By Leif L.
Peccable: Liable to sin or error
Impeccable: Not liable to sin, incapable of sin
The debate of the nature of Christ looms large in many Christian circles. It is an important question, one that requires more than a simplistic answer. How we resolve this issue relates to and directly impacts at least three areas of christology:
- Who we believe the man Jesus Christ was
- His relationship to the rest of humanity
- The purpose of his mission
The question of peccability/impeccability is not whether Jesus did sin, as the scripture is plain on this point (he did not sin, see 1 Peter 2:22). The question is usually phrased, “Could Jesus have sinned, or was he unable to sin?” The Scripture does not offer us a succinct answer to this query, hence the history of debate.
However, the Scripture does offer us clear direction in regards to the three points above, which is material that we can use to indirectly answer this question. However, as that would require us to cover a vast amount of material, I am going to attempt to answer this question in a simpler and more direct way.
I believe that prerequisite to correctly answering this question is to define “ability”. This question inquires whether Jesus had the ability to commit sin, or if he lacked that ability.
Ability: Power or capacity to do or act physically, legally, morally, financially, etc.
In reality, I believe the answer would be that Jesus was both able and unable to sin. The basis for this seemingly contradictory assertion is found in understanding the difference between natural ability and moral ability.
Natural ability: Since Jesus took upon himself humanity, truly and really, he was “tempted in all points as we are”. He had the abilities, capacities, liabilities and frailties of our nature. He possessed the “natural ability” to sin – that is, being in human form, he had every tool at his disposal to commit rebellion, just as Adam did, or as we do.
Yet, this is not the full story of who Jesus was. All Christians admit that the humanity of Christ is not the full story of Jesus’ identity.
Moral ability: Jesus was not only human, but also Divine, the only Son of the Father, one with the Father from eternity, and filled with the Holy Spirit without measure. It was by Him and for Him that the worlds were made, and He is the one who holds the cosmos together.
As the fountainhead of truth and righteousness, Jesus lacked the “moral ability” to sin. It would be as impossible for the author of eternal law and righteousness to sin, as it would be for water to run up hill. Nay; the world would rather turn backward, and the stars clash in disarray than for him to partake in unrighteousness.
I believe this apparent paradox was apprehended by the author of the letter to the Hebrews, who said that “he was in all points tempted as we are (peccable by natural ability), yet without sin (impeccable by moral inability). He was “made of the seed of David according to the flesh,” (Romans 1:4) yet “separate from sinners” (Heb. 7:26).
Jesus had the natural ability to sin, in common with other sons of Adam, for he took on our humanity. He bore our weaknesses. When his cousin, John the Baptist, was executed by Herod, Jesus felt all of the sorrow and grief that any of us would have experienced, and wished to withdraw to a solitary place (read Mark 6:31).
Yet, He was locked on to another, higher law, and that law was the very transcript of his character. That higher principle, which was his very life, was inviolable.
Our temptations originate from within and without. Jesus’ temptations were directed at him only from the outside. He said that “the ruler of this world is coming, and he has nothing in Me” (John 14:30). Yet, regarding fallen humanity, he declared that “He knew all men, and had no need that anyone should testify of man, for He knew what was in man” (John 2:24-25).
There was something present “in man”, which was absent from inside the Lord. Satan has found something in each one of us; even in those who are called “righteous”; Noah, Lot and David are but a few examples of this, righteous yet fallen. We are born with a bent toward sin; it is woven into every fiber of our being, like a virus that infects every cell of its host.
Jesus was born without this spiritual corruption and propensity toward rebellion and evil. He was not infected with the terminal illness of sin. He had a body that was wracked with the curses sin had brought upon it, and with the senses and sensations of all human beings. But rather than naturally embracing and finding fulfillment in the temptations that come through these senses, he had a repulsion to follow anything but the will of his Father, who he identified with completely.
Divine nature is the antithesis to sinful nature. Holiness is the opposite of corruption. We are fallen, he was unfallen. We are born blind, he was seeing; we in darkness, he was the Light of the World; we are born spiritually dead, but he was filled with the life of the Spirit.
The salvation of man was already completed in the mind, plan, and will of God before the foundation of the world. Isaiah prophesied that “he will not fail” (Isaiah 42:4). He is the Lamb of God, slain from the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8). Prophetically, it was certain that Jesus would not fail.
We must be wary of diminishing the humanity of Christ, which is crucial to our salvation. Yet, to believe that there was genuine risk (in God’s mind and plan) of Jesus “failing the test of his humanity” completely misunderstands the mission and underestimates the person of Jesus, who is very God and holds the cosmos together. It also attempts to mar the plan of God the Father by diminishing his Eternal Sovereignty and the predetermination of his will.
Jesus did not come to this earth as a test of his character, or to “prove” that perfect law keeping was possible by ordinary humans. He came to conquer where Adam and all of his descendants had failed, and to die to atone for their sins. He came to save us, because we could not save ourselves; not to demonstrate that we are able to save ourselves.
I believe Jesus was both peccable and impeccable, within the context of natural and moral ability. To hold this healthy tension answers Scripture, and is faithful to the revelation of who our Saviour really was while he walked among us.