Could Christ Sin?

In the article “Apollinaris and the Doctrine of Christ (1)” (Standard Bearer, Jan. 1, 1999), Prof. Hanko states that it is an error to believe that “the temptations of Christ were real only because Christ could have fallen into sin.”

My question is this: If Christ in His manhood, in His humanity, while He was walking around on earth could not have sinned when Satan tempted Him, how was His perfect obedience to God the Father worth anything, except that He was some kind of robot? I believe that Christ was sinless (He did not sin) and that He was born without a sin-nature like us, but I thought He was the second Adam and, being perfect as Adam was before the fall, He too could have fallen. The fact that He did not sin and fall, when He “was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 2:18; 4:15), makes His obedience glorious. But if He only obeyed as some sort of human robot, is not this disgraceful to His honor?

Does not the Heidelberg Catechism suggest that Christ had to be like Adam in Lord’s Day 5, Question 15 and in Lord’s Day 6, Question 16?

I need an explanation that makes clear to me what obedience is in someone who cannot possibly disobey. I do not want to hold a false doctrine, but I am troubled by a view of Christ’s obedience as a robot-like walk.

Al Salmon

Moorestown, NJ


The brother, I fear, presents a

false dilemma when he suggests that the only two possible alternatives in our explanation of the Lord’s temptations are: a robot-like obedience for our Lord, or a possibility that the Lord could sin. Is there not a third?

The two possibilities presented by Mr. Salmon are both manifestly impossible. A robot-like obedience is no obedience at all, for it is not willing obedience; and willing obedience lies at the very heart of the efficacious sacrifice of Christ — as Mr. Salmon himself suggests.

The possibility of Christ sinning is equally unacceptable, for sin is always committed by the “person,” and Christ is the person of the Son of God, the second person of the holy Trinity. To affirm that Christ could sin (even if He never did) is to affirm that God can sin. We may not, of course, say that.

As I suggested in my article, some have attempted to avoid the dilemma by saying, as Mr. Salmon does, that the possibility of Christ sinning rests “in His manhood, in His humanity, while He was walking around on earth.” But, for three reasons, this will not do: 1) It suggests that Christ could do something as a man which He could not do as God. That is the intolerable separation of the two natures forbidden by Chalcedon. All Christ’s works He performed as the one divine-human Mediator. 2) It opens the door to Nestorianism because it gives to Christ’s humanity a human person, with the result that Christ is two persons: a human person who could sin in His human nature; and the divine person of the eternal Son of God in His divine nature. 3) It rests the reality of obedience on the possibility of sin. Why should obedience imply the possibility of sin? Why does obedience become “robot-like” where no possibility of sin exists? The answer to these questions is not clear. The fact is that in glory we shall be perfectly obedient to do the entire will of God, yet we shall not only never sin, but we shall be unable ever to sin again. Augustine called this obedience the highest freedom, the non posse peccare (not to be able to sin).

We must affirm readily and fully that, while most emphatically Christ could not sin, yet His temptations were very real and He was indeed tempted in all points as we are tempted. He had to learn obedience. And He had to learn obedience by the things that He suffered, which things include temptation. Mr. Salmon’s references to Hebrews 2:18 and 4:15 are altogether to the point. But is there not here a mistaken notion? Does the reality of temptation rest upon the possibility of sin? Why should that be the case? It was possible for the Lord to be truly tempted as we are tempted and yet to be unable to sin because without actually sinning and without even possessing the ability to sin, one can still know and sense the attractiveness of the sin presented in the temptation. To illustrate: Although I have countless temptations against which I need to battle, rock music is not, for me, a temptation. It is ugly, repulsive, without any attractive features. It doesn’t tempt me. There is no temptation involved. But other temptations to sin are appealing. When one knows and sees the attractiveness of a sinful deed, has he already sinned? I do not believe so. Else temptation itself would inevitably imply sin. One can certainly know the appeal of a wicked deed and not succumb to the temptation and perform the deed. To understand why a deed is attractive is not, in itself, sin. It becomes sin when one commits the deed.

Although Christ was tempted all His life long, Hebrews 4:15 refers especially to the temptation of Christ by Satan in the wilderness. When Satan came to Christ in the desert and presented to Christ a “short-cut” to His kingdom, which was the way of popular appeal and the adulation of the multitudes rather than the way of the cross, Christ saw the horror of the cross in all its frightening severity — a horror which later in the garden pressed out of Him His agonizing prayer. He saw the attractiveness of Satan’s proposals. Satan, as it were, said: “There is no need for you to go to your throne through that dreadful way of suffering and death on the cross. Change these stones into bread and make the wilderness a Paradise. All the people will crown you king (as they wanted to do when later Christ fed 5,000 men). Show your supernatural powers and point the people to the fact, at the same time, that you fulfill prophecy; jump from a temple tower and the angels will save you. The crowds will bring you in triumph to Jerusalem and crown you king.” Could not Christ understand and sense the attractiveness of the devil’s proposal? Was He immune to shrinking from the dreadful task of bearing the wrath of His heavenly Father? Was He callous to the suffering that would be inflicted on Him? Could He not see clearly that from the viewpoint of the ease of the road to His kingdom Satan’s proposals were appealing? He was like us in all things.

But He also saw that the proposals of Satan required submission to Satan. He saw that the way which Satan suggested was the way of disobedience. He would never again be able to sing Psalm 40: “I come to do thy will, O God. In the volume of the book it is written of me.” It is not difficult to see that Christ could truly experience the tug of temptation. But to know the tug of temptation is not to succumb to it; and, therefore, it does not imply sin.

It is well to remember that the same is true of us. To be able to understand, in the circumstances of our life, the appealing attractiveness of the sin of fornication is not necessarily to sin. Such becomes a sin when we commit fornication — in deed or even in our thoughts.

Our Lord Jesus Christ, Paul tells us in II Corinthians 5, “knew no sin.” That knowing no sin does not mean only that Christ did no sin (else Paul would have said that). It means that sin was totally foreign to Him in such a complete way that sin was an impossibility. Yet He became sin — for us! Imagine such a great wonder as that! He who knew no sin became sin for us. And, because He could be tempted in all points as we are tempted — though without sin — He can be and is a sympathetic High Priest. Thank God for Christ!

Nevertheless, Mr. Salmon’s questions are hard questions which we cannot fully understand. Their difficulty rests in the mystery of God become flesh — the wonder of the incarnation, the wonder of our salvation.

The discussion here is an interesting one, and if Mr. Salmon desires to comment further, he is encouraged to do so.

— Prof. Hanko