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Peccability or Impeccability, that is the question...

I remember back when I was in Bible college, we studied the matter of whether or not Jesus could have ever sinned. No one debates that indeed He never sinned, for that is settled in scripture by various passages such as 1 Peter 2:21-23:

1 Peter 2:21-23 21 For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, 22 who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; 23 and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously...

Likewise, there are many other passages that speaks to the absolute purity of Christ:

  • - Never did He cross God's purposes.
  • - Never did He seek His own will rather than God's (John 6:38).
  • - Never did He do something that was unlike God (Hebrews 7:26).
  • - Never did He do something that was impure, sinfully harsh/mean/critical.
  • - Never in His heart was there a doubt about God or a moment of bitterness (Isaiah 63:7). [Some other time, I'll discuss the reason for Christ's words on the cross: "My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?" But I will say this, back then the ancient way to refer to a Psalm was to quote it's first line and I'm pretty sure that Christ was citing Psalm 22 (which prophetically spoke of that moment and what it would entail) to show the people that it was being fulfilled in their presence. So rather than being doubt in God, it was reminding people of one of the great passages that prophetically told what God's Messiah would endure].

So, back to the impeccability of Christ; all this is to say that Jesus was fully human and like us in all ways but one--He never sinned.

This underscores an important truth that we all need to understand: God's standard is perfection and since we are imperfect beings, our ability to enter heaven is only because of Christ's perfection and righteousness. Habakkuk 1:18 says that God is too pure to have any evil in His presence. 1 John 1:5 says that God's holiness is light a light where there is no shifting or shadows. Therefore, if I were to bring my unredeemed sinful soul into the presence of a perfectly pure God, I would be bringing their dark sin into a place where there has never been sin, rebellion, or selfishness. Thus, Christ has to be perfectly righteous because, according to 2 Corinthians 5:21, we need Christ's righteousness to cover our sins. 

Allow me to take a moment longer to explain this point: We are sinful beings. Yet, because Christ's righteousness covers us, we can enter into God's presence. The biblical word for this is "atonement" where Christ's righteousness (His life as manifest in His blood) covers our sins and blots them out. Atonement speaks of covering our sins so that we are no longer bringing our sinful selves before God. Instead, we have access to the Father through the righteousness of Jesus Christ His Son. This is why Jesus said in John 14:6, "I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father but through Me." Thus, when the Father looks upon us, He sees the perfection and obedience of His beloved Son. This is why we need to be "IN CHRIST" to enter heaven (Romans 8:1, Ephesians 2:13). So hopefully it's clear that Christ had to be totally perfect and without sin for us to enter heaven. If there was ever a point where Christ had sinned, then not only would He be unfit for heaven, but His righteousness  would no longer be righteous  and He would be unable to make us pure before the Lord.

The reason why people hold so fervently to the impeccability of Christ is because of the reality that since Christ is in Heaven now, if He actually could sin before, then He could still sin now. If He could still sin now, then their may be a point where He might sin in the future. If that ever happened, then our atonement is always in jeopardy. But if Jesus cannot sin now, then it never could sin before.

I might respond that while all this may be true, it misses out on the eternal nature of the Son and the Father. Being that Jesus is eternal, His obedience is eternal. When Jesus says, “I always live to do the Father’s will” then He
always lives to do the Father’s will. If everything He says is true, then that statement is always true too!

Likewise, since the Father is omniscient (and so is the Son) then the Father will know if there ever would be a time when Jesus would sin in the future. God can look to the eternal future and knows that His Son has always and will always obey Him. Thus, for God to accept the infinite sacrifice of Jesus, it inherently includes the fact that God, with infinite understanding knows that His Son will completely obey Him forever. Thus, the sacrifice of Jesus is forever sufficient and acceptable. Praise God!

So all this brings us to the debate about Christ and sin: could He EVER SIN? Was it even possible? The fancy terms for this is the impeccability (inability to sin) or the peccability (ability to sin) of Christ.

Okay, so let's dive into this topic further. To keep the discussion going we also need to understand that sinfulness is not NECESSARY to be fully human. Often people say "To err is human..." but that's not
entirely true. Adam and Eve were created as total and complete humans, yet they did not have to sin. When they sinned, it was a willful introduction of rebellion into their lives. It was not already there. There was nothing corrupt in their DNA. It was not mandatory. So despite the fact that they did sin, we need to understand that they did not HAVE to sin. Sin was not an automatic component of humanity.

However, the sin nature has been passed down to us from Adam. The sin nature is the willful bent that we all have towards sin. We see this in the animal world all the time. I have a cute yellow lab at home. When I drop some food on the floor, he's very good about rushing over to eat it. But it always cracks me up. If I drop a piece of meat on the floor, he snarfs it up in a moment. But if it's a piece of lettuce or broccoli, he might pick it up, he might lick off the salad dressing, but he spits out the vegetable. It's not in his nature to eat and unless forced or tricked, he won't eat what goes against his nature.

It's the same with us. We have a sin nature. It's our bent. When given the opportunity, we will sin. I've seen this many times in life. One of the clearer examples was back when I was on a short-term missions trip in Croatia. The Bosnian War has recently ended and the people were struck with grief and guilt. You may recall that the Serbs and Bosnians were killing each other so systematically that it was called genocide. The reason, I was told, was because they were so filled with fear that the Serbs shot their Bosnian neighbors and visa-versa. It's not that they were monsters--but they were motivated by their nature for self-preservation, even at the expense of their neighbor's life. We might think that we're a sophisticated, moral society, in reality we're a couple of laws away from taking things into our own hands.

So why am I going into all this? To explain that we all have a sin nature except for two people--the First Adam and the Second Adam. The First Adam is Adam from creation. The Second Adam is a biblical term for Christ (e.g Romans 5:12-21). Jesus was fully human, but like Adam, He was not born with a sin nature. It was not passed on to Him. You might recall that in Luke 1:35 the Holy Spirit comes upon Mary in such a way that she conceives Jesus. Because the Holy Spirit was involved in Jesus’ conception, there was no transfer of the sin nature. Like Adam, He did not have to sin.

Okay, let’s get back to the peccability versus impeccability discussion. The question that has been debated for centuries is this: Could Christ have even sinned to begin with? Adam was without a sin nature, but sinned anyway. How about Jesus? Could He have sinned? Put another way, was Christ peccable (able to sin) or impeccable (unable to sin)?

Most scholars say that Christ was impeccable, that is He could not have sinned. I basically agree, but have lingering questions.

Now aside from debating for debating's sake, why discuss this question anyway? First, there is the practical matter of looking to Christ for encouragement when we're struggling. It’s nice to know that Christ understands what it feels like to be human. Second, any doctrine we hold must account for all of scripture, and there are a handful of verses that need to be addressed. One of the key verses is Hebrews 4:15 which says, “
For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.

I've often wondered, if Christ could not sin, in what way was he tempted? If He could not sin, was He truly tempted as we are? It would seem to me that this passage says the exact opposite: that Jesus DID undergo temptations. How can Jesus undergo temptations if He fundamentally could not sin?

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Jesus was tempted like we are. Nor am I saying that He felt any inclination to sin. But it seems that the debate over peccability/impeccability violates scripture.

Here’s one passage them helps me understand the Impeccabilty/Peccability question.  In John 6:15 Jesus had just fed the 5,000 and the crowds were intending to make Him king. At that moment, if Jesus agreed to their plans, He would have sinned because that would be contrary to the will of God. Knowing this, Jesus left them and went away to be alone in the mountains. We don’t know the exact reason why He left them. However, the net result was that He was praying to His Father and was fully removed from a course of action that would be sin.

Furthermore, in John 6:38, Jesus explained that He only does the Father’s will. He told them, "I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me." It seems that He was referring back to that moment when the crowds wanted to make Him king the day before. He turned them down because it was not the Father's will.

In that moment when the crowds sought to make Him king, there were two ways to handle that situation: 1) Decline the crowds and go to the cross = God's Will. 2) Accept the crowds and go wherever the path led = Man's will. The fork in the road was set before Christ. And like always, He chose the right and perfect way, the way of submission and obedience to the Father. (For what it's worth, for most of us, we just chose our own way and wonder why life seems to get so scrambled). But the Impeccability Argument seems to imply that there was no real "fork in the road" for Christ. It seems that Jesus technically “could” have let Himself be commissioned as King. It wasn’t a magnetic force field that kept Him from sin, it was His purity and holiness.

At the same time, I don’t think there was ever a chance of Christ sinning. Christ was not in the throes of indecision at these moments. Yes, Christ who was God, who the day before made atoms rearrange in space/time to become fish and bread and a solid support to Him in water, this same God could do whatever He wanted. At the same time, however, Christ who was perfectly pure and holy, always WANTED to conform to His Father's nature and will. One who is pure, loves God's ways. One who is righteous wants to live out the law of God. One who is holy conforms to God's nature. This is true of us too--that the more we conform to God, the more we will love Him, His ways, His principles and our hearts/minds will increasingly pursue those things that God is pursing.

So while I stand with the Impeccability folks I wish that the position allowed for more flexibility with passages such as Hebrews 4:15. I never want to say that Christ sinned, nor would I want to say that there was ever a conflict in His heart about sin-- I just don't understand how the removal of even the possibility of sin fits Hebrews 4:15.

My conclusion is not on one side or the other (though I’d want to go on record and say that I’m with the Impeccabilty Group). It’s just that as I study scripture, I think that the question itself is ultimately not valid. Scripture doesn’t allow us to hold to a position that either Christ could have sinned and did not (because then our salvation would always be in jeopardy) or that He could not have sinned in the first place (because then passages such as Hebrews 4:15 and John 5 don’t make sense).

Ultimately, I rest with scripture. Scripture tells us that He faced the same situations and trials we faced, yet passed through them in complete obedience to the will and nature of God. Praise God for our righteous and Holy Redeemer!

So those are some of my thoughts, I'd like to hear yours...

Last modified on Friday, 12 April 2013 21:10
Russ Brewer

Russ Brewer

Rescued from the domain of darkness, transferred to the kingdom of the Son. Undershepherd of Grace. Husband of Corinne. Father of three. Chew-toy to Zeke...