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Why Jesus “Could Not” and “Did Not” Sin

The first four centuries of Christianity were marked by intense conflict over the person of Christ. Who was this Jesus? Was he God? Was he man? Was he both? Was he neither?

Long story short, these early Christians held a series of councils and determined that Jesus was fully God and fully man. But this theological formulation raises many questions. One of these questions goes like this: If Jesus was fully God, were his temptations real?

In other words, if Jesus was fully God (and God cannot sin), then Jesus could not sin. And if Jesus could not sin, then how could he really be tempted?

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN “COULD NOT” AND “DID NOT”

Theologians have attempted solutions with varying degrees of success. But in his latest book, The Man Christ Jesus, Bruce Ware proposes a different solution. And he does so by reminding us of the difference between “could not” and “did not.” Essentially Ware makes two points:

1. Jesus could not sin because he was God. The idea that Jesus could not sin is known as the “impeccability” of Christ. Though there is no verse that directly states this truth, Ware, along with most evangelical theologians, argues that it is a proper inference from his divinity. The syllogism could go like this:

  1. Jesus is fully God
  2. God cannot sin
  3. Therefore, Jesus cannot sin

You may disagree with this logic, but that’s a discussion for another day. The point for now is that Ware affirms that Jesus could not sin. But this still leaves us with our dilemma: if Jesus could not sin, were his temptations real?

And it is at this point that Ware offers his solution to the problem. He argues that we must be careful to distinguish between why somebody “cannot” do something and why they “don’t” do something.

At this point he offer the analogy of a swimmer attempting to cross the English Channel. She trains for months to endure the grueling swim. She also arranges for a boat to stay near by for the entirety of the swim in case she cramps and begins to drown.

So the big day comes and our swimmer makes it across the channel. But the question arises: could she have drowned? The answer is NO. She couldn’t have drowned because there was a boat near her the whole time ready to rescue her in case of danger. But the reason she “could not” drown is far different from the reason she “did not” drown. She did not drown because she swam across the channel. And this leads to Ware’s solution.

2. Jesus did not sin because he perfectly relied upon all the divine resources available to his human nature. That is, he trusted God in every situation, believed God’s promises, prayed, read the Word, walked in the Spirit, etc. The Bible does not present Jesus’ sinless perfection primarily in terms of his divinity, but rather in terms of his Spirit-dependent humanity.

So Jesus could not sin because his was God. But his did not sin because he relied up the divine resources available to his human nature.

Do you think Ware’s proposal is successful? Why or why not?

Comments(4)

  1. Reply
    Nick Guenther says

    Well said.

    I appreciate the distinction between “could not” and “did not” because I think Christ’s relation to our temptation is necessary in the gospel having significance. If Christ did not know temptation at all, then the relevance of the gospel is diminished. Not only that, but what kind what kind of teacher has not yet mastered his content? I’m pumped that Christ looked temptation in the eye and trampled it.

    In response to Ware’s proposition, I would add one thing that I would call integral in understanding Christ’s “did not” sin lifestyle. Maybe add is not even fair but rather to extend that Christ was able to resist temptation because his spirit-dependent lifestyle transformed his world-view. It’s not just that he spend a lot of time praying, reading and worshiping but that, in doing so, his perspective on what was truly satisfying was focused on God. Christ did not sin because he understood sin to be inferior. He understood sin to be inferior because he trusted the Word of the Lord. He trusted the Word of the Lord because he had spent so much time in the trenches and witnessed the Spirit coming through.

    Thanks for your faithfulness Andy, enjoying reading these.

    • Reply
      Andy Barlow says

      Nick, good to hear from you. I think you make a good point about Christ’s world-view being transformed through his dependence on the Spirit, and I think Ware would absolutely agree. Christ trusted God’s word, God’s worldview, etc.

      Thanks for stopping by, bro.

  2. Reply
    Mike Gorski says

    Really enjoying your posts, Andy! I read a great journal article by Ware in which he makes the same argument while writing a paper on the baptism of Jesus. Another great book on the relationship of Christ’s deity and humanity is Gerald Hawthorne’s “The Presence & The Power.”

    Keep up the good posts!

    • Reply
      Andy Barlow says

      Mike, I’ve heard that is an excellent book. I’d really love to read it soon.

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