The Perfect Manhood of Our Saviour
It is instinctive for us to think of the being of God as holy and perfect. God's holiness is as essential an element in our thinking of him as is his glory, his eternity or his omniscience. Indeed, we can hardly think of God at all except in terms of absolutes. He must needs be excellent in every conceivable way or he cannot be God at all. We rightly judge him to be superlatively great in his being and in all his perfections. If he were not, he would not be God. Thoughts like this are common to men whenever they think of God or attempt a definition of him.
What is more difficult for men to appreciate is the perfection of Christ in his human nature. To a realisation of the perfection of the manhood of Jesus it is not at all easy for us to come. The reason for this is not hard to seek. We are not familiar with perfect human beings. All our experience is on the other side. The men whom we meet in this world, even the best, are very frail and imperfect. We have come as it were to regard human frailty and imperfection as essential to manhood. Flawless and perfect manhood is something that we have neither met nor experienced.
Jesus Christ, however, is the one exception. In him manhood is coupled with unblemished holiness. In Christ the image of God is seen without a shadow of distortion or a shadow of inconsistency. When he affirmed: 'He that hath seen me hath seen the Father' (John 14:9), he was not only saying something which no other man in history could ever say but he was claiming to be absolutely sinless in his manhood. No doubt there is more still to this claim even than that. For our Saviour is infinitely more than a sinless man. 'In him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily' (Colossians 2:9). So that his claim to be the perfect image of the Father's person and the effulgence of his glory no doubt goes far beyond a claim even to be sinless. But sinlessness is at least included in this staggering claim which he makes.
If we are not mistaken, the sinlessness of our Lord's human nature is a subject which deserves more attention than it has received. It is, after all, a fact of titanic proportions that there has appeared in this world one solitary sinless man. Among all the myriads of men who have had their entrances and their exits upon the stage of history there is but one who came in holy and went out holy from the world. The phenomenon is to us all the more remarkable when we recall that the only other two human beings who came into the world holy did not so leave it but failed their probation and lost their righteousness before they had lived here for long.
Jesus Christ our Lord, on the other hand, came perfect into the world and left it with the same unblemished perfection as he came with. The dust of earth has been trodden by a perfect man. The same air which we today breathe was once, and only once, breathed by a sinless man. One of earth's sons is the exception to the rule, which otherwise is universal, that 'all have sinned and come short of the glory of God' (Romans 3:23). It is to our way of thinking remarkable that more interest has not been shown by mankind in this fact of Jesus' sinlessness, even allowing for the world's understandable, if also tragic, lack of interest in his Saviourhood.
The origin of the sinlessness of Christ's human nature is, like all else about him, shrouded in deep mystery and wonder. It is clear that the Virgin Birth was essential to the formation of his sinless human nature. In reference to his incarnation — O sublime miracle! — we must say with the Early Church that 'he became what he was not without ceasing to be what he was'.
He was as to his person the eternal Son of God. Christ did not, of course, become the Son of God as the result of his incarnation. The term 'Son' is appropriate in reference to his relationship with the Father within the Holy Trinity from all eternity. The incarnation did not alter that fact in any way. God he was and God he remained after the incarnation. What our blessed Lord took to himself was human nature. Not a human person but human nature. Nature is impersonal: person is nature individualised. Our Lord did not take a human person into union with himself. What he took was human nature with all its common properties and limitations though, in this case, without sin.
Among the cluster of sacred mysteries which surround the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ is the manner in which his human nature was transferred to him from his mother without sin. The Bible makes it clear that Mary, though a devout woman, was not sinless. 'My spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour' (Luke 1:47), she says. No one who is sinless has need of a Saviour. This one text alone is sufficient to prove that Mary, for all her privilege and honour as the chosen mother of our Lord, was not sinless, as later tradition has attempted to make her out to be.
Precisely how Christ's human nature was brought forth from the sinful human nature of the virgin Mary we may not be able to show. But it is clear that it involved a distinct work of the Holy Spirit during the process of the formation of his human nature. The angel's words must have sounded awesome in Mary's ears as she heard them:
The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee; therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.Luke 1:35
In the drawing forth of the nature of the man Christ Jesus there was a distinct and special ministry of the Spirit to safeguard to the Son a body and soul which were uniquely sinless. Neither the guilt of Adam's first disobedience was imputed to him nor the corruption of mankind's depravity transmitted to him. His human nature was to be a 'holy thing' (Luke 1:35).
The earthly life of the Saviour is one long and undimmed exhibition of what a sinless man's life means. It appears to have all the more lustre in that 'the light shines in the darkness', to borrow a phrase used in Scripture in a somewhat different context (John 1:5). In the Gospels what we are presented with is the astonishing spectacle of moral and spiritual perfection existing and displaying itself spontaneously in the midst of every species of evil and opposition.
It is not for us to speculate on the reasons for things which are hidden in God himself, but we may perhaps be allowed to suppose that it belongs to the wisdom of God that our Saviour did not make any important public appearance till he was thirty years of age. Speaking theoretically, the world would not otherwise have suffered him to live as long as he did. As it was, Jesus was kept 'as a polished shaft' hidden in the 'quiver' of the Almighty (Isaiah 49:2) till the time appointed of the Father for his showing unto the world. Even then, it was not easy for mankind to tolerate him for much above three years. The presence among us in this life of a sinless man so vexed the minds of this world's self-righteous that they could not rest till they had removed him by death. It is perfectly summed up in the plain words of John:
And this is the condemnation that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.John 3:19
This is the unflattering summary which our Judge makes of mankind's long history. It is a history of darkness. And this darkness appears thickest at the point where we see the perfect life of Christ to touch it, during the three years of his sublime ministry.
The life of Jesus Christ is certainly not presented to us in the Bible as a life to be 'imitated'. The idea of imitating Christ is found in books which have come down to us from the Middle Ages or else which are medieval in then religious outlook. But we miss the point if we suppose that Jesus is set before us as merely One to be copied. The attempt is doomed to hopeless failure anyway. None has copied it and none ever will. To be perfect in holiness requires of man the type of nature which he is not born with and to which he cannot attain.
Christ's sinlessness is set before our gaze in the Gospels to teach us other and more essential lessons. His life defines goodness for us. Goodness is something which men have no adequate idea of till they begin to study Christ's life. This point is made especially in connection with the story of the Rich Young Ruler. Christ's famous words: 'There is none good but one, that is, God' (Matthew 19:17) must not be taken to be a confession of imperfection by Christ. Some have mistakenly interpreted this statement in that way. Rather, these words draw attention to the fact that Jesus' life is from start to finish one of goodness and that his goodness is that which reflects the divine goodness and does so to perfection.
The personal perfection and obedience of Christ are not attainable by us as sinners; but for all that they are the basis, in a very different way, of all our hope of acceptance with God. The obedience of Jesus, if we are to follow the majority of our Reformed theologians, is a part of that whole righteousness which is imputed to us when we believe in him for salvation.
The Leiden Synopsis puts the matter in this way: There are two parts in justification: the imputation of passive righteousness or absolution from sins, and the imputation of active righteousness. By the former of these we are delivered from liability and condemnation, and exempted from eternal death. By the latter we are also deemed worthy of a reward and receive the right to eternal life and it is adjudged to us...' (XXXIII, 8). Owen, who is not eager to 'immix' himself, as he says, 'in the debate of the distinction between the active and passive obedience of Christ' nonetheless maintains: 'the imputation of the active obedience or righteousness of Christ unto us ... (is) an essential part of that righteousness whereon we are justified before God.1
The righteousness imputed to believers is not, as Bunyan reminds us in his great allegory, the essential righteousness of Christ's person as God but his obedience to the moral law in our human nature. For it to be possible for Christ to bring to us so inestimable a gift it was necessary for him first to have a nature capable of this perfect obedience. Before the believing world could enjoy the imputation to it of a perfect obedience there must first exist in Christ himself a sinless human nature. Without the former the latter would be a moral impossibility.
The Westminster divines were not less insistent on the importance to the believer of Christ's obedience in the sinless human nature as they repeatedly include this element in their definition of a sinner's justification. The phrases which occur in the Westminster Confession in the chapter on Justification are these: 'the obedience and satisfaction of Christ', 'his obedience and death', 'his obedience and satisfaction accepted in their stead'.
The repetition of the term 'obedience' here shows us what they were concerned to teach. We are justified not only by the death of Christ but also by his active personal obedience to the moral law of God. To achieve his obedience, clearly, our Lord must first have that sinless human nature of which we here speak.
It is because it is an essential element in the creed of the church, and essential therefore to our salvation, that the New Testament emphasises the complete sinlessness of Jesus. He was 'holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners' (Hebrews 7:26). 'In him is no sin', insists John the apostle, who was more intimate with Christ than any man living or that has ever lived (1 John 3:5). Peter, who was next in his close association to the Lord and more prominent still as a preacher, has the same witness as John: 'Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth' (1 Peter 2:22). Paul, who as it were makes up the threefold apostolic testimony, like a cord which cannot be broken, affirms the same truth of our Saviour's sinless humanity:
He (God) hath made him (Christ) to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.2 Corinthians 5:21
To this apostolic witness the personal self-consciousness of Jesus itself bears witness. To those who loved him he could say in private: 'The prince of this world (Satan) cometh, and hath nothing in me' (John 14:30). To his haters, who watched his every move and looked constantly for something to accuse him of, he could say: 'Which of you convinceth me of sin?' (John 8:46). If they had been able to do they would have done so. But their silence is eloquent. Neither then nor at any other time could they convince our Saviour of the least flaw of character or blemish of conduct. Even the worldly Pilate was forced by his own, not very developed, conscience to admit four times to the Jews that Jesus was innocent: 'I find no fault in this man' (Luke 23:4, 14, 15, 22).
If we were to attempt a broad analysis of the perfection of Christ we would need surely to say that it is a perfection which is conspicuous for the way it reflects three excellencies: balance, holiness and love.
In Christ as in no other there is a marvellous balance of human virtues and characteristics. His is the ideal temperament in which all excellences of nature are seen in harmony. There is in him no oddness, no excess of one virtue over another. Zeal for God is matched by compassion for man. Justice and mercy 'kiss one another' (Psalm 85:10) in him. In Christ sin is hated; but the sinner is the object of his compassion. He comforts; yet also corrects. He encourages; but at the same time, when necessary, he rebukes. There is no softness in Christ, yet no harshness either. Eccentricity is the fruit of sin in us and we are all disfigured by it more or less. The tree of human nature is inwardly spoiled in us and the fruit is correspondingly marred. In even the best of men this is visible. But in Christ nothing of the sort is visible. His is the life of perfect balance and harmony. This last Adam is the archetypal and model man. When we look at him we see what it is truly to be human. By contrast we see that we are all the 'rubbish' of a man. Only in the new world can we hope to be as Jesus is for wholeness of character. Take sin from us and we shall be at last renewed perfectly in his blessed image. That is our glorious hope as believers.
The second aspect of the Lord's perfection which we have spoken of is his holiness. Holiness is an awesome thing and men felt it whenever they came near him. If Christ's teaching was offensive to his critics, his life was still more so. With his doctrine our Lord thundered; and with his life he lightened. His theology was objectionable enough to his adversaries. But it might have been overlooked had it not been for his perfectly holy life. By this he both established his doctrine among men, and brought deep conviction to their consciences. Christ was, after all, what no preacher has ever been before or since, the perfect embodiment of all that he taught. 'A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God', affirmed M'Cheyne. What then must have been the effect on men of Christ's life, whose holiness was essential, not derived; and whose perfection was absolute? There could, in the nature of things, be only two outcomes when men met him. Either they fell at his feet in adoration with the words: 'My Lord and my God'. Or else they took counsel together to slay him. There could not be any reaction of indifference to such holiness as Christ's. In fact, the Gospels show us that this was so. Men loved him and followed him. Or else they hated him and slew him.
It will be a sign of coming good to our churches when her ministers more perfectly reflect this holiness of their Lord. Holiness is likeness to God and its presence in a preacher adds immeasurably to his authority and usefulness.
In love Christ is superabundant. His life is one long outpouring of love. Nothing was too much trouble for him to do if the sick or the needy came to him. Even as his sermons and his private conversations with the disciples overflow with love, so does his whole demeanour and his disposition. Of impatience there is not a trace in his entire exhausting ministry. Nothing like crossness appears in his rebuke of the Pharisees. As he delivers his sternest reproaches and condemnations he is full of readiness to gather his foolish enemies, if they will only come, and to shelter them under his wings from the wrath to come (Matthew 23:37). If his preaching contains many terrifying references to eternal punishment we must see that he is here too expressing the profound affection of his soul that his hearers should not come into that dreadful place. He knew hell to be real and close at hand in a way that no other could know.
It is an action of the highest love in God's estimation when a preacher warns his hearers of the wrath to come. No act of benevolence can equal that of explaining to men what lies ahead of the impenitent and what provision God has graciously made for our escape as sinners. For the preacher to conceal the reality of hell-fire or to tone down his appeal to men to flee from it is neither to love sinners nor to be filled with the love of Christ. The lack of passionate evangelistic preaching today is a sad reminder that few preachers are filled with the love of Christ.
We stated above that it is not taught us in the Bible that we should try to imitate Christ in his perfection. This statement is, of course, a half-truth. It is true that the unregenerate are not called on to imitate our Lord. But the regenerate are. Peter urges us, as the people of God, to know that Christ has given us an example of how to suffer patiently in this life:
Christ also suffered for us leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps.1 Peter 2:21
A perfect Saviour such as ours deserves disciples who daily strive to emulate his perfect manhood in all aspects of their life. There is no duty higher than that we should, as regenerate Christians, strive to grow in sanctification and in love.