Question: How real were Christ’s temptations? Is there a distinction between His temptations and ours?
Answer: Temptation cannot be defined in terms of the capacity of the one tempted to succumb. Temptation is enticement to sin from whatever source. On this basis, Christ endured stronger temptations than we do, since no one has resisted them as He did. A person walking into the teeth of a force-9 gale feels the stresses and strains far more than the one who goes with the flow. Moreover, Christ took the form of a servant, humanity in a low condition, living in a world torn by sin and decay (Hebrews 2:13-18).1
19th century American Presbyterian theologian, W. G. T. Shedd, addressing the objection of whether a person who cannot sin can really be tempted to sin, says: “This is not correct; any more than it would be correct to say that because an army cannot be conquered, it cannot be attacked. Temptability depends upon the constitutional susceptibility, while impeccability depends upon the will.”2 Oliver Crisp has a sporting analogy: it is a foregone conclusion that an invincible boxer will win, but in order to do so he must put up a fight against a real opponent.3
This simply refers us back to the question of the nature of temptation and what its sources are. As a working definition, I have proposed that temptation is incitement to sin, from whatever source that incitement arises. We face onslaughts from three sources: the world, the flesh, and the devil. The key for us is the flesh. Temptations from without meeting an answering response from within. There is always something within us that finds such inducements attractive in varying ways, depending on our differing predilections for particular sins. Often, we do not need external stimuli to draw us to sin. There is enough within us to lead us astray without our looking elsewhere.
With Jesus, temptation came from without—from the devil and from the world around Him. Nevertheless, this was still temptation. It was still inducement to break the law of God. If anything, He felt it more fiercely than anyone else. He endured the uninhibited fury of the devil seeking to divert Him from the course prepared by the Father (Matthew 4:1-10). The stronger the resistance, the more forceful the buffeting, and no one felt temptation more than He. It is enough that He was induced to sin. The twin forces of the devil and militant human opponents were quite sufficient, for His steadfast resistance made their enticements unremitting in their fury.4
Question: Is there a distinction between impeccability and temptability?
Answer: Yes; temptability relates to the capacity to face an incitement to sin, whereas impeccability refers to the impossibility of responding positively to such incitement. As Bavinck indicates, the struggle Christ faced in temptation was not nullified by His being impeccable, since the latter was ethical and had to be demonstrated in an ethical manner.4
Crisp draws attention to the argument of Anselm that Christ had the capacity to lie, but was incapable of doing so.5 Anselm considers that Christ could have told a lie if He had willed to do so. However, He could not will to lie.6 In this there is a distinction between Christ having the capacity to sin, since He was human, and the impossibility of His sinning due to His obedient will. Crisp compares this to a fragile champagne glass, capable of breaking but protected by secure wrapping that prevents this outcome.7
Question: Is the possibility of sinning a defining characteristic of humanity?
Answer: This is not sustainable. The redeemed in heaven can hardly have the possibility of sinning, as their status is secure. Yet this, apart from its exemplification in Christ, will be the quintessence of what it means to be human, freedom consisting in the total deliverance from sin.
However, Bruce Ware and John McKinley suggest the possibility that temptation may still exist in heaven, but they agree that the redeemed will resist it.8 If we suppose that such temptation might occur, it would support the point that genuine temptation is compatible with impeccability. However, the idea is entirely speculative, and there are strong countervailing reasons. From what source would such temptations arise? It could hardly be from a corrupt nature, which would be eradicated by glorification. The world, in its rebellion against God, would no longer be present, while the devil would be cast into eternal fire. It is hard to see what forces there might be that could pose such a threat.
However, the point at issue if peccability for the redeemed were involved in that scenario would be the possibility of the failure of eschatological salvation, of being cast out of heaven, of another fall. The whole sense of Scripture is that this is ruled out. If the quintessence of being human is found in heaven and consists, among other things, in freedom from the possibility of sinning, it follows that impeccability of itself does not undermine the humanity of Christ in His state of incarnate weakness prior to the resurrection.
Thomas Morris has an important proposal in his distinction between an individual essence, a cluster of properties essential for an individual to be the entity it is, and a kind essence, which he considers to be a cluster of properties without which an individual could not belong to the natural kind it exemplifies. In terms of the latter, he suggests that “there are properties which happen to be common to members of a natural kind, which may even be universal to all members of that kind, without being essential to membership in the kind.”
Many critics have employed what Morris calls “the look around town approach.” As you look around town, you observe that every human being has certain properties in common, among which is the property of being sinful. To conclude that being sinful is an essential part of human nature is to miss this distinction. Being sinful is common to humans as they are, universally so, but it does not follow that it is essential to being human.9 We may conclude that since a sinful condition is not essential to being human, the argument that impeccability undermines the reality of Christ’s humanity and the genuineness of His temptations fails.
- Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith, trans. Henry Zylstra (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1977), 329.
- Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, 2:336.
- Crisp, God Incarnate, 133.
- For a detailed analysis of temptations of various kinds, see Crisp, God Incarnate, 122–36.
- Bavinck, RD, 3:315.
- Crisp, God Incarnate, 132–33
- Anselm, Cur Deus homo? 2.10, in Brian Davies, Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 326.
- Crisp, God Incarnate, 132.
- Thomas V. Morris, “The Metaphysics of God Incarnate,” in Oxford Readings in Philosophical Theology, vol. 1, Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement, ed. Michael Rea (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 216.
Robert Letham (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is professor of systematic and historical theology at Union School of Theology. A Presbyterian minister with twenty-five years of pastoral experience, he is the author of books such as The Work of Christ; The Holy Trinity; and Union with Christ, and a range of articles published in encyclopedias and journals.