1st Sunday of Lent, Mark 1:12-15
The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan.
We know that Jesus was truly tempted in the desert, for such is the teaching of Sacred Scripture. And yet, it should be clear that Our Savior could not – he simply could not – sin. The Lord Jesus is impeccable, he cannot sin.
If the Church teaches that Jesus could not possibly sin, in what sense can we affirm that he was tempted in the desert?
Jesus is impeccable – He could not possibly sin
Insofar as we recognize that Jesus Christ is truly God, it is clear that he cannot possibly sin. God cannot sin, therefore Jesus cannot sin. It is impossible to even conceive of Christ sinning without mentally separating and dividing his divine and human natures – that is, one cannot think that Jesus could sin without becoming a Nestorian heretic.
But, one says, “Jesus isn’t only God, he is also man. Therefore, his human nature allows him to have the possibility of sinning.”
Clearly this cannot be the case: For a nature does not sin, but a person. And Jesus is a Divine Person, therefore, as God and as man, he cannot possibly sin. If Jesus could sin, then it would not be a man sinning, but God sinning through a human nature – and this is absurd.
It is simply and absolutely impossible for Christ to sin, because he is God and God cannot sin.
Further, we add that, even in his humanity, our Savior could not sin because his human will was perfectly united to his divine will; and his human intellect enjoyed an immediate knowledge and vision of God.
Thus, although the human will is the type of thing which can sin (because it is not divine), yet Christ’s human will was so elevated by the grace of the hypostatic union as to be entirely free from every possibility of sin.
The Second Council of Constantinople condemned Theodore of Mopsuestia for claiming that it was only after the Resurrection that Jesus became impeccable and entirely unable to sin. Thus, Christians are not free to think that Jesus could have possibly sinned at any time during his life on earth.
But, if Jesus couldn’t sin, was he really free?
Of course our Savior had free will! After all, the ability to sin does not make us more free, but less free. God cannot sin, and so he is absolutely free –his freedom is essentially greater than our freedom, in fact.
Further, the saints in heaven (together with the angels) cannot sin – for they enjoy the fullness of the beatific vision – and they are most certainly free. (cf. CCC 1045)
What a terrible thought, that being free from sin would make us a slave! It is knowledge and truth (together with goodness and beauty) which makes us free, not sin – And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. (John 8:32)
Sin and the ability to sin do not make us free, but rather enslave us: Whosoever committeth sin, is the servant of sin. Now the servant abideth not in the house for ever; but the son abideth for ever. If therefore the son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed. (John 8:34-36)
The confusion comes from misrepresenting the true meaning of freedom. Freedom is the ability to choose, but the choice to sin is actually a lessening of choice. Evil is not a positive reality, but is a deficiency, a tendency toward non-being. Thus, the sinfulness of an action is that action’s tendency toward non-existence and non-being. Further, the creature’s “ability” to sin is an expression of its tendency toward non-being.
Thus, it should be clear that the choice to sin is itself a movement toward non-existence. If that movement and tendency toward nothingness be taken away, then the creature becomes progressively more free. God is pure being, pure existence – and therefore, he is perfect goodness with no admixture of evil or of sin, nor even of the possibility of sin.
Freedom is the ability to do what one wills, but the will is attracted to goodness. Hence, if the will is fully alive (and informed perfectly by the intellect) it will be attracted to the good infallibly – and this means that the human will, when the intellect enjoys the beatific vision, cannot possibly be attracted to evil or to sin. Yet, the man is free, for he does whatever he will – but he can now only will that which is good, that which the will is naturally directed towards.
Jesus only suffered external temptations
Notice that Scripture does not simply say that Jesus was tempted, but that he was tempted by Satan.
We began this article by asking: “If Christ could not sin, how was he tempted in the desert?” And the answer is simple: He was tempted not by any defect of his will, nor by any sinful inclination, but by Satan (that is, from an exterior temptation).
There are three types of temptation: From the world, from the flesh and from the devil. Now, it is clear that Jesus could not possibly be tempted by the flesh – for this refers to the tendency toward non-existence, the interior attraction to sinfulness. But, Jesus could not sin, therefore he could not be tempted interiorly by the flesh.
However, our Savior was most certainly tempted by both the world and the devil – for these are exterior temptations, insofar as they do not originate within a man, but come from other forces which act upon him. The world tempted Christ through men who sought to entice him with vain and worldly glory, or who attempted to terrify him through the threat and execution of punishments. But these temptations did not weaken his will for even a moment – and hence there was no sin involved in his part, nor was there even the possibility of sin.
The devil tempted Christ when he was in the desert. But this too was an exterior temptation which did not, even for the slightest moment, turn his human will from the divine mission.
And yet, we must admit that these were real temptations.
The mere fact the Jesus did not and could not sin, do not make the temptations any less real. Is a temptation less real because we do not consent to it? Of course not! Is a temptation not a temptation if we push it aside immediately and without giving in to sin at all? No! Then, if our consent does not make a temptation any less real, why would the temptations in the desert be less real simply because Christ did not and could not possibly consent to sin?
Rather indeed, we say that our Savior suffered temptation in a manner even more grievous than we – for we have many times given into temptation early on, and thus the temptation ends and the sin begins; but our Lord never gave in, but instead bore the temptation to the end without the least consent of the will.
But he was tempted like us in all things!
St. Paul writes: For we have not a high priest, who can not have compassion on our infirmities: but one tempted in all things like as we are, without sin. (Hebrews 4:15)
Yes, Christ was indeed tempted, but not in those ways which involve sin – i.e. he was not tempted through an interior weakness of the will. Thus, he was tempted just was we are, excepting in those ways which involve sin.
Indeed, we can see that there are several ways in which we are tempted but in which Christ could not have been tempted: We are tempted by memories of past sins (but Christ had no past sins), we are tempted by doubt (which could not be in Christ), and many other ways besides.
Our Lord could not suffer any temptation as an interior struggle arising from his human will. However, he could be tempted through an exterior struggle against Satan and the world. And this was real temptation, which extended to every aspect of the human soul, but was without sin and without even the possibility of sin.