THE HOLINESS OF JESUS
"Which of you convicteth me of sin?"
- John viii:46.
HERE for the first time in this course of sermons I use a word that belongs to another vocabulary. Courage, humility, patience, poise, brotherliness, indignation – these all belong to a common class, but you pass the boundaries into another region when you use the word "holiness." All the other words that I have used can be applied to many of the great men of the earth; the word "holiness" can be applied to one only. Write the word "holiness" before the names of the great poets. Speak these words: "The holiness of Homer," "of Dante," "of Shakespeare," "of Tennyson." The heart revolts against it. Write the word "holiness" before the names of the great philosophers: "The holiness of Socrates," "of Plato," "of Kant" "of Herbert Spencer." There is something that offends the soul. Write the word "holiness" before the names of the great scientists: "The holiness of Newton," "of Kepler," "of Pasteur," "of Huxley," and the word does not fit those illustrious names. Speak of the holiness of the Duke of Wellington, of General Gordon, of Ulysses S. Grant, of Stonewall Jackson, and here again there is something in us which takes offense. Try the word now before the very greatest statesmen of the world: "The holiness of Pitt," "of Cavour" "of Gladstone," "of Webster," and here again we have not used the proper word. But when you say the "holiness of Jesus," that seems altogether proper. There is but one name in human history with which we can link that glorious noun.
What do we mean by holiness? We mean wholeness, full-orbed perfection. A holy man is a man without a fleck or flaw, a character without a blemish or a stain. Let us think about the sinlessness of Jesus. When we speak of the sinlessness of Jesus, a thoughtful man might ask the question: "How do you know that he was sinless?" You have only an account of his words and deeds, and while these may be above all criticism, how do you know what took place in the chambers of the heart? How do you know that every feeling was free from sin, that not a single thought was stained, that every motive, even the deepest, was according to the will of God? Do you not pass into the region of conjecture when you say that here was an absolutely sinless man?" And the further fact might also be urged that we have the story of only a fraction of his life. He died at the age of thirty-three, and of this period thirty years are well nigh a total blank. Even if you grant that his public life was perfect, how can you speak with authority concerning the life which he lived before he appeared at Jordan to be baptized by John? How do you know what his life was as a boy, as a youth, as a young man? Of all this period scarcely a syllable is told us, and yet how many sins may have been committed in those seething, tempestuous years? And one might go on to say: "How can you be sure that all that he did and said recorded in the New Testament was absolutely right in the sight of God? When he denounced the Pharisees and hurled his cutting epithets at them, can you be sure there was no excess of passion? When he drove the traders from the Temple, can you be certain that he did not overstep the boundaries of righteous indignation? When he cursed the fig tree, was there no impatience in his words? When he drove the Syro-Phoenician woman away with the remark that it was not fitting to take the children’s bread and cast it unto dogs, was he not guilty of the very sin which disfigured and disgraced so many of his countrymen? And then again how can you be sure that he fulfilled every duty? Even granting that we cannot charge him with any sins of commission, how do you know there were no sins of omission? Duty is infinite. There are duties toward God and toward one’s fellow-men and toward one’s own soul, and who in this world is competent to say that Jesus fulfilled every duty to himself and to men and to God up to the level of perfection?" These are natural questions, and questions which deserve an answer. They will occur to thoughtful minds whenever they approach the question of Jesus’ holiness.
In answer to these questions it may be said in the first place that so far as we can discover there is nothing in Jesus’ consciousness which indicates that he was guilty of any sin. There is no trace anywhere of regret, no indication anywhere of remorse. From first to last he is serene, jubilant, confident, free, so far as we can see, from that shadow which the consciousness of sin always casts. Now everybody agrees that Jesus was a good man, exceedingly good, extraordinarily good. Everybody admits that he was the best man that ever lived. But if we once admit this, we are bound to go a great deal farther, for just in proportion as a man is really good does he become sensitive to sin; just in proportion as his spiritual sense is keen does his consciousness of sin become disturbing and appalling. If you want the saddest confessions of shortcomings, do not go to the worst men, but to the best. The higher a man rises in spiritual attainment, the more is he cast down by the knowledge of his sins. Run through the Scriptures, and you will find that all the saints have their faces in the dust. Isaiah has a vision of God and his first cry is, "Woe is me, for I am undone!" Job has a vision of God, and he casts himself upon the ground, saying, "I abhor myself and repent in sackcloth and ashes." John the beloved disciple says, "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." Paul the greatest of all the apostles cries out in an agony of remorse, "I am the chief of sinners." Peter says, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord." There is no exception in the whole list from Abraham down to the latest of the apostles. Every heart cries out in the language of the Psalmist: "Have mercy upon me, O God, and blot out my transgressions," "Wash me from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin, for my sin is ever before me."
If, therefore, Jesus is indeed the best man that ever lived and still a sinner, he must have been conscious of his sin; and if he had been an honest man, conscious of his sin, he would not have concealed the fact from those that were nearest to him. He would have given signs of repentance and shown traces of regret. There would have been many an evidence of contrition and compunction. But so far as any of the apostles knew there never escaped his lips a cry for pardon. On the other hand he was always giving utterance to words like these: "He that hath seen me hath seen the Father," "I do always those things which are pleasing unto him," "Which one of you convicteth me of sin?" And even when in sight of the cross, with death only a few hours away, he looks into God’s face saying, "I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do." Other men looked into the unstained splendor, the white radiance of the world eternal, and fell back abashed and condemned. Jesus looks into that same unspotted glory and says, "I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do." This is remarkable, altogether unique. Here is a man who told others to say when they prayed, "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors," but he never prayed that prayer himself. Other men, even the strongest, have asked others to pray for them – he never asked prayers of any man. If then we are willing to listen to the consciousness of Jesus, we are bound to confess that here was a man without sin. If he was not without sin, then he was not a good man at all, for he carefully concealed from his companions the stained parts of his life, and led them to think that he was better than he was, in which case he was a hypocrite and our hero has vanished.
But this is not all. Not only did he hold himself immeasurably above the heads of all other men, but he also forgave sins; he spoke as one having authority. No other man had ever exercised such a prerogative. Even the worst sinners when penitent at his feet received from him authoritative assurance of forgiveness. Moreover he was a man without a human ideal. All good men have looked up to some man better than themselves; Jesus looked up to no man. He placed himself above Moses. He said, "A greater than Solomon is here." He said to men, "Follow me, I am the ideal." And at, the same time he said, "Be ye perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect." How will you put these two exhortations together? "Follow me! Be ye perfect!" He was inexorable at this point, he would not allow any one to get between him and the soul. It was worth while for a man to die for his sake – the very dearest friend a man had was to be given second place. He claimed to be first. If he were indeed perfect, all this was right; but if he were a sinner concealing his sin or unconscious of his sin, then all such exhortations as, "Follow me," are demoralizing, and his pretensions are blasphemous. If he was good at all, he was sinless.
Attention ought to be called to the impression that he made upon others. The men who were nearest to him got the idea that he was without sin. When he came to John the Baptist asking to be baptized, John drew back from him, saying: "I cannot baptize you. You ought to baptize me." And why? Because John was baptizing men for their sins. He could not baptize Jesus, because Jesus had no sins. And when Jesus makes his reply, he does not say, "I am a sinner, therefore I must be baptized," he says, "Suffer it now, for it is becoming that we should fulfil all righteousness." There was a reason why the baptism should be performed, there was another element in baptism besides confession of sin. John was the beloved disciple, coming the nearest to the Master’s heart. In the third chapter of his first letter he says this, "He was manifested to take away our sin, and in him is no sin." That was the impression that the Lord made upon him. Peter was one of his most loyal friends. He was with him day and night through three years. In the second chapter of his first letter he says, "He did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth." Now these men were with Jesus. They ate with him, drank with him, slept with him, they saw him in all conditions and in all moods, and under varying circumstances. They saw him hungry, angry, stern, surprised, disappointed, amazed, yet they believed that in him there was no sin. The writer to the Hebrews in the fourth chapter reminds his readers that while Jesus was tempted in all points as we are, yet he was without sin. That was the impression then that was made upon the church. After the resurrection – they worshipped him as God. It is inconceivable that in so short a time a great body of intelligent men and women should have been worshipping him as God and singing hymns of praise to him if he had not made upon them the impression that he was holy.
Here, then, we have reached the crowning characteristic of Jesus. It is this which differentiates him from all other men who have ever lived. Every other man has known the pang of remorse, every other man has cried for pardon. Simon Peter was hounded by memories; he was a good man, a great man, a tireless worker in the church, but condemning memories pursued him down through the years, and when at last the time came to die he said, "Crucify me with my head downward." He said this because he remembered his sin. Paul was a good man and a great man, but he was hounded by condemning memories. He filled the days and nights with work for God, but he could never for, get that he had been a persecutor of the church, and so he entered heaven feeling that he was the chief of sinners. Never has there been but one white soul, never but one life unspotted, never but one mind without a stain, never but one heart perfect. It is this sinlessness that gives Jesus his power. You cannot understand the New Testament unless you acknowledge that he was holy. His life was one of suffering, persecution, ending in a horrible death, but yet the New Testament is a joyous book. There is no gloom in it because there was no gloom in him. His soul was radiant. Nothing creates gloom in this world but sin. All the things that we count terrible are insignificant and have no power to cast a shadow. There is only one thing that makes the spirit droop, and that is sin. His sinlessness explains his joyfulness. He said, "No man knows the Father but the son" and why? Because "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." Because his heart was stainless, his vision of the Eternal was unclouded. He knew God as no other man has ever known him. And it was this sinlessness which was the secret of his fascination. He drew men to him; they hung upon his words; they were fascinated by him even when they hated; they were drawn to him even when they feared him. Simon Peter expresses the conflicting emotions of the heart in, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord." When Jesus asks him whether he is going away he says, "To whom shall we go; thou hast the words of eternal life." The reason we are drawn to him is not because of his courage, his sympathy, his patience, or his brotherliness; it is because we feel instinctively that he is far above us, a man without a sin. It is this which gives the Christian church its power. The Christian church has but one perfect possession, that is Jesus. The creed of the church is not perfect, its phrases were formed by the blundering mind of man. The Bible is not perfect, it is not inerrant, it has many a flaw. The church itself is imperfect, stained through and through with sin; but Jesus of Nazareth, the head of the church, is stainless. And because he is without sin the church will come off triumphant.
If you ask why it is that men are separated from Jesus, it is because he is sinless and they are not. Some of you are not interested in him; it is because he is so far above you. Some of you have no sympathy with him; it is because you are not at all like him. Some of you do not understand his words; that is because you are disobedient. Some of you have no disposition to do his will; it is because you are the prisoners of sin. But the sinless Christ does not turn away from us, no matter how sinful we are, He says: "Come unto me. He that cometh unto me I will in no wise cast out." Without sin himself he can pity us in our sin, and is willing to wash away the stains. He is the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world.
But Thee, but Thee, O sovereign Seer of time,
But Thee, O poet’s Poet, Wisdom’s Tongue,
But Thee, O man’s best Man, O love’s best Love, O perfect life in perfect labor writ,
O all men’s Comrade, Servant, King, or Priest,
What if or yet, what mole, what flaw, what lapse,
What least defect or shadow of defect,
What rumor, tattled by an enemy,
Of inference loose, what lack of grace
Even in torture’s grasp, or sleep’s, or death’s Oh, what amiss may I forgive in Thee,
Jesus, good Paragon, thou Crystal Christ?