The Humanity of Jesus: Resisting Temptation

Man“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth” (1 Peter 2:21-22). That’s a remarkable thing for Peter to say! He tells us that Christ is our example, that we are to follow in his steps, and, oh by the way, he committed no sin. How can Peter state that Christ is our example when he committed no sin? The example of Christ seems so unfitting to us partly because we do not understand how he maintained his sinlessness on earth. Christ maintained his sinlessness not through his divine nature, but through the divine resource granted him as a man. That distinction enables us to find Christ a fitting example for our own struggles with sin.

It’s important for me to remind readers of who I am. I am a conservative Evangelical pastor. I believe in the full divinity of Jesus. The language above is not meant to suggest that Jesus was anything less than God in the flesh. Certainly it is owing to his divinity that Jesus proves unable to sin. James 1:13 asserts, “God cannot be tempted by evil.” I am not interested here in diluting the divinity of Jesus or the teachings of Scripture regarding his moral perfection as God. And yet, the Scriptures also confirm that Jesus was tempted. Hebrews 4:15 says plainly of the Christ that he is a high priest “who in every respect has been tempted as we are.” So the tension that exists in Scripture requires us to think hard about the nature of Jesus and the nature of his temptation.

There are two possible solutions that have been offered in history. The first addresses Jesus’ nature by suggesting that he is not God, or that he in fact was able to sin. More liberal scholars have simply disregarded the Scriptural teaching on the divinity of Jesus. They assert he was nothing more than a man. That is not an option for those of us who affirm the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. More conservative scholars, perhaps surprisingly, have asserted that Jesus was able to sin. Millard Erickson, for example, argues that though Christ did not sin and though God cannot sin, Christ could have possibly sinned. So he draws a distinction in the nature of Christ as incarnate being and God as divine spirit. Speaking of Hebrews 4:15 he writes:

The thrust of the passage is that he is able to intercede for us because he has completely identified with us; this seems to imply that his temptation included not only the whole range of sin, but the real possibility of sinning.” (The Word Became Flesh, 562).

The possibility of Christ’s being able to sin, as Erickson argues, raises a host of questions and, I think, problems for our understanding of the nature of Christ as the God-man. I believe there is a better explanation for this tension.

The other approach to this dilemma has been to focus on the nature of Jesus’ temptation. Some have argued that Jesus was not really tempted. He more or less feigned temptation, but since he cannot be tempted as God then his temptation is not the same as ours. Such an explanation, however, is in direct contrast to the very point of Hebrews 4:15. It is because of the legitimacy of his temptations that Jesus is able to be a good high priest for us. He can sympathize precisely because he knows what it’s like to resist temptation. So again, there must be a better explanation.

As with the other discussions in this series I believe a helpful explanation can be found by asserting that Jesus lives his earthly life largely out of his humanity. Again, he is divine, that is certain. And we see examples of his divinity shining through boldly throughout the gospels. So Jesus forgives sin, that is something only God can do (Mark 2:5). But there is some sense in which Jesus denied himself his rights as God when he also took on humanity. Dr. Ware views it in terms of limitations. He writes:

Since the Holy One born of Mary was fully God as well as fully man, this seems to imply some limitations in expression both for his divine and human natures. That is, not only would the union of natures require some limitation in the expression of certain divine attributes in order for him to live an authentic human life – e.g. Christ both grew in wisdom and had limited knowledge (e.g., Luke 2:40, 52) – but also some limitation of his human choice and activity would likewise be entailed, so that no action that might threaten the integrity or holiness of his divine nature could occur. (80)

As God in human flesh Jesus cannot exercise his divinity in a way that destroys his humanity, nor can he exercise his humanity in a way that compromises his divinity. So Jesus can forgive, as God, because that “action does not violate the integrity of his human nature” (81). And Jesus can be said to be hungry and thirsty because these experiences do not violate his divine nature. The same thing cannot be said about his sinning. Jesus cannot sin because, though a legitimate human experience, it would violate his divine nature. But saying that Jesus cannot sin and that Jesus did not sin are not to say the exact same thing. An important distinction needs to be considered here.

Bruce Ware offers an alternative explanation for understanding the tension between Jesus’ sinlessness and the legitimacy of his temptations. He argues that the divine nature of Jesus has nothing to do with how he resisted temptation. “The questions of why Christ could not sin and why he did not sin require…remarkably different answers” (82). He illustrates his point with two examples. A man aiming to break the world record by swimming more than 70 miles has a boat following along behind him to make sure that, if he gets in trouble, he does not drown. But say this man swims the whole distance himself without any help, how do we know that this man could not drown? We know he couldn’t drown because he had the boat following along behind him. But to answer the question why didn’t he drown we assert a different answer. He didn’t drown because he kept swimming. The questions, though related, require different answers. His second example tells us about a boy who is allowed to take an exam with his calculator in hand. The boy decides, instead to tuck that calculator away in his pocket and do all the math problems long-hand by writing them out and working out the answers without the use of the calculator. Ware calls us to imagine that the boy gets a 100% on the exam. When asked how we know he couldn’t fail we can rightly assert because he had the calculator. But when we are asked why didn’t he fail the exam, we can say because he did all the work and came up with the right answers. Again the two questions require different answers. Ware applies the same concept to Jesus’s sinlessness. How do we know Jesus couldn’t sin? Because he was God. Why didn’t Jesus sin? Because he utilized the resources given to him in his human nature via the Spirit of God.

We saw last week how Jesus’s obedience was the out-working of the Spirit of God in him. We read in Philippians 2:5-11 that Jesus, though he was God, did not hold tightly to his rights as God, but rather humbled himself, became a servant, and lived out his obedience to God in this manner. This can and should be a great encouragement to us: that Jesus resisted temptation by taking full advantage of the resources that are also offered to us. Ware writes:

What a difference it makes to know that Jesus lived his life as one of us, fighting temptation with resources given to him in his human nature. We see in this that victory over temptation really can happen! The resources god gives – particularly his Word, prayer, and the power of the Spirit – are there for us as they were there for Jesus. We can look at Jesus with a realization that he lived the kind of life we too are called to live, and he made use of the very means that are given also to us. Such hope and confidence is grounded in this understanding of Jesus’s resisting temptation fully as a human. We look to Jesus and we have hope. Human life lived in obedience to the Father has been done by him, and we have every reason to trust in God’s grace to see our obedience increase as we make use of what God makes available to us, as he did for Jesus. (87)

Again, we see how understanding the humanity of Jesus rightly breaks open to us a world of hope.

We cannot be Jesus. That’s an important reminder to make at this point. And the access to spiritual blessings and power that He had as a man are ours only if we first recognize our dependence on him. We must be Christians to lay claim to this kind of hope. But if we are uniting to Christ we have access to this same power. This is why Paul can say that we are free in Christ to resist sin (Romans 8:2). As we study Christ’s humanity there is great hope for us.


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