Illustrating the Impeccability of Christ: Could Not vs. Did Not

Andy Naselli —  February 5, 2013 — 7 Comments

ware_2Bruce A. Ware, The Man Christ Jesus: Theological Questions on the Humanity of Christ   (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013), 81–84:

The impeccability of Christ by virtue of his impeccable divine nature united to his human nature has nothing directly to do with how he resisted temptation and how it was that he did not sin. Yes, Christ was impeccable, but his impeccability is quite literally irrelevant to explaining his sinlessness. The common evangelical intuition seems to be this: if the reason Christ could not sin is that he is God, then the reason Christ did not sin must likewise be that he is God. My proposal denies this symmetry and insists that the questions of why Christ could not sin and why he did not sin require, instead, remarkably different answers.

swimming_5To understand better the distinction here invoked between why something could not occur and why it did not occur, consider with me two illustrations. First, imagine a swimmer who wants to attempt breaking the world’s record for the longest continuous swim (which, I’ve read, is something over 70 miles). As this swimmer trains, besides his daily swims of 5 to 10 miles he includes weekly swims of greater distance. On some of the longer swims of 30 and 40 miles, he notices that his muscles can begin to tighten and cramp a bit, and he becomes worried that in attempting to break the world record, his muscles may cramp severely and he could then drown. So, he consults with friends, and they decide to arrange for a boat to follow along behind the swimmer 20 or 30 feet back, close enough to pick him up should any serious problem arise but far enough away so as not to interfere with the attempted historic swim itself. On the appointed day, conditions being just right, the swimmer dives in and begins his attempt at breaking the world record. As he swims, the boat follows along comfortably behind, ready to pick him up if needed. But no help is needed; with determination and resolve, the swimmer relentlessly swims and swims and swims, and in due time he succeeds in breaking the world record.

Now, consider two questions: (1) Why is it that in this record-breaking event the swimmer could not have drowned? The answer is that the boat was there all the while, ready to rescue him if needed. But (2) Why is it the swimmer did not drown? The answer is that he kept swimming! Notice that the answer to the second question has nothing at all to do with the boat, i.e., it has nothing to do with the answer to the first question. In fact, if you gave the answer of “the boat” to question 2, the swimmer would be both astonished and dismayed. It simply is not true that the swimmer did not drown because the boat was there. The boat, quite literally, had absolutely nothing to do with why the swimmer did not drown. Furthermore, although the swimmer knew full well that he could not drown due to the boat’s following along behind him, that knowledge had nothing to do with why he did not drown, since he also knew that if he ever relied on the boat, his mission of breaking the world record would be forfeited. So although he knew that he could not drown due to the boat, he also knew that he could only accomplish his goal by swimming as if there were no boat there at all. . . .

As one considers again the temptations of Christ, it seems that one should rightly hold that the theanthropic Jesus could not sin because he was God. But this does not necessarily answer the question of why he did not sin. And, in fact, the answer Scripture suggests to us is this: Jesus did not sin, not because he relied on the supernatural power of his divine nature or because his divine nature overpowered his human nature, keeping him from sinning, but because he utilized all of the resources given to him in his humanity. He loved and meditated on God’s Word (consider again the significance here of Psalm 1 being the first and opening psalm, pointing obviously to Christ); he prayed to his Father; he trusted in the wisdom and rightness of his Father’s will and Word; and, very significantly, he relied on the supernatural power of the Spirit to strengthen him to do all that he was called upon to do. Jesus lived his life in reliance on the Spirit so that his resistance to temptation and his obedience to the will of the Father took place through, not apart from, the empowerment provided him as the second Adam, the seed of Abraham, the son of David. Recall again Peter’s claim that God anointed Jesus “with the Holy Spirit and with power,” and that he went about doing good (the moral life and obedience of Christ) as well as healing all who are oppressed by the Devil (the miracles he performed), “for God was with him” (Acts 10:38). Although he was God, and although he was impeccable as the God-man, he resisted temptation and obeyed the Father not by his divine nature but by the power of the Spirit who indwelt him.

7 responses to Illustrating the Impeccability of Christ: Could Not vs. Did Not

  1. I have often made the same argument concerning Scripture’s and the gospel’s warnings against apostasy. They are, as Tom Schreiner and I demonstrate in The Race Set Before Us, addressed to believers. With regard to the peccability/impeccability of Christ and the apostasy/non-apostasy of believers the “could not” and the “do not” questions/issues are of the same nature.

  2. Andy –

    This is a helpful line of thought that I had not considered previously. Though I’m still questioning if the analogy holds – that is, is Christ’s sinless and impeccability really analogous to a swimmer’s determination and a rescue boat? Wouldn’t we say that God the Father’s sinlessness and impeccability are more closely related than Ware suggests Jesus’ are?



  3. Andy:

    Thanks for posting this; I had not heard of this book but definitely want to read it.

    Grudem took the same (or similar) position in his Systematic Theology, and I’ve long wished someone smarter than I would write a more complete explanation of this position.

  4. Andy,

    Good post. Not too long ago I argued for the same position in an article on my blog. Charles Hodge supports this position as well. I think it corresponds better with Jesus’ role as the “second Adam.” God expected love and loyalty not from a First Adam whose human nature was not yet glorified and incapable of sinning. Similarly, Jesus human nature *in its state of humiliation* was not yet “perfected” in the sense of becoming “immutably fixed” toward righteousness. Consequently, the Scripture can speak of Jesus growing in wisdom and learning obedience. But unlike the First Adam, Jesus, the Second Adam, in complete dependence on God’s word and in the power of the Holy Spirit rendered to God unalloyed love, devotion, and obedience.

  5. I remember this illustration from Bruce’s ETS paper several years ago, and it struck me as leaning towards Nestorianism. I don’t blame him for this, but I use it as an example of the impossibility of giving a positive answer to a question that involves Jesus’ deity and humanity. I think we’re best to stick with the fences of Chalcedon and say what we can’t say rather than what we can. I think his answer is as good as can be given, except for the answer that refuses to try because of the inevitability of heresy (Eutychianism on one side or Nestorianism on the other).

  6. I scanned the article “Could Jesus Have Sinned” in Sam Storms’ book “Tough Topics” while at the DG Nat. Conf. this past weekend; he espoused a very similar position from what I remember, and also advocated that Jesus set aside the use of some of His divine attributes during His sojourn on earth. I see problems with the above illustration and arguments re: Christ’s impeccability on three counts: 1) Christ could not and did not sin, nor fail in the work the Father appointed for Him because of Old Testament prophecy; it is impossible for God’s Word to be broken, thus impossible for any of the Messianic predictions of Christ’s absolute holiness and successful mission to fail; 2) The analogy of the swimmer breaks down because Christ as the Swimmer (I presume) is separated from the ‘backup plan’ of the boat (the Father or the Holy Spirit I presume?). Christ was never separated from the other Members of the Godhead, but was at all times one with Them. “I am in the Father, and the Father in Me” (John 14:10-11); “For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Col. 2:9); 3) Furthermore, Christ is not called the “second Adam”, but the “last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45) because the nature of their testing was very much different. Adam was on probation in the garden and was, even though innocent and sinless, yet able to sin. Christ, conversely “was in all points tempted (tested) as we are, yet without sin (sin apart)” (Heb. 4:15) The purpose of Jesus’ testing was to prove that He could not fail; He was in no way on probation. I recommend the online discussion of the “Kenosis” error at The Son of God did not give up anything of deity when He was incarnated; the humility of the incarnation was the addition of human nature and flesh – His glory was veiled, not diminished in any way.

  7. Although his divine nature and his constant dependence on the Spirit is part of impeccability, I would argue his human nature was itself incapable of sinning. He was born of God and that which is born of God cannot sin. We are born of God. We have a nature within that cannot sin. It is a life born of God and sustained by the Spirit… the life of Christ. When we sin it is always our fallen flesh which does so. It is not the new man created in true righteousness and holiness. This nature we take into resurrection and heaven. It will be incapable of sinning there too. Of course this nature/life is so.ply that which we derive from Christ through union with him. It is a spiritual nature, a life from heaven. The first man was of the earth the second from heaven and is a lifesaving spirit. At his birth a new kind/state of humanity came into being…. not innocent or fallen but impeccable, invincible holy…a new creation.

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