1st Sunday of Lent, Matthew 4:1-11
At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.
It would seem that, if a man could not possibly sin, then he could not be tempted. Indeed, in our fallen condition, we experience temptation as a real choice – when tempted, we really could fall. Moreover, we know that those who are so conformed to God as to be entirely freed from the possibility of sin – we refer to the saints and angels in heaven – these are also freed from all temptations.
Yet, when it comes to the person of Christ, a doubt arises. We are inclined to think that Christ could not sin – since, of course, he is fully God. Yet, on the other hand, we know that Jesus was truly and really tempted by Satan, when he had fasted in the desert. Thus, the question: Could Christ have sinned when tempted by Satan? Moreover, if the Lord was impeccable (i.e. could not sin), how can we say he was truly tempted?
For Christ to sin was an absolute impossibility
When we ask whether Christ Jesus could sin, we recall that we speak of a person and not a nature. To sin is an act of a person, not a nature. Thus, our question really is: Could God sin? To this we answer, simply and absolutely, no. It is an absolute impossibility for God to sin. For God did not make sin, nor could he make sin – for he is perfect Goodness and Love.
Nor does this imply any lack of power in God. To sin is not an ability, but an inability! The possibility of sinning is a defect, a weakness, an inability, an imperfection. Thus, rather than saying (negatively) that God could not sin, we might rather state (positively) that God is free from the weakness of sin. That God cannot commit sins does not entail that there is something God cannot do – for sin is a negative reality, a defect. In other words, precisely because God is perfectly free and all powerful, he is impeccable and cannot sin.
Therefore, when we consider our Lord Jesus, simply and absolutely, we consider that he is a divine person, the second of the Blessed Trinity, and we affirm that it was absolutely impossible that he should sin.
For Christ to sin was a moral impossibility
Moreover, when we consider Christ in his humanity, we must still affirm that it was a conditional or moral impossibility that he should sin. We admit that, although it is impossible for God to sin, it is possible for a man to sin. However, when we come to our Savior (considering him even as a man), we affirm that it was impossible for him to sin, on account of the graces given his human nature.
From the first moment of his existence, Christ enjoyed the beatific vision – he enjoyed the knowledge and love of God which is given the blessed in heaven. Thus, as to the highest faculties of his soul, Christ is likened to the saints and angels in heaven – who cannot sin. This grace, the grace of the beatific vision, together with the many other graces bestowed upon his sacred Humanity, made it morally impossible for Christ to sin.
The fact that Christ could not sin did not, however, limit his freedom. Just as God is not less free (but rather is more free) for not being able to sin – so too, human beings are more free when definitively liberated from sin. Those, who would claim that Christ could not be truly man without having the ability to sin, implicitly claim that sinning is somehow part of human nature and human freedom. But this is clearly not the case – Adam’s fall was devastating to human nature, it did not liberate man but enslaved him! Therefore, Christ’s freedom from sin – which is expressed in his impeccability – in no way makes him less human, but rather makes him the perfect Man.
Temptation that does not involve sin
When we say that Christ could not possibly have sinned, we affirm that he had no internal inclination toward sin. Nevertheless, though he suffered no internal assaults of the flesh (which result from sin and the fomes of sin), Christ is truly said to be tempted by external assault from the world and the devil (ST III, q.15, a.2, ad 3). In every way that a man can be tempted without sin, Christ was so tempted. And it must be admitted that these were true temptations; since, although Christ in no way submitted to them, they were truly waged against him by the Enemy.
Here it will be useful to quote a passage from St. Thomas’ Commentary on Hebrews (4,15):
“236. – Hence, he adds, but as we are, tempted. But there are three kinds of temptation: one is from the flesh, namely, when the flesh lusts against the spirit, as it says in Gal (5:17) and this always involves sin, because, as Augustine says, there is one sin in which the flesh lusts against the spirit. But this was not in Christ; hence, he says, without sin, i.e., without thee slightest movement of sin: ‘Who did not sin, neither was guile found in His mouth’ (1 Pt. 2:22). Therefore, He is called the Lamb of God. Another is temptation either by enticing us with prosperity or by terrifying us with adversity. Now Christ was tempted in those ways: for He was enticed by prosperity. For whatever pertains to prosperity in this life, pertains either to the concupiscence of the flesh, to the concupiscence of the eyes, or to the pride of life (1 Jn. 2:16). The devil tempted Him with the first, when he tempted Him to gluttony, which is the mother of lust: ‘If you be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread’ (Mt. 4:3); also to vainglory when he said: ‘All these things will I give you, if falling down you will adore me’ (Mt. 4:9). ‘When all the temptations were over, the devil left him for a time’ (Lk. 4:13). Furthermore, He was tempted by adversity and by the snares laid by the Pharisees, because they wished to ensnare Him in his speech. And by insults: ‘You that destroy the temple of God in three days rebuild it, save your own self’ (Mt. 27:40); and by scourges and torments. Therefore, outside of being tempted with sin, he has been tempted as we are.”
Moreover, we may add that Christ’s temptation was even more intense than our own – since he persevered through to the end rather than giving into the sin. Thus, he suffered temptation longer and more intensely than has any other man, but he did so without sin and without even the possibility of sin.
[The question of the impeccability of our Lady is also very interesting. Suffice it to say that Christ was tempted and suffered even more than her, but she more than any other than Christ.]