Could God ever choose to sin?
As has often been said, Christian beliefs are simple enough for a child to understand and believe. But they are also deep enough and complex enough to have exercised the greatest minds in human history. Given that theology means the study of God, how could it not be?
What we have is this: mere fallen and finite creatures are trying to fathom the reality and nature of an infinite and perfect Creator. Without God taking the initiative and revealing himself to us, and revealing precious truths about himself and this world to us, we would all be completely stumped and in the dark.
But even with this gracious self-revelation of God, we still have all sorts of deep and perplexing questions that we are still seeking to get some good answers to. No wonder then that this website has well over 1100 articles on theological themes.
And as it turns out, exactly a year ago today I wrote one such theological piece, asking whether it was possible for God to sin. You can see that piece here: billmuehlenberg.com/2019/07/24/can-god-sin/
Now some Christians might think that is a silly question, or maybe even an impious question. But it actually is a legitimate and important question, and theologians have discussed it often over the centuries. In case you are wondering, my take on the matter is this: for all sorts of reasons, no God cannot sin.
But just recently someone sent in a comment to that piece, offering a different take on the matter. Because it raises some important points, I hope he will not mind me sharing it here, and then offering the reply that I gave. Here is what he said:
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.
What follows is my reply, and then just a few more bits that are worth adding on to that:
Thanks ****. 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.
The piece is here, and is presumably the one you have made use of: freethinkingministries.com/can-god-create-a-morally-perfect-creature-part-two/
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: billmuehlenberg.com/2020/07/21/on-god-talk/
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: billmuehlenberg.com/2017/01/16/can-god-anything-reflections/
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 with the peccability of Christ which I discuss here: billmuehlenberg.com/2019/07/22/sin-adam-christ-and-a-little-latin/
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!
As I said, I would like to add just a few more remarks to this reply. They result from my recent readings, and supplement what I have already said. Since I have been rereading much of the Lewis corpus of late, something I just read last night from his The Problem of Pain nicely ties in here, and further confirms how Lewis thought about this issue. Early on in the book he has a chapter on “Divine Omnipotence” and says this:
The idea of that which God ‘could have’ done involves a too anthropomorphic conception of God’s freedom. Whatever human freedom means, Divine freedom cannot mean indeterminacy between alternatives and choice of one of them. Perfect goodness can never debate about the end to be attained, and perfect wisdom cannot debate about the means most suited to achieve it. The freedom of God consists in the fact that no cause other than Himself produces His acts and no external obstacle impedes them – that His own goodness is the root from which they all grow and His own omnipotence the air in which they all flower.
In my original article on this I also mentioned the biblical truth that God cannot change. That should seal the issue. But last night I also was flicking through the classic 1993 book by J. I Packer, Concise Theology. In his chapter on “Transcendence” he says this:
God is immutable. This means that he is totally consistent: because he is necessarily perfect, he cannot change either for the better or for the worse; and because he is not in time he is not subject to change as creatures are (2 Pet. 3:8). Far from being detached and immobile, he is always active in his world, constantly making new things spring forth (Isa. 42:9; 2 Cor. 5:17; Rev. 21:5); but in all this he expresses his perfect character with perfect consistency. It is precisely the immutability of his character that guarantees his adherence to the words he has spoken and the plans he has made (Num. 23:19; Ps. 33:11; Mal. 3:6; James 1:16-18); and it is this immutability that explains why, when people change their attitude to him, he changes his attitude to them (Gen. 6:5-7; Exod. 32:9-14; 1 Sam. 15:11; Jon. 3:10). The idea that the changelessness of God involves unresponsive indifference to what goes on in his world is the precise opposite of the truth.
For these and other reasons, I still maintain, as with most theologians over the past millennia, that God cannot sin, and he will never choose to sin.