Saturday, March 18, 2017


I recently got myself in serious ecclesiastical hot water over the doctrine of the Impeccability of Christ. If you don’t know what this is, let me give you a thumbnail sketch.

All orthodox Christians believe that Jesus did not sin 1.  The debate arises as to whether he was, in His incarnation, capable of  sinning.

In one view (my view) Christ was peccable.  He was completely analogous to Adam before the fall.  He could choose to sin, or not to sin.  (We, on the other hand, apart from the saving grace of Christ, can never choose not to sin. It’s all filthy rags.) Christ’s temptations were just as, well, tempting as were Adam’s. But while Adam sinned, Christ didn’t, and if he had sinned he couldn’t have saved himself let alone us.

The opposing view is impeccability which argues that, due to the presence in the incarnate Christ of  the dominant divine nature He, though tempted, could not have sinned. He was like an invincible army that could nevertheless be attacked—but with the outcome of every battle certain.

Of one thing there can be no doubt: the plain reading of scripture does not support the impeccability of Christ.  I believe even the proponents of impeccability must concede this, and so will encourage us to look deeper for the truth. They may be right. But the plain reading is absolutely consistent with the notion that Christ was tempted as we are and nevertheless chose not to sin—but he could have sinned, with dire consequences.  Which is why he can sympathize with us. That is the clear picture we get of the incarnate Christ. I concede that the plain reading might be wrong, but there is an extraordinary burden of proof on those who wish to overturn the plain reading.  This is especially true for Protestants who also proclaim the doctrine of the perspicuity of scripture.

The argument over impeccability more or less boils down to those opposed to impeccability arguing that an impeccable Christ could not have been, as scripture seems to indicate, tempted in any real sense of the word. Proponents of impeccability argue that Christ was tempted but that He possessed, in his divine will, an infinite resistance to sin.

There are notables on both sides of this debate. Against impeccability we have, for example, Charles Hodge:
“This sinlessness of our Lord, however, does not amount to absolute impeccability. It was not a non potest peccare. If He was a true man, He must have been capable of sinning. That He did not sin under the greatest provocations; that when He was reviled He blessed; when He suffered He threatened not; that He was dumb as a sheep before its shearers, is held up to us as an example. Temptation implies the possibility of sin. If from the constitution of his person it was impossible for Christ to sin, then his temptation was unreal and without effect and He cannot sympathize with his people.” 
Christ was uniquely sanctified and ministered to by the Holy Spirit. In order to sin, a person must have a desire for sin. But Jesus’ human nature throughout his life was marked by a zeal for righteousness. “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me” (John 4:34), he said. As long as Jesus had no desire to sin, he would not sin. I may be wrong, but I think it is wrong to believe that Christ’s divine nature made it impossible for his human nature to sin. If that were the case, the temptation, the tests, and his assuming of the responsibility of the first Adam would have all been charades. This position protects the integrity of the authenticity of the human nature because it was the human nature that carried out the mission of the second Adam on our behalf. It was the human nature uniquely anointed beyond measure by the Holy Spirit. 
I agree with Hodge and Sproul, right down to Sproul’s “I may be wrong.” Because, well, I may be wrong.

Arguments in favor of impeccability general discuss two wills of the incarnation, and place the human will as subservient to the divine. Since the divine cannot sin,  the incarnate Christ cannot sin. They sometimes argue that a Christ who can sin represents a chaotic confusion between the wills that calls into question the deity of Christ.  I’m not sure why that seems obvious—I can only go so far to agree that a Christ who did sin would certainly unleash eternal chaos.

Theologian and former seminary president John Walvood, an impeccability proponent, explains in his (fairly standard) proof of impeccability:
The ultimate solution of the problem of the impeccability of Christ rests in the relationship of the divine and human natures. It is generally agreed that each of the natures, the divine and the human, had its own will in the sense of desire. The ultimate decision of the person, however, in the sense of sovereign will was always in harmony with the decision of the divine nature. The relation of this to the problem of impeccability is obvious. The human nature, because it is temptable, might desire to do that which is contrary to the will of God. In the person of Christ, however, the human will was always subservient to the divine will and could never act independently. Inasmuch as all agree that the divine will of God could not sin, this quality then becomes the quality of the person and Christ becomes impeccable 
Immutability is also used to prove impeccability. Once again, John Walvood:
The fact of the immutability of Christ is the first determining factor of His impeccability. According to Hebrews 13:8, Christ is “the same yesterday, today, yea and for ever,” and earlier in the same epistle Psalm 102:27 is quoted “Thou art the same, and thy years shall not fail” (Heb 1:12). As Christ was holy in eternity past, it is essential that this attribute as well as all others be preserved unchanged eternally. Christ must be impeccable, therefore, because He is immutable. If it is unthinkable that God could sin in eternity past, it must also be true that it is impossible for God to sin in the person of Christ incarnate. The nature of His person forbids susceptibility to sin.
This has the stench of question begging. There is, in this argument, a built in assumption that immutability implies impeccability and so invoking immutability “proves” impeccability. But to me, it’s a just-so story. We can agree that the bible teaches that God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow—but that is as far as we can go. The bible does not get into the ramifications of immutability on the incarnation and we should, in light of that, allow for the possibility that they are beyond us, i.e., mysterious. To me immutability is used to teach us that we can have faith in the promises of God--we can rest assured they they will be kept. It is not meant as a plank upon which we can derive esoteric doctrines. We simply are not told enough about what immutability entails. 

My biggest criticism of the impeccability doctrine is that it relies upon and assumes details of the incarnation—the necessary relationship and consequences of the two wills, that are not found in scripture. They are derived. In my view the arguments in favor of impeccability assume knowledge that is not in evidence regarding the subtlety of the incarnation, jettison any mystery therein in favor of a just-so answer. 

I don’t really care whether I’m right or wrong on this doctrine (or most any other doctrine except Total Depravity--I really want that to be true.)  I do care that some find affirmation of this doctrine so important as to label those of us who oppose it as blasphemers.  For another example, the reknowned theologian Herman Bavinck (1854-1921):
“Christ could not sin. For in that case either God Himself would have to be able to sin—which is blasphemy—or the union between the divine and the human nature is considered breakable and in fact denied. " 2
If Bavinck provided a straightforward scriptural prove of this, I am unable to find it. (not even in his book, Doctrine of God.) Here we have nothing more than a proof by assertion coupled with a false dilemma.

Ultimately God and his nature—including the details of the incarnation, are mysterious. We should not push the mysterious--God's immutability, the precise nature of the union--in fact anything regarding the inferred details of God's nature--beyond what we need and are told. And most importantly if someone tells you, via a slippery slope argument, that denying the impeccability of Christ is blasphemous and/or leads to dire consequences—tell them they’re full of crap.

1 Which maybe to you means he perfectly obeyed the Mosiac law, but not to me. I don’t think he did. I’m fine with that because while they may be highly correlated I do not equate sin with breaking the Mosaic law. But that is a separate matter. We can agree that Christ did not sin.
2 Herman Bavinck, Sin and Salvation in Christ, vol. 3 of Reformed Dogmatics; ed. John Bolt; trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006), 314.)

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