Could Jesus have sinned? If He could not sin, what was the point of the temptation?

Every person who was ever created by Heavenly Father was given the gift of moral agency, which is the right to make choices. This includes Jesus Christ. The Savior’s gift to us was one He gave willingly, which was a necessary part of the gift. This means that when Satan tried to tempt Him, Jesus could indeed have given into temptation. God knew, when He sent Jesus, that His Son would not sin, but Jesus had the ability to do so if He chose.

Howard W. Hunter MormonHoward W. Hunter, a former prophet of the Mormons, spoke on this subject before he was a prophet. Elder Hunter, as he was then called, said, “It is important to remember that Jesus was capable of sinning, that he could have succumbed, that the plan of life and salvation could have been foiled, but that he remained true. Had there been no possibility of his yielding to the enticement of Satan, there would have been no real test, no genuine victory in the result. If he had been stripped of the faculty to sin, he would have been stripped of his very agency. It was he who had come to safeguard and ensure the agency of man. He had to retain the capacity and ability to sin had he willed so to do. As Paul wrote, “Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered” (Heb. 5:8); and he “was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). He was perfect and sinless, not because he had to be, but rather because he clearly and determinedly wanted to be. As the Doctrine and Covenants records, “He suffered temptations but gave no heed unto them.” (D&C 20:22.) (Howard W. Hunter, “The Temptations of Christ,” Ensign, Nov 1976, 17)

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Agency was a critical part of God’s plan for us. Mormon beliefs teach that before we were born, God created our spirits and allowed us to live with Him as spirits for our time. We had agency there and our own personalities. Our growth and development started there. Some chose to be more righteous than others, just as people do here. When it was time for us to come to earth, God explained His plan for us. We would receive bodies and families, but would not remember our time in Heaven. We’d have to seek out the truth, accept it, gain faith, and live by it. Life would be a test, and as such, we’d often make mistakes and sin. Since justice would require perfection, something not possible for fully mortal people, God would give us a Savior, someone whose parentage would combine the mortal and the divine, who would live a perfect life, and who would, by choice, die for our sins.

Lucifer wanted the job, but he fully intended to overthrow God’s plan. Having no desire to suffer for our sins, his own plan involved taking from us our agency. We would come to earth as nothing more than puppets. He would control our every action and every thought, rendering it impossible to sin and making a mockery of the test. In this way, we’d all be guaranteed the right to return to God, but Lucifer would not need to suffer for us, since there would be no sin to atone for. It was a selfish plan and most of us rejected it. Jesus Christ offered to become our Savior, and was happy to follow God’s plan for us. He was willing to suffer the pains of Gethsemane and the cross because He loved God and He loved us. He understood that agency was essential to our experiences on earth, and did not try to take it from us.
He also knew it was essential for His own experience on earth. He needed to experience the trials and temptations of life, and demonstrate His ability and willingness to avoid temptation and cope well with trials. Only in this way could he understand what we faced, and only by having His sacrifices made freely could the atonement happen. It was a gift that had to be given willingly.

The temptations mirrored the types of temptations we face in our own lives. He had already been baptized and had fasted for forty day, leaving him weak. When our bodies are weak, we find it harder to resist temptation.

Elder Hunter quoted David O. Mckay, another previous church leader, who said, “Classify them, and you will find that under one of those three nearly every given temptation that makes you and me spotted, ever so little maybe, comes to us as (1) a temptation of the appetite; (2) a yielding to the pride and fashion and vanity of those alienated from the things of God; or (3) a gratifying of the passion, or a desire for the riches of the world, or power among men.” And then he said: “Now, when do temptations come? Why, they come to us in our social gatherings, they come to us at our weddings, they come to us in our politics, they come to us in our business relations, on the farm, in the mercantile establishment, in our dealings in all the affairs of life, we find these insidious influences working, and it is when they manifest themselves to the consciousness of each individual that the defense of truth ought to exert itself.” (David O. McKay, Conference Report, Oct. 1911, p. 59.)

Jesus kept his eye on the eternal goals, not the short-term temptations, and thereby maintained his covenanted role as a perfect Redeemer. While demonstrating His personal commitment to the gospel and to His role in it, He also set an example for us to follow. We will face similar challenges in our own lives, and while we may not see Satan standing directly in front of us, we must learn to recognize him and his temptations in their more subtle forms, and develop the strength, the courage, and the eternal vision to send Satan away.

About Terrie Lynn Bittner
The late Terrie Lynn Bittner—beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend—was the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that appeared in Latter-day Saint magazines. She became a member of the Church at the age of 17 and began sharing her faith online in 1992.

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