Could Jesus Have Failed in His Mission to Redeem Us?

Question from a reader:

I read the following from Paul Crouch of TBN, and wanted to get your opinion of it:

“A lot can happen in six hours. But not just any six hours. These six hours were the most unique and critical ones in the history of the world and, in fact, the universe. The fate of the very Godhead was at stake. ‘Heresy,’ someone says? Well, let’s ask the question: Could Jesus have failed in His mission?

“If your answer is ‘no,’ then the whole mission is a fraud. The possibility of failure had to be there or there is no validity to the victory. Theologians have debated and wrestled with the question for generations. I remember many years ago when my systematic theology professor, Dr. E. S. Williams, was confronted with this question by my class. He calmly said, ‘Gentlemen, I do not know for certain if Jesus could have failed in His mission to redeem us all. But I know for certain that He didn’t!’“

Answer from Randy Alcorn:

The statement by Paul Crouch is heresy. An orthodox understanding of the deity of Christ compels us to say he could not have failed in his mission. Indeed, if he could have failed, he is not all powerful and therefore he was not and is not God.

True, as Phil. 2 shows (and is illustrated by the Son “doesn’t know the hour”), Jesus chose to lay aside the exercise of some of his divine prerogatives, but never did he divest himself of his attributes. So, yes, Jesus could hunger and thirst as a man, but there is no moral imperfection in hunger and thirst. He could not sin, because that would have not been a choice not to exercise a power, but would have been a violation of his essential nature. God can choose to make himself hungry, but he cannot choose to make himself sin.

If Jesus could sin, and Jesus is God, then God can sin. If Jesus could fail, and Jesus is God, then God can fail. If God could have failed during the incarnation of Christ, why not at other times? Can we really count on him? Scripture says in him there is no shadow of turning or change. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. If Jesus could have failed yesterday, then he could fail today and in the future.

Is appealing to Christ’s deity to say he could not fail a form of cheating? No. In his temptation, Jesus refused to rely on his divine ability to change the stone into bread, and thereby make obedience easier. His divine nature is a “backstop” that would prevent him from sinning, but he was still truly facing temptations. Does this mean the temptations weren’t real? Of course not. Grudem uses the analogy of a weightlifter who successfully lifts and holds the heaviest weight ever lifted. Would we say he can’t relate to all those people who tried to lift without success? No, the weight falls hardest on the one who actually lifts the most. We could better argue that the rest of us don’t understand what it’s really like to resist sin, because we cave into it. Jesus really understands. Arguably, Christ’s temptations were more real precisely because he didn’t yield to them, and that is not diminished by the fact that he couldn’t. His divine attributes made it harder for him on the cross, since it brought his total holiness under the judgment of sin—he became sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21).

Are there certain things God cannot do? Sure—Scripture tells us he cannot lie (Titus 1:2). He cannot violate his essential nature. God is God. His nature is to succeed in his plan (Eph. 1:11). He cannot not succeed. He cannot fail. His omnipotence, providence and decree assure this.

Crouch’s statement puts a hole in the dam of the doctrine of Christ’s deity, sufficiency, holiness and God’s sovereignty. Notice he cites no Scripture. He has a habit of not citing Scripture, because he relies on his own logic and experience more than on Scripture. He routinely twists Scripture to fit whatever point he wants to make today. (Tomorrow it will change.)

Even the use of the term “fate” betrays horrible theology. Why not use the term karma? “The karma of the very Godhead was at stake.” To speak of fate, like karma, is to suggest there is something outside the control of God. Hence, God is a lesser power in the hands of a greater one called Fate. Absolute heresy.

There is an implied dualism in these statements. To say that Jesus could have failed is to imply Satan could have succeeded. This is a Zorastrian Star Wars sort of dualism that sees Satan as God’s equal opposite, fighting for victory on an equal plane. Could Satan defeat Christ? Absolutely not. Is the battle real? Yes, but the outcome is certain. Satan is not Christ’s equal opposite, he’s Michael’s equal opposite. Jesus is the creator. Satan is but a creature. He can’t do anything without God’s permission. (See Job 1.)

Crouch tells us something by immediately trying to defend himself against the accusation of heresy. “The lady doth protest too much.” (Remember Nixon saying, “I am not a crook”?) Others will see heresy precisely because there is heresy. It doesn’t matter what one of his professors said in a systematic theology class. (I’m trying to picture Paul Crouch in a systematic theology class. It’s like the ultimate oxymoron, the high king of mixed metaphors. It’s like trying to picture an Eskimo sunbathing in the tropics. It just doesn’t work. In any case, Crouch must have had the flu the week they studied the deity of Christ.)

Crouch says “Could Jesus have failed in His mission?” While every biblical instinct within the reader is saying “No,” Crouch follows with “If your answer is ‘no,’ then the whole mission is a fraud.” This is utterly false and terribly misleading, not to mention a cheap shot against great theologians. Suddenly Paul Crouch is arguing that the likes of Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards and Charles Spurgeon are theological midgets who just don’t get it, and that their beliefs about Christ’s inability to fail amount to them saying Christ’s mission was a fraud. A fraud? That God would die for man, suffer horribly beyond our comprehension, that Jesus would cry out “My God, why have you forsaken me?” and this is a fraud because someone believes Jesus could not fail in his mission? You could say that the U.S. might not be able to fail in its invasion of Afghanistan, but that doesn’t mean it was a fraud. It was real, and there were deaths and injuries and blood and sorrow.

This is the impeccability debate: Could Jesus have sinned? Scripture tells us Jesus was tempted, Jesus was fully man, Jesus was fully God, and God cannot be tempted. We then try to figure it out and make statements Scripture doesn’t make. Jesus had a human nature, but never was that human nature divorced from his divine nature. If it was, his humanness would have carried the capacity to sin and/or fail. But it wasn’t—hence his divine nature trumps his human nature in that regard, not diminishing his humanity but infusing it with a divine nature and purity and strength that allows temptations and sufferings to be real, without making sin a possibility.

If Jesus could have failed, then was he “lucky” not to fail? If he had faced one more test, if Satan had come up with one better temptation, if the devil was just a little smarter, if Jesus had a bad day, might the Godhead have had a meltdown? Might Jesus have ceased to be God, and therefore the Godhead dissolve? Did our salvation hang on the brink of disaster, and Jesus himself on the brink of ruin? Human logic may say yes to Paul Crouch, but what relevance does his logic have here in the mysterious ways of God. If we believe that anything at all is ever outside his control, then we worship a small God (let’s just call him god, and skip the upper case). This relates to openness theology and the heresies connected to it.

Some act as if it would discourage us to discover Christ couldn’t fail, like we’d somehow be betrayed. In fact, we are not looking for someone who can fail. The comfort is not in thinking God may fail, but in knowing he can’t fail.

Of course, truth is never determined by how it makes us feel. My point is, I think people “don’t get it” when they imagine there is comfort in thinking there are things God doesn’t know or can’t control. That would not be a reason to find comfort, but a reason to despair.

Photo by Allef Vinicius on Unsplash

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries