Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 37


Christ’s Estimate of Sin

Preached January 9, 1853

  Frederick W. Robertson

"The Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.” - Luke 19:10


These words occur in the history which tells of the recovery of Zaccheus from a life of worldliness to the life of God. Zaccheus was a publican; and the publicans were outcasts among the Jews, because, having accepted the office under the Roman government of collecting the taxes imposed by Rome upon their brethren, they were regarded as traitors to the cause of Israel. Reckoned a degraded class, they became degraded. It is hard for any man to live above the moral standard acknowledged by his own class; and the moral standard of the publican was as low as possible. The first step downward is to sink in the estimation of others-the next and fatal step is to sink in a man’s own estimation. The value of character is that it pledges men to be what they are taken for. It is a fearful thing to have no character to support-nothing to fall back upon-nothing to keep a man up to himself. Now the publicans had no character.

Into the house of one of these outcasts the Son of Man had entered. It was quite certain that such an act would be commented upon severely by people who called themselves religious: it would seem to them scandalous, an outrage upon decency, a defiance to every rule of respectability and decorum. No pious Israelite would be seen holding equal intercourse with a publican. In anticipation of such remarks, before there was time perhaps to make them, Jesus spoke these words: “The Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.” They exhibit the peculiar aspect in which the Redeemer contemplated sin.

There are two ways of looking at sin. One is the severe view: it makes no allowance for frailty-it will not hear of temptation, nor distinguish between circumstances. Men who judge in this way shut their eyes to all but two objects-a plain law, and a transgression of that law. There is no more to be said: let the law take its course. Now if this be the right view of sin, there is abundance of room left for admiring what is good, and honorable, and upright: there is positively no room provided for restoration. Happy if you have done well; but if ill, then nothing is before you but judgment and fiery indignation.

The other view is one of laxity and false liberalism. When such men speak, prepare yourself to hear liberal judgments and lenient ones: a great deal about human weakness, error in judgment, mistakes, an unfortunate constitution, on which the chief blame of sin is to rest-a good heart. All well if we wanted, in this mysterious struggle of a life, only consolation. But we want far beyond comfort-goodness; and to be merely made easy when we have done wrong will not help us to that!

Distinct from both of these was Christ’s view of guilt. His standard of right was high-higher than ever man had placed it before. Not moral excellence, but heavenly, He demanded. “Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Read the Sermon on the Mount. It tells of a purity as of snow resting on an Alpine pinnacle, white in the blue holiness of heaven; and yet also, He the All-pure had tenderness for what was not pure. He who stood in divine uprightness that never faltered, felt compassion for the ruined, and infinite gentleness for human fall. Broken, disappointed, doubting hearts, in dismay and bewilderment, never looked in vain to Him. Very strange, if we stop to think of it, instead of repeating it as a matter of course. For generally human goodness repels from it evil men: they shun the society and presence of men reputed good, as owls fly from light. But here was purity attracting evil; that was the wonder. Harlots and wretches steeped in infamy gathered round Him. No wonder the purblind Pharisees thought there must be something in Him like such sinners which drew them so. Like draws to like. If He chose their society before that of the Pharisee, was it not because of some congeniality in evil? But they did crowd His steps, and that because they saw a hope opened out in a hopeless world for fallen spirits and broken hearts, ay, and seared hearts. The Son of Man was forever standing among the lost and His ever predominant feelings were sadness for the evil in human nature, hope for the divine good in it, and the divine image never worn out wholly.

I perceive in this description three peculiarities, distinguishing Christ from ordinary men.


I. A peculiarity in the constitution of the Redeemer’s moral nature.

II. A peculiarity in the objects of His solicitude.

III. A peculiarity in His way of treating guilt.


I. In His moral constitution. Manifested in that peculiar title which he assumed-The Son of Man. Let us see what that implies.

1. It implies fairly His divine origin: for it is an emphatic expression, and, as we may so say, an unnatural one: Imagine an apostle, St. Paul or St. John, insisting upon it perpetually that he himself was human. It would almost provoke a smile to hear either of them averring and affirming, I am a son of man: it would be unnatural, the affectation of condescension would be intolerable. Therefore, when we hear these words from Christ, we are compelled to think of them as contrasted with a higher nature. None could without presumption remind men that He was their brother and a Son of Man, except One who was also something higher, even the Son of God.

2. It implies the catholicity of His brotherhood.

Nothing in the judgment of historians stands out so sharply distinct as race-national character: nothing is more ineffaceable. The Hebrew was marked from all mankind. The Roman was perfectly distinct from the Grecian character; as markedly different as the rough English truthfulness is from Celtic brilliancy of talent. Now these peculiar nationalities are seldom combined. You rarely find the stern, old Jewish sense of holiness going together with the Athenian sensitiveness of what is beautiful. Not often do you find together severe truth and refined tenderness. Brilliancy seems opposed to perseverance. Exquisiteness of taste commonly goes along with a certain amount of untruthfulness. By humanity, as a whole, we mean the aggregate of all these separate excellences. Only in two places are they all found together-in the universal human race; and in Jesus Christ. He having, as it were, a whole humanity in Himself, combines them all.

Now this is the universality of the nature of Jesus Christ. There was in Him no national peculiarity or individual idiosyncrasy. He was not the Son of the Jew, nor the Son of the carpenter; nor the offspring of the modes of living and thinking of that particular century. He was the Son of Man. Once in the world’s history was born a MAN. Once in the roll of ages, out of innumerable failures, from the stock of human nature, one bud developed itself into a faultless flower. One perfect specimen of humanity has God exhibited on earth.

The best and most catholic of Englishmen has his prejudices. All the world over, our greatest writer would be recognized as having the English cast of thought. The pattern Jew would seem Jewish everywhere but in Judea. Take Abraham, St. John, St. Paul, place them where you will, in China or in Peru, they are Hebrews: they could not command all sympathies: their life could not be imitable except in part. They are foreigners in every land, and out of place in every country but their own. But Christ is the King of men, and “draws all men,” because all character is in Him, separate from nationalities and limitations. As if the lifeblood of every nation were in His veins, and that which is best and truest in every man, and that which is tenderest, and gentlest, and purest in every woman, were in His character. He is emphatically the Son of Man.

Out of this arose two powers of His sacred humanity-the universality of His sympathies, and their intense particular personality.

The universality of His sympathies: for, compare Him with any one of the sacred characters of Scripture. You know how intensely national they were in their sympathies, priests, prophets, and apostles: for example, the apostles “marvelled that He spake with a woman of Samaria:”-just before His resurrection, their largest charity had not reached beyond this, “Lord, wilt thou at this time restore the kingdom unto Israel?” Or, to come down to modern times, when His spirit has been moulding men’s ways of thought for many ages:-now, when we talk of our philanthropy and catholic liberality, here in Christian England, we have scarcely any fellow-feeling, true and genuine, with other nations, other churches, other parties, than our own: we care nothing for Italian or Hungarian struggles; we think of Romanists as the Jew thought of Gentiles; we speak of German Protestants in the same proud, wicked, self-sufficient way in which the Jew spoke of Samaritans.

Unless we bring such matters home, and away from vague generalities, and consider what we and all men are, or rather are not, we can not comprehend with due wonder the mighty sympathies of the heart of Christ. None of the miserable antipathies that fence us from all the world, bounded the outgoings of that love, broad and deep and wide as the heart of God. Wherever the mysterious pulse of human life was beating, wherever aught human was in struggle, there to Him was a thing not common or unclean, but cleansed by God and sacred. Compare the daily, almost indispensable language of our life with His spirit. “Common people?”-Point us out the passage where He called any people that God His Father made, common? “Lower orders?”-Tell us when and where He, whose home was the workshop of the carpenter, authorized you or me to know any man after the flesh as low or high? To Him who called Himself the Son of Man, the link was manhood. And that he could discern even when it was marred. Even in outcasts His eye could recognize the sanctities of a nature human still. Even in the harlot “one of Eve’s family:”-a “son of Abraham” even in Zaccheus.

Once more, out of that universal, catholic nature rose another power-the power of intense, particular, personal affections. He was the Brother and Saviour of the human race; but this because He was the Brother and Saviour of every separate man in it.

Now it is very easy to feel great affection for a country as a whole; to have, for instance, great sympathies for Poland, or Ireland, or America, and yet not care a whit for any single man in Poland, and to have strong antipathies to every single individual American. Easy to be a warm lover of England, and yet not love one living Englishman. Easy to set a great value on a flock of sheep, and yet have no particular care for any one sheep or lamb. If it were killed, another of the same species might replace it. Easy to have fine, large, liberal views about the working classes, or the emancipation of the negroes, and yet never have done a loving act to one.Easy to be a great philanthropist, and yet have no strong friendships, no deep personal attachments.

For the idea of an universal manlike sympathy was not new when Christ was born. The reality was new. But before this, in the Roman theatre, deafening applause was called forth by this sentence, “ I am a man-nothing that can affect man is indifferent to me.” A fine sentiment-that was all. Every pretense of realizing that sentiment, except one, has been a failure. One and but One has succeeded in loving man : and that by loving men. No sublime high-sounding language in His lips about “educating the masses,” or “elevating the people.” The charlatanry of our modern sentiment had not appeared then: it is but the parody of His love.

What was His mode of sympathy with men? He did not sit down to philosophize about the progress of the species, or dream about a millennium. He gathered round Him twelve men. He formed one friendship, special, concentrated, deep. He did not give himself out as the leader of the publican’s cause, or the champion of the rights of the dangerous classes; but He associated with Himself Matthew, a publican called from the detested receipt of custom. He went into the house of Zaccheus, and treated him like a fellow-creature-a brother, and a son of Abraham. His catholicity or philanthropy was not an abstraction, but an aggregate of personal attachments.


II. Peculiarity in the objects of Christ’s solicitude.

He had come to seek and to save the “lost.” The world is lost, and Christ came to save the world. But by the lost in this place He does not mean the world; He means a special class, lost in a more than common sense, as sheep are lost which have strayed from the flock, and wandered far beyond all their fellows scattered in the wilderness.

Some men are lost by the force of their own passions, as Balaam was by love of gold: as Saul was by self-will, ending in jealousy, and pride darkened into madness: as Haman was by envy indulged and brooded on: as the harlots were, through feelings pure and high at first, inverted and perverted; as Judas was by secret dishonesty, undetected in its first beginnings, the worst misfortune that can befall a tendency to a false life. And others are lost by the entanglement of outward circumstances, which make escape, humanly speaking, impossible. Such were the publicans, men forced, like executioners, into degradation. An honest publican, or a holy executioner, would be miracles to marvel at. And some are lost by the laws of society, which while defending society have no mercy for its outcasts, and forbid their return, fallen once, forever.

Society has power to bind on earth; and what it binds is bound upon the soul indeed. For a man or woman who has lost self-respect is lost indeed.

And oh! the untold world of agony contained in that expression--“a lost soul!” agony exactly in proportion to the nobleness of original powers. For it is a strange and mournful truth, that the qualities which enable men to shine are exactly those which minister to the worst ruin. God’s highest gifts-talent, beauty, feeling, imagination, power: they carry with them the possibility of the highest heaven and the lowest hell. Be sure that it is by that which is highest in you that you may be lost. It is the awful warning, and not the excuse of evil, that the light which leads astray is light from heaven. The shallow fishing-boat glides safely over the reefs where the noble bark strands: it is the very might and majesty of her career that bury the sharp rock deeper in her bosom. There are thousands who are not lost (like the respectable Pharisees), because they bad no impetuous impulses, no passion, no strong enthusiasm, by the perversion of which they could be lost.

Now this will explain to us what there was in these lost ones which left a hope for their salvation, and which Jesus saw in them to seek and save. Outwardly men saw a crust of black scowling impenitence. Reprobates they called them. Below that outward crust ran a hot lava-stream of anguish: What was that? The coward fear of hell? Nay, hardened men defy hell. The anguish of the lost ones of this world is not fear of punishment. It was, and is, the misery of having quenched a light brighter than the sun: the intolerable sense of being sunk: the remorse of knowing that they were not, what they might have been. And He saw that: He knew that it was the germ of life which God’s spirit could develop into salvation.

It was His work and His desire to save such, and in this world a new and strange solicitude it was, for the world had seen before nothing like it.

Not half a century ago a great man was seen stooping and working in a charnel-house of bones. Uncouth, nameless fragments lay around him, which the workmen had dug up and thrown aside as rubbish. They belonged to some farback age, and no man knew what they were or whence. Few men cared. The world was merry at the sight of a philosopher groping among mouldy bones. But when that creative mind, reverently discerning the frontal types of living being in diverse shapes, brought together those strange fragments, bone to bone, and rib to claw, and tooth to its own corresponding vertebrae, recombining the wondrous forms of past ages, and presenting each to the astonished world as it moved and lived a hundred thousand ages back, then men began to perceive that a new science had begun on earth.

And such was the work of Christ. They saw Him at work among the fragments and mouldering wreck of our humanity, and sneered. But He took the dry bones such as Ezekiel saw in vision, which no man thought could live, and He breathed into them the breath of life. He took the scattered fragments of our ruined nature, interpreted their meaning., showed the original intent of those powers, which were now destructive only, drew out from publicans and sinners yearnings which were incomprehensible, and feelings which were misunderstood, vindicated the beauty of the original intention, showed the Divine Order below the chaos, exhibited to the world once more a human soul in the form in which God had made it, saying to the dry bones “Live!”

Only what in the great foreigner was a taste, in Christ was love. In the one the gratification of an enlightened curiosity: in the other the gratification of a sublime affection. In the philosopher it was a longing to restore and reproduce the past. In Christ a hope for the future-“to seek and to save that which was lost.”


III, A peculiarity in His mode of treatment.

How were these lost ones to be restored? The human plans are reducible to three. Governments have tried chastisement for the reclamation of offenders. For ages that was the only expedient known either to Church or State. Time has written upon it failure. I do not say that penal severity is not needful. Perhaps it is, for protection, and for the salutary expression of indignation against certain forms of evil. But as a system of reclamation it has failed. Did the rack ever reclaim in heart one heretic? Did the scaffold ever soften one felon? One universal fact of history replies: where the penal code was most sanguinary, and when punishments were most numerous, crime was most abundant.

Again, society has tried exclusion for life. I do not pretend to say that it may not be needful. It may be necessary to protect your social purity by banishing offenders of a certain sort forever. I only say for recovery it is a failure. Whoever knew one case where the ban of exclusion was hopeless, and the shame of that exclusion reformed? Did we ever hear of a fallen creature made moral by despair? Name, if you can, the publican or the harlot in any age brought back to goodness by a Pharisee, or by the system of a Pharisee.

And once more, some governors have tried the system of indiscriminate lenity: they forgave great criminals, trusting all the future to gratitude: they passed over great sins, they sent away the ringleaders of rebellion with honors heaped upon them: they thought this was the Gospel: they expected dramatic emotion to work wonders. How far this miserable system has succeeded, let those tell us who have studied the history of our South African colonies for the last twenty years. We were tired of cruelty-we tried sentiment-we trusted to feeling. Feeling failed: we only made hypocrites, and encouraged rebellion by impunity. Inexorable severity, rigorous banishment, indiscriminate and mere forgivingness-all are failures.

In Christ’s treatment of guilt we find three peculiarities: Sympathy, holiness, firmness.

1. By human sympathy. In the treatment of Zaccheus this was almost all We read of almost nothing else as the instrument of that wonderful reclamation. One thing only, Christ went to his house self-invited. But that one was every thing. Consider it-Zaccheus was, if he were like other publicans, a hard and hardened man. He felt people shrink from him in the streets. He lay under an imputation: and we know how that feeling of being universally suspected and misinterpreted makes a man bitter, sarcastic, and defiant. And so the outcast would go home, look at his gold, rejoice in the revenge he could take by false accusations felt a pride in knowing that they might hate, but could not help fearing him: scorned the world and shut up his heart against it.

At last, one whom all men thronged to see, and all men honored, or seemed to honor, came to him, offered to go home and sup with him. For the first time for many years Zaccheus felt that he was not despised, and the floodgates of that avaricious, shut heart were opened in a tide of love and generosity. “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.” He was reclaimed to human feeling, by being taught that he was a man still; recognized and treated like a man. A Son of Man had come to “seek “ him-the lost.

2. By the exhibition of Divine holiness.

The holiness of Christ differed from all earthly, common, vulgar holiness. Wherever it was, it elicited a sense of sinfulness and imperfection. Just as the purest cut crystal of the rock looks dim beside the diamond, so the best men felt a sense of guilt growing distinct upon their souls. When the Anointed of God came near, “ Depart from me,” said the bravest and truest of them all, “for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”

But at the same time the holiness of Christ did not awe men away from Him, nor repel them. It inspired them with hope. It was not that vulgar unapproachable sanctity which makes men awkward in its presence, and stands aloof. Its peculiar characteristic was that it made men enamored of goodness. It “drew all men unto Him.” This is the difference between greatness that is first-rate and greatness which is second-rate-between heavenly and earthly goodness. The second-rate and the earthly draws admiration on itself. You say, “how great an act-how good a man!” The first-rate and the heavenly imparts itself-inspires a spirit. You feel a kindred something in you that rises up to meet it, and draws you out of yourself, making you better than you were before, and opening out the infinite possibilities of your life and soul.

And such pre-eminently was the holiness of Christ. Had some earthly great or good one come to Zaccheus’s house, a prince or a nobleman, his feeling would have been, What condescension is there! But when He came whose every word and act had in it life and power, no such barren reflection was the result: but instead, the beauty of holiness had become a power within him, and a longing for self-consecration. “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor: and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.”

By Divine sympathy, and by the Divine Image exhibited in the speaking act of Christ, the lost was sought and saved. He was saved, as alone all fallen men can be saved. “Beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, he was changed into the same image.” And this is the very essence of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We are redeemed by the life of God without us, manifested in the person of Christ, kindling into flame the life of God that is within us. Without Him we can do nothing. Without Him the warmth that was in Zaccheus’s heart would have smouldered uselessly away. Through Him it became life and light, and the lost was saved.