This past Sunday we examined the temptations of our Lord in Matthew chapter 4. I, for one, face temptations every day. I am able to find victory over many of my temptations but at times I still succumb to temptation. Almost every time I am preaching or teaching on the temptations of Christ, someone will ask, “Could Jesus have sinned?” Now that not only is a complex question, it also demands a complex but not complicated answer.
To get to the heart of this question, we must remember four simple truths which are revealed to us in Scripture. First, Jesus was fully human. Throughout Scripture we see the humanity of Christ evidenced in his hunger, his sleeping, his tears, his sorrow, his agony and his death, to name a few. Secondly, we affirm He was fully tempted by Satan in the desert. Hebrews 4:15 tells us Jesus was “tempted in every way.” Next, Jesus is fully God. This is the beauty and mystery of the Incarnation. Jesus was both God and man. In his Gospel, Matthew confirms this by simply saying Jesus is Immanuel, “God with us.” Finally, we must remember God can not be tempted (James 1:13). Therefore, Jesus was fully human and fully divine. In His humanity, He was physically capable of sinning but in His divinity, He was morally incapable of sinning. In other words, in His humanity, He was tempted just as we are but in His divinity, He was not tempted; this is a great mystery that boggles our minds.
So how do we answer the question, “Could Jesus have sinned?” The answer may be both a yes and a no. This week I read Russell Moore’s “Tempted and Tried.” To help us navigate the waters of this great mystery, let me close this discussion with an illustration from Moore’s book:
Could Jesus have sinned? To answer that I would simply say that it depends on what you mean by ‘could.’ I’ll respond to another question. Think of the person you love the most. While you have this loved one’s face before your mind, let me ask you: ‘Could you murder that person?’ Your response would probably be, ‘Of course not!’ You would tell me how much you love the person and what the person means to you, and so forth. You’re incapable of murdering this person because the very act is opposed to everything you are about … In your response to my question, you would be assuming ‘could’ to mean a moral capability. But ‘could’ here could also mean a natural ability. You tell me you ‘couldn’t’ murder your loved one, but that’s no sign that you are saying you couldn’t physically take this person on. You’re saying you would never do such a thing…. God is incapable of sinning. But Jesus, in his human nature, really desires those things humanity’s been designed to desire. Could he have sinned – is his nature one that is capable of being both light and darkness? No. Could he have sinned – was he physically capable of eating bread, of throwing himself from the temple, of bowing his knee and verbalizing the words, ‘Satan is lord?’ Yes, of course. (Tempted and Tried by Russell Moore.)
So where does this leave us? Could Jesus have sinned in the desert? In His humanity, He was physically able to sin but in His divinity is was morally incapable of sinning. Therefore, in His humanity, He was fully tempted just as we are but in His deity, He was not tempted and therefore incapable of sinning. There is a mysterious and mind-numbing tension between the two. He was physically able but morally incapable of sinning. Could He have sinned? No. He is God and as God He can not sin but as man He was tempted just as we are. I sure hope that clears that up.