One of the most comforting verses in the New Testament is Hebrews 4:15: “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.”
It’s comforting because it doesn’t simply identify Jesus as our high priest, but links his priesthood to sympathy—a sympathy born of his experience of human temptation. When facing trials, we look for help from someone who has walked a similar path to ours—someone who can provide perspective and hope from their experience. In matters of faith, this sympathy can be the life-or-death difference between persevering and throwing in the towel.
Jesus, as our sympathetic high priest, helps us persevere in the Christian life (Heb. 4:14). Because he shares our humanity completely—even now as our resurrected and ascended high priest—he can relate to the weakness of our condition from the inside.
Part of that weakness is our ability to be tempted by sin. Within and without, we daily know the temptations of this fallen world, including how it feels to give in, whereas Hebrews teaches that Jesus was tempted but he never gave in. He never sinned. On this Hebrews 4:15 is clear and on this all Christians agree.
But could he have? Could Jesus have sinned?
This question has to do with what theologians call the peccability (able to sin) or impeccability (unable to sin) of Christ. The concern, which is good, is whether Jesus has fully identified with us in his humanity; again, the question is not whether he sinned. But given that he didn’t sin in reality, could he have in theory?
Three Reasons Jesus Couldn’t Sin
The question needs to be answered in the negative for three reasons, which I will refer to as his person, his Paraclete, and his purpose.
1. His Person
Whenever we look at Jesus in the Gospels, we need to remember that this is the eternal Son of God who assumed a human nature. Yes, he has two natures, but those natures are united without division or confusion within one person. The human nature of the incarnate Son has never existed separate from his person.
The second person of the Trinity assumed our human nature. That nature doesn’t act, because natures don’t act; persons do. The second person of the Trinity is the one who acts. If he were to sin in the capacity of his human nature, it would mean a member of the Trinity would sin, which is impossible for the holy One of God.
2. His Paraclete
This word Paraclete is, of course, a reference to the Holy Spirit. The Son’s assumption of human nature was a result of the Spirit overshadowing the virgin Mary (Luke 1:35). The Father gave the Spirit to Christ “without measure” (John 3:34). He was anointed by the Spirit in his baptism (Matt. 3:16). He experienced unmitigated fellowship with the Spirit throughout his human life on earth (Acts 10:38).
In keeping with his name, the Holy Spirit always led the incarnate Son through holy paths of righteousness—even when those paths ventured into the way of temptation.
3. His Purpose
According to Ephesians 1:3–5, our salvation flows from an eternal plan in which the Father, “according to the purpose of his will,” eternally unites us to the Son so that he becomes head and mediator of a redeemed people. Jesus agrees with this purpose in John 17:4: “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do.”
In keeping with his name, the Holy Spirit always led the incarnate Son through holy paths of righteousness.
Central to that work was not only his active obedience as a second Adam (Rom. 5:12–21; 1 Cor. 15:20–22, 45–49), but also his offering of himself “through the eternal Spirit . . . without blemish to God” (Heb. 9:14). If Jesus Christ could have sinned, his purpose born in God’s eternal plan would be called into question.
But wouldn’t the sum of these three reasons mean the temptations Jesus faced weren’t real—at least in the same way they are for you and me?
Real Temptations, for Us
Christ underwent temptations as our mediator (Rom. 8:2–4). He did this in our place, as our representative. And as he was tempted, the Spirit was active.
Consider the wilderness temptations. After Jesus’s anointing by the Spirit at his baptism, the Spirit leads him out to the wilderness to be tempted. While Jesus didn’t have a fallen nature, so no fallen desires tempted him from within, temptation came with force from without.
While no fallen desires tempted Jesus from within, temptation came with force from without.
Matthew 4:11 states that angels ministered to him after the Devil’s assaults. Certainly this was needed because the wilderness temptations were real. Jesus’s temptations were not mere “shadowboxing.” They were felt—felt for us.
Leon Morris noted that sinlessness heightens, not lowers, the force of temptation:
The man who yields to a particular temptation has not felt its full power. He has given in while the temptation has yet something in reserve. Only the man who does not yield to temptation, who, as regards that particular temptation, is sinless, knows the full extent of that temptation.
We feel temptations every day. Like Adam, we too often rely on ourselves and follow temptation into sin. Thank God for a new Adam who, throughout the course of his long obedience, entrusted himself always to the Father in the power of the Spirit and never once gave in. Just as Adam’s failure is naturally ours, Jesus’s victory over temptation is supernaturally ours if, by grace, we entrust ourselves to him in faith.
Real Humanity, for Us
A common objection to Christ’s impeccability is that if Jesus could not sin, this would make his humanity less. After all, Adam (the first human) could sin, and (as we know all too well) so can we. But is this ability essential to our humanity? If the ability to sin is taken away, does that make us less human?
Every picture of a full human life in Scripture is one absent of sin. What’s more, the Christian’s eternal hope is to live sinlessly in the new heavens and new earth. No more will sin enter—even potentially—into our experience, for sanctification will be complete and our human nature glorified (Rom. 8:30). Old Adam’s stain will be erased forever, and we will know what it is to walk with God as fully human and fully alive.
Every picture of a full human life in Scripture is one absent of sin.
Like Jesus, we will be unable to sin, but this doesn’t make that experience any less human. If anything, we will be more human as we experience the heights of our created purpose as covenant friends of God.
Jesus lived this life first. And thanks be to God, he did it in the face of temptations. Thus, he is for us a sympathetic high priest, providing from himself the strength we need to “hold fast to our confession” until our entrance into the fullness of eternal life.
We also thank God that while the Son’s first step was to become like us, it was in order to make us like him. He is the ultimate pattern. With our humanity Jesus resisted every temptation that we might, like him, say no to sin.