Sunday, September 8, 2013

Christ and Sin Revisited

I originally wrote about this back in 2011, however, I felt it was worth revisiting from a more formal, logical perspective. Could it be the case that Christ could have chosen to sin, had he so desired, in his human incarnation? I do not think so, but a couple of syllogisms should be explained first.

11.    God cannot sin.
22.  Jesus is God.
33.    Therefore, Jesus cannot sin.
44.    If one is a man, then he can sin.
55.    Jesus is a man.
66.    Therefore, Jesus can sin.

Obviously, (3) and (6) are contradictory, but both arguments are logically valid. This means that at least one of the premises in one of the arguments must be rejected (since both conclusions cannot be true at the same time and in the same sense). The first thing we must understand for proper Christology is that Jesus Christ is a divine person; He is the Second Person of the Trinity. He was not two persons (one divine and one human), nor was he a divine-human hybrid (as though he were half-God, half-man). He was one divine person with two natures, a divine nature and a human nature.

So, let us examine (1). God cannot sin. This seems true enough, but if we are to challenge it, we must say that if God can sin, this implies, amongst other things, that he has moral duties to someone or something, which is biblically and theologically false. God’s nature is the foundation for moral values, so that he cannot deny himself logically. So that stays. What about (2)? Orthodox views state that Jesus is God, but what does this mean? This is what is called the “is of identity.” Jesus’ identity was God; he was a divine person. So, obviously, the conclusion, Jesus cannot sin, follows logically and inescapably.

But what about the other syllogism? Well, we must ask ourselves, is the “is” in (4) and (5) of identity? I think it will be clear that “is” in (4) is of identity; if one is a human person, then he can sin. However, in (5), the “is” is called the “is of predication”; it is an attribute of something. An example is to say that since Mr. Leporacci’s child was born, he is a father. But Mr. Leporacci was not a father when he was seven years old. Therefore, being a father is not Mr. Leporacci’s personal identity; being a father is predicated of Mr. Leporacci now that his son is born. Similarly, Jesus is a divine person, and he was not a human before the Incarnation; he took on flesh, which necessarily implies there was a point he did not have it. So being human is not the personal identity of Christ, it is his predicative nature (fully what it means to be human, of course!).

In that case, however, we can explain the second syllogism as follows:
4*. If one is a human person, then he can sin.
5*. Jesus has a human nature.
6. Therefore, Jesus can sin.

However, now the conclusion (the “therefore” statement) doesn’t follow from the new premises. Thus, Jesus cannot sin.

What about temptation? Is it really impossible to be tempted if you cannot possibly fulfill it? Not at all. Suppose it’s your birthday, and your spouse (or mom, for you unmarried people) makes you a great cake. You and your family eat half of this cake, and the rest is placed in the refrigerator, with the instructions not to touch it until the next day. You go to bed, and wake up halfway through the night, craving more cake! You are extremely tempted to get up and eat some, but you persevere. When you wake up, you go to the fridge to see that the cake is all gone! It turns out that, shortly after you went to sleep, your devious spouse/family ate all the rest before you even woke to be tempted. You were truly tempted, but it wasn’t possible to act on that temptation. This shows that it is at least possible for genuine temptation to occur even when it is not possible to be fulfilled, and that means temptation and ability are not identical.

Returning to the idea of (4-6), perhaps it can be salvaged after all. Perhaps, instead of Jesus’ merely being a human in the predicative sense, he was essentially a human. So, we can create a valid syllogism by stating:

4*. If one is a human person, then he can sin.
5’. Jesus is a human person.
6. Therefore, Jesus can sin.

Now, one can see that (5’) is clearly different from (5*), and both are in turn different from (5). (5’) contradicts orthodox Christology, and beyond that, it seems plainly false. Biblically, the Word became flesh, which means, roughly, that Jesus became a man. If that is the case, then his being a man is a contingent fact about him. Contingent facts about persons are not essential to their particular personhood; those would be necessary facts (like Jesus’ being divine). So (5’) should be regarded as false. But there may be another way to salvage the argument.

4’. For any one who is a person, if one has a human nature, then he can sin.
5.*. Jesus has a human nature.
6. Therefore, Jesus can sin.
(4’) can really only be affirmed on either an inductive basis or a fallacious basis. The latter basis is simply to assume what one is trying to prove; one would assume that Jesus’ human nature means that he can sin, and so formulate the premise that leads to that same conclusion. The former basis would be to take a kind of survey of all of those with a human nature, so that one sees that every instantiation of human nature has the ability to sin, so Jesus does too.

There are a few problems with this. First, one does not take an inductive survey to dictate metaphysical possibility. There could always be an exception (namely, the one we are discussing, and to assume its impossibility is to beg the question). Second, it assumes that Jesus human nature does not differ in any way (when all sides should agree that it differs in at least one major respect: the sin nature [here “nature” is used in two different senses]). Finally, it does not take into account that sin is something a person does, not a nature (William Lane Craig pointed out this thought). In short, it seems impossible that the divine person Jesus Christ sinned (in the metaphysical sense).


  1. Hi Randy,

    I was asked a question by someone about the issue of temptation and whether thoughts are sinful. I wasn't completely sure how to answer so thought you could help :). It'd seem that Hebrews 4:15 teaches that it is not a sin to be tempted, so therefore someone who, say, considers cheating on his spouse but in the end holds fast and remains faithful, has not sinned. Is that right? But, if so, would it also be correct to say that a Christian who finds himself in such a situation would've been more faithful to God had he not even considered cheating? If he had never been tempted to do wrong would that not show he has a better character than one who is tempted and, if so, would that not show temptation can be wrong in some sense? But then what about sinful thoughts such as lusting and hating? They seem to be regarded as sin even if we don't physically act on them.

    1. Hey man, glad to hear from you!

      Definitely some thoughts can be sinful. While temptation *of itself* is not sinful, there are two considerations: 1. Temptations, so long as they're not directly the result of sinful actions/attitudes on the part of a person, are not a desirable state of affairs. Consider someone who does their level best to take care of themselves, and yet gets a type of cancer. The cancer is not their fault, and yet it is still not a desirable state of affairs. 2. Once the temptation is presented, if entertained beyond the immediate temptation, it is a sin. So, suppose it occurs to you that your finances would go much smoother if you accepted this computer passcode presented to you that allows you to take about $100k per year from a conglomerate of billionaires. If you dismiss it out of hand, you have not sinned. If, however, due to greed, you consider it, weighing the pros and cons, *even after understanding that the action is wrong*, then it seems to me you have sinned. Why?

      Because you have taken something presented to you that you understand to be wrong, and you let an attitude (in our example, greed) battle in your mind.

      So, to answer your question, a Christian who was never tempted wouldn't be of better character or proven morality (this is part of the reason Christ faced such temptation--to demonstrate his sinlessness!), but a Christian who, when faced with a temptation, and upon understanding that the act is wrong, dismisses it out of hand--that is moral character!

      Lust is not itself a temptation: lust is an attitude we can cultivate or not, and it results from a temptation. Lust is not mere desire, but is more like greed for sexual sin. I hope this helps!

  2. OK thanks for the help Randy :)


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