We read in the gospel records of our Lord being sent out into the wilderness to be temped by Satan. Mark describes this in just two verses, saying, “At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him” (Mark 1:12-13). This raises several questions, one of which is, could our Lord have actually succumbed to temptation and sinned? All Christians agree that he did not sin, but was there the potential for sin? The doctrine that Jesus could have sinned but did not is known as the peccability of Christ while the doctrine that Jesus could not have sinned is the impeccability of Christ. Now, this may seem like splitting hairs but how you answer this question says a lot about who you believe Jesus to be.
The vast majority of conservative evangelical Christians believe solidly in the impeccability of Jesus Christ, that it was not possible for the Lord to succumb to temptation and sin. The Lord certainly had means to sin, along with the physical ability to sin, and external motivation to sin like fleeing from the cross by calling on the angels to save him, but through all this, he never stopped being God. He did not possess the inclination or weakness of character required to sin. The Lord had two natures, human and divine; the human nature allowed him to be tempted while the divine nature meant he could not succumb to temptation. Furthermore, what is sin? It is anything done against God’s standard of righteousness, so how could God sin against God? As I shall bring out, this is one of the most critical doctrines of Christianity, apart from which one cannot be a true follower of Jesus Christ.
Arguments for Peccability Refuted
The most common argument for the Lord’s peccability is that it is simply not fair if Jesus could not sin. Yet, we should not build any theology on what we think is fair as fallible, sinful humans. Such a mindset can easily lead one into either annihilationism, universalism, etc., one’s theology continuing to change not because of exegesis of Scripture but because of what one perceives as “fair” based on impulses and gut reactions that are then forced onto the text. The prophet Jeremiah says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure, who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). Therefore, if we are rejecting an interpretation because of what we perceive to be fair, we are allowing our hearts to deceive us. The chief reason that I reject this argument, however, is that there is no Scripture to support the idea that it is not fair if Jesus could not have sinned.
A second argument for the Lord’s peccability is that he would not have really been human if he did not have the ability to sin. It is claimed in this argument that the ability to sin is inherent in the nature of what it means to be human, and therefore, without that ability, he would not be truly human. One problem with this view, though, is that when the Lord returns, I will be ushered into eternity and will be forever not sinning and yet, I will still be human. Romans 8:18-25 is the clearest example of this, that this physical creation will never pass away but will be restored along with us. There’s not one text of Scripture that suggests that to be human requires the ability to sin.
Another more critical problem to this view, however, is that if the Lord’s human nature requires him to have the ability to sin, then the Incarnation would not have been possible. Goodness is an essential part of God’s nature and if Jesus had the capacity to do evil, then he possessed moral failure in his own heart which would mean he would not have been God. Such a view severs the human nature from the divine nature, giving primacy to the human nature and not taking into account Jesus’s nature as God. God is holy and God cannot sin, not because of a lack of power or ability but because his character is too strong to violate his own standard. 2 Timothy 2:13 says, “he cannot deny himself.”
The Incarnation was not a trading off of one nature for the other but was both natures at the same time; Jesus did not stop being God to become man, such being a heretical view. Scripture says, “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9), and therefore, to say Jesus could have sinned is to say God can sin which is why Scripture instead says the Lord was “tempted in every way” but without sin (Hebrews 4:15). The Lord could experience great temptation due to his human nature but could not yield to it internally due to his holiness. The human nature could be likened to a metal wire or cable – flexible, easy to bend, and weak – while the divine nature could be likened to a crowbar or metal rod. If you take that wire and hold it alongside the rod, then you see something inherently weak that will no longer bend or break because it is coupled with an unbendable thing. C.S. Lewis described it thusly:
If I am drowning in a rapid river, a man who still has one foot on the bank may give me a hand which saves my life. Ought I to shout back (between my gasps) ‘No, it’s not fair! You have an advantage! You’re keeping one foot on the bank’? That advantage – call it ‘unfair’ if you like – is the only reason why he can be of any use to me. To what will you look for help if you will not look to that which is stronger than yourself?C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952; Harper Collins: 2001), 59.
Therefore, to say Jesus had to have the capability to sin is human reasoning that ultimately falls apart under both Scripture and logic.
Why would Satan even try then?
Benny Hinn in his book Good Morning Holy Spirit said, “Had the Holy Spirit not been with Jesus, He may likely have sinned,” which is a misunderstanding of the Holy Spirit in the life of Jesus which leads to misunderstanding the Spirit’s role in the lives of Christians. He goes on to say in the same paragraph, “It was the Holy Spirit who was the power that kept Him pure. If you believe that Jesus was not able to sin, then why would Satan waste his time tempting Him?”
The most obvious problem with Hinn’s logic here is that Jesus had already lived for 30 years at this point without sinning. How long did you make it? It probably depends on your own awareness of your total depravity before God. Many new Christians when they get into the Word may feel like they are doing pretty good and can easily go a week, but seasoned Christians who have been walking with the Lord for a while will say with Paul at the end of his life that they are the chief of sinners. Yet, Jesus made it 30 years before the Spirit descended upon him without sinning. Of course, I do not think he was ever without the Holy Spirit; that’s a misunderstanding of the Spirit’s role in Jesus’s life. Hinn’s view makes Jesus’s life merely an example for believers to follow rather than submitting to Him as Lord of all. He’s not an expectation we set.
Hinn’s view is also a part of the ancient Pelagian heresy that the great Augustine thoroughly dealt with and put down in his day. If having the Holy Spirit makes it possible to resist sin, then why do I sin? Why do you sin if you’re a believer? This error Hinn more fully expresses in the book as he sets Jesus up as an example, that everything Jesus did is possible for the believer through the Holy Spirit. ‘If Jesus was able not to sin by the power of the Holy Spirit then so am I,’ is Hinn’s basic claim, and such was the claim of Pelagius when asked why we do not see believers living perfect lives; Pelagius said there were and strangely listed as examples several Old Testament personages who clearly sinned at some point.
Lastly, though, Hinn asks “why would Satan waste his time tempting Him?” I would suggest, though, that we do not base our theology on what we think Satan might think. Satan is the father of lies (John 8:44) and his first lie was to himself, saying, “I will be like the Most High” (Isaiah 14:14). Why would Satan try to be like God it it wasn’t possible? Well, he’s a moron, that’s why; he’s caught up in sin, pride, foolishness, and lies, and we must not assume he can accomplish whatever he tries. We know from Scripture, and very explicitly from the book of Job, that everything that happens comes from the hand of the Lord, nothing from Satan, whether cancer or criticism, persecution or slander, sickness or sorrow. God is not the author of evil or the cause of evil; he’s not responsible for evil, but God does decree and ordain every evil deed that takes place.
Although Satan was the one who directly brought everything against Job, he received no credit for it. Instead, Job rejoiced in worship saying:
Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised.Job 1:21, NIV
As Martin Luther succinctly put it, “Satan is God’s Devil.” Satan’s batting average is terrible and he likely tries a whole lot more than we see actually come to fruition. For example, we are in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic right now, but do you remember the 1991 pandemic that killed 80% of Americans? Do you remember the stock market crash of 1964? Do you remember the Supreme Court case in 1989 that legalized gay marriage? Satan is trying all sorts if schemes constantly and if there’s something awful taking place, it is only because the Devil got lucky. God happened to ordain it.