The following was written in partial fulfillment of the requirements of Dr. Steve McKinion's Christian Theology II class at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Topic: Could Jesus have sinned?
Whether Jesus could have sinned or not is a question to tangle the mind. On the one hand, we affirm that he was fully human, and this affirmation binds us to affirm that he could indeed sin: all humans are capable of sinning, and apart from Jesus, all humans have sinned. The author of Hebrews reminds us forcefully that Jesus was made like his brothers—which is to say, us—in every respect, being tempted like them, yet without sin. On the other hand, we recognize that the Godhead is sinless and that, as James reminds us, he neither tempts nor can be tempted with evil. As with many issues relating to the Incarnation, we face the challenge of holding together both Jesus’ full deity and his full humanity. When either is lost (or even simply diminished) in order to emphasize or preserve the other, important aspects of our faith break in serious ways.
Difficult (mysterious even) the question may be, but the author of Hebrews leaves little doubt. Jesus was tempted like us in every way—not only in some ways, but in every way. This is an essential affirmation for the Christian faith. If Jesus could not sin, then he was not fully human, and his perfect life is unsurprising and not particularly meaningful. If he could sin, then his perfect life is extraordinary and especially meaningful.
At the same time, we must integrate the things that Hebrews and James (and the rest of the Scriptures) teach us. If the Godhead cannot be tempted by sin and Jesus was tempted by sin, does this make Jesus somehow not God? No, for this misses the rest of the witness of the New Testament, including those selfsame books. James himself calls Jesus Lord in terms that, set against a Jewish background, can only be understood to refer to God himself (see especially James 5:11, perhaps the most direct quote of Exodus 34:6 in the whole New Testament and an unmistakable reference to Yahweh God). Neither can we admit the notion that James and Hebrews disagree with each other—at least, not and maintain our affirmation of the unity of Scripture, which is a non-negotiable from where I stand.
As with many things in the Trinity and the Incarnation, then, we are left making a dual (and apparently conflicting affirmation). Jesus’ humanity was perfectly capable of sinning, and his divinity was incapable of sinning. The Incarnation holds the two together in a single person, and so we affirm that Jesus could have sinned, but did not. We note, too, that he did not precisely because he did as all humans are called to do (and what glorified humans will do) and perfectly trusted the Father by obeying the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ perfect life was not the domination of his humanity by his divinity, but the submission of his humanity to the divinity of the Trinity.
Thus we affirm that Jesus’ not sinning on our behalf was a real moral victory, not a hollow thing we can only look at bemusedly from afar. He lived as a real second Adam, doing what the first Adam failed to do while beset by many more and far greater temptations than the first Adam. He really did overcome the world— not only its powers, but its temptations. He really did demonstrate true and perfect holiness that we might follow his example. He really did triumph over every power of sin, that we might be transformed into his likeness. Though the triune God is never tempted to sin, the triune God mysteriously partook of everything it is to be human in the Incarnation, and that humanity could be tempted—and he overcame.