I recently had a conversation with someone about the temptation of Jesus. This person claimed that Jesus could have sinned. I asked him what made him think so. He replied, “Otherwise, His obedience was meaningless.”
This is not an uncommon contention. Some believe that in order for Jesus’ resistance of temptation to be genuine and meaningful, He had to have been capable of sinning. The thought is that if Jesus could not sin, then He has not really experienced temptation. He didn’t sin because He couldn’t sin.
However, as we saw in great detail a couple of weeks ago in Matthew 4 during the temptation in the wilderness, Jesus was tempted. Verse 1 of that chapter told us, Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Pretty clear. The purpose for His going into the wilderness was to be tempted. And we looked at how each of those specific temptations would have pulled at Jesus’ humanity. For example, Jesus was really hungry, having fasted for 40 days. The temptation to turn stones into bread was real. His flesh longed for that food. But He resisted the temptation.
Another classic text on the genuineness of Christ’s temptation is Hebrews 4:15-16: 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. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Jesus was tempted in every respect as we are. There really isn’t any wiggle room there. There are two phrases here that close the door on any claim that Jesus was not really tempted. First, “in every respect.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that Jesus was tempted with every specific temptation possible. Certainly, there are some temptations that wouldn’t apply to Him, like a woman’s temptation to resist her husbands authority. However, Jesus was tempted in a general way to resist authority – the authority of the Father. We could say that “in every respect” means in every area of life. The second important phrase is “as we are.” He was tempted as we are. He did not have any special help or leg up that we do not have. He felt the true weight of temptation as we do.
Verses 15-16 also tell us why the reality of this temptation is import. Without Jesus experiencing real temptation, He could not be a high priest sympathetic with our weaknesses. He would not be able to help us in time of need. Therefore, we would not be able to draw near with confidence to the throne of grace. Christ’s office as our great high priest depended upon His enduring genuine temptation and perfectly resisting it. This is the unmistakable conclusion of the writer of Hebrews. Jesus was tempted in every respect as we are, yet without sin. Therefore, we can draw near to this high priest to receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
So there can be no question that Jesus really experienced genuine temptation. Yet, we have James 1:13, which would seem to claim the opposite: Let no one say when he is tempted, "I am being tempted by God," for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. Jesus is God. Hebrews 1:3 tells us that Jesus is the exact representation of the nature of the Father. So do we have a biblical contradiction on our hands? Strictly speaking, no. The Bible does not say, “Jesus was tempted” and “Jesus was not tempted,” which would be a contradiction if “Jesus” and “tempted” were being used in both sentences in the exact same sense. The Bible does give us four propositions:
1) Jesus was tempted.
2) Jesus was fully man.
3) Jesus was fully God.
4) God cannot be tempted.
Wayne Grudem offers an attempt to use these propositions to answer the question of whether Christ could have sinned. I’ll quote him at length here.
1) " If Jesus’ human nature had existed by itself, independent of his divine nature, then it would have been a human nature just like that which God gave Adam and Eve. It would have been free from sin but nonetheless able to sin. Therefore, if Jesus’ human nature had existed by itself, there was the abstract or theoretical possibility that Jesus could have sinned, just as Adam and Eve’s human natures were able to sin.
2) But Jesus’ human nature never existed apart from union with his divine nature. From the moment of his conception, he existed as truly God and truly man as well. Both his human nature and his divine nature existed united in one person.
3) Although there were some things (such as being hungry or thirsty or weak) that Jesus experienced in his human nature alone and were not experienced in his divine nature, nonetheless, an act of sin would have been a moral act that would apparently have involved the whole person of Christ. Therefore, if he had sinned, it would have involved both his human and divine natures.
4) But if Jesus as a person had sinned, involving both his human and divine natures in sin, then God himself would have sinned, and he would have ceased to be God. Yet that is clearly impossible because of the infinite holiness of God’s nature.
5) Therefore, if we are asking if it was actually possible for Jesus to have sinned, it seems that we must conclude that it was not possible. The union of his human and divine natures in one person prevented it."
The question still remains though, “how could Jesus' temptations have been real if He was not able to sin?” Dr. Bruce Ware has a great illustration for this.
Imagine a swimmer is going to swim the English Channel. A boat will trail him by a few yards just in case he experiences cramps or some other problem. In the event that the boat is needed, it will be there to prevent the swimmer from drowning. So the swimmer swims. And swims. And swims. Exhausted, he eventually reaches the other side of the Channel under his own power.
Imagine if someone on the shore made the ridiculous claim, “You only made it across the Channel because that boat was behind you.” The swimmer would undoubtedly be bothered by this since the truth would be obvious: he made it across the English Channel not because of the boat behind him, but because he swam.
You see, just because Jesus could not sin does not mean that that is why He did not sin. The reason He did not sin was because He resisted the temptation. And to claim that He did not sin because He could not sin is to denigrate the tenacity with which He resisted temptation His entire life.
We feel the weight of temptation only until we give in. He experienced the full weight of temptation in an intensity that no one ever has because He upheld the weight of it for 33 years without faltering. And for that reason, He is a great high priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 538-39.
Posted by Greg Birdwell