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Vol. 4, Sermon 9 - The Sinlessness of Christ

By Frederick W. Robertson


      Preached November 18, 1849

      "Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: For sin is the transgression of the law. And ye know that he was manifested to take away our sins; and in him is no sin."-1 John iii. 4, 5.

      The heresy with which the Apostle St. John had to contend in his day was an error of a kind and character which it is hard for us with our practical, matter-of-fact modes of thinking, to comprehend. There were men so over-refined and fastidious, that they could not endure the thought of any thing spiritual being connected with materialism. They could not believe in any thing being pure that was also fleshly, for flesh and sinfulness were to them synonymous terms. They could not believe in the Divine humanity, for humanity was to them the very opposite of that which was Divine: and accordingly, while admitting the Divinity of Jesus, they denied the reality of His materialism. They said of His earthly life exactly what the Roman Catholic says of the miracle he claims to be performed in the Supper of the Lord. The Roman Catholic maintains that it is simply an illusion of the senses; there is the taste of the bread, the look of the bread, the smell of the bread, but it is all a deception: there is no bread really there, it is only the spiritual body of the Lord. That which the Romanist says now of the elements in the Lord's Supper, did these ancient heretics say respecting the body and the life of Jesus. There was, they said, the sound of the human voice, there was the passing from place to place, there were deeds done, there were sufferings under-gone, but these were all an illusion and a phantasm-a thing that appeared, but did not really exist. The everlasting Word of God was making itself known to the minds of men through the senses by an illusion; for to say that the Word of God was made flesh, to maintain that He connected Himself with sinful, frail humanity-this was degradation to the Word-this was destruction to the purity of the Divine Essence.

      You will observe that in all this there was an attempt to be eminently spiritual; and what seems exceedingly marvellous, is the fact withal that these men led a life of extreme licentiousness. Yet it is not marvellous, it we think accurately, for we find even now that over-refinement is but coarseness. And so, just in the same way, these ultra-spiritualists, though they would not believe that the Divine Essence could be mingled with human nature without degradation, yet they had no intention of elevating human nature by their own conduct. They thought they showed great respect for Jesus in all this: they denied the reality of his sufferings; they would not admit the conception that frail, undignified humanity was veritably His, but nevertheless they had no intention of living more spiritually themselves.

      It was therefore that we find in another epistle, St. John gives strict commands to his converts not to admit these heretics into their houses: and the reason that he gives is, that by so doing they would be partakers, not of their evil doctrines, but of their evil deeds. They were a licentious set of men, and it is necessary to keep this in view if we would understand the writings of St. John. It is for this reason, therefore, that he says-"That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled of the Word of Life, declare we unto you." It is for this reason that he, above all the apostles, narrates with scrupulous accuracy all the particulars respecting the Redeemer's risen body-that he joined in the repast of the broiled fish and the honey-comb: and that he dwells with such minuteness on the fact that there came from the body of the Redeemer blood and water: "Not water only, but water and blood;" and it is for this reason that in speaking of Antichrist he says, "Every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God, and this is that spirit of Antichrist whereof ye have heard that it should come."

      So, then, we learn from this that the most spiritual of all the apostles was the one who insisted most earnestly on the materialism of the human nature of our Lord. He who alone had penetrated into that realm beyond, where the King was seen on His throne of light, was the one who felt most strongly that in humanity there is nothing degrading. In the natural propensities of human nature there is nothing to be ashamed of: there is nothing for a man to be ashamed of but sin-there is nothing more noble than a perfect human nature.

      My brethren, though the error of the ancient times can not be repeated in this age in the same form, though this strange belief commends itself not to our minds, yet there may be such an exclusive dwelling upon the Divinity of Jesus as absolutely to destroy His real humanity; there may be such a morbid sensitiveness when we speak of Him as taking our nature, as will destroy the fact of His sufferings-yes, and destroy the reality of His atonement also. There is a way of speaking of the sinlessness of Jesus that would absolutely make that scene on Calvary a mere pageant in which He was acting a part in a drama, during which He was not really suffering, and did not really crush the propensities of His human nature. It was for this reason we lately dwelt on the Redeemer's sufferings; now let us pass onward to the fact of the sinlessness of His nature.

      The subject divides itself-first, into the sinlessness of His nature; and secondly, the power which He possessed from that sinlessness to take away the sins of the world.

      With respect to the first branch, we have given us a definition of what sin is-"Sin is the transgression of the law." It is to be observed there is a difference between sin and transgression. Every sin is a transgression of the law, but every transgression of the law is not necessarily a sin. Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law. Now mark the difference. It is possible for a man to transgress the law of God, not knowingly, and then in inspired language we are told that "sin is not imputed unto him." Yet for all that, the penalty will follow whenever a man transgresses, but the chastisement which belongs to sin, to known willful transgression, will not follow.

      Let us take a case in the Old Testament, which it may be as well to explain, because sometimes there is a difficulty felt in it. We read of the patriarchs and saints in the Old Testament as living in polygamy. There was no distinct law forbidding it, but there was a law written in the "fleshly tables of the heart," against which it is impossible to transgress without incurring a penalty. Accordingly, though we never find that the patriarchs are blamed for the moral fault, though you never find them spoken of as having broken the written law of God, yet you see they reaped the penalty that ever must be reaped-in the case of one, degradation: in the case of the other, slavery. Jacob's many wives brought dissension and misery into his household, though he did it innocently and ignorantly, and he reaped the penalty-quarrels and wretchedness. In all this there is penalty, but there is not sin in all this, and therefore there was not excited that agony which comes from the pangs of conscience after willful sin.

      Every misery that falls on man has been the consequence of transgression, his own trespass or those of others. It may have been his parents, his grandparents, or his far-back ancestors, who have given him the disadvantages under which he labors. How shall we explain the fact that misery falls alike on the good and on the evil? Only by remembering whether it comes as the penalty of transgression ignorantly done: then it is but the gentle discipline of a Father's love, educating His child, it may be warning the child and giving him the knowledge of that law of which he was hitherto. This wretchedness of the patriarchs, what was it but the corrective dispensation by which the world learnt that polygamy is against the law of God? So the child who cuts his hand with the sharp blade of the knife has learnt a lesson concerning his need of caution for the future, and if well and bravely borne, he is the better for it; but if there has been added to that transgression the sin of disobedience to his parent's command, then there is something inflicted beyond the penalty; there is all that anguish of conscience remorse which comes as the consequence of sin. Now we have seen what transgression is, let us try and understand what sin is.

      My Christian brethren, it is possible for us to mistake this subject by taking figurative expressions too literally. We speak of sin as if it were a thing, as if we were endowed with it, like memory, or judgment, or imagination, as a faculty which must be exercised. Now let us learn the truth of what sin is-it "is the transgression of the law." There must be some voluntary act, transgressing some known law, or there is no sin. There were those in the days of St. John who held that sin was merely the infirmity of the flesh; that if a man committed sin, and he was to know that it was the working merely of his lower nature, not of his own mind-his faith would save him.

      Another error was that of the Pharisees in the days of Jesus; and their error was precisely opposite. "Yes," said the Pharisees, "sin is the transgression of the law. Holiness is conformity to the law, and the lives of the Pharisees being conformable to the ceremonial law, we stand before the world as, touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless." The Redeemer comes, and He gives another exposition of sin. "Sin is the transgression of the law," but there is a law written for the heart, as well as for the outward man. There is a work to be done within as well as without. A murder may be committed by indulging revenge and malice, though the hand has never been lifted to strike. It is not the outward act that constitutes alone the morality of Christ, it is the feeling of the heart, the acts of the inner man.

      But then there is another error from which we have to guard ourselves. It is a sophistry in which some men indulge themselves. They say, "Well, if the thought is as bad as the act, why should we not therefore do the act? I am as guilty as if I had committed transgression; why should Idebar myself from the enjoyment?" It is, I say, but sophistry, for no man that has any conscience can really so deceive himself. The Redeemer's doctrine was that many a man whose outward life was pure and spotless would have done the transgression if he had had the opportunity. It is one thing to say that he would have done it if he could but it is quite another thing to say that a man who has indulged the thought, and has drawn back, is as guilty as if he had actually carried out the evil act. The difference lies in this-the one would have done it if he could, and the other could and would not.

      We read in the Bible of two men who exemplify this. They both resolved to commit murder, and the opportunity was given to each. Saul threw his javelin with right good will at David's person; he did all that resolution could do, it was but what is called accident that left the javelin quivering in the wall. Opportunity was given also to David. He had resolved to slay Saul, but when the tempting opportunity came, when he was bending over Saul, full of the thought of destroying his enemy, at the very last moment he paused-his conscience smote him-he refused to strike. Which of these was the murderer? Saul was the murderer: he had slain in his heart. It was but an accident that prevented it. In the other case there had been the indulgence of a wrong thought, but it was subdued. He might say, he might as well have slain his foe, but would you say that he was in the same position as a murderer? No, Christian brethren-let there be no sophistry of this kind among us. It is but a subtle whisper from our great adversary that would beguile us. Generally there is first a rising of an inclination which is often no sin. This passes on to a guilty resolve-one step more, and the man has committed the sin.

      Now let us turn to the character of our blessed Redeemer, and we shall find him doubly free from all this-as free in desire as free in act. The proof of his perfect purity is to be found in the testimony of His enemies, of His friends, and of those indifferent to Him. We have first the evidence of His enemies. For three long years the Pharisees were watching their victim, There was the Pharisee mingling in every crowd, hiding behind every tree. They examined His disciples; they cross-questioned all around Him; they looked into his ministerial life, into His domestic privacy, into His hours of retirement. They came forward with the sole accusation that they could muster-that He had shown disrespect to the Roman governor. The Roman judge, who at least should know, had pronounced the accusation null and void. There was another spy. It was Judas. If there had been one act of sin, one failing in all the Redeemer's career that betrayed ambition, that betrayed any desire to aggrandize Himself-in his hour of terrible remorse Judas would have remembered it for his own comfort; but the bitterness of his feelings-that which made life insufferable-was that he had "betrayed innocent blood."

      Pass we on to those who were indifferent. And first we have the opinion of Pilate himself. Contemporary historians tell us that Pilate was an austere and cruel man, a man of firm resolve, and one who shrank not from the destruction of human life; but we see here that for once the cruel man became merciful: for once the man of resolve became timid. It was not merely that he thought Jesus was innocent; the hard Roman mind would have cared little for the sacrifice of an obscure Jew. The soul of Pilate was pervaded with the feeling that spotless innocence stood before him, and this feeling extended even to Pilate's wife: for we find that she sent to him and said, "Have thou nothing to do with that just man." It was not because he was going to pass an unjust sentence-he had often done so before-but she felt that here was an innocent one who must not be condemned.

      Now let us consider the testimony of His friends. They tell us that during their intercourse of three years His was a life unsullied by a single spot: and I pray you to remember that tells us something of the holiness of thirty previous years; for no man springs from sin into perfect righteousness at once. If there has been any early wrong-doing-though a man may be changed-yet there is something left that tells of his early character-a want of refinement, of delicacy, of purity; a tarnish has passed upon the brightness, and can not be rubbed off. If we turn to the testimony of John the Baptist, His contemporary, about the same age, one who knew Him not at first as the Messiah: yet when the Son of Man comes to him simply as a man, and asks him to baptize Him, John turns away in astonishment, shocked at the idea. "I have need to be baptized of thee: and comest thou to me?" In other words, the purest and the most austere man that could be found on earth was compelled to acknowledge that in Him who came for baptism there was neither stain nor spot that the water of Jordan was needed to wash away. So we see there was no actual transgression in our blessed Lord.

      Now let us see what the inward life was; for it is very possible that there may be no outward transgression, and yet that the heart may not be pure. It is possible that outwardly all may seem right, through absence of temptation, and yet there may be the want of inward perfection. Of the perfection of Jesus we can have but one testimony; it can not be that of the apostles, for the lesser can not judge the greater, and therefore we turn to Himself. He said, "Which of you can charge me with sin?" "I and my Father are one." Now we must remember that just in proportion as a man becomes more holy does he feel and acknowledge the evil that is in him. Thus it was with the Apostle Paul; he declared, "I am the chief of sinners." But here is One who attained the highest point of human excellence, who was acknowledged even by His enemies to be blameless, who declares Himself to be sinless.

      If, then, the Son of Man were not the promised Redeemer, He, the humblest of mankind, might justly be accused of pride; the purest of mankind would be deemed to be unconscious of the evil that was in Him. He who looked so deeply into the hearts of others is ignorant of His own; the truest of mankind is guilty of the worst of falsehoods; the noblest of mankind guilty of the sin of sins-the belief that He had no sin. Let but the infidel grant us that human nature has never attained to what it attained in the character of Jesus, then we carry him still farther, that even He whom he acknowledges to be the purest of men declared Himself to be spotless, which, if it were false, would at once do away with all the purity which he grants was His. It was not only the outward acts, but the inner life of Jesus which was so pure. His mind regulates every other mind; it moves in perfect harmony with the mind of God. In all the just men that ever lived you will find some peculiarity carried into excess. We note this in the zeal of St. John, in the courage of St. Peter, in the truth-seeking of St. Thomas. It was not so with Jesus: no one department of His human nature ever superseded another: all was harmony there. The one sound which has come down from God in perfect melody, is His life, the entire unbroken music of humanity.

      We pass on to our second subject-the power there is in the manifested sinlessness of Jesus to take away the sins of the world. There are two aspects in which we are to consider this: first in reference to man, and secondly in reference to God. Our subject to-day will confine itself to the first; on the other, we simply say this: there is, in the eternal constitution of the heavenly government, that which makes the life and death of Jesus the atonement for the world's sins. Human nature, which fell in Adam, rose again in Christ; in Him it became a different thing altogether in God's sight-redeemed now, hereafter to be perfected.

      But we leave this for the present, and consider how the world was purified by the change of its own nature. "If I be lifted up I will draw all men unto me." There are three ways by which this may be done-by faith, by hope, and by love. It is done by faith, for the most degrading thing in the heart of man is the disbelief in the goodness of human nature. We live in evil, and surrounded by evil, until we have almost ceased to believe in greatness of mind or character. The more a man increases in knowledge of the world, the more does he suspect human nature; a knowing man, according to worldly phraseology, is one that will trust no one. He knows that he himself has his price, and he believes that he can buy any one else: and this may be called the second fall of man-that moment when all our boyish belief in goodness passes away; when such degradation and anguish of soul comes on, that we cease to believe in woman's purity or in man's integrity; when a man has fallen so low there is nothing in this world that can raise him, except faith in the perfect innocence of Jesus. Then it is that there bursts upon the world-that of which the world never dreamed-entire and perfect purity, spotless integrity-no mere dreaming of philosophers and sages-though the dream were a blessed thing to have; the tangible living Being before us, whom we can see, and touch, and hear, so that a man is able to come to his brother with trust in elevated humanity and to say, "This is He of whom the prophets did write."

      But secondly, trust in Divine humanity elevates the soul by hope. You must have observed the hopefulness of the character of Jesus-his hopefulness for human nature. If ever there were one who might have despaired, it was He. Full of love Himself; He was met with every sort of unkindness every kind of derision. There was treachery in one of His disciples, dissension amongst them all. He was engaged in the hardest work that man ever tried. He was met by the hatred of the whole world, by torture and the cross; and yet never did the hope of human nature forsake the Redeemer's soul. He would not break the bruised reed nor quench the smoking flax. There was a spark mingling even in the lowest humanity, which He would fain have fanned into a blaze. The lowest publican Jesus could call to Him and touch his heart; the lowest profligate that was ever trodden under foot by the world was one for whom He could hope still. If He met with penitents, He would welcome them; if they were not penitents, but yet felt the pangs of detected guilt, still with hopefulness he pointed to forgiven humanity: this was His word, even to the woman brought to Him by her accusers, "Go, and sin no more;" in His last moments on the cross, to one who was dying by His side, He promised a place in Paradise: and the last words that broke from the Redeemer's lips-what were they but hope for our humanity, while the curses were ringing in His ears?-" Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

      Now it is this hopefulness that raises hope in us. Christian brethren, we dare to hope for that nature which Jesus loved, we dare to forgive that nature which Jesus condescended to wear. This frail, evil, weak humanity of ours, these hearts that yield to almost every gust of temptation, the Son of Man hoped for them.

      And thirdly, it is done also by love; hate narrows the heart, love expands the heart. To hate is to be miserable; to love is to be happy. To love is to have almost the power of throwing aside sin. See the power of love in the hearts of those around Him. He comes to a desponding man, nourishing dark thoughts of the world; He speaks encouragingly, and the language of that man is, "Lord, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest." He goes to a man who had loved money all his life. He treats him as a man, and the man's heart is conquered: "Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor." He comes to the coward, who had denied Him, and asks him simply, "Lovest thou Me?" and the coward becomes a martyr, and dares to ask to be crucified. He comes to a sinful woman, who had spent large sums on the adornment of her person, and the ointment which was intended for herself was poured in love upon His feet, mingling with her tears. "She loved much," and much was forgiven.

      And it was not during the Redeemer's life alone that the power of His love extended. It was manifested also after His death. There was the healing act done on the man who asked for alms. For this the apostles were carried before the Sadducees, and the man on whom this miracle was done stood by them, full of strength and courage. The day before he had been a miserable, cringing suppliant, beseeching pity from the passers-by. But all the wailing tone is gone; the attitude of the suppliant has passed away, and the renovated cripple fronts the supreme judicature of Israel with a lion heart. Ask you what has inspired and dignified that man, and raised him higher in the scale of humanity? It was the power of love. It is not so much the manifestation of this doctrine or that doctrine, that can separate the soul from sin. It is not the law. It is not by pressing on the lower nature to restrain it, that this can be done, but it is by elevating it. He speaks not to the degraded of the sinfulness of sin, but He dwells upon the love of the Father, upon His tender mercies; and if a man would separate himself from the bondage of guilt, there is no other way than this. My Christian brethren, forget that miserable past life of yours, and look up to the streams of mercy ever flowing from the right hand of God.

      My brethren, it is on this principle that we desire to preach to the heathen. We would preach neither high Church nor low Church doctrine. We desire to give Jesus Christ to the world; and in pleading for this Society* [* Church Missionary Society.] I will not endeavor to excite your sympathies by drawing a picture of the heathen world suspended over unutterable misery, and dropping minute by minute into everlasting wretchedness. It is easy to do this; and then to go away calmly and quietly to our comfortable meals and our handsome habitations, satisfied with having demonstrated so tremendous a fact. But this we say, if we would separate the world from sin, and from the penalty of sin, and the inward misery of the heart attendant on sin in this world and the world to come, it is written in Scripture, "There is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved," than the name of Jesus.

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