Christian Love

or the Influence of Religion upon Temper

By John Angell James, 1828


Our Lord Jesus Christ ceased not, during his continuance on earth, to prove, by his miracles—the truth of his claims as the Son of God; and constantly appealed to them in his controversy with the Jews, as the reasons and the grounds of faith in his teachings. By him the power of working miracles was conferred on his apostles, who in the exercise of this extraordinary gift, cast out demons, and "healed all manner of sickness, and all manner of disease." Christ also assured them, that under the dispensation of the Spirit, which was to commence after his decease, their miraculous powers should be so much enlarged and multiplied, as to exceed those which had been exercised by himself.

This took place on the day of Pentecost, when the ability to speak other languages, without previous study, was conferred upon them. The apostles, as the ambassadors and messengers of their risen Lord, were authorized and enabled to invest others with the high distinction; for to confer the power of working miracles, was a prerogative confined to the apostolic office. This is evident from many parts of the New Testament. But while apostles only could communicate this power, anyone, not excepting the most obscure and illiterate member of the churches, could receive it—as it was not confined to church officers. It is probable that these gifts were sometimes distributed among all the original members of a church. But as the church increased, they were confined to a more limited number, and granted only to such as were more eminent among the brethren, until at length they were probably restricted to the elders; thus being as gradually withdrawn from the church as they had been communicated.

It is not necessary that we should here explain the nature, and trace the distinction of these endowments—a task which has been acknowledged by all expositors to be difficult, and which is thought by some to be impossible. They constituted the light which fell from heaven upon the church, and to which she appealed as the proofs of her divine origin.

For the possession and exercise of miraculous gifts, the church at Corinth was eminently distinguished. This is evident from the testimony of Paul—"I can never stop thanking God for all the generous gifts he has given you, now that you belong to Christ Jesus. He has enriched your church with the gifts of eloquence and every kind of knowledge." 1 Cor. 1:4-5. And in another place he asks them—"How were you inferior to other churches?" It is indeed both a humiliating and an admonitory consideration, that the church which, of all those planted by the apostles, was the most distinguished for its gifts, should have been the least eminent for its graces, as was the case with the Christian church at Corinth. What a scandalous abuse and profanation of the Lord's supper had crept in! What a schismatical spirit prevailed! What a connivance at sin existed! What resistance to apostolic authority was set up!

To account for this, it should be recollected that the possession of miraculous gifts by no means implied the existence and influence of sanctifying grace! Those extraordinary powers were entirely distinct from the qualities which are essential to the character of a real Christian. They are powers conferred not at all, or in a very subordinate degree, for the benefit of the individual himself—but were distributed, according to the sovereignty of the divine will—for the edification of believers, and the conviction of unbelievers. Hence says the apostle—"So you see that speaking in tongues is a sign, not for believers, but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is for the benefit of believers, not unbelievers." 1 Cor. 14:22.

Our Lord, also, has informed us that miraculous endowments were not necessarily connected with, but were often disconnected from, personal piety. "Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'" Matthew 7:22-23. Paul supposes the same thing in the commencement of this chapter, where he says—"If I could speak in any language in heaven or on earth but didn't love others, I would only be making meaningless noise like a loud gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I knew all the mysteries of the future and knew everything about everything, but didn't love others, what good would I be? And if I had the gift of faith so that I could speak to a mountain and make it move, without love I would be no good to anybody. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn't love others, I would be of no value whatsoever." 1 Cor. 13:1-3. This hypothetical mode of speech certainly implies that gifts and grace are not necessarily connected.

This is a very solemn consideration, and, by showing how far self-deception may be carried, ought to be felt as a solemn admonition to all professing Christians—to be very careful and diligent in the great business of self-examination.

It is evident, both from the nature of things, and from the reasoning of the apostle, that some of the miraculous powers were more admired, and therefore more popular, than others. The gift of tongues, as is plain from the reasoning in the fourteenth chapter, appears to have been most coveted, because eloquence was so much esteemed by the Greeks—to reason and orate in public, as a talent, was much admired, and as a practice, was exceedingly common—schools were established to teach the art of oration, and places of public resort were frequented to display it. Hence in the church of Christ, and especially with those whose hearts were unsanctified by Divine grace, and who converted miraculous operations into a means of personal ambition, the gift of tongues was the most admired of all these extraordinary powers. A desire after conformity to the envied distinctions of the world, has ever been the snare and the reproach of many of the members of the Christian community.

Where distinctions exist, many evils will be sure to follow, as long as human nature is in an imperfect state. Talents, or the power of fixing attention upon one's self, and raising admiration to one's self—will be valued above virtues. And the more popular talents will occupy, in the estimate of 'personal ambition', a higher rank than those that are useful. Consequently, we must expect, wherever opportunities present themselves, to see, on the one hand, pride, vanity, arrogance, love of display, boasting, selfishness, conscious superiority, and a susceptibility to being easily offended. While on the other hand, we shall witness an equally offensive exhibition of envy, suspicion, imputation of evil, exultation over the failures of others, and a disposition to magnify and report the offences of others.

Such evil passions are not entirely excluded from the church of God, at least during its present earthly state—and they were most abundantly exhibited among the Christians at Corinth. Those who had gifts were too apt to exult over those that had none. While the latter indulged in envy and ill-will towards the former—those who were favored with the most distinguished endowments, vaunted of their achievements over those who attained only to the humbler gifts. And all these petulant passions were indulged to such a degree, as well near to banish Christian love from the church at Corinth. This unhappy state of things, the apostle found it necessary to correct, which he did by a series of most conclusive arguments. Such, for instance, as that all these gifts are the bestowments of the Spirit, who in distributing them, exercises a wise sovereignty—that they are all bestowed for mutual advantage, and not for personal glory—that this variety is essential for general edification—that the useful gifts are to be more valued than those of a more dazzling nature—that they are dependent on each other for their efficiency. And he then concludes his admonition and representation, by introducing to their notice that heavenly virtue, which he so beautifully describes in the chapter under consideration, and which he exalts in value and importance above the most coveted miraculous powers.

"But eagerly desire the greater gifts. And now I will show you the most excellent way." 1 Cor. 12:31. "You are ambitious to obtain these endowments which shall cause you to be esteemed as the most honorable and distinguished people in the church; but notwithstanding your high notions of the respect due to those who excel in miracles, I now point out to you a way to still greater honor, by a road open to you all, and in which your success will neither produce pride in yourselves, nor excite envy in others. Pursue love, for the possession and exercise of this grace is infinitely to be preferred to the most splendid gift."

Admirable tribute—exalted eulogy on love! What more could be said, or be said more properly, to raise it in our esteem, and to impress it upon our heart? The age of miracles is past—the signs, and the tokens, and the powers which accompanied it, and which, like the brilliant lights from heaven, hung in bright effulgence over the early church, are vanished. No longer can the members or ministers of Christ confound the mighty, perplex the wise, or guide the simple enquirer after truth, by the demonstration of the Spirit and of power—the control of the laws of nature, and of the spirits of darkness, are no longer entrusted to us. But that which is more excellent and more heavenly remains—that which is more valuable in itself, and less liable to abuse, continues; and that is—Love! Miracles were but the credentials of Christianity, but Love is its essence! Miracles but its witnesses, which, having ushered it into the world, and borne their testimony, retired forever. But Love is its very soul, which, when disencumbered of all that is earthly, shall ascend to its native place—the paradise and the presence of the eternal God!