Can God sin? This question may seem silly at first. After all, why would He want to? But if pressed, how can the believer respond to this challenge? Does it not lead one to hesitate about one aspect of faith – that God is “all-powerful?” If the atheist can identify things that even God cannot do, then it would seem that the believer’s faith in an “omnipotent” god is not well-placed.
The answer to the riddle lies in a fuller understanding of what we mean by “sin” and what we mean by “power.” Being precise in the use of language is an important first step. To sin means to violate God’s law. Roughly speaking, a person sins through his thoughts, words or deeds when he acts in a way contrary to God’s perfect will. Sin, then, is a measure of – our recognition and awareness of – man’s use of free will to behave as he chooses, not how God does. Plants and animals cannot sin, for they have no free will. And sin does not require physical action. Thoughts are reflections of the will, which explains why Jesus made the comment that he did about the danger in lust and covetousness, of sinning in one’s heart.
Men and women have the ability to sin because we are distinct from God. We are not, ourselves, "god" but are distinct moral actors. Through our thoughts and actions, we behave in ways that God finds displeasing; they violate his perfect will. God is the standard against which our thoughts and deeds are measured. His nature is the “straight line” against which the curvature of our “line” can be seen. He is the true measure against which lesser things are assessed. He is the atomic clock by which we can determine how fast or slow our watch is running. To ask, then, why it is God cannot sin, one is in essence asking why God cannot act against his own nature. Why can’t the straight line also be crooked?
The challenger may nonetheless insist that this constitutes a limitation on God, depriving God of omnipotence. God, he might claim, is incapable of acting contrary to his own nature; therefore he is not all-powerful. But this is a misunderstanding of “power.” Power is a measure of work that is capable of being done. But some things are not susceptible to power. No amount of power can make a square circle, even though we know what a square is and what a circle is and both are real. Power cannot make murder a morally good act. Power does not work that way. Similarly here, to view God’s “inability” to act against his nature as a limitation would require the challenger to imagine that there could be some greater being who could simultaneously will contrary things. But this is an absurdity. It would require that logic and reason – the only tools we have to analyze the question in the first place – no longer operate as they do. The very tools that we use to make sense of questions like power and limitation first require that the rules of logic, such as the law of non-contradiction, remain viable. If they don’t – if A can be A and non-A at the same time in the same way - then logic can lead us nowhere.
So, the challenge is simply a disguised way of asking the absurd: why can’t God be both God and not God at the same time? It can’t be answered – certainly not through the use of logic and reason – but it says much more about the challenger than it does about God.