“I give you a new commandment – to love one another. Just as I have Loved you, you also are to love one another. Everyone will know by this that you are my disciples – if you have love for one another.”
We read these and are touched (to tears and beyond.)
Jesus came and stood in for sin when He was sinless!
Which of you convicteth me of sin?—John 8:46.
It has some times been inferred from the context of these words that the word “sin” really means here intellectual rather than moral failure: “Which of you convicteth me of error? And if I say the truth, why do ye not believe me?” The second question is thus made to repeat its meaning into the translation of the first. But the word translated “sin” means moral failure throughout the New Testament; and our Lord is arguing from the genus to the species, from the absence of moral evil in Him generally to the absence of a specific form of moral evil, namely, falsehood. He is maintaining that as they cannot detect in Him any kind of sin, they ought not by their disbelief to credit Him practically with falsehood, or, at least, indifference to truth, and His own means of attaining and proclaiming it. It has also been thought that our Lord here only challenges the detective power of His Jewish opponents, and that He does not literally imply His sinlessness. But the challenge would hardly have been offered unless the Speaker had been conscious of something more than guiltlessness of public acts which might be pointed to as in some sense sinful. Sin, like holiness, is not merely a series of facts which may be measured and dated: it is a particular condition of the will, it is a moral atmosphere. It is more than the act and word; it is the attitude of the soul towards God and man. Sin dishonours God and lives for self rather than for others. Christ alone could say, “I honour my Father,” “I seek not my own glory.” The perfect life was based on a perfect motive.
Our Lord claims, then, to be sinless in a very different sense from that in which a man might defy an opponent to prove against him a specific form of wrongdoing in a court of law. We are here in the atmosphere not of law but of morality; and morality is a question not of external facts merely, but of internal motives.
The question, “Could the Jews convict Christ of sin?” is but a part of the greater question, “Was Christ sinless?” We shall consider—
I. The Proof of Christ’s Sinlessness.
II. The Value of Christ’s Sinlessness for us.
The Proof of Christ’s Sinlessness
1. External evidence.—All that we know about our Lord goes to show that He was sinless. This impression was produced most strongly on those who were brought into the closest contact with Him.
(1) The Apostolic writings clearly emphasize this remarkable feature of Christ’s career—that it was without sin. “Who did no sin,” is St. Peter’s phrase about Christ. “Him who knew no sin,” is the kindred expression of St. Paul. “In him is no sin,” writes St. John in his First Epistle. “Without sin,” is the similar description of the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews.
The important fact is that the New Testament writers were not unconscious of the extraordinary character of this “sinlessness” with which they credited Christ, or of the marked exception which it formed to the generally normal aspect of His life. It would not be true to say that the Synoptic portraiture of Christ is in the main supernatural. The “Son of man,” as described by His biographers, is genuinely human, and moves easily among His contemporaries. There are supernatural elements in the records, no doubt, but they do not obliterate the historical figure of the Saviour, or destroy the generally normal aspect of His earthly course. Mystery there is in abundance, but the true manhood stands out always to view. It would be difficult to construct a juster summary of the Synoptic account of our Lord than that which is contained in the text: “We have not a high priest that cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but one that hath been in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” Whatever else might be said of Him, this at least must be said, that He was truly man. Only one invariable human trait is absent from the portrait they draw—there is no sin in Christ.
The marks of passion, of weakness, of pride, of the love of popularity, and the consequent lack of moral courage, of a thousand infirmities of the flesh, some of which we notice in all other men, are certainly not obvious, or anywhere forced upon our recognition, in the life and conversation which is mirrored in the four Gospels. On the contrary, Jesus was not only followed and loved, but, by those who knew Him best, He was worshipped before He died.1 [Note: N. Smyth, Old Faiths in New Light, 94.]
Renan’s Jesus is a charming Galilean with a certain sympathy for beautiful scenery and an affectionate tenderness for the peasants who follow him; but he is provoked to violence, impatience, base trickery, as soon as he finds his mission as a reformer unsuccessful. The Frenchman, bred amidst pious frauds, calls him the most delightful and wonderful of men, who practises innocent artifices, resorts to thaumaturgy unwillingly, but when he does resort to it is guilty of wilful imposture beside the grave of his friend. We in England should say he was a horrible liar and audacious blasphemer. We should pronounce the Jews right in the judgment which they passed upon him. To me the book is detestable, morally as well as theologically. It has brought to my mind, as I have said in my paper on it, that wonderful dream of Richter’s in which Jesus tells the universe, “Children, you have no Father.”2 [Note: F. D. Maurice, Life, ii. 464.]
(2) Christ’s sinlessness is apparent in the attitude of His enemies towards Him. When Pilate repeatedly asked the priests, who were clamouring for His blood, “Why, what evil hath he done?” all the answer they could give (sufficient, no doubt, for their purpose) was, “We have a law, and by that law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God.” The impression of Christ’s sinlessness is observable too in Pilate himself, who yielded to the wishes of Christ’s enemies, while he admitted the innocence of their Victim; in the restless anxiety of the wife of Pilate, haunted in her dreams by the thought that the blood of “that just person” might be visited on her husband; in the lower sense of the pregnant declaration made by the centurion at the cross—“Truly this was the Son of God”; above all, in the remorse of Judas. Judas, who had known Christ as Peter had known Him for three years of intimate companionship; Judas, who would gladly, had it been possible, have justified his treachery to himself by any flaw that he could dwell on in his Master’s character, was forced to confess that the blood which he had betrayed was innocent. In the hatred of the Sanhedrists, as described particularly in St. John’s Gospel, the purity and force of Christ’s character is not less discernible. It is the high prerogative of goodness, as of truth, in their loftier forms, that they can never be approached in a spirit of neutrality or indifference; they must perforce create a decided repulsion when they do not decidedly attract. The Pharisees would have treated an opposing teacher, in whom any moral flaw was really discernible, with contemptuous indifference: the sinless Jesus of Nazareth provoked their irreconcilable, implacable hostility.
Even the Pharisees betray the impression of a quite original and wonderful elevation. For though they regarded Him as a sinner and despiser of the law, from the viewpoint of their inherited moral and religious axioms, yet they could not stop short at this and view Him as an ordinary sinful man, or teacher of error. Rather He appeared to them, in the very estrangement in which they had placed themselves towards Him, so much one possessed of power (Matthew 7:29; John 7:46), so wonderfully firm, strong, and great of His kind, that they were obliged to attribute to Him a superhuman power of evil, after they had resolved not to concede to Him a superhuman power of good.1 [Note: Dorner, in British and Foreign Evangelical Review, xi. 586.]
(3) How does the matter stand to-day, as from our modern standpoint we examine the facts? The most exacting criticism of the documents has not disallowed the Apostolic belief. The New Testament, read in the light of honest criticism, justifies, so far as documents can justify, the Apostolic doctrine of the sinlessness of Christ. In bringing a human career lived out in the first century to be judged by the moral standard accepted in the twentieth we are applying a test the most severe imaginable. If we were judging a man in order to appraise his merits, this test were the unjustest in the world; but in the case of the Son of Man, it is not so much unjust as inevitable. He, whom we Christians worship as the Incarnate Creator, must be able to command the homage not of one age only, but of all ages. Let the moral standard of mankind be raised as high as you will, it must never rise above the standard of Christ; His standard must always be the goal towards which the moral effort of the race is moving, and never a single advance in goodness must be unable to find its interpretation and justification in the complete goodness of the Son of Man. Applying, therefore, necessarily our educated twentieth-century consciences to the historic Jesus, is He stripped of His attribute of sinlessness? Rationalists of the baser sort accumulate what they describe as immoral, or contradictory, or unreasonable teachings from the Gospels, but if we have the patience to examine their procedure we shall find that it violates every accepted canon of sound criticism and cautious interpretation. Fairly examined, honestly interpreted, the teaching of Christ commands the deliberate approval of the general conscience of our age. Not even now would it be easy, even for an unbeliever, to find a better translation of the rule of virtue from the abstract into the concrete than “to endeavour so to live that Christ would approve our life.”1 [Note: J. S. Mill, Three Essays on Religion, 255.]
What impression does He make on us? His portrait is before us in the Gospels and other New Testament writings; we can still follow His steps, hear Him speak, look into His eye, watch the development of His character, observe His behaviour under the most diverse and trying conditions, and test Him by all the standards we apply to our fellow-men. What is the result? He stands faultless and unique among men, severed from them by the whole diameter of perfection. We see Him grow through a beautiful infancy and childhood into maturity, and then live a life and display a character in which we can find no flaw. He is pure truth and trust, honesty and honour, righteousness and reverence, goodness and mercy and love, sympathy and service and sacrifice. No excess or defect, fault of omission or commission, evil disposition or temper, selfishness or sinister motive ever mars the splendid beauty of His perfection. He fulfils all human relations, passes through all experiences, is seen in joy and in sorrow, under the whips and stings of malice and in the agony of crucifixion, and yet He never loses His poise and balance or gives way to any ill-temper, but is always pure sweetness and light. It is true that He shows indignation, but only such as is the expression of righteous wrath. As we watch this Man, there is nothing we would add to Him or subtract from Him, no criticism we would pass upon Him, no finishing touch we could give to Him, but we are lost in admiration of Him as the one perfect and most beautiful personality in all the world.1 [Note: J. H. Snowden, The Basal Beliefs of Christianity, 80.]
2. Christ Himself claims to he sinless.—By what standard was He judging Himself? What was His conception of sin? How was it with His spiritual organs? Were they quick and sensitive, or were they sluggish and benumbed? What was the state of His moral consciousness? Before we can determine His claim to sinlessness these questions must be answered.
(1) Until this Man of Nazareth arose, sin had never been tracked to its roots. The analysis had often been attempted, but it had never proved conclusive and ultimate. Christ’s analysis was an unveiling of its genesis. He probed behind ritual; He probed behind posture; He probed behind feeling; He probed behind thought, and His lance touched the innermost quick at the will. He pushed everything else aside as effects; He discovered the cause in the will. This was His uniqueness as a teacher. “Make the tree good, and the fruits will be good,” and He addresses Himself to the regeneration of the roots. This Man, with the claim to sinlessness, unveiled the nature of sin and revealed its contents to the light as they had never been seen before.
(2) Christ’s spiritual senses were far more finely perceptive than even the delicate organ of sight. Let us recognize how unspeakably refined His soul must have been to be capable of registering such exquisite distinctions. If a poor woman came near to Him in a spirit of faith, His soul thrilled with the presence, and He said, “Who touched me?” If doubt and suspicion drew near unto Him, His soul was chilled with the presence, and “he did not many mighty works there because of their unbelief.” So refined and delicate was His spirit that He perceived evil thoughts that lay unexpressed in the hearts of those about Him. “He perceived the thought of their heart”; “He knew what was in man.” His soul instinctively registered the presence of good and evil, just as a fine barometer registers the passing of a genial breeze or a chilling draught.
In one constituted like Jesus, to be without the sense of sin was to be sinless, to be conscious of no disobedience was to have always obeyed.1 [Note: A. M. Fairbairn, Studies in the Life of Christ, 61.]
An artist goes into a building and is troubled by it exceedingly; a thousand laymen are there, and are quite comfortable. The artist’s eye instantly detects the false proportion, the line that is out of course, and his eye will turn to it; he may put very severe repressive restraints upon himself; he may make many a vow to be blind to the defect; but the trouble will come again and again upon him, because on that side of his life he is highly cultured, so much so as to be almost perfect. And by so much as any man is himself perfect, does he instantly detect what is defective and imperfect in other people.2 [Note: J. Parker.]
The Value of Christ’s Sinlessness for Us
1. Christ is our Ideal.—The sinless Christ satisfies a deep want of the soul of man—the want of an ideal.
No artist can attempt a painting, a statue, a building, without some ideal in view; and an ideal is not more necessary in art than in conduct. Each nation has its ideals; so has each city, each family, each profession, each school of thought; and how powerfully these energetic phantoms of the past control and modify the present is obvious to all who observe and think. There is no truer test of a man’s character than the ideals which excite his genuine enthusiasm; there is no surer measure of what he will become than a real knowledge of what he heartily admires.3 [Note: H. P. Liddon.]
Just as there are two ways for indicating the road to a traveller, even thus there are two ways for moral guidance in the case of a man who is seeking the truth. One way consists in indicating to the man the objects which he will come across, and then he is guided by these objects. The other way consists in giving the man the direction by the compass, which he is carrying with him, and on which he observes the one immutable direction, and, consequently, every deflection from it. The first way of moral guidance is the way of external definitions, of rules: man is given definite tokens of acts which he must perform and which not. “Observe the Sabbath, be circumcised, do not steal, drink no intoxicating drink, kill no living being, give the tithe to the poor, make your ablutions, and pray five times a day,” and so forth,—such are the injunctions of external religious teachings,—of the Brahmanical, Buddhistic, Mohammedan, Hebrew, and the ecclesiastic, falsely called Christian. The other way is to indicate to man unattainable perfection, the striving after which man is cognizant of; man has pointed out to him the ideal, in relation to which he is at any time able to see the degree of his divergence from it. “Love God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and thy neighbour as thyself.—Be ye perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” Such is the teaching of Christ.1 [Note: Tolstoy, Epilogue to the Kreutzer Sonata (Complete Works, xviii. 426).]
Whate’er thou’st won, remaineth still much more;
Heaven hath abundance yet for thee in store;
Still glows the grand Ideal on before!—
Which all thy best achievements doth degrade,
Thy boasted virtues dwarfs, and makes to fade,
Yea pass into complete eclipse and shade.
Ev’n he who such high eminence had gained
Yet counted not that aught was yet attained,
But onward to the goal with ardour strained,—
Reckoning his reach but as the starting-place,
Whence to pursue the spirit’s boundless race;
Of life’s grand edifice but laid the base.
E’en saints on high with heavenly honours crowned
Their crowns of glory cast upon the ground,
Not otherwise loyal and faultless found.
Great is the goal, the guerdon ’fore thee set,
No self-complacence must thy progress let,
Press boldly on, the things behind forget;
Part with thy past, let go!2 [Note: William Hall.]
(1) Humble penitence grows in the life of a saint. How is it, then, that with our Lord the very reverse is the case? How is it that He is absolutely unconscious of any shortcoming or sin? Why is there not a vestige of personal penitence in any word of Christ’s? Why is He absolutely satisfied as He contemplates Himself? How is it that the possibility of sinning, or failing to do God’s will, never enters His mind? A good person is full of regrets, always discontented because be knows he is still far off from his ideal. Why does our Lord never express any such regret? How is He so sublimely conscious that His ideal is reached, or rather that He has never been for one moment separated from its realization? There is practically no answer to these questions but this—He is Himself the ideal that man is reaching after.
Scripture is a succession of saintly biographies all upon one type, the penitential. By a sudden transition there springs up one solitary instance of a completely opposite type, which vanishes, and never reappears. But the solitary and insulated unpenitential type makes also a solitary assumption of worth, and the assumption is part of the portrait.1 [Note: J. B. Mozley, in Contemporary Review, vii. 495.]
If you want to find those who have the keenest sense of sin, you will not find them among the reprobates or among the newly repentant, but among the experienced and maturing saints. It is at the beginning of the Christian life, when the great heights of holiness are still to climb, that the sense of sin and of unworthiness is most imperfectly developed. It is growth in grace that deepens the consciousness of the blackness of personal sin and that makes confession of sin the painful wail of the soul. And so it is among the holy ones that you hear the most heart-sick expressions of sin. Here is John, the mystic of the twelve, fitted by his refinement of spirit to lean on the Master’s breast, and catch the soft whispers of the deeper things; and yet, from this man, there come the words, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Here is Paul, of masculine mind and of childlike heart, abounding in labours, persistent in sacrifice; and yet in old age, when the veil was almost transparent, he writes to his beloved Timothy, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.” Here is John Bunyan, whose intimacy with the ways of the Almighty passed far beyond the human ken; brave, lowly, saintly, and yet his writings abound in agonizing confession of personal unworthiness and sin. And here is one of the saints of our own time, the holy Andrew Bonar, whose long life was like an unbroken beam of the Eternal light; and yet to the very week of his death his diary abounds in expressions of unworthiness and the pained confession of personal sin. These are the common characteristics of the lowly saints.2 [Note: J. H. Jowett, in The Examiner, March 26, 1903, p. 300.]
(2) The sinlessness of Jesus deepens the conviction of our own sinfulness. We no longer judge ourselves by law, or convict ourselves at the bar of conscience; His life is our law, and He is our conscience, and from Him comes our fullest and most convincing condemnation. But we feel sin as men could not feel it before Christ came. Fear has deepened into pathos, and penitence into the tenderest contrition, because although He was the sinless One, yet He was the suffering One—“For our sins and for our salvation.” Sinless, Christ has filled men’s hearts with a profounder sense of sin than even the saintliest men of old ever knew or felt. To the best of men life has become one long season of Lent—a season of penitence because the vision of His life and the vision of His Cross are ever with us. “Which of you convicteth me of sin?” has become not only His defence but our condemnation.
For myself, it is only since His Divine image rose before my soul that I have properly learned what is the true state of man. Previously, I always measured myself with the little, and so appeared in my own eyes to be great. Now I measure myself with Him, and have become very little indeed.1 [Note: A. Tholuck, Hours of Christian Devotion, 31.]
Sin began in man with the dawn of the ideal. It was with the infancy of the race as with the individual infant; which, born a mere bundle of sensations and appetites, arrives gradually at moralhood, where it can sin, and does. A perception of sin, we say, is an element of moral progress. There are no shadows where there is no light.2 [Note: J. Brierley, Life and the Ideal, 40.]
Drop, drop, slow tears,
And bathe those beauteous feet,
Which brought from heaven
The news and Prince of peace:
Cease not, wet eyes,
His mercies to entreat;
To cry for vengeance
Sin doth never cease:
In your deep floods
Drown all my faults and fears;
Nor let his eye
See sin, but through my tears.3 [Note: P. Fletcher.]
2. Christ is our Example.—A difficulty arises here in connection with the sinlessness of our Lord which has troubled some people. “How,” they say, “can He be our example if He could not sin? We are sinners. He is sinless. Is it of any avail to say to us, Be like Jesus Christ? We cannot be like Him, just because He is without sin and we are not.” Now, it is quite true that on the face of it to imitate Christ as we are is an impossibility. And, in fact, He never did preach Himself simply as an example apart from other claims that He made. He did not merely live a human life of perfect goodness and then say, “Be like me.” We must take what He said about following Him in connection with all the rest of His claim and His work. He did realize the ideal human life, but He also offered a propitiatory sacrifice for sin, and promised to give us of His Spirit whereby we can be made partakers of His holy human Nature. His first appeal to us is to believe on Him, that is, to entrust our lives to Him as God and Man. It is “Come unto me” first, and then “Learn of me.” It is only the man who has first handed over his life into the keeping of Christ, who has accepted His atoning work, who seeks His Spirit, who can really, with any likelihood of success, imitate the example of Jesus. It is only to the believer, pardoned by the sacrifice of Christ, filled with the transforming power of the life of Christ, that Christ is an example of conduct.
It is a false supposition that the ideal of infinite perfection cannot be a guidance for life, and that, looking at it, it is necessary to dismiss it with a motion of the hand, saying that it is useless to me because I can never attain it, or to degrade the ideal to the level on which my weakness wants to stand. To reflect in this manner is the same as though a navigator should say: “Since I cannot go in the direction indicated by the compass, I shall throw away the compass or cease looking at it, that is, I will abandon the ideal or will fasten the needle of the compass to the place which at a given moment will correspond to the direction of my vessel, that is, I will degrade the ideal in accordance with my weakness.”
The ideal of perfection which Christ has given us is not a dream or a subject for rhetorical sermons, but a most necessary, most accessible guide of moral life for man, just as the compass is a necessary and accessible implement guiding the navigator; all that is necessary is to believe in the one as in the other. In whatever situation a man may be, the teaching about the ideal, given by Christ, is sufficient in order to obtain the safest indication of those acts which one may and which one may not perform. But it is necessary completely to believe in this teaching, this one teaching, and to stop believing in any other, just as it is necessary for the navigator to believe in the compass, and to stop looking at and being guided by what he sees on both sides. One must know how to be guided by the Christian teaching, how to be guided by the compass, and for this it is most important to understand one’s position, and to be able not to be afraid precisely to indicate one’s own deflection from the one, ideal direction. No matter on what round man may stand, there is always a possibility of his approaching this ideal, and no position of his can be such that he should be able to say that he has attained it and no longer can strive after a greater approximation.1 [Note: Tolstoy, Epilogue to the Kreutzer Sonata (Works, xviii. 431).]
3. Christ is the Reconciler between God and man.—Christ’s sinlessness affects the value of His sacrifice. The sinbearer, as all the types of the Mosaic law prefigured, must be himself sinless—“a lamb without blemish and without spot.” The eternal, immutable, inevitable law of God claims an entire fulfilment. Who is to fulfil it? One has said, “Lo, I come to do thy will, O God.” Did He do it, or did He not? He twice says of Himself that He did do it; and at the supreme moments of His life. Once in His High Priest’s prayer, after the Paschal supper—“I have glorified thee on the earth; I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do.” Once, just before He died—“It is finished.”
Let us conceive (if we may without irreverence) that some one single sin, untruthfulness, or vanity, or cruelty, could be really charged on Him, and what becomes of the atoning character of His Death? How is it conceivable that He should even have willed to die for a guilty world? For while, if we look at it on one side, His death appears to have been determined by circumstances, on the other, it was as certainly the result of His own liberty of action. “No man taketh my life from me, but I lay it down of myself: I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again.” At once Priest and Sacrifice, Christ is represented in the Epistle to the Hebrews as “offering himself without spot to God.” It was the crowning act of a life which was throughout sacrificial; but had He been conscious of any inward stain, how could He have desired to offer Himself in sacrifice to free a world from sin? Had there been in Him any personal evil to purge away, His Death might have been endured on account of His own guilt: it is His absolute Sinlessness that makes it certain that He died for others.2 [Note: H. P. Liddon, Passiontide Sermons, 14.]
The Sinlessness of Christ
Adderley (J. G.), in Sermons far the People, New Ser., iii. 126.
Barry (A.), Sermons at Westminster Abbey, 165.
Deshon (G.), Sermons for the Ecclesiastical Year, 160.
Hadden (R. H.), Sermons and Memoir, 68.
Henson (H. H.), The Value of the Bible, 146.
Kuegele (F.), Country Sermons, New Ser., iv. 233.
Lid don (H. P.), Passiontide Sermons, 1.
Scott (M.), The Harmony of the Collects, Epistles, and Gospels, 92.
Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, ix. (1865) No. 492.
Tholuck (A.), Hours of Christian Devotion, 30.
Thorold (A. W.), Questions of Faith and Duty, 122.
Tomlins (W. H.), in Sermons on the Gospels: Advent to Trinity, 190.
Trench (R. C.),