We all know and believe that Christ was sinless, but could Christ have sinned? You see, being sinless and being incapable of sin are two entirely different things. This is a question that divides some in history of evangelical and reformed thought. The question revolves around what is called by theologians the impeccability of Christ. No Bible-believing, conservative, confessional Christian will deny that Christ was without sin. This is clearly taught in Scripture itself:
•“Which of you convicts Me of sin? And if I tell the truth, why do you not believe Me?” (John 8:46 NKJV)
•“For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us,
that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
(2 Corinthians 5:21 NKJV)
•“For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15 NKJV)
•“How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?”
(Hebrews 9:14 NKJV)
•“And you know that He was manifested to take away our sins, and in Him there is no sin.” (1 John 3:5 NKJV)
The question, though, is not did Christ have sin, but was Christ even capable of sin. The impeccability of Christ centers on this question. There are two answers one can give to this question: (1) Either Christ was capable of sin but didn’t sin (peccable); or (2) Christ was incapable of sin and therefore couldn’t sin (impeccable).
As I said, this question divides Christians. As such, it’s not a question between heresy and orthodoxy, but how one understands the Bible and Christian theology. For example, men such as Sinclair Ferguson and the late R. C. Sproul have held to the “peccability” of Christ, that Christ, in His human nature was able to sin, but did not. For me, personally, it would be hard to hold a position that was contrary to one in which both Ferguson and Sproul agreed. But I would say that believing Christ was capable of sin is wrong, and that we should hold to the impeccability of Christ. As I respond further, I am going to reference ancient debates on Christology (the doctrine of Christ) and some of the ancient heresies that the early church refuted.
When it comes to the person of Christ, the early church affirmed four propositions: (1) Jesus Christ is fully and completely divine; (2) Jesus Christ is fully and completely human; (3) The divine and human natures of Christ are distinct; and (4) the divine and human natures of Christ are united in one person. Those who want to affirm that Christ was capable of sin do so to support the second affirmation (the full and complete humanity of Christ). Here’s how the argument goes: If Jesus was incapable of sin (impeccable), then He is not fully and completely human because humans are capable of sin. To claim that Jesus is incapable of sin is to assert that Jesus is more than human, super-human, if you will. They will claim that to assert the impeccability of Christ is to slip into an ancient heresy called Docetism. Docetism taught that Christ was not fully human, but only appeared to be human.
Having said that, how would someone like me, who holds to the impeccability of Christ, respond to this argument? There are a couple of things I can say. First, to claim the impeccability of Christ is not to deny or downplay the full human nature of Christ. Sin is not an inherent part of human nature, but rather an inherent part of fallen human nature and a result of the fall. Adam, like Christ, was created without sin. While it is true that Adam was capable of sin, sin was not part of his nature. How do we know this? Because we know that the goal of humanity is to live in full and perfect communion with the Lord Jesus Christ in glory. Humanity in glory will be impeccable because we will have bodies that are immortal, incorruptible, powerful, and glorious
(1 Corinthians 15:42ff). So, not only is sin not inherent to human nature, but the ultimate end for human nature is also to be in a glorified state in which even the possibility of sin will be no more.
Second, the reason Christ was without sin is due to the virgin birth. Jesus did not inherit a corrupt human nature from Adam like the rest of us. We (you, me, the whole of humanity) are born in sin. We are corrupt from birth, and we add to our corruption daily through our sin. Jesus, as the Last Adam, had a pristine human nature untainted by sin. That human nature was them united to the divine nature of the Second Person of the Trinity.
Now you might be thinking that even if Christ had a pristine human nature like Adam, wasn’t that nature still capable of sin? If that is true, then isn’t Christ capable of sin? Yes, to the first question. No, to the second. Human nature this side of glory is capable of sin. In the abstract, the human nature of Christ was capable of sin. But we do not speak of a “human nature” sinning, but a person. When you sin, you don’t say, “My fallen human nature sinned again.” You say, “I sinned again.” We cannot speak of the human nature of Christ apart from the unity of divine and human nature in the one person, Jesus Christ. Once that human nature is united to the divine nature, we need to cease speaking of Christ being capable of sin. That’s tantamount to saying, “God can sin.”
Every Bible-believing Christian would affirm that God is incapable of sin or evil. If it’s true of God, then it’s true of the God-Man, Jesus Christ. To claim that Christ, in His human nature, is capable of sin, is to, in my opinion, slip into another ancient heresy, Nestorianism. Nestorianism taught that the divine and human natures in Christ are so distinct that there are two persons in one body. It strikes at the unity of the divine and human nature in the one person of Jesus Christ. In the end, we need to affirm what the Chalcedonian Creed (451 AD) affirmed regarding the two natures of Christ that there ought to be “no change, no confusion, no division, and no separation.”
So back to the question at hand. I think it is wrong to claim that Christ could sin. As mentioned above, that is the same as saying God could sin. “Jesus was made in every way like his brothers, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). That is the key phrase. Note, the author of Hebrews doesn’t say Jesus was made like His brothers, “yet without sinning,” but “without sin.” In His human nature, Christ had no sin, and in His divine nature, He could not sin, so Jesus Christ was not only without sin, but He was impeccable, incapable of sinning. This is what we should preach and teach to the people of God. To suggest otherwise, puts our salvation on shaky ground.
Rev. Carl F. Gobelman
Emmanuel Reformed Church, Sutton, NE