Pondering the Incarnation: Was Christ really tempted?

Over the years Karen and I have engaged in a lot of ministry through the internet by interacting in a number of forums. It has been an amazing opportunity to share the gospel and other biblical truth about a wide range of topics. Over the last couple of days I have been involved in some discussions over at Grace Centered Christian Forums (note: this is not an endorsement of this website because I haven’t yet fully investigated their theological positions).

One of the questions that was posted a couple of hours ago was related to the temptation that Christ experienced. It was a common question that almost everyone considers at some point: “Was Christ really tempted? And could he have sinned?”

As you might expect this has generated a number of responses in a short period of time. Some have represented the view that although Christ did not sin, he could have sinned. Those who hold this position, often also believe that it is possible for someone to lose their salvation and the two issues are connected according to this theology: that we can choose, just as Christ chose – and just as Jesus chose not to sin, although he could have, we can do the same. If we don’t, then we will be lost, unless we continually repent or choose not to sin (which many say is possible).

However, I believe the Scriptural response is: “Yes, Jesus was truly tempted and no, he could not have sinned.”

Then, the inevitable counter-response is: “But if Jesus could not have sinned, then he must not have been genuinely tempted.”

Being the Christmas season, I think it is a good time to consider what I would suggest is one of the most important aspects of the Incarnation – the nature of Christ in relation to temptation and sin.

The following is what I posted on the Grace Centered Christian Forum (although I have proof-read and edited this a bit from my forum post):

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Biblical Fact #1: Jesus was/is human (Matthew 8:20;John 8:40; Philippians 2:5-8; 1 Timothy 2:5)

Biblical Fact #2: Jesus was truly tempted – the Scripture plainly says that he was tempted (Hebrews 2:17; 4:15)

Biblical Fact #3: Jesus was/is God (Isaiah 9:6; John 10:30; 20:26-29; Philippians 2:5-8; Revelation 1:8-11)

Biblical Fact #4: God cannot sin by virtue of his perfect holiness (Leviticus 11:44; Joshua 24:19; 1 Peter 1:15; 1 John 1:15; Revelation 4:8)

Biblical conclusion: Jesus being the God-man, was truly tempted, but did not and could not sin.

How this could be true is as much a mystery as the Incarnation itself (how can God become a man?). To deny one or the other seems to be a futile (and arguably unnecessary) attempt to resolve the logical tension felt by humans (finite beings), but which involves a reality that can only be fully comprehended by God (an infinite being). I believe it is beyond our capacity to fully grasp. This doesn’t mean it is illogical. Rather, I think it simply involves “supra-human logic.”

Perhaps a simple (although not fully adequate) analogy would be the futility of trying to explain quantum physics or the special theory of relativity to a three year-old child.

Over the years I have used the following illustration (being an engineer at heart :-) to help students try to somehow grasp the mutual truths of Jesus’ temptation and his inability to sin. It involves a piece of paper, a hydraulic ram, and a pressure gauge (or your fist and a concrete wall).

Let’s illustrate human nature as being like a piece of paper.

Let’s illustrate temptation as being like a ramrod capable of unlimited pounds of pressure per square inch.

Then place a pressure gauge on the end of the ramrod.

Now, hold the paper up (with nothing behind it) and run the ramrod up against it.

Question: How much pressure will the gauge register – no matter the force of the ramrod?
Answer: Very little – because the paper easily gives way and the pressure felt by the paper is almost nothing.

The point: The giving-way by the paper illustrates how easily we naturally fall into sin with very little pressure /temptation because of our sin nature.

Now, glue a piece of cardboard to the paper.
The cardboard illustrates our new nature as believers, coupled with our old weak nature.

Now, run the ramrod against the paper / cardboard combination.

Question: How much pressure will the gauge register now?
Answer: More. And the stiffer the cardboard (illustrating the more mature the Christian) – the more pressure that is registered by the gauge and therefore “felt” by the paper (illustrating the the human nature).

The point: The one who is most mature in Christ doesn’t feel the pressure of temptation less, but feels it more. This helps to illustrate why more mature Christians are more sensitive to the slightest pressure / temptation to sin than is the new / immature believer.

Now: Glue the paper to a massive block of tungsten steel that extends infinitely in all directions.
The block of steel illustrates the immovable, sinless nature of God.

Now, run the ramrod (remember the one capable of infinite force) against the paper.

Question: How much pressure will the gauge register now?
Answer: An infinite amount of pressure.

(If you want, you can approximate this test by trying to hit a piece of paper held in the air with your fist as hard as you can. Then tape the paper to a concrete wall and swing at it as hard as you can. Your now-broken hand experienced exactly the force felt by the paper. Honestly – it might be better to get one of your students to do this one.)

The point: By virtue of a human nature being coupled with the divine nature, Christ fully experienced the temptation to sin infinitely more than any human being. It was actually Christ’s inability to sin that made it possible for him to be fully tempted in every point as we are. No mere human has ever experienced the full force of temptation to sin.

It is not, as as been said, that “temptation implies the possibility of sin.” That would essentially be the same as saying that an invincible army cannot be attacked. (1)

And then Christ died for the sins of all (Romans 5:6; 1Corinthians 15:3; 1 Timothy 2:5-6; Hebrews 2:9; 1 John 2:2) who have given in to the full range of temptation – and he offers the free gift of salvation from sin to all who will believe, to all who will simply receive him by faith (John 1:12-13; 3:16; Romans 6:23; Ephesians 2:8-9).

What a wonderful Savior!

Have a very merry Christmas, and a grace-filled, joyous New Year!

Dave James

(1) Charles Ryrie in Basic Theology (p. 304) quoting the opposing views Hodge and Shedd.

1 Comment
  1. Dave,

    Good illustration. Similarly I’ve often used the illustration of a small tug boat hitting a huge ship. The impact is real, but the effect is nil. No way can the tug boat destroy the huge ship, though the attack was real.

    Roy

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