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An examination of the question of the impeccability of Jesus Christ
Essay written by T. Swan

The New Testament authors had no qualms about declaring that Jesus was truly human and
telling us that Jesus committed no sin. Bible passages such as 2 Corinthians 5:21, Hebrews
4:15, 1 Peter 2:22 and 1 John 3:5 ?witness that He [Jesus] did not give in to temptation,
nor violate the moral standards of God, nor was He inconsistent with the nature of his
character.? That is, Jesus was sinless.


It is vital to our theology that Jesus was sinless. For only if Jesus was sinless could
His death have been a vicarious substitution and fulfil God?s redemptive plan for man. If
Jesus had not been sinless, then it would mean that He died for His own sins and not those
of mankind. Had Jesus died for His own sins then His death could not have been accepted by
the Father as a vicariously substitution for the punishment and judgement each of us are
entitled to receive. Even though there is no serious debate that Jesus was anything but
sinless, theologians have discussed the question of whether Jesus could have sinned if He
had wanted. This is called the peccability of Christ. The opposing argument, i.e.,
impeccability, being that even if He had wanted, Jesus could not have sinned. Upon first
consideration, one might view this question as being trivial; something to simply keep the
theologians ?out of mischief? when they have nothing better to do. However, there are some
very appropriate reasons for examining this issue.


The first reason to examine the issue of Christ?s peccability/impeccability is so that we
might obtain a better understanding and a more in depth knowledge about both Jesus Christ
and God, just as God has invited us. This is the same reason that we study Theology
proper. When we arrive at an answer to this question, we will have additional knowledge
about Jesus? preincarnate state and a better understanding of the meaning of the statement
?Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever .?


Second, some theologians have argued that the peccability of Jesus has a direct impact on
the humanity of Christ. That is, if Jesus was not peccable then just how ?human? was he?
Could he have been ?true man? if he were not able to sin like the rest of mankind? (Note:
this is a question of whether Christ could have sinned; not that Christ had to have sinned
in order to be human.) Morris indirectly asks if Jesus? impeccability implied that he was
lacking a part of the human condition that the rest of mankind have, viz., the
consciousness of past sin? If this is the case, Christ may not have been truly human
because he only took on most of the ?qualities? of human nature but shielded himself from
the consciousness of sin.


Third, Sahl tells us that ?the virgin birth, the Incarnation, and the hypostatic union,
are all influenced by the impeccability of Jesus Christ .? Therefore, if we are to have a
full understanding of these doctrines, we need to study the question of Christ?s
peccability/impeccability.


Fourth, an understanding of the peccability/impeccability of Jesus Christ will have an
impact on our understanding of angels in general and Lucifer/Satan in particular . That
is, by examining the peccability/impeccability of Jesus (and the related issue of the
temptability of Jesus) we will come to have a better understanding of the realm of angels,
especially the fallen angels. Furthermore, by examining the temptations that Satan makes
to Christ, we will also have a deeper awareness of the powers of Satan and his followers.


Fifth, because the Bible tells us that Jesus did not sin, the question of Jesus?
peccability or impeccability will have an impact on biblical inerrancy and integrity. As
Sahl states, ? if it is possible that the Lord Jesus Christ could succumb to or be
deceived by sin, then one must also conclude that it is possible for Him to have given
inaccurate information about eternal things when He was growing in wisdom and stature and
favour with God and man .?


And finally, Christ?s peccability/impeccability will have an impact on the victory over
temptation and sin that the Redeemer accomplished . For if it was impossible for Jesus to
have ever sinned then it is indeed a hallow victory: there was no chance of his ever not
winning the battle. Thus, the victory is a very mute point and raises the question if the
victory has any real impact on mankind under these circumstances.


Thus, we can see that the peccability or impeccability of Jesus is more than simply an
academic debate. The outcome of such a debate could have far reaching implications on our
view and knowledge of God, our doctrine of the humanity of Jesus, the doctrines of the
virgin birth, the Incarnation and the hypostatic union, our theology of angelology, the
question of biblical inerrancy and integrity and finally, our view of Jesus? victory over
temptation and sin.


I would now like to turn to the arguments for the peccability of Jesus, i.e., Jesus could
have sinned if he had wanted to sin. As stated earlier, a positive result of this
investigation does not imply that Jesus had to have sinned during his earthly life. Only
that it was possible for Jesus to have sinned.


Our first argument that Jesus was peccable centres on the question of the temptations of
Jesus. Charles Hodge has been quoted as ?summarizing this teaching in these words: This
sinlessness of our Lord, however, does not amount to absolute impeccability. It was not a
non potent peccare. If He was a true man, He must have been capable of sinning. That he
did not sin under the greatest provocation ... is held up to us as an example. Temptation
implies the possibility of sin .? Sahl states this as ?if a person has no susceptibility
to sin or if sin has no appeal for him, the temptation is a farce .? In short, this means
that if Jesus was not capable of being tempted by sin and capable of sinning and then He
was not truly human. For temptability and the ability to sin are part of being human.


In order to fully understand and respond to this argument based on temptability we must
examine the nature of temptability. Sahl argues that the problem with this argument is
that we have a misconception of the nature of temptability. Specifically, he says, ?the
Greek word ?to tempt? does not mean to induce evil. The word means ?to try, make a trial
of, put to the test ... to signify the trying intentionally with the purpose of
discovering what of good or evil, of power or weakness was in a person or thing,? ? or ?to
have an appeal. ? In this regard, Sahl concludes that the temptations of Christ were real:
Christ faced real challenges in the desert where he proved the good that was in Him and
also in the Garden of Gethsemani and on Calvary where he demonstrated His power.


Towns notes that temptability may be defined as ?Generally understood as the enticement of
a person to commit sin by offering some seeming enticement. ... In this sense our sinless
Redeemer was absolutely untemptible and impeccable. ? That is, because Jesus was God and
possessed the attributes of God, there was nothing that Jesus could be enticed to have or
obtain. Therefore, he could not be tempted. However, on the opposite side of the question,
Towns also notes that ?[t]he nature of Christ?s temptation was that He was asked to do the
things He could do and the things He wanted: the results of which would have come from
doing what Satan asked. The nature of His temptation was ... the fact that He as God was
tempted to do the things He could do. The things Christ is asked to do ... appear to be
valid requests .? Therefore, because Satan asked Christ to do the things he was capable
of, e.g., turning stones to bread, etc., we can see that the temptations Christ faced were
real. However, the temptations Jesus faced were different from those other men would
endure; ?[Jesus] was tried as no other was ever tried. Added to the nature of the
temptation itself was the greater sensitivity of Christ ?. It is possible that the
ultimate and most severe temptation of Jesus came in the Garden of Gethsemani. Here Jesus
was tempted to abandon the plan of God and to ?let this cup pass from me? (Matthew 26:39).
Clearly, ?Jesus experienced worse temptations than we do.? Hence, the temptations Christ
faced were real precisely because they were tests of and trials to His power. That is,
?when [the Bible tells us Jesus] was tempted ... it implies He was tempted in all His
thinking, desires (emotions) and decision-making ability. Christ was tempted in every part
of His being as a person is tempted in every part of human nature .?


Another point we must remember in disputing the argument of peccability from temptability
is that ?temptation to sin does not necessitate susceptibility to sin ?. The impossible
can always be attempted. While success may not be likely, or the attempt may be
impractical this does not in and of itself mean that such an attempt cannot be done.
Walvoord states ?while the temptation may be real, there may be infinite power to resist
that temptation and if the power is infinite, the person is impeccable .? As an example,
Walvoord quotes Shedd?s example of an army: ?[it is not correct] to say that because an
army cannot be conquered, it cannot be attacked. ?


There is also Biblical evidence that Jesus was truly tempted as we read in Hebrews ?for we
do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but one who was
tempted in every way that we are? (4:15).


In summary then we can see that the argument of Jesus Christ?s peccability cannot be
supported by the temptation argument. For one to be tempted does not necessarily imply
that one must be susceptible to the temptation. Furthermore, Jesus was tempted in every
aspect of the term. True, His temptations were different from those we experience, but
they were none the less real temptations. And Finally, just because Jesus was tempted does
not imply that He was capable of sin. It is possible for Satan to try the impossible,
i.e., tempt Jesus, even though there is no chance of success.


The second argument in support of the peccability of Jesus rests on the humanity of Jesus,
i.e., ?[i]f He was a true man He must have been capable of sinning .? This argument rests
on two fallacies. First, it fails to recognize that while Jesus was true man, He was also
true God. He was the God-man. Even though a man, Jesus still retained all of the
attributes of His divine nature (even though through the kenosis, or self-emptying, He
willingly did not exercise all of His divine attributes.) ?Jesus Christ possessed all the
divine attributes of the Father ... In humanity, Christ was totally human; in deity, Jesus
was unalterably God. Yet in Jesus Christ was a single, undivided personality in whom these
two natures are vitally and undividedly united, so that Jesus Christ is not God and man,
but the God-man. ? The second fallacy is that, Jesus was first God and subsequently took
on human manhood. ?The second Trinitarian person [Jesus Christ] is the root and stock into
which the human nature is grafted ? or ?God in becoming man did not diminish His deity,
but added a human nature to the divine nature. ?*From these two rebuttals we can see that
even though Jesus was truly man, He maintained His divine attribute of holiness. It was
this holiness which supplied the strength and will power to ensure that Christ avoided sin
and could not sin. In other words, ?[t]hough Christ was of both human and divine desires,
He had only one determinative will. That determinative will is in the eternal Logos.?
Thus, even though Jesus was truly human, His divine will was more powerful and prevented
Him from sinning because ?a holy will may be perfectly free, and yet determined with
absolute certainty to the right. Such is God?s will .? Therefore, ?as God, Christ is
certain to do only good, and yet He is a moral agent making choices. He need not have the
capacity to sin .?


The third argument in support of the peccability of Jesus is based on the Scriptural
statements that Jesus is the second or New Adam and corresponds to the first Adam. Thus,
if Jesus was the second Adam he had to have all the qualities and characteristics of the
first Adam. The proponents of this argument then proceed to conclude that one of the
characteristics of Adam was the ability to sin.


However, in actual fact, this argument misses the point. The first Adam was a perfect man
when he was created by God. ?Adam was created in holiness without the inward compulsion
toward sin that now characterizes his progeny ? or ?Jesus did not possess a sin nature
because it was not a part of the original nature of man .? In the garden Adam knew neither
sin nor the consequences of sin. ?[Adam] had no experience of sin ? before the Serpent and
Eve presented him the apple from the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. It was only when
Adam disobeyed God that Adam added sin to his perfect nature. This is a case of arguing
from the present condition to a past condition which is then applicable to Jesus. It
?make[s] the mistake of taking our imperfect lives as the standard, and regarding Christ
as human only as He conforms to our failures. [Rather,] He is the standard, and He shows
us what a genuine humanity can be .? Thus, the perfect human is without sin and is capable
of not sinning (even though the perfect human will still have inherited a sin nature and
original sin from Adam). Therefore, Christ can be the second or New Adam and still not
have a peccable nature.


In the chapter entitled ?The Sinlessness of Christ? in Berkouwer?s book The Person of
Christ, the author presents three unique arguments for the peccability of Christ. I did
not find mention of these arguments in any other source and, therefore, am sceptical of
the weight they carry. However, I have decided to summarize them below in the interest of
completeness. All three of his arguments are based on Biblical passages.


Berkouwer?s first argument centres on Christ words ?Why do you call me good? None is good
but God alone? (Luke 18:19, Mark 10:18 and a similar reference in Matthew 19:17).
According to Berkouwer, this statement brings the peccability of Christ into question
because ?people have inferred that Christ himself did not proceed from his absolute
sinlessness or holiness but rather places himself in the rank of sinful human beings. ?
However, to read this passage in this manner is clearly a case of poor interpretation. The
Jerome Biblical Commentary tells us that the phrase ?good teacher? is ?a rarely used
epithet for a rabbi ? and that Jesus? answer ?implies that the epithet ?good? being proper
to God, should not be used indiscriminately and casually .? Berkouwer, on the other hand,
suggests that this is a different type of misinterpretation. He argues that in the early
church and at the time these three Gospels were written, there was no question of the
sinlessness of Christ. The sinlessness of Christ is a theological concept which developed
later in history: ?an explicit attestation to [Jesus?] sense of sinlessness we do not find
until we encounter them, as the fruit of the Logos-theology, in the pronouncements of the
Johannine Christ .?


While I am not personally convinced with Berkouwer?s interpretation and prefer to base the
rejection of this argument for Jesus? peccability on the correct interpretation of the
passage, I will grant that Berkouwer presents a logical and plausible argument given what
we know about the development of the New Testament writings.


The second argument Berkouwer presents is based on the story of the baptism of Jesus by
John the Baptist. In Matthew?s account of this incident, John the Baptist recognizes the
holiness of Christ and tries to avoid baptising Him. However, Christ instructs John the
Baptist to ?give in for now ? (Matthew 3:15). From this, the argument arises that if Jesus
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