George H. Morrison - Devotional Sermons
The Sinlessness of Christ
In all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin--Heb 4:15
A Truth of Utmost Importance
It might seem at first as if the sinlessness of Jesus were a matter far away from human need. It is as if we discussed the color of the stars or the density of water in the depth of ocean. Why should we trouble ourselves, it may be asked, over an abstract question such as this? Were it not better, in a reverent faith, to leave these mysteries alone? It is enough for me (a man might say) that Jesus of the Gospel story was the friend of publicans and sinners and went about doing good. The one fatal objection to that attitude is that to a thoughtful mind it never can be permanent. Steadily, whatever point we start from, we are forced into the presence of this problem. And especially is that true of all of us who believe in a Gospel of redemption and who cannot conceive of a message of good news which has not redemption at its heart. The keystone of our faith is this, that Jesus the Lord suffered for our sins. But if Christ was sinful, as you and I are sinful, then not for our sins, but for His own, He died. So all the efficacy of that atoning death, with all the preaching of Christ crucified, rests ultimately on the sinlessness of Jesus. It is not, then, an unimportant theme. It is one of the most important of all themes. It lifts the cross out of the realm of tragedy into the clear air of willing sacrifice. Only if Jesus Christ was sinless can we be certain of what is all-important--that in a free action of redeeming love He died for our sins according to the Scriptures.
Entire New Testament Affirms Christ's Sinlessness
Now when you study the New Testament writings--I mean the writings outside the four Gospels--one thing that becomes plain is this, that they all record the sinlessness of Jesus. However the writers differ in their outlook--and each of them has his unique outlook--however they may diverge from one another in their concept of the work of Jesus, yet there is one point on which they all agree, and that is in conceiving Christ as sinless. John had lain upon the Master's bosom, and he writes, "In Him there was no sin." Peter had known Him in the closest intimacy, and he writes, "He died, the righteous for the unrighteous." Paul writes, "He who knew no sin was made sin for us." And the writer of Hebrews in our text says, "He was tempted in all points like as we are, yet without sin." These are but a few texts out of many which indicate a perfect unanimity. Each writer may use the fact in his own way, but all of them insist upon the fact. And what we have to ask is this, How was that profound impression generated so that not one writer of the New Testament doubts for a moment the sinlessness of Christ?
First Heresies Concerned Christ's Divinity
Let me say in passing that it helps us to conceive how powerful this impression really was when we recall the nature of the earliest heresies. When men today have doubts about the Lord, it is the divinity that is the point of difficulty. You and I may doubt if He was God, but we never for an instant doubt that He was man. Yet the singular thing is that in the earliest heresies the point of difficulty was the opposite. Men did not doubt if Jesus was divine then, but they doubted if He was really human. Now it seems to me that no mere moral grandeur will ever quite explain these earliest heresies. One is not less a man, but more a man, if he is morally and spiritually wonderful. That strange belief uttered in early heresies, that Christ was not human as you and I are human, can only rest on the profound impression that He stood apart from all in being sinless. The nearer then to the historic Christ, the more intense the belief that He was sinless. The closer that men stand to Him, the more profound does the impression grow. And so we must go back to the record of the Gospel story and try to discover how that impression was created.
Christ's Sinlessness Not Self-Declared
In the first place I should like to make clear that it was certainly not created by insistence. Christ never insisted on His sinlessness--never took pains to prove that He was sinless. There are some things on which our Lord insisted with a self-assertion that is most magnificent. I am the truth, He said--I am the life. No man cometh to the Father but by Me. Yet though no one who ever taught mankind has made such stupendous claims as Jesus Christ, you never find Him saying, "I am sinless." On the contrary, one might almost say that He deliberately veiled that fact. So did He live in fellowship with outcasts that they called Him the friend of publicans and sinners. And once when a lawyer, with the gloss of a compliment, came to Him and said, "Good Master," Christ checked him instantly--"Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God." Clearly then, for reasons we can only guess at, Christ did not passionately insist upon His sinlessness. However the impression was created, He never declared it so.
No Deed of Sin Recalled
How then was the impression generated? Well, the first answer is that those men who companied with Jesus did not recollect one deed of sin. When the years of ministry were closed, they would recall it all in tender memory. They would summon to the sessions of sweet thought the days they had spent together in the villages. And as they did so and as they talked together of the time when it was bliss to be alive, silently it would be borne in upon them that they had never seen one trace of sin in Jesus. They had been with Him in His temptations, and they had seen Him in the widest range of circumstances. They had known Him in hunger and in weariness; they had watched Him in rapture and in agony. And yet as they looked back upon it all in the penetrative light of memory, they could not recollect one single incident which suggested to them the thought that Christ had sinned. Thus it was that the deep impression was created. It was a judgment based upon the memory of the wonderful years they had spent with Jesus. Could they have recalled one single instance in which the conduct of Jesus had been flawed, then neither in Peter nor in John would we have found the sinlessness of Christ.
Mere Absence of Observable Sin Not Sufficient
Now all that is absolutely true, yet it is far from being all the truth. It is quite impossible to build a Christian doctrine on any negative basis such as that. Granted that they had never known Christ to sin, is that any adequate proof that He was sinless? Had they been watching Him with unwearied eyes from the moment of His birth to the cross? On the contrary, they had only known Him for three brief years out of the three-and-thirty, and of these three years there was many a day when they were never in His company at all. What of the long years of village childhood? What of the crucial time of ripening manhood? What of the still and happy days in Bethany when Martha and Mary were the only company? There was no Peter to be observant there nor was there any John to watch and to remember; there was only the love of women so adoring that the universal voice has called it blind. Had any of the disciples detected sin in Jesus, we should never have had the faith that He was sinless. But to call Him sinless because they saw no sin is something that no reasonable man can do. For immediately on doing it, there arises before him all the unchronicled and unrecorded years when Christ was hidden from the eyes of watchers in shadows that were as enwrapping as the grave.
In Jesus There was No Consciousness of Sin
The true foundation of the doctrine lies deeper than any absence of the act. It was not thus, at least not thus alone, that the profound impression was created. What impressed men in Jesus Christ was not merely the absence of any act of sin, but rather the absence of any consciousness of sin. It was that never once did he make a confession. It was that never once did He betray penitence. It was that never once upon His lips was there whisper of remorse or of regret. The nearer a man lives to God, the more intensely active is his conscience. He becomes sensitive to shades of guilt that are imperceptible to common men. Yet Christ, who lived in a fellowship with God that is admittedly unique and uncommunicable, never betrays so much as by a word the faintest trace of consciousness of sin. As Simon Peter grew in spirituality, he cried, "Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man." As Paul advanced in the deep things of heaven, he came to know he was the chief of sinners. But Jesus, who through all His earthly years was walking in perfect union with His Father, never once whispered, "Father, I have sinned." We see Him in those high and holy seasons when He was looking back upon His past. We overhear Him in His hours of prayer; we see Him in the agonies of death. Yet in such seasons when purest and holiest souls feel above everything their need of mercy, the pure and holy soul of Jesus Christ was absolutely unconscious of that need. We have had very many shining saints in Christendom, and they have differed vastly from each other. But there is one point in which they are all alike, whatever their century or their communion. And it is this, that as they have wrestled heavenward and grown in grace and fellowship with God, out of the depths has come the fervent cry, "God be merciful to me a sinner." It is not your worldly man who utters that. It is not your nominal and easy Christian. As life in God becomes more real and deep, steadily the sense of sin is deepened. And the one thing you will note in the experience of Jesus Christ is that with t life in God unparalleled, He never had any consciousness of sin. And He was always talking about sin, remember. It was a theme which was ever on His lips. He poured the vials of His withering anger upon the man who thought that he was righteous. Looking abroad upon the world of men He saw no hope for them except in penitence--"I will arise and go unto my father, and say unto him, Father, I have sinned." Now it was that fact, as I understand the Gospels, which created the profound impression of Christ's sinlessness. It was that He had eyes to see sin everywhere--yet had no eyes to see it in Himself. It was that other men when they are called to die cry out into the dark, "Father, forgive me"; but that the Master when He came to die said, "Father, forgive them"--not forgive Me. There is not a trace in Christ of any healed scar. There is not a trace of regret or of remorse. In all the history of the Redeemer there is no word of penitence nor any sign of shame. And all this, with a heart so sensitive and with a life so flooded and absorbed with God, can only mean that Jesus Christ was sinless.
Jesus Used Praise but Not Penitence of Old Testament
No one can study the prayers of Jesus Christ without discovering what he owes to the Old Testament. Christ fed and nourished His piety on the sublime words of psalmist and of prophet. And though His soul was steeped in prophecy and the language of it rose to His lips in prayer, there is one point at which He stops, saying, as it were, "Thus far and no further." It was with the Scripture that He met the tempter. It was with the Scripture that He assailed His adversaries. It was of the Scripture that His heart was full as He hung in His last hours upon the cross. Yet never once, though claiming as His own that wonderful heritage of faith and prayer--never once does He personally use the cry of prophet or psalmist for forgiveness. Isaiah had cried, "Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips." David had cried out of a broken heart, "Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned." Yet Christ, who was so steeped in these old writings that their language rose to His lips as if by instinct, never uses--never repeats--these penitential and brokenhearted prayers. Now all that we ever find in Holy Scripture is the transcript of our deepest life. We can only use its language with sincerity when it has some link with our experience. All that answers to us as if it were our own comes to our lips when we draw near to God; all else, though it speaks as with the tongue of angels, can never rise to heaven in our prayers. Why is it then that Jesus Christ is silent with such a treasury ever at His hand? Why does He use the psalmist's adoration, yet never in one word the psalmist's penitence? The only answer of which I can think is that in all the experience of Jesus there was nothing which answered to that heavenward cry in which psalmist and prophet prayed for pardon. Had He felt in Himself the slightest need, He would have used the penitential language. For there is nothing like it in the world, it is so poignant and sincere. Yet Christ who used all else never used that--never took up a single word of it though from a child in the sweet home of Nazareth He had been fed on the word of Holy Scripture.
The Reality of Jesus Temptations
There is one other aspect of the matter that I can hardly avoid saying a word upon. It is that if Christ be sinless, then what becomes of His temptations? Now let me say, and say with all my heart, that I hold the temptations of Jesus to have been intensely real. He is no brother to me unless in all reality He was tempted as the Son of man. And the point is, how could He be tempted so--truly intensely and terribly tempted--if He was indeed a sinless Savior? I shall not profess to give a perfect answer for I am not here to give little answers to great questions. But I am here to suggest to you such thoughts as I may have brooded on in quiet hours. And I think that there are two considerations which throw light upon the difficulty, and these two I would put as follows.
The Temptation Between Two Rights
The first is that the bitterest temptations are not always dependent upon sin. They spring from the conflict, not between right and wrong, but from the conflict between right and right. If a man, for instance, is tempted to become drunk, then of course within his heart there must be evil. And if all temptations were of that complexion, then Christ our Savior could never have been tempted. But I submit that in this life of ours there are other temptations more bitter than that which if a man has experienced and resisted, he has sounded all the depths of moral trial. Here, for instance, is a student who has come out of a humble home. And he is brilliant and successful in all he does, and the way is opening for a fine career. And then one day there comes to him the news that his father is smitten with some dread paralysis and that the little family business will be ruined unless the son comes home, and comes at once. On the one hand is his duty to his mother and to the little children still under her care. On the other hand is his duty to himself and to the gifts of intellect which God hath given him. And what I say is that in these rival voices calling each of them as with the voice of heaven, there are all the elements of a moral conflict beside which that of the drunkard is a sham. For you have not exhausted moral conflict when you have told of the conflict between good and evil. Subtler than that, and sometimes far more terrible, is the conflict between good and good--the duty that we owe ourselves faced by the duty that we owe our brother; the duty that we owe our wife and children faced by the duty that we owe to heaven. What I mean is that if all human progress were merely a progress from bad to good, then in Christ who was entirely good, there could have been no progress through antagonism. But if within the circle of the good many of our fiercest battles must be fought, then it is easy to see why a sinless Savior might be tempted as we are. Yes, and if sinless, might it not be the case that He felt temptation more terribly than we? For there are calls that are deadened for everyone of us just because our hearts are dulled through sin. Had we been less dulled, with what intense appeal certain claims might have come home to us, and so would the temptation have been so much more the awful.
Christ's Sinlessness an Attainment
And the last thought that I would leave with you is that the sinlessness of Christ was not a gift to Him, but rather I should call it an attainment. "Why callest thou me good?" He said; "there is none good but one, that is, God." Christ never claimed and never had on earth an absolute and unconditioned goodness. His was the goodness that was always perfect because through every condition it was tested and never failed, even in hours of agony, in a perfect and filial response. The God who dwells in heaven cannot be tempted. He lives in absolute and unconditioned goodness. He dwells in heaven where there is no temptation above the smoke and stir of this dim planet. But Christ was human to the very depths and knew all the play of emotion and impulse, and felt every influence that breathed upon Him, crying to Peter, "Get thee behind me, Satan." From moment to moment He had to choose His course. From moment to moment He had to trust His Father. From moment to moment He had to resist, even though it was a mother who appealed. And we call Him sinless not as God is sinless, who cannot be tempted nor touched in the high heaven, but as one who never failed and never faltered in the fulfillment of His Father's will. To you and me the heavenly Father speaks as He spoke to the well-beloved Son. And you and I hearing Him misinterpret Him, and at the end of the day are sorry and ashamed. Christ caught the faintest syllable of heaven. Christ interpreted it all without a flaw. Christ bowed to it joyfully and without a murmur even when the will of God was Calvary. That is the sinlessness of Jesus Christ--not an unethical gift, but an achievement. It was wrought out from stage to stage in perfect obedience to the heavenly Father. And so I think there falls an added glory on the deep mystery of Jesus' sinlessness when we remember that right to the very end He was tempted in all points like as we are.
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