Theological Primer: Impeccability
From time to time I make new entries into this continuing series called “Theological Primer.” The idea is to present big theological concepts in around 500 words (or sometimes, 1,000 words). Today we will look at the doctrine of Christ’s impeccability. This article (and the Theological Series primer) was originally published on The Gospel Coalition’s blog.
The doctrine of impeccability states that Christ was not only sinless, he was unable to sin (non posse peccare). As the incarnate Son of God, Christ faced real temptations, but these temptations did not arise in Christ due to sinful desires. Christ was not only able to overcome temptation, he was unable to be overcome by it (Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, 659).
Christ’s impeccability has been widely affirmed throughout the history of the church and defended by most of the leading Reformed systematicians. In the last 150 years, however, many theologians have rejected the idea that Christ was unable to sin, arguing instead that peccability is necessary for Christ’s temptations to be genuine and for Christ to sympathize with his people. Surprisingly, even the redoubtable Charles Hodge (1797–1878) denied impeccability (Hodge, Systematic Theology, 2:457), which may be one of the reasons his contemporary W. G. T. Shedd (1820–1894) offered an especially robust defense of the doctrine in his Dogmatic Theology.
In defense of Christ’s impeccability, Shedd makes three broad points.
First, Christ’s impeccability can be deduced from Scripture. If Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever (Heb. 13:8), he must be unchanging in his holiness. A mutable holiness would be inconsistent with the omnipotence of Christ and irreconcilable with the fact that Christ is the author and finisher of our faith (Heb. 12:2). Christ is unlike the first Adam in that he is the fountain of all holiness, and from him can proceed nothing but life and light. If Christ were able to sin, his holiness would, by definition, be open to change—his obedience open to failure—even if Christ proved in the end to be faithful. A peccable Christ is a Savior who can be trusted only in hindsight.
Second, Christ’s impeccability is tied to the constitution of his person. To be sure, Christ was empowered by the Spirit with extraordinary grace, but Christ was not only strengthened to resist temptation, the presence of the divine Logos made it infallibly certain that Christ would resist. We must not think that Christ’s two natures operated independently of each other, as if they were rival parties or two sources of knowing and doing veiled one from the other. Likewise, we must not conceive of the two wills of Christ as antagonists. The finite will invariably and perfectly obeyed the infinite, such that Christ never experienced the flesh lusting against the spirit, and the spirit lusting against the flesh (Gal. 5:17).
But what about Christ’s pain, hunger, sorrow, weakness, and death? How are these possible for the God-man? If we conclude that Christ is impeccable must we also conclude that Christ was unable to suffer? Surely not. Shedd distinguishes between “all the innocent defects and limitations of the finite” and “the culpable defects and limitations” of sinful man. The en-fleshed Son of God was liable to the weaknesses that come from a human body, but without the moral defects—or possibility of moral defect—that come from a human nature.
At the heart of this second point is the Chalcedonian conviction that whatever Christ did, he did as one undivided theanthropic person. Consequently, Shedd argues, Christ’s ability to sin must be measured according to “his mightiest nature.” Just as an iron wire by itself can be bent, but once welded to an iron bar is rendered immoveable, so the God-man Jesus Christ is rendered impeccable by the union of the human and divine natures (Dogmatic Theology, 660-61). In other words, while Christ possessed a peccable human nature, he was an impeccable theanthropic person.
Third, impeccability is consistent with temptation. One of the reasons for the assumption of a human nature by the Logos is so that the Logos might be tempted as a man and be able to sympathize with men (Heb. 2:14-18). If we elevate Christ’s impeccability in a way that casts aside his temptability, we are out of step with Scripture.
And yet, we must not absolutely equate our temptations with Christ’s temptations. The same Greek noun translated “trials” (peirasmois) in James 1:2 is rendered in verb form as tempted (peirazetai) in James 1:14. Some temptations arise from without as trials and sufferings—these Christ constantly endured. But also, temptations that arise from within as sinful desires—these Christ never experienced. When Hebrews 4:15 says Christ was tempted in every respect as we are, yet without sin, we should understand the preposition “without” (choris) as extending both to the outcome of the temptations (unlike us, Christ did not sin) and also to the nature of the temptations (unlike ours, Christ’s temptations were not sinful). In other words, we are tempted by the world, the flesh, and the Devil, while Christ never faced temptation from the flesh. Or as John Owen put it, Christ faced the suffering part of temptation; we also face the sinning part.
Christ’s inability to sin does not make his temptations less genuine. The army that cannot be conquered can still be attacked (Dogmatic Theology, 662). If anything, Christ’s temptations were more intense than ours because he never gave in to them. Our temptations wax and wane as we sometimes withstand them and sometimes succumb to them. But Christ never gave in, and as such the experience of temptation only mounted throughout his life. In this, Christ is able to sympathize with us in our human experience of temptation, even though as the God-man, he was incapable of giving in to these temptations.