Could Jesus have sinned? Before answering the question, it’s best to run through a couple of qualifiers. First, scripture clearly teaches He did not sin. Second, I realize the seeming futility when discussing hypothetical situations. The question of the peccability of Jesus, or Jesus’s capacity to sin, is in reality, not hypothetical at all. It actually matters if the humanity of Jesus did actually endure temptation or not. Do the gospel narratives paint a truly human picture of the incarnate Word? If the humanity of Jesus is capable of sin, then the obedience of Jesus is not to be found in Him having a unique cosmology in relation to Adam, rather it is to be found in something else entirely.
A justified response to these questions is John 5:19, “I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner.” This is a strong claim for impeccability. The S0n is incapable of doing anything the Father doesn’t do. The Father cannot sin, therefore the Son cannot sin. I, however, am leery of being called a “monophysite”, and conflating the natures of the incarnate Son. Let us take a step back. Jesus is referring to himself as “the Son”. The Son is the second person of the Trinity, and at this point in redemptive history, that person now has a human and a divine nature. Jesus is not just speaking with reference to his humanity, He is referring to the united person, the Son, the Word, the Christ. Thus our question is now modified. Was the human will incapable of sin because it was a distinct human will, or was it incapable of sin only because it was in perfect union with the Trinity, through the mediation of the Son?
We can first turn to the catholic creeds as a summary of how the Church understood the apostolic deposit. In the Athanasian Creed, when describing the incarnation we receive this phrase, “not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person.” The “substance” or “natures” of Jesus are not confused or mixed. The humanity of Christ is the humanity. The deity of Christ is the deity. We have further clarification in the formula of Chalcedon. When discussing the true humanity of Jesus; “consubstantial with us according to the manhood, in all things like unto us without sin…to be acknowledged in two natures, in-confusedly, un-changeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved.” This is how the catholic faith has defined the true humanity of Jesus. This does not create a slam dunk scenario for Jesus’s capacity to sin. One could argue that true humanity is incapable of sin, and is only able to obey. What’s more is that we know Jesus didn’t sin, thus proving he was incapable of sin in the first place. It may be even pointed out that Jesus had no earthly father so he did not inherit Adam’s original sin, and thus was not capable of sin like other people. But here is where the leap in logic has found a chasm it’s legs can’t span.
Adam was also created without original sin, was also created in the image of likeness of God. Yet, he was capable of sin. What is the nature of Adam? How parallel is the incarnation and the creation of man? According to Irenaus, pretty gosh darn congruent. In his work, On the Apostolic Preaching, he notes that Adam and Jesus are both born of a virgin, and a union of heaven and earth.
“But whence, then, was the substance of the first formed? From the will and wisdom of God and from the virgin earth – ‘For God had not caused it to rain,’ says Scripture, before man was made, ‘and there was no man to till the ground’. So, from this [earth], while it was still virgin, God ‘took mud from the earth and fashioned man’, the beginning of mankind. Thus, the Lord recapitulating this man, received the same arrangement of embodiment as this one, being born from the Virgin by the will and wisdom of God, that He might also demonstrate the likeness of embodiment to Adam, and might become the man, written in the beginning, ‘according to the image and likeness of God.’” 
The implication derived from Irenaus, and the Creeds, in their reading of Scripture leaves us with a humanity on day 6 and in 0 AD that are of the same substance. The human nature of Jesus has the same start as the First Adam. The same likeness. The differentiation is Jesus is humanity in perfect Union with God who by faithful obedience glorifies humanity in the resurrection. For those keeping track at home, the basic equation looks like this: (earth which no man has worked) + (God’s ruhac) = Adam = (womb untouched by man) + (God’s ruhac) = Jesus.
In order for Jesus to have been the second Adam, he would have to inhabit and excel in the path of the first Adam. With this in mind we see that there is a deeper magic to Irenaus’s hermenutic. We have a fuller sequence of events imprinting Adam’s “adamness” onto Jesus. If we look at the sequence of Adam’s life, Adam is born of a virgin, he is in communion with God (while not yet a glorified union), he goes to a tree, he is tempted to take fruit prematurely, he let’s his wife die first, then dies himself, then blames God and his wife for all their problems. This sequence maps neatly onto the beats Jesus takes. Jesus is born of a virgin, he is in perfect union with God (not yet glorified), Jesus is tempted to take fruits prematurely but faithfully resists, he goes to a tree, he dies instead of his wife, he gives that life to his wife, and instead of blaming her and God he does the will of His Father and asks the Father “to forgive them, they know not what they do.” The difference between Adam and Jesus is not a matter of a supernatural change to the nature of humanity at the conception of Jesus, rather the difference is faithfulness. The difference is not some impeccable human nature that Jesus receives at birth. The difference is Jesus is in Union with God. Jesus obeys in faith. Jesus embodies the Word.
If Jesus was not capable of sin, we have a very different kind of high priest, Hebrews 4:15 “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.” What sympathy could Christ have if all the temptation He experienced was mere theater? What kind of humanity is Jesus redeeming if there is no capacity for sin? The purpose of the incarnation is to unite humanity to God, thus Jesus’s humanity must have the same nature as Adam. Otherwise when the Gospels tell us Jesus was tempted, it means he was not truly tempted, or when Jesus strives with the Father in the garden, it was not true striving. If Jesus has no capacity for sin how was able to “become sin for us” (2 Cor 5:21). The human nature is changed in Jesus, but the ontological change from peccable to impeccable occurs through death and resurrection. That is how all glory is given. In order to be glorified we first must be crucified. Thus when Jesus dies in perfect obedience, and is raised, he is raised glorified and impeccable. He is raised incorruptible, as compared to him being corruptible before-hand and the Father not letting him see corruption.
In 1 Corinthians 15:45 when teaching on the resurrection Paul describes the first Adam “Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” This statement is inserted to describe the resurrected Jesus. A natural body was sown into the earth and a spiritual body was raised. There are differences between the natural and the spiritual. The natural is corruptible, the spiritual incorruptible. The natural perishes the spiritual is immortal. There is similarly a poetic J-hook shape to the will of man. Just as God shapes us through cycles of life-death-resurrection-glorified life, he does the same with the will of man on macro. Pre-fall man is capable of obedience and sin – post-fall, man is only capable of sin – Incarnation, Jesus (free from original sin) is once again capable of obedience and sin – resurrection/ascension – Jesus (and all in him) can no longer sin. We know this to be true in the lives of Christians that come to faith later in life. They were enslaved to sin, now God is working with them and they are able to “walk in the works Jesus prepared beforehand for them to walk in” (Eph 2:10) and in the resurrection they will only be able to obey.
We have to let the narrative of scripture imprint on us. These plot points present us with a Savior that was truly man, and truly God. But his manhood and deity were not intermixed, they were united in the person, not confused in their substance. When Scripture tells us he was tempted we have to trust that’s what it means. When Hebrews tells us he can sympathize with us as our High Priest, we have to trust that Jesus actually experienced temptation. We have a perfect savior that walked in obedience. That slayed the dragon of death by faith. He has made us heirs to such things. Jesus emptied himself and took on a corruptible human nature so he may join the same nature to the Godhead that it might become incorruptible, sealed through death the vindication of the resurrection. Now all who participate in the death, and resurrection of Jesus will receive the glorification of Jesus, the impeccable human will of glorified humanity.
Matt Corey, along with his wife and their three children live in Maine. He is a pastor in the CREC, a teacher at Mirus Academy, a writer, and musician.
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