. But they might be tempted still, though we have reason to believe that they are not. Temptability is one of the necessary limitations of the finite spirit. No creature is beyond the possibility of temptation, though he may, by grace, be beyond the possibility of yielding to temptation. The only being who cannot be tempted is God: ὁ γὰρ θεὸς ἀπείραστος, James 1:13. And this, from the nature of an Infinite Being. Ambition of some sort is the motive at the bottom of all temptation. When the creature is tempted, it is suggested to him to endeavor to ‘be as gods.’ He is incited to strive for a higher place in the grade of being than he now occupies. But this, of course, cannot apply to the Supreme Being. He is already God over all and blessed forever. He, therefore, is absolutely intemptable.”3

Were the Temptations of Christ Real?

If the temptation of an impeccable person be considered possible, can it be said of Christ that His temptations were real? If there were no corresponding nature within to respond to sin, is it true that the temptation is real?

This question must also be answered in the affirmative. In the case of the human race, the reality of temptation can be easily proved by the frequency of sin. While this is not true in the case of Christ, it is nevertheless evident that Christ’s temptations were real. While Christ never experienced the inner struggle of two natures deadlocked as in Paul’s case in Romans 7, there is abundant evidence of the reality of temptation. The forty days in the wilderness at the close of which He was tempted marks a trial to which, no other human frame has ever been subjected. The temptation to turn stones into bread was all the more real because Christ had the power to do it. The temptation to make a public display of God’s preservation of Christ by casting Himself from the temple was also most real. No other has ever been offered all the glory of the world by Satan, but Christ was so tempted, and did not sin. While, on the one hand, it is true that Christ did not experience the temptations arising in a sin nature, on the other hand, He was tried as no other was ever tried. Added to the nature of the temptation itself was the greater sensitivity of Christ. His body being without sin was far more sensitive to hunger and abuse than that of other men. Yet, in full experience of these longings, Christ was completely in control of Himself.

The final test of the reality of His temptations is found in the revelation of His struggle in Gethsemane and His death on the cross. No other could know the temptation of a holy person to avoid becoming the judgment for the sin of the world. This was Christ’s greatest temptation, as evidenced in the character of His struggle and submission. On the cross the same temptation is evident in the taunt of His enemies to come down from the cross. Christ willingly continued in suffering and of His own will dismissed His spirit when the proper time came. No greater realm of temptation could be imagined. While Christ’s temptations, therefore, are not always exactly parallel to our own, He was tried in every part of His being even as we are tried, and we can come to Him as our High Priest with the assurance that He fully understands the power of temptation and sin, having met it in His life and death (Heb 4:15). The temptations of Christ, therefore, possess a stark reality without for a moment detracting from His impeccability. A proper doctrine of the impeccability of Christ therefore affirms the reality of the temptations of Christ due to the fact that He had a human nature which was temptable. If the human nature had been unsustained as in the case of Adam by a divine nature, it is clear that the human nature of Christ might have sinned. This possibility, however, is completely removed by the presence of the divine nature.

The Proof of the Impeccability of Christ

The ultimate solution of the problem of the impeccability of Christ rests in the relationship of the divine and human natures. It is generally agreed that each of the natures, the divine and the human, had its own will in the sense of desire. The ultimate decision of the person, however, in the sense of sovereign will was always in harmony with the decision of the divine nature. The relation of this to the problem of impeccability is obvious. The human nature, because it is temptable, might desire to do that which is contrary to the will of God. In the person of Christ, however, the human will was always subservient to the divine will and could never act independently. Inasmuch as all agree that the divine will of God could not sin, this quality then becomes the quality of the person and Christ becomes impeccable.

Shedd has defined this point of view in these words: “Again, the impeccability of Christ is proved by the relation of the two wills in his person to each other. Each nature, in order to be complete, entire, and wanting nothing, has its own will; but the finite will never antagonizes the infinite will, but obeys it invariably and perfectly. If this should for an instant cease to be the case, there would be a conflict in the self-consciousness of Jesus Christ similar to that in the self-consciousness of his apostle Paul. He too would say, ‘The good that I would, I do not; but the evil which I would not, that I do. It is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me?’ Rom 7:19, 20, 24. But there is no such utterance as this from the lips of the God-man: On the contrary, there is the calm inquiry of Christ: ‘Which of you convinceth me of sin?’ John 8:46; and the confident affirmation of St. John: ‘In him was no sin.’ 1 John 3:5. There is an utter absence of personal confession of sin, in any form whatever, either in the conversation or the prayers of Jesus Christ. There is no sense of indwelling sin. He could not describe his religious experience as his apostle does, and his people do: ‘The flesh lusteth against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh,’ Gal 5:17.”4

The question of the impeccability of Christ therefore resolves itself into a question as to whether the attributes of God can be harmonized with a doctrine of peccability. The concept of peccability in the person of Christ is contradicted principally by the attributes of immutability, omnipotence, and omniscience.

The fact of the immutability of Christ is the first determining factor of His impeccability. According to Hebrews 13:8, Christ is “the same yesterday, today, yea and for ever,” and earlier in the same epistle Psalm 102:27 is quoted “Thou art the same, and thy years shall not fail” (Heb 1:12). As Christ was holy in eternity past, it is essential that this attribute as well as all others be preserved unchanged eternally. Christ must be impeccable, therefore, because He is immutable. If it is unthinkable that God could sin in eternity past, it must also be true that it is impossible for God to sin in the person of Christ incarnate. The nature of His person forbids susceptibility to sin.

The omnipotence of Christ makes it impossible for Him to sin. Peccability always implies weakness on the part of the one tempted. He is weak to the extent that He can sin. On the part of Christ, this is clearly out of the question. While the human nature of Christ if left to itself would have been both peccable and temptable, because it was joined to the omnipotent divine nature the person of Christ was thereby made impeccable. A careful distinction should be made between omnipotence, which has a quality of infinity and therefore would sustain impeccability, and the concept of sufficient power or grace. Impeccability is defined as being not able to sin, whereas a concept of sufficient power would be merely able not to sin. A moral creature of God sustained by the grace of God can achieve the moral experience of being able not to sin as is illustrated in every victory over temptation in the Christian life. All agree that Christ was able not to sin, even those who affirm His peccability. The contrast, however, is between the idea of sufficient power and omnipotence. The infinite quality of omnipotence justifies the affirmation that Christ is impeccable.

It is foolish speculation to attempt to decide what the human nature of Christ would have done if not joined to the divine nature. The fact remains that the human nature was joined to the divine nature, and while its own realm was entirely human, it could not involve the person of Christ in sin. On the ground of omnipotence, then, it may be concluded that Christ could not sin because He had infinite power to resist temptation.

The omniscience of Christ contributed a vital part of His impeccability. Sin frequently appeals to the ignorance of the one tempted. Thus Eve was deceived and sinned, though Adam was not deceived as to the nature of the transgression. In the case of Christ, the effects of sin were perfectly known, with all the contributing factors. It was impossible for Christ having omniscience to commit that which He knew could only bring eternal woe to Himself and to the race. Having at once infinite wisdom to see sin in its true light and at the same time infinite power to resist temptation, it is evident that Christ was impeccable.

It is rationally inconceivable that Christ could sin. It is clear that Christ is not peccable in heaven now even though He possesses a true humanity. If Christ is impeccable in heaven because of who He is, then it is also true that Christ was impeccable on earth because of who He was. While it was possible for Christ in the flesh to suffer limitations of an unmoral sort—such as weakness, suffering, fatigue, sorrow, hunger, anger, and even death—none of these created any complication which affected His immutable holiness. God could have experienced through the human nature of Christ these things common to the race, but God could not sin even when joined to a human nature. If sin were possible in the life of Christ, the whole plan of the universe hinged on the outcome of His temptations. The doctrine of the sovereignty of God would forbid any such haphazard condition. It is therefore not sufficient to hold that Christ did not sin, but rather to attribute to His person all due adoration in that He could not sin. While the person of Christ could therefore be tempted, there was no possibility of sin entering the life of Him appointed from eternity to be the spotless Lamb of God.

This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library CD and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.

1 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, II, 457.

2 William G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, II, 396.

3 Ibid., II, 336-37.

4 Ibid., II, 335-36.