On the one hand Scripture tells us that “God cannot be tempted by evil” (James 1:13). On the other, it informs us that during His wilderness sojourn, Jesus was tempted by the evil one (Matthew 4:1–11). Could Jesus be tempted—or couldn’t He?
First, for sin to take place, there must be a sinful inner response to a seductive suggestion to sin. Although Satan appealed to Jesus’ natural human desires (e.g., hunger), our Lord did not fantasize in response to Satan’s suggestion. To mull over Satan’s suggestion even for a moment would have constituted sin. And had Jesus sinned, He could not have been our Savior.
Furthermore, although Christ did not have any sinful proclivities that inclined Him toward evil, Satan’s temptations were nonetheless as real as the very flesh upon Jesus’ bones. Even those who are born into sin can identify with being tempted to do something they are utterly disinclined to do. By way of analogy, most mothers would never consider killing their children even if offered a life free from suffering in return. Nonetheless, the natural desire to avoid suffering would render such a temptation genuine.
Finally, in saying “God cannot be tempted by evil,” James focused on God as the self-sufficient Sovereign of the universe. As such, God has no unmet needs. Conversely, the accounts of Jesus’ wilderness temptation focus on God-Incarnate who experienced all the essential physical and psychological needs commensurate with humanity—including hunger, fatigue, and the desire for self-preservation. Thus, the biblical truths that God cannot be tempted and yet Christ was tempted are complementary, not contradictory.
We do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.
Hebrews 4:15 NKJV
For further study, see Adam Pelser, “Genuine Temptation and the Character of Christ,” Christian Research Journal 30, 2 (2007).
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