Impeccability of Christ

[Here are thoughts in response to a fellow student’s comments on the temptations of Jesus Christ.]

First, I think it is our loss theologically (and a touch illogical) when teachers speak of impeccability as a sort of limitation. It is usually discussed in terms of inability to sin, like it is some loss in ability. So we place this sanction on God because he is perfectly holy; and speaking of God, who cannot be tempted, as one who cannot sin, makes sense. But as soon as we discuss the same concept with regard to Christ, who definitely was tempted, impeccability takes on a sense of inability, and (as our high priest) deficiency in character. This (il)logic is so strong, that some are tempted to deny the prima facie statements of Scripture and say that Christ wasn’t really tempted. Because how can anyone be tempted, if he has no ability to sin?

So, our first pitfall is to take impeccability as some sort of loss – loss of range of options. This is illogical. If Christ (or the Father) cannot sin because part of his will is handcuffed, then there is a loss of some of his volitional ability. But if he cannot sin, because it is against his own nature to do evil, then that is no externally imposed limitation. No, rather it is fully consistent with full freedom, yes, from a human perspective, ability to sin.

To borrow an illustration about omnipotence may help explain what I’m saying. Question: “Can God make a rock so large that he himself cannot move it?” Answer: “Of course he can, he’s just not that stupid!”

Question: “Did Jesus truly have the ability to jump from the pinnacle of the temple and call angels to protect him from harm?”  Answer: “Of course he did, he’s just not that stupid!”

Impeccability should not be seen as a limitation. This truth, I think, is obvious when we use impeccability (rarely) to describe people. A man who has demonstrated over many years his absolute faithfulness and love for his wife might develop an enemy who whispers a rumor of his involvement in an extra-marital affair. His friends hear the rumor and respond, “Impossible!” That response is not to be interpreted as a limitation in his ability, but rather an exaltation of his faithfulness. It is even so with God and Christ.

Second, the Hebrews passages about Christ’s temptation, and his qualifications as our Great High Priest nowhere depend on an ability for Christ to sin. They are totally dependent on Christ’s ability to suffer pain (Hebrews 2:18).

He “learned obedience from what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). This does not mean that Jesus had ever been disobedient. It means that he experienced human obedience in a sinful world, an obedience that can only be evaluated when it involves pain. For instance, it means nothing when we love those who love us. But when we love our enemies, that’s something!

God, of course, cannot be tempted, since there’s no way to make God hurt. But Jesus Christ was different. For instance, as a true human, it was painful for Jesus to go without food for forty days, and so when he was tempted to make bread out of rocks, it required Jesus to choose between sin on the one hand, and continued pain on the other. Another example; as a true human, Jesus had the need to be understood and accepted socially (“it is not good for man to be alone”). People would finally understand who he was and give him the glory he deserved if Jesus would jump from the temple and show his divinity. To not do so was for Christ to choose a continued painful path of being misunderstood and ignored. 

It is a subtle lie that no one can understand me unless he has made the same mistakes I have. Counselors hear it all the time. “You don’t understand! You haven’t been addicted to cocaine like I am!” Or, “How can you say that! You didn’t have parents like I have!” It is a lie, I say, because Jesus fully understands us, and he made none of the mistakes we do! It is not making the same mistakes that matters at all, it is being tempted the same that matters. And Jesus was tempted in all points, just like we are. And we all face the same temptations, which are common to all mankind.

What matters is that Jesus suffered the consequences of obedience to God instead of yielding to temptation. And so, when we are afraid that obedience will be too painful, he can truly say to us “I understand.” To place Hebrews 10:39 in context, it would read, “But we are not of those who [give in to the temptation to end the suffering] and are destroyed [by God], but of those who believe [and therefore continue to obey God in spite of suffering] and are saved.”

It would be no help to my teenage children to have a father who was sexually immoral in high school. It is great help to my teenage children to have a father who remembers the pain of being called a “prude” as a junior in high school. I was cast as the groom in Brigadoon and when the kissing scene was rehearsed, it was obvious I had no experience. Ouch! So, when I encourage my children to have high standards, I understand ahead of time the pain it will cause them. And what’s far more important, Jesus understands, too!

Counselors would do well to focus on the pain of obedience far more than the pain of sin. That is what lost people need. That is what brings hope. That is what Christ fully understands. “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” For a counselor to be able to help those who are being tempted requires that the counselor recall when he suffered as a consequence of making the right choices.

So, what does all this have to do with your post? This is not to argue against the overall gist of what you are saying.  I agree with that. But I disagree with your logic that this requires in some way for Jesus to “turn off” his divinity. It is not relinquishing divinity that matters; it is adding humanity that matters. God cannot suffer. The God-man can suffer and he did suffer. Since God cannot suffer, God cannot be tempted. Since the God-man can suffer, he can be tempted and he was tempted.

You wrote, “After all, if he had not (voluntarily, I say) put down his divinity, his temptations were a sham, and his crucifixion was only for show. The only way he could have been truly ‘tempted in all points as we are,’ would be if he were truly limited to being a human being.” But, based on the Scriptures I reference above, I think your statements are too strong. There is no need to cast aside Christ’s divinity for his temptations to be real. To the contrary, his divinity actually multiplies Christ’s depth of suffering. For instance, Christ’s obedience required him to voluntarily take on the punishment for the sins of the whole world. Only a God-man could do that. And his obedience also meant that he would be forsaken by God himself, a suffering with far more horror because he was himself God. Jesus’ cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is a consequence of obedience far beyond anything God will ever ask us to endure. After fixing our eyes on Jesus, “who endured such opposition from sinful men,” Hebrews 12:4 remains a beacon of hope: “In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.”

I suggest that there is no need to take any of the divinity out of Christ for him to be our example, counselor and high priest.


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