Friday, March 11, 2011

Could Christ have sinned when tempted by Satan?, On the Gospel for the 1st Sunday of Lent

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.]


Ginny K. Allen said...

This is a subject I have been pondering for a while. Thank you. Even we, when we are tempted as baptized believers, have been given a promise that we will not be tempted beyond what we can endure. We, however, having an inclination to sin or concupiscence, and having been endowed with free will, can push the envelope and choose the sin. In the same way we can accept God's grace and refrain from the sin. The more often we resist temptation, I would think, the stronger the temptations might come BUT the stronger grace will come also. This morning's homily on EWTN had me think of another question. I wonder how many times Eve, and or Adam were tempted BEFORE they sinned. I read somewhere this week that our conscience is in our understanding. If this is so, then we have an opportunity to inform our will BEFORE we sin.
Ginny K.Allen Kennebunk, Maine

David Lamb said...

Is it possible for anyone experiencing the beatific vision to suffer?

Msgr Pope said...

It is a fascinating thing to ponder how Jesus, who is a divine person, but also with a sinless human nature experiences temptation. I guess we cannot fully understand this given the fallen nature with which we think.

But I do have a few questions.

1. It is always sin (ipso facto) to be tempted by the flesh? Thomas seems to say it "always involves sin." But what if, for example, a man has a lustful thought which, when it occurs, he dismisses. Has he, in fact, already sinned? For it seems that the imagination often suggests things prior to a real engagement of the will and that one might be tempted without incurring sin.

2. How is gluttony not a sin of the flesh?

3. Is St. Thomas using "flesh" here as an equivalent of the physical body? For it would seem St. Paul uses the word flesh more widely to refer to a sinful dispoistion, or part of us that is hostile to things spiritual.

4. Scripture says that Christ was tempted in every way we are, yet did not sin. The average reader would read this to say that Christ was tempted in every way but did not sin at all on account of it. Whereas it would seem St. Thomas reads it to mean, Christ was tempted in every way we are except in what he calls the temptation from the flesh and in that way Christ was not tempted. Is this correct?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

One cannot both be joyful and sorrowful about the same thing at the same time in the same respect.

However, it was possible for Christ to have the beatific vision and also to suffer, because the vision was in his soul alone and (by a divine dispensation) did not pass into his body or even into the lower faculties of his soul, until after the Resurrection.

Thus, before the Resurrection Christ could suffer. However, this suffering could not be in the highest part of the soul -- thus, he could not despair (for example), for he enjoyed the perfect vision of God. Still, he was sorrowful on account of sin (he also wept at Lazarus' death).
Indeed, St. Thomas tells us that Christ's sufferings were greater than any other's -- precisely because he enjoyed the beatific vision, he suffered most intensely at the sight of sin and death.

Peace. +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Msgr. Pope,
Thank you for the questions!

1) When Thomas talks about being tempted by the flesh, he is referring to interior temptation. Though this is not always a sin in itself, it always comes from sin -- either from actual sin or from original sin (i.e. the fomes of sin).
Thus, it is clear that, as Christ had no concupiscence, so too he had no interior tendency toward sin. Thus, he was not tempted "by the flesh" -- i.e. he did not suffering interior temptations.

2) Gluttony is a sin of the flesh. However, Christ was tempted with gluttony (and perhaps even lust) as exterior temptations. He had no interior movement toward gluttony, but the external suggestions of gluttony were still real temptations waged against him by Satan. [in this sense, Christ did not suffer gluttony as the flesh lusting against the spirit, but as an exterior assault]

3) I think that Thomas uses "flesh" in essentially the same way as St. Paul -- The "flesh" is the temptations (and the sinful dispositions) toward excess in taste and touch. Thus, the sins of the flesh are those relating to food/drink and sex.
Certainly, "flesh" isn't simply the physical body as a whole -- St. Thomas is not including the senses of hearing, smelling, or seeing (excepting insofar as they are related to sins involving taste and touch).
For St. Paul, the "flesh" is not merely everything hostile to the spiritual realm (he does not seem to include ambition as a "sin of the flesh"), but rather he seems to connect it mostly with sins of impurity (and also gluttony).

4) Simply put, there are some ways in which Christ could not have been tempted. For example: We are tempted by memories of past sins, Christ could not have been so tempted. Again, we are tempted to unbelief, Christ could not have been so tempted (since he had "an intimate and immediate knowledge" of God the Father -- CCC 473).
Thus, we cannot say that Christ was tempted in every way in which we are tempted. Rather, we maintain that he was tempted in every way that does not come from sin, and that he overcame every temptation without ever sinning himself.

I hope that these answers are clear enough -- obviously, I am speaking in summary form and very briefly, but hopefully it makes sense.

Msgr. Pope said...

Thanks Fr. Reginaldus, for the helpful answers.

Fr. Larry said...

I like the idea that a nature cannot sin, only a person can sin. Yet, in 2 Corinthians 5: 21, we read "For our sake He made Him to be sin who did not know sin." Furthermore, the Church Fathers tell us that "That which was not assumed was not saved." If Jesus did not assume our ability to sin, how could He save us from sin? Since Jesus had a human will, that human will had to be able to make a choice -- "No one takes my life from me but I lay it down myself." (John 10:18). SInce love is an act of the will, if one cannot make that act of the will one is not truly free and, therefore, cannot love. If one has not the choice, one is a puppet and not free.

Anonymous said...

It should be noted that Jesus bore the temptations of Israel for forty days and nights. He is Head of the New Israel, the New Adam who does not submit to temptation.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Fr. Larry,
I think you have articulated well the most common objection...
However, we must remember that the ability to sin is not freedom, but lack of freedom -- thus, God is perfectly free although he cannot sin.

You ask: "If Jesus did not assume our ability to sin, how could He save us from sin?" I answer that Christ could not have been our redeemer if he could have sinned -- for our redeemer had to be both God and man, but God cannot sin.

The main point is that true freedom is about being able to choose between good actions, not sins. Thus, one who is impeccable (as are the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is most perfectly free.

Man is not more human by being able to sin; rather, when we are in heaven and are completely freed from all sin (and from all possibility of sin) we are most human and most free.

Peace to you! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

It seems to me that the real key here is the following line:
"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."
The temptations of Christ were true, even though they were entirely external.

Savio said...

This was a great reflection and definitely plenty of food for thought and prayer and meditation. Thank you very much for this.

I just wanted to ask you if you could explain how the nature of Heaven as you have explained above would relate to the nature of Eden and our parents, Adam and Eve, prior to the Fall.

Correct my understanding, if I am wrong, but wasn't Eden essentially a sort of Heaven? And man did not know suffering or death until the Fall. So how exactly would the nature of Eden and man in Eden prior to Original Sin relate to the nature of Heaven as you have explained above?

God bless,


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Savio, thank you for the interesting question!

Put very simply, the Earthly Paradise had some similarities to Heaven, but was essentially different.

The main difference is that, although Adam and Eve were created in grace, they did not enjoy the Beatific Vision -- thus, it was possible for them to fall into sin.

Other aspects of Eden were more like Heaven: for example, Adam and Eve would not have died.
Still, Eden was part of earth and not Heaven...

Finally, I would point out that (as you seem to have hinted) Adam and Eve were not tempted by any interior struggle -- their temptation had to come from without, i.e. from Satan. Just as Christ could only be tempted exteriorly, so too Adam!

Peace! +

Savio said...

Dear Fr. Reginaldus,

Thank you very much for your response, that definitely helps better understand Eden in relation to Heaven.

I just realized that I posted my previous comment under the wrong post. It was supposed to go under the "Where was Mary assumed to?" post. I apologize for any confusion that I may have caused.

Thank you and God bless,

Unknown said...


The comments I have read seem to imply that the beatific vision somehow precludes the possibility of sin. Does it follow that we have no free will in heaven? If that is the case, what of the fallen angels?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

You have brought up a crucial point...
The fallen angels fell precisely because they had not yet experienced the beatific vision. Though it is most likely that all the angels were created in grace, we know that they were not created with the beatific vision...they had too choose God.

Regarding the freedom of the will and the possibility of sin ... please consider what I have offered in the article -- one is LESS FREE by being able to sin, and MORE FREE by being unable to sin (impeccable). Thus, God is the most free being of all.

I hope this helps, Peace! +

Anonymous said...

Re:Fr. Larry

The quotation of the Fathers concerning what is not assumed is not saved is I believe being taken out of context. First, the meaning of the Fathers is that Christ must have a true human nature, i.e. body, soul (will and intellect) if our human nature is to be redeemed. It does not follow from this axiom that Christ therefore must have the capacity to sin in order that our human nature be redeemed. As has been eloquently elucidated above neither sin nor the capacity to sin constitutes human nature, nor specifically is it this capacity which constitutes free will. Rather it is a defect or privation, therefore that Christ was non posse peccare is an excellence in which we, too, shall share in heaven, albeit by grace.

Secondly, as has been pointed out above there is in Christ one person only, and that person is divine. Hence the Divine Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity is the subject acting and it is therefore a manifest absurdity to attribute sin to a divine person.

Finally, the hypostatic union of humanity to divinity entails that the human nature of Christ is ahypostatic which is then enhypostasized in the Divine Person who was eternally begotten. The union of the human nature and divine nature in the Second Person is such that it is a substantial union of pre-eminent excellence which exceeds even the experience of all the angels and saints in heaven, not only as the greatest exemplar but exceeding their blessedness collectively.

In cordibus Iesu et Mariae,

Keith Kenney

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Keith Kenney (Anonymous 1:04am),
Very good comments! I think you have stated the case very clearly and concisely.

One small point -- "The union of the human nature and divine nature in the Second Person is such that it is a substantial union of pre-eminent excellence" -- I would rather say it is a "personal union" or a "hypostatic union"...since, "substantia" has connotations which we would not want to lean towards...
Nevertheless, I do recall that the Litany to the Sacred Heart says something like, "Cor Iesu, Verbo Dei substantialiter unitum"... so, perhaps we can speak of a "substantial union" between the two natures -- though, certainly, "personal union" is better.

In any case, peace to you...and please do feel free to comment often! :)

Anonymous said...


(I assume that it is Father). I've given some time to reflect on your comment. I suppose when I spoke of substantial union I was using the word in the Cyrillian, i.e. anti-Nestorian, sense of not accidental. I also want to stress the distinction between the union of the human nature to the divine nature in the Person as something "more" than the union of the blessed with God in the Beatific Vision. Still, your point is well taken that personal union is more precise and implies these very facts. Having checked in some sources I see that subsistentia, hypostasis are used a correlatives but that personal is the best way of expressing it in English, for whatever the modern connotations of person due to psychology, it at least cannot be misunderstood as substantia in the philosophical/material sense. Subsistentia seems not to have passed into english with the "persona" meaning intact. Probably due to the Leonine "duabus naturae, una persona." At least in this case it seems to me that Latin has carried the meaning of the Fathers better than the Greek philosophical terms. That may just be my Latin bias though. :)

I'm really enjoying this blog btw. Keep up the good work, err.. certa bonum certamen fidei.

Keith Kenney

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Keith, Indeed there is a great history of debate about these terms... St. Jerome (in particular) was exacerbated by the Greeks! :)

In any case, thank you for adding to this discussion!
Peace to you and blessings for a holy Lent. +

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