THE first impression which we receive from the life of Jesus is that of perfect innocency and sinlessness in the midst of a sinful world. He, and he alone, carried the spotless purity of childhood untarnished through his youth and manhood. Hence the lamb and the dove are his appropriate symbols.
He was, indeed, tempted as we are; but he never yielded to temptation.21 His sinlessness was at first only the relative sinlessness of Adam before the fall; which implies the necessity of trial and temptation, and the peccability, or the possibility of the fall. Had he been endowed with absolute impeccability from the start, he could not be a true man, nor our model for imitation: his holiness, instead of being his own self-acquired act and inherent merit, would be an accidental or outward gift, and his temptation an unreal show. As a true man, Christ must have been a free and responsible moral agent: freedom implies the power of choice between good and evil, and the power of disobedience as well as obedience to the law of God. But here is the great fundamental difference between the first and the second Adam: the first Adam lost his innocence by the abuse of his freedom, and fell, by his own act of disobedience, into the dire necessity of sin; while the second Adam was innocent in the midst of sinners, and maintained his innocence against all and every temptation. Christ's relative sinlessness became more and more absolute sinlessness by his own moral act, or the right use of his freedom in perfect active and passive obedience to God. In other words, Christ's original possibility of not sirning,22 which includes the opposite possibility of sinning, but excludes the actuality of sin, was unfolded into the impossibility of sinning,23 which can not sin because it will not. This is the highest stage of freedom where it becomes identical with moral necessity, or absolute and unchangeable self-determination for goodness and holiness. This is the freedom of God, and also of the saints in heaven; with this difference, -- that the saints obtain that position by deliverance and salvation from sin and death, while Christ acquired it by his own merit.24
In vain we look through the entire biography of Jesus for a single stain or the slightest shadow on his moral character. There never lived a more harmless being on earth. He injured nobody, he took advantage of nobody. He never spoke an improper word, he never committed a wrong action. He exhibited a uniform elevation above the objects, opinions, pleasures, and passions of this world, and disregard to riches, displays, fame, and favor of men. |No vice that has a name can be thought of in connection with Jesus Christ. Ingenious malignity looks in vain for the faintest trace of self-seeking in his motives; sensuality shrinks abashed from his celestial purity; falsehood can leave no stain on Him who is incarnate truth; injustice is forgotten beside his errorless equity; the very possibility of avarice is swallowed up in his benignity and love; the very idea of ambition is lost in his divine wisdom and divine self abnegation.|25
The apparent outbreak of passion in the expulsion of the profane traffickers from the temple is the only instance on the record of his history which might be quoted against his freedom from the faults of humanity. But the very effect which it produced shows that, far from being the outburst of passion, the expulsion was a judicial act of a religious reformer, vindicating, in just and holy zeal, the honor of the Lord of the temple. It was an exhibition, not of weakness, but of dignity and majesty, which at once silenced the offenders, though superior in number and physical strength, and made them submit to their well-deserved punishment without a murmur, and in awe of the presence of a superhuman power. The cursing of the unfruitful fig-tree can still less be urged; as it evidently was a significant symbolical act, foreshadowing the fearful doom of the impenitent Jews in the destruction of Jerusalem. On the contrary, these two facts become fully intelligible only by the assumption of the presence of the Divinity in Christ; for they represent him as the Lord of the temple, and as the Lord of creation.
The perfect innocence of Jesus, however, is based, not only negatively on the absence of any recorded word or act to the contrary, and his absolute exemption from every trace of selfishness and worldliness, but positively also, on the unanimous testimony of John the Baptist, and the apostles who bowed before the majesty of his character in unbounded veneration, and declare him |just,| |holy,| and |without sin.|26 It is admitted, moreover, by his enemies, -- the heathen judge Pilate, and his wife, representing, as it were, the Roman law and justice when they shuddered with fear, and Pilate washed his hands to be clear of innocent blood; by the rude Roman centurion confessing under the cross, in the name of the disinterested spectators: |Truly this was the Son of God;| and by Judas himself, the immediate witness of his whole public and private life, exclaiming in despair: |I sinned in betraying innocent blood.|27 Even dumb nature responded in mysterious sympathy; and the beclouded heavens above, and the shaking earth beneath, united in paying their unconscious tribute to the divine purity of their dying Lord.
The objection that the evangelists were either not fully informed concerning the facts, or mistaken in their estimate of the character of Christ, is of no avail. For, in addition to their testimony, we have his own personal conviction of entire freedom from sin and unworthiness; which leaves us only the choice between absolute moral purity and absolute hypocrisy: such hypocrisy would indeed be both the greatest miracle and the greatest moral monstrosity on record.
The very fact that Christ came for the express purpose of saving sinners, implies his own consciousness of personal freedom from guilt and from all need of salvation. And this is the unmistakable impression made upon us by his whole public life and conduct. He nowhere shows the least concern for his own salvation, but knows himself to be in undisturbed harmony with his heavenly Father. While calling most earnestly upon all others to repent, he stood in no need of conversion and regeneration, but simply of the regular harmonious unfolding of his moral powers. While directing all his followers, in the fourth petition of his model prayer, to ask daily for the forgiveness of their sins as well as their daily bread, he himself never asked God for pardon and forgiveness except in behalf of others. While freely conversing with sinners, he always did so with the love and interest of a Saviour of sinners. He always did so: this is the historical fact, no matter how you may explain it. And, to remove every doubt, we have his open and fearless challenge to his bitter enemies: |Which of you convinceth me of sin?|28 In this question, which remains unanswered to this day, he clearly exempts himself from the common fault and guilt of the race. In the mouth of any other man, this question would at once betray either the hight of hypocrisy, or a degree of self-deception bordering on madness itself, and would overthrow the very foundation of all human goodness; while, from the mouth of Jesus, we instinctively receive it as the triumphant self-vindication of one who stood far above the possibility of successful impeachment or founded suspicion.
The assumption that Christ was a sinner, and knew himself such, although he professed the contrary, and made upon friends and enemies the impression of spotless innocency, is the most monstrous deception that can well be imagined. |If Jesus was a sinner, he was conscious of sin as all sinners are, and therefore was a hypocrite in the whole fabric of his character; realizing, so much of divine beauty in it, maintaining the show of such unfaltering harmony and celestial grace, and doing all this with a mind confused and fouled by the affectations acted for true virtues! Such an example of successful hypocrisy would be itself the greatest miracle ever heard of in the world.|29
It is an indisputable fact, then, both from his mission and uniform conduct, and his express declaration, that Christ knew himself free from sin and guilt. The only rational explanation of this fact is that Christ was no sinner. And this is readily conceded by the greatest divines, even those who are by no means regarded as orthodox.30 The admission ol this fact implies the further admission, that Christ differed from all other men, not in degree only, but in kind. For although we must utterly repudiate the pantheistic notion of the necessity of sin, and maintain that human nature in itself considered is capable of sinlessness, that it was sinless, in fact, before the fall, and that it will ultimately become sinless again by the redemption of Christ, -- yet it is equally certain that human nature in its present condition is not sinless, and never has been since the fall, except in the single case of Christ; and that, for this very reason, Christ's sinlessness can only be explained on the ground of such an extraordinary indwelling of God in him as never took place in any other human being before or after.
The Bible, the conscience of man, and the daily experience of life, unite in testifying to the universal fact of sin, no matter how we may explain it. Sin is the deep, dark mystery of existence, the stumbling-block to reason, the problem of problems, the fruitful source of all misery and woe. The literature of all nations and ages is full of lamentations over this most awful and most stubborn of all facts. Even heathen philosophers, historians, and poets acknowledge it in the strongest terms. |The evil passions,| says Plutarch, |are inborn in man, and were not introduced from without; and, if strict discipline would not come to aid, man would hardly be tamer than the wildest beast.| The well-known line of the Roman poet: --
|Video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor;|
and that other: --
|Nitimur in vetitum semper cupimusque negata,| --
have often been quoted as a striking response of the heathen conscience and experience to the inspired description of this ethical conflict betwen heaven and hell in every soul (Rom. vii.). And as to the actual condition of morals in the age of Christ and the apostles, Seneca, Tacitus, Persius, and Juvenal give the most unfavorable accounts, which fully corroborate the dark picture of St. Paul in the first chapter of his Epistle to the Romans. |All is full of crime and vice,| says Seneca: |they are open and manifest: iniquity prevails in every heart, and innocence has not only become rare, but has entirely disappeared.| Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic philosopher on the throne and the persecutor of Christians, complains that |faithfulness, the sense of honor, righteousness and truth, have taken their flight from the wide earth to heaven.|
If this is the testimony of the sages of heathenism, what shall we say of the Christian, whose sense of sin and guilt is deepened and sharpened in proportion to his knowledge of God's holiness and his experience of God's redeeming grace. The entire Christian world, Greek, Latin, and Protestant, agree in the scriptural doctrine of the universal depravity of human nature since the apostasy of the first Adam. Even the modern and unscriptural dogma of the Roman Catholic Church, that the Virgin Mary was free from hereditary as well as actual sin, can hardly be quoted as an exception; for her sinlessness is explained, in the papal decision of 1854, by the assumption of a miraculous interposition of divine favor, and the reflex influence of the merits of her Son. There is not a single mortal who has not to charge himself with some defect or folly; and man's consciousness of sin and unworthiness deepens just in proportion to his self-knowledge, and progress in virtue and goodness. There is not a single saint who has not experienced a new birth from above, and an actual conversion from sin to holiness, and who does not feel daily the need of repentance and divine forgiveness. The very greatest and best of them, as St. Paul and St. Augustine, passed through a violent struggle and a radical revolution; and their whole theological system and religious experience rest on the felt antithesis of sin and grace.
But in Christ we have the one solitary and absolute exception to this universal rule, -- an individual thinking like a man, feeling like a man, speaking, acting, suffering, and dying like a man, surrounded by sinners in every direction, with the keenest sense of sin, and the deepest sympathy with sinners, commencing his public ministry with the call: |Repent; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand| (Matt. iv.17); yet never touched in the least by the contamination of the world; never putting himself in the attitude of a sinner before God; never shedding a tear of repentance; never regretting a single thought, word, or deed; never needing or asking divine pardon; never concerned about the salvation of his own soul; and boldly facing all his present and future enemies, in the absolute certainty of his spotless purity before God and man.