Could Jesus Sin? The Problem of the Incarnate Temptation

unknownThe consistent teaching of the New Testament is that Jesus, “the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29) is himself without sin.[1] He is a perfect sacrifice for the sins of man because he himself, unlike the rest of us, never did wrong. He is without blemish. He is not bent, crooked, or fallen. There is, however, a philosophical problem lurking in the shadows.

The orthodox conception of Jesus—held by Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians—is that he is one person, fully God, fully man, with two natures (human and divine). Given the divine nature, it seems that Jesus cannot sin. In other words, not only did Jesus not sin, but he could not sin. But if he could not sin, then how was Jesus genuinely tempted (as Scripture and tradition teach) to sin? Call this worry the Problem of Incarnate Temptation.[2]

It seems there are at least two possible responses. First, it could be argued that Jesus was not essentially but only contingently good. Jesus underwent a radical self-limitation or Kenosis in the incarnation. (He “emptied himself”). If so then Jesus could be tempted since there was a genuine possibility of him sinning. He never did in fact sin, but he could have. The problem with this reply, according to Thomas Morris, is it seems to lead to a less exalted view of deity.[3] With the Kenotic view, God does not possess unrestricted and superlatively great attributes like omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence, but more restricted attributes such as: being omnipotent unless freely and temporarily choosing to be otherwise, being omniscient unless freely and temporarily choosing to be otherwise, and so on. Moreover if following those such as Athanasius (293-373 AD) Jesus was at once sustaining the universe and a baby in the manger, present in all things and located in space and time in Israel, and so on, then it seems there was no metaphysical emptying of the divine when Jesus took on a human nature.[4]

A more attractive response is to argue that Jesus could not sin, did not sin, and was genuinely tempted because he did not know that he could not sin.[5] In the incarnation Jesus did not always know that he could not sin and thus did not know that sinning was inimical to his essential nature.[6] In taking on a human nature, Jesus chose to live out his earthly life on human terms, dependent on the Holy Spirit for insight and power, growing in wisdom and stature (like us mere humans) with God and man (Luke 2: 52).

Importantly according to Tom Morris, taking on a human body and mind limited in knowledge, power, and presence does not entail that he himself (the Eternal Son) in his deepest and continuing mode of existence, was limited in knowledge, power, or presence. Rather, Jesus has two distinct minds or systems of mentality: (1) the eternal mind of God the Son (all knowing, all powerful, etc.) and (2) the distinctively earthly mind (that learns, grows, etc.). The divine mind has access to the human mind, but not vice-versa. If something like Morris’s two-minds view is correct, then it is possible to uphold the genuine temptation of Jesus, even though—as fully divine—he could not sin.



[1] See also 2 Cor 5:21, Heb 4:15, 1 Peter 2:22, and 1 John 3:5.

[2] This objection is raised by Nicolas Everitt, in “Problems with Omnipotence,” in Debating Christian Theism, eds. J. P. Moreland, Khaldoun Swies, and Chad V. Meister (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 147-57.

[3] For a nice summary of Morris’s view, see Thomas V. Morris, Our Idea of God (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1991), chap. 9.

[4] Ibid., 168–9.

[5] Another option, which I shall ignore, it to argue that genuine temptation does not require the possibility of sinning.

[6] As Tom Morris puts it, “if…the full accessible belief-set of his earthly mind did not rule out the possibility of his sinning, he could be genuinely tempted, in that range of consciousness, to sin.” In Tom Morris, The Logic of God Incarnate (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986), 148.


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