Christian Love,
or the Influence of Religion upon Temper

By John Angell James, 1828


In the discussion of every subject, it is of great importance to ascertain, and to fix with precision, the meaning of the terms by which it is expressed. More especially in those cases where, as in the present instance, the principal word has acquired, by the changes of time and the usages of society, more senses than one. In modern times the word charity is often employed to signify almsgiving—a circumstance which has thrown a partial obscurity over many passages of Scripture, and has led, indeed, to the most gross perversion of Divine truth, and the circulation of the most dangerous errors. We shall in this treatise substitute for charity, the word LOVE, which is a correct translation of the original.

Of what kind of love does the apostle treat? Not of love to God, as is evident from the whole chapter; for the properties which are here enumerated have no direct reference to Jehovah, but relate in every instance to man. It is a disposition, founded, no doubt, upon love to God—but it is not the same.

Nor is it, as some have represented, the love of the brethren. Without all question, we are under special obligations to love those who are the children of God, and joint heirs with us in Christ. "This is my commandment," says Christ, "that you love one another." "By this shall all men know that you are my disciples—if you love one another." Our brethren in Christ should be the first and dearest objects of our regard. Love to them is the badge of discipleship—the proof, both to ourselves and to the world, that we have passed from death unto life. And although we are "to do good unto all men," yet we are especially to regard "the household of faith." But still, the love of the brethren as such, is not the disposition which is here enjoined—although it is included in it.

A far more comprehensive duty is laid down, which is LOVE TO MANKIND IN GENERAL. (This benevolence does not stop at intelligent beings, but goes forth with entire good-will to the animal creation—to all beings which are capable of pleasure or pain. Surely in the love which is the fulfilling of the law, must be comprehended that mercy which causes a righteous man to regard the life and comfort of his animals, since this is a part of moral goodness which God has seen fit to approve. But in this chapter the apostle limits the objects of our benevolence to mankind.)

As a proof of this, I refer to the nature of its exercises. Do they not as much respect the unconverted as the converted; the unbeliever as the believer? Are we not as much bound to be meek and kind, humble, forgiving, and patient toward all people—as we are towards our brethren? Or, may we be envious, passionate, proud, and revengeful towards unbelievers? We have only to consider the operations and effects of love as here described, and to recollect that they are as much required in our interaction with the world, as with the church, to perceive at once, that it is love to all people—which is the subject of this chapter. Nor is this the only place where 'universal philanthropy' is enjoined. The apostle Peter, in his chain of graces, makes this the last link, and distinguishes it from "brotherly kindness," to which, says he, add "love." The disposition inculcated in this chapter, is that love which Peter commands us to add to brotherly kindness; it is, in fact, the very state of mind which is the compendium of the second table of the moral law, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

The temper so beautifully set forth by Paul, is a most lively, luminous, and eloquent exposition of this summary of duty to our neighbor, which is given us by our Lord.

Strange, indeed, would it be, if Christianity, the most perfect system of duty as well as of doctrine that God ever gave to the world, should contain no injunction to cultivate a spirit of general love and good-will. Strange, indeed, if that system which rises upon the earth with the smiling aspect of universal benevolence, did not breathe its own spirit into the hearts of its believers. Strange, indeed, if while God loved the world, and Christ died for it—the world in no sense was to be an object of a Christian's regard. Strange, indeed, if the energies, the exercises, and propensities of true piety, were to be confined within the narrow boundaries of the church, and to be allowed no excursions into the widely extended regions that lie beyond, and to have no sympathies for the countless millions by which these regions are peopled. It would have been regarded as a blank in Christianity, as a deep, wide chasm, had philanthropy gained no place, or but a small one, amid its duties. And such an omission must ever have presented a lack of harmony between its doctrines and its precepts; a point of dissimilarity between the perfection of the divine character, and the required completeness of the human character.

Here, then, is the disposition inculcated—a spirit of universal love—good-will to mankind—a delight in human happiness—a carefulness to avoid whatever would lessen, and to do whatever would increase, the amount of the felicity of mankind—a love that is limited to no circle; which is restricted by no partialities, no friendships, no relationships—around which neither prejudices nor personal aversions are allowed to draw a boundary—which realizes as its proper objects, friends, strangers, and enemies—which requires no qualifications of anyone, but that he is a human being—and which searches for man wherever he is to be found. It is an affection which binds its possessor to all of his race, and makes him a good citizen of the universe.

We must possess domestic affections, to render us good members of a family; we must have the more extended principles of patriotism, to render us good members of the state—and for the same reason, we must possess universal benevolence, to render us good members of a system which comprises the whole human race. This is the universal virtue—the one simple principle, out of which so many and such beautiful ramifications of holy benevolence evolve! All the actings of love, so finely described by the apostle, may be traced up to this delight in happiness—they all consist in doing that which will promote the comfort of others, or in not doing that which will hinder their peace—whether they consist in passive or in active properties, they have a direct bearing on general well-being of society.

But although we represent this love as consisting in a principle of universal benevolence, we would remark, that instead of satisfying itself with 'mere speculations on the desirableness of the well-being of the whole', or with mere good wishes for the happiness of mankind in general—instead of that indolent sentimentalism, which would convert its inability to benefit the great body into an excuse for doing good to none of its members. True Christian love will put forth its energies, and engage its activities for those which are within its reach. It would, if it could, touch the extreme parts; but as this cannot be done, it will exert a beneficial influence on those which are near; its very distance from the circumference will be felt as a motive to greater zeal in promoting the comfort of all that may be adjoining, and it will consider that the best and only way of reaching the last, is by an impulse given to what is adjoining.

True Christian love will view every individual it has to do with, as a representative of his species, and consider him as offering strong claims, both on his own account, and on account of his race. Towards all, it will retain a feeling of good-will, a preparedness for benevolent activity; and towards those who come within the sphere of its influence, it will go forth in the actings of kindness.

Like the pupil of an eye, true Christian love can dilate to see, though but dimly, the whole prospect; or it can constrict its view, and concentrate its attention upon each individual object that comes under its inspection. The people with whom we daily converse and act, are those on whom our benevolence is first and most constantly to express itself, because these are the parts of the whole, which give us the opportunity of calling into exercise our universal philanthropy. But to them it is not to be confined, either in feeling or action; for as we have opportunity, we are to do good to all men, and to send abroad our beneficent regards to the great family of mankind.

Nor are we to confound this virtue with a 'mere natural amiableness of disposition'. It is often our lot to witness a species of kindness, which, like the painting or the statue, is a very near resemblance of the original; but which still is only a picture or a statue, and lacks the mysterious principle of life. From that mere good-will to man which even unconverted people may possess—the love described by the apostle differs in the following particulars—

1. Christian love is one of the FRUITS OF REGENERATION. "The fruit of the Spirit is love." Unless a man is born of the Spirit—he can do nothing that is spiritually good. We are by nature corrupt and unholy—destitute of all love to God—and until renewed by the Holy Spirit in the spirit of our mind, we can do nothing well-pleasing to God. "If any man is in Christ, he is a new creature," and this love of our race is a part of the new creation. It is in the strictest sense of the term, a holy virtue, and one great branch of holiness itself; for what is holiness, but love to God, and love to man? And without that previous change which is denominated being "born again," we can no more love man as we ought to do, than we can love God. Divine grace is as essentially necessary for the production and exercise of Christian philanthropy, as it is for piety; and the former is no less a part of true religion than the latter. Love is the Divine nature, the image of God—which is communicated to the soul of man by the renewing influence of the Holy Spirit.

2. Christian love is the EFFECT OF FAITH. Hence it is said by the apostle, "In Christ Jesus neither circumcision avails anything, nor uncircumcision, but faith which works by love." And by another inspired writer it is represented as a part of the superstructure which is raised on the basis of faith, "Add to your faith—love." It is certain that there can be no proper regard to man, which does not result from faith in Christ. It is the belief of the truth which makes love to be felt as a duty, and which brings before the mind the great examples, the powerful motives, furnished by the Scriptures to promote its exercise. Nothing spiritually excellent can be performed without faith. It is by faith alone, that anything we do is truly and properly pious. Saving faith is the identifying Christian principle, separate and apart from which, whatever excellence men may exhibit, is but mere morality. By faith we submit to the authority of God's law; by faith we are united to Christ, and "receive from his fullness, and grace for grace." By faith we contemplate the love of God in Christ—by faith our conduct becomes acceptable to God through Christ.

3. Christian love is exercised in obedience to the authority of God's word. Christian love is a principle—not merely a feeling. Christian love is cultivated and exercised as a duty—not yielded to merely as a generous instinct. Christian love is a submission to God's command—not merely an indulgence of our own propensities. Christian love is the constraint of conscience—not merely the impulse of constitutional tenderness. Christian love may be, and often is found, where there is no natural softness, or amiableness of temper. Where natural softness and amiableness already exist, Christian love will grow with greater rapidity, and expand to greater magnitude, and flourish in greater beauty. But Christian love may still be planted in a less congenial situation, and thrive, in obedience to the law of its nature—amid barrenness and rocks.

Multitudes, who have nothing of sentimentalism in their nature, have love to man. They rarely can melt into tears, or kindle into rapture—but they can be all energy and activity for the relief of misery, and for the promotion of human happiness—their temperament of mind partakes more of the frigid than of the torrid, and their summer seasons of the soul are short and cold. But still, amid their mild, and even lovely winter, love, like the rose, blooms in fragrance and in beauty. This is their rule—"God has commanded me to love my neighbor as myself; and in obedience to him, I restrain my natural sinful tendencies—and forgive the injuries, and relieve the miseries, and build up the comfort, and hide the faults of all around me."

4. Christian love is founded upon, and grows out of, love to God. We are to love God for his own sake, and men for God's sake. Our Lord has laid down this as the order and rule of our affections. We must first love God with all our heart, and soul, and mind—and then our neighbors as ourselves. Now, there can be no proper religious affection for our neighbor, which does not spring out of supreme regard for Jehovah; since our love to our neighbor must respect him as the offspring and workmanship of God—"Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is a child of God. And everyone who loves the Father loves his children, too." Besides, as we are to exercise this disposition in obedience to the authority of God, and as no obedience to his authority can be valuable in itself, or acceptable to him, which is not an operation of love—no kindness to our neighbor can come up to the nature of the duty here enjoined, which does not arise out of a proper state of heart towards God.

apart from God; whereupon the things men love are their idols,

Let us, then, remember that the beautiful superstructure of philanthropy which the apostle has raised in this chapter, has for its foundation a supreme regard for the great and blessed God. The utmost kindness and sympathy—the most tender compassion, united with the most munificent liberality—if it does not rest on the love of God—is not the temper here set forth—is not the grace which has the principle of immortality in its nature, and which will live and flourish in eternity, when faith and hope shall cease.

'Human excellence', however noble, whatever good it may diffuse upon others, or whatever glory it may draw around itself—if it is not sanctified and supported by this holy principle, is corruptible and mortal, and cannot dwell in the presence of God, nor exist amid the glories of eternity; but it is only the flower of the grass which shall wither away in the rebuke of the Almighty. For lack of this vital and essential principle of all true religion—how much of amiable compassion, and of tender attention to the woes of humanity—how much of kindly feeling and active benevolence, is daily expended—which, while it yields its amiable though unbelieving author much honor and delight—has not the weight of a feather in the scales of his eternal destiny!

5. This disposition of Christian love is nourished in our hearts by a sense of God's love in Christ Jesus to us.

There is this peculiarity in the morality of the New Testament—it is enforced by the consideration of Divine goodness to ourselves. Not that any motive is absolutely necessary to make a command binding upon our conscience, beyond God's right to issue it; the obligation to duty is complete, in the absence of every other consideration than the rightful authority of the command. But as man is a creature capable of being moved by appeals to his gratitude, as well as by motives addressed to his fears, it is both wise and condescending on the part of Jehovah thus to deal with him, and to "make him willing in the day of his power." He thus not only drives us by the force of his terrors—but draws us by the cords of his love!

The great evangelical inducement to mutual affection between man and man—is God's love in Christ Jesus to us. God has commended and manifested his love to us in a manner that will fill immensity and eternity with astonishment—He has "so loved the world, as to give his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life!" This stupendous exhibition of Divine mercy is presented by the sacred writers, not only as a source of strong consolation, but also as a powerful motive to action. We are not only to contemplate it for the purpose of joy, but also of imitation. Mark the beautiful reasoning of the apostle John—"Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us—we ought also to love one another." Similar to this is also the inference of Paul—"Be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. Follow God's example in everything you do, because you are his dear children. Live a life filled with love for others, following the example of Christ, who loved you and gave himself as a sacrifice to take away your sins. And God was pleased, because that sacrifice was like sweet perfume to him." Ephes. 4:32-5:2. How forcible, yet how tender is such language! There is a charm in such a motive which no terms can describe.

The love of God, then—in its existence and contrivance from eternity—in its manifestation in time, by the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ—in its topless height, its fathomless depth, its measureless length and breadth—is the grand inducement to universal affection! Is not God's love for us, enough to soften a heart of stone—to melt a heart of ice? The love spoken of in the chapter under consideration, is that same impulse towards our fellow-men which is given us by the cross of Christ. It is not mere natural kindness—but it is love for Christ's sake. It is not the mere operations of a generous temper—but it is the feeling which moved in the apostle's bosom, when he exclaimed, "The love of Christ constrains us!" It is not natural sentimentality and amiability—but Christian love.

True Christian love is, so to speak, a plant which grows on Calvary, and entwines itself for support around the cross. It is a disposition which argues in this way—Has God indeed thus loved me, so as to give his Son for my salvation? And is he kind to me daily for the sake of Christ? Has he forgiven all my numberless and aggravated transgressions? Does he still, with infinite patience, bear with all my frailties and provocations? Then what is there, in the way of most generous affection, I ought not to be willing to do, or to bear, or to sacrifice, for others? Do they offend me? Let me bear with them, and forgive them; for how has God borne with me, and blotted out my sins! Are they destitute? Let me be first to supply their necessities—for how greatly has God supplied mine! Here then is love—that deep sense of God's love to us, which shows us the necessity, the reasonableness, the duty of being kind to others—the feeling of a heart, which, laboring under the weight of its obligations to God, and finding itself too poor to extend its goodness to him, looks round, and gives utterance to its exuberant gratitude in acts of kindness to mankind.

6. Christian love is that good-will to men which, while its proximate object is the welfare of our fellow-creatures—is ultimately directed to the glory of God.

It is the sublime characteristic of every truly Christian virtue—that whatever inferior ends it may seek, and through whatever intervening medium it may pass—it is directed ultimately to the praise of Jehovah! It may put forth its excellencies before the admiring eyes of mortals, and exert its energies for their happiness; but neither to attract their applause, nor to build up their esteem—must be its highest aim. The rule of our conduct, as to its chief end, is thus explicitly and comprehensively laid down—"Whether therefore you eat or drink, or whatever you do—do all to the glory of God!" This is not mere advice, but a command—and it is a command extending to all our conduct. To glorify God is to act so that his authority shall be recognized and upheld by us in the world; it is to be seen submitting to his will, and behaving so as that his word and ways shall be better thought of by mankind. Our actions must appear to have a reference to God; and without this, they cannot partake of the character of true religion, however excellent and beneficial they may seem in themselves.

But, perhaps, this disposition of mind will be best illustrated by exhibiting an example of it; and where shall we find one suited to our purpose? Every mind will, perhaps, immediately revert to HIM who was love incarnate; and we might indeed point to every action of his benevolent career, as a display of the purest philanthropy. But, as his example will hereafter be considered, we shall now select one from men of like passions with ourselves; but we must go for it to "the chamber where the pious man meets his fate," rather than to the resorts of the healthy and the active; for it seems as if the brightest beauties of this love were reserved, like those of the setting sun, for the eve of its departure to another hemisphere.

How often have we beheld the dying Christian, who during long and mortal sickness has exhibited, as he stood on the verge of heaven, something of the spirit of a glorified immortal! The natural infirmities of temper which attended him through life, and which sometimes dimmed the luster of his piety, disturbed his own peace, and lessened the pleasure of his friends—had all departed, or had sunk into the shade of those holy graces which then stood out in bold and commanding relief upon his soul. The beams of heaven now falling upon his spirit were reflected, not only in the faith, that is the confidence of things not seen—not only in the hope which enters within the veil—but in the love which is the greatest in the trinity of Christian virtues.

How meek in heart did he seem—how entirely clothed with humility! Instead of being puffed up with anything of his own, or uttering a single boastful expression, it was like a wound in his heart to hear anyone remind him either of his good deeds or dispositions. And he appeared in his own eyes less than ever, while like his emblem, the setting sun, he expanded every moment into greater magnitude, in the view of every spectator. Instead of envying the possessions or the excellencies of other men, it pleasant to his departing spirit that others were thus ennobled. How kind is he to his friends! And as for enemies, he had none—all animosity had died in his heart. He forgave all that was manifestly evil, and kindly interpreted all that was only equivocally so. Nothing lived in his recollection, as to the conduct of others—but their acts of kindness. When news reached his ear of the misconduct of those who had been his adversaries, he grieved in spirit—even as he rejoiced when told of his enemies coming back to public esteem by deeds of excellence. His very opinions seemed under the influence of his love; and, as he wished well, he believed well, or hoped well—of many of whom he had formerly thought evil. His meekness and patience were touching, his kindness indescribable—the trouble he gave, and the favors he received, drew tears from his own eyes—and were acknowledged in expressions that drew tears from all around. There was an ineffable tenderness in his looks, and his words were the very accents of kindness. He was a pattern of all the passive virtues; and having thus thrown off much that was of the earth, earthly, and put on love as a garment, and dressed himself for heaven, in his sick room, he departed to be with Christ, and to be forever perfect in love.

There was a man in whom this was realized, and some extracts from his invaluable memoir will prove it; I mean Mr. Scott, the author of the Commentary.

"His mind," says his biographer, "dwelt much upon love. He seemed full of tenderness and affection to all around him. 'One evidence,' he said, 'I have of meekness for heaven—I feel much love to all mankind, to every man upon earth—to those who have most opposed and slandered me.' To his servant he said, 'I thank you for all your kindness to me. If at any time I have been hasty and short with you, forgive me—and lay the blame upon me, not upon true religion.'

"In such a state of extreme suffering, His tender affection for us all was astonishing, and cut us to the heart. He begged his assistant to forgive him, if he had been occasionally rough and sharp. 'I meant it for your good; but, like everything of mine, it was mixed with sin; impute it not, however, to my religion, but to my lack of true religion.' He was so gentle and loving—it was so delightful to attend upon him—that his servants, finding themselves in danger of contention which should wait upon him, agreed to take it by turns, that each might have her due share of the pleasure and benefit; and yet he was continually begging our forgiveness for his lack of patience and thankfulness. His kindness and affection to all who approached him were carried to the greatest height, and showed themselves in a singularly minute attention to all their individual feelings, and whatever might be for their comfort, to a degree that was quite affecting—especially when he was suffering so much himself often in mind as well as body.

"There was an astonishing absence of selfish feelings—even in his worst hours, he thought of the health of us all; observed if we sat up long, and insisted on our retiring; and was much afraid of paining or hurting us in any way. Someone said something on the permanency of his Commentary—'Ah!' he cried, 'you know not what a proud heart I have, and how you help the Devil.' He also said, 'To those who have greatly slandered me—I cannot feel any resentment. I can only love and pity them, and pray for their salvation. I never did feel any resentment towards them. I regret that I did not more ardently long and pray for their salvation.'"

Can we conceive of a more beautiful exemplification of the virtue I am describing? And this is the temper we ought all to seek. This is love, blended with all our living habits, diffused through all our conduct, forming our character, breathing in our desires, speaking in our words, beaming in our eyes—in short, a living part of our living selves. And this, be it remembered, is true religion—practical religion. "If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains--but have not love, I am nothing!" 1 Corinthians 13:2.