Could Jesus’ temptations be real if, being divine, he was incapable of sinning? This is an important question and addresses the heart of what it means for Jesus Christ to be fully divine and fully human and how this perfectly united duality of natures enabled him to effect our salvation. To those who don’t believe in the divinity of Christ, it seems to strike a blow at the doctrine. The argument goes, “God cannot be tempted, Jesus was tempted, therefore he cannot be God,” or as Alfred Norris asserts, “If we say that Jesus was sinless, in spite of His temptations, because He was the Son of God, we say that He was inevitably sinless: and this would mean that His temptations were bound to be ineffectual; which in turn means that they were not truly temptations at all.” 
To address this assertion, first we must clearly understand what temptation is, and then establish whether temptation is more or less “real” if it cannot progress toward actual sin. With respect to the inevitability of Christ’s sinlessness and victory, refer also to The Paradox of Certainty (16/5/15). At the outset, we must acknowledge that the Bible teaches the full humanity of Jesus and his temptations were real.
What is temptation? The New Testament word is the Greek noun peirasmos and its cognate verb peirazo. Peirasmos means “an attempt to learn the nature or character of something; test or trial” or “an attempt to make one do something wrong; temptation, enticement to sin.” The verb peirazo means “to try try, attempt, endeavour to discover by testing” or “to attempt to entrap by inquiry, to entice to improper behaviour, to tempt.”  Accordingly, these words are not only translated “temptation” or “tempt,” but “trial” and “test.” The context of the use of the word determines whether it is a test designed to bring out the best or the worst, and as James explains, the outcome of that test may or may not be sin. In this sense we shall see that God in fact can be, and was “tempted,” and does in fact “tempt.”
The Israelites’ tresspass at Massah and Meribah is described as putting God to the peirasmos, the test (Ex 17:7, Deut 6:16 and elsewhere) a provoking of the Lord to wrath (Deut 9:22, the same word). God in turn put Israel to the test, with “the great trials (peirasmos)that your eyes saw, the signs, and those great wonders” (Deut 29:3). Israel failed their tests, repeatedly and they sinned. God responded to his “tests” with appropriate righteous anger and justifiable consequences. Hebrews 3:7–9 exhorts the readers to not harden their hearts in the way the Israelites tested (peirazo) God in the wilderness.
Peirasmos is not necessarily a provocation to sin, but in our sinful resistance to God’s will, we can make it so. God tested (peirazo) Abraham in requiring him to offer Isaac (Gen 22:1–2); Abraham passed the test (Gen 22:12, as God knew he would!) The purpose of such testing is much like any test or examination, to demonstrate what someone is made of, how they will respond, if they can put theory into action. Because it’s not just the hearers of the word, but the doers who show they mean business. Such testing is inevitable for God’s people. Although we are justified in his sight, God wants to make us more like Jesus and push us toward perfection, to refine us (Rom 6:19–22; 2 Cor 7:1; Gal 4:19; Eph 4:13). Part of this work is to subject us to tests and trials. After all, how else can we learn patience except to have to wait for something? Or learn contentment without having to deal with objectionable situations? In the same way, our faith must be challenged. Paul experienced trials (peirasmos) and was in turn a trial to others but he did not shrink from his duty (Acts 20:18–20; Gal 4:13–14). Jesus discriminated between the various hearers of the gospel, liking them to different kinds of soil. The rocky ground “have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing (peirasmos) fall away” (Luke 8:13). James explains the purpose of peirasmos in his first chapter.
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials (peirasmos) of various kinds, for you know that the testing (dokimion, “test of genuineness”) of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing . . . Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial (peirasmos) for when he has stood the test (dokimos) he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. Let no one say when he is tempted (peirasmos), ‘I am being tempted (peirazo) by God,’ for God cannot be tempted (peirazo)with evil, and he himself tempts (peirazo) no one. But each person is tempted (peirazo) when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:2-4, 12-15).
Peirasmos as a test of faith is something to be rejoiced in, because it produces and reinforces desirable traits, however it is a two-edged sword because our desires can draw us away and if this desire is permitted to “conceive,” it gives birth to sin. God provides trials which test our faith, but he is not the author of the inclination to sin that distorts the outcome of temptation into sin. God cannot be (successfully) tempted by evil, that is, to commit sin, nor does he incite his people to sin, even through that may be the outcome of the trial set before them. James uses the same word peirasmos to describe both outcomes, even through the true purpose of the trial is to be a test (dokimion).
Peter agrees; his readers “by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials (peirasmos)so that the tested (dokimion) genuineness of your faith — more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire — may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 1:5–7). Testing, according to James and Peter, should be a cause for rejoicing and is something to be expected. Peter later adds, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial (peirasmos)when it comes upon you to test (peirazo) you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings . . .” (1 Peter 4:12–14; see also Acts 5:41).
Nevertheless, as James makes clear, we can fail the test. We can be tempted to sexual immorality and need to take steps against this (1 Cor 7:1–5; Matt 5:27–29). Riches can serve as a temptation, not because they are intrinsically evil but because of our love of money (1 Tim 6:8–10; Matt 19:23–26). Our very hearts are a source of evil (Matt 15:19). But God knows our frailties and remembers that we are dust. He has provided two defences and a safety net for us in our temptations, so that we can be adequately tested and yet not fall away. The first defence is the knowledge of his will in Scripture, which informs our conscience and directs our actions (2 Tim 3:16–17). Jesus used Scripture to articulate his own response to temptation (Matt 4:4, 7, 10). The second defence is prayer, which God hears because of the Spirit of adoption who intercedes for us (Rom 8:26–27; Gal 4:5–6). Jesus told us to pray that we may not be led into temptation (peirasmos) but delivered from evil (Matt 6:13, Luke 22:40). Paul prayed for his friends to not give in during their trials or forsake their faith and was encouraged in his own faith trials to learn they had not (1 Thess 3:4–7).
Nevertheless, it is inevitable that peirasmos will come and sometimes the agent of that peirasmos is evil, intending that temptation to actual sin should result (Matt 4:1; Luke 4:13). Even though the tempter’s intent was for Jesus to fail, the temptations were a necessary trial ordained by God himself; we read in the Greek that the Spirit forcibly drove (ekballo; Mark 1:12) Jesus into the wilderness for this very purpose. Jesus said, “It is necessary that temptations come,” and “Temptations are sure to come,” but added, “but woe to the one by whom temptation comes!” (Matt 18:6–10; Luke 17:1–4). To tempt someone to evil is a dreadful sin, as is to succumb to temptation to sin. It is the motivation of the tester/tempter that matters, and it is the response of the temptee that matters also. When God “tempts” he does not tempt to evil, even though those who are so tested may fail and sin. These passages in Matthew and Luke, as well as the Lord’s prayer, link temptation with self-examination and self-denial (the removal of things that prompt temptation in the direction of sin) and also with the need to recognise weakness in others and to be ready to forgive. For with the measure we mete, it will be measured to us. Paul, likewise exhorts, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted (peirazo)” (Gal 6:1).
So, temptations are inevitable, but sin as a result is not, because we have two defences (scripture and prayer) and a safety net when we do fail, our Advocate with the Father (1 John 1:7–2:2). It is therefore a fallacy to suggest that temptation is only “real” if we succumb to it, or would be able to succumb to it. God actually wants the outcome of our peirasmos to be success, not failure! He delights in his children overcoming through prayer, obeying his word and resisting evil. But he will not stop the testing process this side of our perfection (James 1:3–4; Eph 4:13; Phil 1:5). In 1 Cor 10, when Paul discusses how the Israelites failed their peirasmos in the wilderness, he explains that this serves as an example to us. We are not to put God to the test, and we are to examine ourselves for our own vulnerabilities. He goes on to encourage us that we suffer the same peirasmos as everyone else, but that God will not let us be tempted beyond our ability to bear it. God is in control, as always. With the temptation he will provide a way of escape, not so that we avoid the test but so that we endure it . . . and prevail! (1 Cor 10:11–14) This way of escape is not an avoidance (the word means “outcome” or “end”) but the defences of the Word and prayer and the safety net of Christ our Advocate that we may endure the test to a good outcome and be the better for it, to the glory of God.
Therefore, to say that Jesus’ temptations could not be “real” unless he were able to fail is to misunderstand the purpose and nature of peirasmos. Jesus’ temptations were not only real and typical of those facing humanity, they went far beyond that. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, except in the case of the Son of God, who did not grasp at the opportunity to use that power (Phil 2:6–8). Having been anointed with the Holy Spirit at his baptism it was fitting that he was immediately tested in the use of Spirit without measure. Would he use that power to satisfy his own needs (Matt 4:3–4, cf 16:8–10)? Would he depart from the path set before him? Of course not, there was never any doubt! If it had been possible for Christ’s human nature to dominate his divine nature in this way then his ability to fulfill all that was written about him would have been in doubt from the start and the promises of God negated!
Hebrews tells us some important facts about Christ’s temptations; the “tempt” words in each case are peirasmos cognates.
For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Heb 2:16–18).
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:14–16).
Because Jesus came to save humans (not angels) he had to become incarnate, to take on full humanity, not just a fleshly shell but a fleshly mind too. This was necessary in order for him to experience the peirasmos that we experience, yet it was also necessary for him to be without sin. No regular human being is without sin, and whichever way the issue is examined, the Saviour had to have enough divine influence to make overcoming sin a certainty. Otherwise all the prophecies of the coming Redeemer would have been just wishful thinking; Jesus could have blown it at any time. We must not shy away from the inevitability of Jesus’ sinlessness in the face of temptation; it was necessary. Without sinlessness he could not be the propitiation for our sins, justly bearing the wrath of God against sinful humanity but would have been a mere example of one more condemned sinner. As Millard Erickson expresses it, while Jesus could have sinned, it was certain that he would not. He also makes the point that sin is a corruption of true, “very good” humanity and that Jesus is in fact more truly human, as God intended, than we are.  Leon Morris said, “The man who yields to a particular temptation has not felt its full power. He has given in while the temptation has yet something in reserve [1 Cor 10:13]. Only the man who does not yield to a temptation, who, as regards that particular temptation, is sinless, know the full extent of that temptation.”  In fact, if the purpose of temptation is our spiritual growth, then only the one who passes the test and does not sin has been “truly” tempted in its divine intent.
Christ had to triumph over sin, defeat it in the presence of every common temptation and weakness of the flesh yet roundly and uncompromisingly win every round. That is true testing, and the desired outcome of every temptation! Opponents of the divinity of Christ are too inclined to view our humanity as the model for his. But he had to be incarnate in all points except for sin; His temptations (not ours) are the real model for temptation; a triumph over sin at every stage. We are the ones who mess up in time of trial and allow our lusts to act on the temptation and give birth to sin. Christ shows us how to combat sin; through the Word and prayer, as he demonstrated in the accounts of his temptations in the wilderness (Matt 4:1–11; Luke 4:1–13). But we aren’t Christ and we usually don’t follow his example. We corrupt the purpose of the test by sinning. God’s answer is not to therefore keep temptation away from us. Jesus was tempted throughout his life, at every “opportune time” (Luke 4:13) even to the cross itself (Luke 22:42; 23:35–39). His trials and sufferings were a source of growth, of completion, of reinforcement that he was who he claimed to be and would inevitably triumph (Heb 5:7–9).
Jesus’ temptations were real, not merely as an example of how we are to respond (although they do provide that) but as the proper outcome of the trial of faith. They are an assurance of his steadfastness and remind us that when we fail in temptation he is there for us; we need a sinless Saviour because we can’t do it ourselves! His experience gives us confidence in our great High Priest, that he is sympathetic, merciful and gracious and is able to help us in time of need. He is our safety net, the one we look toward in times of trial. He will never fail us, for all promises of God are certain.
- Alfred Norris, The Person of the Lord Jesus Christ (Birmingham: The Christadelphian, 1985), 23
- Danker’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature 3rd ed. (University of Chicago: 2000), 792-3
- Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), 657
- Leon Morris, The Lord from Heaven: A study of the New Testament teaching on the Deity and Humanity of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958), 51–2