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Tempted Without Sin: The Temptations of Christ in Accordance Reformed Christology

Earlier this year, an article at TGC Australia started a controversy over the question of the temptations and impeccability of Christ. In the article, Ed Shaw wrote, “I’m wanting the young people who come to this event to know that Jesus is the one person that they can fully trust with their sexualities, identities and gender because he is both their Creator God and a human being who knows what it is like to grapple with a sexuality, identity and gender.”1 Coming at the end of an article about ministry to LGBT individuals, the natural assumption was that Pastor Shaw was suggesting that Jesus “knows what it is like” to have disordered sexual inclinations. This set off a bit of a firestorm on social media.

TGC Australia quickly added an “editor’s postscript” which hoped to ease the controversy. It did not. In it, readers were told:

We would urge those who believe that there is something wrong with the idea that Jesus might have struggled in regard to matters connected to his sexuality to consider the meaning of Hebrews 2:18 and 4:15… The Bible does not tell us what particular temptations Jesus may have experienced in these areas, but it stresses that he had a human nature that was capable of being tempted. Temptation, in other words, is not the same as sin.

This actually made matters worse in that it clarified that the Shaw’s use of “grapple” was meant to imply a personal conflict with the temptations in question. It also stressed that Jesus may have “struggled” with “his sexuality,” and it connected this to the temptations mentioned in Hebrews 2 and 4. While the note professed a measure of ignorance as to “particular temptations,” the context and overall purpose of the essay certainly connected the temptations to LGBT temptations.  As this was pointed out, the postscript was rewritten so as to remove this implication. It now states, “This article should not be understood to teach that Jesus possessed a fallen nature, lusts or same-sex attraction, but that he experienced suffering and testing through the privation of his human nature.” This is a much improved clarification, but it had to be given precisely because of the earlier note. Additionally, with the new clarification, it is not at all clear how Shaw’s argument effectively works for its original purpose. Shaw had mentioned “a sexuality, identity, and gender.” But if Christ did not possess same-sex attraction or other disordered inclinations, then in what way did he struggle with his sexuality, identity, or gender, and how is that struggle analogous to LGBT struggles?

The new editorial updates also link to an article by John McClean, which leads to a longer version available here. Professor McClean makes a much more careful argument, and he clearly intends to remain within traditional Christological categories. He is clear that Jesus Christ, in His human nature, did not possess distorted sexual desires or any other moral defects. Still, McClean makes two statements which leave the reader with questions. He writes, “Satan could use Jesus’ valid human desires, which in a fallen world are weaknesses (Heb 5:2). In this sense, Jesus’ temptations were certainly ‘inner’.” And then also, “No doubt, like our temptations, Satan appealed to Christ’s human desires and weaknesses. In some form, he faced sexual and gender temptations.”

In the abstract, these two assertions would perhaps not raise alarms. However, McClean is clear that he is addressing the controversy surrounding the original Shaw article (He mentions this in his first footnote). And so it would seem that his remarks are meant to support the original problematic argument. The expression “in some form” invites the natural question, “In what form?”, and the reader is left to wonder to what extent Jesus’ “inner” desires approximated LGBT temptations.

Reformed Christology

To better understand these sorts of questions, we should review the older theological affirmations and orthodox parameters.

Chalcedonian Christology affirms that the second hypostasis or “person” of the godhead, having a native divine nature, added a second nature to Himself, and this second nature is a human nature. This second nature consisted of both body and soul, and the spiritual aspect included a mind and a will. Both natures worked, and so theologians will sometimes speak of each nature having “energy.” Thus, in the one person of Christ, there are two minds, two wills, and two energies, each according to the two natures.

It is not quite correct to say that Christ took on a “fallen nature,” or perhaps we should say, such an assertion is not correct enough. Christ did assume a nature capable of “common infirmities,” as the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it (WCF 8.2). Or in Zanchi’s words, “the Son of God assumed a true body with a true human soul, together with all the essential and natural attributes of Both, and the defects as well…” (quoted in Heppe’s Reformed Dogmatics, Baker ed. 1978, pg. 417). Yet, to this must be added Bavinck’s qualification that Jesus did not inherit the “pollution of sin”:

The exclusion of the man from his conception at the same time had the effect that Christ, as one not included in the covenant of works, remained exempt from original sin and could therefore also be preserved in terms of his human nature, both before and after his birth, from all pollutions of sin. As subject, as ‘I,’ he did not descend from Adam but was the Son of the Father, chosen from eternity to be the head of a new covenant. Not Adam but God was his father. As a person he was not the product of humankind but himself came to humankind from without and entered into its ranks. And since he thus, in God’s righteous judgment, remained exempt from all original sin, he could be conceived by the Holy Spirit and by that Spirit remain free from all pollution of sin. (Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3, chapt 6, Baker 2006, pg. 294)

Jesus had a nature which bore the effects of the fall, but he did not posses original sin nor any of the moral or volition effects of original sin. His will, then, was preserved from the Fall. As Dabney puts it, “the human will of Jesus was rendered absolutely incapable of concupiscence by the indwelling of the Godhead and its own native endowment [ie, Christ’s human nature with original righteousness and the influences of the Holy Spirit– SW]” (Lectures in Systematic Theology, Zondervan 1976, pg. 472).

Polanus explains how this applies to the question of Christ’s affections by explaining how they differed from ordinary sinners:

The difference in affections between us and Christ is mainly threefold. (1) It is derived from the differing principle of origin. Our affections proceed from corrupt flesh and forestall the judgment of reason and do not always obey reason. In Christ they did reside in sense appetition; but because he was without sin and always obeyed right reason, they were roused by right reason rather than by sense appetition. Hence, as we read in Jn. 11.33, he groaned in spirit and was troubled, but with right reason and without sin. (2) It is derived from a diversity of objects. Our affections are mostly directed towards illicit and bad objects; Christ’s were never directed towards evil but always towards good. (3) It is derived from defect and repugnance. Our affections frequently revolt from right reason, fight against it and drag it down to their level; in Christ they both are roused by and always obey right reason. (quoted in Heppe, pg. 420-421)

This then leads to the conclusion, affirmed by the overwhelming majority of Reformed theologians, that Christ was impeccable (see Dabney 470, Bavinck 314-315). Though certain outlying voices have attempted to argue that Christ overcame an actual possibility of sinning, the orthodox position rightly states that Christ could not have even potentially or hypothetically sinned because of His divine person and His total and perfect righteousness. Even Christ’s human will was in perfect conformity to God’s will, and it was always so. As He says in John 8:29, “I always do the things that are pleasing to Him.”

The Temptations of Christ

If what we have said so far is true, then how could it be, as the Scriptures also assert, that Christ was tempted “in every respect… as we are” (Heb. 4:15, also 2:17-18)? How can an impeccable person be tempted?

Christ was indeed tempted. This was emphasized particularly during the temptations from Satan in the Wilderness and is again asserted in Hebrews. But the qualification given by Hebrews 4:15 is essential, “yet without sin.” Thus, whatever might be particularly “sinful” about any given temptation cannot be ascribed to Christ. This qualification also regulates our interpretation of the clause “in every respect.” The author of Hebrews is not intending to claim that Jesus experienced every possible temptation. Such an idea would quickly reduce to absurdity. It simply means that Jesus experienced a representative range of human temptations and can give human “sympathy” to our condition of being subjected to temptation.

Bavinck explains the temptations of Christ in this way:

Similarly, Christ had to manifest his innate holiness through temptation and struggle; this struggle is not made redundant or vain by virtue of the inability to sin (non posse peccare). For although real temptation could not come to Jesus from within but only from without, he nevertheless possessed a human nature, which dreaded suffering and death. Thus, throughout his life, he was tempted in all sorts of ways–by Satan, his enemies, and even by his disciples… And in those temptations he was bound, fighting as he went, to remain faithful; the inability to sin (non posse peccare) was not a matter of coercion but ethical in nature and therefore had to be manifested in an ethical manner. (315)

Jesus was tempted “in all sorts of ways,” but the temptations came “only from without.” He was tempted by others. He was not tempted by His own will or nature.

The internal/external distinction in regards to temptation is explained by John Owen in the following way, “Now, when such a temptation comes from without, it is unto the soul an indifferent thing, neither good nor evil, unless it be consented unto; but the very proposal from within, it being the soul’s own act, is its sin” (Temptation and Sin, from Owen’s Works Vol. 6, pg. 194). Thus the proper way to speak of Jesus’ temptations is that He was subjected to temptation from without, but that he did not have real internal temptations. He did not have internal desires to sin. He was not inclined to commit an evil act, nor did he sincerely entertain an evil thought.

But did not Christ also have internal desires and affections which could be “tested” during the various temptations to which He was subjected? This seems to be what John McClean is seeking to affirm when he says, “Satan could use Jesus’ valid human desires, which in a fallen world are weaknesses (Heb 5:2). In this sense, Jesus’ temptations were certainly ‘inner’” (point 14 of his longer essay).

Here we need to make an important distinction. The more traditional way of speaking about “temptation” is that which I have described above. Christ is tempted from outside of Himself and not from within Himself. When speaking of His internal state, the Reformed have preferred to say that Christ had sinless human passions and infirmities, rather than “temptations” as such. They might also call these affections, appetites, or even passions (for this last term see Warfield’s “The Emotional Life of Our Lord”).

Calvin explains this distinction as it relates to the Epistle to the Hebrews:

But it may be asked, What does he mean by infirmities? The word is indeed taken in various senses. Some understand by it cold and heat; hunger and other wants of the body; and also contempt, poverty, and other things of this mind, as in many places in the writings of Paul, especially in 2 Corinthians 12:10. But their opinion is more correct who include, together with external evils, the feelings of the souls such as fear, sorrow, the dread of death, and similar things.

And doubtless the restriction, without sin, would not have been added, except he had been speaking of the inward feelings, which in us are always sinful on account of the depravity of our nature; but in Christ, who possessed the highest rectitude and perfect purity, they were free from everything vicious. Poverty, indeed, and diseases, and those things which are without us, are not to be counted as sinful. Since, therefore, he speaks of infirmities akin to sin, there is no doubt but that he refers to the feelings or affections of the mind, to which our nature is liable, and that on account of its infirmity. For the condition of the angels is in this respect better than ours; for they sorrow not, nor fear, nor are they harassed by variety of cares, nor by the dread of death. These infirmities Christ of his own accord undertook, and he willingly contended with them, not only that he might attain a victory over them for us, but also that we may feel assured that he is present with us whenever we are tried by them.

Thus he not only really became a man, but he also assumed all the qualities of human nature. There is, however, a limitation added, without sin; for we must ever remember this difference between Christ’s feelings or affections and ours, that his feelings were always regulated according to the strict rule of justice, while ours flow from a turbid fountain, and always partake of the nature of their source, for they are turbulent and unbridled. (commentary on Hebrews 4:15)

Calvin is clear that these infirmities are more than simple bodily limitations. They can include psychological and emotional stresses like “fear, sorrow, the dread of death, and other similar things.” The particular temptation in this section of Hebrews is the temptation to not persevere in the faith, to give up in the face of hardship. Christ possessed the infirmities which would make this temptation intelligible. Still, Christ was able to possess these infirmities without anything “vicious” inhering in them. He was able to regulate even these very human feelings “according to the strict rule of justice.” This parallels what Polanus said above: Christ’s affections “are roused by and always obey right reason.”

Dabney even applies this right reasoning to Christ in such a way that “He could doubtless represent to Himself mentally precisely how a sinful object affects both mind and heart of His imperfect people” (472). Dabney goes on to say that Jesus “has every natural faculty which, in Adam’s case, was abused,” but that “they were infallibly regulated by, what Adam had not, a certain, yet most free, determination of His dispositions to holiness alone” (473). Thus Christ could be tempted, the temptation could appeal to His human desires, appetites, and affections, and yet Christ could always and infallibly withstand those temptations and perfectly regulate all of his internal faculties in accordance with His innate holiness. Christ could “understand” a temptation without himself being in the same psychological state as an actual sinner.

Christ then “struggled” or “grappled” with His temptations, but He did so perfectly, in such a way that excludes any internal concessions to or partial coalescence with sinful inclinations or desires.

Could Christ Have Been Sexually Tempted?

So we now return to our original inquiry. Was Ed Shaw correct to say that Christ “is both their Creator God and a human being who knows what it is like to grapple with a sexuality, identity and gender” and was John McClean correct to say “In some form, he faced sexual and gender temptations”?

We must first recognize that these questions are complex ones. By this, we do not mean that they are “hard” or “difficult,” but rather that they contain multiple and distinct assertions. Shaw’s statement includes both the deity and humanity of Christ, and it addresses “sexuality, identity, and gender.” Thus there are three different possible temptations, and each are related to the two natures of Christ. As divine, Christ possessed full and appropriate knowledge of what humans know and experience when they undergo temptations. This much is certainly true, though it is of such a basic order that it lacks the rhetorical force of the original argument.

According to his humanity, however, Christ did not possess any illicit desires, sexual or otherwise, and so He did not have any internal experience of a disordered sexuality, identity, or gender. He did not consider such thoughts and desires, and He certainly experienced no violence or distress in regards to them. His righteous constitution would have been wholly attracted towards the good.

But could Christ have had external temptations related to sexuality, identity, or gender which might find some point of correspondence with Christ’s internal appetites and affections? This seems to be McClean’s point when he says “in some form” Christ faced these temptations. To answer this we need to explain each of the categories carefully. We also need to admit the anachronistic nature of these categories. It is not clear that anyone in the first century thought in terms of “sexual identity” or would have distinguished sex from gender. Still, we can make some attempt to answer the modern question.

Homosexuality, transgenderism, and other sorts of sexual disorders are not applicable to Christ’s human experience. Each of these would require some disordered moral faculty within Christ and, as such, they are excluded on the grounds of orthodox Christology, as outlined above. On the very same grounds, Christ was not tempted towards heterosexual fornication. He did not battle with any sexual lust because He always perfectly regulated His passions, affections, and desires.

Christ also had no confusion about the fact that He was a male. He was the son of David, the second Adam, and even the Bridegroom. Christ perfectly kept God’s law –in thought, word, and deed– and this included Deuteronomy 22:5.

Christ could have, hypothetically, been tempted towards a morally appropriate sexual desire but one which was not vocationally appropriate for Him. This would be a temptation, and it would even be a “sexual temptation.” We have no evidence that Christ was ever tempted in this way, of  course, but it is conceivable that at least one such temptation would not violate His sinlessness and impeccability. That temptation would be the temptation to marry a wife. Christ, of course, willingly forsook marriage during His time on earth. He did not pursue this vocation, which would otherwise be good and permissible, not because of a peculiarity in His orientation but rather because it was not in accordance with His messianic ministry.

At the same time, it must be remembered that Christ does indeed receive a bride after completing His work. The consummation of human redemption is presented as a marriage feast between Christ and the Church. In Rev. 21, we are shown “the wife of the Lamb” (Rev. 21:9). Though in a mystical sense, we can still say that Christ does in deed marry. Thus, Christ abstained from that good for a season so that He might enjoy it perfectly for eternity.

We might ask one final, albeit somewhat facetious, question. Could Christ have been tempted by “toxic masculinity”? This question is hopelessly modern and depends upon  contested terms and assumptions. Still, it might be a contemporary “gender temptation” on some people’s minds. We can answer this question, and we can answer it in the negative. Christ could have been tempted by appropriately masculine endeavors and goals, but He would have had no interest in immoderate or inordinate masculine pursuits. Jesus is capable of being a warrior, of bearing a sword, and of enjoying kingship and victory over His enemies. But Jesus is not capable of achieving these ends through intemperate means. Jesus was never tempted by extortion, effeminacy, or luxury. Jesus was the perfect man. He was perfectly masculine.

With these clarifications and qualifications, we can say that the controversial language used by Shaw and even McClean can only be defended by removing it from its original relevant context and subjecting it to a rather strained interpretation. Technically possible perhaps, but rhetorically ineffective and pastorally imprudent. We can, however, be thankful for the opportunity to review older theological categories and terms, and we can hope that this period of testing has better trained us towards holiness.

  1. We do not wish to be pedantic, but it is also technically inappropriate to say that Jesus is “a human being.” Jesus is a divine being, the eternal Logos, who added a human nature to His single hypostasis. This point is outside Shaw’s intentions, of course, but if one is going to employ Christology for these pastoral applications, then they might consider being more careful with the Christological language.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.