It’s a critically important question.
If the holy, morally perfect God were to become incarnate as a human being, one would reasonably expect that He would live a good and righteous life. We have solid reasons to think that Jesus Christ did fit this description.
Let’s look at biblical references, both by Jesus and about Jesus, to gain a clear picture of why He is believed to have lived without sin.
By the way, can you imagine??? I can’t get through a single day with 100% purity of thought, word, or action! Surely, He had to be God!
~ Scripture States Jesus Lived a Perfect Life ~
All of the Bible‘s New Testament books, which, by the way, were composed less than seventy years after Jesus’ death, have one consistent message: that Jesus lived without sin. We’re told this in the four Gospels, in reports of speeches by early Christian leaders in the books of Acts, in epistles written by four different authors (Paul, Peter, John, and the author of Hebrews), and in the book of Revelation.
As New Testament scholar George H. Guthrie has noted, “It was a widely disseminated tradition in earliest Christianity that Jesus was sinless…a claim made all the more pointed by the fact that many of the church’s leaders were drawn from Jesus’ family member or closest associates.”
Per Paul, Jesus was not a sinner, but heaped with our sin, that God would see us as unblemished. New Testament scholar Murray J. Harris puts it this way: “Although Christ was aware of the reality of sin and observed sin in others (Hebrews 12:3), He Himself, Paul affirms, never had any personal involvement in sin. … Neither outwardly in act nor inwardly in attitude did Christ sin, and at no time was His conscience stained with sin.”
1 Peter 2:21, 22 says this:
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.
Hebrews 4:14 says this:
For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.
1 John 3:5 says this:
And you know that He was manifested to take away our sins, and in Him there is no sin.
In short, the consistent testimony of first-century Christians to the character of Jesus was that He was without sin, perfect in holiness and righteousness. There are no dissenting statements from Christians in the first — or even second — century. As G. C. Berkouwer, a twentieth-century theology noted, “Ancient heretics, however divergent they were in Christology, did not attack the sinlessness of Christ.”
Granted, zealous followers sometimes have an excessively high opinion of their master, but that does not seem to have been the case with Christ. His followers wrote about Jesus — and themselves — with refreshing candor.
~ Jesus Implicitly Claimed to be Sinless ~
Jesus’ followers viewed Him as sinless — but did Jesus share their view?
Jesus did not directly speak to His own perfection. Should this, as some critics assert, clue us in to the fact that Jesus didn’t see Himself as sinless? Not at all. In a kind of sideways fashion, much of what Jesus said assumed or presupposed His own lack of sin.
Let’s take the issue of forgiveness:
Jesus forgave other people’s sins (Matthew 9:2-6; Mark 2:5-10; Luke 5:20-24; Luke 7:47-49) and taught His followers to forgive others and to pray for God’s forgiveness for their own sins. Yet Jesus never said anything about needing forgiveness Himself — a surprising omission as good spiritual leaders typically use themselves as object lessons or at least model for their disciples what they are teaching them.
As the famous historian Kenneth Scott Latourette remarked:
“It is highly significant that in one as sensitive morally as was Jesus and who taught His followers to ask for the forgiveness of their sins there is no hint of any need of forgiveness for Himself, no asking of pardon, either from those about Him or of God.”
Thomas Oden, previously a Drew University theologian, wrote one of the best expositions and defenses of the sinlessness of Christ. In his writings he explains why Jesus’ lack of any apparent guilt over His own sin is quite revealing:
“Those who have walked the furthest on the way to holiness are those likely to be most keenly aware of their own guilt. St. Teresa of Avila, for example, understood most acutely how distant she was from the full possibility of life in Christ, but it was not because she was living distantly from the life but so near to it. … This was not morbid preoccupation with guilt but simply the expression of daily life lived so near to God that she was more painfully aware of each small increment of distance from God than others might have known in a lifetime. Yet Jesus, whose closeness to God could hardly be questioned, showed no evidences of such guilt or remorse or distance but rather sustained the closest filial relation.”
The Gospel of John reports moments when Jesus indirectly attests to His knowing Himself to be without sin. John 15:9: So Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of His own accord, but only what He sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.”
~ Jesus’ Contemporaries Attested to His Sinlessness ~
In the New Testament, a variety of sources refer to Jesus as “the Holy One of God.” Both Mark and Luke record an incident in which “an unclean spirit,” that is, a demon, identified Jesus with the same title:
Now there was a man in their synagogue with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, saying, “Let us alone! What have we to do with You, Jesus of Nazareth? Did you come to destroy us? I know who You are — the Holy One of God!”
Evidently, Jesus radiated a holiness, a purity, to which the demons were sensitive and against which they reacted with anger or fear.
Early church leaders also referred to Jesus as “the Righteous One” (Acts 7:52; 22:14) and “the Holy and Righteous One” (Acts 3:14). In some passages of the Gospels, speakers refer to Jesus’ goodness in a specific context, especially His having been innocent of wrongdoing justifying His execution. By the way, these speakers, including Judas Iscariot, Herod Antipas, Pontius Pilate, Pilate’s wife, and the centurion in charge at Jesus’ crucifixion, weren’t believers. To this Oden comments, “This is a remarkable confluence of testimony among precisely those who had conspired in bringing His life to a bloody end.”
The Pharisees and other leaders diligently observed Jesus, committed to finding fault in Him and trap Him in His own words. What, however, was the best they could come up with? That He:
~ Broke the Sabbath by doing work on it
~ Was a friend to tax collectors and other sinners, and even ate with them
~ Claimed to be the King of the Jews
~ Taught the people to refuse to pay taxes to Caesar
~ Threatened to destroy the Jerusalem temple
~ Cast out demons because He was in league with Beelzebul (the Devil)
~ Committed blasphemy by forgiving sins
~ Committed blasphemy by claiming to be the Son of God or equal to God
Were these actions sinful? Not the ones He actually did. And some of these criticisms, ironically, now seen from our later point of view, reflect very well on Jesus.
That Jesus didn’t allow legalistic judgments to stop Him from healing on the Sabbath, is one. That Jesus befriended the marginalized is another. Jesus didn’t endorse the sin of these persons by choosing to spend time with them. Rather, he befriended them to free them of their sin.
The harshest criticism the Pharisees were able to deliver was the charge of blasphemy. All four Gospels report that this accusation was made on different occasions, both in Galilee and Jerusalem. It is interesting to see how Jesus answered the charge.
“Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” Jesus said, “I am. And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “What further need do we have of witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy! What do you think?” And they all condemned Him to be deserving of death (Mark 14:61-64).
As proof that He had the divine authority to act as God would, Jesus pointed to the fact that He did certain things that only God could do. It was through His miracles that Jesus demonstrated that His claims to be the Son of God or equal to God were not blasphemous.
For example, when challenged about His forgiving a man’s sins, Jesus asked:
“Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the paralyzed man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God. (Luke 5:23-25)
~ Do You Accept the Bible as Truth? ~
Have you questioned whether Jesus could, as God, sin even just a teensy bit? Perhaps you’ve thought, “Surely Jesus told a little white lie, or two. I mean who hasn’t, at some point, to save face or not be impolite?”
Yet if we look at the picture of Jesus we gain through the Gospels, we see a man who never used manipulation to endear Himself to others. And we know, per the many stories detailing His interactions with Pharisees — and even with His beloved disciple Peter, who tried to talk Jesus out of willing sacrificing Himself — that Jesus could be brutally frank with people.
Did Jesus get mad at people? Yup. Did Jesus get disappointed in people? Yup. Did Jesus repeatedly have to redirect people to help them to understand His message? Yup, yup, yup. But in His responses He did not sin. The Bible tells us so. Not once, in the many details shared about Jesus’ 3-year ministry, is there a single mention of Jesus taking a sinful step in any direction.
If Jesus were just a man, that’s freaking amazing! (And downright unbelievable.) But if Jesus is God, not sinning was simply staying within His nature.
Was Jesus really without sin? The Bible says so. But you, ultimately, must decide if you will accept God’s Word as truth.
This blog post highlights Josh and Sean McDowell’s recently revised apologetics classic, Evidence That Demands a Verdict. We are certain this fully updated and expanded resource will be an effective evangelism tool for you, and strengthen your faith by answering the toughest questions tossed to you by skeptics. Know what you know, because it’s true. But share this truth with LOVE!
If you’d like to start from the first blog post in this series, click here: Apologetics: Apologizing for Believing in God?.