The Sinlessness of Jesus

By Rev. John Leard Dawson

Sussex, N.B.


 In dealing with this theme one has first to say who Jesus was and is, then ask what it would be for such a person to be sinless, and, finally, to determine, if he can, whether Jesus was really sinless or not. In giving our answer to the first of these questions we may state an affirmation which comes to us from every side—He was a man. The New Testament writers lead the way here, telling us of his birth and infancy, his boyhood, his consecration to God, his temptations and distresses, his prayers to his divine Father, his human agony in Gethsemane and on the cross, and of his death and burial. While they most positively affirmed his resurrection from the dead and his ascension to glory, they still spoke of him as "Jesus of Nazareth, a man . . . ." "and how God consecrated him his Christ by enduing him with the Holy Spirit and with power" (Acts 2:23; 10:38). When Paul asserted the unity of God and the existence of one mediator between God and men, he declared that this mediator was "the man Christ Jesus" (I Tim. 2:5). It is in these same New Testament writers, of course, that we find the doctrine of both his pre-existence and persistence as the Son of God. But constantly and consistently they represent him as having become a man, and seem never to have been troubled by any feelings of perplexity in view of his complete humanness. They believed he had no independent authority, but received continuous authorization from his Father. He could not even perform his first miracle without a clear intimation that it would be well-timed. They taught also that his power to do deeds that were beyond the ability of others did not spring from within, but came upon him from without; and that he himself anticipated that these deeds would be exceeded by those of his followers. They even saw in his life the proof that apart from heavenly aid, incessantly given in answer to prayers that were sometimes associated "with earnest crying and with tears," he would have failed both in his mission and his personal career. And when his earthly task was ended and he was about to pass from their sight to the Father, they understood him to say that the enlarged authority then given him was strictly delegated authority, and would continue only until the Father had through his instrumentality, along with the mightier instrumentality of the Holy Spirit, secured the complete triumph of the principles of love and truth which he had been sent to exemplify and enforce. In brief, Jesus was, to his apostles, a man while he was here in the flesh, and still a man after his resurrection and entrance upon his glorified career in the invisible. That is to say, he was God become man and continuing as such.

These apostles were Jews, not Greeks. They were, therefore, content to abide without questioning in what they regarded as their world of ascertained facts. They rejoiced in the essential greatness of their Master and Savior. Had they philosophized at all, they would have said that the pre-existent Son of God did not in becoming a man cease to exist. Had he ceased to exist he could not have become a man at all. He had not ceased to exist, but only to exist as God. Hence, though now he was a man, he was divine still-the God-man.

What they did say, or, rather, what they continually assumed, was that everything that he had done as Creator, Upholder, and Revealer, prior to his incarnation, had now to stand associated with the name of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of God; since it could be credited to no other either on earth or in heaven. An individual's record attaches to himself alone, no matter what the changes which may take place in him. So to them he was "Jesus Christ yesterday and today—yes, and for ever." He was the one who came down, stayed here for a time in our humanity, and then, in our humanity glorified, went up to where he was before. In his own person they saw him lift this humanity of ours, even while he was here in the flesh, to heights only imagined before. And all he did he did as a man.

Accepting, therefore, all that the New Testament writers affirm about the pre-existence and divinity of Jesus, we must recognize that it is as a man that we are to consider him when we ask whether he was sinless or not. But we cannot intelligently proceed with our inquiry until we have first named one of the outstanding facts of our humanity. This fact is ignorance. To enter upon a human career is to begin as a babe, with no knowledge at all, and always remain a learner. It must not be forgotten that the New Testament writers present Jesus to us as both a babe and a learner. It is recorded of him that he grew in knowledge in his boyhood. He did not know at the time of his baptism on what precise line he was to conduct his career, and it was only as he moved cautiously forward that all became clear. During two years or more of his public life he did not think of his ministry as meant for any but Jews. When on his one vacation outside the territory of his own people, he declared to a pleading Canaanitish woman that he had no mission to her or her people. There and later he learned a new lesson regarding his own work. He confessed his ignorance of the time of a future event, and told his apostles, even after his resurrection, that the Father had reserved "times and hours . . . . for his own decision." We have no hint either that he had a wider geographical or literary knowledge than the men of his time. He had no reputation whatever for learning. What gave him superiority and authority was his amazing spiritual insight. He read the heart of God and the heart of men as no other ever did, and so was wiser than all others in the essential things of human life.

His knowledge and originality, even in the field of ethics, can easily be overestimated. He did not originate either "the first and great commandment" or "the second." Thou shalt love thy God with all thy powers and thy neighbor as thyself arrived ages before his coming. He found these commandments in the sacred writings of his people, and codified and illuminated them in his teaching. He was ahead of his times on divorce, on oaths, and on the requital of injuries, but he never even hinted at the great moral reforms of recent years. The Father had not made him acquainted with the "times and hours'" in which the great principles he affirmed would work themselves out in these and all other particulars. From the standpoint of the moral reformer, as well as from that of the scholar, he was a man of his own time.

Now knowledge has so much to do with the correctness of human conduct that no thinker on the subject believes it possible for a life which is perfect in the sense of being complete in every particular to be lived, until the time arrives when all the relationships of men toward each other, with all the duties arising out of them shall have become fully known. Ignorance is one of the greatest foes to progress, and progress is the one road to perfection. If, then, the perfect life is the life which is complete in every particular, Jesus did not live the perfect life. His times did not make it possible. The best he could do was to live as complete a life as was then within reach. And he would find it the same today, if he were here in the flesh, and living in the most Christian country on the planet. If, therefore, sinlessness and full-blown perfection are to be considered as one and the same thing in connection with a human life, it cannot be claimed that Jesus was sinless. But this is by no means the last word on the subject.

We have now reached the place where it is necessary to state the self-evident fact that the claim that Jesus was sinless must be judged by the ethical standards of those magnificent men who first put it forward. What did the New Testament writers mean by sinlessness ? After we have discovered this, and decided whether Jesus was sinless in the sense in which they used the term, we can, if we wish, ask whether sinlessness in their sense could be regarded as sinlessness here and now.

It can be said at once that the principle which guided the New Testament writers in this matter is the common-sense one that the attitude of an individual toward good and evil is not to be found in any outward act whatever, but in the disposition and purpose from which his acts proceed. They held that to make himself a sinner against God in connection with any given action the doer of the deed must at least fear beforehand that he would in that way either injure his neighbor or disobey or offend his God, or that he would thus disobey and offend his own conscience. They held, that is to say, that as far as ignorance existed it stood forth as a valid excuse for any act or word which was wrong in itself, and that as far as knowledge of its wrongness stood associated in the mind of the doer or speaker of any such word or act, it was proof positive of guilt on his part. Luke and John present the following as words of Jesus himself on this subject: "The servant who knows his master's wishes and yet does not prepare and act accordingly will receive many lashes; while one who does not know his master's wishes, but acts so as to deserve a flogging, will receive but few." "If I had not come and spoken to them, they would have had no sin to answer for; but as it is they have no excuse for their sin. . . . . If I had not done among them such works as no one else ever did, they would have had no sin to answer for; but, as it is, they have both seen and hated both me and my Father" (see also John 9:41). Paul's words in his letter to the Romans are terse and clear—" Where no Law exists, no breach of it is possible. . . . . Sin cannot be charged against a man where no Law exists. . . . . Love fully satisfies the Law." Over against this last word may be placed this strong one of John, "Every one who hates his brother is a murderer."

Jesus and his apostles after him emphasized knowledge, on the one hand, and disposition on the other. They taught that to love was for the person loving to abstain at once and continually from everything known by him to be injurious to the object of his affections, and to do instead every helpful thing that lay in his power; and that a man should love his very enemies. It was by this high standard that the apostles of our Lord measured him. Let us listen to some of them as they announce the result. Peter says, "He 'never sinned, nor was anything deceitful ever heard from his lips.' He was abused but he did not answer with abuse; he suffered but he did not threaten." On the contrary, "He 'himself carried our sins' in his own body to the cross, so that we might die to our sins, and live for righteousness." Peter knew Jesus better than any other man, excepting John, perhaps, and his deliberate written word is that Jesus never sinned in either act or speech. He never showed wrong disposition, but went to the cross, even, in the spirit of a love that carried every sinner on its heart in yearning for his salvation. John's testimony is that "in him sin has no place." He never admitted sin into his nature; so sin never prepared itself a room or abiding place there. "Holy, innocent, spotless, withdrawn from sinners," is the description given of him by the writer of the letter to the Hebrews. And his word concerning his own consciousness, according to John 8:28, 29, was, " I do nothing of myself. . . . . I say just what the Father has taught me. . . . . I always do what pleases him." No sins of presumption, no running before he was sent—obedience to the Father represented by every word he uttered and every deed he did; is the claim that welled up from the clear depths of Christ's own knowledge of himself, according to the writer of the Fourth Gospel.

Does someone say, "After all, however, he was a man of his own time, as we are of ours, and his obedience was only as far as he knew. We know more of the particulars of human righteousness than he did, just as those who come after us will know more of them than we do. So admitting his claims in full, it must be remembered that he could not have lived a complete human life"?

Such words as these have a foundation in fact which we have already recognized, and they deserve careful attention. The first thing that should be said in view of them is this: He convinced men whose chief business in our world was the pursuit of righteousness and real holiness that he never once failed where they did—that his inner life, as well as his outward, was in perfect harmony with all of moral good and the will of God that he did know. And they saw so much in his life beyond what they had ever been able to build into their own that they regarded him as knowing practically everything. Instead of having to make apologies for his ignorance, they stood amazed at his knowledge. This is clear. It is equally clear that no other man ever impressed the heart of his fellows in this manner, and to the same extent. No other man was ever regarded as sinless by the holiest of his contemporaries, who were at the same time the men who knew him best. Here Jesus Christ stands forth unique and glorious, clothed with the perfect calm which could enwrap only the man whose fine composure had never been disturbed by any self-accusings. It was to the holy he seemed holiest, and to them he seemed perfectly holy.

Now how would a life of this sort be regarded if it should present itself in one of our towns or cities today ? It would certainly be misunderstood and persecuted. But how would it impress men after it had run its remarkable course and reached its extraordinary termination ? If a man should arise among ourselves whose every word and act, and his very dispositions, were as far as we could see in perfect harmony with the law of love toward both God and men, from the beginning to the end of his career—if he should seem in our eyes never to have been a transgressor in even the slightest particular, but to have given himself without a moment's cessation to the most unselfish service, alike Godward and manward; would we speak of him as having been sinless or not ?

We know what sin is. We have long defined it as any transgression of, or want of conformity to, the law of God. And when we have been asked to define the law of God, we have done it in two ways, and said (1) It is that perfect and complete ethical code which is to be found in the absolute holiness of God himself; and (2) It is that same code as far as it has become a matter of knowledge to any individual whose character or conduct may happen to be under consideration. When we are asked why we have the two definitions, and not one only, we answer that we need the first, because we must keep ourselves reminded that the holiness of God has more of duty and privilege in store for us than any man has ever seen as yet; and we need the second as a standard with which to measure individual accountability, on the one hand, and individual moral worth, on the other; since the first cannot be used in this way at all, on account of the fact that beyond a certain point no man has ever yet known what it is in its various particulars. In other words, no man can test another by the standard of absolute holiness. For no man knows what that standard is, except in part. He can judge only by the particulars he knows, whether it is himself or another he has under scrutiny. So any man who should in disposition and purpose, as well as in word and deed, live in complete and positive obedience to all the requirements of the divine holiness, as far as they had become known to him, would be sinless from the viewpoint of his own consciousness. And if any man with a larger knowledge of these requirements than any or all of his contemporaries should attain to this complete and positive obedience, he would be sinless, not only from the viewpoint of his own consciousness, but also, and even more distinctly, in the unprejudiced opinion of all who knew him. That is to say, if Jesus had led a nineteenth-century life with the same devotion to God and duty that he showed in the first-century life that he actually did live, there would be no hesitation on our part in ascribing sinlessness to him today, particularly if he had begun his public career during the second half, beginning, let us say, with 1875.

Sinlessness is one thing; absolute holiness, and even complete human righteousness, another. It was probably because Jesus, the human learner, had discovered this for himself that he turned so sharply once upon a flattering inquirer with the word "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God." The New Testament claim for Jesus is simply that he was sinless.

Jesus was not jealous of those who were to succeed him. He was at once too generous and too sure of himself for that. He knew the future would be his, and rejoiced all the more because those who were to follow him would surpass him in their grip upon the whole human situation, and in the things they would be able to accomplish. He knew that their success would be his, along with the whole new order of things which he came to establish, and retired to superintend under his Father.

Our conclusion touching the sinlessness of Jesus is this: Complete human righteousness follows upon complete human knowledge along ethical lines, and can never be attained apart from it. Jesus came fairly to open up the way for this attainment by living a life in perfect inner agreement with the highest principles that can ever govern a human career, and in complete harmony with the fullest ethical knowledge of his time; that is to say, he came to do, and actually did, all that a man of his time could possibly do along the lines of ethical duty. And in doing this he accomplished a thing which was never done before, and has never been done since. He never failed in either disposition or purpose, but lived toward both God and his fellows, from first to last, a life that was, not only to those holy men who knew him best, but also to his own highly enlightened and sensitive conscience, free from every stain of wrongdoing on the one hand, and of neglected duty on the other. It may be confidently added that in achieving this moral and spiritual triumph he reached in principle a height beyond which no man can ever go. For it is impossible for anyone to do more than live up to his own highest light. And, let me repeat it, the glory of that achievement, so far, belongs to Jesus Christ alone.

One other question seems to demand an answer before this discussion closes. Was sinlessness easier for Jesus than it would be now ? Let each find his answer as he notes the tremendous odds which truth and righteousness had to face in that old world of decayed and abandoned ideals. Will sinlessness be easier or more difficult when all men have at length through Jesus been lifted to the same high level ? They will then all be helpers of each other, and they will remember to his glory and praise that he alone kept man's highest way when the task was all but impossible even for himself, and every man he met was to some extent, at least, a hinderer.