« Prev XIX. Christ Bearing the Sins of Transgressors. Next »



So Christ. was once offered to bear the sins of many.”—Heb. ix, 28.

Christ bearing our sins ought to be the tenderest and most soul-subduing of all facts conceivable. And yet it may even be made quite revolting, by the over literal, and legally hard, face put upon it. Perhaps I ought to say that it too often is, and that what is given to be the new creating power of God in our lives, is made, in this manner, to be an offense that even balks our repentances. What I propose then, at the present time, is to answer, in a very practical way, the very practical question—

In what sense, or manner, it is, that Christ bears the sins of the world?

To make the answer clear, I begin by specifying some things which are not to be understood by it.

Thus we are not to understand that the sins of the world are put upon him, or transferred to him, so as to be his. That is impossible. Guilt is a matter so strictly and eternally personal, that nobody can be in it, but the transgressor himself to whom it belongs. Apart from him it is nothing. Strike him out of existence and it 394 no longer exists. The bad conscience, the blame, the damning self-conviction, is as incommunicably his, even as his brain, or his will. Indeed, the creatorship of the world can as well be transferred, as the doership of a sin. The meum and tuum of property can be transferred, but the meum and tuum of sin is even absolute. If I owe a debt, another man can make himself a debtor in my place, but if I am a felon, no other man can be the felon for me.

It follows, in the same view, that Christ does not bear our sins in the sense that he bears our punishment. Everlasting justice forbids any such commutation of places in punishment. What is this justice? An indignation against wrong that wants pain out of somebody, caring only that the quantum be made up? Or is it, rather, an indignation against the wrong-doer himself, and no other? No matter if another consents to bear that indignation, and suffer all the deserved pains of the wrong-doer, when that second person comes to offer himself, God’s justice will forthwith object in the question—“Are you guilty of this man’s sin? Doubtless you may be his friend, but the only thing you can do for him is to be innocence in him, and you can as well do that as to be guilty instead of him. But as long as you are innocence yourself, what kind of transaction is it that you undertake, when you come to be punished in innocence? What opinion have you of my justice, when you expect me to release the pains deserved, if only I can get enough that are not deserved? Did I ever threaten to punish the guilty man, or somebody 395 else, when my law should be broken? You ask more than is possible, when you ask me to smooth over even the everlasting distinctions of principle, and be satisfied with the punishment of innocence. I can only be revolted by the thought, and should be everlastingly by the deed.”

Again, it is not conceivable that Christ bears our sin, in the sense that the abhorrence of God to our sin is laid upon him, and expressed through, and by means of, his sufferings. How can God lay abhorrence upon what is not abhorrent? Is he going to abhor goodness, truth, beauty itself? And if Jesus, being all this, comes in as a volunteer into the place of transgressors, challenging upon himself the abhorrence due to them, will God falsify and mock all his own approving judgments and moral affinities, by acting an abhorrence which he must renounce every one of his perfections to feel? Perhaps it will be imagined that he only puts great pains on Christ, which we ourselves are to look upon as tokens of abhorrence to us. That would be very ingenious in us, but how are we going to take up such a thought? In the first place, God did not inflict those pains, but we ourselves. Are we then going to put Christ to death and take it up as a religious discovery, having a gospel in it, that God’s abhorrence to us is so far expressed by our very abominable deed of murder, that it need not be any more, by our punishment? We can easily enough imagine God’s abhorrence, in such a case, to the sin perpetrated, and the murderers by whom it is perpetrated, but the difficulty is to get either Christ 396 or his suffering into the same line; for the last thing any human soul can think of will be, that God’s abhorrence touches him any how, or looks out any where from his pains.

We come now, having dismissed these rather common misconceptions, to the positive matter of the question, or the positive answer to be given. And here let me indicate, beforehand, a certain point of fact that will probably distinguish any true answer; viz., that Christ, in bearing the sins of transgressors, simply fulfills principles of duty, or holiness, that are common to all moral beings, and does it as being obliged by those principles. If there is any fundamental truth in morals, it is that there is no superlative kind of merit or excellence; that as far as kind is concerned, the same kind is for all, and there is no other. Thus, if Christ has it incumbent on him, as a point of beneficence, or love, to bear the sins of transgressors, it will be incumbent on every moral being in the universe, ourselves included, to bear sins; only not perhaps in the same degree, or with the same effect. If he is to be a sacrifice for sin, it will be laid upon us to be, every man, a sacrifice and an offering in like manner, only not to accomplish all the same results. We are not then to look for some artificial, theologically contrived, never before heard of, kind of good, in the bearing of sins, but simply to look after what lies in the first principles of religious love and devotion, as related to the conduct of all. Having this intent in view I shall make out—


I. A general or inclusive answer to the question, and then, secondly, a threefold, particular answer, the points of which. are included under it. The general is this—that Christ bears the sins of the world in a certain representative sense, analogous to that in which the priests and the sacrifices of the former altar-service, bore the sins of the people worshiping. The phrase, “he shall bear his sin,” or “bear his iniquity,” means, it is true, when applied to the guilty person, that he shall be punished for his sin. But when it is applied, as it is many times, to the priests and sacrifices at the altar, we are not to conceive that the priests, or the altar victims, have the guilt actually put upon them—nothing could be more absurd—but we are to take the words in an accommodated, ritually formal sense, where the same thing is true representatively; the design being to let the people feel or believe, that their sins are being taken away, as if put over upon the priests, or upon the head of the victims. Not to multiply instances, we have the phrase “to bear sins” used in both senses in a single passage, (Numb. xviii, 22, 23)—“Neither must the children of Israel henceforth come near the tabernacle of the congregation, lest they bear sin [that is, their own sin] and die. But the Levites shall do the service of the tabernacle of the congregation, and they shall bear their iniquity.” No one will be so absurd as to imagine, that the iniquity of the people is here declared to be literally put on the priesthood. They are only to bear it representatively, coming so far in place of the people before God, as to conduct their sacrifice for them, and, 398 as God accepts the sacrifice, put them in the state, formally at least, of reconciliation. In a similarly representative sense, the prophet Ezekiel lies upon his left side three hundred and ninety days, “bearing,” as he says, “the iniquity of the house of Israel,” and upon his right side forty days “bearing the iniquity of the house of Judah;” where it is simply meant that the iniquity was made visible representatively in that sign. So when “all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins,” were put, as we read, upon the head of their scape-goat, and he was driven out into the desert, they knew not where, there was neither any sin upon the goat, nor any punishment. The reality of the whole matter stood in what was representatively signified; viz., the removal and clearance of their sin.

And here is the ready solution of all those expressions in the New Testament, which are brought over from the priesthood and sacrifices of the Old Testament, and used, with so great power, to represent the relation of Christ to the sins of the world. Thus he is declared to be “made sin for us,” just as the Levites were, in bearing the iniquities of the congregation. Thus also it is declared that he “was once offered to bear the sins of many.” The meaning is that he comes representatively in our place, undertaking, or taking on himself, the case of our sin, even as the priests at the altar did. Such forms of speech come to be natural, as it were, to the Jewish mind, under the uses of their ritual, and pass into new applications of a different shade. Thus Paul 399 speaks of Christ “being made a curse for us.” Regarding Christ as having come into our state of corporate evil, under the curse, and borne the bitterness of it, and at so great expense delivered us from it, he takes up the representative figure of the altar-service, and shows him, in that manner, bearing the curse for us. He does not mean that Christ was literally and legally substituted, in the matter of our punishment, but that he was substituted, as the priests were, in bearing the sins of the people, and with a like result. Thus also Peter says, in the fervor of his obligation to Christ—“Who his own self bare our sins, in his own body on the tree;” as if our very sins were personally chastised, or punished, in the pains of his cross; and yet he does not say it, but turns the sentence, in what follows, in a way to show that he means no such thing—“that we being dead to sin, might live unto righteousness; by whose stripes ye were healed.” After all he is only showing, at what expense, Christ takes us away from our sin, and makes us “live unto righteousness.” And though he speaks of “stripes,” a penal word, he does not say “by whose stripes God’s justice was satisfied,” but, “by whose stripes ye were healed.”

Christ then bears our sin, we answer inclusively and generally, in the sense that he has come representatively into our place and got such power in us by his sacrifice, as to take it wholly away.

Pause here now a moment at the threshhold, and raise the question, whether we, as human beings, can have any thing in common with him, in such a sacrifice? 400 Of course we can not do the same things; for we have not the same grade of character and power over human sentiment, nor the same undertaking for the world upon us. We are sinners ourselves, wanting, for outfit in duty, just that taking away of sin and renewing in good, which are to be the fruit of his sacrifice. It is not to be expected, therefore, that we shall come into any such answering for sin, as to have the representative figures of the altar applied to us; unless it be in ways more restricted and partial. We shall only follow him, as our very much abused faculty, and humbler key of being, allow us to follow.

Still it is remarkable how many of the scripture terms of sacrifice and priestly intervention are applied to Christian disciples, and how constantly they are called to maintain precisely the way of the cross. Nothing, in fact, is farther off from the New Testament, than to conceive that Christ is in a superlative kind of virtue, inappropriate, or impossible, to mortals.

Thus we are called to be sacrifices and priests of sacrifice. “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, [that is, in Jesus Christ,] that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, [in the same manner,] holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service,” [the dictate of your moral nature as it was of his.] The phrase “acceptable to God,” you will also observe, is a sacrificial phrase, bearing an allusion to God’s acceptance of the sin offerings. And, in this sense, it occurs again—“Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, 401 acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.” The disciples are taken often as being thus a priesthood, all, with their Master—“Kings and priests unto God,” “entering into the holiest with boldness;” entering in thither also to act the part of intercessors—to anoint and raise up the sick, as James represents; to obtain forgiveness of sins for the brethren that have committed sin; to convert sinning brethren from the error of their ways, in such a sense as to be in fact their human saviours—“saving their souls from death and hiding the multitude of their sins.” And this word hiding it should also be observed is a word of sacrificial atonement; for to atone is literally to cover, that is, to hide; put away, forever, make as naught. Not that we are to do these things in our own right, and by our own power, as Christ did, but, as in the language just now cited, “by Jesus Christ.” The conception is that our life is to be so far in the analogy of his, and moved by his inspirations, that the same words, priest, sacrifice, intercession, saving of souls, converting sinners, hiding, or covering sins; will be fitly applied to us-that is, in senses modified by our human capacities and conditions.

Having sketched this general outline of what is to be understood by the bearing of sins, we now proceed—

II. To fill up the outline by a more particular statement of the subject matter included under it. Christ, we have seen, bears the sins of the world representatively, in a figure, much as the priesthood, or the scapegoat, bore them, only procuring an absolution for them 402 as much more real and spiritual, as the heavenly things themselves are more quickening and substantial in him, than their shadows in the forms of the altar. This for the general statement; which includes, we shall find, when we look into the subject matter of his life more closely, three particular modes, or distinctly and rationally conceived methods, of bearing sin by him, in his mission as a Redeemer.

1. He bears the sin of the world, by that assumption which his love must needs make of it. Love puts every being, from the eternal God downward, into the case of all sufferers, wrong-doers, and enemies, to assume their evils, and be concerned for them. Being love, it assumes their loss, danger, present suffering, suffering to be; all their want, sorrow, shame, and disorder; and goes into their case to restore and save. As a father, who has a dear son straying from honor and virtue, assumes that son to be an inevitable burden on his love, and bears him, sin and all, as a heavy load upon his feeling, striving after him in many tears, and prayers, and weary contrivings, and it may be under great personal abuse, that he may regain him to a better life, just so God assumes in Christ all transgressors and enemies, and all their sin, and all their coming woes, and bears them on his paternal feeling, through great waves of living conflict and dying passion—“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” The assumption is such that we may even look upon it and speak of it, as a kind of substitution. 403 Hence the strongly substitutional language employed concerning it. But there is no room for mistaking the meaning of such language. The precise nature of the assumption, or substitution, is given when the evangelist says of Christ’s healing works—“That it might be fulfilled that was spoken by. Esaias the prophet, himself took our infirmities, and bare our sicknesses.” It does not mean that Christ literally took into his body, and bore, himself, all the fevers, pains, lamenesses, blindnesses, leprosies he healed, but simply that he took them upon his sympathy, bore them as a burden upon his compassionate love. In that sense, exactly, he assumed and bore the sins of the world; not that he became the sinner and suffered the due punishment himself, but that he took them on his love, and put himself by mighty throes of feeling, and sacrifice, and mortal passion, to the working out of their deliverance. And these were the throes in which we find him often struggling; declaring now that his soul is troubled, heaving now, in prostrate weakness, and bloody sweat, on the ground. In these throes he died, saying, “It is finished “—viz., the bearing of sins that he had undertaken to bear. The sins were never his, the deserved pains never touched him as being deserved, but they were upon his feeling in so heavy a burden as to make him sigh, “my soul is exceeding sorrowful.” And just because the world in sin took hold of his feeling in this manner, was he able, in turn, to get hold of the feeling of the world, and become its true deliverer and Saviour. In this fact lay bosomed the everlasting gospel.


Let me not be understood now, in transferring this analogy, to say, or suggest, that Christ came into such a life of sympathy and death of passion, just to give us an example which we are to copy. Nothing could be more impotent, or farther from the truth. Giving and copying examples is too tame a matter to be conceived as making out a gospel. No, Christ took our sin upon him in this manner and bore it as the burden of his mission, just because it was in his love to do it; and that same love, in any being, of any world, in us just struggling up out of our lowness and bondage, will put us, in our human grade, and according to the measure of our love, on making the same kind of assumption. We shall take the child of sin, or sorrow, our friend, our enemy, any. one, every one we see to be in evil, on our feeling, and make him a charge upon our sacrifices and prayers. Paul knew exactly what this meant when he said—“Bear ye one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ;”—that is, the eternal love-law, or standard of obligation, that he himself fulfilled. Paul had the meaning too, the very Gethsemane of it, in his own heart, when he cried, under his burden—“I have great heaviness, and continual sorrow in my heart. For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen, according to the flesh.” And the same we find recurring, in one form or another, in all the apostles, all the brethren. When they hear the Master lay it on them to minister—“Even as the Son of Man came, not to be ministered unto, but to minister and to give his life a ransom for many”—they take the sense 405 of it; for, having his love in them, they are not afraid to find a cross of sacrifice in the love, just the cross that he called them to bear as followers. Thus also it is that he institutes a communion for them, and calls them to show forth his death; by which he means, not that they are to simply remember his death, or make mention of it, but that they are to show the love that can bear sins with him, and be a sacrifice even up to that stern limit.

O, what a calling is this, my brethren, the bearing of sins, with Christ. Of course you have not the same things to do that he had, or the same. capacity to do them; you have not even the same things to do, one as another; but if his love has really been. quickened in you, the fact will be known by the burdens that have come upon your heart; covetousness, world-greediness, self-indulgence, prejudices, resentments, feelings wounded by injury—none of these will hold you: but there will be a most dear love going forth in you, not to your friends only, but even more consciously to your enemies, and God’s enemies. There will be times when you seem to be well nigh crushed, by the concern you feel and the burdens you bear. Is it so with you? Is it here that you sometimes find even your joy—the same which Christ himself had and bequeathed to you? Have you found, as every mother, for example, has, and every Christian may, that love-pains are the deepest attainable joys; tragic exaltations of a consciously great feeling that, in bearing enemies and sins, challenges eternal affinity with Christ and with God?

2. It is another and equally true conception of the 406 bearing of sins by Christ, that he is incarnated into the state of sin, including all the corporate woes of penalty, or natural retribution, under it—woes that infest the world, the body, and the social and political departments of human affairs. These disorders and mischiefs comprehend what is called, in scripture, “the curse;” for the curse is just that state of retributive disorder, and disjunction, that follows, under natural laws, the outbreak of sin The virus of disease, possibly of all disease, is generated under and by these laws. Natural causes are beneficent henceforth, only in the qualified sense, that they are attacking sin with due mixtures of pain, as well as with favors undeserved. Dreadful superstitions cloud the general understanding. Truth is obscured. Passion is made coarse and violent. Envies, ambitions, grudges, hatreds, are loosened, and bloody wrongs are instigated everywhere by them. Oppressions, persecutions, rebellions, wars, roll across the nations, and turn the world’s history into a kind of Alcedama. This now is the curse, the corporate woe of the world, and when Christ comes down into the world to be incarnate in it, and do his work of love, he enters himself into its corporate evils, and takes them just as they are; even as a man, plunging into the sea, would take the waves and the monsters coursing in it as they are. All which is described by an apostle, when he says, that Christ “was made a curse for us.” Nor, when he adds, “for it is written, cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree,” does he mean to say that Christ is made a curse for us only in the sense that he is 407 crucified, or at the particular point of his crucifixion; he merely drops in this allusion, touching that particular point, taken as a good type of all that he does and suffers in the world; for he meets the corporate woe and retribution of the world at every step. His body, as being born of the flesh, has the mortal maladies and temptations of the curse working subtly in it. When there is no room at the inn but only in the manger, that is the corporate mischief and curse of society, where the great rule down the humble, and respect goes only by appearances. The jealousy of Herod is the curse, before which he flies into Egypt. The bigotry of the priests was the curse. The slowness of his friends, the denial by one, the betrayal by another, the flight of all, was the curse. The chief priests and the rabbis, and the council, and Pilate, and Herod, all combined against him, only represent the corporate wrath, and wrong, and curse, of the world. Incarnated thus into the curse, he had the living contact of it at every breath. The waves of God’s retribution dashed against him all the way, as he waded through on his course. Innocent he was, but had none of the rights, or proper fortunes of innocence. Not that any thing befell him as punishment, and yet he was scorching, every hour, under the great world’s corporate evils; those which God’s retributions had kindled for the chastisement of its sin. And why is he here, for what is he bearing thus the sin of the world? Not that he may suffer, not that he may idly brave so much of suffering—of what possible use were this?—no, but he is here because he has an errand 408 that brought him, or required him to come. His object is to gain the human heart; and, to do it, he must open the heart of God; and to do that, he must not come flying over the world, but must be incarnated into it, put upon the same human footing in his human life, that we are—all this to make God’s feeling intelligible, or what is the same, to open God’s sympathies to us, and open our sympathies to God; thus to beget us anew in God’s likeness. If he had come to be an exceptional man, whom the waves of the world’s corporate evils could not touch, or if he had come as a man of brass, not to feel their touch, he were in fact nothing to us. But now that we have him struggling in the waves with us, touched with all our infirmities, and bearing, in deep sympathy, all our human evils, O, how tenderly do we cling to him and what strength do we get from his power and patience in our hearts!

Now, my friends, it would seem, at first view, to be very wide of all possibility, that we should be called to any such bearing of sin as this. Are we going to be incarnated like our divine Master? Even so! Dropping only the form of the word, the coming into flesh, it is no inconsiderable part of our dignity and God-likeness in sacrifice, that we are able to go directly down into the corporate evils of men, for their good!—into some house, for example, or village, or city, where a dreadful pestilence rages, to minister to their sick ones and comfort their dying; into the disgusts of low and filthy society, where vice rages, rescuing the victims and their children; into works of reformation, or 409 maintenances of truth, that are unpopular, just because society has lost the truth. Christ bids you make a feast and call the lame, the halt, and the blind, passing, for the time, into their range of sympathy—what is that but a kind of incarnation, like that which brought him down out of heaven’s orders of glory, into the lame and halting sorrows of our human apostasy. When, too, you go out, in God’s love, into scenes of dissipation, or of splendid profligacy, it is an almost literal incarnation—going into the flesh to be tempted as Christ was. Perhaps you are just now in the question, whether you shall forsake the refinements and comforts of a Christian home, and go down as a missionary, for all your future life, into the level of a barbarous and idolatrous people, where your. motives will not, for many long years, be even so much as conceived, where your sympathies will be repelled, your operations looked on with jealousy, your beginnings crushed by violence, and many a sad long night of, tears and groanings, witness your Gethsemane? Will you go, or will you not? What is it, in fact, but the question, whether you can be incarnated with your Master, under a little different version of the word? Almost half our duties come to us in this shape, raising the question, whether we can take the corporate evils of some condition that is unpopular, distasteful, unappreciative, hostile, or without dignity? In these things it is one of our greatest privileges to follow, and know that we follow, our Master—are we ready?

3. Christ bears the sin of the world, in the sense that he bears, consentingly, the direct attacks of wrong, or 410 sin, upon his person; doing it, of course, in but a few instances, such as may have been included in his comparatively short life, but showing, in those few instances, how all the human wrongs are related to his feeling, or would be if he suffered them all. And here again it is that he gets an amazing power, as a redeemer, over the sins of the world. He did not come into the world to suffer these wrongs as an end, or to brave them by an ostentation of patience, as possibly some may understand, when they hear him commanding one who is smitten on one cheek to turn the other. He is not counseling, in such words, a defiant, but only a total non-resistance. Coming into the world thus as the incarnate Word of God, God manifest in the flesh, he bears the wrong-doing of sin, not defiantly, but as feeling after the sin; letting it see what wrong it has in its own nature to do, when the Son of God comes to it ministering love and forgiveness. And what a spectacle is this to look upon! the Eternal King coming in love to win transgression back—mocked in his doctrine, hated for his miracles, insulted, struck, spit upon, crucified! And the more strangely impressive is the spectacle, that the sufferer is dumb, makes no protestation of his rights, parries no accusation, answers none. Pilate himself is “afraid” before such dignity. All that he will answer is, that he is come into the world “to bear witness to the truth.” He does not say that he is here to bear the worst they can do upon him, nor that he is here to suffer at all as an end, but that his end is everlasting truth. That accordingly which so visibly shook the courage of 411 Pilate, at the trial, fell with as heavy a shock, on all sin, everywhere, afterwards. When the sin found such a being, even the incarnate Word of the Father, taking its blows, in such patience, and dying under the blows, how dreadful the recoil of feeling it suffered! How wild, and weak, and low, was it made to appear in its own sight. Thus it was that, in his bearing of sin upon his cross, Christ broke it down forever. Or, if it better please, thus it was that sin broke itself across the silence of Jesus, and the wood, and the nails, of his cross. And thus it was that the just now angry multitudes, “all the people that came together to see that sight, beholding the things that were done, smote their breasts and returned.” All sin was broken, as it were, in that sight; it was the sight of Lucifer falling from heaven, even as he had testified in vision before.

And this kind also is for us, my brethren. Here we also are to take the cross and follow, as our Master bade us. Many persons appear to suppose, that we are required to submit ourselves to wrong as a kind of tax, or tariff, levied upon us, without any particular end. They take it as a mere blind appointment, and think it must be so accepted. Far from that as possible! On the contrary it is to be evil or wrong encountered in a work of sacrifice, encountered by one who is after the ends of love, even as Christ was. That death of his was great in power, not because he bore it, but because he was in the work of God’s love, and bore it on his way, unable to be diverted from his end by that or any other death. In just that manner and degree, it was in 412 his heart to bear sin. So if wrongs are done to you, and the same love is in you, the sin will have a great discovery to make in your patience, of its own cruelty and weakness. If you do but suffer well, nobody can long triumph over you, or live before you unforgiven. Do you then remember, that, a great part of your Christian power and privilege is here, in the bearing of sin with your Master. Perhaps you talk down your enemies, perhaps you mix hot resentments with your words, perhaps you break the silence of Christ first, and then break every thing else in his example. Come back then if it be so, and read, and settle into your memory, and transcribe on your heart, that one sentence of the apostle concerning charity—“Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.” There you have the power of Jesus himself, and it is for you!

Having reached this point I see no reason why the subject should be farther protracted. There is nothing, in fact, to add, even for persuasion’s sake. The gospel, as we have here seen it, is complete in itself, asking, and in fact, permitting, no help from its advocate.

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