In our last paper, we answered the question, ‘Did Jesus cast aside His Deity in the Incarnation?’, if you didn’t read it, you can do so here.
Following on from that (without giving away the answer to that question!), there are implications for His character and His time walking among us on earth. Here then, we will answer the question of sin; could He?
Peccability vs Impeccability: Could Jesus Have Sinned?
Before we delve into the finer points of this long running debate and discussion, peccability vs impeccability, it is important to first define the terms we are working with.
First, peccability from the adjective peccable. This can be defined as meaning ‘liable to sin or error’. Interestingly, and to add a greater depth to this definition, the same resource further specifies that when being defined in the U.K., peccable can have the aforementioned meaning, plus ‘susceptible to temptation’.
These two definitions can actually mean something relatively different. Liable to sin, in my own mind at least, is something that is possible and likely to happen, whereas, being susceptible to something gives nothing away in terms of the likelihood of it occurring.
Second, impeccability. The same resource defines this as ‘faultless, flawless, irreproachable, not liable to sin…’. Again to add depth, the U.K. section of the dictionary site adds ‘incapable of sinning’. Again, the difference between not being liable to sin and being incapable of sinning is slight in wording, but great in meaning.
What does the Word say?
Now we turn to the inerrant, inspired, ineffable and infallible Word of God. Quite possibly the stand out verse for many when thinking of the moral character of our Lord and Savior will be 1 Peter 2.22, which reads,
‘He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth.’
Here Peter is very clear; Jesus Christ committed no sin at all, and was never deceitful in word or deed.
Isaiah 53.9 also confirms this, speaking of our Lord and Savior as follows,
‘And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.’.
Writing on this verse, David Guzik states,
‘The line because He had done no violence, nor was any deceit in His mouth is important. It shows that even in His death, even in His taking the transgressions of God’s people, the Messiah never sinned. He remained the Holy One, despite all the pain and suffering.’.
Numerous other verses abound when talking about the fact that Jesus Christ, sinless and spotless lamb of God, did not sin;
‘For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’ (2 Corinthians 5.21).
‘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.’ (Hebrews 4.15).
‘For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens.’ (Hebrews 7.26).
‘You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin.’ (1 John 3.5).
So, could Jesus have sinned?
However, given that the question is not ‘Did Jesus Christ actually commit sin?’ – which we have conclusively answered in the negative above – we now turn to the hypothetical question, ‘Could Jesus have sinned?’.
The two sides of this debate form the backbone of this paper; did Jesus have the ability not to sin, or was He actually incapable of sinning?
Ryrie summarises this point well when he writes,
‘…there are two views of impeccability. One says that He was able not to sin while the other states that He was not able to sin. In either case, He did not sin…’.
Again, encouraging to read of the Biblically orthodox view here that despite the debate on the possibility and potentiality of Christ to sin, Ryrie holds to the statement that He did not actually commit sin.
The somewhat hypothetical question posed by many, and the question debated for many hundreds of years is as follows,
‘”Could Jesus have sinned? If He was not capable of sinning, how could He truly be able to ‘sympathize with our weaknesses’ (Hebrews 4.15)? If He could not sin, what was the point of the temptation?”’.
To fairly present both sides of the argument, those who hold to peccability, those who say it was possible for Christ to have sinned but that He held the ability not to sin, would proffer something as follows,
‘If Jesus was tempted, how can those temptations be real if there was no possibility of Him sinning?’.
Charles Hodge states,
‘“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.”’
To once again cite the writings of Ryrie in rebuttal of this view, he states,
‘[Hebrews 4.15] does not say that Christ was tempted with a view to succumbing to sin. He was tested with a view to proving He was sinless. It does not say that He was tested in every particular test that man can be put to. It does say that His tests were in all the areas in which a man can be tested…’.
The verse at the center of this is Hebrews 4.15 which reads,
‘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.’.
Ryrie once again provides clear and concise commentary on the subject. He writes,
‘The phrase [as we are]…means that He could be tested because He took the likeness of sinful flesh.
[Yet without sin] means that, having no sin nature, He could not have been tested from that avenue, as we can [be] and usually are.
His temptations were really not to see if He could sin, but to prove that He could not.
Nevertheless, they were real, for the reality of a test does not lie either in the moral nature of the one tested or in the ability to yield to it. And, of course, His ability to sympathize with us does not demand a one-to-one correspondence in the particulars of the tests.’.
Sympathizing means sinning?
Much debate on this point seems to stem from the word translated as ‘sympathize’ here from the Greek ‘sympatheō’. Interestingly, this word can have among its definitions, ‘…to feel for, have compassion on.’.
To follow logically then, it is not necessary for Jesus to have sinned for Him to be described as our ‘…high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses…’ as in His great Omniscience His sympathy comes from knowing how we feel rather than empathizing with how we feel through personal experience.
To continue through this verse to help ascertain a firm position on either side of the peccability debate, we can look at the word translated ‘tempted’ in the phrase, ‘…one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.’.
Here the original Greek word is ‘peirazō’, and can mean
‘To try, make trial of, test: for the purpose of ascertaining his quality, or what he thinks, or how he will behave himself…in a good sense.’.
This adds weight to the position of Ryrie and other orthodox scholars who hold to impeccability.
The testing and temptation of Jesus was, then, a demonstration of His inability to sin, rather than a demonstration of His ability not to sin.
A fine linguistic and semantic distinction on the one hand, and a profound and worldview-changing clarification on the other.
If we hold to the Biblically orthodox view that the Holy Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness to begin His forty days of temptations (Luke 4.1-2, Matthew 4.1), then we can assuredly and confidently say that the major purpose of Christ’s temptations was not to seriously and tangibly ascertain whether or not the theanthropic person of Jesus would sin, rather, it was to demonstrate that His character is flawless, He truly is sinless and spotless and always shall remain that way, and that even the greatest temptations known to mankind are beyond even the slightest consideration of causing Jesus to sin.
We can say this, simply, because of the words of James 1.13, which states,
‘Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.’.
As simply as possible then, if it was God the Holy Spirit who led Jesus into the wilderness, it would be illogical and un-Scriptural for that time of temptation to be anything more than a demonstration of Christ’s impeccable character, person, and behaviour.
God’s Word clearly states that God tempts no-one, God the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, therefore the purpose can not have been temptation, rather demonstration.
Due to Jesus’ theanthropic nature, both fully God and fully human, the Bible believing, orthodox thinking Christian must surely hold to the position that Jesus Christ, was, and still is, impeccable. It is surely beyond the realms of possibility that Jesus as God incarnate, the physical representation of God in the flesh, would even be capable of sinning.
As we so clearly read in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, the full Deity of God Himself dwelled in Jesus (Colossians 1.9, 2.9). It follows logically then that due to Jesus being God, and the full Deity of God dwelling in Jesus, to say that Jesus could have sinned is equal to saying that God could sin. The Bible teaches very clearly that God is perfect, holy and incapable of sinning (Psalm 92.15, Mark 10.18, Matthew 5.48, Deuteronomy 32.4, Psalm 18.30, James 1.13).
The following statement summarises well, I believe, the incapability of God to sin, and, by extension as discussed above, the incapability of Jesus to sin,
‘Sin is by definition a trespass of the Law. God created the Law, and the Law is by nature what God would or would not do; therefore, sin is anything that God would not do by His very nature.’.
Very clear, then, that to sin is not something that there is even a remote statistical possibility of God – the Father, the Son or the Spirit – doing. To paraphrase, sin is something that God cannot do, and therefore for Jesus to even have the ability to sin would be a contradiction of who He is.
Truth never contradicts truth
Christian apologist and astrophysicist Hugh Ross wrote these words regarding the timeless truths of God,
‘What’s true will never contradict what’s true.’.
We know very well that Jesus is true (John 14.6), and God’s inspired, infallible and inerrant Word declares that He is also true (John 3.33, 8.26). To use the aforementioned words of Ross, then, it is impossible for what is true to contradict something else that is true, therefore, we may draw a sound logical corollary and say that Jesus will never contradict God the Father.
H.C. Thiessen in his excellent book ‘Lectures in Systematic Theology’ writes on the orthodox view of the person of Christ. He writes,
‘The Council of Chalcedon, in 451, established what has been the position of the Christian church.
There is one Jesus Christ…He is truly God and truly man…
He is consubstantial with the Father in his deity and consubstantial with man in his humanity, except for sin…
Jesus is not split or divided into two persons; he is one person, the Son of God.’.
To build on the work here of Thiessen, it is simply impossible to bifurcate the person of Christ and to take the position that Christ could have potentially, possibly, perhaps sinned in His humanity but absolutely not in His Deity. As Thiessen writes,
‘There is one Jesus Christ…He is truly God and truly man…’.
Therefore, to try and bifurcate the person of Christ into two, to say that one of His natures could have sinned but the other could not is simply not possible, and the distillate of this bifurcation is, simply, heretical.
The will to sin?
Many times in the Word we read of Jesus’ submission to the will of God (Matthew 26.39, 42, John 6.38, 1 Corinthians 15.28, Hebrews 5.8). This in itself is a strong proof of His impeccability. It is beyond logical, Scriptural thinking to imagine that God would send Christ to take on flesh, live among us, die for the sins of the world, but also sin whilst here. John F. Walvoord writes on this,
‘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.’
To sin and to give in to temptation stems from our fallen, sinful, human nature. However, as previously established, Jesus Christ did not have a sinful nature, therefore, although His temptations were as real as they come, stemming from the same elements of our own human nature, the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life (1 John 2.16), there was no possibility or potentiality of Him sinning.
William Shedd writes on this,
‘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.’.
To quash another potential heresy of this debate, some may say that Jesus in His third combined nature did not or could not have sinned, but, that of course, Christ’s humanity could have sinned. Charles C. Ryrie answers this in his book ‘A Survey of Bible Doctrine’. He writes,
‘Orthodoxy has always held that Jesus Christ was fully God and perfect man, and that these two natures were united in one person without forming a third nature (as Eutychius said) or two separate persons (as Nestorius taught).’.
Clear then that this ill-conceived notion is a non-starter, the incarnation of Jesus did not produce a third nature of perfect divinity and humanity. Christ remained sinless and did not have the potentiality to sin in His One, united, unified and undivided person.
Presented with = indulged in?
To be presented with something that if indulged in would be sinful is not, of itself, sinful. Simply because a person puts something in our path that would cause us to sin does not make us a sinner. To have a sinful proposition suggested to us, as Jesus had presented to Him, does not mean we will either partake in that particular sin, or even have the desire to partake in that particular sin.
To add depth, Walvoord writes,
‘…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.’.
It is the Biblically orthodox view to hold to impeccability. If we even consider the possibility that Jesus could sin, then can we consider Him the perfect sacrifice who died for the sins of the entire world? (1 John 2.2). Walvoord continues,
‘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.’.
Immutability and Impeccability
Finally, in favour of impeccability is Hebrews 13.8, which states,
‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.’.
This really does guide our thinking the way of impeccability. For Christ to have sinned in during His incarnational ministry and time living among us would mean that as He forever wed Himself to humanity, His sin nature would therefore stay with Him forever.
It should be pointed out that the unchanging nature of Jesus Christ, His immutability, is of course talking about His Divinity.
In the incarnation, there was no loss of this Divinity, only the addition of humanity.
Therefore, for Jesus to remain the same person today and forever, as the writer to the Hebrews asserts, this means that His sin would go with Him and be seated at the right hand of the Father (Acts 7.55–56, Romans 8.34, Ephesians 1.20, Colossians 3.1, Hebrews 1.3, 8.1, 10.12, 12.2, 1 Peter 3.22, Revelation 3.21, Matthew 22.44, Acts 2.33). Simply, this can not be so.
To be seated at the right hand of God is the highest honor, and to have Christ there having sinned, or even having the potentiality to sin, would simply not be just and holy and right, all the things that God is.
Turning to Walvoord again for a more concise and succinct explanation of why Hebrews 13.8 is in favor of impeccablity, we read,
‘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.’.
Simply, then, it is beyond reasonable and sensible question that Christ even had the potential to sin.
To say He had the potential to sin, the ability to sin, whilst walking among us is on par with saying that He could sin now, as Hebrews 13.8 shows. Christ’s immutability, His lack of ability to change who He was and who He is, prevents Him from having the ability to sin. The addition of humanity does nothing to change this, and it is worthless speculation to postulate that had Christ’s Divine nature left His human nature to its own devices then He could have sinned.
To again use the work of Walvoord – perhaps the preeminent evangelical Christological scholar – as a springboard, to think that the whole of God’s sovereign plan for the universe would hang on the potential of Jesus Christ not to sin and therefore get the job done, so to speak, is simply unthinkable.
Charles Spurgeon, in a sermon given on October 31st, 1886 titled ‘Our Sympathizing High Priest’ writes this, concerning the ability of the sinless Christ to atone for the world,
‘As a Saviour he is perfect. Being made perfect through suffering, he is able to fully discharge his office. Nothing is wanting in the character and person of Christ in order to his being able to save to the uttermost. He is a Saviour, and a great one. [We] are wholly lost, but Jesus is perfectly able to save. [We] are sore sick, but Jesus is perfectly able to heal. [We] have gone, perhaps, to the extreme of sin; he has gone to the extreme of atonement. In every office essential to our salvation Jesus is perfect. Nothing is lacking in him in any one point.’.
Clear, then, that in the mind of Spurgeon, the possibility of sin entering into the world and life of our perfect savior is simply unthinkable.
So, what does this mean for me?
1 Peter 1.14-21 sets out for us now the practical implications of Christ’s eternal impeccability,
‘As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.’.
Clear, then, that Christ was appointed before the foundation of the world to be the sinless, spotless and supreme sacrificial Lamb of God needed to take away the sins of the world. Therefore, we can say with confidence, that the notion that Christ could have sinned is simply unbiblical, unorthodox and untrue, and that Jesus Christ is, was, and always will be, impeccable.
For us, we have a Saviour who is sinless, spotless, and supreme.
He knows the troubles you are facing, and He has defeated them.
There was never any doubt He would.
He is ready, waiting, and willing to help you.
Reach out to your impeccable Saviour.
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