Can God Sin?

It is not just kids who can ask some really tough questions – even really hairy theological questions. Adults of course can also ask plenty of meaty questions about God, the Bible, and Christian beliefs. Assuming the ones asking these questions are not just troublesome trolls, there is nothing amiss in asking such hard and probing questions.

Christians should always be ready to deal with genuine questions about the faith, as Peter exhorts us (1 Peter 3:15). And that includes questions from believers as well as from non-Christians. Asking questions is not always an indication of doubt or a lack of faith. Remember that there are some 300 questions asked in the book of Job.

Providing honest answers to honest questions is always well worth being involved in, and I have sought to do this for many years now. Indeed, a good part of this website does just that: it deals with tough issues, and seeks to clearly reply to the many comments and questions that are sent in to me.

So let me get back to my title: this certainly sounds like a good question, and it would have been asked countless times over the centuries. I in fact recently had someone comment on this site and more or less make the case that God could sin, simply because of the fact that he has free will.

He said that if one has free will, one can rebel. And he further said that even though God chooses to do right, that “doesn’t mean he cannot choose to do otherwise”. Hmm, is he right? Can God choose to do wrong? In other words, can God sin?

My short answer is “no”. But this is how I briefly responded to his comment:

Thanks ****. As to God choosing to sin, that issue is much more clear from Scripture: no he could not sin or choose to sin. Whatever it means to say that God has free will, it does not mean he can choose to go against his own character and nature. That is impossible, even for God. Thus we have crystal clear passages about what God can NOT do, such as:

-Numbers 23:19 God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?
-1 Samuel 15:29 He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a man, that he should change his mind.
-2 Timothy 2:13 if we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself.
-Hebrews 6:18 God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged.
-James 1:13 When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone;

As these and other verses make perfectly clear, no, God can NOT sin – be it lie, or be tempted by evil, etc. God can never choose against his own nature and being. If he could, he would no longer be God. God is a perfect being, and that includes moral perfection. If he could choose to sin, he would cease being God. So orthodox Christian teaching would not accept that sort of claim.

There is of course more that can be said about this. Often confused thinking about this matter is the result of a faulty understanding of God’s omnipotence. Some folks will claim that God can sin because he is omnipotent – meaning he can do anything.

But that is NOT what divine omnipotence means. To say that God is all-powerful does not mean he is capable of doing anything and everything. He cannot contradict the laws of logic for example. His very nature as a truthful being means he cannot do that which is logically impossible.

Even God cannot make 2+2=5. Even God cannot make a round triangle. Pretending that he can do what is not doable – in this case, doing the logically impossible – is not how we defend God and his omnipotence. As C. S. Lewis famously put it in The Problem of Pain:

His Omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible. You may attribute miracles to Him, but not nonsense. There is no limit to His power. If you choose to say, “God can give a creature free will and at the same time withhold free will from it,” you have not succeeded in saying anything about God: meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words, “God can.” It remains true that all things are possible with God: the intrinsic impossibilities are not things but nonentities. It is no more possible for God than for the weakest of His creatures to carry out both of two mutually exclusive alternatives; not because His power meets an obstacle, but because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.

I have written about these matters a number of times now. In one such article I listed a number of biblical passages similar to the list I just offered above. I then went on to say:

As can be seen, these mainly have to do with his character. So are these real limitations? Do they mean God is not omnipotent? Not really – it just depends on how we define the terms. If we mean that God can do all things that are doable (that is, are not logically contradictory, etc.), then we can say yes, he is all powerful.

As mentioned, God can never violate his own moral nature. He must always be God, which means he must always be true, must always be righteous, must always be just, and so on. He can never be evil, and can never deny who he intrinsically is. So God can indeed do all things – all things that are doable that is. He is indeed the omnipotent, supreme, and all-powerful God that we worship.

In another article I ran with a quote from John Feinberg who said this about omnipotence:

We would do well to recognize that this attribute does not obligate God to do anything he can do. For example, God has power to make me a millionaire, and though I might wish for him to do so, his ability to do this in no way obligates him to do it. God’s moral attributes, including his wisdom, ensure that whatever he chooses in relation to this matter will be good, just, and loving, but those moral attributes do not obligate him to do this good and loving thing for me. Nor do they obligate him to do for me every loving, etc., thing he could do. Whatever God does expresses his omnipotence and his moral attributes, but omnipotence does not oblige him to do everything he can do.

And in a third piece on these matters I quoted from evangelical theologian Wayne Grudem:

God’s omnipotence means that God is able to do all his holy will….However, there are some things that God cannot do. God cannot will or do anything that would deny his own character. This is why the definition of omnipotence is stated in terms of God’s ability to do “all his holy will.” It is not absolutely everything that God is able to do, but everything that is consistent with his character. For example, God cannot lie….

This means that it is not entirely accurate to say that God can do anything. Even the Scripture passages quoted above that use phrases similar to this must be understood in their contexts to mean that God can do anything he wills to do or anything that is consistent with his character. Although God’s power is infinite, his use of that power is qualified by his other attributes (just as all God’s attributes qualify all his actions).”

Much more can be said on this, but let me bring up one more thing. While it may seem to uphold the virtue of God by claiming he merely always CHOOSES to do the right thing (and thus could potentially choose to do the wrong thing), that is not how Scripture seems to portray God.

Indeed, that is not a good enough or a big enough God for me. If God simply makes the right choices, there is always the possibility that at some point he could make a wrong choice. If that happens, we are all toast. We need something much more solid and reliable than that.

And that is what we have with the very being and character of God. He simply cannot choose evil. That is not in the realm of possibility for God. To be able to do so would mean he in fact is not God, for God, by definition, is a perfect being.

And the fact that he is immutable – not able to change – means he can never change the way he intrinsically is. He is a morally perfect being and he cannot veer away from that – not for a moment and not for the tiniest degree. A changing God is not God.

And God can never contradict himself or do anything inconsistent with Himself. Just as he cannot deny himself – in terms of his very existence – so he cannot deny who he actually is: a perfect being unable to change into any state of imperfection.

While all this can be mind-bending stuff – and too much for some believers who just prefer a “simple gospel” – these are important matters and well worth reflecting on. Sure, our thoughts in these deep things of God will always be imperfect and somewhat tentative.

But Scripture gives us a lot of material on this that we can run with. And my reading of the biblical data leads me to believe that no, God cannot sin.

[1679 words]

12 Replies to “Can God Sin?”

  1. God is Perfection, Holy, Just, Good, Love, All Mighty, All Powerful. Yes Bill, we do take comfort in the FACT that He can’t sin. Amen.

  2. Of course God cannot sin.
    Even if God could sin, who has the higher moral authority to accuse Him of it? No-one.
    To hold the view that God could sin, means that our concept of God is far too low, and conversely that the concept of ourselves is far too high.
    If we think that God could sin, what god are we talking about?

    Humans at times have seriously doubted that God has done the right thing in a particular circumstance. They have complained and rebelled in response.
    At best, our opinions about such things are insignificant, in the beyond space and time, ultimate meaning of things.
    It is IN everything, and FOR everything, that we should give thanks, 1Thes 5.18, Eph5.20.

    He (God), is the key to all morality, He defines morality, He is morality.
    He defines goodness and righteousness, and justice.
    He defines truth.

    It does not at all matter what God does, it would never ever be sin.
    What He says is truth.
    What He does is not only good, it is always the very best that can be done, and it cannot be improved upon.
    If that is not true then He is not God.
    If that is not true then there must be an ever a superior authority (God) who decides these things.

  3. In a previous post you discussed whether or not Jesus Christ could sin, and you stated, “…there can be some room to move here. I tend to fall on the side that argues that Christ was NOT able to sin, such was the union of the divine and human natures.” Since Jesus is GOD, how can “…there be some room to move here?” You show clearly in this post that God cannot sin; does it matter what men think or say, no matter how great their minds are?

  4. Thanks Jack. I think I already answered that, even in what you quoted. Jesus is God, but he is also man – one person with two natures. So as God he could NOT sin, but as man, well maybe, at least according to some. My take was that given the nature of this union – mysterious as it is – he could not sin, so I at least am not contradicting myself here!

    And I am not fully sure what you mean by your final question. Yes God is the one who determines truth and what he says and thinks matters greatly. But we are called to think God’s thoughts after him. So our views matter to some extent. If we did not believe that, I would not be writing articles and you would not be sending in comments here! Blessings.

  5. I was referring to your comment in the post that you discussed whether or not Jesus could sin, you stated: “Great Christian thinkers have indeed differed on this matter.” To me it doesn’t matter what men think, no matter how great their “thinkers” are. I just believe that some truths are absolute and your post “seemed” to cast doubt that Jesus is 100% GOD; and yes I know that He is 100% man; and I know you believe that He is God. A mystery somewhat like the Trinity. Kind Regards, Jack

  6. It was determined from the beginning that Jesus – his son would die on the cross for the redemption of mankind. God had a thousand years to think about that discission of his, to sacrifice his only Son for that purpose.
    Ps 110:4 “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind” and 1 Samual 15:29 “He who is the glory of Israel does not lie or change His mind for He is not a man that he should change his mind”
    Numbers 23:19 “God is not a man that He should lie nor a son of man that he should change his mind”
    That closes the question for me because it’s impossible for my perfect God to sin.

  7. Further to the article. God has limited Himself through the Covenants He has cut. I will cite just one to illustrate: the Noahic Covenant, by which God has sworn never to fully inundate the World again.

  8. Dallas Willard was quoted as saying “of course God could sin, but why would he want to”. Bill’s comment above “he won’t because he can’t!” leaves me struggling with God under a bondage of the will. CS Lewis was quoted in this article to justify God’s inability to do the illogical which I would hope all agree with. However choosing to love is not an illogical choice. Quoting again from Lewis (full quote below) “free will is the only thing that makes love possible”. The person of Jesus is free and fully capable to choose whether he will love the Father. A choice not to love the Father I believe all would agree would constitute sin (i.e. displeasing to both Father and Spirit – a witness of two). The capacity exists yet Jesus chooses to love. Matt 3:17 “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” becomes meaningless, hollow at best, if Jesus was incapable of freely exercising his will by choosing to love and submit to his father.

    CS Lewis:” Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong, but I can’t. If a thing is free to be good it’s also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata -of creatures that worked like machines- would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they’ve got to be free.

  9. Thanks Larry. But your comment really requires almost an article-length reply to do it justice! Indeed, a number of things need to be mentioned in response. First, all that was said in my article – including the biblical passages shared there – make it pretty clear that God CANNOT sin. If God could sin, he would not be perfect. And if he was not perfect, he would not be God. It does little good to claim he might have chosen to sin. All of God’s choices flow directly out of who he is – his character, his nature. His perfect, holy and righteous character means he would never choose to go against who he is. Indeed, he cannot do so, and still be God.

    As to Willard, I would disagree with him if that is what he said. And when I did a search for that quote, I came up with only one hit! It was from a student of his, and he even adds a caveat as to what Willard might have meant by adding this footnote:

    Perhaps Willard was using “could” in the modal sense or in some other sense (maybe epistemic?). In the quote from “Allure of Gentleness,” he used “doesn’t do” rather than a modal expression such as “couldn’t do.” Or , perhaps Willard was making a teaching point to highlight God’s omniscience. It could be the case that (a) it is logically impossible for God to sin or for God to do evil, and (b) God’s necessary omniscience is such that He necessarily knows (in the propositional sense, not in the experiential sense) the folly of sin and evil. (Thank you, Elliott Crozat.)

    The piece is here, and is presumably the one you have made use of:

    As to Lewis, you of course need to read ALL of his work if you want to drag him into this discussion. What Lewis is speaking about in the passage you mention (and it just so happens that last night I was rereading that exact same passage from his Mere Christianity), has to do of course with HUMAN will, which is not identical to the divine will. We need to be up on the nature of religious language, as Lewis certainly was. He knew full well that our God-talk involves analogical language. That is, there is overlap and similarities in the words we use, but major differences as well. To call Lewis or you or me a good man for example is not identical to calling God good. But see this piece for much more detail on this:

    Thus to speak of the fallen, human will as somehow being identical to the perfect divine will is not only to make a category mistake, but to do injustice to the biblical data. As I said in my article, there are many things God cannot do, such as stop being God, do that which is logically impossible (make 2+2=5), etc. He also cannot do any immoral actions. Again, he would not be God if he could. And John Frame in his Systematic Theology, speaking of this issue, reminds us of the importance of proper and precise terminology:

    Balaam’s questions are obviously rhetorical. It is unthinkable that God should lie or fail to keep his promise. He “cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:13). He “cannot be tempted with evil” (James 1:13). God does, of course, have some moral prerogatives that human beings do not have, such as the right to take human life for his own reasons. But for the most part, human morality is an imaging of God: “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16, quoting Lev. 11:44; cf. Lev. 11:45; 19:2; 20:7; Matt. 5:48). God is the standard of human morality, so he cannot be less than perfect in his holiness, goodness, and righteousness.

    Again, we may speak of God’s inability here, but we are really talking about something admirable – moral excellence and consistency. These are the only qualities that “prevent” God from engaging in immoral actions. So again, the term inability is misleading.

    But this matter of divine moral impossibilities I have also discussed elsewhere, so have a read of this article for a lengthier discussion of this

    As to Jesus and choice, that is another matter once again. Jesus was fully God and fully man – we cannot say that about God the Father or God the Spirit. So to ask whether Jesus could sin is an altogether different topic – and a complex one, exactly because of him being one person with two natures. That debate has to do the peccability of Christ which I discuss here:

    In sum, it is theologically incorrect to speak of “God under a bondage of the will”. He is under bondage to nothing. But unless his character, his being, is perfect, eternal, and unchanging, then we have no God at all to talk about – certainly not the biblical God. God does everything fully in accord with who he is. A perfect and holy being can only do perfect and holy things. That is NOT a limitation on who God is. And it does NOT put him in bondage. It makes him the biblical sovereign who always can be counted on to do that which is right and good because he always is right and good. That is the God that I and all traditional Christians worship, not a God who might one day decide to do evil.

    Of course those who are into process theology or the openness of God theology may well beg to differ here, but they tend to be somewhat aberrational, and outside of the mainstream theological community on various issues.

    But thanks for your thoughts!

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