*The following is a manuscript from this week’s Theology Thursday video.
Theological Thursday, Impeccability of Christ, Hebrews 2:18, 4:!5-16
Good afternoon and welcome to Theological Thursday. I normally write these in my blog—and the manuscript for this will be there if you prefer to read, but I thought it would be cool to video one from time to time and so that’s what we’re doing. Basically I’m taking a question under the umbrella of “theology” and giving my best answer…so if you have questions you would like for me to research and answer then just let me know, but today’s topic is really dancing around this idea of the impeccability of Christ. A big fancy word which means that Jesus was never able to sin…but before we get there let’s point out what the Scripture teaches explicitly that no born-again believer disputes—Jesus never sinned.
Have you ever thought very deeply about that? That’s probably not a unique idea for you to hear—that Jesus never sinned. It’s a thought that I really think causes us to be somewhat awestruck—specifically when we consider how weak we ourselves are when it comes to fighting temptations. As believers, assuming that you are, we have all tried our very best at some point to stand against a sinful temptation only to eventually reach a breaking point that brought you to a crash and burn experience. Our imperfections can certainly frustrate us—but that is where Jesus is different from us—Radically different. The preacher in Hebrews says it this way,
“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.” (4:15)
33 years of life in a human body walking around this fallen world that is stinking with sinful temptations—and he never stumbled, he never succumbed, he never sinned. That’s explicitly what Hebrews 4:15 says and Paul says it again in 2 Corinthians 5:21,
“For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Now, the question I’m attempting to get at today is this: was it possible for Jesus to have sinned? Don’t shudder. I don’t think this is one of those taboo questions that we are just not supposed to ask. In fact, I think it’s actually a very important question that deserves to be looked at. Consider the issue lying just beneath the surface of that question, it gets at the heart of what Hebrews 4:15 teaches…
If it was impossible for Jesus to sin then how can the Hebrews preacher say that Jesus really has been tempted like I am?
And if he doesn’t know my struggle from experience then how can He be a sympathetic High Priest?
So, let’s take those one at a time and try to give a solid answer here. First up, was it possible for Jesus to sin? Here is my answer—No. It was not possible for Jesus to have ever sinned.
Now, here’s why I believe that. First, I think we need to consider who Jesus is. Primarily, that while He is fully human; He is also the eternal Son of God. As we often hear said, “Jesus is God incarnate”—that is God in the flesh. Now, there have been many heresies in Christian history that have developed from people doing one of two things in deviating from that truth. They have either stressed the humanity of Jesus to such an extreme that they denied his divine nature—such as the Ebionites in the early church who according to Gregg Allison, “insisted that Jesus was only a man in whom the presence and power of God worked mightily.” (Allison, 367) Or they have done the reverse—stressing the divine nature to such an extreme that they ended up denying the humanity of Jesus. Such was the error of those who fell under Docetism in the first and second century who trying to force Greek thought into Christian truth assumed that the divine nature basically swallowed up the human nature of Jesus.
So, here me when I say this. Jesus was fully God and fully man; I don’t understand the entire scope of this mystery but I do understand that it is the explicit teaching of Scripture and is an interpretation that has been affirmed by the church for nearly two thousand years—so I feel like I am standing on solid ground when I say as Grudem has well put, that in Jesus “both his human nature and His divine nature existed united in one person.” (Grudem, 539)
So, why am I saying that Jesus could not have sinned, and what’s the big deal about it?
I’m saying this because if we think that Jesus was able to sin then what are we saying about God? If we believe that Jesus was fully God and fully man but conclude that it was possible for Him to sin we are in some way arriving at the conclusion that it is possible for God to sin as well. Let me be very clear here: The Bible completely denies that thought. That is not a gray area of Scripture, it is very clear—It is impossible for God to sin. Therefore, I conclude that because God cannot sin, neither could Jesus sin.
Here’s the second question that normally then arises. What does this say of his humanity then? If it is impossible for Jesus to sin, then could he have truly been fully human?
Let’s begin by making the clear expression of Holy Scripture: Jesus is fully God and Jesus is fully man; His divine and human nature exist as united in one person.
Now, let’s point out a couple of observations that will probably help us to answer that tricky question. First, “being a sinner” is not the determining factor for our definition of what it means to be human. True, every human who has ever existed, except for Jesus, was and is a sinner; but Adam and Eve were not originally created as sinful beings. If we recall from the Genesis narrative we must reckon that their original pristine existence was without the marred effect which sin later brought upon our humanity (Genesis 3). I think Millard Erickson really illuminates this idea well when he says,
“Is a person who does not sin truly human? If, we say no, we are maintaining that sin is part of the essence of human nature. Such a view must be considered a serious heresy by anyone who believes that the human has been created by God, since God would then be the cause of sin, the creator of a nature that is essentially evil. We hold that, on the contrary, sin is not part of the essence of human nature, so instead of asking ‘Is Jesus as human as we are?’ we might better ask, ‘Are we as human as Jesus?’” (Erickson, 657)
I am reminded when I read Erickson’s thoughts of how Hebrews 2:5-9, while quoting Psalm 8, reminds us that part of the redemption which Jesus has secured for us involves restoring human beings to be the true image-bearers of God that was originally intended.
So again, it would be misleading I think to say that ‘to be human is to err.’ Rather it seems more accurate to say that ‘to be a sinner is to err.’ This is because sin is not necessarily the original result of being human; it is the result of the fall which occurred in Genesis 3 which then plunged humanity into its depraved condition.
Alright. Let’s now think about a more practical question for this doctrine of Christ’s impeccability—that is that it was impossible for Jesus to sin. And I think this will be encouraging for you and should bring us back full circle.
Here we go: if it was not possible for Jesus to sin then how could He have been tempted as we are in every way that we are as the preacher in Hebrews explicitly says?
I think this is an important question to answer. Primarily because the entire point of Hebrews 4:15, about Jesus being a sympathetic high priest towards you, is founded on his ability to really know your struggles. I think it could be said this way as well—in times of suffering, the greatest encouragement and empathy always comes from those who have endured similar sufferings. They know your pain. In fact, they feel it with you. The splinters they received from their own cross enable them to encourage you in a special way. That is how I believe the preacher in Hebrews is calling us to think of Jesus in this verse—not as some distant Lord who thinks that we should just try harder, but as a suffering Servant who has shouldered our cross before.
But I still haven’t answered the question—I’ve just demonstrated how it’s a really important question. So, here’s my answer. The inability to give in to temptation does not reduce the sting of its testing.I have learned this primarily through B.F. Westcott’s classic commentary on Hebrews—specifically when he works through Hebrews 2:18 which says, “For because He Himself suffered when tempted, He is able to help those who are being tempted.”
What I think is being taught in this verse is what I believe we all have experienced in our own lives as we fight against the temptation to sin. Westcott puts it this way,
Sympathy with the sinner in his trial does not depend on the experience of sin but on the experience of the strength of the temptation to sin which only the sinless can know in its full intensity. He who falls yields before the last strain. (Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews)
Here’s what I think Westcott is getting at—we all have breaking points. Some have breaking points that are shorter than others, and some have breaking points that differ among various temptations. But here is the universal truth about breaking points—the closer you come to it the harder it is to not break. I have thought of it this way as well, ‘The longer you withstand, the harder it is to stand.’
Consider this, because Jesus was not able to sin and in fact, never did sin, He went well beyond your breaking point. In fact, whether you agree with me or not about impeccability, the Bible is absolutely clear that Jesus never did sin. So, I stand on solid ground when I say the he endured temptation well beyond your breaking point. The point at which you succumb, He suffered through it. The point at which you fail, He was faithful. The point where you break, He refused to bend. The point where you lose and sin is where Jesus stands in victory. But here’s where this encourage me—Because Jesus was not able to sin, and therefore never did sin, Jesus knows exactly how difficult it is to stand at your breaking point. He knows the full extent of your suffering in temptation—for because He himself suffered when tempted.He knows it in full effect because he stood until the bitter end and won. And because of that, he not only knows your struggle, He knows your struggle even better than you yourself do. And because of that—He is able to help those who are being tempted.(Hebrews 2:18)
So, when the preacher in Hebrews says that Jesus is a great High Priest who is able to sympathize with you in your weaknesses; He means it. He is not some distant Lord who is uninvolved in the trials and sufferings of His people; He is a Lord who has suffered with His people, who has shouldered the cross before us, and the splinters enable Him to sympathize with you. And so, because of this we should not be afraid to draw near to Him and ask for help. Jesus isn’t going to kick you while you’re down or tell you to try harder. Quite the opposite. Jesus gives a helping hand and encourages us to draw near to His throne of grace with boldness to receive mercy and to find grace to help us in times of need. (Hebrews 4:16)
So, here are my answers. Jesus is fully God and fully man whose inability to sin enabled Him to endure the sufferings of temptation until the bitter end and win. What this means for us is that we have a Great High Priest in heaven who knows our struggles even better than we do, who feels sympathetic with us, and who gives us mercy and grace to help in time of need. The invitation should give us a sense of freedom—come to Jesus needy and bring your troubles, for He has endured troubles too and now stands in complete victory.
I’ll see you next time around. Have a great week and be encouraged in the Word. Blessings.
Allison, Gregg R. Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.
Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology, Third Edition. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013.
Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994.
Westcott, B. F., The Epistle to the Hebrews, 1892.